It may be a surprise that Jalal ad-Din Rumi—the thirteenth century mystic known as Mevlana in Turkey, the Middle East, and Central Asia—is the best-selling poet in the United States.Quotes from Rumi’s Mesnevi and Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi (Works of Shams of Tabriz) masterpieces circulate on social media, pocket-sized books of Rumi’s poetry and couplets are displayed by checkout counters at bookstores, and celebrities from Chris Martin to Madonna have said they have taken inspiration from his poetry.
This popularity is largely due to the books of Coleman Barks, an American poet who reinterprets English translations of Rumi’s work into free verse. However, critics argue that Barks has removed the many Islamic references and double meanings that Rumi made in the original. Others say that replacing these Islamic terms with less religious language and brushing aside double entendres has made Rumi’s thought more accessible.
The debate partly concerns faithfulness in translation, but it also touches a nerve about the representation of Sufism and Islam in the West. Since Idries Shah’s classic The Sufis appeared in 1964, the Western world has tended to see Sufism as a sect or philosophy separate from Islam. The majority of Sufi scholars and writers disagree with this view, arguing that Sufism is a mystical expression of Islam that does not exist independently of the religion.
Although the Republic of Turkey closed Sufi lodges by law in 1925, Sufism is still an intellectual, spiritual, and cultural force in Turkey. So what do Turkish thinkers have to say about Sufism in the modern world?
Empires of mysticism
Sufi scholarship continues in Turkey as part of higher education and is included in the theological departments of Üsküdar University and Marmara University, for example. Professor of Sufism Mahmud Erol Kılıç told The Guide Istanbul: “I am a professor of Sufism, this is the modern fashion, but in a traditional way, I could say I am a mürşit, a Sufi master. If I were not a university professor, if I were a taxi driver, I would still choose Sufism as a way of life.”
Kılıç is quite emphatic about the place of Sufism in Islam. “Sufism is the spiritual archaeology of Islam, the esoteric message of Muhammad,” he said. “Similarities can be found in Christianity and Judaism, but there are lots of differences as well. In the mentality and civilization of the Safavid Empire, Islamic Andalucía, the New Delhi Muslim [Mughal] Empire, and Ottoman Empire; behind their literature, music, and science, was the Sufi approach to religion—more tolerant and more aesthetic.”
One possible reason for removing the Islamic references in Rumi’s work could be that many Westerners might have difficulty imagining a tolerant, sensitive, and aesthetic side of Islam. But great art challenges our preconceptions, opens new windows into the minds of others, and creates a space for debate based on empathic knowledge.
Words of unity
It is also important to remember that Rumi’s poetry is not a manual or textbook for Sufism. Sufis chose to write poetry because—through metaphor, image, rhythm, and sound—they could hint at higher states of consciousness that cannot be described in ordinary prose. In the words of a Sufi saying, trying to explain Sufism is like “sending a kiss by messenger”—the message can never come close to the original experience.
Bestselling Turkish author Elif Şafak has drawn on Sufi themes in her novels and sees parallels between the Sufi path and the work of a writer. “I think writing is a very irrational process that requires the ego to wither away, at least during the process of creativity. One needs to connect with the universe and learn empathy. Both storytelling and mysticism are transcendental in the sense that they take us beyond our given identity, beyond our dogmas and ghettos,” she told The Guide Istanbul.
As Şafak suggests, one of the main principles of Sufism is training the ego, known as nefs in Turkish Sufi traditions. Muslims believe that before birth all human souls are gathered in one place, the Bezm-i Elest, where they are close to God. The descent from this place to a body in the material world is called nüzul (disembarkment), and the ascent to God through spirituality is called huruç (outflow), with a circular movement away from and back to the divine.
The essence of Islamic belief is God’s vahdet (oneness), but humans on the physical plane see God through the reflections of kesret (plurality); all the objects, creatures, and conditions we encounter in the world. Sufis emphasize that even someone who falls far from the path of Islam can still see the reflections of the all-powerful God. However, the aim of Sufis is to cleanse themselves of nefs (the ego-self) through discipline and ritual.
When the nefs is weakened, Sufis can experience the enlightenment of fenafillah, described as “death before death” or “extinction of the self in God.” This is an ecstatic entry into the oneness of creation.
Sufism in the city
The nefs has seven primitive faces: pride, greed, envy, lust, backbiting, stinginess, and malice. Part of Sufi training involves extreme asceticism to weaken these negative states of mind. One kind of training is the çilehane—the house of suffering. Sufis would retire to this underground chamber for forty days, eating only lentils and not sleeping at all. To do this, they used a special stick called mütteka on which they could rest their arm or head without falling asleep.
But as Kılıç explains, Sufism is not a permanent rejection of city life or society. “The isolated life of full retreat is a phase at the beginning of training. When first wanting to become a Sufi, the master invites you to live this kind of disciplined life. Then, little by little, you are given more freedom. Some approaches assert they are Sufis in society, not in the mountains or desert, as outside society there are not many tests. In the city, there are many forms of test: money, women, social titles, and possessions. You will have them, but you will not transfer them into your heart,” he said.
Şafak agrees with this conception, adding, “Rabia, Rumi, Ibn Arabi, Attar: these were people who were part of a society. The Sufi is a child of the time. Every era will create its own mystics because there is magic and spirituality in life. As for the difficulties of being a mystic today, I agree it is extremely difficult to be a real Sufi. But let us not forget that neither Rumi nor Shams of Tabriz lived in easy times, and yet they kept defending what they regarded as the religion of love.”