The first name that pops into anybody’s head at the mere mention of Sufism or mystic Islam is almost always that of Rumi… But the poet, who was born Jalal ud-Din Muhammad Rumi in the year 1207, is the subject of new controversy, more than eight centuries after his death.

It all started in May, when the cultural ministries of Iran and Turkey requested UNESCO, the UN’s cultural wing, to register Rumi’s poetry – mainly the Masnavi-e-Ma’navi, a series of six books of poetry that contain about 25,000 verses – as joint national heritage. This caused an uproar in Afghanistan, which is home to the village of Balkh, where Rumi is largely believed to have been born. The celebrated Sufi saint and poet is revered across the region, heavily influencing the literature and culture of modern day Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey and Tajikistan, and being associated with the saint signifies high honor for any of these countries.

The “ownership” issue is controversial because though he was born in present day Afghanistan, a Mongol invasion forced Rumi to flee his home in childhood, and after studying in Damascus as a young adult, he spent the rest of his life in Turkey, which is where his son established the world-renowned Order of the Whirling Dervishes, a mystical troupe devoted to the practice of losing oneself in the love of God through whirling in circles. His work is in Farsi ‘Darri’, a dialect of Persian spoken in Afghanistan, though Iran claims Rumi as their own since its national language is Farsi.

This year seems to be one of controversy ‘whirling around’ the sufi saint. Only a few weeks ago, Leonardo DiCaprio was announced the most likely pick to play the poet in an upcoming biopic, sparking protests over “whitewashing” in Hollywood – Middle Easterners seem to be given only roles of terrorists and the like, whilst those of positive figures, even of Middle Eastern descent are destined for blond blue-eyed Hollywood stars!