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What Rumi, the World's Most Popular Poet, Wants to Teach Us, 800 Years Later 

Rumi
The mausoleum of Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, in Konya, Turkey is presided over by a figure of the poet himself. Raimund Franken/ullstein bild/Getty Images

For close to 800 years, the words of the Persian poet Rumi have inspired, comforted and consoled people of all ages, origins and walks of life. Born Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, the mystic poet, known today simply as Rumi, has been quoted for centuries and transcended time, language and culture to become one of the best-selling poets in the United States. While Rumi wrote in Persian and Arabic (in addition to some Turkish and Greek), his poems were recognized all over the world by the end of the 20th century, circulating widely in western Europe and the U.S., in particular (case in point: the 1999 Deepak Chopra-produced album, "A Gift of Love: Music Inspired by the Love Poems of Rumi," featuring readings of his poems by the likes of Madonna, Martin Sheen, Demi Moore, Goldie Hawn, and more).

"Beautiful, sonorous poetry has always been a balm for Rumi, who is amongst only a handful of poets throughout history who defy the passage of time and linguistic barriers, and speak to the soul of mankind," says Narguess Farzad, senior lecturer in the Department of the Languages and Cultures of the Near and Middle East at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies), University of London, via email.

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A Biographical Sketch

Born in 1207 in what is now Afghanistan, Rumi was the son of a theologian and mystic preacher. When the Mongols invaded Central Asia between 1215 and 1220, Rumi's family and a group of disciples caravanned through many ancient cities including Baghdad and Damascus, performed pilgrimage in Mecca, and eventually settled in present-day Turkey. Rumi grew up practicing Sufism, a mystical form of Islam rooted in the search for divine love and knowledge through direct experiences with God. His life reportedly took a turn in his 30s when he met Sham al-Din, a wandering Sufi mystic who went on to become his guru. When Sham disappeared four years later (he was allegedly murdered), Rumi's grief led him to start writing.

And he wrote — a lot. In fact, it would be tough to narrow down the most popular Rumi passages considering how prolific the author was. He wrote over 3,000 ghazals (originally Arabic verses dealing with love and loss), and over 2,000 robaiyat, (four-line rhyming poems). And that staggering amount of work doesn't even take into account the Masnavi — considered one of the most influential works of Sufism and commonly referred to as "the Persian Quran" — a series of six books of poetry amounting to around 25,000 verses or 50,000 lines.

"His six-volume magnum opus of Spiritual Verses alone is five times the length of Milton's Paradise Lost, and then there are the 3,000-plus ecstatic hymns to love and the many quatrains that makes it near impossible to choose a favorite," says Farzad.

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So, while it would be nearly impossible to break down the entire bulk of Rumi's wisdom, here are five of his most important teachings and the passages that illuminate them and capture his spirit:

1. Rumi Wrote Extensively About Love

Goodbyes are only for those who love with their eyes. Because for those who love with heart and soul there is no such thing as separation.

On the surface, many of Rumi's poems and passages appear to be about romance, but according to experts, his wisdom on topics of union and separation transcend that one narrow version of love. In this instance, "separation" may not just mean distance from a lover or loved one, but from a time, era, feeling, or experience.

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Ali Atmaca/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Whirling dervishes perform during a ceremony marking the 744th death anniversary of Islamic scholar and Sufi mystic Rumi at Bursa Atatürk Sport Hall in Bursa, Turkey on Dec. 17, 2017.
Ali Atmaca/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

"In his sublime poetry, Rumi articulates so many of the challenges and experiences that we grapple with in our turbulent world, and these are often encapsulated in the essence of separation. Separation can appear in many contexts: separation from the land of one's birth, from the security of family or company of good friends, from one's beloved, from the innocence that we once had or, for many, separation from the divine creator," Farzad says.

2. He Illuminated the Essence of Artistic Inspiration

In your light, I learn how to love. In your beauty, how to make poems. You dance inside my chest where no-one sees you, but sometimes I do, and that sight becomes this art.

While this quote could certainly be interpreted as a romantic grand gesture, it's safe to assume Rumi wrote this with divine allusions in mind, referring to the way God had inspired and enlightened him to view the world through love and to create art from that perspective.

"The magic of Rumi's verse is that while he narrates the agonies of souls separated from a source of life, or a lover, he never succumbs to despair or hopelessness," Farzad says. "As well as wit and a mastery of storytelling, there is a scintillating energy and joy in his poetry that makes him an immensely popular poet not only in the Persian speaking world but across the globe."

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Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu, Buddhist, sufi, or zen. Not any religion or cultural system. I am not from the East or the West, not out of the ocean or up from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not composed of elements at all. I do not exist, am not an entity in this world or the next, did not descend from Adam or Eve or any origin story. My place is placeless, a trace of the traceless. Neither body or soul. I belong to the beloved, have seen the two worlds as one and that one call to and know, first, last, outer, inner, only that breath breathing human being.

Rumi was raised in the Islamic faith and his father, Baha Valad, occasionally preached at the local mosque and as a Sunni jurist. Rumi eventually came to be identified with Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam and "a school of practice that emphasizes the inward search for God and shuns materialism," accoring to The New York Times. But Rumi's work has been lauded for expressing peace and tolerance and "his doctrine advocates tolerance, reasoning, goodness, charity and awareness through love, looking with the same eye on Muslims, Jews, Christians and others alike," according to the UMass Rumi Club website.

But among Rumi's shorter works, Farzad is drawn to one that alludes to the biblical and Quranic story of the creation of man, which she says can be translated as:

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The dew of Love
turned a lump of clay
into Adam
and the whole world
was stirred with fervour and joy
A hundred cupid lances pierced the veins of Spirit,
one drop fell to earth
and they named it Heart!

4. His Message Is of Self-Empowerment and Spiritual Development

From the dust of the earth to a human being,
there are a thousand steps.
I have been with you through these steps,
I have held your hand and walked by your side.
And I will be with you
as you move beyond this human form
and soar to the highest heavens.

"Rumi's message of universal love, tolerance of religion and race, self-empowerment, spiritual development and enlightenment are truly timeless and timely for today's audiences," says author Shahram Shiva, founder of Rumi Network and author of "Hush, Don't Say Anything to God: Passionate Poems of Rumi." "Those few lines talk about the promise of self-realization, enlightenment and ultimately ascension, where you evolve beyond the boundaries of a mere human to much higher aspirations."

5. He Is a Pop Culture Phenomenon to This Day

This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival
A joy, a depression, a meanness
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

This particular passage from the poem, "The Guest House," gained popularity in an unlikely context: it was featured on a Coldplay album. As Rozina Ali wrote for The New Yorker in 2017, the "erasure of Islam from Rumi's poetry started long before Coldplay got involved." But as the poet and his work have been adopted and adapted in the Western world, the fact remains that passages like this one are steeped in Muslim teachings — an important aspect of Rumi's work that's often ignored in modern Western discussions of his poetry. As Ali points out, "The Guest House" is from Rumi's six-book epic, the Masnavi, which is "riddled with Arabic excerpts from Muslim scripture; the book frequently alludes to Koranic anecdotes that offer moral lessons."

Rumi
People visit the Mevlâna Museum, the mausoleum of Rumi, to celebrate his life and study his works.
ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

"It would be nice if people could go beyond the breathless renditions of a handful of Rumi poems which have been the backdrop of fashion and catwalk shows for example, or (although poorly translated and completely removed from the original) are YouTube or Instagram hits," Farzad says. "It would be good if people paused to remember that Rumi was first and foremost a scholar of Islamic philosophy and mysticism, that his poetry was composed during one of the most turbulent periods of the 13th century, and has a depth and breadth that is rarely considered. I worry that sometimes the real scholar is overshadowed by the parody of a whirling and hopping and skipping guru that was created in the late 20th century."

Rumi died on Dec. 17, 1273 in Konya in south-central Turkey. His body was carried through the city by a crowd of local Jews and Christians and he was buried beside his father in a splendid shrine, the Yeşil Türbe, or Green Tomb, which is today the Mevlâna Museum.

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