Celebrating Rumi, Islam's poet of peace

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

Melanie Stetson Freeman
Melanie Stetson Freeman

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.

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.


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."

The day Tuten and his friends arrive at Rumi's ornate mausoleum, it is packed with people despite the heavy gray skies and a persistent drizzle. Perhaps they have all come seeking respite from the tumult of recent months.

Stalemated presidential elections this past srping led to massive protests and notched up tensions between the country's old secular elite and its new, rising religious majority.

Attacks by the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in the country's southern region, brought Turkey and neighboring Iraq, where PKK activists take refuge, to the brink of war. And Iraq's present turmoil threatens to spill over into Turkey.

The monument to Rumi is a strange mixture of museum and shrine. Under the green dome itself, there is Rumi's tomb and that of his father, spectacularly ornamented in gold script and topped with a conical hat. In the surrounding rooms, constructed after Rumi's death to house the religious order he founded, glass cases display the valuable gifts his followers have brought here through the centuries: silk rugs, prayer beads, hand-illustrated Korans, and even a box containing a relic from the Prophet Muhammad.

One room is filled with aging human-sized dolls that represent Mevlevi Sufis working, studying, cooking, and dancing.

For Rumi's followers, the whirling dance was a way of connecting with God. Performed by men dressed in long white skirts and conical hats, the dance represents man's spiritual journey to enlightenment.

When I ask one man, who was lurking around Rumi's tomb with a nametag on his coat, to explain the philosophy, he pulls out a grubby slip of paper from his wallet. On it are three simple lines, Rumi's own explanation of his life's journey:

I was raw

I cooked

I burned

But Rumi's fire was of love, not hate, Tuten and his friends say. They are all young men, clean-shaven and modestly dressed, not so different in age from others of their faith who have chosen to die – or kill – in the name of Islam. The difference, say Tuten and his friends, is that Rumi and the contemporary thinkers who continue to preach his ideas have set them on a different path.

Outside the tomb, Tuten and his friends are crowding around, spouting quotes from their favorite Rumi writings. "We want peace, we don't want more wars," says Selcuk Nohutcu, a colleague of Tuten, as we stand in the tomb's doorway, not far from where other visitors are examining the relic of Muhammad. "Those people who are terrorists, they are not true Muslims."

"Some people look at Islam as a religion of terror," adds Tuten earnestly. "Rumi has shown to the whole world that this is not true. That Islam is a religion of compassion. He opened his arms to the whole world."


While we're talking, the lurking man – who I finally realize is an official tour guide hustling for work – keeps trying to sabotage our discussion. He keeps interrupting, telling us to move.

Earlier, I'd sent him away with a handful of small notes when I discovered that his English was incomprehensible and that he expected to be paid for just talking to me. It's more evidence of the odd way in which Rumi's tomb mixes the sacred and the secular.

The tour guide is now trying to drive us into the rain, saying we're not allowed to talk inside. My young interviewees get angry and a heated argument ensues in rapid-fire Turkish.

Finally, we move outside and stand, sheltered, under a sliver of roof. The tour guide follows. He's not giving up.

"He's still raw," says one of the men, annoyed, but half laughing. "He's not cooked."

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