“There is No Worse Sickness for the Soul”: The Stupidity of the “Mevlana War” Between Turkey and Iran


March 3, 2011

[Yazının Türkçesi için buraya tıklayın.]

Last week, Ertuğrul Günay, the Turkish Minister of Culture and Tourism, called the Sufi mystic, poet, philosopher, and humanist Mevlana Celaleddin-i Rumi “Turkish.” After all, Rumi (meaning “of Rome”) was born in “Turkic” Central Asia and had immigrated to “Roman” (i.e., Byzantine) lands under Turkish control (i.e., Anatolia). Thus, the minister concluded, it is only logical that Rumi was Turkish.

Mr. Günay’s comments infuriated many Iranians and prompted a few to start a group on Facebook to let the world know that “Molavi (Rumi) is a Persian poet, not Turkish!” Better yet, the semi-official Mehr News Agency interviewed an expert (!) to set the record straight: A scholar by the name of Sadeq Maleki pointed out that Mevlana wrote his poetry in Persian, which attests to his Persian “nationality.”

And both Mr. Günay and Mr. Maleki – just like many of their countrymen – missed the big point about Mevlana. Mevlana’s philosophy and poetry are too grandiose to be restrained by something as simplistic as “nationality.”

The man known in the West as “Rumi,” as “Maulana” in Iran and Afghanistan, and as “Mevlana” in Turkey was born into a highly respected family of religious scholars in the town of Balkh in 1207 in present-day Afghanistan. (Then as today, Balkh was a medley of ethnicities and languages.) In the face of the incoming Mongol invasion in the late 1210s, the family first moved to Baghdad, then performed the pilgrimage to Mecca, and finally settled down in the town of Konya in present-day Turkey.

Mevlana initially taught at his father’s school in Konya. But his encounter with a traveling dervish named Shams (Shams-e Tabrizi) changed his life forever. Impressed with Shams’s indifference to scholarly erudition and his immense wisdom, Mevlana began searching the real meaning of life. Thus came his poetry.

Mevlana was a contemporary of other great Sufi thinkers, such as Yunus Emre, Hacı Bektaş-i Veli, and Ibn-Arabi. And that tradition culminated in the following message, which continues to  attract a wide range of people from the pious who see a visit to Mevlana’s grave in Konya as a religious duty to secular admirers of his poetry:

Come, come, whoever you are.

Heathen, fire worshipper, or idolatrous, come!

Come even if you broke your penitence a hundred times,

Ours is the portal of hope, come as you are.

Therefore, Mevlana deserves a special place together with other great humanists in history: Abraham Lincoln, Erasmus, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Pindar, Plutarch, Rabindranath Tagore, Socrates, and Sophocles.

So it’s tragicomical that, at a time when mankind needs to really implement Mevlana’s message of peace, love, and harmony, his supposed followers fight over the great man’s “nationality.” Maybe Turks and Iranians need to read Mevlana’s works and think about them seriously because

There is no worse sickness for the soul,

O you who are proud, than this pretense of perfection.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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