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It turns out that Jelaluddin Rumi is now the most widely read poet in the United States thanks in large part to the many translations of Rumi’s ecstatic poetry compiled by America’s foremost interpreters and artists, Coleman Barks, Kabir Helminski, Michael Green and other eminent scholars. What they created has become immensely successful at awakening new readers of Rumi’s poetry here in the West to the depth and beauty of his ideas.

In many Central Asian countries such as Turkey, Afghanistan and Iran, Jelaluddin Rumi has been a cultural icon for eight hundred years. His poems have been and are today sung and read by countless numbers of devoted admirers of “Mevlana” (master) as he is also called. The story of Rumi’s life, as it is often recounted, was that he had a fateful meeting with an itinerant wise man, Shams of Tabriz, who became Rumi’s constant companion and greatest teacher. Rumi is said to have been utterly transformed by his friendship with Shams and the once revered scholar who had many dedicated pupils at the university in Konya, Turkey became an “ecstatic” who devoted himself almost exclusively to creating countless “Love Poems to the Divine”.

Rumi’s love poems were not songs of devotion for any person as is sometimes mistakenly thought. Rather his works were all written in praise of, and in longing for his soul’s union with the divine source of all life. Rumi’s words and observations about the nature of the human soul and its longing to reunite, while in this life, with his creator are among the most beautiful and profoundly sacred poems ever penned.

 

 

Although he was a devout Muslim, Rumi became a “Sufi”, or a seeker of the direct experience of Divine union. A Sufi is one who studies the mystical aspects of Islam, which are claimed by the fully awakened masters of the Sufi path to be the common property of all humanity, and ever present in the world through sequential Divine revelations to all peoples. Through his teachings, Rumi eventually founded the Mevlevi Order of Dervishes in what is now called Turkey. The followers of this order practice an extraordinary physical technique of devotion known in the East as “turning” and also called “whirling” here in the West. In this form of worship the Sufi practitioner or “dervish” focuses his concentration on attaining union with the divine by spinning his entire body in one place, at great speeds, often for many hours at a time.

As remarkable as it may seem, today Rumi’s poetry has found a vast audience here in the West. Rumi’s stature as a masterful teacher of the principles of moderate Islam has made him one of the most accessible figures in Islam largely because the themes within his poetry revolve around many of the eternal philosophical issues which mankind has wrestled with, “Why am I here? Who is my creator? What is my relationship to my creator?”

PSALM’s Full Circle Project is an in-depth look at the legacy of Rumi as it has come to be understood by contemporary masters of the Sufi traditions from “the East and “the West”. This trans-cultural exploration began with a live concert entitled, One House, Many Doors, in Philadelphia as a celebration of Rumi’s 800th Birthday during UNESCO’s "International Year of Rumi ". The concert was co-produced with the Turkish Cultural Foundation in coordination with Penn Presents of the University of Pennsylvania, at the Annenberg Center’s Zellerbach Theater on December 14 and 15, 2007. The event was sponsored by the Philadelphia Dialogue Forum, the Middle East Center of Penn, the Turkish American Friendship Society of the US, the Global Dialogue Forum and the Margaret Gest Center for the Trans-Cultural Study of Religion.

The gala performance, witnessed by sell-out audiences on two evenings, wase hosted by noted author of many volumes of the poetry of Rumi and professor-emeritus at the University of Georgia, Coleman Barks, who treated the audience to dramatic readings from his collected works of Rumi to the musical accompaniment of world class musicians David Darling on cello and Glen Velez on world percussion.

The evenings culminated with an extraordinary cultural experience. The Whirling Dervishes of Istanbul conducted the 800th annual Sema in honor of Rumi’s Birthday. This sacred event is traditionally held in Turkey, and we are most fortunate indeed to have hosted this program in Philadelphia, the birthplace of America, and the city of brotherly love. Master musicians together with “Semazen” demonstrated the physical technique of “turning” in a ceremony of ancient ritual that transported the audience through a direct experience of that which is most sacred in the heart of Islam. To honor this unique occurance, the mayor of the City of Philadelphia proclaimed December 17th, "Rumi Day."

Academic symposia, "Rumi in the 21st Century", were offered for free and open to the public at UPENN and Haverford College, featuring well known international authors and scholars of the Rumi tradition, Coleman Barks, Michaela Ozelsel, Jamal Rahman, Sheikh Ahmed Tijani Ben Omar and Ashok Gangadean. The actress Tamir performed her sacred theater piece "The Way of the Heart", stories and poems of Rumi. HuDost presented a mini-set of "country & eastern" music, and Nasrin Marzban read selections of the Mathnawi, Rumi's magnum opus, in Persian.

PSALM’s Full Circle Project however only begins with the presentation of, One House, Many Doors.

The second phase of the project is the creation of, Let Beauty Now Be What We Do a major documentary film that will record the live concert and couple that experience with a series of interviews among those who will travel from around the globe to present their mastery of these traditions at what is sure to be one of the most exciting commemorative events to be held in any country during UNESCO’s,” International Year of Rumi”.

Let Beauty Now Be What We Do will be an enduring touchstone, a film of both high art and factual depth that will serve as a first line educational resource to be made available on DVD, for television broadcast and theatrical release in the United States and worldwide.

As the documentary will point out the origins of Rumi’s tradition pre-dates his founding of the Mevlevi order. Sufism as a cultural phenomenon throughout the world offers a very clear and deep understanding of the heart of Islam. For PSALM the overarching purpose of this multi-year project is to serve as a bridge of bilateral understanding on the short straight path to peace between what has been called "Islam" and "The West". The entire project was created in response to the alarming gulf of fear, hatred and destruction which threatens to grow wider each day. The film will disclose that this gulf is something that is fueled by misinformation and a misunderstanding of the belief systems at the core of fundamental Western values and of moderate Islam.

The film project makes plain the tragic irony that while Islam is now seen by many as the enemy of Western Civilization (and vice-versa), there exists an alternative to be found in Rumi’s peaceful path called "Sufism", within Islam, whose message may prove to be an elegant solution to the a-priori problems of a dangerous and unstable co-existence that people of all nations now face. Succinctly stated Let Beauty Now Be What We Do concludes, that which is sacred is common to all and what lies at the heart of Islam is what lies at the heart of all religions which can also be found within the heart of every human being.

It is the hypothesis of the Full Circle Project that in the long and peaceful tradition of Sufism which the works of Rumi have engendered in the cultures of both the “East” and the “West” there can be found a common point of unity shared among Sufi learning academies or, “tariquats” around the world. That unifying focus is the conscious opening of a single point located within the form of the human body. This point is sometimes called the “inner heart” or “secret garden.” When this point is enlivened, the transformative practices can induce a direct experience of the essential unity of humankind which transcends individual and cultural boundaries, ultimately leading to the enduring condition known as “the fully awakened human being.”

The international journey of cultural exploration that is proposed for, Let Beauty Now Be What We Do will undertake to test whether or not this hypothesis which claims that the practice of theses physical techniques belonging to diverse orders of Sufism induces a direct experience of union with the Divine as Rumi’s poetry suggests is correct.

Through numerous interviews that begin with the artists who contribute to the live concert to be held in Philadelphia next December more interviews will be conducted in Turkey, Iran, and Middle East, and across North America among those who teach and practice these techniques.

Each interview will consist of a set of questions including, what can today’s Sufi masters tell us about their own work on Rumi’s, “path of return”? What do they say about their choice to dedicate their lives to the pursuit of practicing the various sacred techniques of their traditions? What do Rumi’s “children” say about the direct experience they have as they practice attaining this possibility of union with the divine, and what things, based on their direct experience, can they tell us about the knowledge which Shams explained to Rumi that opened the fountain of creativity within him which resonates so powerfully with so many people eight hundred years after their meeting? On the, “Path of Return” it is said that beauty is the original language understood by every human heart. By discussing the ritual practices of their individual academies what things can be learned about the common language of beauty that humanity has somehow lost the use of?

What the Full Circle Project proposes may seem antithetical to some practitioners of these traditions and yet the understanding of that point of unity which Sufi’s are said to attain through their devotional practices is the very essence of their focus. The information which the film hopes to collect has, over the centuries, become a “secret” which can no longer remain hidden at a time when the truth it contains may well prove to be a key to the safe and enduring future of humanity. The “secret” is very simply that we are all born with the wondrous gifts and transcendent grace that flows from the Divine which Rumi spoke so eloquently of eight centuries ago. Shams touched that physical point in Rumi where “that which is sacred” can be found within the human form. If we can gain an understanding of our physical being and then open that point to this reality in our lives we will possess an understanding of all the wisdom we will ever need about  how our lives and our world can be transformed by this common unity.

How does the journey of PSALM’s Full Circle of trans-cultural exploration end?  If Rumi may be said to be, “the rose of Islam” then Shams would be understood as the fragrance of that rose which belongs to and remains alive within all humanity. It is only through direct experience, through the opened heart of another human being that love can be known, that the light of divinity can be seen and the unity of all life can be realized.

The fragrance of the rose has been preserved and is available to us long after the rose has faded and returned to the earth from which it once sprang. What Shams gave to his pupil is ours today as well. All humanity may partake of the ecstatic state which Rumi inhabited. The inspiration which fired Rumi’s imagination and has caught the imagination of countless generations of his followers can be attained today. The light of truth exists beyond all differences the world imposes and beyond the ravages of space and time. This is the point of unity among all lives. This is the source of peace which the world has forgotten. Islam means that deep peace which unites us all in the eternal love of our creator – the awareness of this truth is the fragrance of a true Human Being.

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Piano composition, "First Love" © 2004 and courtesy of Bob Gold Music



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