Islamic Mystic Becomes One of 2007's Top Trends |

2007 is the 800th anniversary of the poet Rumi's birth. His verse is becoming one of the year's top trends - Madonna has recorded a song to his poems and the Whole Foods grocery stores are offering Rumi calendars this year.  There have been Rumi festivals worldwide, from Tokyo to Prague.

Bylined from Istanbul, this article will explore the reasons for Rumi's new-found popularity and fears by Sufi believers that this is just a commercialized fad.

Special to Les Arts Turcs

Thirteenth-Century Islamic Mystic Becomes One of 2007's Top Trends

Istanbul  -Behind the façade of a paint-less building in the working-class Fatıh district, far from the Blue Mosque's towering minarets, a dozen white-clad dervishes turn with out-stretched arms to the chants of some fifty men, whose heads and shoulders sway in time to the music.
From an alcove above, two dozen onlookers - veiled women and a handful of curious non-Muslims - peer down through a wood-carved grille on what has become one of the year's biggest trends - Sufism, a type of Islamic mysticism based on the poetry of the thirteenth-century Persian mystic Rumi.
"Sufism is becoming what the Tibetan Buddhism was to the 1990s," said Nurdogan Senguler, referring to Western media's flirtation with Buddhisim and the enormous concerts organized by rap group the Beastie Boys in support of an independent Tibet.
Senguler, himself a practicing Sufi, runs an arts workshop and occasionally takes Westerners to visit dervish lodges in Istanbul.  
"Since September 11, we've seen the number of inquiries from Westerners, particularly Americans, about Sufism triple," he said.
"People are becoming increasingly fed-up with the stresses of modern life. Sufism gives them interior peace," Senguler said when asked what he thought was prompting people to re-discover Rumi.
Though principally associated with Islam, Rumi's verse appeals to people around the world
thanks his philosophy that bridges sectarian divides.

"Rumi combines the philosophical greatness of Plato, with the soul and realization of a Jesus or Buddha, with the literary gifts of a Shakespeare," said Andrew Harvey, a translator of Rumi's verse and formerly a fellow of All Souls' College, Oxford.
Americans are not alone in their new-found fascination with Rumi. This year - the eight hundredth anniversary of Rumi's birth - has been marked by festivals worldwide.

UNESCO observed Rumi's birth in August. On December 17, his life was commemorated with a festival, attended by Turkey's President Abdullah Gül, in the former Seljuk capital of Konya, where Rumi died in 1273 and where he is buried.
His tomb is inscribed with the epitaph: "When we are dead, seek not our tomb in the earth, but find it in the hearts of men."
Further celebrations have taken place from Tokyo to Tehran, where on October 28 Iran's government staged an international conference on Rumi, at which more than 800 academic papers were presented.
In Prague, during the three-day Rumi Alive Festival in November, 700 people attended documentary film screening and poetry readings.

"I think that reading Rumi generates ..an understanding of the human nature," said Rena Milgrom, who staged the festival in Prague. "Everyone longs for that."
Rumi's works have not yet been translated into Czech; aficionados in Prague usually read translations in English, she added.


Born in what is today Afghanistan, Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi - Rumi - fled his homeland after the Mongol invasion and traveled westwards to Anatolia.  He eventually settled in Konya, where he began teaching philosophy, and in doing so found many acolytes.
At age 38, he encountered the traveling mystic Shams of Tarbriz, who encouraged him to seek enlightenment through song and dance. After Rumi's death, his disciples founded the Mevlevi order of  dervishes, who worship in a musical ceremony called sema.
Novice dervishes must train for many months to become full-fledged members of an order, which women may also join. They practice dancing, singing, and attend theological discussion session.
Dressed in a white robe to symbolize a shroud and cone-shaped hat in reference to a tomb stone,  during the sema ritual, believers turn slowly in circles, their arms raised, one palm turned toward the sky, the other toward the ground to represent their connection to heaven and the earth.
Many of the songs performed during semas are Rumi's poems set to music. His best-known work is the is Masnavy-e Manavy, a poem in six chapters, which to Sufis plays a role second only to that of the Koran.

Though Sufism may today be increasing meteorically in popularity, Turkey's founder Mustapha Kemal Attatürk banned dervish orders in 1925 as part of his modernization program. Sufis have also faced persecution at the hands or Iran's Islamic Republic, which regards them as heretics.         
But in Istanbul today, Sufism is flourishing once again. There are roughly seven dervish lodges here, and young Turks are joining them in significant numbers. An extremely large one, the Yenikapı Mevlevıhanı, which was renovated with Turkish government funds and includes a dormitory and refectory for the dervishes, was scheduled to be inaugurated this month.
Sufism has once again become acceptable in Turkey, so much so that several Turkish banks are offering their clients Rumi calendars for the new year.
But Rumi's new-found popularity also risks becoming a commercialized fad.
Madonna and Hollywood actress Goldie Hawn have both recorded musical versions of Rumi's poems.  Anthologies of Rumi's verse are frequently on Amazon.com's bestseller list, and the Whole Foods chain of organic grocery stores in the U.S. is offering a Rumi calendar for 2008.
Judging by the numerous advertisements plastered on buildings in the tourist area of Sultanahmet, near the Hagia Sofia, dervishes have become a top tourist draw in Istanbul.
The dervish lodge in the Galata district has been turned into a museum, and, for a hefty entrance fee, tourists can snap pictures of dervishes whirling in a train station and a cocktail bar -  a significant break from convention because semas are religious ceremonies, which do not usually take place in public and during which photography is prohibited.
But with this new-found popularity, Rumi scholars and practicing Sufis worry that Rumi's poetry is becoming commercialized and the true meaning of his verse neglected.
"It's fantastic people are discovery Rumi, but his work is not suitable for a trend," Milgrom said.
Senguler says he feels similarly. He said the fad has become so widespread, even some Sufis evidently have lost sight of their religion's real meaning and are cashing out for financial gain.
"I don't like the dervishes who spin in tea gardens like a döner kebab," he said. "It's like 'Soft Sufi' - they're just doing it for the money."


Whirling Dervish Ceremony In Istanbul   |   Whirling Dervish Ceremony in Konya


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