I've been a fan of Krista Tippett's national "Speaking of Faith" radio show (now called "On Being") for more than a year now.
She recently devoted a broadcast to "The Ecstatic Faith of Rumi," a 13th century Sufi poet who was the best selling poet in the U.S. during the 1990s and who represents an "adventurous and cosmopolitan Islam" quite different from the extremists who dominate the headlines of our day.
A selection from Krista Tippett's journal of December 16, 2010, reflecting on Rumi's significance, follows.
Richard Panzer, Ph.D., President
Unification Theological Seminary
(The Sufi poet) Rumi's recent "discovery" in the West also holds no little irony. I found this best expressed in my research by a British journalist, William Dalrymple. "It seems almost unbelievable in the world of 9/11, Bin Laden and the Clash of Civilizations," he wrote, "but the best-selling poet in the U.S. in the 1990s was not Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, nor Shakespeare or Dante. … Instead, remarkably it was a classically trained Muslim cleric who taught Sharia law in a madrasa in what is now Turkey."
Yet as Rumi has been translated and popularized in the modern West, the religious sensibility behind his beautiful, best-selling words has often been lost.
Fatemah Keshavarz is adamant on this point: Rumi was steeped in Islam. He represents and speaks to "an adventurous and cosmopolitan Islam." The generous, cross-cultural appeal of his words reflects ideas at the core of Islam that are muted by the extremists and headlines of our time. But to the extent that Rumi would deny or subvert those, he does so through his grounding in Islamic tradition, and his profound love for it.
Here is one passage of many I've seen quoted of Rumi, which I'll now hear with new layers of relevance: