The Greatest Muslim Poet? He's Also the Best-Selling Poet in America

The greatest Muslim poet was born in what is now Afghanistan, back when Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists lived peacefully together.

His funeral lasted 40 days, and he was mourned by Christians, Jews, Muslims, Persians and Greeks.

Okay, Rumi was born in 1207 and died in 1273. That turns out to have been a turbulent era --- but there's not a word about discord in his poems. And there's no record of any criticism coming his way because he was a Sufi and a scholar of the Koran.

Indeed, at his funeral, Christians proclaimed, "He was our Jesus!" while Jews cried, "He was our Moses!"

Both were right. Rumi belongs to everyone. And always will. It makes perfect sense that this 13th century Muslim is now said to be the best-selling poet in 21st century America.

The ultimate reason, of course, is the poetry itself. But first, let's set the poetry in the life.....

His father was rich, a Sufi mystic and theologian. There's a famous story of Rumi, at 12, traveling with his father. A great poet saw the father walking ahead and Rumi hurrying to keep up. "Here comes a sea followed by an ocean," he said.

Rumi studied, became a noted scholar. Then, when he was 37, he met Shams of Tabriz, a thorny personality. But Shams was God-intoxicated; nothing else mattered. And so their meeting was catalytic. As Rumi said: "What I had thought of before as God I met today in a human being."

He dropped everything to be with Shams. Then Shams disappeared. Later, he resurfaced --- only to be murdered, probably by Rumi's jealous son. But by then Rumi was also God-obsessed, and he understood: Between lovers, there can be no separation:

Why should I seek?
I am the same as he.
His essence speaks through me.
I have been looking for myself.

Rumi produced 70,000 verses -- but he never actually wrote a poem. Pressed by a friend to record his thoughts, he pulled out some lines he'd scribbled. "More!" begged Husameddin Celebi. Rumi's response: "Celebi, if you consent to write for me, I will recite." And Rumi began to dictate.

It was quite the process, with Rumi sometimes calling out poems as he danced. As Celebi would write: "He never took a pen in his hand while composing. Wherever he happened to be, whether in the school, at the hot springs, in the baths or in the vineyards, I would write down what he recited. Often I could barely keep up with his pace, sometimes, night and day for several days. At other times he would not compose for months, and once for two years there was nothing. At the completion of each book I would read it back to him, so that he could correct what had been written."

As a poet, Rumi was as clear as he was deep. His story-poems are riddles you can solve. His poems are little telegrams, straight from his heart to yours. Whatever it cost him to write is hidden. His point is: Here is honey. Taste. Eat. [To buy "The Essential Rumi" from, click here.]

And is there ever nourishment in his work! Consider:

No matter how fast you run,
your shadow more than keeps up.
Sometimes it's in front.
Only full, overhead sun diminishes your shadow.
But that shadow has been serving you!
What hurts you, blesses you.
Darkness is your candle.
Your boundaries are your quest.

Don't mistake straightforward speech for simplicity; Rumi is as brain-busting as Zen. For example:

Why do you stay in prison
when the door is so wide open

Which reminds me of a story Rumi tells: A friend sends a prayer rug to a man in prison. What the man wanted, however, was a key or file -- he wanted to break out. Still, he began to sit on the rug and pray. Eventually he noticed an odd pattern in the rug. He meditated on it -- and realized it was a diagram of the lock that held him in his cell. Escape came easily after that...

Escape comes more easily after you read these poems. You may well find yourself, like Rumi, saying:

Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing?
I have no idea.
My soul is from elsewhere, I'm sure of that.
And I intend to end up there.

[Cross-posted from ]