How the 13th-Century Sufi Poet Rumi Became One of the World’s Most Popular Writers

The Mid­dle East is hard­ly the world’s most har­mo­nious region, and it only gets more frac­tious if you add in South Asia and the Mediter­ranean. But there’s one thing on which many res­i­dents of that wide geo­graph­i­cal span can agree: Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥam­mad Rūmī. One might at first imag­ine that a thir­teenth-cen­tu­ry poet and mys­ti­cal philoso­pher who wrote in Per­sian, with occa­sion­al for­ays into Turk­ish, Ara­bic, and Greek, would be a niche fig­ure today, if known at all. In fact, Rumi, as he’s com­mon­ly known, is now one of the most pop­u­lar writ­ers in not just the Mid­dle East but the world; Eng­lish rein­ter­pre­ta­tions of his verse have even made him the best-sell­ing poet in the Unit­ed States.

“The trans­for­ma­tive moment in Rumi’s life came in 1244, when he met a wan­der­ing mys­tic known as Shams of Tabriz,” writes the BBC’s Jane Cia­bat­tari. She quotes Brad Gooch, author of Rumi’s Secret: The Life of the Sufi Poet of Love, describ­ing them as hav­ing an “elec­tric friend­ship for three years,” after which Shams dis­ap­peared. “Rumi coped by writ­ing poet­ry,” which includes 3,000 poems writ­ten for “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.” He did all this work in ser­vice of what, in the ani­mat­ed TED-Ed les­son above, Stephanie Honchell Smith calls his ulti­mate goal: “the reuni­fi­ca­tion of his soul with God through the expe­ri­ence of divine love.”

How is such a love to be accessed? “Love resides not in learn­ing, not in knowl­edge, not in pages in books,” Rumi declared. “Wher­ev­er the debates of men may lead, that is not the lover’s path.” He pur­sued it through devo­tion to Shams’ Sufism, “par­tic­i­pat­ing in rit­u­al­ized danc­ing and preach­ing the reli­gion of love through lec­tures, poet­ry, and prose.” Lat­er in life, he shift­ed “from ecsta­t­ic expres­sions of divine love to vers­es that guide oth­ers to dis­cov­er it for them­selves,” incor­po­rat­ing “ideas, sto­ries, and quotes from Islam­ic reli­gious texts, Ara­bic and Per­sian lit­er­a­ture and ear­li­er Sufi writ­ings and poet­ry.” Per­haps there can be no full appre­ci­a­tion of Rumi’s work with­out a schol­ar’s under­stand­ing of the lan­guages and cul­tures he knew. But if his sales fig­ures are any­thing to go by, the long­ing into which his com­plex work taps is uni­ver­sal.

Relat­ed con­tent:

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

Learn Islam­ic & Indi­an Phi­los­o­phy with 107 Episodes of the His­to­ry of Phi­los­o­phy With­out Any Gaps Pod­cast

The Com­plex Geom­e­try of Islam­ic Art & Design: A Short Intro­duc­tion

500+ Beau­ti­ful Man­u­scripts from the Islam­ic World Now Dig­i­tized & Free to Down­load

The Birth and Rapid Rise of Islam, Ani­mat­ed (622‑1453)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities and the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Johnson Arloo says:

    There’s no dis­pute about Rumi’s impact. For instance, I was intro­duced to him through the Net­flix Baz Luhrman-pro­duced musi­cal on the ori­gins of hip-hop, “The Get Down,” in which his most famous quotes are used as episode titles. Imag­ine that!

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