On Friday evening at the Australian Catholic University, two Muslim scholars sat with an audience and discussed the great 13th century Persian poet Mevlana Rumi.
Ustadh Feraidoon Mojadedi, an Afghani scholar who now lives in the USA, was in conversation with Imam Afroz Ali, of the Sydney Seekers’ Hub, a place of Islamic learning.
They spoke of Rumi as a great spiritual teacher, not just for Muslims, but for all humanity. Ustadh Feraidoon Mojadedi wears his enormous erudition lightly, and had us laughing even as he explained the complexity and depth of Rumi’s vision. He argued that what non-Persian readers need is more, better commentary rather than translation, because all translation is misleading. There’s much more to Rumi than you would gather from the quotes you see on Facebook.
I went along for a number of reasons, but mainly because a friend gave me a copy of The Essential Rumi decades ago which has remained, literally, a closed book. I’m also aware that my ignorance of Islam can’t be a good thing in the age of Corey Bernardi and Donald Trump.
Well, I know a tiny bit more about Rumi, and I’m planning to go to another event next week. But possibly more significant is how the evening altered my sense of Islam.
The relaxed, affectionate relationship of the two scholars was in sharp contrast to images I have from movies.
In question time, it was women who asked all the questions – so much for the notion that women are silenced in Islam.
And most interestingly we were all invited to join the sunset prayer part way through the event. I’m not at all religious, but I’d joined in the Our Father at an Anglican ceremony the previous day. I checked with a number of people and joined the prayers. I did a lot wrong: I hadn’t arrived in an abluted state, I didn’t take my shoes off, I joined a line that turned out to be the women’s line, and I’m pretty sure I failed to follow all the standing and kneeling correctly (though my Catholic youth and childhood was some preparation for that). And of course I didn’t understand what was being said by the prayer leader. But there is something profound in joining a group of people who humbly bow repeatedly in the face of the mystery of the universe, and I returned to the lecture with an extraordinary sense of our shared humanity. Which was also the content of much of the talk.
So I went to the event expecting a literary evening, and found something quite different.
I’ve set myself a task of writing a 14-line rhyme with each blog entry in November (originally inspired by those people who write a whole novel in November – not sweating over quality, just getting the words out). Here goes for this one:
Rhyme #12: On joining sunset prayers
I bow, I kneel, I touch my forehead
to the grass. I have no God:
no disrespect, I take these borrowed
gestures (like my childhood’s nod
at Jesus’ name, or genuflection)
not to seek some Power’s protection,
but to say: The world is vast,
my time here comes and goes so fast.
Right now I humbly pay attention
to what is deepest in my heart:
my loves, my challenges, the part
I choose to take past good intention.
We bow, we stand, we’re flesh and bone
and mind. We’re none of us alone.