Two high-ranking clerics in Iran have issued fatwas against the production of a movie based on the life of the 13th century Iranian poet and mystic Rumi and his spiritual mentor Shams Tabrizi, reigniting a long-simmering, divisive debate about the role of religious authorities in the public life of Iranians.

Born in 1207, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi is a celebrated Persian poet, theologian and Islamic scholar whose didactic epic Masnavi-yi Maʿnavi (Spiritual Couplets), comprising six books of poetry that amount to 25,000 verses or 50,000 lines, has enormously influenced mystical thought and literature throughout the Muslim world and is commonly referred to as the “Persian Quran.”

Rumi, known as Mowlana in Iran, is unquestionably one of the most eminent and universally-loved poets of all time. In 1997, Christian Science Monitor declared him the best-selling poet in the United States.

It was announced recently that Hassan Fathi, a popular Iranian filmmaker and director, is planning to make a movie depicting the life of Rumi and his companionship with Shams Tabrizi, another 13th century Iranian poet, who influenced Rumi greatly, and to whom Rumi dedicated one of his eloquent masterpieces, named Diwan-e Shams-e Tabrizi.

While the announcement drew applause and endorsement from Iranians, especially on the social media, Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi, a senior religious authority issued a fatwa, or religious decree, pronouncing the production of such a movie forbidden.

Ayatollah Makarem’s declaration was followed by a similar fatwa by Ayatollah Hossein Noori-Hamedani, another high-ranking Iranian Shia cleric, who also stated that such a movie must not be produced.

The two grand ayatollahs, who have thousands of followers across Iran, cited the subscription of Rumi and Shams Tabrizi to Sufism as grounds for their opposition to the movie. They had, on other occasions in the past, decried Rumi and Shams for their adhesion to the principles of Islamic mysticism. 

Giving reference to a saying by the sixth Shiite Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq, Noori-Hamedani told a group of seminarians, who had asked for his views about the production of the movie, that the adherents of Sufism are “enemies” of Islam and promoting them in any form is forbidden.

A picture provided by the office of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on March 21, 2019, shows him addressing crowds of Iranians gathering in the northeastern holy city of Mashhad for a celebration of Noruz, the Persian New Year. Photo: Handout

‘Drunk on Love’

Sufism is a mystical form of Islam that emphasizes the inward search for God, rejects materialism and is at odds with the cosmetic reading of religion and religious texts. Its modern-day proponents cherish tolerance and pluralism, to the annoyance of religious extremists.

Sufis have been persecuted and harassed across the Muslim world, including in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Mali, Somalia, Pakistan and Iran.

The noted Iranian director Hassan Fathi has nevertheless decided to highlight the life of Rumi and his companion Shams in a new film. In a country in which alcohol is banned, Fathi chose the title, “Drunk on Love”, highlighting Rumi’s use of wine as a symbol in his poetry. 

Rumi spent the final years of his life in the modern-day Turkey and is buried in the city of Konya. Every year, thousands of foreign visitors pay tribute to his mausoleum in Konya and attend Sama dance ceremonies by whirling dervishes.

A longstanding dichotomy of religion versus nationalism, intensified following the 1979 revolution, has made cultural decision-makers, including the state television, the ministry of culture and independent investors skeptical towards prioritizing artistic productions that shed light on the life of Iran’s national figures.

The majority of historical movies produced in Iran have religious undertones and themes. Critics have warned that this excessive emphasis on religious motifs and an ignoring of prominent national icons, including poets, scholars and scientists will make young people alienated with their past and detached from their identity.

The vocal opposition of two high-ranking clerics to the production of a movie about one of the most distinguished heavyweights of Persian literature should be seen against the backdrop of four decades of antipathy towards the manifestations of Iranian culture and Persian civilization by religious zealots who have been laboring relentlessly to make Islamism a potent factor and the dominant political ideology in post-revolution Iran, as opposed to patriotism and nationalism, which they reprehend.

For the same reason, the annual celebrations of Persian New Year, Nowruz, dating back at least 3,000 years, far beyond the advent of Islam in Iran, have faced consistent efforts toward marginalization by religious conservatives and supreme authorities of the country. 

Women cheer during a friendly soccer match between Iran and Bolivia at Azadi Stadium in Tehran in October. Photo: AFP
Women cheer during a friendly soccer match between Iran and Bolivia at Azadi Stadium in Tehran in October. Photo: AFP

The controversial fatwas

Fatwas by Iran’s religious authorities, which explicitly encroach on social, cultural and artistic matters are not unprecedented. Shiite jurists in Iran believe it is their responsibility to comment on politics, culture, the economy, and social affairs and to issue fatwas whenever, in their view, the principles of Islam are jeopardized.

Perhaps the most famous example of such legal opinions was the one issued by the late founder of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In 1989, he issued a fatwa that Salman Rushdie, the prominent British Indian novelist, should be killed over publishing the controversial novel The Satanic Verses, which the Muslims considered to be blasphemous and insulting to Prophet Muhammad. Rushdie received several death threats and numerous attempts on his life as a result of the fatwa. 

In 2017, Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi issued a fatwa voicing opposition to Iranian women attending men’s football matches in stadiums. Several other senior clerics issued fatwas echoing his views. However, after years of campaigning by Iran’s women activists and pressure by the international football governing body, FIFA, the Iranian government recently lifted the ban on women entering stadiums as spectators.

The fatwa on the movie about Rumi and Shams is non-binding, and unless there is explicit disapproval by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is also a Shiite jurist and has the final say on all matters in Iran, it is highly likely that the film will be produced as planned.

İbrahim Çelikkol, a noted Turkish actor, has been added to the movie’s cast and will join the popular Iranian stars Shahab Hosseini and Parsa Pirouzfar, who were previously picked to play Shams Tabrizi and Rumi.

The film will be shot not in Iran, but in Konya, Turkey.