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CULTURE: REUNIFYING RUMI

September 17, 2017
Photos by the writer
Photos by the writer

There are many versions of the legendary first encounter between Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi and his spiritual mentor Shams of Tabriz. Most describe the moment as Rumi, the religious scholar, sitting by a pond, immersed in his scholarly reading, when Shams, a stranger to him, comes by and asks him what he is doing. “You will not understand,” Rumi is reported to have replied, upon which Shams throws all of Rumi’s books in the pond. But the books spring back up dry, defying the laws of physics. At this point, Shams is reported to have said, “But you do not understand.”

This was the moment, then, when Rumi began fathoming Allah not just with the mind but also with the heart. In a world of sharp binaries, Rumi’s admirers seem bent upon separating Rumi the man of knowledge, from Rumi the mystic poet. In reality, the two are not mutually exclusive; in reality, both are the same person.

As I recently travelled by bus in Turkey from Antalya to Konya, the city of the 13th-century Sufi scholar, its unusual and diverse landscape reminded me of his message that is so universally appealing — to the rich and the poor, the pious and the sinner, the scholar and the unlettered. While the pluralism in his message is prominent, one thing becomes clearer than ever when you visit Konya — that Rumi was not just a Sufi, he was also a Muslim scholar, and taking that away from Rumi is telling half the truth.

Maulana Jalaludin Rumi’s Islamic scholarship is often forgotten by those extolling the universality of his message although it is an essential part of his work

Konya has distinct old-world charm. The people are kind and the roses are abundant. But the highlight of a visit to Konya is the Mevlevi Sema, a mystic religious rite practiced by dervishes, who emulate the whirling of Rumi, lost in ecstasy. It is an enchanting experience, the kind that leaves you with goose bumps. In the courtyard of the Mevlâna Museum that houses Rumi’s shrine, a common sight is a teacher with a flowing beard, a rosary in hand and a smile on his lips, sitting under the shade of a tree, surrounded by students learning about Islam. Calligraphy from Quranic verses are put up alongside verses from his extensive, famous poem, Masnavi. The sound of the azaan is loud and clear in Konya. Imprints of traditional Islam in the district where Rumi rests do not seem to disagree with imprints of Sufism.

The exterior view of the Mevlana Museum
The exterior view of the Mevlana Museum

There is an honorary grave of the Poet of the East, Allama Iqbal, near Rumi’s grave. Iqbal is often called a spiritual protégé of Rumi, and is reported to have had a metaphysical experience when he felt Rumi’s presence.

In his book Stray Reflections: The Private Notebook of Muhammad Iqbal, Allama Iqbal observes that “To explain the deepest truths of life in the form of homely parables requires extraordinary genius. Shakespeare, Maulana Rum (Jalaluddin) and Jesus Christ are probably the only illustrations of this rare type of genius.”

The popular interpretation of Rumi does not do justice to where he came from. Rumi is a mystic all right, but he is more than just mystic pulp fiction, and the Masnavi is more than just couplets that can be used to soothe the after-effects of a lovers’ brawl. Yet, few of those smitten by the universality of Rumi’s poetry recognise the visible imprints of verses of the Quran. The popular reductionist approach towards Rumi has reduced his poetry to memes, and selected couplets with aphorisms that are easy to quote.

The Mevlevis greet each other as the Sema begins
The Mevlevis greet each other as the Sema begins

“Modernity has an allergy to religion. They have pushed religion into a private space, saying ‘religion is just between man and God’ and not collective,” says Abbas Husain, educationist and Islamic scholar known for teaching the nuances of Tasawwuf and Ishq. In Husain’s opinion, a fine parallel can be drawn between Rumi and the likes of Socrates and Plato. “The latter two were religious but have been reduced to being just philosophers. Rumi and his poetry have been exoticised, and there has been an erasure of the religious in him.”

There is religion and there is religion, he says, and to Husain, the distinction is clear. “Religion puts before us deeper questions like ‘why are you here’, whereas religion also is focused more on rituals and minor details. We can’t see the wood for the trees,” he says.

The pull of Rumi is that his words are relatable. “He strikes a resonance with the inward level of man in any era,” says Husain. Scholars have pondered on the various meanings of his work since long. “Rumi is not new; he has been around. The first translation of Rumi’s Masnavi came from R.A. Nicholson, between 1925 and 1940.”

A teacher imparts spiritual wisdom to youth, under a tree near Mevlana Rumi’s sarcophagus
A teacher imparts spiritual wisdom to youth, under a tree near Mevlana Rumi’s sarcophagus

But there is no denying that Rumi has been re-popularised. And his fandom is not limited to Muslims, because his message was and is universal. “I love that Rumi sees Divine beauty in all aspects of creation and speaks to people of all cultural tastes and perspectives. I love that he uses bawdy tales in his poetry,” says Laury Silvers, a lecturer at the University of Toronto’s Department for the Study of Religion.

According to Silvers, Rumi explains the most difficult of concepts by translating them into easily understood simpler concepts that help everyone own him. “Early on when Rumi was translated into English, these parts were translated into Latin so that only the most elite, scholarly fellows could enjoy them — exactly the opposite of Rumi’s intention in composing these verses,” she says.

Silvers further explains how these bawdy tales not only bring Divine truths to those who are best reached with rough and tumble talk. “They teach all of us that God is fully present and calling to us in every moment and through all things, not just that which we deem socially acceptable or ‘pretty’.”

A depiction of the members of the Mevlevi order inside the Mevlana Museum
A depiction of the members of the Mevlevi order inside the Mevlana Museum

For some today, their first exposure to Rumi has been through the Turkish writer Elif Shafak’s book Forty Rules of Love. In a sense, Shafak did a service by producing an easy version of the often complex themes of Tasawwuf for her readers. Although Husain sees this as positive, he recommends graduating to books such as Me and Rumi: The Autobiography of Shams-i-Tabrizi by William C. Chittick for those interested in understanding Rumi better.

Whether represented in a complex or an easy manner, Rumi remains the bridge we need today — he bridges the gaps polarisation has created. Those who cling to the more comfortable and less demanding interpretation of the spiritual path of love for God and those who hold on to the path of adherence to Islamic jurisprudence or Sharia as the road to Paradise — both can find something to guide them. In a world torn apart by extremes, Rumi’s message of love of God can be a meeting-point.

“Rumi invites us to become whole,” says Husain. “But to become whole, we would first have to accept that we are incomplete.”

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 17th, 2017

https://www.dawn.com/news/1358182

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The lifafa culture and the materialistic desire to ‘earn’ more Eidee

Published: June 26, 2017

There has to be more to Eid than that stash of money the child tucks away.

Anybody who has grown up in Pakistan recognises that pretty lifafa (envelope) in pastel colours or in whites, embellished or plain, sometimes with just a name, at other times with loads of prayers written carefully. Inside, the coveted crisp notes and the smell of the currency printing press chemicals.

These notes give many a banker sleepless nights during the last two weeks of Ramazan, as clients are ready to both beg and intimidate bank officials for fresh notes. Fifty ya 100 walay (ones). Five hundred walay. 1,000 walay. Even 5,000 walay if the family is upper tier.

Getting eidi is the one time when we all enjoy feeling young because every one of us is younger than someone for the most part of our lives. When all those hands that used to give us eidi, the khala, nani and phupha are long gone, it starts to get lonely at the top.

While gifts are a part of Islamic culture and the exchange of gifts is encouraged in Prophetic traditions, eidi is a very specifically cultural manifestation of that in our region. It is that time of the year which children look forward to. As an expression of love and blessings from elders, it is a beautiful gesture.

But over time, something about eidi has changed. As purely money is involved, we see a certain materialism tainting this cultural tradition. The children of today are smarter than their yesteryear counterparts. They are not as interested in the wishes written on the lifafa. What they are interested in is the ceremonial adaab (salutation), and then running in a corner and quietly opening a bit of the envelope to peak in and see whether the currency is red, blue, or reddish-orange.

But then again, children are a reflection of what they observe their parents doing. Many parents, if not all, also take their child in the corner, ask what a certain relative gave, and return the money accordingly. The gesture has become more of a barter system.

While there is nothing wrong with enjoying the money we collect from elders, and it is in fact endearing to see children counting the money they get as eidi as an extended form of spending money, it is not in good spirit if that is all that the children are looking at.

The lifafa culture and this desire to ‘earn’ more has entered many a religious ceremonies. The Aameen ceremony (completion of the Holy Quran) and the Roza kushai (the first time a child fasts) have also become similar occasions where the focus has shifted from prayers and duas to money. The fault does not only lie with parents and children expecting eidi, as those at the giving end are too busy to go and buy gifts. Also, the eidi or lifafa usually cost less than the gift itself.

While money is a reality of life, such customs and attitudes of parents subliminally condition children to gauge people by monetary standards too soon. It is important to keep reminding the child that the one who could afford to give Rs100 only gave it with as much affection as someone who gave Rs1,000. There has to be more to Eid than that stash of money the child tucks away.

Instilling the right values on Eid may prove to be a challenge for parents. It is doable. But for that, attitudes of the parents would have to be up to the mark as well. Because when it comes to children, it is the parents that set the tone.