12/22/2011 12:34 pm ET Updated Feb 21, 2012

Pilgrimage to Rumi: May It Be Love

A few days ago I stood with a few thousand people, huddled inside Rumi's shrine, celebrating the 738th anniversary of his passing on to the Beyond. Millions of people around the world have been touched and transformed by his teachings and sublime poetry, whether in the original Persian, Turkish translations through the centuries or now in English. Many had asked me to share a few words from the Urs (annual celebration) of Rumi, and I thought to write down a few cherished memories about Rumi, known to his followers as Hazrat-e Mawlana ("His Holiness, Our master").

Mawlana Rumi's shrine is not a large place. It consists of three rooms: one is a long corridor that contains the graves of Rumi; his father, Baha Valad; his son, Sultan Valad; and many of his family and close companions. The second room is a large rectangular one where the Whirling Ceremony (Sama') was held, and the third is a mosque for the performance of the Muslim prayers. Due to the secularization of Turkey under Ataturk, Rumi's shrine was converted to a secular museum in 1926. Yet the standing of the shrine as a museum does not prevent more than a million pilgrims every year to visit this greatest of Muslim poets and mystics. On most times of everyday you find at least 50 people inside, but on this day there were a few thousand people packed inside. We got there a few hours before the ceremony that started after the late afternoon (asr) prayers to find a place to stand. Our Sufi teacher, Cemalnur (the leading female Islamic teacher in Turkey), had wisely reminded us to not drink anything from the morning, because we wouldn't be able to leave to use the facilities. This is one of the many admirable qualities about these teachers: They think of the whole human being -- yes, the heart, the soul and even the bladder!

We kept looking around as more and more waves of loving pilgrims arrived, and each time we thought the shrine was as packed as it could possibly get, more would fit. As a parent, it reminded me of when my children were born. After my first daughter was born, I felt I had discovered a love like I had not ever known before. It was a love pure and holy, which took over my whole heart. When we became pregnant with our next child, I was actually initially concerned about how I would love another child to the same extent. And yet something miraculous happened when my son was born: as soon as I first laid eye on him, I felt inside that my heart was expanding. I now loved each of my children fully, completely and equally. I didn't love my daughter any less because another soul had entered my heart. My heart had become larger, capable of more love. And this is what Rumi's shrine felt like, it had become a representation of the heart. The shrine kept expanding and expanding to take in more and more pilgrims. It was a palpable lesson that we as humans are capable of growth, of becoming much more than we thought, and taking in so many inside of our hearts if we dare to let it expand to encompass the whole humanity.

The crowd huddled inside was an international gathering: there were hundreds of Iranians, who had come on bus and planes, each with a collection of Rumi's poetry, silently and beautifully going to their favorite poems. The Turkish pilgrims were of course there, offering prayers to God in the presence of Mawlana Rumi, and simply giving thanks. They offered thanks for a love that starts from God, flows through humanity, and takes us back to God. And there were Americans there, some who are formally Muslims and some who are drawn to this amazing Muslim saint without having adopted Islam. There were Germans and French and Italians and Senegalese. I wondered for a moment how it was that a poet, a saint, had left such a legacy that people would travel from around the world to be there to celebrate him, to celebrate the impact he had had on their lives. I can not think of a single king or ruler who so would draw people centuries after his death. These saintly souls are the true kings, because they draw with love, not with force.

Above the entrance to Rumi's shrine there is a lovely poem inscribed:

This place is like the Ka'ba for lovers.

All come here broken and incomplete

All leave whole.

As a teacher once told me, the poem is a reminder that all that is required to be on the spiritual path is the desire to be close to God, to have one's heart illuminated. One does not set out on the path because one is already beautiful, but because one wishes to become beautiful. This is true now, and it was true in Rumi's own time. His time was a magnificent time, where urban Muslim culture was refined and elegant, where everyday speech was ornamented with lines of poetry. Rumi's own followers, however, were anything but refined. The town's ruler, Mo'in al-Din Parvaneh, once said: "I love Mawlana Rumi, but his followers have terrible manners." Word of this ultimate insult got back to Rumi and his circle. Mawlana, surrounded by his disciples, marched into the ruler's court, and said: "Did you say of my followers that they have bad manners?" The ruler, embarrassed before the saint, put his head down and confessed that he had indeed called them that. The followers rejoiced, for they expected Rumi to call out the ruler. Instead, Mawlana said: "Everything you say about them is true. They do have terrible manners. I took them on as my disciples on the path to God because they have terrible manners. If they already had beautiful manners, I myself would have become their disciple."

And they come today, the refined and the ill-mannered ones. The overwhelming majority came with the content smile of those who have discovered the greatest secret: Love is divine. Love transforms, it is the real alchemy of turning what is base in our spirit into something golden. Love burns everything inside that is not divine, until there is nothing left to stand in one's path back toward the Divine origin. And yes, there were the ill-mannered few, who would push and shove, but they were few.

What has stayed with me was the silent kindness and generosity of pilgrims, nodding in gentle acknowledgment of others who were drawn by the same force of love. There was an old Turkish woman who for four hours simply offered dried apricots and apples out of a large plastic to the waves of pilgrims as they came in. There were bottles of water that people shared with a smile with those around them. We sat down for four hours, many on their knees, without being able to move an inch. So many people's feet had naturally fallen asleep. When it was time to stand up, people would put a hand under each other's elbows, and gently, tenderly help one another stand up. There were also unexpected encounters: I was sitting for a while next to an Iranian pilgrim from Khorasan (the same region that Rumi was originally from). He turned to one of my Turkish friends there, and offered her a beautiful turquoise stone from his hometown, and offered it with a prayer that the blue color of the stone would bring her the tranquility of the ocean and the serenity of the sky.

There were many different Sufi groups present there: followers of the Mevlevi order, Shadhili order, Chishti order, Qadiri and Rifa'i orders. And many who are not formally affiliated with any order. When the ceremonies started, we began in unison by calling out:

Ya Hazra-e Mawlana

haqq dost

O His Holiness Mawlana,

Friend of God

This is what the saintly ones in the Islamic tradition are called, the friends of God. These are the ones who attain to a station of ease and intimacy with God, when they are finally attuned to the forces of the cosmos instead of struggling against their own true selves and the maker of the stars. And then we moved on together, thousands of us, in recalling the poem attributed to Mawlana Rumi in praise of the Prophet Muhammad:

O Beloved of God

You are the Messenger of the One God

You are Chosen by the Lord of Majesty, Pure, peerless

My Sultan...

You are the sweet darling of the Divine Presence


You are the healer of hearts...

O Friend of God



There is such an intimate relationship between Mawlana Rumi and the foundational sources of Islam. It has often been said that the whole of Rumi's Masnavi, his great masterpiece, is a great commentary on the Quran. Indeed, it has often been described as the "Quran in Persian." And as for the Prophet Muhammad, Rumi himself was called "the offspring of the soul of Muhammad." There is something of the sweetness, of the gentleness, of the love and of the mercy of the Prophet in this offspring.

Politics and tensions were not absent on this day: The Turkish prime minister and opposition parties had also traveled to Konya to give formal speeches. And there was an Ebenezer Scrooge in this gathering as well: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the anti-Rumi of Iranian Islam, who blocked planes chartered by Iranian pilgrims to come to Konya. Nevertheless, this day belonged to the saintly Rumi, and to the thousands of loving worshippers who had come from near and far to share in this message of love and devotion to the highest and loftiest aspiration of Islam.

The evening session culminated in a large whirling ceremony with the dervishes, who slowly, graciously, unfurl their arms and turn again and again, with one hand open toward the heavens and the other hand turned toward the earth creatures. It is a slow, meditative whirling, something more akin to Tai Chi than frantic dancing, with the symbolism of dancing in the rain of Divine mercy. The rain that they "catch" with their right hand flows through them, goes through their hearts, and then gets poured onto creature. This is the station of the real human being, the mature human being, one who becomes as it were an instrument of God's will. One foot (the left one, closer to the heart) stays stationary, and with the right foot they circle the earth. This too is akin to our own state, combining stillness and silence in the presence of God with activity in the world.

And a few days after the ceremony, we are like this too. There is a part of us that remains still, even as all the pilgrims return to their earthly homes. Rumi had once said that the whole of his life could be summed up in these three phrases:

I used to be raw

Then I was cooked

Now, I am on fire.

God-willing, those who were there and those whose hearts were drawn there came away a bit more cooked, a bit sweeter than before.

Ultimately, God is present everywhere, and the friends of God can reach one anywhere, everywhere. Mawlana Rumi himself had said to not look for him under the earth, but rather if we experience any joy in our hearts, he is inside of that. That bit of Mawlana Rumi this pilgrim carries with him back to his family and loved ones here halfway around the world. As many of Turkish pilgrims were leaving Konya, they kept wishing to each other: Ashk Olsun. "May it become love." May this experience become transformed inside your consciousness into something that makes you aware of your true existence, of the pervasive and overwhelming nature of Divine Love. Ashk Olsun.

Omid Safi is a Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina, and the author of 'Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters' (HarperCollins, 2009). He leads a spiritual tour to Turkey every summer, open to people of all backgrounds.