(Sarfraz Manzoor’s article appeared in the Guardian, 11/9; ‘You are the entire ocean in a drop’ … Rumi. Photograph: CPA Media Pte Ltd/Alamy.)

A new stage production aims to tell the Sufi poet’s story beyond his aphorisms – and challenge assumptions about Islam and the Middle East in the process

He is everywhere and nowhere. The words of Jalal al-Din Rumi are found on sunset images pasted on Instagram and coffee mugs sold on Etsy; his poems have been featured in recordings from Madonna and Coldplay and he is reputed to be the bestselling poet in the US. Rumi’s observations and aphorisms on life may be endlessly cited – “You are not a drop in the ocean, you are the entire ocean in a drop” – but few in the west know him as anything more than a bearded Sufi mystic.

“Rumi has become a mystical, almost deified figure,” says Nadim Naaman. “The reality is that he was the opposite of an untouchable deity.” Naaman, a British Lebanese singer, actor and writer, has collaborated with the Qatari composer Dana Al Fardan to create Rumi: The Musical. “Our approach was to take the man out of the myth,” says Al Fardan, “and to present him as human being.” This is the second time Naaman and Al Fardan have brought a beloved Middle Eastern poet to the London stage. Their 2018 show Broken Wings, which is returning to London in the new year, was based on a novel by the Lebanese poet and writer Kahlil Gibran. It was the success of that production that convinced them there may be an appetite for a musical that delved into the life of Rumi.

Rumi was born in 1207 in present day Afghanistan. He was 36 and married with two children when he met a wandering mystic known as Shams of Tabriz. The two began what started as an intense friendship, and which might have developed into a love affair. When Shams disappeared after three years, Rumi turned to poetry to cope with the separation, writing more than 3,000 love songs to Shams, the prophet Muhammad and God.

The contemporary popularity of Rumi traces back to the mid-1970s and the translations of Rumi’s writing by the American academic and poet Coleman Barks, who sought to foreground the timeless, universal essence in the writings. “His entire ideology is based on cultivating the essence within,” says Al Fardan. “Rumi managed to latch on to themes and feelings that can apply to everyone,” says Naaman. “He’s managed to do that because his focus is on self-reflection.”

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Listen to a podcast on Rumi’s poetry on In Our Time, BBC Radio 4.

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