Centuries Later, Rumi's Words Continue to Inspire

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Seyyed Hossein Nasr i

Seyyed Hossein Nasr, author of The Garden of Truth, is a leading expert on Islamic thought and spirituality. Ibrahim Kalin hide caption

itoggle caption Ibrahim Kalin
Seyyed Hossein Nasr

Seyyed Hossein Nasr, author of The Garden of Truth, is a leading expert on Islamic thought and spirituality.

Ibrahim Kalin

Book Excerpt

Robert Bly i

Poet Robert Bly has translated Rumi's works. Janice Applegate hide caption

itoggle caption Janice Applegate
Robert Bly

Poet Robert Bly has translated Rumi's works.

Janice Applegate

Hear Rumi Poems

Poet Robert Bly reads works by the Sufi poet.

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One of the most popular poets among Western readers today is actually a long dead poet of the East. Rumi, the 13th century poet of the Persian empire, still inspires with his works evoking ecstasy and the divine.

Rumi came from the tradition of mystical Islam. One of its better known features is the whirling dervishes whose swirling dance is aimed at creating a sense of transcendence.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a noted scholar of Islam whose latest book is called The Garden of Truth, says there is one thing that those who read or listen to Rumi in translation miss.

"In Persian, the sounds are intertwined in such a way that there is a total effect upon the soul, even if one does not understand every single word, and somehow one flows along with the music, as well as penetrating into the meaning that the poetry is supposed to convey," Nasr tells Renee Montagne.

"Sufism created a whole set of sacred arts of remarkable significance in the field of music, in the field of dance, in the field of calligraphy, which became means whereby people attracted to these forms of beauty could in the long run become attracted to the beauty of God."

Sufi poetry has an appeal that crosses class, Nasr says.

"Sufi poetry was both for the highest educated people and the popular people," he says. "It unified all of them together. Someone like myself, who has studied for many years, as well as my driver, who would take me different places in Tehran — we could both recite Rumi. We could both, in fact, discuss Rumi. His poetry had the power of universality. All sacred art is like that."

In honor of Rumi's birthday 800 years ago this Sunday, poet Robert Bly reads his translation of a Rumi poem.

Night and Sleep

At the time of night prayer as the sun slides down,
the route the senses walk on closes, and the route to the invisible opens.
The angel of sleep then gathers and drives along the spirits,
just as the mountain keeper gathers his sheep on the slope.
And what amazing sights he offers to the descending sheep.
Cities with sparkling streets, hyacinth gardens, emerald pastures.
The spirit sees astounding beings, turtles turned to men,
men turned to angels, when sleep erases the banal.
I think one could say the spirit goes back to its old home;
it no longer remembers where it lives, it loses its fatigue.
It carries around in life so many griefs and loads
and trembles under their weight. But in sleep they are all gone. All is well.

Excerpts: 'The Garden of Truth'

'The Garden of Truth'

The Nature of Love

What good does it do to write about love? One has to experience love in order to understand what it is. As Rumi said, when it comes to describing the nature of love, the pen breaks and ceases to write. Nevertheless, although dealing with words and concepts, writing about love can awaken a certain awareness in the mind and soul of the reader, which in turn can cause him or her to become prepared to experience love on some level. But love itself cannot be reduced to its description no matter how lucid and poetic, while at the same time words that have come from those who have really loved can bring about recollection and awaken within some people the love that resides within the soul of all men and women. The fire of love can become kindled through appropriate words if the substance of the soul is ready to burn in the fire of love, without which life becomes deprived of value, for again to quote Rumi: "Whoever does not possess this fire, let him not exist."

Let us start with the metaphysics of love. Love is part and parcel of reality. It is that which attracts beings to each other and to their Source. It is none other than the fire whose light illuminates and whose heat enlivens the heart and bestows life. It is also the storm that can turn the soul upside down and uproot ordinary existence. Love is life but can also be death. It involves yearning and pain of separation as well as the ecstasy of union. Love is also inseparable from existence in its modes. Not only in Christianity is God considered to be love, but according to the Quran also one of His Names is Love or al-Wadud. And since love is part of the Divine Nature, all of existence, which issues from Him, is permeated by love. God is the light of the heavens and the earth, as the Quran asserts. The luminosity of this light is related to knowledge and its warmth to love. There is no realm of existence in which love is not found, save from a certain point of view on the human level, where God has given us the free will to love or not to love; but even on the human plane it can be said that even those who do not love God or the neighbor still love themselves. As far as the cosmos is concerned, love can be seen everywhere if only we become aware of its reality. The branches of trees grow in the direction of light because of love, and animals take care of their young as a result of love. Even the heavens move because of the force of love, which we reduce to the mere physical and quantitative and call gravity. As Dante wrote at the very end of the Divine Comedy, the ultimate spiritual union involves the experience and realization of "l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stele," that is, "the love that moves the sun and the other stars."

To Become Someone;
To Become No One

It is by virtue of coming to know ourselves and therefore our Lord that we become really someone beyond all transient honors and distinctions with which fallen human beings seek to distinguish themselves. And in becoming someone spiritually and in the eyes of God, we fulfill the purpose of human existence.

Paradoxically, however, to become someone spiritually means also ultimately to become no one. It is in the end to transcend all particularities and realize the Self within all selves, to become not this person or that person but personhood as such, which also means becoming the perfect mirror of the Divine. To return to the symbol of the sun, it is also to pierce with the light of the intellect all veils of duality and otherness to return to the Sun of the Self, which is the origin of all selves and the source of the intellect shining within those who have realized the state of perfect servanthood. It is in light of return to the Self that many Sufi s have spoken, often in ecstatic language, of having gone beyond name, color and race, country, and even the formal aspects of religion, beyond faith and infidelity, to become no one and yet someone in the highest sense of the term. A sonnet (ghazal) attributed to one of the exalted masters of Sufism, who remains someone of the greatest importance even today and yet became no one, expresses the reality of this final state of being human, the state of realizing the unity beyond all dualities, the one Formless reality beyond all formal distinctions:

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