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.
If you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, and Venmo (@openculture). Thanks!