Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, commonly known simply as Rumi, was a Persian poet and Sufi master of the 13th century. There is much to be celebrated in the work of this bygone figure, from his lyrical poetry to his enduring presence in the practice of Sufi mysticism, and one might argue that such delicate artistry is very much in need of revival today.
One such effort to bring the beauty and power of Rumi’s legacy back to life came in the form of “Rumi Night,” an evening hosted in the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola through the combined efforts of the Institute for the Liberal Arts, the Muslim Student Association, the theology department, and the music department on campus. For two hours on Friday night, the ornate walls of the Upper Church echoed with the undulating chords of traditional Persian instruments like the barbat, predecessor to string instruments like the oud and later the guitar, soulfully and skillfully played by the composer and vocalist Amir Vahab.
Vahab is a New York-based musician distinguished for his contributions to Sufi and folk music, and widely renowned for both his instrumental and lyrical performances across the languages of Persian, Turkish, and Azeri. The reasons for this widespread acclaim were obvious to anyone who walked through the double doors of the church on Friday night and was instantly transported out of Boston in 2017 and into the centuries-passed tail end of the Islamic Golden Age.
Equally as affecting as Vahab’s haunting voice was the skill and devotion of Christopher Briggs, a dervish who performed the meditative act of whirling during the instrumental performances. Whirling is traditionally a form of dhikr, or remembrance of God, specific to the Mevlevi Order of Sufism that was founded by the followers of Rumi around the year 1312.
Briggs began the action at one corner of the floor, arms folded inward so that each hand was grasping the opposite shoulder, and his head tilted solemnly downward. Clad in a dark blue cape and a tall gold hat, he began to spin in circles while seemingly gliding in a straight line across the floor, gradually and seamlessly shedding the blue cape, which fell away to reveal white robes that left his arms free. Slowly, without ever compromising his simultaneous spinning and left-to-right movements, Briggs brought his right arm straight up, hand tilting toward the sky, while his left arm stretched outward perpendicular from his body, and continued to spin. These movements seemed to be so familiar and practiced to Briggs that they flowed together as one action, perplexing and awe-inspiring all at once.
After the exercise, Vahab explained the intricacies with refreshing accessibility, emphasizing that there is deep spiritual significance to every minute movement of the dervish. The shedding of the blue cape, he says, symbolizes the shedding of “the density of this world,” allowing for freedom from attachment to one’s “commanding” or “terrestrial” self. The white robes underneath the cape emulate the shroud and illustrate the blessing of “dying while you are still alive,” or achieving that freedom from earthly weights. Vahab quoted Rumi here, from the poem “Die in This Love:” “If you die to the temporal you will become timeless.” Similarly, the gold hat, called a sikke, is meant to symbolize the tombstone. The upward motion of the right hand is supposed to garner positive attributes like love, forgiveness, and generosity from heaven, while the outstretched left hand distributes those vitalities on earth.
This astounding sentiment was further expanded upon by Jim Morris, a professor in the theology department, when he took to the stage midway through the evening to read more of Rumi’s work, this time a quatrain in the original Persian. It was closely followed by the English translation, with stirring opening lines that explain the poet’s longevity, “O my God, our intoxicated eyes have blurred our vision. Our burdens have become heavy, forgive us.”
Morris also evoked the specter of one of America’s most beloved authors when he mentioned the moral of Fahrenheit 451 in relation to the evening’s festivities. In the novel, when so much of civilization is destroyed, he said, the contents of books were able to keep that civilization and culture alive. Astutely aware of the rarity of the night’s performance, he said that musicians like Vahab are reality’s equivalent of that valuable preservation. By the end of the evening, it was obvious that such an opportunity to participate in the acts of preservation and remembrance is always a privilege.
Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor