The Rule is Love
The Rule is Love

Known widely as Rumi, Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī (1207-1273) is one of history’s most celebrated poets and Islamic figures. As an institution constantly seeking to make connections between historical Islamic art and modern life, it is natural that the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto would choose to honor him for the 750th anniversary of his death. Divided into three distinct sections, the Aga Khan Museum’s Rumi: A visual journey through the life and legacy of a Sufi mystic carries with it the central message that love knows no borders; not of religion, ethnicity, nation, gender, or creed. As a Sufi mystic and nomad, Rumi lived by love as his governing rule. He left virtually no material possessions behind– as a result, the exhibit takes on a mosaic quality, consisting of devotional Sufi objects, stylized manuscripts published centuries after Rumi’s death, and artifacts from the regions he passed through. We are not given direct material linkages to his physical life, but are instead called on to engage with his presence in a mystical sense, through our subjective and personal interpretations of greatly varying objects.

Curated by Michael Chagnon, Rumi takes the rule of love literally in its form, calling into question boundaries of art viewership, pushing an active engagement with Rumi’s spiritual ideas and writing rather than a passive walking-through. With its collage-like arrangement and interactive elements, the collection traces the external forces – places, people, religions – that shaped Rumi’s life, fostering his internal development, to then dissolve the dualism between the two. His constant migration, friendships with other poets and scholars, and Sufi mysticism make it impossible to put his existence into clear categories. Rumi’s work and legacy is beyond classification in terms of ethnicity or subject matter, and this is why his legacy persists. He speaks to the private, intimate parts of us, the ones that love, those that remain sacred and ungovernable despite any attempt to restrain them with borders and violence.

Outside– the external shapes the internal

In the park outside the entrance of the Aga Khan Museum, we find an installation by artists Matt Donovan and Hallie Siegel, “Listen.” Inspired by one of Rumi’s poems of the same name, the installation suspends the line ‘there is a voice that does not use words’ upside-down, in a simple black font, above the courtyard’s large central reflecting pool. Each word is separate such that the sentence can only be read from a distance upon close inspection of the inverted script. Because the work cannot be absorbed so simply in a glance, the experience of its viewing requires us to engage with our surroundings, moving through them, rather than just stand as a detached viewer. The sentence can only be read from a specific vantage point, which we must find by walking around and observing. The meaning of the seemingly arbitrary words cannot be perceived without interacting with the courtyard – the installation invites us to listen to the environment, the rustling of nearby trees, ripple of the water, footsteps on stone… Meaning is dependent on the ephemeral things in our surroundings, which are not fixed in space, time, and language; this is the voice that does not use words. It is intimacy with something unfixable and uncategorizable that can never be spoken, only felt. This is Rumi’s rule of love: it transcends thresholds of canvases and nationalities alike.

Matt Donovan and Hallie Siegel, "Listen." Installation at the Aga Khan Park's center reflecting pool, 2023 (photo by Mert Alper Davis, courtesy of the Aga Khan Museum).

Inside the museum, the exhibit opens onto a particular manuscript of the Masnavi, Rumi’s most prominent collection of poetry. Created in the mid-14th century, this particular manuscript passed from library to library, moving from Iran to India and eventually to Europe. Each owner over seven centuries has added small annotations and illustrations. The manuscript bears its historical material on its sleeve, moving and being altered by its journey– like Rumi himself.

The first section of Rumi, ‘the Historical Rumi,’ is an approximation of the mystic’s actual likeness through devotional objects and artifacts. As a perpetual traveler he did not own many possessions, and whatever he did may not have survived. But these material possessions are unimportant: we do not remember Rumi through clothes he may have worn or quills he may have touched, but through the spiritual material he had conveyed. Lines of his poems are strewn on the gallery’s walls, between maps of Western/Central Asia tracing his journeys, as well as artifacts and manuscripts establishing the context in which Rumi wrote. We are shown a glossy black 18th century Sufi kashkul (beggar’s bowl), columns and tiles from Syria, Konya and Iran, dating as far back as the 13th century, and several illustrated manuscripts and Persian miniatures depicting Sufi mystic traditions.

"Kashkul (beggar's bowl)," late 18th-19th century, carved coco-de-mer shell; metal fittings, AKM 640 (© Aga Khan Museum).

The Aga Khan Museum’s ‘historical’ depiction of Rumi remains ephemeral, discovered by affective interpretation from each viewer. There is no direct link to him, nor do we have encyclopedic biographies or even consistent depictions of his likeness– instead the section is arranged around him, discussing the enduring significance of his poetry in Amiri’s works and tracing his path through his external influences. ‘The Historical Rumi’ situates him for the viewer, but the interpretive work is done as we fill in the ‘gaps’ by confronting Rumi’s immaterial and fleeting nature head-on. It is impossible to carve out a portrait of a historical Rumi, so we must instead acquaint ourselves with elements of Sufi mysticism and Persian culture, the motifs of which are intimately familiar to a South Asian audience. The visual language of Persian manuscripts and Turkish fritware elicit a nostalgia in any South Asian despite our differences, and this deepens both our historical understanding of Rumi and personal connection to his legacy.

Installation view of Rumi. Left: Hangama Amiri, "Distance Between Homes," 2023, textile hangings, mixed fabrics. Right (back): Tiles from Konya, present-day Türkiye, 1381-2, earthenware, overglaze decoration, cuerda seca. Right (front): Candlestick with banquet scenes, present-day Türkiye, ca. 1285-1400. Copper alloy, silver inlaid decoration (© Aga Khan Museum).

This sense of familiarity is deepened by Afghan-Canadian artist Hangama Amiri’s textile series “Distance Between Homes,” which is featured alongside these local artifacts. These hangings address the reality of being uprooted and displaced from one’s home– one depicts a hand claiming one suitcase in a lineup of many others, and another shows a pre-packaged roti branded as ‘traditional afghan roat.’ Amiri’s use of muslin and handmade Persian fabrics alongside polyester and leather mirrors the disparate nature of diaspora identity, shaped by our inherited tradition as it encounters new, foreign cultures. The weightiness of the subject matter is playfully undercut by the textiles’ bright colours and flatness, and largely by the all-too-familiar nature of the images. Amiri portrays relatively banal everyday objects, such as a bag of basmati rice and a packet of instant henna, a hookah, and some suitcases. To anyone in the South Asian diaspora, these images evoke a sense of nostalgia that brings us closer to Rumi: his kaskhul and Sufi headpiece may as well be our packet of instant henna, our pre-packaged roti we find at grocery stores. On their own, the objects may have little significance, but to those in the diaspora they hold our ties to home.

Installation view of Hangama Amiri's "Distance Between Homes," 2023, textile hangings, mixed fabrics including muslin, cotton, polyester, denim (© Aga Khan Museum).

This is where Rumi’s ‘rule of love’ becomes particularly pertinent: when we leave our ‘home’ and become immigrants, part of a diaspora, any connection we maintain to our “home” exists through love, through the everyday. As children, we do not necessarily realize we are part of an overarching culture or diaspora – we participate in it by virtue of merely being in our families and being loved by them, by eating roti and rice and putting on henna at celebrations. Our union to Rumi, to God, to our cultures, exist not through materiality or objectivity but through love and subjective interpretation, irreducible from one person to the next.

Inside– what persists in us

‘The Visual Rumi’ delves into specific stories of Rumi’s, like his poems about the nay (reed flute, often used by Mevlevi masters) and the ‘Elephant in the Dark.’ One highlight of the exhibition is the stunning gold and watercolour 17th-century Agran painting Composite Elephant, in which the elephant and its rider are figured out of many different creatures like birds, camels, and other humans. This piece is accompanied by an interactive, touch-based installation by Iranian artist Simin Keramati titled Elephant in the Dark.

In Rumi’s story of the same name, an elephant is kept in a pitch-black room, and several people take turns touching the elephant and naming what they believe they have touched. This story is often read as a metaphor for how different individuals make sense of the intangibility of the divine in infinite ways, using their own discretion to engage with something external and in turn allowing it to mean something to them. Keramati’s installation invites us to take on the role of an active participant in Rumi’s story: we press buttons that show separate parts of an elephant, but never the whole. The installation encourages a mystical and personal connection to the elephant rather than one based on seeing its entirety, knowing it through our engagement with it rather than a satisfying photograph or image.

The Composite Elephant illustrates this message beautifully: though we see a whole elephant in the image, it is still composed of dozens of different creatures, animals, and people, not one unilateral and representationally fixed image. The historical origin of the ‘Elephant in the Dark’ story reflects this principle as well– it can be traced back to Buddhist texts from 500 C.E., and can be found in Hindu, Jain, and Persian texts alike. Whatever our current rendering of the elephant story is, it has been built and workshopped for thousands of years, across cultures.

This brings me to the final part of the exhibit, ‘Rumi in Translation.’ Among Victorian portraits of Sufi mystics and souvenir tokens of Rumi paintings, the museum features an interactive display in which one can navigate several different English translations of varied Rumi poems. Though the specific wording and even metaphors and images varied from translation to translation, the affective and emotional elements remained faithful and consistent… A poet ruled by love and kindness, with contempt for hard definitions and borders, Rumi’s messages transcend the variations and complications of language and are easily understood by all. When translated from their original language and modified for different contexts, the poems still hold universally accessible meaning, because they rest not on pre-existing structure or institution but subjectively understood emotions of love.

"Composite Elephant", ca. 1600, India, Agra, watercolors and gold on paper, AKM 143 (© Aga Khan Museum).

Always– what we come back to

While a focus on love and border-lessness in reading Rumi’s poetry has been criticized as erasure of Islamic culture (Ali, 2017), the exhibit’s constant interlacing of contemporary West/South Asian diaspora art with Islamic artifacts demonstrates an active effort on the part of the Aga Khan Museum to challenge this precedent. These messages of border-lessness and nondiscrimination were born out of an Islamic context, and continue to persist through the massive West/South Asian diaspora existing today. While Rumi’s teachings have been shared and enjoyed globally, reflecting on their emergence from a specifically Islamic context is valuable to understand how our realities impact our subjectivities and ways of going about the world. Like in Amiri’s “Distance Between Homes,” common, ordinary objects or globally known things hold deeper  meanings influenced by our individual ties to them. They are familiar to several cultures and ethnicities precisely because of a shared set of personal circumstances and experiences we undergo– this is the diasporic experience.

The diversity of objects featured throughout the exhibit speaks to this as well: works and objects from India, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, among other countries found their place in the collection. They pertain to a familiar visual grammar of Islamic art, and together with the historical background on Rumi’s nomadic lifestyle, call into question the significance of national borders. ‘The Historical Rumi’ spotlights a valuable passage from one of his poems:

“If I ask, ‘Hey, where are you from?’
And you say, ‘Not from Balkh, and not from Herat,
And not from Baghdad and not from Mosul and not from Talas,’
You’ll end up drawing out a long road between ‘not here,’ ‘not there’…”

Rumi was born in present-day Tajikistan, but spent much of his life in Turkey, Uzbekistan, and Syria. His name refers to ‘Rome,’ (Barks and Moyne, Selected Poems) he wrote in a handful of different languages, and his influences transcend any sort of current geopolitical borders. No one nation attempts to retroactively ‘claim’ him either. This would be antithetical to essentially all of his teachings– Rumi does not try to contain love within a border but share it, expand it, ensure it reaches all corners of each kingdom. This is how a diaspora lives. We become part of a diaspora, of a culture, only through what we love and what loves us. Nationality, ethnicity, and religion come afterwards.

My mind has wandered back to Rumi in light of the atrocities occurring in Gaza and occupied Palestinian territory over the past month. If there is one thing I took from Rumi it is that Rumi’s legacy endures because his poems do not speak to institutions or nations, but to universally understood, timeless, and subjective emotions, to love. He cannot be read as a Tajik or Uzbek or Turkish poet because these delimitations not only did not exist in Rumi’s time, but do not match with his ethos of spiritual interrelation and understanding through the heart, and through love. The second section of the exhibit, ‘The Visual Rumi,’ features an excerpt of Rumi’s poem ‘Reed Flute:’

“Listen to the reed-flute as it tells a tale,
Lamenting separations:
Ever since I was cut from the reed-bed
Men and women have grieved in my crying.
I want a heart torn by absence
So that I might voice the pain of longing.
Whoever remains far from their origins
Seeks the day that they might be reunited.”

The poem implies that there is an unseen blade doing the cutting, something that displaced the reed from its bed. As the exhibit has pushed me to think past idealistic and fixed borders, I have thought about the Palestinians being punished for merely daring to stay and love the places they have been raised in and nurtured for so long. Here I think of the infamous photograph of a Palestinian woman, Mahfoza Ouda, holding the olive tree she nurtured for decades in the face of Israeli occupation forces.

Photograph by Jaafar Ashtiyeh / AFP via Getty Images.

There are thousands of olive trees in Palestine older than the Israeli state. Since 1967, over 800,000 olive trees have been illegally uprooted by the Israeli occupation (Hedroug, 2023). Monuments hundreds of years old like the Barquq Castle in Khan Younis and the Al-Shamaa mosque in Gaza City have been irreparably damaged by airstrikes, among dozens of architecturally significant buildings (El Naddaf, 2023). As I continue to see videos of entire neighborhoods leveled to dust every day, and as Palestinians fall with them, I am led to wonder: what comes after? What is the plan for the occupation after it turns Gaza to dust, as it has stated is its intention? What comes after the olive trees are all wiped out and there are no more children left to be bombed with them? I think of Deir Yassin, where in 1948 occupation forces wiped out over one hundred civilians and expelled the rest from their homes. A residential neighborhood was built not one year after the massacre occurred over the bones of the houses once occupied by those martyred, and the rest of the houses were bulldozed (Khalidi, 2006).

Uprooting of olive trees, relentless bombing of entire neighborhoods, bulldozing of historical architecture… These actions do not seem predicated from a love of land. The destruction of all that is historical, all that is fostered over time, seems to be a direct attack on the territory itself, not just the Palestinians in it. Centuries of history have been wiped out with singular missiles, in the name of a project that sees immaterial, recently imposed borders as more valuable than the Palestinians who had established genuine connection to the land for millenia. Once these territories are all turned to rubble, there will be nothing left to love.

I one day hope Palestinians of all religions will be free to love themselves, their land, their trees, and one another on their own terms, rather than being confined to lines arbitrarily drawn by others far away. Palestinians’ connection to their land comes from centuries of love, care, and dwelling, not violent imposition by colonial powers. As Rumi has shown us, intimate ties to others and nature are infinitely more valuable than attempts to limit or displace them. The most sacred bonds are those built through love and nurturing– these should remain inviolable.

“Rumi: A visual journey through the life and legacy of a Sufi mystic” was on view at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto from May 13 to October 1, 2023.

Visit ‘Rumi’ online in 3D here.

Title image: Installation view of Rumi: A visual journey through the life and legacy of a Sufi mystic, 2023 at the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto (image courtesy of the Aga Khan Museum)


Ali, Rozina. “The Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 5 Jan. 2017,

El Naddaf, Mustafa. “Gaza’s Monuments Become Ruins.” Jordan Times, The Jordan News, 5 Nov. 2023,

Hedroug, Layla. “Israel’s Campaign against Palestinian Olive Trees.” The Yale Review of International Studies, Yale International Relations Association, 11 Mar. 2023,

Khalidi, Walid, and Sharif Elmusa. All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948. Institute for Palestine Studies, 2006.

Rūmī, Jalāl Al-Dīn. Rumi: Selected Poems. Translated by John Moyne and Coleman Barks, Penguin, 2004.

Valentin Saad Munchenbach (b. 2003) is a writer, editor, artist, and student of philosophy and art history, and is based in Toronto. His ongoing research interests include Japanese aesthetics in conjunction with the work of philosopher Baruch de Spinoza and posthumanist thought in relation to liberation art in the Indigenous, Black, and transgender resistance movements across the world. His creative ventures often involve poetry and mixed-media collage as well as fusion of South Asian, European, Brazilian, and queer creative techniques. Valentin's writing has been featured in publications such as Operation Four, Periphery Magazine, and Elle International, and he has edited for associations like Pensées Canadiennes and the Trans, Disabled, and Sapphic Knowledges Conference.

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