He was born on the 30th of September, 1207 and breathed his last on the 17th of December, 1273, arithmetically speaking, a little more than seven hundred and forty-three years ago. Yet so widespread is his fame and such is the excellence of his creations in both verse and prose, that even now not individuals but countries like Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey are vying with one another for claiming Jalal ud-Din Muhammad Balkhi or Jalal ud-Din Muhammad Rumi , better known as just Rumi, as their very own.ii
However, notwithstanding this controversy rising mainly from words ‘Balkhi’, (‘from Balkh in Afghanistan where he was born), and ‘Rumi’, (from Rum in Turkey where he lived and died), attached to his name, it is universally accepted that Rumi esteemed a Mawlana or master is indeed a luminary not confined to any one age or place. He was not only multi-dimensional, gaining fame as a jurist, a scholar, a thinker, a musician, and above all a Sufi poet and writer, but also multi-lingual, composing in Persian, his mother tongue, as well as in Arabic, Turkish, and Greek.iii
Rumi was a prolific writer and within a quarter of a century, along with prose writings, he composed more than 70,000 verses, primarily philosophical and spiritual, highly valued for their variety and for the sheer intensity of emotions expressed therein. No reader can actually fail to notice the prevalence of love, tolerance, gentleness, compassion, temperance and related feelings in his works. To him all men were equal and a woman was “a ray of God” and he himself was “placeless”, belonging neither to the East nor to the West. But whether or not Rumi would have turned to spirituality if mysticism had not been in the air of Balkh in his time in the first place or if the influence of the Sufi duo Sanai and Attar, writers of the Ilahinama and The Hadiqat al Haqiqa respectively, and a dervish Shams-e Tabrizi had not been so profound, is debatable. But the fact remains that many of his ancestors as well as his father Baha-ud-Din Walad, revered as the Sultan of Scholars, had been spiritually inclined. It is also believed that during his escape from Balkh after the Mongols invaded Central Asia, Rumi himself came in close contact with Sufi scholars and that those meetings kindled in the young Rumi serious interest in Sufism.
After the death of his mentor, his own father, Rumi was systematically trained by the former’s disciple Sayyed Burhan ud-Din Muhaqqiq Termazi and he actually practised Sufism seriously. Owing to his father’s demise, it was in his early twenties that Rumi became a public figure and remained so all throughout, first as the head of a madrassa, then a jurist and a preacher of Islam who announced:
I have seen the king with a face of Glory,
He who is the eye and the sun of heaven,
He who is the companion and healer of all beings,
He who is the soul and the universe that births souls.
A devout Sunni Muslim, Rumi used in his poems lines from the Holy Qur’an, which he himself translated into Persian, so often that Fatemeh Keshavarz, Professor of Persian Studies, University of Maryland, felt that he perhaps knew the sacred text by heart. John Moyne has stated more emphatically that Rumi had actually “memorized the Koran and frequently quoted from it. . . "v
Rumi himself proclaimed:
I am the servant of the Qur'an as long as I have life.
I am the dust on the path of Muhammad, the Chosen one.
If anyone quotes anything except this from my sayings,
I am quit of him and outraged by these words.
Rumi’s four-year-long association (1244-48) with the dervish Shams-e Tabrizi has been the topic of much discussion and has raised controversies as well. But, there is no denying the fact that it was an immensely fruitful relationship, with the younger man gaining much from his interactions with Shams. Rozina Ali, an editorial staff of the New Yorker, states, “Rumi would come to blend the intuitive love for God that he found in Sufism with the legal codes of Sunni Islam and the mystical thought he learned from Shams.” His love for Shams has been equated with the longing and affection of a worshipper for the Supreme Being. And, Rumi explained:
All Souls are like body for You.
You are the Soul.
What’s the good of a body without Soul?
I’ve given You my Heart for a long time.
Come, O Beloved, I’ll give You my Soul too.
The cause of Shams’ sudden disappearance from this world has not been irrefutably fixed but the fact remains that this loss came as an unexpected blow to Rumi and left him distraught. It was his sorrow that urged Rumi to express his feelings and sentiments in verse. And in Divan-e-Shams-e Tabrizi or Divan-e Kabir, composed after Shams’ departure, the grief-stricken poet lamented:
O Shams-e Tabriz, my pain
A hundred ways my heart would drain
Sometimes a blade, cuts my vein
Sometimes the shield I urge in vain.
Rumi’s Divan-e Shams Tabrizi is a wonderful mixture of couplets, quatrains, ghazals/odes etc. in Farsi, Turkish and an interesting blend of Persian and Turkish and Persian and Greek. In the Introduction to his translation of the Divan, Nevit Oguz Ergin specifies that it has 21 meters and that the “first volume has 12,493 verses, the second volume has 4052; the third has 4,526; the fourth has 4,180; the fifth has 6,684; the sixth has 4,002; and the seventh has 8,892. All together the Divan has 44,829 verses.” The recurring reference to a Beloved in the Divan speaks of a Sufi’s longing for the loved one, God Himself and his “drunken” state is tantamount to the submerging of the Self in the Divine and the ecstasy experienced. Scholars are thus generally of the opinion that this outstanding collection of poems is also an extraordinary discourse on Sufism. In fact, some believe that many of the ghazals/odes, described as “ecstatic poetry”, were composed by Rumi during the sama ceremony where Sufi whirling dervishes sang and danced.
However, in spite of the poetic excellence of Shams-e Tabrizi, it is the Masnavi-ye Ma’navi (Spiritual Verses) in rhymed couplets which is Rumi’s masterpiece, and also, in the opinion of the philosopher Hegel, one of the greatest poems ever composed. It was during the last phase of his life, for nearly twelve years, that Rumi devoted most of his time in shaping this poem which, as he mentions in the introduction, is “the roots of the roots of the roots of the (Islamic) Religion" and also an “Explainer of the Qur'ân “. To another Sufi poet Jami, the Masnavi is the Qur’an in Persian. Jawid Mojaddedi comments that, the Masnavi “cites the Qur’an and Hadiths at a much higher frequency than any other work of its genre”, all for the purpose of imparting “mystical teachings.”viii
Rumi’s magnum opus in six volumes, which Rumi mostly dictated/recited and his disciple Hussam-e Chalabi wrote down, opens with a mention of Rumi’s favourite musical instrument. He began with:
Listen to the reed and the tale it tells,
How it sings of separation.
Consisting of about 25,000 verses or 50,000 lines, the Masnavi may also be considered “the greatest spiritual masterpiece ever written by a human being” in the Sufi tradition. It is an amazing blend of the commonplace and the lofty, of the earthly and the supernatural and the tone too swings from the ordinary to the elevated. This poem encompasses almost everything from the historical to the political, from the familial to the spiritual and includes the humorous as well as the bawdy. Titles of stories in the Masnavi, such as, The Description of Mohammed in the Gospel, The Search for the Tree of Life, Statute and Analogy, The Three Fishes, Death and Resurrection, The Story of Nimrod speak of Rumi’s wide range of interest. This spiritual manual encourages a Sufi to fix his eyes on his Beloved, the Almighty and imparts moral lessons as well. For instance, in Story XIV of the Third Book, entitled Miracles Performed by the Prophet Muhammad, Rumi advised:
In this tale there is a warning for thee, O Soul,
That thou mayest acquiesce in God’s ordinances,
And be wary and not doubt God’s benevolence,
When sudden misfortunes befall thee.
He also said with firm conviction:
That wine of god (the righteous) yields a perfume of musk;
Other wine (the evil) is reserved for penalties and pains.
In the last two books especially, Rumi has advocated complete rejection of the ego for the purpose of erasing the distance between Man and his Maker and for the ultimate Realization of God’s greatness.
The Masnavi, though incomplete, contains an admirable fusion of popular stories, incidents from the life of the Prophet, teachings of the Qur’an and thus Rumi used about seven different voices, such as the Authorial Voice, the Story-telling voice etc. And, as with many preachers after him, Rumi chose to use the everyday language so that his Masnavi could reach even the common man. Well, who would fail to realize what the poet wished to convey, when he said so simply:
A lover may hanker after this love or that love,
But at the last he is drawn to the KING of love.
‘Tis the fire of love that inspires the flute,
‘Tis the ferment of love that possesses the wine.
The pattern of the Masnavi too is most interesting. As stated, there are six volumes in all but a reader may easily notice a definite thematic link between the first and the second, the third and the fourth and the fifth and the sixth books. Each book of the Masnavi which is perhaps the lengthiest ‘single-authored’ text, consists of about 4,000 verses with separate prose introductions and prologues. But, to comprehend, appreciate and marvel at Rumi’s creative genius, the six parts have to be read together as a single text.
It is but natural for readers to compare Rumi’s Divan with the Masnavi. And comparisons have been made. To Professor R. A. Nicholson, a Rumi scholar and translator of the Divan and the Masnavi into English, “the Masnavi is a majestic river, calm and deep, meandering through many a rich and varied landscape to the immeasurable ocean; the Divan is a foaming torrent that leaps and plunges in the ethereal solitude of the hills.”x
Though Rumi’s fame rests primarily on his poetic creations, his excellence as a prose writer too is evident from his Discourses, Sermons and Letters. Readers are indebted to his son and disciples for recording seventy-one talks and lectures in his Fihi Ma Fihi (In It What's in It).Though Rumi speaks about Religion, God, the essential Reality, the Soul, he could reach the ordinary listener because of the simple, language used. However, every utterance here is significant for the sheer depth of meaning. For example, Rumi explains the importance of Silence by stating that words are unnecessary, no more than a pretext, because what is of real worth is the inner connection between a disciple and his master. Words are often just inadequate and even the title Fihi Ma Fihi indicates both a mortal’s inability to express the Divine in simple words and his attempt to sum it all with the statement, “It is what It IS.” Interestingly, these talks were often followed by music and the Whirling Dance of Sufi Dervishes. Let us not forget that Rumi was a musician too who played the reed flute or ney and the robab and could also sing and dance. In fact, it is believed that some of Iran and Afghanistan’s classical music is based on Rumi’s poetry.
The Qur’an and the Hadith form the basis of the seven sermons in Persian in Rumi’s Majales-e Sab'a (Seven Sessions). That Rumi remembered very clearly the early influence of Sanai and Attar is evident as he has referred to their poems in his sermons. Like a true Sufi, Rumi believed that a man could take the first step of the all-important journey towards becoming a true Lover by deep introspection. In his sermons too Rumi has used the language of the common man and the style is effectively simple.
Makatib (The Letter), consisting of about a hundred and fifty epistles addressed to people from different walks of life, from statesmen to members of own family, holds up to view yet another dimension of Rumi. The letters of Advice and Recommendation meant for influential men especially, underscore Rumi’s social responsibility as well as his philanthropy. However, the style here is no longer the ordinary, owing to the status of the addressees and the content of some letters.
Interestingly, in spite of his evident Sufi leanings, doubts have been cast with Saharam Shiva, a Rumi expert, questioning directly, “Was he a Sufi?”xi He has argued that Rumi was not a Sufi in the strictest sense of the term because he did not, as expected of a Sufi, belong to any group or sect with a hierarchical system. Moreover, Shiva does not want us to confuse age-old mysticism with Sufism, a comparatively new branch and also adds that the Mevlevi order, the order of the Whirling Dervishes, was formed by his son Sultan Walad only after Rumi’s death.
However, many like the British Orientalist Edward Granville Browne, have declared that Rumi “without doubt is the most eminent Sufi poet whom Persia has produced” Jawid Mojaddedi affirms that Rumi was not much interested in the externals of his Religion. Instead, he followed the tenets of Sufism in his understanding of God and of a Mortal’s relationship with the Immortal. To a Sufi, a believer in Islam, life is a long but meaningful journey towards a single desired destination for the sole purpose of uniting with the Creator. The Sufi is an Ashiq or a Mehboob, a lover, yearning for the Supreme One, his Beloved, and craving a spiritual union. Consequently, a Sufi expresses his love for his Maker in ardent romantic terms which may seem like the longings of an earthly lover for his lady love. Moreover, a Sufi strongly believes that he is nothing but a reflection of the Divine and as Rumi has advised, the Self is no separate entity and thus has to lose itself willingly in the Supreme Being. To a Sufi, God is not beyond his reach because he believes that a heart, free of egoistic feelings, is the Almighty’s abode. Rumi like other Sufi poets longed for a tawhid or union with the Beloved and announced:
I am neither the body
nor the soul,
For I belong to Divine Soul
of my Lord, my Beloved.
O both of my eyes, light of my eyes,
Wherever I go, You are with me.
If You want, pull me toward the tavern,
Make me drunk,
Or pull me toward Nothingness.
History endorses, as it were, Rumi’s status as one of the earliest humanists. He was older to Petrarch by many years and was born around two hundred years before Erasmus and Dante was just about eight years old when he passed away. Rumi’s work has been lauded by the West and the French author Maurice Barres has stated with conviction, 'When I experienced Rumi's poetry, which is vibrant with the tone of ecstasy and with melody, I realized the deficiencies of Shakespeare, Goethe and Victor Hugo.'xiii Rumi does enjoy a wide readership and his works have reached millions through translations in different languages like English, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Pashto, Urdu, Hindi and Bengali. In the United States of America Rumi has gained great popularity and collections of his poems are much in demand now. Moreover, Rumi’s Sufism has attracted the attention of even celebrities from the world of music and films. Like many, they too have found solace in the words of this master who all his life spread the message of peace, and harmony and wished for nothing more than a much-coveted union with his Beloved after erasing his Self. So it does comfort the heart to hear Rumi say:
Don't grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.
Your depression is connected to your insolence and refusal to praise
Every moment I shape my destiny with a chisel. I am a carpenter of my own soul
If you are irritated by every rub, how will you ever get polished?
When Rumi died, there was a forty-day-long mourning in which men irrespective of their caste, creed and colour joined. And as Rumi was not for an age but for all times, the world has thought of different ways of paying tribute to this great man and keeping his memory alive. A grand Mevlana Mausoleum was built in 1274 where he was laid to rest. It is now known as the Mevlana Museum which attracts ordinary tourists as well as pilgrims from all corners. The UNESCO celebrated the 800th birth centenary of the poet in 2007 and called it the International Rumi Year and in Iran there was a special a Rumi Week in the same year. All school bells in Iran pealed on his birthday as a mark of respect and for more than a decade 5000 Turkish lira notes had the picture of Rumi and his mausoleum printed on them. Now Hollywood too is all set to recreate the Rumi aura by making a biopic.
But would these have gladdened the heart of a Sufi had he been alive? Would he have enjoyed the celebrations and the eulogy? Perhaps not. For, Jalal ud-Din Muhammad Rumi, who attached little importance to worldly gains and public attention, has expressed his own wish in no uncertain terms. And this is what his epitaph says:
When we are dead, seek not our tomb in the earth, but find it in the hearts of men.
1 Rumi’s name has been spelt differently by different writers. Seyyed Hossein Nasr refers to him as Jalal al-Din in Islamic Art and Spirituality, Suny Press, 1987. Elsewhere he is Jalal ad- din Rumi , Jalal ud-Din Rumi and so on.
2 http://www.dw.com/en/appropriation-of-sufi-poet-rumi-sparks-outrage-in-afghanistan/a-19319390 (Accessed on 07.03.17)
3 Lewis, D. Franklin. Rumi: Past and Present, East and West: The Life, Teachings and Poetry of Jalal al-Din Rumi, One World Publication Limited. 2008. pp.316-317.
4 http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-erasure-of-islam-from-the-poetry-of-rumi, (Accessed on 07.03.17)
5 Moyne, John. Rumi and the Sufi Tradition: Essays On the Mowlavi Order And Mysticism. Global Publications. 1998. p. 25.
6 http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-erasure-of-islam-from-the-poetry-of-rumi (Accessed on 08.03.17)
(Accessed on 27.03.17)
8 Mojaddedi, Jawid. “Rumi,” ed. Rippin, Andrew. The Blackwell Companion to the Quran, Oxford. 2006, pp. 364-68
9 https://sufism.org/origins/rumi/rumi-excerpts/rumi-daylight-tr-by-kabir-camille-helminski-excerpts-2 (Accessed on 27.03.17)
10 Davis, Hadland Frederick. The Persian Mystics: Jalalu’d-Din Rumi. 2007. p. 35.
11 http://www.rumi.net/about_rumi_main.htm Accessed on 27.03.17.
12 Qtd. in Iqbal, Afzal. The Life and Work of Jalal-ud-din Rumi. The Other Press. 2014. p. vii.
13 http://rumiworldcenter.com/ (Accessed on 27.03.17)