On April 27, 2019, Tiffany Trump posted a picture of herself on Instagram captioned with a quote attributed to Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet and mystic. It read: “Raise your words, not voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.” Later that summer, Donald Trump, Tiffany’s father and the president of the United States, tweeted, “Iran cannot have Nuclear Weapons!” 13 months after he pulled the U.S. out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the objective of which was to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
The Rumi quote Tiffany Trump shared was apparently fake and not traceable to Rumi’s writings. Nevertheless, her decision to invoke Rumi on Instagram, on several occasions, is revelatory of Rumi's reception in our present moment. A Muslim who is inextricably linked to the long history of Iranian culture is also one of the most popular and ubiquitously quoted (or misquoted) poets in the United States and the West. Rumi has inspired celebrities like Coldplay’s Chris Martin, Madonna, and Tilda Swinton; Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s youngest daughter is named Rumi Carter. More than 1.7 million Instagram posts are tagged #Rumi. But many of the English translations that have contributed to Rumi’s rise in the West also tend to downplay his Islamic roots.
“Rumi has almost become this blank tablet that people can toss anything on,” Omid Safi told me in a conversation last year. Safi, a professor in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University, was born in the United States to Iranian parents and spent 15 years of his life in Iran.
“It's kind of like if someone is always sharing, sometimes accurate and sometimes dubious, Instagram quotes from Dr. King, and has never met a black person in their life and they're silent about the suffering of black folk around them,” Safi said.
He used another analogy: “You don’t get Mount Everest without the Himalayas. A whole mountain range supports it and props it up to greater heights. I think it's the same way with Rumi, that without the Qur’an and without the Hadith and without Abu Sa’id-e Abi ’l-Khayr and Farid al-Din 'Attar, you don't get a Rumi. I think it's good to see all these sages as coming out of a tradition.”
In Radical Love: Teachings from the Islamic Mystical Tradition, published by Yale University Press in 2018, Safi translates Rumi and places him firmly within a tradition, alongside other Sufi mystics, the Qur’an, and the Hadith — statements and actions associated with the Prophet Muhammad.
Sufism is a mystical tradition within Islam, but not a distinct sect. There have been Sunni Sufis and Shi'a Sufis. Its writers emphasize an intimate relationship with God as Beloved and the unity of God with creation and all creatures, using language that is playful and even erotic. Many poems stretch the boundaries of the human ego, dissolving it. Abu ’l-Hasan Kharaqani (d. 1033), a mystic from a town in present-day Iran, once wrote: “Whoever falls in love / passionately / a radical love / that spills over / finds God.”
Ahmad Ghazali (d. 1126), whose life traversed present-day Iran and Iraq — and younger brother to the more famous thinker, Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali, who influenced Thomas Aquinas — made a radical claim about not bifurcating divine love and human love.
Safi writes about the younger Ghazali, “In our own age of vicious polemics against Islam and defensive apologetics it might seem hard to believe this, but at the zenith of Islamic civilization’s political power it was a fiery passionate mystic whose sensual poetry was preached from the pulpit and university in Baghdad.”
Early Sufi Women, a work translated by Rkia E. Cornell, highlights the participation of women in the Sufi path. Safi’s collection includes sayings of Rabi‘a of Basra, and ‘Aisha (daughter of Abu ‘Uthman) who when asked about the need to show beautiful conduct toward humanity, answered: “Who loves the Artist / Glorifies the art.”
Safi explained to me that the Sufi tradition, over time, was attacked on multiple fronts, starting with the emergence of Wahhabism in what is today Saudi Arabia.
“The Wahhabis are the first group who come up with the notion that Sufis are actually outside the pale of Islam. That was a new notion. Their idea was that the Sufis, and Shi'a, and many other Muslims, are simply not Muslim. That was a new concept that we didn’t have before,” he told me.
Another critique of Sufism came from anti-colonialists and Muslim modernists who feared it rendered the Muslim-majority world too inward-looking.
Yet, Safi emphasized that he wants to avoid the “good Muslim/bad Muslim game.” Some Westerners are invested in elevating Sufism as something separate from Islam, apolitical, easily coopted by imperial interests. In reality, Sufis are very much Muslims and, historically, they have fallen across the political spectrum.
Mawlana Jalal al-Din Balkhi (d. 1273), known as Rumi in the West, was born in 1207 in present-day Afghanistan to Persian-speaking parents. Rumi’s father, himself a preacher and theologian, taught him about Sufism. Rumi also received theological training in Syria and Konya (in present-day Turkey). A fateful encounter with Shams-i-Tabriz, a Persian poet, deeply influenced Rumi’s development. Rozina Ali has written, “Rumi would come to blend the intuitive love for God that he found in Sufism with the legal codes of Sunni Islam and the mystical thought he learned from Shams.” By the time of his death, Rumi had a significant following that included Christians and Jews, in addition to Muslims. His work would have an immense spiritual impact on Persia, South Asia, Central Asia, and Turkey.
While the Instagramable Rumi may be appear only loosely affiliated with Islam, the historical figure is undeniably Muslim. Rumi’s masterpiece, the Mansnavi, came to be called the “Qur’an in Persian.” In one highly quotable poem from Divan-e Shams, the words of Rumi’s beloved —which Safi renders as “I am closer to you than the beating of your heart” — are a direct reference to Qur’an 50:16.
Rumi’s influence goes beyond words. The Mevlevis, or Whirling Dervishes, who trace themselves back to Rumi, are known for a meditative dance involving one foot in motion and one foot remaining stationary, connecting heaven and earth in a trance-like spin. In 2018, I watched France-based Iranian choreographer and dancer Rana Gorgani perform this Sufi dance, also known as Sama, on Long Island. Before her dance started, Gorgani told the crowd: “Dance is the heartbeat of the divine.”
A year later, when I spotted Sarah Hakani’s art piece, computer face / pure being, which was inspired by Sama, on social media, it captured the affinity that I sensed between Sufi dance and verse but struggled to articulate. In Hakani’s image, two dancing figures spill beyond the frame, mirroring the “spilling over” and boundlessness embodied in Sufi poetry, in its words, form, and teaching.
Sarah Hakani is an Indian, Muslim artist from Atlanta, Ga., currently based in Brooklyn. In 2018, she co-founded the Muslim publication Reconstructed with the help of Harvard’s Religious Literacy Project.
The image of the two dancers is part of a larger series by Hakani titled Radical Mysticism. A description for the project states: “who is God without a creation that can refer to Her as God? delving into Sufism allowed for a reconciliation of interpersonal splits and the colonial and imperial roots of what it means for me to be Muslim.”
“This series was an attempt to salvage my understanding of myself, my divine, my creator, to maintain my faith,” Hakani told me in 2019.
Hakani was raised in a Shi'a family. She encountered Omid Safi’s work when she was an undergraduate at Duke, but said she had been exposed to some aspects of Sufism before college. A trip to Morocco made her confront questions about faith, colonialism, and identity.
Multiple images in the Radical Mysticism series contain fragmented shapes that come together to create circular shapes. Hakani told me this was intentional. There’s a circular nature to the divine that has no start and no end. The circles also suggest the transformation of human figures.
“I’m in conversation with this idea of our efforts to become godly, holding up a mirror to our divinity like a lot of Sufis historically called for,” she said.
Hakani told me that mystical traditions will continue to inform her future work.
“I’m unpacking what colonialism has done to my Islam and my Sufism, like this idea of Orientalists being the ones to talk about Sufis and mystics versus mystics telling their own narratives,” she said. “I have to excavate and uncover what's really there when it's looked at through all of these lenses.”
Rumi remains a popular figure in Iran. His verses are quoted and parsed by high-ranking figures such as Maryam Imanieh, and her husband Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister. Ayatollah Khamenei is known to compose amateur verse and speak before gatherings of Persian poets. Iranian politics are articulated through Persian poetry — even if religious hardliners sometimes apply censorship. Poets like Nima Yushij capture the ways in which modern Iranians have debated secularism, Marxism, tradition, and Western influence through verse.
For Americans who have been subjected to Trump’s manner of speech on a regular basis for nearly three years, it may be hard to wrap our heads around such a different context. Mario Cuomo once famously said, “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.” In Trump’s reign, it appears we get neither.
On Jan. 4, Trump tweeted in a thread: “Iran has been nothing but problems for many years. Let this serve as a WARNING that if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have.........targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!”
Trump issued this threat one day after ordering the assassination of Iran’s Gen. Qasem Soleimani. Thus far, Trump’s administration has provided vague reasoning for this drastic act.
After contradicting the Pentagon multiple times, Trump walked back his threat against Iranian cultural sites on Jan. 7, essentially conceding that this would constitute a war crime. According to New York Times reporting, one anonymous administration official claimed that none of Trump’s Iranian targets qualified as cultural sites.
On Jan. 7, I spoke to Kishwar Rizvi, professor of Islamic Art and Architecture at Yale University. She pointed out that Iran is home to some of the oldest civilizations. Historical sites such as Persepolis, formerly the capital of the Achaemenid Empire, are considered World Heritage.
“Iran is not some isolated place out there in the Middle East. It's a culture and civilization that is intertwined with Europe, America, and world history,” she told me.
Christians in the United States can’t avoid the fact that Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid Empire, appears in the Bible. Ironically, many evangelicals who support Trump see him as a “King Cyrus” figure.
The average American might know very little about Iran’s longer history. Thanks to Herodotus and movies like 300, what an American does know might be filtered through Western biases shaped by ancient Greek writers who saw Persians as their enemies.
“I think it’s vital to recognize the fact that there was conflict and that those biases are within the context of war,” Rizvi explained. “I think it's also important to realize that there were several moments of trade, commerce, and exchange of ideas. Ancient mathematics, algebra, philosophy, as with Avicenna, come from this area called Iran. So, positive connections have also been forged across time.”
Rizvi is familiar with many of Iran’s significant cultural sites as someone who does fieldwork there. She highlighted the imperial palaces in Tehran and in Isfahan, a city that's been around since the Medieval period and was once the capital of the Safavid Empire.
“We also have extremely important religious sites such as the shrines of Shi'a imams in Iran, such as Imam Reza’s shrine in Mashhad,” Rizvi said. “These are highly revered sites not just for Iranians, but for Shi'a Muslims across the world.”
Such sites in Iraq have been attacked over the years by militants affiliated with the Islamic State group (also referred to as ISIS). Rizvi thinks that attacks like these in Iran would be catastrophic on many levels.
“Another point to be mindful of,” she told me, “is that buildings, archaeological sites, and whole cities are not in isolation. People live there. They work there. They inhabit the sites. Whereas the loss of cultural heritage would be huge, the cost of human life would be even bigger.”
The escalation between the United States and Iran can be described in terms of hours, days, weeks, months, years, and decades. On Wednesday, Trump said he would impose additional economic sanctions on Iran, which had attacked U.S. military bases earlier that day with ballistic missiles. This was in response to Soleimani’s assassination from the previous Friday, which itself came days after pro-Iranian demonstrators swarmed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. These protests came after months of U.S. sanctions on Iran, which were imposed after Trump withdrew from the “Iran Nuclear Deal” in May 2018. In 1988, Iran Air Flight 655 was shot down by the U.S. Navy, killing all 290 people on board. Between 1979-1981, a group of Iranian students kept 52 Americans hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. In 1953, the U.S. and the British orchestrated a coup overthrowing democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, who had nationalized Iranian oil against British interests. Many argue that this coup paved the way for Iran’s religious hardliners to take power in the “Islamic Revolution” of 1979.
Today, the United States and Iran are also two countries on the precipice of war with ruling elites who quote Rumi.
“I don't know any way of keeping these two things separate. If you love these traditions, you have to love the people who have made it real and the people who kept it alive,” Omid Safi told me.
What does it mean to love Rumi’s tradition as an American today? I don’t think this entails overlooking any failings of a Soleimani or of a regime known for cracking down on its own people. But living in a country whose government is filled with its own religious hardliners, a country symbolically represented by the account, @realDonaldTrump, on the global stage, perhaps we’re in a position to appreciate the problems with reducing a people and a region to simple, negative images.
When I finished reading the Muslim mystics in Safi’s collection Radical Love, I was struck by the deep sense of interconnectedness that they evoked in me and the erotically charged language they used to speak of the divine. I also felt a degree of shame. To some extent, I was surprised by what I found. But why? I had to think back to the Christian and American influences that had shaped me. I looked through my bookshelf.
In the 2009 New York Times bestseller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, evangelical pastor Tim Keller writes: “I found no other religious text outside of the Bible that said God created the world out of love and delight.” Keller shares an anecdote about speaking with a group of Muslims that apparently confirms his point. I underlined this point in my copy of the book when I was 18.
Edward Said, in the classic text titled Orientalism wrote: “From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the Orient could not do was to represent itself.” When it comes to seeing Rumi and his tradition, when it comes to seeing Iran, it’s hard to see what’s really there if we only see our projected prejudices.
Said warned about newsreels and images depicting Arabs in large numbers, with no individuality, personal characteristics, or experiences. Images representing mass rage, misery, irrational gestures. Said’s warning is just as applicable to images of Persians or Iranians. Over the last week, Americans were flooded with images of mourning from Tehran. What did you see? I’ll tell you what I heard: a nationally reputable podcast featured loud voices and crowds from the streets of Tehran, without any interviews, without any translation, all the while including measured statements from the Trump administration.
On Jan. 7, Omid Safi wrote a public Facebook post: “You want to know what it feels like to be an #Iranian & #Muslim in Donald J. Trump's America? It is to have a conversation with your beautiful little girl about all the war talk against #Iran that is coming from the President of these United States of America and to have her grow very quiet and ask you: ‘Baba, are we safe? Is our family safe? We are Iranian.’”
I reached out to Safi this week and, in spite of everything happening, he got back to me. Safi told me that the escalating tensions between the two nations hurt his heart. He sees war as a betrayal of America’s loftiest ideals and knows that it would bring devastation to a proud and vulnerable population in Iran.
When I emailed him asking, “How can faith provide hope in this moment?” Safi replied: “We have to link arms, straighten up our back, stand up, and say with all of our soul, all of our might, all of our strength, that what we do to the most vulnerable among us we do unto God. To practice radical love is to project love into all the public sites. That is a faith that pours through the Jesus of Nazareth and the Muhammad of Arabia.”
Got something to say about what you're reading? We value your feedback!