Encountering Rumi: Poems for Peace Education





By Chintan Girish Modi

I am of the opinion that Sufi poetry can offer a lot to teachers engaged in the work of peace education. This mystical tradition draws from the wisdom of the Qur’an, the holiest book in Islam, and the lives of saints and dervishes involved in contemplation and service. It is an under-explored resource that can restore the place of the heart in education, and inspire teachers as well as students to shift their attention from mastery of concepts to a rigorous engagement with self.

Sufi Comics: Rumi is a two-book set compiled by Mohammed Ali Vakil, Mohammed Arif Vakil and Tanzilur Rahman, with translations by Andrew Harvey. It contains poems and stories that can be traced back to Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, a 13th century poet, jurist and theologian, who grew up in Balkh (located in present-day Afghanistan) and later migrated to Konya (located in present-day Turkey). The storyboarding and art by Rahil Mohsin as well as the calligraphy by Muqtar Ahmed might make you feel like you are looking at exquisite Persian carpets and Mughal miniature paintings.

Encountering Rumi through these books is a special experience because it kindles a deeper appreciation of his cultural context. We meet not only his family but also Shams Tabrizi, the man who “put an end to Rumi’s bookish knowledge, enabling him to look beyond.” This background helps us understand that his utterances came from a profound inner churning, which was not all ecstasy and no pain. He had to confront separation, loss and suffering, which are inescapable aspects of human experience. His struggles and his hard-won victory can be glimpsed in these extracts from the books.

Your lower self is like that dragon, a savage tyrant.
Never believe it’s dead; it’s only frozen.
Always keep your dragon in the snow of self-discipline.
Never carry it into the heat of Baghdad sun.
Let that dragon of yours stay always dormant.
If it’s freed, it’ll devour you in one gulp.

These lines draw our attention to the violence we are capable of. If we do not keep our tendency to harm others in check, it will overwhelm us and disrupt the peace in our lives. We might like to believe that we are rational, conscientious, law-abiding citizens but, if we are not vigilant, we might give in to the provocations of divisive forces that enlist the support of people like you and me to orchestrate riots, destroy property, and kill people. If this beast inside us is not contained, it can consume us and make us commit crimes against humanity.

Stop acting so small.
You are the universe
in ecstatic motion.

We are more likely to cause destruction when we operate from a narrow sense of self, which thinks of others as enemies. When we feel disconnected from the rest of the universe, we seek refuge in identities that are impenetrable, unwelcoming of others, and inhospitable to friendship. We think that it is impossible to live in harmony with those who are different from us. We are scared of them, and want to eliminate any threat by making sure that they are swept off the face of this earth. Instead of remembering that we are fellow inhabitants of this beautiful universe, and opening our heart to them, we pin our hopes on revenge and retribution. We equate justice with reciprocal damage. We feed the cycle of violence.

Yesterday I was clever,
and I wanted to change the world.
Today I am wise,
and I want to change myself.

The violence in our world can be reduced through dialogue and compromise. We cannot achieve much if we demand that others pay attention to our needs while we refuse to even acknowledge theirs. Self-righteousness might feel good but it is a deterrent to peace. Individuals and communities can come up with creative solutions if they are willing to budge from their stated positions, and look at how mutually beneficial deals can be worked out. Absolutism is not a virtue if it clouds our judgement, and prevents us from embracing change that is necessary.

This is how Rumi speaks to me right now. I read him in this particular way because of the life experiences, beliefs and perceptions I bring to the words on the page. He might ignite or trigger something else in you. This book-set is a useful starting point for those who want to learn about Sufi poetry. I hope it provides a wealth of insight to everyone who approaches it with the readiness to plunge within. I would recommend it to school librarians, teachers and parents, especially those who recognize that poems mean different things to different people.  

(Chintan Girish Modi is an educator, writer and peacebuilder who works on gender and LGBTQ issues. You can reach him at chintan.prajnya@gmail.com)