KARACHI: Whirling Ecstasy
By Farida M. Said
KARACHI: The Aga Khan University, in collaboration with the Rumi Foundation, recently hosted Karvaan-e-Rumi, a hugely impressive extravaganza to raise funds for the Aga Khan University Hospital’s Patient Welfare Programme. Conceived and directed by the immensely talented Indian, the Umrao Jan filmmaker Muzaffar Ali, this fascinating Mehfil-e-Sama featured artistes from four countries –Turkey, Iran, India and Pakistan — chanting and dancing to the ecstatic, passionate poetry of Jalaluddin Rumi, a 13th century Islamic mystic.
Karwaan-e-Rumi opened with one of the most elegiac sounds in all world music – the breathy wailing of the ney or Sufis’ reed flute. For Rumi the playing of the ney, the reed flute torn from the reed bed, was the essence of nostalgia, the yearning of the soul to go home. It longs to return to the source, as the lover longs for the beloved. It is the supreme symbol for the sense of loss, for man’s separation from God. As the opening lines of the Masnawi put it “Listen to the song of the ney, how it laments its separation from the reed bed.”
Though Rumi always remained an orthodox and practicing Sunni Muslim, he believed passionately in the use of music, poetry and dancing as a path for reaching God, as a way of, as he put it, “opening the gates of paradise.”
The use of poetry and music in ritual is one of the aspects of Sufi practice that has often attracted the wrath of orthodox Islamists through the centuries. Recently the conservative Jamaat-e-Islami party has banned the public playing of music in the Frontier province but Karachi-ites were undoubtedly enraptured by Muzaffar Ali’s Karwaan-e-Rumi. The Mevlavi Sema, or whirling dance of the dervishes from Turkey, the marvellous singing of a selection of Rumi’s vast outpouring of ecstatic poetry by both a wonderful troupe from Iran and Pakistan’ energetic Abida Parveen, the moving recitation by India’s Nandita Das and Murad Ali interspersed by powerful renderings by renowned Pakistani actor Zia Mohyuddin, all received a rapturous response from the over-flow audience. Even if Rumi’s profoundly mystical Farsi religious verses were incomprehensible to the majority, the audio and visual impact of this memorable AKU evening was truly spectacular.
Rumi’s sobriquet – he is called “Mawlawi” by the Persians, “Mevlana” by the Turks, and “Maulana” in the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent – derives from the Arabic for “our lord”. Born in 1207 in Balkh, Afghanistan, he settled in Iconium, now Konya, Turkey. Because of the Byzantine past of this Anatolian region, it retained the name Rum (“Rome”) amongst the Turks; and it was from this that Jalaluddin Rumi came to be known as ar-Rumi, “the man from Rum.”
Rumi is the epithet which he employed as his takhallus, or pen-name, in his lyrical poems. His literary output is, as the scholar R.A. Nicholson put it in Rumi: Poet and Mystic, “stupendous in magnitude as it is sublime in content”. His Diwan-e-Shams Tabriz comprises about 30,000 verses. His massive Mathnawi has more than 26,000 couplets in six volumes. A dazzled Jami wrote of this monumental work:
Mathnawi–ye Ma’nawi-ye Mawlawi
Hast Quran dar zaban-i-Pahlawi
(The spiritual couplets of the Maulana
Are the Quran in the Persian tongue)
Before he died in 1273, Rumi predicted that his work would cross all boundaries. For seven centuries his mystical poetry has been sung in the Islamic world with the highest reverence, from Tangier to Cairo, Lahore and Sarajevo, into the humblest, most remote villages of Afghanistan, Turkey, Iran and India.
Now Rumi-mania has truly reached epic proportions. Jalaluddin Rumi , born 1207, died 1273, has become the best -selling poet in America with a range of admirers including Madonna, Goldie Hawn, Donna Karan, the composer Philip Glass and the celebrity New Age guru to the stars, Deepak Chopra!
As author William Dalrymple says: “It seems almost unbelievable in the world of 9/11, Bin Laden and the Clash of Civilisations, but the bestselling poet in the United States in the 1990s was not any of the giants of American letters – Frost, Robert Lowell, Wallace Stevens or
Sylvia Plath; nor was Shakespeare or Homer or Dante or any European poet. Remarkably, it was a classically trained Muslim cleric who taught Sharia law in a madrassa in what is now Turkey.”
If anyone asks you
how the perfect satisfaction
of all our sexual wanting
will look, lift your face
When someone mentions the gracefulness
of the nightsky, climb up on the roof
and dance and say,
If anyone wants to know what “spirit” is,
or what “God’s fragrance” means,
lean your head toward him or her.
Keep your face there close.
When someone quotes the old poetic image
about clouds gradually uncovering the moon,
slowly loosen knot by knot the strings
of your robe.
If anyone wonders how Jesus raised the dead,
don’t try to explain the miracle.
Kiss me on the lips.
Like this. Like this.
When someone asks what it means
to “die for love,” point
If someone asks how tall I am, frown
and measure with your fingers the space
between the creases on your forehead.
The soul sometimes leaves the body, the returns.
When someone doesn’t believe that,
walk back into my house.
When lovers moan,
they’re telling our story.
I am a sky where spirits live.
Stare into this deepening blue,
while the breeze says a secret.
When someone asks what there is to do,
light the candle in his hand.
How did Joseph’s scent come to Jacob?
How did Jacob’s sight return?
A little wind cleans the eyes.
When Shams comes back from Tabriz,
he’ll put just his head around the edge
of the door to surprise us
Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi