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Documentary About 800-Year-Old Mystic Inspires Interfaith Dialogue


A new documentary tells the inspiring story of the life of Jalaluddin Rumi, a 13th century mystic who has become a best selling poet in 21st century America. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, Rumi Returning connects the founder of Sufism to his Islamic roots while celebrating his universal message of tolerance and peace.

The documentary follows Rumi's journey, from his childhood as a war refugee to his experiences as a poet and one of the greatest teachers of the ideal of love. In 2006, the film's producers and writers, Kell Kearns and Cynthia Lukas, were invited to Rumi's annual festival in his hometown, Konya, Turkey.

Lukas says that visit was the inspiration behind their work. "We felt the spirit of the thousands of people from around the world, of different faiths, from different nations, of different classes, all gathered at this tomb of Mavlana Jalaluddin Mohammad, known to the West as Rumi," she says. "We knew that there was something profound going on and people are being drawn to the tomb for a reason."

She says when they realized that Rumi's 800-year-old message is still relevant today, they wanted to convey it through film.

"His message is the message of all the great wisdom teachers and sages that we've had throughout history. And it is one of love, and it is one of tolerance and respect of others," she says. "The fundamental message of Rumi in our film is one of unity, global unity, that there is no separation between human beings," Kearns adds. "We are all one."

Professor Akbar Ahmed, chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington DC, appears in the documentary.

"If there is one motto, which the post-9/11 world needs to adopt, I'd say it should be a line from Rumi when he says, 'I go to a synagogue, I go to the church, I go to the mosque and I see the same altar and I feel the same spirit,'" he says.

Mystic scholar Andrew Harvey, author of many books on Rumi and Sufism appears in the documentary as well. So does poet Coleman Barks, who translated Rumi's work from Farsi into English, and reads examples of the poetry in the film:

"What is to be done, oh, Muslim, for I do not recognize myself?
I'm neither Christian, nor Jew, nor Gheber [Zoroastrian], nor Muslim.
It's neither body, nor soul, for I belong to the soul of the beloved.
I have put duality away.
I have seen that the two worlds are one, one I seek, one I know, one I see, one I call…
He is the first.
He is the last.
He is the outward.
He is the inward.
I'm intoxicated with love's cup.
The two worlds have passed out of my ken.
I will trample on both worlds, I will dance in triumph forever!"

Along with scholars who have intensively studied Rumi, Kell Kearns says they also interviewed a 'whirling dervish' who lives the path of Rumi today.

"Uzeyir Ozyurt is a dervish from Konya, Turkey, who lives across the street from the Rumi Shrine," he says. "His family has tended the Rumi shrine. He grew up literally right next to where Rumi lived."

"All the cosmos is turning. All the world is turning," Ozyurt says. "The particles inside you are turning. Your blood, your heart is turning. Why I don't have to turn? The turning energy is the energy of love, the energy of God."

Kearns says they wanted their work to speak to the Islamic World and to the West.

"We want to empower those moderate Muslims with a figure like Rumi that they can call upon and call their own," he says. "And to let other Americans to know that peace, tolerance, universality, unity of humankind is the very heart of Islam. So we wanted to do something to dissolve the ignorance about the true nature of Islam."

Motivated by UNESCO's designation of 2007 as the International Year of Rumi, producers Lukas and Kearns finished the documentary in September. When they began screening the film, they established a tradition of holding an interfaith dialogue after each showing.

"Beginning from our global premier at the Universal Forum of Culture co-sponsored by UNESCO in Monterrey, Mexico, we had more than 1000 people, and this was a conference of interfaith leaders from around the world," Lukas says.

"It was amazing to see Hindus next to Muslims next to Christians next to Jains in this auditorium," Kearns adds. "We began to realize the power that Rumi has and this film has in particular."

That power, Kearns says, has created a momentum.

"The requests to do screenings of Rumi Returning and to participate in film festivals have come all the way from Tel Aviv to Jordan to London to Taiwan to Brazil, all over the world. We're getting requests literally almost every day for screenings of Rumi Returning," he says.

The U.S. television network PBS plans to broadcast Rumi Returning on October 2nd, around the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. Until then, the producers say they will continue to use the film as a vehicle to promote Rumi's message of interfaith dialogue, unity and love.

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