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Sufis Part 2

By Swami Anand Kul Bhushan

Born over 800 years ago, the great Sufi mystic and poet, Rumi has made big news time and again. Moreover, he remains popular in the lives of thousands of admirers of all aged even today.

First, Hollywood superstar Leonardo DiCaprio was announced to be playing the 13th century Muslim poet Jalal-ud-Din Mohammad Rumi in an upcoming movie in 1916. Thousands protested on Twitter and social media protested that this was ‘whitewashing’ the great Sufi master. Producer Stephen Brown said DiCaprio was their first choice, while Robert Downey Jr was being considered for the role of Rumi’s Sufi master, Shams of Tabraiz.

The announcement generated a lot of controversy. The producer was criticised for trying to “whitewash” an eastern mystic who was born in Afghanistan and lived and composed poetry in what was the Persian Empire. Basically, the critics argue that Muslim actors were employed to play terrorists in Hollywood movies but white actors played mystics. Sir Laurence Olivier played the Sudanese Sufi mystic leader, Mahadi, in the blockbuster movie ‘Khartoum’ in 1966.

Thousands of people protested by signing a petition arguing that this is ‘Hollywood whitewashing’ for not giving Muslim actors positive roles and typecasting them only as negative. The project was dropped.

Second, the global cultural organization, UNESCO, invited Turkey and Iran to submit Rumi’s famous poem,Masnavi-ye Manavi, for its Memory of the World Register and ran into trouble in 1916 as both countries claimed him as their own. But an agreement was reached so that both could jointly claim him as Rumi lived in both these countries. More trouble broke out as Afghanistan claimed him as it own because he was born in Balkhi, Afghanistan. But the reality is that 800 years ago, these countries did not exist as separate nations as all of them and many more were part of the great Persian Empire.

Who is Rumi?

The poet and philosopher was born in Balkh in Afghanistan and known as the Son of Balkh. For Afghans, who learn his poems in primary school, Rumi is “Maulana Jalaludin Balkh”, or “Maulana” (our master), or simply “Balkhi”. Most researchers agree he was born in Balkh, Afghanistan in 1207 — though this too has been a subject of debate. A few argue he was born just across the border, in what is modern day Tajikistan, in a region also known as Balkh. Today, the Afghan town of Balkh is a small provincial settlement. All three claim Rumi to be theirs: Iran has the direct link and claims the total legacy of ancient Persia claims Rumi; Turkey claims Rumi as he lived on Konya in Turkey until his death and Afghanistan claims him as he was born on its soil. Afghanistan offered to register Rumi as joint heritage with Turkey; but made no mention of Iran. But in 2007, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey came together with UNESCO to mark the 800th anniversary of his birth. The dispute is still to be resolved.

Why is Rumi so famous?

Because of his poems that appeal to all ages and religions; because he talks about love and life and God in such simple terms that touch the heart; because he sang and danced and devised whirling.  In 2014, he was the best-selling poet in the US. He has 1.8 million followers on Facebook. In 2007, he was described as the “most popular poet in America”.

Rumi’s love poems have been performed by Hollywood celebrities such as Madonna, Goldie Hawn, Demi Moore and Philip Glass. Recordings of Rumi poems have made it to the USA’s Billboard’s Top 20 list.

An American poet, Coleman Barks, has translated poems of Rumi into English and his books have sold more than two million copies and translated into over 20 languages. And still selling.

‘The Shakespeare of Persian poetry’, ‘The poet of joy and love’, ‘the poet for all times’ are some of the titles conferred on Rumi. Even after 800 years, he is very much alive in the hearts and in the news!

 

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