Who is the best-selling poet in the U.S? Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Maya Angelou? Guess again. It’s a 13th century Persian poet, philosopher, and spiritual leader with the one word appellation Rumi (the Roman), of whom the majority of Americans have never heard.
Whether or not you’ve read his work, know of his teachings, or would just like to learn more of how and why this ancient Muslim mystic has taken such a hold in Western civilization, join Jim Norton this month at the Vineyard Haven Library for a three-part workshop exploring the man, his works, and his influence on the modern world.
Mr. Norton, a sixth generation Islander who owns and operates Norton Farm, has spent a great deal of time in south Asia and is an expert on the people and politics of the Afghanistan/Pakistan region. He earned a PhD in Indian philosophy from the University of Madras and taught religion at the college level for many years. “You can’t go very far in religious studies without encountering Rumi,” Mr. Norton says.
For the past 10 years, Mr. Norton has made it a mission to share with Vineyarders his wealth of knowledge about a widely misunderstood area of the world. Starting just one month after 9/11, he has hosted one class or workshop per year on the culture, politics, and beliefs of people of the Muslim world, particularly Afghanistan.
“My concern all along has been that our public relationship to Afghanistan is based on an appalling ignorance of their culture and history and what’s important to them,” he says.
His workshop last year on the bestselling book “Three Cups of Tea,” about humanitarian Greg Mortenson’s mission to build schools in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, attracted capacity crowds to the Vineyard Haven Library. This year he has chosen the poet Rumi, (whose homeland of Persia is modern-day Iran) to help enlighten his audience on the spiritual depth and universalism of the Muslim poet. He notes, “I want to identify him as a Persian Muslim to whom we can relate at a time when other less representative Muslims are defining our perceptions.”
Mr. Norton notes that each of the three weekly sessions will have a different focus, and all are self-contained mini-courses. Although the workshop is loosely constructed and will be partially determined by the interest of attendees, Mr. Norton plans to focus the first section on Rumi’s poetry, then on his teachings, and finally explore the question of the recent popularity that Rumi has enjoyed in this country, despite rampant anti-Muslim sentiment.
Madonna once recorded a Rumi poem that she set to music, fashion designer Donna Karan has used Rumi recitations at her fashion shows, and film director Oliver Stone is interested in making a movie of the man’s life.
Queries Mr. Norton, “What is it about Rumi that resonates with the American poetry reader?” He says of the upcoming workshop, “It’s kind of an exploratory venture for me. What I’m hoping will happen is that others will discover Rumi along with me.”
Conversations About Rumi, Persian Poet, Tuesdays, Jan. 4, 11, 18, 7–8:30 pm, Vineyard Haven Library. Free. 508-696-4211.
Gwyn McAllister, of Oak Bluffs, is a frequent contributor to The Times.