Lord of the dance: The Sufi mystic who has got the world whirling

Story highlights

  • Legendary Sufi mystic and poet Rumi is an icon of the Muslim world
  • He is rapidly gaining popularity in the West
  • Rumi's work is inspiring a new generation of artists, and could improve interfaith relations

(CNN)"Lovers don't finally meet somewhere, they're in each other all along."

"My soul is from elsewhere, I'm sure of that, and I intend to end up there."
    The ecstatic poetry of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi could have been written for the social media age, rather than the 13th century, such is its pithy and quotable nature.
    The Sufi mystic known as Mevlana (Master) composed thousands of stirring verses exploring love and oneness that inspired a religion known as the Mevlevi Order. His masterwork the "Masnavi," an epic collection of 27,000 verses published in six volumes, has been described as the "Quran in Persian tongue."
    Over 700 years later, his words have not lost their power. Translations of his poems are best sellers across the world. A major Hollywood movie of his life is in the works, and social media pages that post his lines have millions of followers. The distinctive whirling dance form he invented is being practiced in new chapters across the world.
    Rumi is enjoying a spectacular resurgence.

    Rumi fest

    The capital of Rumi appreciation at this time of year is Konya, in southern Turkey, where the poet produced his major works and was buried in 1273.
    Hundreds of thousands of admirers flood into the town for the Mevlana Festival, a vibrant 10-day celebration of his life that features readings, concerts, and performances.
    The main attraction each year is a performance of the famous Whirling Dervishes on the closing night of December 17 commemorating the date of Rumi's death -- the so-called "wedding night" of his reunion with God.
    The Whirling Dervishes are Mevlevi; the Sufi Muslim sect created by Rumi's son Sultan Walad to follow his teachings. Their rituals are modeled on the ecstatic states he entered while composing poetry. The trance-like ceremony is listed as intangible heritage by UNESCO.
    Under the colored lights of the Grand Mevlana Cultural Centre, dozens of Dervishes dance through phases of transformation towards spiritual maturity, extending their arms to the sky in supplication to the almighty, their white-robed fanning out into spinning circles. The intensely physical -- not to mention dizzying -- display has been compared to military training.
    "The festival brings the global community together," says Gevher Celebi, a direct descendent of Rumi and an organizer of the festival through the International Mevlana Foundation, which studies and preserves Mevlevi heritage.
    "The audiences are growing and the whole city becomes very busy."

    Adapting to survive

    For 600 years the Mevlevi enjoyed pre-eminence in Konya and the Ottoman Empire after Rumi's death, and they left a strong cultural legacy.
    "Most of the fine arts of the Ottoman Empire were cultivated by Mevlevi Sufis (including) music and calligraphy," says Dr Leonard Lewisohn, senior lecturer in Persian and Sufi literature at the University of Exter, and editor of the Mevlana Rumi Review. "Mevlevi were of the highest rank in the Ottoman state."
    But President Kemal Ataturk banned the Mevlevi Order in 1923, as part of his vision for a secular Turkish state, and the ceremonies are now permitted only as cultural displays.
    "The religion went underground," says Celebi.
    The Mevlevi also responded to the crackdown by branching out, establishing bases in Syria, and other far-flung locations from the UK to Colombia.
    "A Mevlevi sheikh traveled to London in 1963 and taught the ceremony to 60 people," says Philip Jacobs, head of the London Whirling Dervish group. "The ceremonies have continued ever since."
    "He gave it to us to look after, as long as we kept (the ritual) in its original form."
    The head of the International Mevlana Foundation estimates there are now 101 ceremonial lodges -- tekkes -- around the world.
    Mevlevi cermony in Switzerland

    Prince of Persia

    While Turkey holds the largest official gathering of Rumi devotees, the Master wrote in Persian, and his influence may be greatest in Iran.
    "(Iranian) people know his poetry and incorporate him into their daily lives," says Dr. Fatemeh Keshavarz, director of the Roshan Institute for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland. "Politicians quote him, there are Rumi lines on radio programs ... you can step into a taxi and the driver will be reciting Rumi lines to himself."
    Rumi is a dominant influence in Iranian classical music. Renowned performers such as Shahram Nazeri have forged stellar careers based on his work, and his son Hafez has recently picked up the mantle. Less traditional interpretations are also flourishing among Persian artists, in disciplines from jazz to avant-garde cinema and abstract art.

    New frontiers

    The Rumi juggernaut is also gathering pace in the West.
    Modern English translations have bought Rumi to a wider audience, notably through the work of American poet Coleman Barks, whose Rumi translations have sold over 1.5 million copies.
    The Sufi leader has even caught on in Hollywood, with celebrities such as Tilda Swinton and Coldplay helping to introduce the Master to popular culture, through public readings and citing his influence on their work.
    Rumi's star is set to rise farther through the upcoming movie of his life, which will begin production next year with Oscar-winning screenwriter David Franzoni, who wrote Gladiator (2000) on board, although the movie has courted controversy through the rumored casting of a white actor -- Leonardo DiCaprio.
    The poet's simple but powerful style is key to explaining his near-universal appeal, according to Brad Gooch, author of the forthcoming biography "Rumi's Secret: The Life of the Sufi Poet of Love."
    "It goes back to his resonance, beauty, and infectious kind of intimacy," he says.
    Gooch adds that Rumi's bite-sized couplets are perfectly suited to the digital age. He tweets his own translations and has gained a dedicated following -- although still some way short of the leading Facebook page which has over two million followers.
    Lewisohn believes that despite the spread of Rumi poetry and Mevlevi chapters in the West, the English-speaking world is still only "on the cusp of discovering Rumi" and his popularity will soar in the coming years.

    Building bridges

    A recurrent message in Rumi's poetry is of tolerance towards other faiths, such as in his line: "There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the earth."
    His funeral in Konya was famously attended by Jews and Christians as well as Sufi Muslims.
    Many followers and scholars of Rumi hope that his ultimate legacy might be to foster improved relations with Muslims in the West and promote interfaith understanding.
    The mausoleum of Rumi and the Selamiye mosque in Konya, Turkey.
    "I think we are at a point where this material is very much needed," says Keshavarz. "I see it as a wonderful window and Rumi's own metaphor is very apt -- 'If you are lost in the desert, look at the stars to find your way.'"
    "As we seem to keep getting lost, I hope that we look at the stars to find our way, and he is one of the brightest stars we have."