Unfold Your Own Myth is inspired by the poetry of Rumi, the 13th century Muslim poet whose work remains among the most popular poetry in America and across the world. The Unfold workshops will focus on helping youth find their creative voice through unique forms of poetic expression, including “Spoken Word,” “Journaling,” “Erasure,” and “Haiku.” Extended over three or four workshop meeting sessions, host facilitators will incorporate a video tutorial created by Unity Productions Foundation, the supporting organization for Unfold Your Own Myth.
Participants will practice the art of refining and experimenting with their own poetic voice. Poetry created in this program is published in partnership with KidSpirit, a youth-led online magazine and community for exploring life’s big questions, enabling these important teen voices to reach a global audience of peers and adults.
Overview of Four Themes in Lamya's Poem
Theme One: Rumi’s Place in the Islamic Tradition
Rumi is a poet who lived and wrote thousands of verses more than 800 years ago. He wrote in the Persian and Arabic languages, and his work has been translated into many languages. Today, he is the most popular poet in the U.S. People quote the lines he wrote on posters, greeting cards, and weddings, births and funerals, because they find meaning in his beautiful ideas. However popular Rumi’s poetry is, many people don’t realize that his ideas and images are rooted in his identity as a Muslim, and in the Islamic religious tradition. The film Lamya’s Poem explores this identity and heritage, in an effort to bring out a more authentic understanding of Rumi as a poet and a person, as a teacher and a seeker of God. The images and concepts in Rumi’s poetry drew upon verses of the Qur’an and sayings and deeds from the life of the Prophet Muhammad.
Rumi’s work and example of spiritual leadership has influenced the literature, culture and education of Muslims across the world for centuries. Poems in the Masnavi are still memorized and shared by travelers in regions as diverse from India, Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey, and are recited by refugees seeking the strength against hardships on the roads between a war-torn Middle East and Western Europe. The story of the film Lamya’s Poem was inspired by seeing a video of refugees reciting poetry at night in a park in Athens, Greece. Rumi’s words have long provided guidance and inspiration for the spirit based upon Islamic teachings, communicating its ideals through the prism of his imagination.
Scholar of Rumi’s work, Dr. Omid Safi says:
“In many parts of the world, Rumi’s poetry is among the most frequently copied Muslim texts, second only to the Qur’an. So, it is certainly a text that has shaped the poetic imagination, the religious and moral imagination of Muslims. . .”
In this way, Rumi’s work unites diverse cultures across the world.
Theme Two: Rumi’s Concept of Social Love
A central theme in Rumi’s work is the way he expressed the concept of love. This concept goes beyond the hearts and flowers of romantic love to embrace love for humanity, for fellow human beings with whom we share the spaces in which we all move. There are different ideas of love in different languages: in Persian and Arabic, the word ishq means Social Love or Civic Love. In Greek, the word agape has a similar meaning — the love, or compassion, that brings people together in peaceful, constructive community relations, supporting each other and working together in harmony. Ishq is the social glue that binds people together in solidarity; this kind of love is a source of human relations. Ishq is a reflection of universal or divine love, Compassion, and Mercy whose source is Divine love. It helps people see beyond our ethnic, racial, or religious differences, beyond the narrow group with whom we identify.
Ishq is at the center of the action of Lamya’s Poem. All of the story’s central characters are on a journey, seeking peace, safety and well-being. Lamya is moving away from the violence of her homeland toward an unknown future; Rumi and his father are on a journey away from the chaos of the Mongol invasions and armies. They are refugees fleeing danger, and become pilgrims journeying toward a Sacred City, and toward the spiritual goals to learn and to teach others. Both seek ishq, or love that heals the human community torn apart by violence and war. Their parallel stories intertwine, as Lamya and Jalal (the young Rumi) seek protection, peace and stability, and find ways to unite the people they encounter along the way.
Teaching and guiding youth is another theme in the parallel stories. Lamya’s teacher, who gave her the gift of Rumi’s poems, remains behind in Aleppo to teach students what is important in and beautiful in their tradition even after war has closed the schools. Teaching is an act of love, of ishq. Lamya shares her book of Rumi poems children in the dismal circumstances of the refugee camps. She clings to this book as a precious possession of love and spiritual strength. She teaches the refugee children to marvel at their own imagination, inspired by Rumi’s verse. Ishq is everywhere in Lamya’s Poem.
Love is revealed through effort and struggle, in the two worlds of Rumi and Lamya — centuries apart, yet similar. Love is found in the human ties we can develop by allowing room for our imagination. Love (ishq) is expressed with Lamya’s teacher, and her book, which holds the art and poetry of Rumi. From Aleppo to Turkey to Greece and on, Lamya carries her teacher’s gift, which step-by-step becomes the tool for her discovery that she can meet the challenges they face. Rumi’s own struggles to overcome the trauma of uncertainty and fear with the guidance of his father reveals his own discovery of the power of expressing himself in poetry, and sharing this form of Social Love with the world. He may not have realized that the power of his words and ideas would reach across the centuries and around the world! Perhaps this young man who saw visions did realize its power after all.
Theme Three: Two Forms of Myth: Individual and Shared
Myths are stories that help to explain mysterious forces in human life and natural surroundings. They often involve supernatural beings and imaginary events that carry symbolic meanings. In the journeys of Lamya and young Rumi, we see how imagination and mythmaking is a way to cope with hardship and conquer fear. “Individual Myth,” which Lamya’s imagination creates an “Individual Myth” positive fantasy of a dreamlike park with fireflies to give her hope in the midst of a grim situation. Her imagination develops images that signal danger and chaos that she must overcome. The monster that she sees is a way of taming a threat by naming it. Many people experience dreams that are like myths we conquer or flee in response to the horror of traumatic experiences. By creating an image what we fear in symbolic form, a myth creates a “breathing space” that helps us understand and master threats in order to survive them without psychological damage. Poetry like Rumi’s creates narratives that rearrange reality by creating metaphors and myths to reflect meanings below the surface. The poet transforms existing myths and an invents new ones. The film shows young Rumi struggling to compose poems that Lamya reads “on the other side of time,” to transform her understanding of the world she has to navigate alone.
Lamya’s Poem explores how the Monster plays a role in times of loss and confusion and help her to understand and cope. Stories of monsters are a way for people to make meaning out of chaos and loss. Monsters are horrible images of danger, but the story involves a hero of great strength who finds a way to defeat them. In Lamya’s Poem, the main characters must defeat their imagined monsters to survive their situation and keep their spirit from damage.
From Individual Myth, Lamya, Jalal (young Rumi), and others in their situation discover the power of Collective (or Shared) Myth. In Lamya’s Poem, the characters transform their personal experience of trauma through poetry that helps express the horror of war and evil that they had no part in causing. The imagery of Collective Myths condenses the people’s attention around symbols of the horror and its conquest. In the film, poetry transforms reality into the fantastic shape of the Monster, giving Lamya a way to face reality and shake the shadow of war and human violence all around her. The myth of the monster joins Lamya’s and young Rumi’s experience of overcoming the violence that drove him from his homeland and finding a way to replace hate and desire for revenge with love. Lamya shares the power of Rumi’s imagery in the refugee camp, helping the children to forget their loss for a time and share powerful images of conquering that evil. The shared myth in gives the characters ready-made tools to confront the difficulty of separation from their homes and family members, to conquer fear and find hope.
Theme Four: Rumi’s Concept of Separation and the Self
The fourth theme is separation, which Rumi’s imagery transforms from a sense of loss to discovery of the self. The film highlights an image from Rumi’s poetry and the tradition of stories that teach spiritual lessons. That image is the reed, a hollow type of grass that grows in marshes along riverbeds. The reed is cut and removed from its home — the bed of reeds where it grows naturally. In the hands of the musical instrument maker, the reed is dried, trimmed, and perforated with holes to make a flute. In Islamic tradition, this flute is called a ney
In the image of the reed and the flute, separation from home and youth is a painful experience of displacement, but it is the first step toward transforming into a better self. The old life is lost, but the new self is transformed into an instrument for creating beauty and service to others.
Rumi’s poetry, as echoed in the film, explores this concept of transformation through separation and loss. Like the discovery of love, or ishq Rumi views separation as a necessary experience for the self to discover truth. The reed was comfortable in its natural home in the reed bed, but the single reed taken away and losing its attachment to its roots and family. In becoming transformed into a flute, the reed finds a lasting home that gives voice to glorify God with its sound and helps others to appreciate divine beauty. Losing our in this passing world, we are able to locate a more lasting home. Rumi wove this image into a universal truth of the human condition that is easily understood and appreciated as truth. In the film, the displacement that the story’s characters face as refugees as they flee the violence in their homes is symbolized in the image of the reed and the flute.
Rumi’s appeal to modern readers around the world is rooted in the way his work brings out this universal theme of separation. His poetry deals with pain, death, and separation, but it also transcends them.
Dr. Safi commented,
“For Rumi, the whole path of love is identified as a remedy for homesickness and separation from home, from God, from other people.”
The challenge of separation is explored through every character in the film. In the character of Rumi, separation is addressed through Jalal’s dream world, where his father encourages him not to give up inspiring others by writing poems. “Leave your home like a shepherd,” he advises. His father encourages his fellow refugees on the road to see themselves as pilgrims moving toward a higher goal rather than as victims fleeing in fear what is behind them. Lamya’s Poem documents and dramatizes the theme of physical separation from the homeland, as Lamya learns to accept her circumstances and connect with her fellow young refugees by sharing Rumi’s poetry. They experience hardship unimaginable for children but help each other to move toward a different future and a life of hope.
In the Islamic Sufi, or spiritual, tradition, Rumi’s metaphor invites his readers — his students — to separate from their lower self, which in Muslim spirituality is called the nafs, or soul. The journey toward consciousness of God is a journey toward union with divine love that requires separation from temporary worldly concerns to look beyond. A tradition, or saying, of Prophet Muhammad gives advice about living with separation and loss:
“Be in this world as if you were a stranger or a traveler.”[Sahih Bukhari, Volume 8, Book 76, Number 425]
Biographical Note on Jalaluddin Rumi
About 800 years ago, the Muslim poet and spiritual teacher Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī, best known as Rumi, was born in Central Asia, in a town in today’s country of Tajikistan. He lived in a turbulent time, just as the Mongols under their leader Genghis Khan was gaining strength and was about to conquer much of Asia.
Rumi’s father Muḥammad Bahāʾ al-Dīn Sulṭān Walad, was a teacher of Islamic spirituality and law in the town. In those days, it was necessary for such a person to seek patronage, or support from one of the regional or local Muslim rulers, who would appoint them as head teacher and preacher in one of the schools they established as part of their court. At the same time, such intellectuals also sought to learn at the feet of other scholars, and to visit important Muslim cities where scholars gathered, such as Samarkand, Damascus, Tabriz, Cairo, and Jerusalem. Having a ruler as patron and source of support might remain stable for years, offering the scholar and his family a good living and much prestige, but it could also be unstable. Such rulers might be displaced by others competing for power, or by invasion.
Rumi was a sensitive, curious boy who felt a strong connection to spiritual life and to nature. He grew up under the expectation that he would follow in his father’s footsteps as a teacher. He would have memorized the Qur’an, the sacred book of Islam, and gained deep knowledge of its meaning, and of the life and model of Prophet Muhammad. He would also have learned poetry in Arabic and in the Persian language, and would have absorbed teaching stories that were common paths to gaining spiritual knowedge. Rumi’s father assigned him a tutor by the name of Borhan who took responsibility for guiding the boy as he matured. Rumi developed a fond attachment to his tutor, who remained a part of his life into adulthood.
In 1231 Bahāʾ al-Dīn passed away, leaving the madrasah to his top pupil, Sayyid Burhān al-Dīn Muḥaqqiq, who spent the next six years grooming Mawlānā to lead. During this time, Mawlānā traveled to Syria to study, returning in 1237, having trained in law and theology. Some sources claim that Sayyid Burhān introduced Mawlānā to the secret spiritual teachings of his father upon his return to Konya. It seems unlikely, however, that such would have been Mawlānā’s first encounter with his father’s spiritual teachings. Rather, this formal initiation to the Ṣūfī path signaled just the first of two maturations in his spiritual life.
The second came in 1244, when the wandering dervish Shams al-Dīn Tabrīzī arrived in Konya. Shams brought about the externalization of Mawlānā’s inner spirituality, leaving him “transformed from a sober jurisprudent to an intoxicated celebrant of the mysteries of Divine Love” (Chittick, 1983, p. 3). The most noticeable change was that Mawlānā neglected his disciples to spend time secluded with Shams. In 1246, responding to threats from Mawlānā’s jealous disciples, Shams fled to Damascus. He returned at the pleading of Mawlānā’s son, Sulṭān Walad, only to be killed by those same disciples a year later—a fact kept from Mawlānā. Following Shams’ second “disappearance,” Mawlānā turned to poetry in earnest.
Mawlānā’s shorter lyric verses are collected in the Diwān-ī Shams-ī Tabrīzī (The Collected Works of Shams of Tabriz). Extant manuscripts vary widely in size, up to around 35,000 verses. Though some of the poems were composed before Mawlānā’s encounter with Shams, the vast majority of the works were completed after 1247. Mawlānā ends each poem with a takhallus (pen-name), most frequently Shams-ī Tabrīzī, adopting the persona of his lost spiritual counterpart and lending the collection its name.
Mawlānā’s major and most widely read work is the approximately 50,000-line Mathnawi al- Maʿnawi (Spiritual Couplets). The Mathnawi was undertaken at the request of his scribe and disciple Ḥusām al-Dīn Celebi, who suggested Mawlānā write a long didactic poem like those of Sanāʾī and ʿAṭṭār. Though we do not have a precise starting date for the Mathnawi, we know that the second of six books were begun in 1263/64. Most scholars agree that it was completed in 1267/68, a few years before his death. During this period, Mawlānā would recite lines while dancing, twirling around a pole, or in other states of ecstatic meditation. Such spinning gave rise to the whirling meditation practice of the Mawlawīyah order, from which the term “whirling dervish” arises. Due to the unique circumstances of its creation, the Mathnawi is singular in both structure and content — lacking a frame narrative, it features a string of parables interrupted by excurses, ecstatic outbursts, and long digressions.
Fīhi mā fīhi (Signs of the Unseen; literally, “in it what’s in it”) is a collection of Mawlānā’s teachings in the form of lectures, recorded conversations, and public statements. They were not written down by Mawlānā himself, but rather collected by his disciples and assembled into a manuscript after his death. Along with these major works, a collection of Rūmī’s letters and a compilation of seven public sermons given early in his career are extant, though they have not been translated into English.
Mawlānā was not a systematic philosopher or mystic. His writings arose out of ecstatic and pedagogical contexts, making heavy use of ambiguity, shifting and mixed metaphors, paradox, as well as a technique Fatemeh Keshavarz (2004) has called a “poetics of silence.” Nevertheless, attempts have been made to distill his thought into core principles, such as the relationship between ẓāhir (outward form) and bāṭin (inner meaning), self-abnegation, and ʿishq (passionate love).
His writing is highly inter-textual, frequently citing or alluding to the Qurʾān and ḥadīth, as well as to theologians and philosophers such as al-Ghazālī, Ibn Sīnā, and even Plato. Mawlānā’s stated poetic sources include Farīd al-Dīn ʿAṭṭār, Hakim Sanāʾī, and Niẓāmī Ganjavī.
The question of Mawlānā’s relationship with his near-contemporary Ibn ʿArabī has been contested. Both men are critical figures in the history of Islamic mysticism, but they diverge widely in terms of method. Omid Safi has demonstrated the close, if contentious, relationship between Shams and Ibn ʿArabī, highlighting their divergence on the issue of mutābiʿat (glossed as “conformity to the Muhammadan paradigm”). Safi (1999) traces this emphasis on mutābiʿat, which is highlighted in the hagiographic account of Shams’ first meeting with Mawlānā, through Mawlānā’s own teachings and the development of the Mawlawīyah order.
Mawlānā’s writings have been put to use in numerous ethical, political, and devotional contexts. The Mawlawīyah Ṣūfī order was organized around Mawlānā’s teachings and writings, and the memories of his son Sultān Walad. For centuries the order maintained warm relations with Ottoman authorities, who pointed to them as a positive example of Sufism, even while persecuting other Ṣūfī orders.
Mawlānā’s emphasis on inner meaning, and derision of those who focus on outward form, have led generations of readers to turn to him as a source for ecumenism and pluralism. Mughal emperors used Mawlānā’s ethics to develop a ruling ideology that positioned them as ideal Muslim rulers while governing a majority non-Muslim populace. So important was Mawlānā to Mughal self-positioning, Emperor Akhbar ordered the Mathnawi to be read aloud daily in court.
In contemporary Iranian political discourse, ʿAbd al-Karīm Surush has deployed Mawlānā, in tandem with Ibn Sīnā, to argue against Wilāyat al-fāqih (Guardianship of the Jurists). Soroush advocates a vision of Islam that leaves room for mystics with developed imaginative faculties, such as Mawlānā, to rearticulate metaphors and imagery in the Qurʾān for new contexts.
From the late 1990s onward, the popularity of translations of Mawlānā’s writing caused him to be hailed as the best-selling poet in the United States. These versions are based on previous scholarly translations of the Mathnawi and Diwān. Poets like Coleman Barks provide citations while taking liberties with structure, length, and imagery. Others, such as Daniel Ladinsky, admit their poems are not translations, but poems written in the spirit of Mawlānā. The popular English-language Mawlānā is often stripped of Islamic terminology and imagery, bawdy humor, and advocacy of austerity, discipline, or ritual observance. He is instead presented as a lovelorn gnomic antinomian pluralist of indeterminate origin.