(above pic : A page from a 600 year old manuscript of the Masnavi)
By Roy Ahmad Jackson – Roy Ahmad Jackson has been a lecturer and writer on religion and philosophy for over fifteen years. He has lectured in Islamic Studies at various universities, including the University of Durham and King’s College London. He has previously written books on Nietzsche, Plato, Islam and the philosophy of religion.
Maulana Jalal al-Din Rumi رَحِمَهُ ٱللَّٰهُ (1207–1273) is one of the greatest mystics and poets of the Islamic world. In its sheer scale, his poetry is incomparable and his life has proven sufficiently enticing for there to be a number of novels and movies about him in recent years. Translations of his work are becoming increasingly popular in the Western world, but he has always held a special place for Muslims, especially in the Persian world where his poetry is seen as encompassing distinctively Persian mystical and philosophical concepts. Known as the ‘master’ which in Turkish is ‘mevlevi’, his writings and actions in life resulted in the establishment of a Sufi order known as the Mevlevi, which is known in the West for its characteristic ‘dancing’ or ‘whirling dervishes’.
Jalal al-Din Rumi was born in Balkh in the northern Persian province of Khorasan in 1207. Balkh at the time was a flourishing city and it is recorded that in the ninth century it possessed some forty mosques which was an indication of its size and activity. Many Arabs referred to Balkh as the ‘mother of cities’. It was destroyed by the Mongols in 1220 and now it is just a small town. Rumi’s family had lived in Balkh for several generations and they were held in high regard as a noble family. His great-grandfather claimed that his family were originally from Arab stock as opposed to indigenous Persian and, in fact, claimed descent from the first Rightly-Guided Caliph Abu Bakr. Certainly, his lineage could make claim to a number of jurists and mystics.
The life of Rumi is shrouded in legend. However, in terms of biographical material, his son, Sultan Walad, wrote a long narrative poem on the life of his father called Ibtida namah (Book of Beginning) which contains some very useful information. There is also a good critical biography by the Persian scholar Badi al’Zaman Furuzanfarr called Biography of our Master (Sharhii hal-i Maulana, 1932). What is known is that when Rumi was 12 years old, his father, Baha al-Din, took his family and left Balkh in 1219. Various reasons have been given for this exodus, such as Rumi’s father – an eminent theologian, teacher and preacher – had received divine inspiration, or perhaps he had a disagreement of some kind with the rulers. However, the fact that Balkh itself was destroyed by the Mongols a year later suggests that many people of the city took the initiative to leave beforehand. The family were to settle in the city of Konya in Turkey but, prior to that, they travelled to Baghdad, to Mecca and to Damascus before settling in Zarandah, about 40 miles south-east of Konya. There is an apocryphal story that while in Damascus in 1221 Rumi was seen walking behind his father by the great philosopher and mystic Ibn Arabi who then exclaimed: ‘Praise be to God, an ocean is following a lake!’ They stayed in Karandah for some seven or eight years and, during this period, Rumi married and his son, Sultan Walad, was born in 1226. They then travelled to Konya, which at that time was the capital of the Western Saljuk dynasty. It is said that Rumi’s father, being of great reputation, was invited by the Saljuk Sultan to also reside in the capital and, as Baha al-Din approached the city, the Sultan left his palace to greet him and led Baha al-Din’s horse by hand into the city.
At the time Konya was in relative peace and sheltered many fleeing scholars, mystics, and artists from the Mongol invasions. Therefore, it was a stimulating place to be. Because of the Byzantine past of the region, it was called Rum (‘Rome’) among the Turks, and it was because of this that Jalal al-Din came to be known as ar-Rumi, ‘the man of Rome’. Rumi’s father, however, was not to enjoy Konya for too long as he died in 1230. At around the time of the death of Baha al-Din, a former pupil of his, Burhanu al-Din Muhaqqiq of Tirmidh arrived in Konya and he became Rumi’s Pir (spiritual master). For the next ten years, until the death of his Pir in 1240, Rumi went through all the stages required of the Sufi (Islamic mysticism) discipline and so he himself became a Pir. Rumi had a strong, charismatic personality and it was not long before he attracted disciples of his own as well as being a spiritual guide and friend of the Saljuk Sultan. Rumi was referred to by his disciples as ‘Maulana’ (‘Our Master’) or, in Turkish, ‘Mevlevi’. In time, under his son especially, the Mevlevi became a well-known Sufi order.
Before that, however, a life-changing event occurred for Rumi at the age of 39. A mysterious, wandering mystic called Shams al-Din of Tabrizi arrived in Konya. Shams was to have a powerful effect upon Rumi and was a major contributor to the maturing of his own spiritual path. Central to Rumi’s quest was the need to be associated with a ‘Perfect Man’ (see Ibn Arabi for more of an exposition of this complex phrase). In brief, the Perfect Man (al-insan al-kamil) is considered by many mystics to be the living manifestation of God. As man has been created by God, he embodies all the perfections of the universe, as well as those of Divinity. The reason for being, then, is to strive towards the highest perfection and this is done through the mystical path. Those who have achieved the highest perfection can perceive their own creaturely uniqueness as well as see their identity with God. To be associated with such a Perfect Man is, therefore, to be associated with God, to be part of the ‘divine light’ of God. This theme recurs throughout Rumi’s poetry: the Perfect Man is to be seen as a mirror of God’s divine attributes and so to be one with the Perfect Man is to be one with God.
Rumi took Shams into his house and for something like two years the two were inseparable, much to the jealousy of Rumi’s disciples. In fact, Rumi’s followers were so upset by the attachment Rumi showed to Shams that they threatened the latter with violence. Shams fled to Damascus but Rumi sent his son Sultan Walad to seek him out. Rumi’s son brought Shams back to Konya and the disciples repented. However, it seems that their repentance was not genuine as Shams once again fled to Damascus and, once again, Sultan Walad brought him back. Finally, in 1247, Shams ‘disappeared’. Some reports suggest that he was murdered by some of Rumi’s disciples and the body was hidden by being thrown into a well. Sultan Walad in his biographical poem describes how the loss of Shams affected Rumi:
Never for a moment did he cease from listening to music (sama’), and dancing;
Never did he rest by day or night.
He had been a mufti: he became a poet;
He had been an ascetic: he became intoxicated by Love.
‘Twas not the wine of the grape: the illumined soul drinks only the wine of light.
In this short passage there are a couple of interesting references. First, to that of Rumi listening to music and dancing. The Mevlevi Order, which was institutionalised by Sultan Walad, is characterised by its religious dance (the sama, or the so-called ‘whirling dervishes’) to the plaintive accompaniment of the reed-flute. The practice is a form of meditation in which Sufis can attain states of spiritual ecstasy. The suggestion here is that such a practice has its origins with Rumi himself. Secondly, the fact that Rumi now developed from being a mufti (essentially a legal functionary or, more generally, a learned Muslim one goes to for advice) into a poet. The reference here seems to be to Rumi’s great work, Diwan-i Shams-i Tabriz (Poems of Shams of Tabriz, and usually referred to as the Diwan) which is a voluminous work dedicated to the memory of Shams.
After the disappearance of Shams, Rumi attached himself to another spiritual figure, that of Salah al-Din Fardidun Zarkub. However, this relationship – although meant to be two becoming One – was most likely a reversal of the relationship Rumi had with Shams, for Salah al-Din was Rumi’s deputy (khalifa) of the Mevlevi Order and Rumi’s charisma was the stronger. Rumi, however, outlived his deputy who died in 1261. During the remaining years of Rumi’s life, however, he attached himself to his next deputy, Husam al-Din Hasan ibn Muhammad ibn Hasan ibn Aki Turk. During this time Rumi composed his greatest work, the Mathnawi (Spiritual Couplets) which he called ‘the book of Husam’. Upon the death of Rumi in 1273, Husam became the Head of the Mevlevi Order until 1284 when Sultan Walad took his place.
The Mathnawi is a huge work consisting of 25,000 rhyming couplets and opens with the following well-known lines:
Hearken to this Reed forlorn, breathing even since ’twas torn
From its rushy bed, a strain of impassioned love and pain.
‘The secret of my song, though near, none can see and none can hear.
Oh, for a friend we know the sign and mingle all his soul with mine!
’Tis the flame of Love that fired me, ’tis the wine of Love inspired me.
Wouldst thou learn how lovers bleed, hearken, hearken to the Reed!’
As referred to earlier, the Persian reed-flute (nay) has always been associated with the Mevlevi Order. Symbolically, the devotee of God is like a reed flute which only becomes a living instrument when it is torn from the earth. The reed flute is the soul that remembers the union with God and its music is a longing for a return to this Oneness.
For Rumi, though also torn from his ‘beloved’, from God, there is nonetheless consolation to be found through the forms of God delivered to him as the Perfect Man, for example, Shams. The Mathnawi has often been referred to as ‘the Qur’an in Persian’ although Rumi himself did not see his poetry as revelation but as a vehicle for God’s expression. Nonetheless, many treat his work as something complementary to the Qur’an for it is a source of guidance as well as inspiration. It goes far beyond the scriptural text and weaves folklore and traditional tales as well as a compendium of Sufi thought, Neo-platonic, biblical and Christian ideas. Rumi believed that people should follow divine guidance, whether that be via the Qur’an or a spiritual master, although he was not enthusiastic about the religious scholars, the ulama, as the following shows:
Learn from thy Father! He, not falsely proud,
With tears of sorrow all his sin avowed.
Wilt thou, then, still pretend to be unfree
And clamber up Predestination’s tree? –;
Like Iblis [Satan] and his progeny abhorred,
In argument and battle with their Lord.
The blest initiates know: what need to prove?
From Satan logic, but from Adam love.
The ‘Father’ in this case is Adam who, according to the Qur’an, repented his sin and wept bitterly. The ulama, or the dogmatic theologians, were fond of discussing issues such as predestination and free will (did Adam sin of his own free will or is God to blame?), whereas Rumi is stating that such engagements in logical demonstration only alienate you from God. What matters is Love which Adam possessed.
While the Mathnawi is considered more instructional in character, the Diwan is more personal and emotional. The appeal of Rumi’s poetry lies in its cosmopolitan and universal quality as this wellknown passage from the Diwan demonstrates:
Tell me, Muslims, what should be done?
I don’t know how to identify myself. I am neither Christian nor Jewish, neither Pagan nor Muslim.
I don’t hail from the East or from the West, I am neither from land nor sea.
I am not a creature of this world . . .
While it has never been so popular with Arabic Sufis, shortly after Rumi’s death it was not long before his poetry, and his Mathnawi especially, became known all over the Persian world. The Mevlevi Order was institutionalised by Sultan Walad and it spread across the Ottoman Empire, having a particular patronage with the Ottoman Court. There are now many lodges as far away as Egypt and Syria, although in Turkey itself it was suppressed during Kemal Ataturk’s secularisation process. Rumi has influenced many poets, was widely read in Iran and had a huge influence in the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent. The Chisti Order of Delhi study the Mathnawi and Shams has become a legendary figure in India. Rumi’s universal outlook influenced the more pluralistic Mogul Emperors such as Akbar, and his writings on the Perfect Man were an inspiration for the poetry and writings of Muhammad Iqbal.
Because of Rumi’s immense popularity in the West now, there is certainly no shortage of translations of his poetry. Probably the best translations of some of his works are provided here. As a good starter, I suggest the Penguin book The Essential Rumi.
- Birdsong: 53 Short Poems by Rumi, trans. Coleman Barks, Witney: Windrush Press, 1993.
- Selected Poems from the ‘Divani Shamsi Tabriz’, trans. R.A. Nicholson, London: Routledge Curzon, 1997.
- The Essential Rumi: Selected Poems, trans. various, London: Penguin, 2004.
- The Masnavi, book 1, trans. Jawid Mojaddedi (Oxford World’s Classics),
- Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Again, there is now a large corpus on Rumi. The Nicholson and Schimmel are particularly helpful. The Lewis, at seven hundred pages long, is extremely comprehensive and informative.
- Lewis, Franklin D., Rumi, Past and Present, East and West, Oxford: Oneworld, 2000.
- Nicholson, Reynold A., Rumi: Poet and Mystic, Oxford: Oneworld, 1995.
- Schimmel, Annemarie, Rumi’s World: The Life and Work of the Great Sufi Poet, Boston: Shambhala, 2002.
The oldest manuscript of the poetical masterpiece, the Masnavi, is held at the Astan Quds Museum in Mashhad, northeastern Iran. It is dated to be over 600 years old :