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America's best-selling poet
America's best-selling poet is not Billy Collins, whose folksy, humorous work
won him two terms as U.S. poet laureate. It's not Robert Frost, the four-time Pulitzer Prize winner whose reading at John F. Kennedy's 1961 inauguration is
still studied by students. ("The land was ours before we were the land's ...") And it's not Edgar Allan Poe, whose "The Raven" has been called "the best-known poem in the Western Hemisphere."
If you want to meet the most popular poet in the United States, you must board a plane and fly to Konya, Turkey, where you'll find the mausoleum of Jalal al-Din Muhammad Balkhi, who is better known by his Westernized name, Rumi.
Born in the early 13th century in what is now Afghanistan, Rumi was a Muslim religious leader whose name in Arabic means "greatness of faith."
Thanks to the faith of Rumi's U.S. fans, his books have sold more than 500,000 copies in the past 10 years. Rumi calendars, Rumi CDs, Rumi posters, Rumi T-shirts, even Rumi coffee mugs have also found a market in the United States.
Madonna, Demi Moore, Goldie Hawn, Martin Sheen, Debra Winger and Rosa Parks are among the big names who have publicly proclaimed Rumi's greatness as a poet.
Americans' fascination with Rumi is just one way in which Muslim literature and writing, from "A Thousand and One Nights" to the Quran, has influenced readers in this country seeking heightened spiritual awareness, approaches to the dilemmas and mysteries of life, or just a good read. An ironic fallout of Sept. 11 has been an even greater interest in Islamic writing -- not just among university students and general readers, but in the American military.
Lt. Gen. John Vines, who takes over command of U.S. ground forces in Iraq this month, has required his top officers to read several books on Muslim culture, including "Islam for Dummies" (which has a chapter on the Quran) and "Islam:
A Short History."
Rumi's poetry refers often to God, but many of his poems aren't overtly religious. Rather, they could be classified as "spiritual" or "soulful ."Rumi tells stories of people wrestling with problems. He uses metaphors and aphorisms to guide lovers together again, or to explain the bonds of friendship, or to teach the quality of patience.
Not surprisingly, American readers seem especially drawn to Rumi's works about love. In 1998, New Age guru Deepak Chopra published "The Love Poems of Rumi," which included this passage from a poem called "Aroused Passion":
Let all lovers be content
Give them happy endings
Let their lives be celebrations
Let their hearts dance in the fire of your love.
Rumi's words are beautiful, touching and reassuring -- a reflection of his belief in the mystical branch of Islam called Sufism, which emphasizes a universal connection to God.
For non-Muslims who first discover Rumi, the experience can be shocking.
Sufism as a practice diverges widely from more orthodox branches of Islam, and some strict Muslims consider Sufis heretical.
Rumi said all people are connected, regardless of religion. He welcomed Jews, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists. He told stories that have descriptions of sex. He told stories that praise the sound of music. Rumi's readers in the United States cut across social, economic and political categories, as represented by Dan Lorey, a retired teacher in Cincinnati who in November wrote an opinion piece for the Cincinnati Enquirer that explained his support for President Bush and the war in Iraq.
Lorey, who was raised a Catholic and now identifies with pagan practices, said Bush understood Rumi's belief that people of different backgrounds really crave peace and coexistence.
"I saw it as a clear-cut thing," said Lorey in a phone interview from Cincinnati. "We're fighting people who pervert Islamic tradition. I purposely described Rumi as 'an Islamic mystical poet' because I think a lot of people mistrust Islam and they put Muslims in one category, but Rumi comes out of a tradition that I think is the real root of Islam, and it's a beautiful thing. You go back to the Middle Ages, and all the great art and philosophy and mathematics came out of Islamic tradition."
In his inaugural address on Jan. 20, Bush cited the Quran as a holy book that instills "an edifice of character" in people, but the president could also have said that the Quran is a major literary work that has inspired poets and is itself poetic.
Rumi's most celebrated work of poetry, the six-volume "Mathnawi" (which Iranians often refer to as the "Persian Quran"), takes direct quotes from the Quran, and Rumi's poems repeatedly refer to the Quran, as in "Zikr" and "Muhammad
and the Huge Eater," which are included in Coleman Barks' "The Essential Rumi.""Rumi has acknowledged that all his inspiration comes from the Quran and the prophet of Islam, Muhammad," says Postneshin Jelaluddin, who was born and
raised in Konya and now lives in Hawaii, where he heads the Mevlevi Order of America.
Other Muslim poets have also "sampled" the Quran, which is full of poetic lines like "He begets not, nor is he begotten" and "The mountains shall vanish, as if they were a mirage." (Both lines are from the popular English-language Quran translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali. Muslims believe the Quran is the direct word of God.)
At the opposite end of Islamic writing is "A Thousand and One Nights," the centuries-old collection of stories that has influenced a Who's Who of American (and European) authors.
Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Washington Irving -- not to mention Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Hans Christian Andersen, Lord Byron and Voltaire -- all incorporated motifs from "A Thousand
and One Nights" into their work, according to Robert Irwin, a retired professor of medieval history at the University of St. Andrews.In his book "Arabian Nights: A Companion," Irwin points out that "Moby- Dick" is "enriched by covert embedded references to the Nights" (among them: captain Ahab's favorite harpoonist is a turbaned man named Fedallah), while Joyce's
"Ulysses" makes repeated reference to one of the best-known stories in "A Thousand and One Nights": Sinbad the Sailor.
Folkloric stories that originated in Persia, India and the Arab world around the ninth century, "A Thousand and One Nights" (also published under the title "The Arabian Nights") became popular in the United States soon after it was translated into English by, among others, Sir Richard Burton. "A Thousand and One Nights" is replete with scenes of wild tales and licentious sex, but it also has scores of stories where God is omnipresent.
Many of the stories detail life in the street and behind closed doors, and in this way, "A Thousand and One Nights" is a window onto the social dynamics of medieval Muslim society.
Rumi's poems are also a reflection on them -- and, in fact, two stories in Barks' "The Essential Rumi" are virtually identical to stories in "Tales From The Thousand and One Nights" (an interpretation that was translated by N. J. Dawood, a Baghdad-born scholar).
In one story, a jealous woman tries unsuccessfully to keep her husband from getting together with a maid; in the other, a man in Baghdad acts on a dream that he'll find wealth in Cairo -- only to realize (after he gets beaten by authorities in Egypt) that his dream really pointed him to his own house.
Like Rumi's poetry, the West has gravitated toward the book's least religious tales, as in "Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp," which became a 1992 Walt Disney film with many sequels in which a poor street kid finds riches and romance.
Disney's animated movies Americanize many things about the story, including the title: In the original Arabic, Aladdin is spelled Ala al-Din, which means "excellence of faith."
A similar disconnection from Muslim roots is found in the other major Muslim poet whose books have had a major impact in the United States: Ghiyath al-Din Abu'l-Fath Umar ibn Ibrahim Al-Nisaburi al-Khayyami, better known as Omar Khayyam.
An astronomer, mathematician and poet whose life spanned the 11th and 12th centuries, Khayyam has had a literary foothold in the United States since his "Rubaiyat" was first translated into English by Edward FitzGerald in 1859. The book features rhyming verses of four lines each.On a surface level, many of Khayyam's quatrains seem to be about bacchanal pleasures. As translated by FitzGerald, Khayyam's Quatrain 42 reads, "And lately, by the tavern door agape, came stealing through the dusk an angel shape, bearing a vessel on his shoulder, and he bid me taste of it; and 'twas -- the grape!"
In the most recent edition by St. Martin's Press, that quatrain is accompanied by an illustration showing Khayyam with a wine glass in one hand, and a beautiful woman in the other, just as he is about to kiss her. Like Rumi, though, Khayyam used metaphors to express deeper meanings about love and faith.
The "Rubaiyat," according to many scholars, is really a spiritual framework
that reflects Khayyam's belief in Sufism. Although some scholars say Khayyam was turned off by traditional religious practices, he studied the Quran and
undertook the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca known as the hajj.
In Islamic studies classes at American universities and high schools, Khayyam's poems are studied side by side with Rumi's poems, "A Thousand and One Nights," the Quran, and other writers who've broken through in the West, including
Naguib Mahfouz (the Egyptian novelist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988), and the Persian poets Hafez (whose full name was Khajeh Shamseddin Mohammad Hafez Shirazi) and Saadi (Mosleh al-Din Saadi Shirazi).
What might Rumi himself say about his popularity today? He might remark that his poems are themselves manifestations of Allah's beauty and benevolence, and that Americans are no different from anyone else who needs spiritual nourishment to keep going.
Or, as expressed in his poetry:
Something opens our wings.
Something makes boredom and hurt disappear.
Someone fills the cup in front of us.
We taste only sacredness.
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