Some thoughts and reflections on Philip Jenkins’s book Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality
Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (Sept. 30, 1207 – Dec. 17, 1273), better known as Rumi, was a Persian born Sufi Muslim teacher, religious leader, poet, and Islamic scholar. Since the day that they were written, Rumi’s poems have been enjoyed by countless people in multiple languages. In recent decades, his poems have enjoyed a renaissance in America with Rumi becoming “one of the best-selling poets in the United States.”
As a Sufi Muslim, Rumi was follower of “Islam’s immensely complex and infinitely diverse mystical tradition.” Though rooted in the core beliefs of Islam, Sufism is a “medley of divergent philosophical and religions trends” with concepts borrowed from Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions. This background allowed Rumi to become “dissolver of boundaries” with poems that speak to the heart of humanity regardless of religious affiliation. This mystical belief in the connection of all of humanity can be seen most clearly in Rumi’s statement that he saw “one altar” and not three when he went “into the Muslim mosque and the Jewish synagogue and the Christian church.”
Rumi’s poems are characterized by his usage of “anything human beings do, no matter how scandalous or cruel or silly, as a lens to examine soul growth.” This style, though effective at one level, also tends to drive away some readers due to the crude and unrefined nature of the poems. I, for one, fall into this latter group as I did not find Rumi’s poems to be enlightening, enriching, or beneficial. Rather I found them to confusing and unhelpful in stimulating personal spiritual formation. Part of this, I readily admit, may be due to my personal preference and enjoyment of prose over and above that of poetry of any nature.
There were two poems of Rumi’s that I did find of interest. The first being the “Chickpea to Cook” in which the chickpea learns from the cook that flavor comes through the heat of the stove. Coleman Barks, the poem’s translator, elaborates on this poem stating that the chickpea is the disciple who listens to and obeys their teacher (i.e. the cook). Though this may be the official scholarly interpretation of the poem, my heart understood the poem along the lines of personal hardship. Spiritual growth, wisdom, and maturity rarely come when life is at its best; rather these things are born out of a heart that allows God to refine us like gold in the melting pot (e.g. Malachi 3:3, James 1:2-4, Isaiah 48:10).
The “Elephant in the Dark” was the second Rumi poem that stood out to me. This poem tells the story of three men who look at an elephant in a dark room. Each one only sees and feels a portion of the elephant and, therefore, comes to an incomplete understanding of the animal. This is most likely one of Rumi’s most famous poem, though he is not always given credit for it. Hence while I have heard multiple variations of this poem over the years, I did not know its author. As such, finding the true author of the poem was like finding a coin in a rain-soaked field, a pleasant surprise that makes the trudge through the mud bearable.
In conclusion, I found the poems of Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī as translated by Coleman Barks in the book The Essential Rumi interesting though uninspiring. However, I am sure lovers of poetry will most likely disagree with this conclusion as seen by the lasting international fame of Rumi. To each their own.
 Azadeh Moaveni, “How Did Rumi Become One of Our Best-Selling Poets?”, The New York Times (New York City, NY), January 20, 2017, accessed February 19, 2018, .
 Reza Aslan, No god But God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam (New York: Random House, 2005), 198.
Islam rose to the forefront of the global consciousness on September 11, 2001 through the bloody actions of several self-proclaimed followers of Islam. Yet in spite of the almost constant barrage of information since then by news pundits, political leaders, and religious personalities, it seems that most people living in the United States still don’t understand the basic concepts, history, or divisions within the religion. Written four years after the 9-11 terrorist attacks by Reza Aslan, a Sufi Muslim immigrant to the USA from Iran, the book No god But God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam seeks to provide the reader with a basic understanding of Islam.
Using chronological time as a scaffold, Aslan focuses on telling the theological history of Islam rather than outlining the territorial spread of the religion. This focus on the theological development of Islam allows Aslan to highlight the various reformation movements within the religion. In fact, Aslan goes as far as to say that the book itself is less about the origins of Islam as much as it is “an argument for reform.” Though not widely known in the United States, “Islam has been in a constant state of evolution” since the very beginning. Hence the power and glory of Aslan’s book is that it informs the readers of the struggles within Islam as its religious followers try to adapt their religion to a changing world while remaining true to their traditions, scriptures, and deity.
A good example of this struggle is the ongoing debate over the role of human reason in reading and understanding the Quran. The Rationalist school of thought within Islam believes that all “theological arguments must adhere to the principles of rational thought.” Hence to them, the proper way to interpret the Quran is to read it within “its historical context.” This allows proponents of the Rationalist school of thought to adapt the message of the Quran to the culture of the time. The Traditional school of thought, however, holds the opposite view, claiming that “human reason, while certainly important, must nevertheless be subordinate to the Quran and the Sunna of the Prophet.” This view leads to a more literal reading of the Quran that states that the Quran and its interpretation “has never changed and will never change.”
This debate reminds me of the Liberal/Fundamentalist divide within Protestant Christianity in the United States. Within this divide it was the Liberals who embraced science and human logic while the Fundamentalists held to a “strong emphasis on the inerrancy and literal truth of the biblical record and the falseness of modern, skeptical, evolutionary science and philosophy.” As such, it can be said that Fundamental Evangelicalism and Traditional Islam both hold to some of the same philosophical concepts.
In closing, I must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed Reza Aslan’s book No god But God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. It gave me a greater understanding of what is happening within Islam and among the various people groups who embrace the teachings of Muhammad. As the last decade has taught us, the world is changing with Islam quickly becoming a major player on the global scene. Accordingly, the reforms within Islam have now become the reforms of all people as these reforms have the potential to shape the world’s geopolitical and cultural structures in multiple ways.
 Reza Aslan, No god But God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam (New York: Random House, 2005), xx.
 Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 534.