Born in 1207, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi lived in Persia and Afghanistan, then settled in Turkey. Before his passing in 1273, Rumi had written 65,000 lines of poetry – a legacy which influences and inspires people around the world 8 centuries later.
Mawlana Rumi explained that his work, fundamentally rooted in the Qur’an, addressed the “religion behind religion” and was intended for the whole world. Shared through books, recitation, and music, his message has resonated in schools and universities in countries throughout the world, even in many nonreligious “New Age” meditation clinics. Timeless, Rumi’s voice remains vital for today – but how can he be heard in our contemporary world filled with tweets, emails, instagrams, and the modern 17-second news cycle?
Mohammed Ali Vakil and his team (Mohammed Arif Vakil, Rahil Mohsin, Mahdi Tabatabaie Yazdi, Abdul Gafur Madinal, and Muqtar Ahmed) felt they had to address this very question – how to make Rumi’s timeless message relevant for today’s audience?
Though originally from India, Mohammed Ali Vakil grew up in Dubai and moved to Bangalore in 2002. While in Dubai his learning of Indian history primarily came from comics published by ACK (Amar Chitra Katha), “although I had no idea I was actually learning anything!” He had discovered ACK Comics, which energized Indian history and mythology for young people all across the country; readers learn without realizing they’re actually being exposed to fundamental cultural history.
Mohammed felt this exciting medium was a perfect format for sharing Islam’s spiritual teachings and wisdom with a contemporary audience. He compiled a team of artists and editors who shared his passion and started SufiComics.com in 2009.
After publishing 2 books, 40 Sufi Comics & The Wise Fool of Baghadad, the Sufi Comics team took up the task of illustrating Rumi’s poems for the graphic medium. Carefully selecting 40 poems from Rumi’s works, the team labored over how to present these pearls of wisdom – creating a delicate balance between information and entertainment, developing a visual vocabulary targeted to their modern audience. “This is the most difficult part, deciding how best to tell the stories. Although the rest is work – layouts, thumbnails, penciling, inking – it’s less stressful because the hard decisions have been made.”
Some people carry the misperception that Rumi is “fringe” Islam, but Rumi based his work solidly in the Qur’an. For each poem, selections from the Qur’an are made along with accompanying Hadith; this proved to be a challenge because the team would continuously ask themselves if one selection might be better over another. The whole team felt an inner drive to make the presentations perfect – “We felt what we were doing was important, and continually asked ourselves if each decision was the best possible we could make.”
They found someone with OCD to edit, Mohammed jokes, and verified everything with scholars.
I’ve been a fan of graphic novels from Europe and North America for ages, and I have also come across poor examples of religiously themed works – Mohammed and his team have produced a series of books which pleasantly shatters all expectation. The selections from Rumi’s work are timely and timeless, the artwork is sensitive and lyrical with just the right touch of humor, and the calligraphy is exactly right. In a world of garish and shocking presentation, these works captivate while remaining sensitive, and painlessly teach principles fundamental to our health as a society.
“It’s important for people to realize this work is not just for Muslims,” Mohammed explains. Rumi used teachings from the Qur’an to share what he felt was wisdom universally applicable to everyone, regardless of their background. “We feel the same way – that these lessons can help many people of all backgrounds today.” And the graphic novels give a contemporary vocabulary to these timeless lessons. “We feel we’re bringing out the true Rumi while making it more accessible to everyone. We want Muslims and people of other faiths to experience Rumi positively, in a way they’ve never seen before.”
What’s next? Another volume of Rumi?
“We’re shifting gears,” Mohammed shared. “Our current project is building a visual guide to the Qur’an for people who have never read it. A visual presentation so people with little or no context can appreciate the valuable lessons of the Qur’an, in a way which makes learning feel nothing at all like learning.”
If these artists continue with the same expertise they’ve shown in their Rumi work, this new volume will definitely be worth seeing.
Keep up with their work through their website, SufiComics.com.
All images used by permission of SufiComics.com.