The University of Iowa

Historical, cultural and political views of the Middle East

May 5th, 2010

By Shams Ghoneim*

This is an opinion piece written for the Press Citizen in coordination with International Programs’ May 7 WorldCanvass program focusing on the Middle East.

Rumi, a Sufi, was a 13th century Muslim Mystical Poet who was born in 1207 in what is today’s Afghanistan. He wrote 60,000 poems before his death in 1273.

His funeral, which lasted 40 days, was attended by Muslims, Jews, Persians, Christians and Greeks.

The 13th century was the era of the crusades. And the area where Rumi lived was under constant threat of Mongol invasion. The great upheavals Rumi faced during his life is said to have influenced much of his poetry. Living in violent times led to his most beautiful, spiritual and peaceful poems.

He had the ability to describe the indescribable (God). In one of his mystical poems he wrote: “Only Breath / Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu / Buddhist, Sufi, or Zen. Not any religion / or cultural system. I am not from the East / or the West, not out of the ocean or up / from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not / composed of elements at all. I do not exist, / am not an entity in this world or in the next, / did not descend from Adam and Eve or any / origin story. My place is placeless, a trace / of the traceless.”

He went on to write, “Neither body or soul. / I belong to the beloved- God-, have seen the two / worlds as one and that one call to and know, / first, last, outer, inner, only that / breath breathing human being.”

Rumi’s timeless vision in spite of the horrific times that he lived in leaves us a lot to think about. In times of personal struggles, national/global conflicts and wars, we are faced with the challenges of how best to cross theses most difficult of bridges while achieving unity, justice and peace within ourselves, with others and with the Almighty God.

In the Middle East and in the Holy Lands, Christians, Muslims and Jews are intertwined in the lovely mosaic of monotheism. Mixed-faith marriages are part of life there. In spite of the 60-year-old Palestinian and Israeli conflict in the region, religious unity has survived although, at times, with difficulty.

Today and for some time, the politics of religion has unfortunately challenged the region as well as globally. When members of one faith or another are routinely prevented from worshipping in their holy sites, tension and hostilities are a natural outcome.

Since we as a nation are still heavily involved in the Middle East and in two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we must try to create the environment for open and civilized discussions. It is in honest, respectful and open exchanges of ideas as well as interfaith dialogues that we can achieve civility with one another, a lasting and just peace in the Holy Lands, the region and the world.
From 5 to 7 p.m. Friday in the Old Capitol Museum, Joan Kjaer will host another live taping of the television and radio program “WorldCanvass” — this time focusing on the Middle East. The event is free and open to the public, and music performance from the region will be included.

The program will begin with UI faculty members offering a historical, cultural and political overview of the region. It also will include an interfaith dialogue and perspective from members of the three great monotheistic religions of the world.

Other topics will include:

• Islam in Iowa and America,

• UI’s recruitment efforts in the Middle East and

• A recent Iraqi initiative — playwrights who’ve had life-changing experiences in the Middle East and how their art was affected.

Please join us to what promises to be a great and informative evening of engaging conversations and enchanting music in Iowa City.


* Shams Ghoneim is a native of Egypt and an Iowa representative on the Muslim Public Affairs Council.