A small exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, "Light of the Sufis: Mystical Arts of Islam" focuses on the Sufi, or tasawoof, tradition, and the influences of cultures that contributed to its origins as well as artistic expressions that have emerged from these practices.
A lecture,"Ruminations with Zahra Partovi" featured this artist and translator of Jalalluddin Mohammad Rumi's poetry who works with artists in NYC who are creating visual artworks drawn from the ideas and interpretations of his Sufi poems.
During her passionate talk with a background film of people's feet going up the stairs at the Met, Partovi read works in both Persian and English and pointed out the poet's fluid outpouring as a Sufi teacher, Muslim preacher (her term), philosopher, scientist, psychologist, poet, and storyteller. The reach and depth of his knowledge, she believes, contributes to his ongoing popularity. She also described the origin of Sufism as a response to a need for "softness" in traditional Islam as it was being practiced in 12th c. Iran. There, Sufism flowered out of the advanced learning and philosophies developed by traditional Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, and Neo-Platonism.
Partovi's response to one very general question from the audience interested me. When asked, "Who was Shams of Tabriz?" Partovi offered first the famous story in which Rumi, renowned scholar, after three days of non-stop discussion with this stranger named Shams of Tabriz, throws his books into the river having found a deeper source of knowing. But then, rejuvenated that story with a line from one of Rumi's poems---Shams was "an excuse"; he already was the knowledge. One artist in the audience complained that the presentation smacked of proselytizing. While museum representatives quickly jumped in to explain the intention to explore art and culture, Partovi listened with a wry look on her face.
Partovi's translation appears in the exhibit on a glass sculpture by Kelly Driscoll. Light seeps through graduated glass plates and casts shadows of the words for the viewers to read instead of the etched letters, including: "I am like the sun drowned within the light; I know not how to distinguish myself from light!"