Dancing ShadowA boy dances and leaps around in the Old City of Yazd, Iran. (photo: Mohamed Somji/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)

Iran’s officially recognized “spiritual leader” today may be Ayatollah Khamenei, but for hundreds of years before the current establishment of mullahs and ayatollahs, Iranians of all creeds have looked to another spiritual leader: Jalal ad-Din Rumi. While this 13th century Persian Sufi poet is known in much of the West as “Rumi,” he is referred to more affectionately in Iran as “Mowlaana,” or the master.

Among Iranians, he is a spiritual guide and guru whose words hold unmatched moral authority. Over 700 years after his death, it is nearly impossible to spend a day walking around any Iranian city, suburb, or village and not hear his echo. His words live on in everyday parlance: No matter one’s station, religion, or occupation, everyone in Iran knows at least a handful of Rumi’s poems by heart. They are taught in classrooms as an essential part of the basic curriculum, but more than that, they are learned in homes, cafes, bazaars, parks, and houses of worship. No place is beyond this poet’s influence.

And there is no better way to understand that influence than through Rumi’s own verse, although it often defies easy translation. Still, English speakers have a wonderful resource in understanding Rumi — and Iran — through the translations of Coleman Barks, including the following:

“Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument. Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”

Understand this poem, and you will understand the soul of Iran — not just the role of religion or dogma, but the spiritual role of faith, love, and beauty.

Iranian regime’s perversion of religion

While Iran is a Muslim-majority country and Shiism is the official state religion, Iran is not defined by Islam. Rather, it is defined by its peoples, who are Muslims, Jews, Baha’is, Christians, agnostics, and atheists. Iran is the birthplace of two of the world’s great religions: Zoroastrianism and Baha’ism. It is home to millions of Muslims, but also to the largest Jewish population in any Muslim majority country. So Iranians know very well that there are at least hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Nevertheless, the Iranian regime maintains an intractable identification with its interpretation of Islam, and as such, it has played a strong role in shaping the Iranian people’s view of both Islam and of religion in general. Because of the regime’s use and perversion of Islam for political purposes, many Iranians have been turned off by religion — especially among the youth who represent the vast majority of the population.

As young Iranians, we have seen the government’s persecution of Baha’is and Jews and its failure to provide equal rights to women, and we realize that this regime has forgotten its roots. It has forgotten the words of the great master, Mowlaana. Instead of taking down a musical instrument to treat the fear, despair, and emptiness that have consumed so many young Iranians (particularly since the 2009 elections), Iran’s leaders have brought out batons, bullets, and teargas. As a result, people have continued to turn away from organized religion, particularly from Islam, because they have seen how the regime is manipulating their faith to oppress the populace and suppress dissent.

Iran’s Underlying Spiritual Unity

Nevertheless, there is a spiritual unity in this growing collective repugnance for religion. It is encouraging us to unite as Iranians of all backgrounds and beliefs under the most basic and universal spiritual teachings that Rumi and other Sufi poets captured so brilliantly: the notion that music, art, poetry, and above all, love are our greatest spiritual resources. In Iran, such resources are more abundant than oil, saffron, and pistachios combined, and they represent the truest faith of the masses.

Melody MoezziMelody Moezzi is an Iranian-American writer, commentator, attorney, and activist. She is the author of War on Error: Real Stories of American Muslims and a United Nations Global Expert with the UN Alliance of Civilizations. She blogs regularly for The Huffington Post, Ms. Magazine, and Bipolar Disorder Magazine.

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Spiritual unity, we are all one! Thanks Melody!

Now I have to grab your book to read!  Thanks for a lovely ontro and insight into your world.  One only grows with sharing..... I say that to my sons all the time - as well  myself.

I think we need to say things like this more often. Rumi has such a universal message. He is a voice that so many people can find connections in. These are the religious voices we need to elevate, even if they are speaking from 700 years in the past.

The current rulers of Iran have tied their fortunes to the outward form of a hard and brittle religion that does not really suit the Iranian people's actual sensibilities and is cracking and falling apart as the tectonic plates of history shift beneath this rigid edifice.  I think this insures that the social revolution that will inevitably come to Iran and is in slow growth phase there now will be deeper and more thorough than it would have been had they taken a more secular route in attempting to justify their unjust policies.  Thank you for this deeper analysis of the process.

We need so much more of this level of sharing!  In gratitude, Lew

Melody Moezzi's "War On Error" is a great collection of testimonies reflecting the diverse face of Islam.  Wonderfully intimate portrayals.  This is a very cool article on Rumi and the Iranian spiritual consciousness.

Spiritual longings of human hearts are always greater than temporal political processes even though those seem more pressing and practical. Not just in Iran, but everywhere, those who are most noted in the political realm seem to have the least to offer in the spiritual, with Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia being a notable exception (and probably others that have not come to mind). Political leaders who impose their will do not function well as spiritual leaders who show and offer a way forward. 

Excellent write-up. Thanks for showing us another side of Iran.

Thanks for your wonderful post.  It is important for all of us to guard against the pull of fundamental religion into politics.  It is a challenge here as well as Iran.

Wonderful. Thank you for the enlightenment. I, as a fellow poet, have been reading Rumi for years.
--- Carl Maletic
U.S. civilian, in Afghanistan