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Centuries Later, Rumi's Words Continue to Inspire

One of the most popular poets among Western readers today is actually a long dead poet of the East. Rumi, the 13th century poet of the Persian empire, still inspires with his works evoking ecstasy and the divine.

Rumi came from the tradition of mystical Islam. One of its better known features is the whirling dervishes whose swirling dance is aimed at creating a sense of transcendence.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a noted scholar of Islam whose latest book is called The Garden of Truth, says there is one thing that those who read or listen to Rumi in translation miss.

"In Persian, the sounds are intertwined in such a way that there is a total effect upon the soul, even if one does not understand every single word, and somehow one flows along with the music, as well as penetrating into the meaning that the poetry is supposed to convey," Nasr tells Renee Montagne.

"Sufism created a whole set of sacred arts of remarkable significance in the field of music, in the field of dance, in the field of calligraphy, which became means whereby people attracted to these forms of beauty could in the long run become attracted to the beauty of God."

Sufi poetry has an appeal that crosses class, Nasr says.

"Sufi poetry was both for the highest educated people and the popular people," he says. "It unified all of them together. Someone like myself, who has studied for many years, as well as my driver, who would take me different places in Tehran — we could both recite Rumi. We could both, in fact, discuss Rumi. His poetry had the power of universality. All sacred art is like that."

In honor of Rumi's birthday 800 years ago this Sunday, poet Robert Bly reads his translation of a Rumi poem.

Night and Sleep

At the time of night prayer as the sun slides down, the route the senses walk on closes, and the route to the invisible opens.

The angel of sleep then gathers and drives along the spirits, just as the mountain keeper gathers his sheep on the slope.

And what amazing sights he offers to the descending sheep. Cities with sparkling streets, hyacinth gardens, emerald pastures.

The spirit sees astounding beings, turtles turned to men, men turned to angels, when sleep erases the banal.

I think one could say the spirit goes back to its old home; it no longer remembers where it lives, it loses its fatigue.

It carries around in life so many griefs and loads and trembles under their weight. But in sleep they are all gone. All is well.

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