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Celebrating Rumi, Islam's poet of peace

The Sufi mystic's message of love still reverberates on the 800th anniversary of his birth.

By Nicole ItanoCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 2, 2008

Melanie Stetson Freeman

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KONYA, Turkey

A Turkish saying goes: When there's trouble in the world, come to Konya. So, on a wet November day, Halit Tuten and his friends found themselves hundreds of miles from home, shoulder to shoulder with fellow worshipers and pilgrims – as well as the odd curious tourist – searching for some kind of peace.

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At first glance, this sprawling metropolis isn't an obvious destination for a spiritual journey. Set in Turkey's agricultural heartland, Konya is a booming center of commerce and trade whose factories churn out much of the country's wheat and sugar.

But Mr. Tuten and his friends haven't come to see Konya's utilitarian present. They're here to get a glimpse into its mystic past, to a time when dervishes whirled their way to enlightenment and Christians, Muslims, and Jews gathered to listen to the words of a holy man, and his message of peace and tolerance.

The 13th-century philosopher and mystic poet Mevlana Jalludin Rumi, whose message of peace still reverberates centuries later, is buried in the center of the city, in a spectacular green-tiled mausoleum.

This past year, UNESCO, the United Nation's cultural agency, celebrated the 800th anniversary of Rumi's birth. Across Europe, there were concerts, lectures, and dervish dances – a ritual of the Mevlevi Sufi order Rumi belonged to, which is known in the West as whirling dervishes for these frenzied spiritual dances – culminating in December with the annual whirling dervish festival in Konya.

For many of the faithful, this recognition has been too long in coming. Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern, secular Turkish state, shut the country's dervish lodges and banned their dances.

Rumi's tomb was then reopened as a museum, and dervish dances were permitted only for a short period each December. Today, the mausoleum is still run by the Turkish state, but for many of those who visit, it remains a holy place.

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This is Tuten's first visit to Konya, and, like the other, mainly Turkish visitors, he sheds his shoes at the door as he would outside a mosque. He's grown up with Rumi's poetry, which is as familiar to Turks as Shakespeare is to English speakers.

In his own lifetime, Rumi attracted a wide following outside his own sect of Sufi Islam, with his message of universal love and tolerance. At his funeral, according to his biographer Mohamed el-Fers, a Greek monk said: "Mevlana was like bread. Nobody can keep himself away from needing bread. Have you ever seen a hungry man who refused to eat bread?"

But it is Rumi's poetry, originally written in Persian, that has endured through the centuries, especially in the Islamic world.

"I haven't read much," admits Tuten, who has thick black hair and dark, earnest eyes. "But I know about his life and his call to the world. He's opening his arms to the whole world." He begins to recite, slowly, in Turkish:

"Come, come again, whoever you are, come! Heathen, fire worshipper or idolatrous, come! Come even if you broke your penitence a hundred times, Ours is the portal of hope, come as you are."

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