Rumi: A Perfect Voice for the Spiritual Longing and Energy of Our Time
by Krista Tippett, host
Photo by Meir Jacob/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0
There is no formula for our shows, no template. Each begins with the raw material of a conversation, and we shape its pace and sound and elements around that. I think great radio emerges when the whole feel of the experience seems at one with the words being spoken, taking the listener more deeply into the passion and intent of the voice being heard. Creating our show around the life and words of Rumi has felt a little like having magic to work with.
I take away many gems of idea and image from my conversation with one of Rumi’s delightful 21st-century interpreters and successors, Fatemeh Keshavarz. Rumi saw human life and love as the closest we come to tasting and touching transcendence, and he approached all experience with his whole mind, heart, and body.
Fatemeh Keshavarz describes Rumi’s “whirling” around a column as he recited poetry — a habit that inspired the Whirling Dervishes of the Mevlevi Sufi Order — as a way to “stay centered while moving.” He believed that, as searching and restlessness propel us to keep learning, plowing the ground beneath our feet, they are themselves a form of arrival. In Rumi’s way of seeing life, perplexity is a blessed state, sometimes a necessary state. This idea has special resonance, perhaps, in the 21st century when so many basic definitions and institutions of previous generations seem to be up for grabs.
But Rumi’s recent “discovery” in the West also holds no little irony. I found this best expressed in my research by a British journalist, William Dalrymple:
"It seems almost unbelievable in the world of 9/11, Bin Laden and the Clash of Civilizations, but the best-selling poet in the U.S. in the 1990s was not Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, nor Shakespeare or Dante. … Instead, remarkably it was a classically trained Muslim cleric who taught Sharia law in a madrasa in what is now Turkey."
Yet as Rumi has been translated and popularized in the modern West, the religious sensibility behind his beautiful, best-selling words has often been lost.
Fatemeh Keshavarz is adamant on this point: Rumi was steeped in Islam. He represents and speaks to “an adventurous and cosmopolitan Islam.” The generous, cross-cultural appeal of his words reflects ideas at the core of Islam that are muted by the extremists and headlines of our time. To the extent that Rumi would deny or subvert those, he does so through his grounding in Islamic tradition, and his profound love for it.
Fatemeh Keshavarz, who was born in Iran — the center of the vast civilization that spawned Rumi and where he remains to this day a household name — takes special solace in Rumi’s insistence that we can create worlds and possibilities by way of language itself.
Where that part of the world is now concerned, Fatemeh Keshavarz says, U.S. political culture has adopted a language of fear. Rumi champions and models a language of hope. This is not tepid and naive but full-blooded view of human reality, fully aware of the double-edged sword of the passions and pulls of real human experience. In this, Rumi speaks to those of us on both sides of a real or imagined “clash of civilizations.”
As we conclude this show, I hear Rumi as a perfect voice for the spiritual longing and energy of our time. With his vigorous and challenging language of the heart, he reminds us that we need poetry as much as we need science, alongside our politics and within our diplomacy. We need passionate searching words, not just logical decisive words, to tell the whole truth about what it means to be human, and about the past, present, and future of our world.
Here is one passage of many I’ve seen quoted of Rumi, which I’ll now hear with new layers of relevance:
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.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense.
Dr. Oz’s Mystical Muslim Identity
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
"I’ve struggled a lot with my Muslim identity. … As a Turk growing up in America with one parent from one side of the religious wall and one from the other side, I found myself tugged more and more towards the spiritual side of the religion rather than the legal side of the religion."
The popular heart surgeon and television personality Dr. Mehmet Oz is a spiritual man who is hard to classify, religiously speaking. We learned that back in 2004 when we interviewed him. He spoke with Krista at some length about his Muslim faith and about the value he finds in his wife’s Swedenborgian tradition.
But, this excerpt from the PBS series Faces of America with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., digs deeper into Oz’s personal identity by asking about his family’s divergent approaches to Islam. Through Oz’s telling of his own family history, we learn some history about Turkey and its geography, and the immigrant experience in the United States.
Oz’s mother walks in the line of many proud, modern Turks who are secular Muslims, approaching faith as a private practice that is separated or divorced from public and political institutions. Whereas, for his father, religion and law were inseparable and, according to Oz, they were “obviously and beautifully and elegantly integrated.”
Listening to his story, I wonder whether he might be classified as part of the demographic that’s been polled and reported on so much lately: the spiritual but not religious generation.
(photo: Jim Gillooly/PEI/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)
Bollywood Squares: The Manganiyar Seduction at Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
"They have the Muslim saints and they worship Allah. And then they also have their … Hindu goddesses. And they sing to both. Like, there would not be any difference if they were to sing a Sufi Islam mystic song or if they were to sing a Hindu mystic song. It would be with the equal amount of devotion."
—Roysten Abel, on the Manganiyar musicians
Musicians from Rajasthan, India, led by Daevo Khan, perform at the Rose Theater in New York on November 23, 2010. (photo: Lian Chang/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)
Thirty-eight Sufi musicians from the deserts of Rajasthan, India. Thirty-six, open-faced, photo booths draped in red velvet, stacked four high and nine wide. One lone box lights up. One lone khamacha drones. One lone singer begins his song. Then another box alights. Then another. Pulsating, alternating. Percussive rhythms build with dhol, dholak, and karthal. Voices of men, women, and children from India’s Manganiyar community layer one on top of the other, enmeshed with harmoniums, kamancha, sarangi, bansuri, murli, and morchang. The theater’s magic. Electric. A crescendo. Quiet.
Roysten Abel, the creative force behind this production, describes the concept as a “dazzling union between the Manganiyar’s music and the visual seduction of Amsterdam’s red light district.”
And I missed it.
Visa issues delayed the performance of The Manganiyar Seduction at the Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater by two days, so I headed back home to Minnesota. At least we have this video from the White Light Festival to give us some access to this dramatic performance.
If you’re in Washington, DC, be sure to buy tickets for their March performances. And, according to Abel’s website, he is currently working on The Manganiyar War, interpreting the Mahabharata through music. That ought to be really fascinating.
Dancing with Sidi Goma: The Black Sufis of Gujarat
Nancy Rosenbaum, Associate Producer
I recently attended a dance workshop in Saint Paul with Sidi Goma, a troupe of African-Indian Sufis from Gujarat, India who were visiting Minnesota to perform at a local festival. I’ve explored a variety of mostly West African dance styles, but this practice was entirely new to me.
The Sidi people migrated from East Africa to India 800 years ago and it isn’t clear which modern-day African countries they originally hailed from. The Sidis express their mystical Sufi Muslim faith through an exuberant dance and musical tradition. The idea, as I understand it, is for the performers to connect with the Divine and inspire the audience to experience a kind of divine transcendence through this joyful expression.
As you’ll see in the video we’ve posted of the workshop, the dancing and rhythm picks up speed and culminates in a crescendo. I wondered whether there’s a connection here with the whirling dervish who practice the sema — a form of ecstatic worship we explored in our program on Rumi. Some of the Sidi dancers’ movements are inspired by animals — notably birds. You’ll notice how they use their eyes as much as their limbs. It actually reminded me of the popping and locking break dancers are known for.
At the end of the evening, another workshop participant fetched a cowbell from his backpack. The bell is a kind of percussive instrument sometimes attached to an African drum called doun doun. It seemed like the Sidis were unfamiliar with the cowbell, but their faces beamed with delight when it was played along with their instruments. Only one member of the group spoke English but we all danced and relished in the music together — a refreshing minder that movement and rhythm can transcend verbal language.
Special thanks to The Ordway and Paul Escalante for giving us permission to post this video clip.