The reasons people winced, cried, screamed, and prayed viewing images of the U.S. military’s departure from Afghanistan were numerous. Some did so because of a would-be governmental Taliban organization perceived worldwide as medieval-minded religious terrorists equipped with modern weapons of mayhem. Others suffered anxious dread because of the uncertainty forced upon them as they escaped their homeland to join an expanding Afghan diaspora.
The reasons for unabated sorrow also include the fact that the region of Balk in Afghanistan is the birthplace of one of the most revered poets in the world: Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-1273). The horror witnessed in his homeland in August 2021 struck a painful contrast to the messages of love, peace, and unity exalted in his poetry.
The Difference a Name Makes
Afghans more often refer to Rumi as: Jalal al-Din Mohammad Balkhi, "Maulana Jalaludin Balkh", "Maulana" (meaning our master), or just "Balkhi." The distinction is an important one because it emphasizes his legacy as part of their birthright.
That virtually sacred birthright is something they have to share with the people of Turkey since the poet lived most of his life in Anatolia on the Turkish peninsular, an area still recognized at the time as a province of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. As such, someone from Anatolia was referred to as a rumi, or a Roman.
A kind of respectable compromise acknowledging both residences is the comprehensive name: Mawlânâ Jalâluddîn Muhammad al-Balkhî al-Rûmî. Despite its biographical accuracy, such a lengthy moniker is probably not one most Rumi enthusiasts in the West will be adopting any time soon. For such individuals, the name Rumi itself is defined more by their experience of the impact of diverse interpretations of his verse and teachings upon their lives in the modern era than scholarly precision.
Although the Roman tie-in is not one most consider when quoting the great spiritual leader, whom many consider a saint, it is worth noting he was known to proclaim himself as a son of Balk. Since school children in Afghanistan begin learning “Balkhi’s” poetry at an early age (Will that practice continue under Taliban rule?) some of those now journeying as refugees may find their familiarity with the maulana’s words advantageous in such new homelands as Australia, India, the United Kingdom, Iraq, Pakistan, Germany, or the United States.
The Poet and the Conquerors
For the past three decades, Rumi has been celebrated in the West for interpretations of his poetry emphasizing divine love, the euphoria-inducing nature of that love, and states of spiritual unification beyond material-world duality as viewed through a lens of Sufi mysticism. Given his deeply-embedded Islamic roots, some ambivalence surrounding shared passions for his writings was bound to surface among readers in the West following 9/11. Conversely, right now in 2021, the world’s recognition of Afghanistan as his birthplace provides reason to hope his legacy may have some tempering effects on the current conquerors of his homeland.
Earlier this year, plans had resumed in Afghanistan to rebuild a 13th century complex believed to have been the home of the poet’s parents. The country’s acting director of the Tourism for the Ministry of Information and Culture at the time, Murtaza Azizi, expressed this desire:
“Once lasting peace comes to our country, we are eager to share this heritage with the world. We hope our tourism industry – and with it, the economy – will grow not only in Balkh, but all over Afghanistan.”
That such a hope is likely to materialize any time soon following the catastrophic conclusion of the Afghanistan war is doubtful. Less uncertain is the increasing relevance of Rumi’s/Balkhi’s inspiring poetics in a world daily bombarded by such atrocities as the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, racism, and economic exploitation.
NEXT: Reading Rumi after 9/11 and again at the end of the War in Afghanistan (part 2)
ALSO CHECK OUT: Re-Reading Rumi in the Time of the Taliban
Contemporary award-winning American author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.