Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Man Struggling with Snakes, Isfahan, Iran, 1632.Aga Khan Museum

What do one of Brad Pitt’s tattoos and the name of Beyonce’s second daughter have in common? Both are inspired by the 13th-century Sufi mystic and poet Muhammad Balkhi, usually known as Rumi. That’s the name of Beyonce’s child while, around the time of his marriage to Angelina Jolie, Pitt had a line from a Rumi poem tattooed on his upper arm.

Where celebrities go, others follow. Prized for his Persian verses extolling love, peace and a quest for spiritual mindfulness, Rumi is one of the best-selling poets in North America: On Amazon, the top English-language adaptation of his poems beats out collections by Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and W. B. Yeats – although not John Milton and Rupi Kaur.

Rumi was also celebrated in his own day as a religious teacher, and can be remembered not merely for quotable lines but also for popularizing the Sufi brand of Islamic mysticism, including the famed practice of the whirling dervishes, dancing themselves into a trance. Spying an opportunity to provide Islamic context on a popular subject, the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto has mounted an exhibition devoted to Rumi, examining his life and work, the visual art he inspired in the centuries after his death and his current popularity.

Beautifully installed in the museum’s upper-level galleries, the show begins by following Rumi and his family in their early years: He was born in a region that is now on the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan during the period when the Mongols destroyed the Khwarazmian Empire. Fleeing war and political instability, his family crossed central Asia as his father, also a Sufi teacher, looked for work. They eventually settled in Konya, in Anatolia, in what is now Turkey, but was then known as the lands of Rum, because it had been part of the eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire. (Rumi’s popular name could be translated as Roman.)

Open this photo in gallery:

Illustration from a manuscript of Tarjuma-i Thawaqib-i manaqib (a translation of Stars of the Legends), Baghdad, Iraq.Aga-Khan Museum

Rumi and his family were exiles from their homeland and this exhibition makes much of this link to today’s migrant experience. Although the Aga Khan permanent collection comprises historic Islamic art dating back centuries, the institution always makes strenuous efforts to draw contemporary parallels or introduce viewers to living Islamic artists. Here, Hangama Amiri, an Afghan-Canadian living in the United States, contributes a series of quilted textile hangings, each one bearing the image of an object left behind, from the historic (a ceramic plate) to the cultural (a package of henna) to the banal (cookware). In another, a manicured hand reaches out to grab one handle from a clutter of suitcases.

The migrant clings to a few portable heirlooms. The truth, however, is that we have little physical evidence of Rumi’s own life, and there is no contemporaneous portrait. Instead, curator Michael Chagnon uses various pieces from the museum’s own collection (a marble capital from a Syrian building, a three-handled fritware vessel from the ceramic centre of Nishapur in Iran) to evoke life in the Asian cities through which Rumi passed in the 1200s. About the closest you get to a direct connection are some tiles, courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Louvre, believed to come from the original tower built over Rumi’s tomb in Konya (and later refurbished, hence the travelling tiles.)

Where this exhibition really excels is in the fine manuscript illuminations, mainly from the late 16th and 17th centuries. Those from a 16th-century hagiography of the mystic and his successors, originally from Baghdad and now in the collection of New York’s Morgan Library, depict episodes from Rumi’s life, including his relationship with his beloved spiritual partner Shams of Tabriz and his funeral, but painted long after his death in 1273. Others illustrate poems from his two collections, The Divan of Shams of Tabriz and the Masnavi-yi Manavi.

The exhibition also includes a digital reproduction of an early manuscript version of the former – from the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin – so you can leaf through the Persian text page by page. Others are illuminations that refer obliquely to Rumi’s stories and themes: A 17th-century Indian watercolour of an emaciated horse evokes the mystics’ belief one should tame one’s desires through fasting. Both a 17th-century Iranian ink drawing showing a man struggling with a snake and a 16th-century Iranian manuscript illustrating the story of the clever rabbit tricking a lion into pouncing on his own reflection refer to parables that Rumi used.

Meanwhile, the contemporary Iranian-Canadian artist Simin Keramati creates an installation where you can glimpse an image of an elephant through peepholes or on a video. This recreates Rumi’s version of the parable about subjectivity in which men in a dark room mistakenly describe an elephant based only on feeling the trunk, the tusk or the ear.

So what are these parables really about? As this exhibition points out, Rumi did not offer a theological system but rather thoughts about life and spirituality. Many of the parables featuring animals suggest the importance of overcoming baser instincts – not a theme that would seem to appeal to contemporary tastes.

And yet, Rumi offers that as the path to the divine, while another important route is love. He writes of passionate love, often conflating the spiritual and the sensual – rather like the erotic Song of Songs in the Judeo-Christian tradition – thus producing a trove of romantic poetry for those inclined to read his work that way.

In keeping with historic evidence, this exhibition describes Rumi and Shams’s relationship only as that of spiritual partners; in the Sufi tradition it is regarded as platonic, but it was a passionate love nonetheless. For a contemporary Canadian audience the tale of Rumi and Shams’s meeting, their mutual spiritual quest, Shams’s mysterious disappearance four years later and Rumi’s desperate attempts to find him, sounds like a tragic love story. The third contemporary contributor, Toronto artist Erdem Tasdelen, evokes the emotional nature of a spiritual quest with a complex audio installation in which four fictional characters explore their dreams.

In truth, Rumi’s lines are often ambiguous. As the exhibition demonstrates with a poem about divine grace accompanied by a 16th-century illustration of a beautiful woman drinking wine, he fits in the Persian artistic tradition that elides the gap between the physical and spiritual, or the worldly and the divine. This ambiguity is central to Rumi’s cultural tradition but also to his contemporary appeal as it allows contemporary readers to interpret the poems at will.

One of the most important moments in this exhibition (which makes good use of digital aids) is a small audio and visual display tucked away in a section about Rumi’s influence in recent centuries. It offers spoken versions of Rumi’s most quoted lines, using both the original Persian and various translations. The differences are significant.

Open this photo in gallery:

Brad Pitt's Rumi tattoo is visible as he waves, in Venice, in August, 2019.ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images

Take Pitt’s tattoo: “There exists a field, beyond all notions of right and wrong. I will meet you there.” Not to continually prod the Jennifer Anniston sore, but you might think it rather convenient for a much-scrutinized public figure to think of meeting his next love in a place beyond right and wrong. Yet that translation is a variation on lines that appear in the best-selling Essential Rumi, a lyrical English-language adaptation first published in 1995 by the American poetry professor Coleman Barks, who does not speak Persian, and it removes the Islamic content. A more direct translation would read, “Beyond Islam and non-belief …” So, a gentler interpretation is that Rumi writes not of a place beyond morality but beyond doctrine, beyond judgement, an idea that might also appeal to many modern readers.

And where is this place and who might Rumi meet there? For all the historical context in this exhibition, the intention of Rumi’s sensuous poetry remains alluringly mysterious.

Rumi continues to Oct. 1 at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles