Iran's spiritual leader isn't a hardline Islamist, but a mystic poet

Iran’s officially recognized 'spiritual leader' today may be Ayatollah Khamenei, but for hundreds of years, Iranian's real spiritual leader has been the Sufi poet Rumi – revered by many Westerners as well. Understand Rumi's poetry, and you will understand the true soul of Iran.

Editor's note: This piece is part three of five in the series “Religion, Politics & the Public Space” in collaboration with the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and its Global Experts project. Check back each day this week to read the next commentary.

Iran’s officially recognized “spiritual leader” today may be Ayatollah Khamenei, but for hundreds of years before the current establishment of mullahs and ayatollahs, Iranians of all creeds have looked to another spiritual leader: Jalal ad-Din Rumi. While this 13th century Persian Sufi poet is known in much of the West as “Rumi,” he is referred to more affectionately in Iran as “Mowlaana,” or the master.

Among Iranians, he is a spiritual guide and guru whose words hold unmatched moral authority. Over 700 years after his death, it is nearly impossible to spend a day walking around any Iranian city, suburb, or village and not hear his echo. His words live on in everyday parlance: No matter one’s station, religion, or occupation, everyone in Iran knows at least a handful of Rumi’s poems by heart. They are taught in classrooms as an essential part of the basic curriculum, but more than that, they are learned in homes, cafes, bazaars, parks, and houses of worship. No place is beyond this poet’s influence.

And there is no better way to understand that influence than through Rumi’s own verse, although it often defies easy translation. Still, English speakers have a wonderful resource in understanding Rumi – and Iran – through the translations of Coleman Barks, including the following:

“Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened. Don't open the door to the study and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument. Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”

Understand this poem, and you will understand the soul of Iran – not just the role of religion or dogma, but the spiritual role of faith, love, and beauty.

Iranian regime's perversion of religion

While Iran is a Muslim-majority country and Shiism is the official state religion, Iran is not defined by Islam. Rather, it is defined by its peoples, who are Muslims, Jews, Bahais, Christians, agnostics, and atheists. Iran is the birthplace of two of the world’s great religions: Zoroastrianism and Bahaism. It is home to millions of Muslims, but also to the largest Jewish population in any Muslim majority country. So Iranians know very well that there are at least hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Nevertheless, the Iranian regime maintains an intractable identification with its interpretation of Islam, and as such, it has played a strong role in shaping the Iranian people’s view of both Islam and of religion in general. Because of the regime’s use and perversion of Islam for political purposes, many Iranians have been turned off by religion – especially among the youth who represent the vast majority of the population.

As young Iranians, we have seen the government’s persecution of Bahais and Jews and its failure to provide equal rights to women, and we realize that this regime has forgotten its roots. It has forgotten the words of the great master, Mowlaana. Instead of taking down a musical instrument to treat the fear, despair, and emptiness that have consumed so many young Iranians (particularly since the 2009 elections), Iran’s leaders have brought out batons, bullets, and teargas. As a result, people have continued to turn away from organized religion, particularly from Islam, because they have seen how the regime is manipulating their faith to oppress the populace and suppress dissent.

Iran's underlying spiritual unity

Nevertheless, there is a spiritual unity in this growing collective repugnance for religion. It is encouraging us to unite as Iranians of all backgrounds and beliefs under the most basic and universal spiritual teachings that Rumi and other Sufi poets captured so brilliantly: the notion that music, art, poetry, and above all, love are our greatest spiritual resources. In Iran, such resources are more abundant than oil, saffron, and pistachios combined, and they represent the truest faith of the masses.

Melody Moezzi is an Iranian-American writer, commentator, attorney, and activist. The views expressed in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nation Alliance of Civilizations or any of the institutions with which the author is affiliated.

Editor's note: This piece is part three* of five in the series “Religion, Politics & the Public Space” in collaboration with the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and its Global Experts project. Check back each day this week to read the next commentary.

No. 1 – Eboo Patel and Samantha Kirby on religion in the public space

No. 2 – Fadi Hakura on secularism and the Arab Spring

*No. 3 – Melody Moezzi on Iran's greatest spiritual leader

No. 4 – Virginie Guiraudon on Europe's Islamophobia

No. 5 – William F. Vendley on the role of ordinary language in religious cooperation

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