North Canton Walsh University unveiled its Catholic-Jewish Institute last week with a program on Rumi, a 13th-century Sufi Muslim who is the mostly-widely read poet in the Western world.
Rumi's life and works were the center of a panel discussion led by Daryush Parvinbenam, a practicing Sufi who is a clinical assistant professor in the graduate program in counseling and human development at Walsh, and Rabbi John Spitzer, the leader of Temple Israel in Canton and a founder of the institute.
"As the world becomes further divided by religion and culture, it is imperative that dialogue be opened to bring the world together," Spitzer said in a statement explaining the purpose of the institute. "Wars and racial hatred in the name of religion exist around the globe, thus establishing the urgent need to replace misconception and prejudice with dialogue and truth.
Islam, Judaism, and Catholicism share many fundamental principles, and open discussion is vital to stopping the perpetuation of this trend.
"Through open dialogue, we have the opportunity to dispel the one-dimensional perception of Islam and discuss multifaceted aspects of Islam and its mystical school."
What do sufis believe? Parvinbenam said the essence of Sufi mysticism is to find truth and spiritual enlightenment by way of a "Tariqat" or spiritual path. "The ultimate goal of a Sufi is finding perfection through union with God," he said, adding that a fear of hell or the promise of paradise are not the Sufi's chief motives for worship.
Parvinbenam said little is known about Sufism, partly because the media tends to focus on the Sunnis and Shias, who represent most of the world's Muslims. "The problem is, this does not sell newspapers," he said.
The word "Sufi" comes from the Arabic word "suf," which means "wool." It comes from the simple wool robes and tunics once worn by early practitioners.
Sufism is believed to have originated in Persia, or modern-day Iran, in the 12th century. There are some schools of thought that suggest that the tenets of Sufi predate Islam itself, and that Sufis adopted Islam as a vehicle. Other theories are that Sufi emerged from Shia Islam as a response to a harshly legalistic form of the faith.
Sufism has not been without controversy. It has been criticized by other Muslims and even some traditional Sufis, who reject such outward expressions as the Whirling Dervishes, which they say is more cultural than spiritual.
The "Whirling Dervishes" are one the most recognizable symbols of Sufism; their dancing, Parvinbenam said, is symbolic of spiritual transformation.
Who was Rumi? Historically, Sufis have been the some of the most prolific producers of Islamic poetry, the most famous among them, Jalal-ad-din Muhammad Rumi, a poet, philosopher and theologian who wrote more than 70,000 verses over a 25-year period. Rumi was born in 1297 in Persia. Highly personal and passionate, his works have been praised for transcending spiritual, religious and social barriers. His poems have been translated into virtually every modern-day language. He died in 1273.
The United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization has declared 2007 "The Year of Rumi."
Other panelists included Kabbalah expert William "Zev" Rosenberg, Imam Ramez A. Islambouli, a Muslim chaplain at Case Western Reserve University, and Matthew T. Powell, a doctoral candidate in theology who will join the Walsh faculty this fall as an adjunct theology professor.
[picture: Words of Faith: Daryush Parvinbenam, a Sufi Muslim and instructor at Walsh University, was one of several experts who participated in Walsh's Catholic-Jewish Institute, a new outreach designed to foster interfaith dialogue. The inaugural program examined the common threads of Sufi, Jewish and Catholic mysticism through the works of the Sufi poet Rumi.