Listen: The Ecstatic Faith of Rumi

On this episode of Speaking of Faith, host Krista Tippet profiles the 13th-century Muslim mystic and poet Rumi, who has long shaped Muslims around the world and has now become popular in the West. Rumi created a new language of love within the Islamic mystical tradition of Sufism.

Program includes interview and readings of Rumi’s writings by Fatemeh Keshavarz, an Iranian-American poet and scholar.


2007 George Foster Peabody Award, winner in Podcast & Radio category


text | pdf |

[MUSIC PLAYING] KRISTA TIPPETT: I'm Krista Tippett. Today, the Ecstatic Faith of Rumi. The 13th century mystic Rumi left behind lyric poetry that has long shaped Muslims around the world and has now become popular in the West. This hour, we'll delve into Rumi's world and its echoes in our own. He created a new language of love within the Islamic spiritual tradition of Sufism. Rumi also inspired the whirling dervishes.

He sought a way to stay centered while moving.

FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: If you don't plow the earth, it's going to get so hard, nothing grows in it. You just plow the Earth of yourself. You just get moving. And even don't ask exactly what's going to happen. You allow yourself to move around and then you will see the benefit.

KRISTA TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us. I'm Krista Tippett. This hour, we enter the exuberant world of Rumi, the 13th century Persian mystic and poet. Rumi's poems are bestsellers in the West, and he's been celebrated globally by the United Nations this past year. Rumi has long influenced Islamic thought and spirituality, though his Muslim identity is often lost in translation.

With an Iranian-American poet and scholar, we'll explore why that matters in our time, and we'll hear the lyrical words Rumi put to the common human search for meaning. He understood searching and restlessness as a kind of arrival. He saw every form of human love as a mirror of the divine.


FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: Wherever you are, whatever you do, be in love.


KRISTA TIPPETT: From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio's conversation about religion, meaning, ethics and ideas. Today, the Ecstatic Faith of Rumi.


In his lifetime, the poet known in the West as Rumi was called Muhammad Jalal al-Din al-Balkhi al-Rumi. He was born in 1,207 near the city of Balkh in what is now Afghanistan. When he was a child, his family fled Mongol invaders and settled in Konya in present day Turkey. Rumi wrote in Persian the literary and spiritual lingua franca of a civilization that stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to India.

To most of the people who read him today, from Tajikistan to Iran, he is known as mevlana or maulana, our master. Rumi left behind a vast body of lyric poetry, metaphysical writings, lectures and letters, which have influenced Persian Urdu and Turkish literature across the centuries. Rumi also inspired the whirling dervishes, ascetics who based their practices on Rumi, including the dancing meditation that was part of his spiritual life.

And in the late 20th century, Rumi's thought and poetry swept the United States in English translation. Lines from Rumi became widely quoted in diverse settings, lines such as, "Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field, I will meet you there." Those who enjoyed such words often knew little about the man behind them or his Islamic mystical tradition of Sufism. My guest today, Fatemeh Keshavarz, calls Rumi a world-class thinker relevant to our painfully compartmentalized world.

FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: One of the reasons why he addresses the issues that are of concern to us so much today is because he belongs to a tradition, the Sufi tradition or the mystical tradition within Islam, which has always been concerned with the way human beings view themselves and each other and are able to relate to each other.

KRISTA TIPPETT: Fatemeh Keshavarz will be our guide as we explore some of the large themes of Rumi's spirituality that may be only partially understood, even as they echo in modern culture. She is chair of the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages and Literatures at Washington University in St. Louis. She is also a poet and often sets Rumi's words to music. She grew up speaking the Persian in which Rumi wrote in the Iranian city of Shiraz.

FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: I grew up in a family in which people played chess, read poetry, or argued about poetry.


That was basically-- and only after I left Iran, I realized that that's probably not what everyone else does all the time.



KRISTA TIPPETT: But so in this landscape where poetry of all kinds, including poetry woven into religious sensibility, what did Rumi mean in that landscape? How was he part of the spiritual sensibility of that world you grew up in?

FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: Well, he was a voice that echoed something that was, on one level, very familiar because a lot of other people had talked about it, but on another level, it was completely new because of the way he played with it, the way he made it his own game. And I mean game because playing is very serious for him. Laughing and playing are the most serious things in his poetry.

So for me, he came into the picture as someone who said, OK, you've read the text, you know the words, you've looked at the history, now transcend all that, put it aside and live it, encounter it. If you ask me to think of a few words that for me describe his poetry, one of them is, "it's an encounter." You come face to face with something. I never forget I was once reading ghazal that described these beautiful birds, he said.

KRISTA TIPPETT: Ghazals are odes, what we would translate as something a little bit different than a poem, right?

FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: Yes, ghazal is about 8 to 10, 12 lines normally, although his could be much shorter or much longer. And the main theme is love. And these are like flashes of ideas that come. So I was reading one of those, and he was describing these beautiful birds, some can sing, some are colorful, and so forth. And I was enjoying the walk in the aviary. And he suddenly said, well, what kind of a bird are you?

All of a sudden I realized I can't stay on the margins. You have to join in. And I think, in a way, the whirling is exactly a reflection of that. So he kind of comes into the tradition with all the intellectual legacy, but he says, that's not enough, you have to do something else with it, face it, play with it, dance it, bring it into your everyday life.

KRISTA TIPPETT: Something that strikes me, there are a lot of themes in his writing and his poetry that you might call ascetic. He's very aware of the limits of the physical and of the importance of the spiritual in that equation. And yet, there's something incredibly sensual at the same time that when you mentioned the whirling, we think of the whirling dervishes, there's dance and music.

FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: Yes, I would say that it's all on the same continuum of human experience. We are not divided into body and soul in a way, although he does talk about body and soul, and there no question about the fact that the soul is exalted, ultimately, the goal is to purify the soul and so on and so forth. But we don't have to think of the rest of ourselves as base or as not. In fact, it's a tool. It's a part of us that's very important.

He does say in one verse, he says, "Love, whether of this kind or that kind. And obviously, it's either the kind of divine spiritual or the human to human love, ultimately leads you to the same king. The body is not an obstacle on the way of the soul. It's a tool to be used for that journey.


KRISTA TIPPETT: Rumi scholar and poet Fatemeh Keshavarz. After Rumi's death, some of his followers founded the Mevlevi Order, commonly known as the community of the whirling dervishes.


Dervish is a Persian word which described wandering Muslim ascetics of the medieval Persian empire. Dervishes were and are Sufis, part of the Islamic mystical tradition that emerged as a spiritual renewal movement after the death of the prophet Muhammad. Rumi imprinted that movement with a vividly sensual and poetic practice of spirituality that has been provocative and controversial across the ages.

He crafted some of his most religious ideas in the form of erotically toned love poetry, which seems at once addressed to Allah or God and to an earthly beloved. Rumi inspired the practice of the whirling dervishes by spinning around a column as he recited his poems.

Something you wrote about whirling that was so gripping to me, you said, for Rumi, the whirling is one way to stay centered while moving.


FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: Yes. And I do some speculation in my work. Does this have something to do with the fact that he traveled so young when he went all the way westwards from the province of Khorasan to where is the city of Konya today, present day Turkey? And the journey lasted about two years. He must have encountered so many different peoples and cultures and incidents. So it may have something to do with that.

But he's certainly very appreciative of the ability to change your vantage point. At some point, he says in his discourses, he says, if you don't plow the earth, it's going to get so hard, nothing grows in it. You just plow the Earth of yourself. You just get moving. And even don't ask exactly what's going to happen. You allow yourself to move around and then you will see the benefit.

KRISTA TIPPETT: Is there also something in the whirling that strikes you as very compatible with Islamic theology in general or with Sufi theology that might not be apparent to an outsider?

FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: Well, I think you could say that everything in the universe is whirling, is quickened with the force of love. That fits with Sufi theology. We are like planets. We have to appreciate that. And in order to appreciate that, you have to join the dance. But there are also interpretations. We can now look at whirling and say things like, for example, one hand is pointed towards the sky and the other one to the Earth.

So that's usually interpreted as bringing the heaven and the Earth together, like staying connected with the two. Or the dervishes wear a black robe and a white robe underneath, and then they disrobe the black robe and they dance in the white. That's interpreted as the shedding of the ego.


FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: But then the master standing in the center doesn't have to do it because he supposedly has tamed his ego. But all of these things have been interpretations later done of the activity of whirling. Beyond that, to me, it comes across as something much broader and more universal than Islam or any other religion. It's a kind of getting in tune with the moving Earth.

KRISTA TIPPETT: You've spoken a lot about love, and love is the core of this spirituality. I think that also in Persian culture in which you grew up and Rumi as well, there is a connection between love poetry and imagery of the beloved and lovers with religious ideas, which, again, you kind of have to introduce a Westerner into.

FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: Yeah, the imagery is very often almost identical with profane, mundane love poetry. By this, I don't mean to give any negative connotation to it, but love that is purely sensual and emotional and human love. To me, I think it's a statement by poets like Rumi and others like him that there isn't really a boundary between the two. It's the same thing.

It's the same human experience. And there is another medieval Sufi, actually, a bit later than Rumi, who says that you can't look at the sun directly, but you can look at its reflection in the water. Now, our humanly experience of love is that reflection in the water, of our senses. And it's God's way of teaching us and guiding us from this to the actual looking at the sun when we have gained the ability.

I was just thinking of a particular ghazal.

KRISTA TIPPETT: Yes, I wanted to ask if you had anything you would read or recite. Yes.

FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: Yeah, I think that actually could help see how one would lead to the other and actually the ambiguity between the two. It's a source of great poetic force.

KRISTA TIPPETT: And you mean one and the other would be divine human love and love?

FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: Human love and divine love. Exactly.



FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: If anyone asks you about the houris, show your face, say like this. If anyone asks you about the moon, climb up on the roof, say like this. If anyone seeks a fairy, let them see your countenance. If anyone talks about the aroma of musk, untie your hair, and say like this. If anyone asks, how do the clouds uncover the moon, untie the front of your robe knot by knot, say like this.

If anyone asks, how did Jesus raise the dead, kiss me on the lips, say like this. If anyone asks, what are those killed by love like, direct him to me, say like this. If anyone kindly asks you how tall I am, show him your arched eyebrows, say like this.


So the whole ghazal is a description of the physical beauty of the beloved. But at the same time, it's a fairly long poem at the end. It leads us to blind with envy, the one who says, how can a human being reach God? Give each of us a candle of purity, say like this. So in the end, human beings can get to that candle of purity and reach God, and all human beings can do that.

KRISTA TIPPETT: It is also an act of pointing at what is now, what is physical and human. As you say, it's the only way we have of imagining.

FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: Exactly. Exactly. There's a famous Sufi tale that this young disciple who approached the master to enter the order day after day. And finally, the master said, have you ever fallen in love with a woman? He said, well, not yet, I'm only 18. He said, well, go try that first.



KRISTA TIPPETT: Rumi scholar Fatemeh Keshavarz. We've selected more of Rumi's poems for you to hear and read on our website,, along with images and explanations of the whirling dervishes. I'm Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today we're dipping into the ideas and spiritual background of Rumi, the 13th century Muslim mystic whose poetry is celebrated by an array of modern readers.

In The Song of the Reed, Rumi reflects on the human spirit through the metaphor of the ancient reed flute or ney that is popular in Middle Eastern music. This poem opened the Masnavi, Rumi's compendium of rhyming couplets that explored issues of Sufi theology and the spiritual journey.

FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: Listen to the story told by the reed of being separated. Since I was cut from the reed bed, I have made this crying sound. Anyone apart from someone he loves understands what I say. Anyone pulled from a source longs to go back. At any gathering, I'm there, mingling and laughing and grieving, a friend to each, but few will hear the secrets hidden within the notes.

No ears for that. Body flowing out of spirit, spirit out from body. No concealing that mixing. But it's not given us to see, the soul. The reed flute is fire, not wind. Be that empty.

KRISTA TIPPETT: There's a theme that is part of that runs all the way through about separation and longing as part of, well, not just the spiritual life, but being human and also a kind of sense that the separation and the longing themselves are a kind of arrival.

FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: On one level, you have to get on the road. You have to get started. Just like the Earth, that you have to plow the Earth, you have to get moving. On another level, time and again, he reminds us that the destination is the journey itself. So there isn't a point where you say, OK, I'm here, I've reached, I'm done, I'm perfect, I don't need to do anything anymore.

In the incompleteness of that, the need to move forward is inherent in that incompleteness, in the process of going forward, that you make yourself better and better and you, in a way, never reach. So the separation is the powerful force that keeps you going. If you ever felt that I have arrived, I've reached, this is it, then you wouldn't go any further.

KRISTA TIPPETT: And I think it is counterintuitive in our culture, not that we necessarily think this through very often, but we think of desires and longings as something that we need to find something to meet, right?

FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: Yes. Yes. And when we want to meet it really fast and--



KRISTA TIPPETT: Because somehow the feeling of longing and separation from whatever it is, especially if we don't know what it is we want, that is unsatisfying. And there's something wrong with that.


KRISTA TIPPETT: And yet what Rumi is saying is that the longing itself is redemptive and is progress kind of.

FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: Yes, and the longing itself and also not to understand exactly what that longing is in itself is very productive. I think one idea or major concept that the Sufi tradition and Rumi in particular have to contribute to our current culture is valuing perplexity. The fact that not knowing is a source of learning something that propels us forward into finding out. Longing, perplexity, these are all very valuable things.

We want to unravel things and get answers and be done. But as far as he's concerned, it's a continual process. We can't be done. And that's good.

KRISTA TIPPETT: I also have a feeling that Rumi is saying we also, though, at the same time need to be intentional about what we choose to be perplexed by. Does that make sense? There's this poem, "Stay bewildered in God and only that. Those of you who are scattered, simplify your worrying lives. There is one righteousness. Water are the fruit trees and don't water the thorns. Be generous to what nurtures the spirit and God's luminous reason light. Don't honor what causes dysentery and knotted up tumors. Don't feed both sides of your self equally. The spirit and the body carry different loads and require different attentions."

FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: Yes. Yes. I think the energy can't go in all directions completely uncontrolled. And you have to choose because we have one life. You have to spend it wisely. So absolutely, he would say, choose, be selective, recognize your own value. At another point, he says, you are an astrolabe to God. Don't use yourself for things that are not worthwhile." But I want to linger a little bit on that idea of being scattered because that's a key concept in Sufi thought.

And actually, it's something that the Buddhists also talk about a lot. And that is our mind just jumps from one thing to the other. And the Sufis call it the onrush of ideas into our minds. And in some ways, if we allow it, it takes us over. What am I going to do about that credit card? What do I do about the students' paper? And whatever else that you're concerned with, my family, my kids, my future.

So it all invades your life. And so in a way, you're pulled in all directions. You're scattered. So one of the purposes of his poetry and one of the concepts the Sufis talk about is to collect that scattered-ness.


KRISTA TIPPETT: Rumi scholar Fatemeh Keshavarz. Here is one of Rumi's ghazals, which she translated and recites with the Lian Ensemble, a group that often sets Rumi's words to Persian music.


FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: When pain arrives side by side with your love, I promise not to flee. When you ask me for my life, I promise not to fight. I'm holding a cup in my hand. By God, if you do not come till the end of time, I promise not to pour out the wine, nor to drink a sip. Your bright face is my day. Your dark curls bring the night.

If you do not let me near you, I promise not to go to sleep nor rise. Your magnificence has made me a wonder. Your charm has taught me the way of love. I am the progeny of Abraham. I'll find my way through fire.

KRISTA TIPPETT: What do you hear in that? What do you reflect on in that?

FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: It's about steadfastness, about staying centered and keeping your eye on the goal, but at the same time, very much being in love and allowing the ecstasy of love take over. You see, he is very aware of the fact that as human beings we are limited. We have our limits. We just are not able to do everything that we desire to do.

Our rationality is there, is very helpful. It does its job in questioning things and showing the way, but that has its limits too. What opens the way beyond that is love. What enables us to feel the pain and still go forth in the face of all of that is experiencing that love. And if you look at our lives, people who produce great works of art, who are creative, who do something that goes beyond their day-to-day activities, have that kind of steadfastness, that kind of devotion that lets them go through.

What I see in that poem is that I promise to have that. But that comes from you. It's your magnificence, your love that gives me that energy, that power to stay. And I promise to hold on to it.

KRISTA TIPPETT: And you is the beloved, is God, is Allah.

FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: Yes, and that's where the ambiguity comes in, of course, because you should be able to relate to it as a human being in love with another human being. That would be your entry into the poem.

KRISTA TIPPETT: It's also probably important to note that Rumi had a great turning point with a friendship with Shams, a Sufi master. I think it is actually helpful that the love relationship out of which Rumi drew so many of his analogies was not a romantic love relationship. And what you're saying to me is that love is the core, but to think about the many forms that love takes in our lives.

There's also the passionate love that we have for our children.

FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: Yes, and so they are a blessing and they all have their own place. And in the end, we don't replace them with the divine. It's like warming up in a way. It's like getting ready for a major exercise or physical activity. You warm up gradually. You get yourself to a state where you can do it, test your abilities, see your problems and issues, ask your questions, quarrel with yourself, and get ready for it. And I think all these forms of the experience of attachment with other human beings are various ways of experiencing that.


KRISTA TIPPETT: Rumi scholar Fatemeh Keshavarz. This is Speaking of Faith. After a short break, how Rumi might speak to the spirit of Islam, past and present. In many ways, our radio program is just the beginning. Our website,, reveals the world of Rumi from many directions.

You can see a video performance of our guest, Fatemeh Keshavarz, and the Lian Ensemble with Rumi's poetry set to the ney, santur, and other classic Persian instruments or download my entire unedited conversation with Fatemeh Keshavarz through our website, our podcast, and our weekly email newsletter. All this and more at I'm Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.


SPEAKER 1: Speaking of Faith is supported by Faith and Values Media and its Faith Streams Network, offering Youth Roots, an online community for congregational youth leaders and their group members to hold meetings, post forums, blogs and more. Interactive and online at

Join the conversation about the Ecstatic Faith of Rumi and other Speaking of Faith programs. Purchase discussion guides, program CDs, and other tools for your small group, book club or classroom at

KRISTA TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio's conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I'm Krista Tippett. Today, the Ecstatic Faith of Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet and mystic.


In recent years, English translations of Rumi's poetry by the American poet Coleman Barks have sold more than half a million copies in the US. UNESCO has declared 2007 International Rumi Year to honor the 800th anniversary of his birth. Rumi has been the subject of creative work by contemporary artists from composer Philip Glass to pop icon Madonna. But such popular renditions of Rumi often give little hint of his Islamic identity.

He was the son of a Muslim teacher born in the center of Persian Islamic civilization. He spent time as the head of a madrassa, religious schools, which were also designed as centers of great learning in the sciences and philosophy. Rumi's themes of separation and longing come straight from the heart of Islamic theology. There is no idea of original sin, but rather of a human tendency to forget and thus become separated from Allah or God.

Islam imagines faith as zikr or remembrance of a knowledge that is embedded in human beings. My guest, Fatemeh Keshavarz, finds resonance in Rumi for the deepest challenges before the world and Islam today. I'd like to talk about Rumi's Islamic grounding and identity. That gets lost in absolutely 21st century translations. Coleman Barks translations are the ones that many people have read that became popularized.

And I was reading his introduction to "The Essential Rumi." He suggested that with a mystical writer like this, he suggested that placing this person in historical and cultural context is simply not a central task. And he wrote, "My more grandiose project is to free his text into its essence."

FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: Yes, I think one thing that Coleman Barks has done, he has written Rumi's ideas in the American poetic idiom. He's made it accessible to the broad readership, and that should definitely be valued. And I don't hear me saying anything else on that, but I don't think you can free people from the context in which they live. And I don't think, even if you try to do that, that serves a useful purpose.

I don't see Rumi as detached from the Islamic context at all. In fact, I see his work as utterly and completely immersed in the Islamic tradition. I tell you, it would be hard to read a single ghazal, not even the Masnavi, which is expressly a work with theological and mystical intentions. But even ghazal, it would be hard to read ghazal and not find quite a few allusions to Quranic verses, to sayings of the prophet, to practices in the Muslim world.

So I don't think we need to separate him from his Islamic context. The first I visualize this myself is that he goes through the religion, he lives it, absorbs it, and uses it in his way. So in the process, he subverts a lot of things. He changes a lot of things, reinterprets a lot of things, but he does not step outside of it. He lives in it. Let me give you an example.

In his discourses, I try not to use the word sermons because sermon brings such a specific connotation that's probably not there. But the discourses are when Rumi is sitting in a local mosque, in a local gathering, talking to people, it's very interactive, it's very informal. And he kind of steps down the pulpit in a way and reaches out to the people. And it's very poetic, even though it's in prose. And he didn't write it down. His students and people around him took it down.

And one of these occasions, he quotes a Quranic verse that, if I might quote, the Arabic is in [SPEAKING ARABIC] We, this is the royal we, God, we sent down the zikr and we will be its protector. Now, the word zikr in Arabic means remembrance. And traditionally, the commentators have defined the word zikr as the Quran itself, and they have good reason to do so because elsewhere in the Quran, the Quran refers to itself as zikr and remembrance, in part, because humanity is described as forgetful.

So the Quran is a way of remembering. Now, he says, the commentators have said that this verse refers to the Quran itself, that God says, we have given you the Quran and we are, that I am the protector of it. And he said, [SPEAKING PERSIAN] That's fine. [SPEAKING PERSIAN] But there is this interpretation too that God says, [SPEAKING PERSIAN] we have put in a desire and a quest, and I, God, am the protector of that desire. Well, that's a very different interpretation.

First of all, it opens it immediately to all humanity.

KRISTA TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. I think that there is something in Rumi's writing which is so large, so generous.


KRISTA TIPPETT: I don't like the word universal because I think in some ways it waters things down.

FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: I agree with you. Generous is a very good-- yes, yes, yeah.

KRISTA TIPPETT: But it's easy to read this. And also, I think people from many different religious traditions can read this poetry or his discourses or people who are not people of faith can read it and feel themselves addressed and feel their spiritual lives addressed.

FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: And I think sometimes people feel that if they take away or overlook the Islamic flavor of it, maybe that makes him more accessible, more theirs. I think generosity and openness is a very good way of putting it. If you're not rooted in the specific and in the small, in the local, you can never see the broader vision. You have to love a tradition and to be completely immersed in it before you can subvert it and transcend it.

KRISTA TIPPETT: Before you can subvert it from the inside.

FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: Exactly. And you have to love it for you to think that, I want to open it up, I want to make it better and then go forward with it. And you can't break laws in an acceptable way, unless you know them really well and practice them with tradition. That's the only time. And that's what I think he does. He's so well-rooted in the Islamic tradition, so completely aware of the nuances that he says, hey, guys, we can open it up here, look at this, this is what you always thought, but now look one step beyond. And he can do that precisely because he's rooted in the tradition.

KRISTA TIPPETT: And I think it's true also that around the same time that Rumi was entering popular imaginations by way of poetry, there were images of Islam suddenly in the news in this post 9/11 world, which were so, so very different from that.


KRISTA TIPPETT: And you've written that Rumi is a true child of an adventurous and cosmopolitan Islam. And those are not two words that you would associate with headline Islam that we've had these past years.

FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: I'm actually really glad you bring this up because I think one thing that's desperately needed at this point to show the adventurousness, the surprise, the play, the aspects of his work that now are not normally associated with that part of the world. You kind of think that it's all religion and it's religion followed in a fairly institutionalized and stylized and planned form. Not at all.

He is playing with it all the time. So I think another contribution it could do for us right now exactly in this post 9/11 environment is to bring out that side of the Muslim culture, that contribution to the world.


KRISTA TIPPETT: Rumi scholar Fatemeh Keshavarz. I'm Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, the Ecstatic Faith of Rumi. Ironically, just as Rumi has been rediscovered in the US and Western Europe, the Sufi brotherhood formed by his followers has been banned in periods of recent history in Turkey, where Rumi did most of his writing and where he's buried.

The whirling of the whirling dervishes, which Rumi first innovated as a form of dancing meditation, has been reduced, some say, to mere entertainment. I asked Fatemeh Keshavarz about Rumi's legacy in Iran, where she grew up, the center of the Persian world of literature and culture to which Rumi also belonged. Is Rumi still as much alive in Iran now as when you were growing up? How does that look?

FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: Well, I tell you, I can't keep up with the books that are published in Iran about him.


FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: Yes, absolutely. There's this debate, whether he was a Persian or a Turk or an Afghan, which is completely really irrelevant again. But for Iranians, he's just such a household name. You will have in your house, you will have the Quran, you will have the volume of the poetry of Hafez, another great figure from the little bit later period, and the Masnavi of Rumi.

And then depending, of course, like any other culture, you have people who are more immersed in his work and more familiar. They know him at different levels, obviously. But yeah, I wouldn't say that the interest in him has changed or lessened at all.

KRISTA TIPPETT: I hear in my conversations that Islam in Iran, there's great intellectual discourse and study. And that's just not a story that we hear. So I'm just curious, this subversive, playful, cosmopolitan quality of-- are those also part of the discourse in Iran?

FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: Absolutely. I send out a listserv to my friends called Windows on Iran precisely for that. Just once a week, I send out information about Iran that they don't get to see in the media. Like in the month of June, for example, there's a book fair in Iran. You know how many people visited this past book fair in June, in one week? 2 million people visited the book fair.

I send this out and then I get these messages, wow, this is happening in Iran. Or I send pictures. I just realized afterward that our visual vocabulary has been affected. If we think of Iran, we only have certain visions of unfortunate moments in recent history that get repeated. And our language, Rumi is so aware of that. Language can take over our lives and make us not see things.

He actually has a fabulous verse, he says, [SPEAKING PERSIAN] Speak a new language so that the world would be a new world. This is the most sophisticated, philosophical approach to language. Now we talk of language as being constitutive of experience, but that's exactly what he said, get yourself a new language and then you will be able to see a new world. And that's definitely what we need to do in relation to that part of the world and certainly with Iran to see the dynamism.

And a tremendous amount is going on that we don't get to hear about.



FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: To speak the same language is to share the same blood, to be related. To live with strangers is the life of captivity.


FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: Many are Hindus and Turks who share the same language. Many are Turks who may be alien to one another. The language of companionship is a unique one. To reach someone through the heart is other than reaching them through words. Besides words, allusions and arguments, the heart knows 100,000 ways to speak.

KRISTA TIPPETT: I can't help but look at Rumi's life and be struck by how the poles of culture and place in terms of where he moved and where he lived and settled are all such important poles in our world today. There's Afghanistan, there's Turkey, which is somehow becoming symbolic of the struggle to define what is Western and what is not. There's Persia, there's Iran. Do you ever think about that, about Rumi's legacy and where he came from and how that echoes in the world today?

FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: I consider myself tremendously lucky to be able to grow up with that language. But to tell you the truth, I think that all parts of the world have their own Rumi's.


FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: I believe that we just need only to explore those traditions and look for them. So in a sense, I think he is just one other giant, one other figure who is very important right now. I agree with you. It's very important to read him, to look at the vision that he has for humanity because it's so healing. It's so needed to correct some of our shortsightedness and some of the problems we have with not being able to see the larger picture.

So in that sense, I agree with you, but I don't know if I want to think of that part of the world as having any kind of monopoly on this. I think if anything, his vision is that all humanity is pregnant with God. We all, in various parts of the worlds and traditions, we have people like him. We just have to find them.


KRISTA TIPPETT: You ask a question in something you've written, how was one to nurture this God buried like a ruin in the treasure of one's being and let it permeate all of life?


How does your encounter with Rumi, your ongoing encounter with Rumi, how does it help you live with that question and answer that question in your life?

FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: The most important tool he has, which is hope, is what we need to nurture in ourselves. And hope, the energy to move, the energy to go, to never think that this is not worth it or I am done, I'm tired, that's what he's given me. I can read them for hours. I can teach them for hours. I can come back to it and be surprised again. The gift is a kind of whirling that keeps your life to be a constant move on the road.

And then, according to your abilities, what you can see, what you can hear, what you can cherish, you get your own rewards. You put it together. Again, you give birth to your own god. Life kind of comes to life with his words.

KRISTA TIPPETT: With Rumi's words.



FATEMEH KESHAVARZ: And then depending on where I am and who I am at that point and what I'm doing, I get something out of it. It actually has a fascinating verse. He says, [SPEAKING PERSIAN] He says, I am fire, if you have doubts about that, bring your hands forth. That's the dramatic flare I was talking about. Bring your hands, touch me, and I'll tell you what I'm about.


KRISTA TIPPETT: Fatemeh Keshavarz is Professor of Persian and Comparative Literature and Chair of the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages and Literatures at Washington University in St. Louis. She's the author, most recently, of "Jasmine and Stars, Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran." Visit us online at If you've encountered Rumi's writings, tell us how they've spoken to you. What in his spirituality surprises or draws you in?

Look for Share Your Story on our website. While you're there, learn much more about Rumi's world and his writings, watch video of musical performances of Rumi's poetry, and listen to readings from his poetry in Persian and in English. Also, download my entire unedited conversation with Fatemeh Keshavarz. And Speaking of Faith is now available on iTunes U, an enriching resource for teachers and lifelong learners.

This free collection is organized by subject and features additional tools for learning. Let us know if you use Speaking of Faith in your courses. Your input will help shape our offering. Look for the iTunes U link at


Special thanks this week to Houman Pourmehdi, Soleyman Vaseghi, the Lian Ensemble, Omid Safi, and Stanford University's Continuing Studies Department. The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley with producers Colleen Scheck, Shiraz Janjua, and Rob McGinley Myers with assistance from Anna Marsh. Our online editor is Trent Gillis. Our consulting editor is Bill Buzenberg. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith. And I'm Krista Tippett.


SPEAKER 1: This program is made possible, in part, by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of the NEH. Speaking of Faith is supported by Faith and Values Media and its Faith Streams Network, offering Web Medley, a suite of tools for congregational use for web design and publishing, RSS, podcasts and streaming video and audio, available nationwide,

And by the US Department of Health and Human Services, pandemic flu is a real threat, but there are steps you can take to prepare. More information at Additional support is provided by the Ford Foundation, a resource for innovative people and institutions worldwide, on the web at The Luce Foundation's Henry R. Luce initiative on religion and international affairs and the George Family Foundation, funding innovative ideas in integrative medicine, education and spirituality in everyday life.

KRISTA TIPPETT: Next week in preparation for Christmas, the wisdom of tenderness, a conversation with Jean Vanier, the founder of L'Arche. Please join us for the next Speaking of Faith.

SPEAKER 2: American Public Media.


Materials created/edited/published by Archive team as an assigned project during remote work period and in office during fiscal 2021-2022 period.

This Story Appears in the Following Collections

Views and opinions expressed in the content do not represent the opinions of APMG. APMG is not responsible for objectionable content and language represented on the site. Please use the "Contact Us" button if you'd like to report a piece of content. Thank you.

Transcriptions provided are machine generated, and while APMG makes the best effort for accuracy, mistakes will happen. Please excuse these errors and use the "Contact Us" button if you'd like to report an error. Thank you.

< path d="M23.5-64c0 0.1 0 0.1 0 0.2 -0.1 0.1-0.1 0.1-0.2 0.1 -0.1 0.1-0.1 0.3-0.1 0.4 -0.2 0.1 0 0.2 0 0.3 0 0 0 0.1 0 0.2 0 0.1 0 0.3 0.1 0.4 0.1 0.2 0.3 0.4 0.4 0.5 0.2 0.1 0.4 0.6 0.6 0.6 0.2 0 0.4-0.1 0.5-0.1 0.2 0 0.4 0 0.6-0.1 0.2-0.1 0.1-0.3 0.3-0.5 0.1-0.1 0.3 0 0.4-0.1 0.2-0.1 0.3-0.3 0.4-0.5 0-0.1 0-0.1 0-0.2 0-0.1 0.1-0.2 0.1-0.3 0-0.1-0.1-0.1-0.1-0.2 0-0.1 0-0.2 0-0.3 0-0.2 0-0.4-0.1-0.5 -0.4-0.7-1.2-0.9-2-0.8 -0.2 0-0.3 0.1-0.4 0.2 -0.2 0.1-0.1 0.2-0.3 0.2 -0.1 0-0.2 0.1-0.2 0.2C23.5-64 23.5-64.1 23.5-64 23.5-64 23.5-64 23.5-64"/>