Eight hundred years ago, in a northeastern town of the Persian kingdom, a boy was born. When he was twelve years old, he chanced to meet the great Sufi master and Persian poet Attar, who told the boy’s father: “The fiery words of this boy will kindle the souls of lovers all over the world.”
That boy was later to be known as Rumi. And this year, 2007, many literary, cultural and spiritual organizations are celebrating his 800th birth anniversary. UNESCO has issued a medal in Rumi’s honor. According to various sources, including The Christian Science Monitor (1), TIME Asia magazine (2), and the US Department of State’s Washington File (3), Rumi has become the most widely-read poet in North America, and translations of this Asian poet are increasingly popular in the other Western countries. For three decades, I have been reading Rumi everywhere I have been — India, Japan, and the USA. It is thus a personal delight to see the growing popularity of Rumi’s poetry.
Who really was Rumi? How did a Muslim preacher become a poet of love? Who were Rumi’s masters? What was the visionary ground underlying his poetry? These are the questions I set out to explore here: Rumi’s path to poetry, the source of his poetry — spiritual enlightenment, and the content of his poetry — love. In this analysis, I draw from the original historical literature (4) and also offer some new translations of Rumi’s poems. Good poems enrich our life, and Rumi’s poetry is a treasure.
In Search of Rumi
Today in the West, Rumi is famous for his poetry. Yet he was a prolific but not a professional poet, a learned religious leader, teacher, preacher and above all a Gnostic (Âref: one possessing esoteric knowledge of spiritual matters). For centuries, Rumi has been known as Moulânâ (“Our Master”) to the Persian-speaking peoples of Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and parts of India and Pakistan. The name Rumi, meaning “belonging to Rum or Rome,” refers to the Roman-Byzantine kingdom which once included Anatolia, a vast plateau in Asia Minor, the westernmost peninsula of Asia, lying between the Black and the Mediterranean seas — the vibrant setting in which Rumi lived most of his life.
Rumi’s major works of literature include (1) the Masnawi Ma’nawi (“Spiritual Couplets”) (5), a six-volume book of stories and parables narrated in about 26,000 verses of didactic poetry; (2) the Diwân [Poetry Book] Shams Tabrizi (6) consisting of about 50,000 verses of lyric odes (ghazal) and quatrains (rubaiyât); and (3) a collection of 71 discourses in prose called Fih Mâ Fih (“In It What is in It”) (7). Rumi himself summarized his life work as follows:
The outcome of my life is no more than these three lines:
I was a raw material;
I was cooked and became mature;
I was burned in love.
Rumi’s Life: Act I
Rumi’s given name was Jalâluddin (“Glory of Religion”) Muhammad. He was born on September 30, 1207, most likely in the city of Balkh in present-day Afghanistan. The Swiss scholar Fritz Meier, who has researched the life of Rumi’s father, Bahâ Valad (8), argues persuasively for the small town of Wakh’sh in present-day Tajikistan. We do know that Rumi grew up in Balkh, in that era a political, commercial and intellectual center of the Persian kingdom, a city where his father was honored as the Sultân-e Ulemâ (“King of the Learned”). It is recorded that even the king, Mohammad Khârazm-Shah, used to attend Bahâ Valad’s lectures.
To understand Rumi it is useful to understand his father — fifty-six years his senior, and indeed, Rumi’s first teacher. Bahâ Valad was not merely a preacher but a Muslim Gnostic, a Sufi. In the Islamic tradition, the Sufis have often been contrasted with the Falâsafeh (the Philosophers).
While the Sufis called for direct spiritual experience, meditation, and love, the Falâsafeh focused on rational thinking, intellectual knowledge, and logical arguments. These two fields are not necessarily contradictory but philosophy, the Sufis believe, can never replace practice and experience. On the path of love, Rumi himself once said, “The legs of argumentative logicians are made of wood!” In other words, they can talk but cannot walk. The Sufis have also had their differences with the Fuqahâ, or Islamic law-experts, who deal with formalities and rituals.
In his public talks, Bahâ Valad would criticize the philosophers. His words and public influence obviously hurt the feelings of Imam Fakhruddin Râzi, an eminent Muslim theologian and the King’s teacher in Balkh. All of this came to make life difficult for Bahâ Valad. Moreover, there was a prevalent fear of the invasion of Persia by Genghis Khan’s brutal army (this invasion and its attendant bloodshed eventually happened). Bahâ Valad decided to emigrate from Balkh and take his family westward.
En route to Baghdad, Bahâ Valad’s caravan stopped at the city of Nishâbur. This is where Attar met the twelve-year-old Rumi and presented him with a copy of his book on mysticism, Asrâr Nâmeh (“The Book of Mysteries”).
Bahâ Valad and his family made a pilgrimage to Mecca, stayed for a while in Damascus, and finally went to Anatolia, which was then under the control of the Seljuq Dynasty, far from the Mongolian influence. In the town of Laranda (today called Karaman), Rumi’s mother died in 1224. Her tomb can still be found there. A year later, Rumi, eighteen, married his childhood friend Gouhar, whose family had accompanied the Valad family from Balkh. Rumi’s son Sultân Valad was born in Laranda. Sometime later, at the request of the Seljuq king Ala’eddin Kayqobâd, Bahâ Valad and his family moved to the town of Konya, where a seminary was built for him. Two years later, in 1231, Bahâ Valad, aged 80, passed away. And Rumi, then 24, took over his father’s position.
Burhânuddin Tirmadhi — Bahâ Valad’s disciple and Rumi’s tutor back in Balkh — soon joined Rumi in Konya. There he undertook a systematic training of the young man, and suggested that Rumi study Bahâ Valad’s Ma’âref (8). Rumi also spent a few years learning from great Sufi masters and Muslim scholars in Aleppo and Damascus (both in present-day Syria).
What was the content of Rumi’s education? A Muslim scholar would have studied Arabic, the Quran, the sayings and acts of Prophet Muhammad, Islamic rituals, law, philosophy and history. Rumi’s books indeed show us that he possessed a vast knowledge of literature, both Arabic and Persian, and both prose and poetry. He was fond of at least one classic Arabic poet, Mutanabbi, and two Persian poets, Attar and Sanâ’i.
Rumi returned to Konya in 1232, and Burhânuddin told him that although he had become a master of “the sciences of appearances” he had yet to master “the hidden sciences.” Rumi is said to have taken three successive chelleh (a 40-day period of retreat, fasting, and meditation) to the satisfaction of Burhânuddin. Rumi then began to serve as a reputed religious scholar in Konya. (Burhânuddin would die in 1241.)
When Two Oceans Meet
Now we are in a better position to understand the climax of Rumi’s life — his meeting with a wandering dervish, Shams Tabrizi. This was a rebirth, and Act II in Rumi’s life. There are several versions of how this meeting took place. A fifteenth-century Persian poet, Jâmi, writes that one day in the late autumn of 1244, Rumi was sitting by a pool along with his disciples and books. Shams (unknown to Rumi) came along, greeted him and sat down. Interrupting Rumi’s lecture, he pointed to the books and asked, “What are these?” Rumi replied, “This is some knowledge you wouldn’t understand.” Shams then threw all the books into the water and said, “And this is some knowledge you wouldn’t understand.” (9)
I narrate this story not because I myself believe it, but because this story best illustrates how people have dramatized Shams’ influence in Rumi’s life: A dry, bookish theologian suddenly turns to mysticism after meeting an old mystic who disliked bookish knowledge. The fact is that the meeting of Shams and Rumi was like the convergence of two oceans. Rumi’s upbringing and education had nurtured him for a mystic’s life. (A good analogy is this: Millions of people have observed apples falling down, but only Newton could discover the laws of universal gravitation from such an observation.) On the other hand, Shams was not an illiterate person. Born in Tabriz, a city in northwest Iran, some six decades before coming to Konya, Shams had studied with many masters and the extant book of his discourses, the Maqâlât Shams Tabrizi (10), indeed shows him to be a very knowledgeable person. Nevertheless, it is true that Shams galvanized Rumi’s mystical and artistic senses. After that, Rumi turned to music, dance and poetry, and was detached from books. Shams did not let Rumi read even his father’s book.
How can one explain Rumi’s relationship with Shams? In the Diwân Shams Tabrizi, Rumi has many expressions of love, respect, admiration and longing for Shams. Impressed by these poems, some have recently argued that Rumi and Shams enjoyed a homosexual relationship. This view is a gross misunderstanding both culturally and spiritually. Certain customs in one culture sometimes can be greatly misinterpreted by other peoples. In India, for example, one can see boys holding hands and walking in the street. Or among the Arabs, it is customary for men to kiss each other on the face as part of their greetings. These customs do not mean that Indian or Arab men are gay. In some Western countries, a man may kiss his friend’s wife on the face as they greet or say farewell. Such a practice is unacceptable for the Eastern people – and prone to misunderstanding. (At the other “extreme,” the Japanese traditionally do not kiss — even their own children — in public.) We cannot judge Rumi’s acts and words according to twenty-first century Western social norms. We need to evaluate each practice in its own cultural context.
To misinterpret Rumi’s and Shams’ relationship is also to misread the whole spiritual environment in which these two men lived. In Sufism, there is a tradition of soh’bat (“dialogue” in retreat) which takes places between two seekers as they share their knowledge, stories and experiences. The soh’bat is believed to strengthen the mind and soul of the seekers. Rumi himself has a poem about this tradition:
Oh my heart, sit with a person
who understands the heart.
Sit under a tree
which has fresh flowers.
In the market of perfume sellers
don’t wander like you’re jobless.
Sit with a shopkeeper
who has sugar in the store.
Not every eye has eyesight.
Not every sea contains a jewel.
My interpretation of the Rumi-Shams relationship is a parable which both Shams and Rumi use in their discourses — the parable of the “mirror” (Âyeeneh). A mirror reflects what is cast on it without judging, and thus we see ourselves in the mirror as we are, in a good or bad state of mind. A spiritual friend is like the mirror; it reflects and strengthens our goodness and inner beauty; it also shows our weaknesses and dark sides in a non-arrogant manner so that we can see them for ourselves and resolve them.
In 1248, Shams disappeared from Konya and, for that matter, from history. Some scholars believe that he was murdered by jealous disciples of Rumi who had lost their master to this strange old man; other scholars believe that Shams left Konya on his own (as he had done once before for a brief period) because Rumi’s disciples had made life too difficult for him. We do not know for sure what happened. In any case, Shams’ disappearance was an emotional blow to Rumi. He traveled twice to Damascus in search of him. As time passed, Rumi found two other spiritual friends, the goldsmith Salâhuddin Zarkub and Husâmuddin Chelebi (a close disciple). If Shams is the hero of Rumi’s Diwân, Husâmuddin is the person to whom Rumi recited the Masnawi during the last seven years of his life.
Love in Rumi’s Poetry
Love (Ishq) is a common thread that runs through all of Rumi’s poems, directly or by implication. The intensity of the language and the passionate imagery that Rumi uses to express love is rarely seen in other poets. Nonetheless, as Coleman Barks, who has successfully popularized Rumi’s poems through rendering them to the modern style of free verse, aptly remarks, Rumi’s love is not of the kind, “she left me, he left me; she came back; she left me.” (11)
Love in Rumi’s poems stems from his realization of the Divine Love and its extension to the world and human life. Rumi says:
In the realm of the Unseen
there exists a sandal wood, burning.
is the smoke of that incense.
Rumi views the true human love as a reflection of this cosmic love matrix. I use this term in a modern, scientific sense. The best explanation physicists have for the gravitational force is not that of a simple attraction between two isolated bodies but a force embedded in the very fabric of the universe. Here again Rumi has a say:
If the Sky were not in love,
its breast would not be pleasant.
If the Sun were not in love,
its face would not be bright.
If the Earth and mountains were not in love,
no plant could sprout from their heart.
If the Sea was not aware of love
it would have remained motionless somewhere.
How does this divine cosmic love function? How is it manifested? Where does it take us? To answer these, I can think of two love-based processes in Rumi’s poetry: (1) transformation, and (2) transcendence.
Rumi assigns a transforming power to love like nothing else. Through love, he says, everything changes in a positive way, and far more rewardingly than through other means. In the Masnawi, Rumi tells us the story of Luqmân, a famous sage in the ancient Middle East, who one day was eating watermelon when his master joined him, but found the watermelon very bitter. The master scolded Luqmân over why he had not informed him that the watermelon was bitter. Luqmân replied that it was not bitter for him, as he was eating the watermelon with love in the home of his master:
Bitter things become sweet.
Bits of copper turn into gold.
Dregs taste like pure wine.
Pains are healed.
Sometimes we are stuck in a problem or in a conflict, and our ever-calculating intellect is unable to find a rational solution. In the alchemy of love, problems are not solved; they are dissolved.
These six directions are the limit.
There is no way out!
There is a way.
I have gone it many times.
Reason saw a market and began to trade.
Love has seen other markets beyond this bazaar.
Similar to the Buddhist concept of nirvana, Sufis say that fanâ is annihilation of the ego and dissolution in the divine love. In that state of love, you are one with everything and you see everything as one. In other words, the seeker goes beyond dualities (a quality of the mind that Buddhism also fosters) and becomes one with the Beloved. Let’s listen to Rumi himself on what this transcendence means:
What is to be done, O Muslims, for I can’t identify myself:
I’m neither Christian, nor Jewish,
neither Zoroastrian, nor Muslim.
I’m neither Eastern, nor Western,
neither of the land, nor of the sea.
I’m not from Nature’s mine, or from the circling Heavens.
I’m not from this world, or from the next
neither from Paradise nor from Hell.
I’m neither from Adam nor from Eve
My place is placeless, my trace is without signs.
This is neither body nor soul
for I belong to the soul of the Beloved.
An Out-of-the-World Citizen
Why is Rumi such a popular poet seven centuries after his life, and in different lands? Rarely a day passes that I do not come across a few verses from Rumi. To answer this question, perhaps I can offer one of Rumi’s own poems:
I don’t seek this world or that world
Don’t seek me in this or that world.
They both have vanished in the world where I am.
Rumi was an “out of the world” citizen. Although his life was rooted in the Islamic and Persian culture, his constituency was the human heart. That is why his poems lift us from mundane situations and offer us the purity, clarity and beauty of a poetic vision — and when our feet touch the earth again, we feel, not relaxed, but relieved.
Rumi does not view the divine love as an abstract subject for poets or philosophers; it is a foundation on which we should build our living. Rumi’s poetry is also his ethics without systematization and based on (not law but) love. He views God not as a remote father in heaven but a friend (doost) on the Earth. Rumi spoke his poems spontaneously — oftentimes during the whirling dances or while listening to music. And he appears to have practiced what he preached in his poetry. Rumi’s biographers have recorded many stories of his humbleness and kindness towards people, whoever they were. For instance, Aflâki (4) recounts that a Christian monk, who had heard of Rumi’s scholarly and spiritual reputation, went to meet him in Konya. Out of respect, the monk prostrated himself before Rumi, and when he raised his head, he saw that Rumi had been prostrating himself as well, before the monk.
When Rumi died on December 17, 1273, on a Sunday at sunset in Konya, people of the town — Muslims, Jews and Christians, the poor, the rich, the learned, the illiterate — all came to his funeral and mourned. Aflâki writes that some fanatics objected because non-Muslims were attending the services. But the Jews and the Christians told them just as their Muslim friends had understood Prophet Muhammad through Rumi, they had also understood Moses and Jesus through him. Perhaps, then, Rumi’s poetry can serve as an enlightening vision and uniting voice for our divided world and violent century.
I am the Moon everywhere and nowhere.
Do not seek me outside;
I abide in your very life.
Everybody calls you towards himself;
I invite you nowhere except to yourself.
Poetry is like the boat and its meaning is like the sea:
Come onboard at once!
Let me sail this boat!
Note: All translations of Rumi’s poems from the Persian which appear in this article are by its author, from the sources referenced in (5) and (6).
1. “Persian Poet Top Seller in America,” by Alexander Marks, The Christian Science Monitor, 25 November 1997.
2. “Rumi Rules!” by Ptolemy Tompkins, TIME Asia Magazine, 7 October 2002.
3. “Persian Poet Rumi Conquers America,” by Steve Holgate, Washington File, 15 March 2005.
4. The oldest sources of information on Rumi’s life include the following: (i) Valad Nâmeh (“The Book of Valad,” in Persian, edited by Jalâl Humâi, Tehran, 1936), a narrative poetry by his eldest son, Sultân Valad (1226-1312) (yet to be translated into English); (ii) Risâleh Sepah-sâlâr (“The Treatise of Sepah-sâlâr,” in Persian, edited by Sa’id Nafisi, Tehran, 1946; reprinted 1995), written by his disciple Feridun Sepah-sâlâr (death 1319) (no English translation of this book is available, either); and (iii) Manâqeb al-Ârefin (“The Virtuous Acts of the Gnostics,” in Persian, edited by Tahsin Yazichi, 2 volumes, Ankara, 1976 and 1980) compiled by another disciple Ahmad Aflâki (death 1356) (Partial English translations include James Redhouse’s Legends of the Sufis, 1881, reprinted 1976; Idries Shah’s The Hundred Tales of Wisdom, 1978; and a more recent complete translation is John O’Kane’s The Feats of the Knowers of God, Brill Academic Publishers, 2002). Among the modern scholars who have researched Rumi’s life in detail are (i) the Iranian scholar Badi al-Zamân Foruzân-far (1900-1970) (author of Risâleh dar Ahvâl va Zendeghâni-ye Moulânâ Jalâluddin Mohammad, “Treatise on the Life of Master Jalâluddin Mohammad,” in Persian, Tehran, 1954, 2nd edition), (ii) the Turkish scholar Abdulbaki Gölpinârli (1900-1982) (author of Mevlana Celaleddin, Hayati, Felsefesi, Eserleri, Eserlerinden Secmeler, “Mevlana Jalaluddin: His Life, Philosophy, Works and Anthology,” in Turkish, Istanbul, 1959, translated into Persian by Dr. Towfiq Sob’hâni, Tehran, 1984); (iii) the Pakistani scholar Afzal Iqbâl (1919-1994) (author of The Life and Thought of Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, Oxford University Press, Karachi, 1956, 1999); (iv) the German-American scholar Annemarie Schimmel (1922-2003) (author of The Triumphant Sun: A Study of the Works of Jalaluddin Rumi, London, 1978, State University of New York Press, 2nd edition, 1993, and I Am Wind, You Are Fire: The Life and Work of Rumi, Shambhala Press, Boston, 1992), and (v) a more recent work by the American scholar Franklin Lewis, Rumi: Past and Present, East and West (OneWorld, Oxford, 2000).
5. Moulânâ Jalâluddin Muhammad Balkhi Rumi: Masnawi Ma’nawi, edited by Reynold Nicholson (Amir Kabir Press, Tehran, 1957) [in Persian]. Nicholson’s English translations and scholastic commentaries were published in 8 volumes by Luzac & Co., London, 1925-1940. Partial translations include E. H. Winfield’s Masnawi Ma’nawi: Spiritual Couplets (London, 1881, reprinted as Teaching of Rumi in 1973) and A. J. Arberry’s Tales from Masnawi (London, 1961) and More Tales from Masnawi (1968).
6. Moulânâ Jalâluddin Muhammad Balkhi Rumi: Kulliyât Shams Tabrizi (Diwân Kabir), edited by Badi al-Zamân Foruzân-far (10 volumes, Tehran University Press, 1957-1963) [in Persian]. No complete English translation of this work from the Persian is available yet. Partial translations include Reynold Nicholson’s Selected Poems from the Diwân Shams Tabrizi (Cambridge University Press, 1898, reprinted several times, most recently by IBEX Publishers, Washington D.C., 2001), and A. J. Arberry’s Mystical Poems of Rumi: First Selection, Poems 1-200 (University of Chicago Press, 1968) and Second Selection, Poems 201-400 (Westview Press, Boulder, 1979). The most extensive English version is a 23-volume work by Dr. Nevit Ergin who has re-translated from a 1955 Turkish translation by Abdulbaki Gölpinârli. (Ergin’s publications are available from the Society for Understanding Mevlana in California; www.sfumevlana.org).
7. Moulânâ Jalâluddin Mohammad Balkhi Rumi: Fi Ma Fih, edited by Badi al-Zamân Foruzân-far (Tehran, 1969) [in Persian]. Three English translations are available: Discourses of Rumi by A. J. Arberry (London, 1961); Signs of the Unseen: The Discourses of Jalaluddin Rumi by W. M. Thackston (Threshold Books, Vermont, 1994); Mirror of the Unseen: The Complete Discourses of Jalaluddin Rumi, translated by Louis Rogers (Writers Club Press, 2002).
8. Bahâ Valad: Ma’âref (“The Teachings of Bahâ Valad”) (2 volumes), edited by Badi al-Zamân Foruzân-far (Tehran, 1973, 2nd edition) [in Persian]. A partial translation is The Drowned Book: Ecstatic and Earthy Reflections of Bahauddin, the Father of Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks and John Moyne (HarperSan Francisco, 2004). Fritz Meier’s biographical research Bahâ-i Valad: Grundzuge seines Lebens und seiner Mystick was published by E.J. Brill, Leiden, in 1989. Its Persian translation by Mehr-afaq Baibourdi was published in Tehran in 1993. No English translation is available.
9. Abdul Rahmân Jâmi: Nafahât ul-Uns (“The Fragrances of Fellowship”) edited by Mehdi Towhidipour, Tehran, 1956, 1996.
10. Shamsuddin Mohammad Tabrizi: Maqâlât Shams Tabrizi (“The Discourses of Shams Tabrizi”) (2 volumes), edited by Mohammad Ali Movahed (Tehran, 1990) [in Persian]. A partial translation is William Chittick’s Me and Rumi: The Autobiography of Shams-i Tabrizi (Fons Vitae, Louisville, Kentucky, 2004).
11. Rumi: The Book of Love, re-translation by Coleman Barks (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), p. xxii. Coleman Barks has successfully published several books of Rumi’s poems through rendering the literal translations into the modern free verse.