Iranian scholar Abdolkarim Soroush presented the first part of a series of lectures on Iranian poet and Sufi mystic Rumi on Monday. The event kicked off a week of talks from Soroush on the subject, the remainder of which will be conducted in Persian.
Speaking to an audience that filled the aisles and overflowed into the hallway, Director of Iranian Studies Abbas Milani introduced Soroush as “one of the most influential thinkers in Iran.”
“The program he taught on television soon became one of the most popular programs on television those days, and his ability to conjure thousands of lines of verse became very popular very quickly,” Milani said of Soroush. “Like everything that became popular very quickly, the plug was pulled very quickly because the regime didn’t want him to become as popular as he was.”
Soroush began the night by recounting Rumi’s life. The poet, born in 1207, composed thousands of lines of verse.
Between the ages of 55 and 68, he produced 25,000 lines that became the Masthavi or “Spiritual Couplets,” which many today use as an introduction to the Sufi faith.
“Every evening, Rumi would sit and some of his students, who were laymen, surrounded him, and he produced verses to them and they took it down,” he said.
Soroush also noted that Rumi’s story and work transcend political boundaries. Although he is commonly considered an Iranian poet, Rumi never lived in Iran, and instead traveled throughout present-day Afghanistan and Turkey.
“It is not appropriate to insist on the point that he was an Iranian; he was a meta-historical, meta-geographical figure,” Soroush said. “All of his teachings tell us that the main land is elsewhere, where our souls have come from.”
In recent years, Rumi has enjoyed worldwide popularity; many of his works have been translated into different languages and studied in many different cultures.
“Nevertheless, you have to be careful — first and foremost he belongs to Iranian culture, and then he belongs to the world culture,” Soroush said.
Soroush then sparked some controversy among the audience when he explained the poets and prophets.
“In the Quran, there are verses that say poets cannot become prophets and that prophets are no good as poets,” he said. “You have to have direct access to reality as a prophet, and if you have imagination, the revelation would be contaminated as a result. For a prophet, being a poet is tantamount to denigration.”
Nonetheless, Soroush considers Rumi a prophet and a poet of love because of the transcendence of his message.
“He deserves that title, the prophet of love,” Soroush said. “A prophet is someone who has received insight, someone whose message has become transcendental or becomes eternal.”
That the poet’s writings have been referred to by some as the Persian Quran is testament to that title, he said. While the Quran teaches a message of fear and awe, Rumi’s writings describe a relationship with God that’s similar to one of a lover and his beloved. This message is part of what makes Rumi’s writings appealing and relevant today, according to the scholar.
“Every generation makes his own selection [of Rumi’s writing] to meet their needs, in order to put it in its proper place in this day and age,” Soroush said.
While Soroush’s lecture focused on the philosophical nature and modern relevance of Rumi’s writing, the room was charged with the political tension of Iran, as Milani’s remarks remained on the audience’s mind.
Milani recounted the time he and Soroush met with several Iranian scholars at Stanford ten years ago.
“Many of those people in that first gathering are now in prison,” he said. “This talk is held in their memory and in hope of their freedom.”
The series is sponsored by the Program in Iranian Studies, the Daryabari Endowment in Persian letters, the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies, the Persian Students Association, the Stanford Speakers Bureau and the Graduate Student Council.