A ‘Three Worlds’ Engagement of Sufi Poet Rumi and His Popularity in the United States



Evidence suggests two major trends currently taking place within the United States concerning the work of the medieval mystic and Sufi, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi-Rumi (1207-1273). The first of these is that Rumi’s poetry, despite being composed within 13th century Konya, Anatolia, is well received by many contemporary Americans despite clear disparities in religious identity and culture. Second, there have been efforts within the United States to divorce Rumi’s religious convictions from his poetry. In relation to the first, this paper employs ‘the three worlds of the text’ exegetical framework to situate Rumi within his socio-cultural and historical context, and then to unpack four themes presented within a story of the Prophet Moses and a shepherd from Rumi’s Masnavi-ye-Ma’navi. This framework will assist in accounting for the poet’s attractiveness to audiences in the United States. In relation to divorcing Rumi’s religious convictions from his poetry, this paper will determine why this is the case, and then argue that the effort of divorcing Islam from Rumi in part contributes to the negative perceptions of Muslims within the United States.

The Three Worlds of the Text Method and Rumi

A helpful framework for textual interpretation is the three worlds of the text approach which, as suggested by its name, analyzes three “worlds” of a given text: The world behind the text, the world of the text, and the world in front of the text (Punt 2000, 207; Martin 2013). For the purposes of this paper, this hermeneutical framework will be applied to Rumi’s Mathnavi, in particular to 2:1720-1780 (annexure A provides the selected text should one wish to access it). Each ‘world’ of the text asks certain questions and prioritizes the exegete’s focus to very specific areas, as this paper shall demonstrate in its application.

The world behind the text emphasizes the authorship of a text as well as accessing the socio-cultural systems and conventions of the author’s own day. The exegete must come to terms with the author’s own audience to whom he was writing. An author had a motivation for composing a text and this, the exegete assumes, is explicable through some event within his world of experience. Determining what this event is will assist in understanding his purpose and motives for composing his text. Importantly, the emphasis here is very much on the author’s world, and not a world foreign to his own. This functions as a precautionary measure for avoiding gross exegetical misinterpretation of an author, the author’s historical setting, and the audience to whom he was writing. In Rumi’s case, it would certainly be mistaken to interpret him in a context as one writing to an English religious audience within 19th century Victorian England as opposed to his 13th century Middle Eastern one.

The world of the text focuses on the text itself through which the exegete attentively analyzes a selected portion of it (referred to as a ‘pericope’). This requires a close reading of the pericope’s content by looking for certain textual features such as repeated word usage, the author’s tonality, and his attitude towards those he was writing. What sort of response might the author desire or expect from his audience? How does the pericope sit within the larger chapter or book as surrounding chapters can evidence the author’s gradual construction of an argument?

Finally, the world in front of the text brings into focus the contemporary world, which will appear different socially, culturally, and religiously to the world of the text’s author. How might those inhabiting the contemporary American setting be applying an ancient Arabic text such as Rumi’s to their own lives? How is a text produced in a foreign, ancient world-shaping contemporary societies and peoples?

Rumi and the Mathnawi

Before this paper applies this framework to the pericope it would be appropriate to acknowledge briefly Rumi’s life and his Mathnawi. Rumi was born in 1207 in the province of Balkh (Afghanistan) a few years before Genghis Khan’s invasion of 1220, and moved with his family to Konya, a city located in what was then central Anatolia (now Turkey), a former part of the Eastern Roman Empire (Chittick 1983, 1). Biographers agree that the major turning point in Rumi’s life occurred in 1244 when he met the wandering Sufi Shams al-Din Mohammad (d. 1248) (Chittick 1983, 3-4; Dadoo 2004, 105). Rumi greatly loved Shams and saw him as a spiritual guide who truthfully interpreted the secrets of the Prophet Muhammad.

The pair spent time in each other’s company without eating, drinking, or experiencing any bodily needs (Dadoo 2004, 105). Over two years, Shams taught Rumi more about Sufism; according to William Chittick, Shams “transformed him from a sober jurisprudent to an intoxicated celebrant of the mysteries of Divine Love poetry” (Chittick 1983, 3). Prior to this transformation, Rumi was well studied in the Qur’an, Qur’anic interpretation, and Islamic jurisprudence (sharia). He was also familiar with the Hadith and had studied philosophy, theology, as well as astronomy (Chittick 1983, 2).

Rumi and Shams’ relationship angered the former’s students and family. Shams eventually left Konya to then disappear permanently in 1248 (Dadoo 2004, 106). This penetrated Rumi deeply, and he “suddenly became a poet who sang of his love and longing while whirling around to the sound of music. He found this transformation unfathomable, singing purely due to the spirit of the beloved” (Dadoo 2004, 105-106). Eight years after the disappearance of Shams, a period of time during which Rumi’s following grew, Rumi began composing the Mathnawi’s six books with its 25 000 rhyming couplets until his death in 1273 (Arberry 1961, 11).

The Mathnawi is a large body of literature that is to many the ultimate expression of Sufi mysticism and perhaps the greatest influence upon the development of mystical Sufi traditions within the Islamic world (Ebadi-Zahmatkesh & Cheung 2012, 170). It discusses themes of Sufi doctrine and mystical life and uses diverse stories, tales, and fables to illustrate these themes as they appear.

The World Behind Rumi and the Mathnawi

The question of authorship is an important component of the world behind the text. In this regard, there is little doubt that Rumi himself penned the Mathnawi, and that it was composed within the 13th century Middle East (Chittick 1983, 5-6).

Masroori claims that Rumi’s Mathnawi provides the most extensive defense of tolerance in Persian (Masroori 2010, 243), which is fascinating given the world into which the poet was born. Probing briefly into this world demonstrates why Rumi is considered a particularly remarkable thinker, writer, and Muslim.

The two centuries before his birth there was hostility as aggression from Seljuk Turk quarters, particularly in 1064 under Alp Arslan (d. 1072) who sent invading forces into Armenia and later into Georgia, prompted responses from the Byzantines under the emperor Romanus IV Diogenes (d. 1072). This eventuated in the battle of Manzikert in 1071.

The Seljuk’s were victorious at Manzikert, which rendered them the dominant power within the region, and the years following their success saw the emergence of Turkish tribes across Anatolia. This included the growth of Sufism as Dervish settlements spread throughout the 11th century (Ay 2013, 1). Sufis were able to present themselves as a distinct social group within Anatolia although new Sufi orders and groups appeared (Ay 2013, 3-4). Konya, the city within which Rumi would eventually settle, was made the capital of the Seljuk Empire from the 12th to the 13th centuries. By the time of Rumi’s birth, most of the Turks living within Anatolia were Muslims who existed as tribal nomads between whom there was much conflict, some of which Rumi would have himself witnessed (Masroori 2010, 244).

When Rumi settled in Konya, the city was ruled by Seljuk princes and home to subject populations of non-Muslims and non-Turks, as well as a mixture of religions and races (Rogers 1969, 153). There were local Christian sects, Sufis, and Jews to whom a general tolerance was shown by the Seljuks. According to Masroori, despite Seljuk conflict with the Christian Byzantine Empire there is no evidence of any large-scale or systematic persecution of the Christian and Jewish minorities within the Seljuk territories (Masroori 2010, 246). However, this was a “circumstantial tolerance” in which Christians and Jews were required to pay the jizya (protection tax), which meant that despite periodic persecutions of jizya-paying non-Muslims, the Jews and Christians were mostly immune to abuse (Masroori 2010, 246-247).

Rumi’s home was buzzing with Islamic religious activity. His father became a principal teacher in one of the city’s several religious colleges, which was a position Rumi inherited after his father’s death (Chittick 1983, 2; Masroori 2010, 245). There is also the Alaeddin Mosque, which was constructed in 1221 over a Byzantine church (Scott 1991, 60). Today Konya is also reputable for a museum which, despite once being a dervish seminary until 1925, now preserves manuscripts of Rumi’s works. The museum’s presence attests to the Whirling Dervish tradition that has been embraced by Muslims since the time Rumi founded the Mevlevi Order in Konya (Barber 1986, 328). These dancers were famous for jumping or turning in circles while holding each other and repeating the name of Allah.

The World of Rumi and the Mathnawi

Acknowledging the sociocultural context of Rumi’s life provides an important backdrop for examining the four themes we shall draw from the story of Moses and the shepherd in 2:1720-1780 of the Mathnawi. This story’s themes, which are universal worship, spiritual subjectivity, spiritual mysticism, and spiritual mystery will be explored within the space below and constitute signposts pointing toward an answer as to why Rumi’s poetry has been so well-received by many Americans.

Our pericope concerns the Prophet Moses and a shepherd. A shepherd, we read, is praying to God. He makes known to God his desire to become his servant in much the same way as one would serve his master by bringing him food and milk. He wishes to be the faithful servant who sews his master’s shoes, combs his master’s hair, and cleans his master’s room (1720-1724). Moses overhears the shepherd’s words, and when he learns that the words are a prayer to God he harshly chastises him (1725), claiming his prayer to be blasphemous (1727). To Moses, this prayer seemingly puts the shepherd in a position far too familiar with God, and a powerful, transcendent God, Moses reasons, is in no need of such services as the shepherd has just offered in his prayer (1736-1745). The shepherd is evidently taken by Moses’s rebuke and his soul, now in despair, burns with a desire for repentance (1748). The shepherd rips his garment and turns towards the desert to go on his way (1749). God then enters the story to rebuke Moses. God is clearly angry at how Moses had just severed a heartfelt and intimate connection between a human being and God himself, which Moses should not have done (1750-1751).

What can the reader draw from this story? Perhaps it would help to begin by acknowledging how it articulates a universalistic notion of worship. God says to Moses that “I have bestowed on every one a (special) way of acting: I have given to every one a (peculiar) form of expression” (1753). This verse, which teaches that expression is not limited in time and space and to any one individual or culture, is preceded by Rumi noting God’s own dislike of separation over worship. God asks Moses: “didst thou come to sever?” (1751). God’s opposition to Moses’ rebuke of the shepherd’s worship is because it inhibits the possibility of a genuine relationship a person can have with God. What Moses really did was to obstruct a very real and, to God, pleasing moment of worship, and in response to God’s subsequent rebuke, Moses turns to the desert in quest for the shepherd (1777). Finding the shepherd he says to him: “Do not seek any rules or method (of worship); say whatsoever your distressful heart desires” (1784). This verse reveals that God grants human beings permission to worship him in whatever way their hearts desire, and how one goes about doing this, such as in what rites and modes of praise are used, is not important.

Rumi’s God further affirms subjectivity within worship that is pleasing to him: “In regard to him it is (worthy of) praise” (1754, emphasis added). God informs Moses that although he did not think how the shepherd approached him in prayer was appropriate, God deemed that it was. This verse suggests that what is considered appropriate worship in this God-human relationship is what God considers to be appropriate. As such, God’s intention is for worship that is subjective. For each individual, what is deemed “(worthy of) praise” can be taken to God in worship.

This story further evidences a spiritual mysticism that has characterized so much of Sufi history, which was likely informed by Rumi’s own mysticism. God, the story says, does not look at the tongue and speech but at the spirit (1759), and is not concerned with appearances but prefers gazing into the heart (1760). Following his loss of Shams, Rumi increasingly turned inward, the place where, according to this story, God looks with the most intimacy.

Rumi turned away from a scholarly, academic life in pursuit of intuitive knowledge, contemplation, and other-worldliness. This included the meditational forms of dhikr, which is the ceaseless recitation of the names of Allah from the Qur’an, and muraqqabah, which includes opening the heart to receive the light of divine truth (Qamber 1988, 109). Rumi’s mystical endeavours were not performed in solitude as even after Shams had left he gravitated toward mystic personalities such as Salah-ud-Din Zarkoob and Husan-ud-Din Chelebi Ibn-i-Akhi. For Rumi, looking inward became a significant means of communion with the Divine presence of God, and for raising himself to a non-material plane where he could experience this presence.

Rumi’s story of Moses and the shepherd reflects God’s desire that his worshipers experience a powerful internal spiritual ecstasy: “I want burning, burning: become friendly with that burning! Light up a fire of love in thy soul, burn thought and expression entirely (away)!” (1763-1764). Rumi’s performing dikhr would have had him engaging in ecstatic utterances of the names of Allah, leading him to concentrate fully on God alone and to realize that God sees one’s soul at all times (Heck 2007, 153).

A final theme present within our story and Sufi mysticism at large is the mystery of God and the human. This is a mystery that escapes reification, and which is immune to fixed, rational categories of thought (Shaikh 2019, 2). It is in part due to the Sufi recognition that humans possess a limited capacity for understanding God, and it is perhaps this mystery that we find expressed within our story according to which Moses changed his mind after “God spake secretly in the inmost heart of Moses mysteries which cannot be spoken” (1772).

Interesting it is to note that Moses was considered by Rumi (and Muslims) to be a prophet, and therefore seen as an individual God had uniquely marked out to spread his message across the world and to embody the ideal human behaviour of a Muslim. However, not only, as we have seen, does God rebuke Moses but he also reveals truth to him regarding prayer and worship that one might expect a devout Muslim, such as a prophet, to already know.

Rumi thus craftily presents an important individual, who is to many an example of a devout Muslim (and who in this story seems to consider himself more pious and God-fearing than the lowly shepherd), ignorant of one of the most important and basic components to Islamic spiritual life: prayer to and the worship of God. It is clear that the mysteries God reveals to Moses were beyond his own rational thought and comprehension. These are mysteries only partially understood through the minds of human beings when it is revealed by God.

Evidently, they are also “mysteries which cannot be spoken,” which suggests that they are a once-off revelation typified by a remarkable encounter with a Divine presence. We do not learn what exactly God spoke to Moses in 1772, but whatever it was it came across to the prophet as an overwhelming experience, so much so that when God’s words were poured upon his heart, Moses’ vision and speech became mingled together (1773). Moses then made his way off into the desert in the hope to find the shepherd.

The World in Front of Rumi and the Mathnawi

This section seeks to determine why Rumi’s poetry is popular within the United States and to argue that divorcing him and his poetry from Islam could well contribute to prejudice of Muslims within the country.

Why does Rumi’s poetry, composed within a historically distant and culturally foreign world, resonate with contemporary American audiences today?

That Rumi is popular is not speculation. His poetry has sold millions of books in the United States (Ciabattari, 2014; Rozina 2017), and he is “the best known mystic and poet from the Islamic world in the West and the best-selling poet in the United States” (Dadoo 2004, 107). Rumi also remains popular in Asia and the Middle East where many people embrace his work and regularly visit his tomb in Konya (Carmody and Carmody 1996, 261; D’Souza 2014, 3), and still after 800 years his popularity continues to grow (Mannani 2010, 161). In the United States, his work has been the inspiration behind multimedia productions, ballets, operas, and the entertainment industry (Rozina 2017). This paper argues that the themes of universal worship, spiritual subjectivity, spiritual mysticism, and spiritual mystery drawn from the pericope partly account for why Rumi is well received in the United States.

Foremost, Rumi’s appeal for some is that his approach to religion is not a dull one that overemphasizes reason, dogma, and creeds. Rumi was not opposed to the use of reason but he did not believe logic and dogma to be the most important tools for drawing close to God (Mannani 2010, 162). Perhaps this is explained through an increasing estrangement with mainstream religion evidenced by a growing religiously unaffiliated demographic (a group consisting of those who identify as agnostic, atheist, or “nothing in particular”) (Pew Research Center 2018a), some of whom identify “as spiritual but not religious” (Pew Research Center 2017) and all of whom evidence very little religious observance, and seldom or never attend religious services (Pew Research Center 2016).

Arguably, an explanation for this trend is the mainstream Christian religion and Church’s emphasis on adhering to fixed dogmas and creeds. Theological boundaries are often set in stone and there are expectations for how Christians are to behave in the world, their spiritual lives, and in their approach to God. To transgress such boundaries is to straddle into territory that opens itself up to rebuke and criticism. For an increasing number of young Americans as well as for many of the spiritual but not religious, this brand of religion is thought archaic and outdated (Pew Research Center 2018b; Pew Research Center 2018c). It also removes the attractive prospects of the spiritual life intertwined with mystery and the excitement of spiritual autonomy (Christ 1987). Here spiritual autonomy refers to the subjective journey that the individual desires and that typically includes the pursuit of the supernatural, Divine, and God. Spiritual autonomy explains increased western interests in alternative spiritualities that incorporate mysticism and mystery (Collins 1998, 91-92), which is why a poet such as Rumi is appealing to many Americans.

Rumi’s poetry is also well-received because it speaks to the powerful human desire for happiness and the capacity to love and to be loved. Dadoo writes that “The subject in all his poetry is constantly love, the meeting between lover and beloved, the secrets of seeking and finding, of happiness in despair” (Dadoo 2004, 106). Rumi’s poetry elevates love as a primary social and religious principle within Islamic consciousness. It is a love for the Divine that is primarily connected to God.

Rumi saw himself as being totally immersed in the ocean of God’s love, and being so surrounded by this love that he is unable to see anything else but God’s love. It is also a carnal love, as in a love for another person, such as Rumi’s love for his spiritual guide Shams. To Rumi, love is more than just an emotion and it functions to elevate experience for the realization and apprehension of values and higher Truth (Ahmed 2017, 32). As Mannani explains, “To him, love is everything; it shapes everything, it gives birth to everything, and it is the ultimate killer” (Mannani 2010, 165). Although human beings find love desirable they also know that it can be a source of pain. Rumi knew this too, and he provided a picture of a lover in a tavern intoxicating himself as a means to forget the pain of separation from God and the Beloved (Divan-i Shamsi Tabriz 21761). Consider how Coldplay’s lead singer Chris Martin found emotional and psychological solace in Rumi’s poetry when he was going through a tough divorce: “It kind of changed my life,” he told an interviewer (Rozina 2017).

Love is also tied to Rumi’s universalism. His poetry bears a universal message that resonates with many regardless of culture, nationality, and/or religion, and this is to live a peaceful and fulfilling existence instead of one tainted by division and animosity between such divisions. Rumi believed in the unity and the universality of all religions. He believed God is visible in all places: in mosques, churches, synagogues, and even in taverns (Mannani 2010, 165). This unique perspective encourages tolerance and respect for all worldviews and a lived existence in which there is no anger or prejudice. Instead, Rumi’s world would seem to be one of compassion, love, and forgiveness. This is quite remarkable given that, as we recall from the world behind the text, Rumi’s world witnessed intense divisions and confrontations between Muslims and Christians.

Rumi’s tolerant attitude speaks to Westerners who are aggrieved and frustrated with division, particularly division caused by religion, gender, and class. Many perceive division negatively. It is a relic of the past no longer welcome in contemporary American society. For example, although many Americans, notably blacks and Hispanics, still feel social and economic division there is an increase in sensitivity among Americans in general toward racial divisions, notably those caused by historical slavery and injustices (Pew Research Center 2019a). Most American adults (82%) show an awareness of discrimination faced within society by Muslims (Pew Research Center 2019b), and most (61%) have a favourable view of same-sex marriage (Pew Research Center 2019c). In many cases, Americans are attempting to overcome boundaries and divisions, and Rumi’s theme of tolerance speaks to this.

But what should we make of Rumi’s religion? Concerns are that his Islamic religious beliefs are being exorcised from his poetry to market it to Americans. According to Rozina, although in the west Rumi “is typically referred to as a mystic, a saint, a Sufi, an enlightened man… he is less frequently described as a Muslim” (Rozina 2017).

An explanation for this is commercialization and its goal of creating consumer-friendly products that are palatable and attractive to intended markets. Statistics, however, suggest that Islam is perceived negatively by many Americans and that is not particularly popular (it accounts for only 0.8% of the population (Gallup 2018)). Negative perceptions were reinforced by the event of 9/11 (Tamney 2004, 599), while many conservative Americans, a group constituting a sizable section of the American population, view Islam as a threat to western civilization, human rights, and democracy (Windschuttle 2002, 4; Scruton 2002, 15; Tamney 2004, 601-602), and this includes influential persons within the government (Vladimirov 2016).

Over half (52%) of Americans do not believe Muslims are respected in society (Gallup 2011), 42% of Americans view Islam as incompatible with their nation’s values, and over half (56%) of Americans are concerned with Islamic extremism spreading within Muslim communities (Mandhai 2018). Despite changing attitudes, many Americans hold unfavourable views of Islam and Muslims, and it is unlikely that this has been missed by marketing agencies who want to sell products to the greatest number of people to bring in the highest possible profit.

The logic is simple: one produces and markets products to the audience he wishes to sell it to, and since Islam is perceived negatively by many Americans and Muslims account for only 0.8% of the population, there is little incentive to emphasize Rumi’s Islamic beliefs within his poetry or to market him as a Muslim poet. Because of the negative perceptions of Islam, there is a strong reason for marketers to divorce Islam from Rumi to successfully market his poetry.

Further, commercialization is a concern within Rumi scholarship because pop culture dilutes and distorts messages. The result is that “secular culture will inevitably reduce the sacral to the banal through its relentless commercialism and consumerism” (Lewis 2003, 4). This is not a misplaced concern given how Rumi’s poetry has been popular among celebrities such as Cold Play, Madonna, and Tilda Swinton, all of whom make their living from commercialism and selling consumer products within the confines of the entertainment industry. It is also unlikely that these artists will emphasize Rumi’s Islamic belief to their fans.

Further, one might argue that it is not fair to Rumi to view him and his work as independent from the Islamic religion. This view traces back to 19th century Orientalism when scholars such as the archaeologist and translator Gertrude Bell (d. 1926) noted how “Some have supposed that Sufism was imported from India after the time of Mahommad…. A third theory is that the origins of Sufism are to be looked for in the philosophy of the Greeks, strangely distorted by the Eastern mind, and in the influence of Christianity…” (Bell 1897, 50).

This misconception was deepened by the early 20th century Sufi Inayat Rehmat Khan Pathan, the founder of the Sufi Order, who taught Sufism to be a form of universal mysticism independent of Islam. But Sufism and Rumi’s poetry developed within an Islamic context and took inspiration from the Qur’an and the Hadith. Rumi used these texts in an explorative way that challenged conventional readings (Gamard 2006). He did so while always considering himself to be a devout Muslim (Renard 1994, xiv). Despite Rumi’s unconventionality, he uses Qur’anic stories and anecdotes to inform his poetry and offer readers moral lessons. Sufism has also been embedded in Islamic cultures throughout history. It has been a part of Islamic social life and consciousness across what Shahab Ahmed refers to as the Balkans-to-Bengal complex, which is a great swathe of majority Muslim land including the Balkans, Anatolia, Iran, Central Asia, Afghanistan, North India, and the Bay of Bengal from 1350 to 1850 (Ahmed 2017, 75).

Given these concerns, which include the commercialization of Rumi’s poetry and negative perceptions of Islam, one might suggest that divorcing Islam from Rumi might contribute to the negative perceptions of Muslims. The idea is that anything attached to “Islam” is immediately unattractive and viewed negatively. In terms of commercialization, although it makes sense to sell products that will be popular to one’s audience, its treatment of Rumi can reinforce prejudice against Muslims in American society. It implies that people will view self-identified Muslims positively and as worthwhile contributors to a society if the Muslim’s religion is fully removed from the picture. In other words, Rumi is a great poet, but just not as a Muslim poet. If entertainment media produce a norm in which Islam and Muslims are prejudiced, then one should not expect a change in attitude. Little will change about treating Muslims with prejudice.

Rumi’s commercialized poetry is a step in the wrong direction, which one might consider unfortunate as Muslim citizens are capable of benefiting American society and enriching the lives of others.


The popularity of Rumi in the United States owes itself to his gift of using words. He uses words to produce spiritually and morally profound narratives and lessons, such as in the episode of Moses and the shepherd. Rumi’s appeal is also helped by his themes speaking to people on a universal scale. Further, amputating Rumi’s religious beliefs that inspire much of his work could contribute to prejudice toward Muslims and the Islamic religion.


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