Whereas in the past my attempts to develop a deeper understanding of Islam has been difficult, I found an opening through the writing and philosophy of Rumi.
Rumi was born Jalaluddin Balkhi, September 30, 1207, in Balkh, Afghanistan which was part of the Persian empire. One of the most beloved and read mystical poets in America and all over the world.
Granted Rumis Sufi origins are considered heretical by some sects of Islam, many, many more are inspired by the universal message of the work.
An interesting article last year in SF Gate quotes Rumi as saying:
"From love, thorns become flowers,' " Naini says. "Rumi teaches that even if the Devil falls in love, he becomes something like (the angel) Gabriel, and that evilness dies within him."
I have been really moved by the candid, sensual, deep wisdom of the poems. Perhaps mostly because of his emphasis of our shared connections and how to strengthen them.
This poem in particular has lingered in my mind:
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. Neither body or soul.
I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one and that one call to and know,
first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human being.
Painting of Sufi Dervishes by Jean-BaptisteVan Mour
Rumi also founded the sufi Mevlevi order, famous for their ceremonial Whirling dance.
The Mevlevi, or "The Whirling Dervishes", believe in performing in the form of a "dance", a music ceremony called the Sema.
The Sema represents a mystical journey of man's spiritual ascent through mind and love to "Perfect." Turning towards the truth, the follower grows through love, deserts his ego, finds the truth and arrives at the "Perfect." He then returns from this spiritual journey as a man who has reached maturity and a greater perfection, so as to love and to be of service to the whole of creation.
According to some modern proponents the Sufi philosophy is universal in nature, its roots predating the arising of Islam and the other modern-day religions; likewise, some Muslims feel that Sufism is outside the sphere of Islam. The chief aim of all Sufis is to seek the pleasing of God by working to restore within themselves the primordial state described in the Qur'an and similar to the concept of Buddha nature. In this state nothing one does defies God, and all is undertaken by the single motivation of love of God. A secondary consequence of this is that the seeker may be led to abandon all notions of dualism or multiplicity, including a conception of an individual self, and to realize the Divine Unity.
One of the words to which the term 'Sufi' is related is the Greek Sophia, meaning wisdom; wisdom is the knowledge acquired from within and without. Therefore Sufism is not only an intuitive knowledge nor is it only a knowledge acquired from the outer life of the world. Sufism in itself is not a religion nor even a cult with a distinct or definite doctrine. No better explanation of Sufism can be given than by saying that any person who has knowledge of both outer and inner life is a Sufi. Thus there has never in any period of the world's history been a founder of Sufism, yet Sufism has existed at all times.
Having seen the Whirling Dervishes in person I can attest to the deeply moving quality of witnessing the ceremony... If you ever get a chance don't pass it up!
I know there have been many arguments over the quality of the translations... I have noted several comments by people of Persian descent who take issue with Barks translations of the original Persian texts, with examples (though they do not indicate if the alternate translations are there on or from another source) so I would recommend exploring other translations as well.
I also ran across a recommendation on amazon to read Idries Shah The Sufis for a broader understanding.