May 4, 2014 By Ramziya Asharaf

Rumi Cut Out for Consumption

rumiSometime in the 19th century, man chose sensuality over spirituality. And this has left him with a gaping hole in his inner self; an emptiness which he is constantly attempting to fill up with alternatives. He’s undergoing spiritual decay by an alienation from himself, his friends and the world around him, and he is aware of it. So you can’t blame him for being tempted when spirituality is offered to him in ready-made packages. And who can be a better source of spiritual inspiration than the great Moulana himself – Jalal-ad-din Rumi?

Rumi, the 13th century mystic who spun round and round a pillar in his Turkish mosque, enthralling those around him with his ecstatic poetry is now the most widely read poet in the United States. Almost 800 years after his death, he has managed to captivate Turkey and the rest of the world with a “Rumi Frenzy” that has opened up a whole range of possibilities and opportunities for the industrial hawkers.

Phyllis Tickle, an editor with the American periodical Publisher’s Weekly, says that Rumi’s popularity in the United States “is a matter of our enormous spiritual hunger”. “People have dreams of Rumi, visions of Rumi, they feel him, they sense him” said Shahram Shiva, a Persian who translates and performs Rumi’s poems. Although it’s heartening to see Rumi so popularized, there’s a worry that he is becoming over-exposed. The poems of this Muslim mystic are the hottest and most sought-after in the literary market; well, not just the literary market. Americans’ spiritual appetite for Rumi has swelled so much that feeding on his poetry alone is not sufficient to satisfy their hunger.

Lonny Fields, an organizer of an October Rumi festival at California State University at San Bernardino, said we are in the midst of “the commercialization of Rumi”. Books of poetry, Rumi calendars and coffee mugs, live performances with music, festivals, movies and even t-shirts are on high demand in the States and also in other parts of the world. They have been weaved into the popular culture industry. The Sufi saint and spiritual master has been transformed into a sophisticated icon. Dr. James Fadiman, co-author of The Essential Rumi, called the current flood of Rumi products “the Rumi industry”. He thinks the next level of Rumi publications will explore the psychological, therapeutic level of his poems. “I often joke that I am just waiting to see the cookbook and the exercise video,” he said.

T-shirts featuring Rumi quotes are the in-thing on campuses now. Rumi coffee mugs and calendars have topped the list of youngsters’ favorite gift choices. Even Valentine’s Day celebrations have embraced the Rumi fever. Cards with Rumi photos and couplets are on wide demand. When offered with a chance to give your love a wrapped up spiritual touch, who wouldn’t get tempted?

Obviously, when Sufi spiritualism, which has its roots in Islam, is introduced to the West, there has to be some modifications, with which the pious scholars of the East won’t be very happy about. “What Rumi would wear if he were a metal god…what Lemmy would wear if he were a Sufi” goes the caption of a new Sufi t-shirt introduced by an online website which (apparently) promotes mysticism.

Rumi used to recite his poetry in the mosques where it was available to the rich and poor alike and his followers used to jot it down; today his “poetry” is performed and enjoyed, together with live music in classy concerts held in sophisticated venues, accessible only to an elite few. Coleman Barks and Mercan Dede are two performers whose shows are based around a Sufi element. Barks, the Tennessee-born poet and the man behind Rumi’s popularity in the West, performs Rumi poetry translated by himself, along with Grammy award winning cellist David Darling.

Mercan Dede, the Turkish-born Montreal based musician blends electronica with traditional Sufi music. His group Secret Tribe’s spellbinding performances are gaining them a world following. Their concerts draw as many as 20,000 people. Dede started with “technotribalhouse” DJ gigs under the name Arkin Allen. He debuted as Mercan Dede in 1995 when he released his first album, Sufi Dreams. He travelled 1, 5 million km across the world in 2005-2007 and performed in almost every corner of the world. He also released “Water” (2005) and Breath (2006) albums which topped the BBC world music charts making him the first Turkish artist whose albums received the #1 of the world music charts.

Franklin D. Lewis decries the popular appropriation of Rumi in his new biography of the Sufi Rumi: Past and Present, East and West. “I watch, feeling devastated by how popular culture dilutes and corrupts his teachings, with the foresight that the unrelenting advertising and consumerist tools of contemporary profane culture will inevitably homogenize the divine,” he said.

Every year in Konya, where the great Moulana rests, a 10-day festival called the Whirling Dervishes festival is held. The event starts on the 10th of December and leads up to the 17th, the day Rumi passed away – also known as the Wedding Night. About 10,000 people from all over the world flood in to the Central Anatolian province of Konya. Hotel rooms and travel tickets have to be booked weeks in advance. Throughout the festival, the dervishes dance their famous whirl, but it’s the final night – 17 December – that’s truly special; the day of Rumi’s union with his Beloved. The Whirling Dance ceremony that night is a real crowd puller. The cultural and religious gala is a great occasion for Turkey to showcase its art and culture. And it’s an even bigger opportunity for the Tourism department.

Rumi’s words have a non-denominational spirituality, as can be seen in his famous lines I am no Christian, no Jew, no Magician, no Musalman,/Not of the east, Not of the west, not of the land, not of the sea …/… my place placeless, my trace traceless. It is this dimension of his philosophy that has found a space in the international commercial market. It’s ironic that the very man who discouraged and warned against materialistic pleasures is being used to market them.

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