The Mystical Poetry of Rumi Read By Tilda Swinton, Madonna, Robert Bly & Coleman Barks

Everyone’s favorite mys­ti­cal poet, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥam­mad Rūmī, prob­a­bly could not have pre­dict­ed how much glob­al influ­ence his work would have eight cen­turies after his death. Nor could he have appre­ci­at­ed the irony of his 13th cen­tu­ry Islam­ic Per­sian verse mak­ing him the best-sell­ing poet in the U.S. And yet, a huge part of Rumi’s appeal to the major­i­ty of his read­ers, reli­gious and non‑, comes from his non-tra­di­tion­al­ism, his anti-dog­ma­tism, gen­tle icon­o­clasm, and roman­ti­cism.

Claims that the poet was gay may be con­tentious, but there’s no get­ting away from the eroti­cism, much of it homo­eroti­cism, in much of Rumi’s poet­ry. Rumi also inspired the hard­ly ortho­dox Sufi sect known as “Whirling Dervish­es,” who invoke a trance-like state through a rhyth­mic spin­ning rit­u­al based on the poet­’s own devo­tion­al prac­tices.

But Rumi did not begin his career as a mys­tic, or as a poet. Author Brad Gooch, who is writ­ing a biog­ra­phy of Rumi, describes him as “a tra­di­tion­al Mus­lim preach­er and schol­ar, as his father and grand­fa­ther had been.” That is until age 37, when in 1244, he met a mys­tic called Shams of Tabriz. “The two of them have this elec­tric friend­ship for three years—lover and beloved [or] dis­ci­ple and sheikh, it’s nev­er clear,” says Gooch.

After Shams’ death, pos­si­bly by mur­der, Rumi began writ­ing poet­ry. “Most of the poet­ry we have comes from age 37 to 67. He wrote 3,000 [love songs] to Shams, the prophet Muham­mad and God. He wrote 2,000 rubay­at, four-line qua­trains. He wrote in cou­plets a six-vol­ume spir­i­tu­al epic, The Mas­navi.” These poems, writes the BBC, are “recit­ed, chant­ed, set to music and used as inspi­ra­tion for nov­els, poems, music, films, YouTube videos and tweets.” Today we bring you some of those con­tem­po­rary appro­pri­a­tions of Rumi’s work.

At the top of the post, hear actress Til­da Swinton—who has her own glob­al cult of admirers—read Rumi’s “Like This.” Swin­ton recent­ly turned to Rumi’s poet­ry to pro­mote her line of fra­grances. Below Swin­ton’s read­ing, celebri­ty spir­i­tu­al adven­tur­er (some might say spir­i­tu­al tourist) Madon­na reads Rumi’s “Bit­ter Sweet” with her guru Deep­ak Chopra.

It was record­ed for the album, A Gift Of Love: Deep­ak & Friends Present Music Inspired By The Love Poems Of Rumi. And just above, we have two very devot­ed schol­ars and inter­preters of Rumi’s work, Cole­man Barks (who trans­lat­ed the poem Swin­ton reads) and poet Robert Bly, accom­pa­nied by tablas, sitar, and drums. Barks has done much to explain the glob­al reach of Rumi’s poet­ry, writ­ing in the intro­duc­tion to The Illu­mi­nat­ed Rumi that the poet­’s “whole life was a wit­ness to the bound­less uni­ver­sal­i­ty of the Heart…. His vision was a whole-world work and the poet­ry was part of the soul-unfold­ing done in a learn­ing com­mu­ni­ty.” When Rumi died, Barks tells us, “he was mourned by Chris­tians and Jews, as well as Mus­lims and Bud­dhists.” Below, hear Barks attempt to expound on Rumi’s very non-tra­di­tion­al, non-West­ern, and dif­fi­cult-to-trans­late view of love.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

Til­da Swin­ton Recites Poem by Rumi While Reek­ing of Vetiv­er, Heliotrope & Musk

Poems as Short Films: Langston Hugh­es, Pablo Neru­da and More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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