In Konya, the tourist epicentre of Rumi in Turkey, young people explain why they feel disillusioned with the heritage of the mystic poet. They feel that Rumi’s heritage is used to keep up appearances and for political gain. Forming a quiet and controversial group in Turkey, they warn: ‘Around here, Rumi is not anymore who you think he is.’

Konya is a conservative industrial city and all-time stronghold of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AK-party. Rumi lived in Konya for the biggest part of his life, when the city was still a lively centre and home to a variety of languages and religions. He was buried there in 1273 underneath a green tower. His tombstone says: ‘When we are dead, seek not our tomb in the earth, but find it in the hearts of men.’ – and yet it is exactly this place that is the most visited museum in Turkey, attracting more than 2.5 million visitors from around the world on a yearly basis.

The couple Miraç (38) and Ayse (31) recently graduated and grew up in Konya. They used to find Rumi’s poetry amusing – as the inhabitants of the world-famous city almost naturally come to do. This is until they start to see the idolisation of Rumi in Konya – and people profiting thereof – with different eyes. Slowly, they start to draw parallels between the blind admiration of Rumi and the current political situation in Turkey.

Miraç and Ayse visit the Rumi museum in Konya, which is a once in a lifetime experience for millions of tourists. Watch why they would rather not go at all.

Rumi’s ‘Wedding night’ is commemorated each year in Konya. Tens of thousands of people from all over the world come to celebrate the day Rumi died and, so they believe, ‘wedded’ with God. In December 2017, the city saw an unexpected and high-level guest: President Erdoğan decided to join in the festivities of Rumi’s wedding night. And this was no spontaneous visit of his.

Erdoğan can make good use of an Islamic and world-famous role model from Turkey for his political ambitious. Rumi as Muslim hero who unites people across the borders of Turkey; it is a strong symbol that could help his dream to make Turkey leader of the Middle east and the muslim world at large.

The theme of the wedding night of 2017 was, appropriately perhaps, ‘A time for brotherhood’. When Erdoğan spoke to the public in Konya, he said that the love for Rumi is bringing Turkish people together: “Those who think our bonds with our roots, history, culture and civilization are on the knife edge are in for a very big mistake. This nation, exposed to many attacks from outside and many treasons from inside, will always thwart all such plans thanks to the strong bonds with its history and ancestors.”

The followers of Rumi are the most famous Sufi group in Turkey, but by no means the only group of the country. Erdoğan, who has a (not so publicly known) Sufi background himself, is living proof of that diversity. He and his political mentors belong to a Sufi group called the Naqshbandi. While the Mevlevi’s of Rumi are known to be an empathic and a liberal counterpart of orthodox Islam, are the Naqshbandi closer to the ‘official’ Islam, adhering to more strict interpretations of the Sharia law.

Main opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu vowed to stop visiting Rumi’s wedding night in Konya after Erdogan made his speech. He asked his supporters to do the same: ‘Rumi’s soul has never hurt so much before,’ he said.

Now that Miraç and Ayse changed their minds about the use Rumi’s heritage in Turkey today, they also set out to know who the poet really was. Was Rumi actually a peace-loving man and great example for the world? Or is there a different side to that story too?

Finding an answer to the question of who Rumi truly was is not easy. There is the fact that Rumi’s poetry is 800 years old and written in Farsi, a language Miraç and Ayse don’t understand. And then there is another constraint: a single narrative about Rumi gets carefully protected in Turkey. The stakes for Rumi’s reputation to remain the pacifistic Prophet of Love are high.

A world of different insights opens when Miraç and Ayse meet professor Michael Bayram. The grey-haired professor lives close by the couple in Konya. It is there, in the heart of Rumi in Turkey, that he voices his controversial bottom line: Rumi was a power-hungry man who used violence for his personal gain. ‘And don’t be so surprised’, is Bayram’s message, ‘that is how simply things were around here in the thirteenth century’.

Mirac visits professor Bayram in Konya. They examine old manuscripts about the life and work of Rumi.

Bayram travelled through Turkey, the Middle-East and Iran as a scholar. He studied age-old manuscripts about Rumi. Bayram’s most famous book deals with the power play between Rumi and Ahi Evren, a Sufi mystic who lived in Konya too. According to Bayram’s findings, Rumi cooperated with the Mongolian occupiers of Anatolia in attacking Evren and his followers. Bayram even claims to have found proof that Rumi personally commissioned murder and theft.

After Bayram starts sharing these findings with the media and students at the university in Konya in 2009, he finds himself in a storm of threats and is sued multiple times in court. Bayram is forced to retire three years ago, but continues to teach curious students like Miraç and Ayse in his home. They are eager to learn new perspectives on Rumi in a place where they officially do not exist.

Do you want to be a Sufi?
It won’t take you a day.

Mustafa is from Konya where he starts practising the sema dance, the famous whirling dance of the followers of Rumi, at a young age. As a talented whirling dancer and reed-flute player he travels the world, until he radically changes his mind about Rumi and Sufism. He then opens an alternative bar in Konya and calls it Hiç, which literally means ‘nothing’. In Sufism, Hiç is the last level in a person’s earthly journey to become one with God. It is the moment in which nothing else, no material, no ego, exists besides the perfect union with God.

Sera, Mustafa’s girlfriend, recalls a meeting in the streets of Konya after his metamorphosis from traditional Sufi to free  and alternative sprit.

After dedicating his life to the practices of the Mevlevi, Mustafa concludes that Sufism did not liberate him in any way. And that every wandering modern soul who believes it will, will end up feeling disappointed. According to Mustafa, the secret for a free and happy life comes in two parts: the first is the Quran. And the second, most important, is sobhet mohpet; chit chatting and connecting with people close to you.

‘The tourists visiting Konya are visiting the wrong place. This city has little to do with the peaceful and open image it is famous for.’

‘Sufism and Rumi don’t assign any responsibilities in life. That is why people like it. It is easy.’

About the next chapter: ‘Whirl the way you want.’ 

While youth like Miraç, Ayse and Mustafa dissociate from Rumi’s heritage, there is a also a complete opposite movement happening in Turkey. Born from the same frustrations about the commercial use of Rumi and political situation in Turkey, the ‘new Sufi’s’ of Turkey are seeking to reconnect to Rumi’s heritage. They are discovering new places and rituals to do this in their own way.