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THE THIRTEENTH-CENTURY Persian lawyer-divine and Sufi, widely considered literature’s greatest mystical poet, understood very well the uncontrollable and idiosyncratic impact of poetry. Yet one wonders if even he, for all his intuitive grasp of language, humanity and the cosmos foresaw the deep and diverse influence his own work would have on readers throughout the world seven centuries after his death-or the myriad meanings enthusiasts would draw from his sprawling and contradictory poems. In the Islamic world today, Rumi is read for much the same reasons he was revered during his life: for his excellence as a poet; for his rare ability to empathize with humans, animals and plants; for his personal refinement; and, above all else, for his flawless moral center and ability to direct others towards good conduct and union with Allah.
Rumi’s work also has been read in the West for centuries and there have been informed references to him in the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and many other eminent writers. But in recent years the popularity of his work in the West has increased to a surprising extent: according to the Christian Science Monitor, Rumi ranked as America’s best-selling poet in 1997. His biography, or at least the highlights of his difficult but victorious life, should prove as inspiring as his poetry to his diverse and growing readership.

The key events of Rumi’s life-or those that appear to have shaped his poetry to a great extent-seem to have been his insecure childhood spent with his family roaming between countries at the time of the Mongol invasion; his close relationship with his father, the mystic Baha al-Din; his great popularity as an Islamic professor; and his unusually intense spiritual and emotional love for the dervish Shams al-Din of Tabriz.

Many Western readers prize his work less as a moral lodestar and resource for merging with the Absolute, and more as a vehicle for illuminating our own highly secular age. Although, to be sure, these readers also are drawn to the ecstatic and transcendental qualities of the great mystic’s work. Western admirers tend to extract Rumi from his historical context and embrace him as one of their own. Not a few have seized on his poetry as a springboard for their own creative expressions, including New York clothes designer Donna Karan, who in 1998 unveiled her spring line of fashions while musical interpretations of Rumi’s work by the health writer Deepak Chopra played in the background. Composers Philip Glass and Robert Wilson have written “Monsters of Grace,” an operatic extravaganza that can be enjoyed with three-dimensional viewing glasses and a libretto of one hundred and fourteen Rumi poems interpreted by American poet Coleman Barks.

Quick-thinking American entrepreneurs seem to devise new means to capitalize on Rumi’s soaring popularity nearly every month. Recently, several versions of “Rumi cards,” a new method of fortune-telling, combining snippets of the poet’s work and aspects of the Tarot, have appeared in U.S. bookstores. And, for those who peruse the World Wide Web, it is possible to dial up “” and be informed that, “In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful, Jalalu’ddin is coming soon.”

Commercialism aside, the differences between the Islamic and Western view of Rumi probably become most apparent when exploring the subject of love, a central preoccupation of the poet’s work. Western readers have been captivated by Rumi’s frequent and masterful use of romantic imagery, which, coupled with the medieval lack of prudery have caused some to regard him chiefly as a love poet. Many are fascinated with Rumi’s mystic identification and all-encompassing spiritual love for his mentor Shams al-Din of Tabriz. Some construe this relationship as a conventional love affair, given Rumi’s frequent declarations of his overwhelming longing for Shams after Shams’ mysterious departure. Indeed, in 1998, the gay magazine The Advocate published a piece in which it was argued that Islamic scholars have obscured a likely gay relationship between the poet and Shams. Other Western readers are charmed by the lack of priggishness and the nearly Chaucerian quality contained in some of Rumi’s depictions of heterosexual couplings.

Yet Islamic scholars consistently have interpreted the relationship between Rumi and Shams as an example of the Sufi call to open one’s heart to another human, in order to open one’s heart to God. At the same time, Rumi’s frequent use of ardent, earthy imagery to describe his affinity with his beloved Shams also is in keeping with the conventions of Persian love poetry, which sometimes used sexual imagery to depict platonic love between men.

Similarly, anecdotes of sexual love are not necessarily viewed as mindless endorsements of licentiousness by Islamic readers, but sometimes as ironic and cautionary commentaries on human nature. And in other ways, Islamic readers enjoy a very different Rumi. To the Islamic mind, there are no necessary divisions between the secular and spiritual realms, or between man and God. Rumi’s bawdiest jokes, his most erotically-charged images, his cosmopolitan grasp of cultures and religions outside his own, and his fluent knowledge of law, history, literature and nature are not viewed as ends in themselves: they are only devices for expediting readers’ connection with Allah and the unseen world. For all the dazzling breadth and variety of the Mathnawi, Rumi’s six-volume masterpiece, the work also may be said to have had only a single purpose: communion with the Absolute.

For Islamic readers, Rumi remains an important commentator on the Koran and a brilliant exponent of Sufi philosophy, the strain of Islam that stresses direct and ecstatic communion with Allah over Aristotelian questioning. Rumi, who was strictly educated in religious law and philosophy, is viewed in the Islamic world as a spiritual descendant of two other great Sufi writers, Sana’i and Attar. He shared with those two writers the goal of eliminating corruption from religious practice and institutions. He also is widely seen as the vindicator of his father, Baha al-Din, an Islamic preacher whose metaphysical and mystical leanings often were greeted with skepticism because of a prevailing bias towards Aristotelian inquiry in his native Khorosan, today known as Afghanistan.

In Turkey today, Rumi is revered by many as the founder of the Mevlevi Order, which is associated with the colorful “whirling dervishes,” the Sufis who twirl themselves into joyful merger with the Absolute. Indeed, Rumi himself helped make popular the once questionable practice of this mystic dance by twirling, first in the marketplace, and later, to the astonishment of many, at a funeral for a beloved friend. Iran, which has assumed the role of the preserver of Persian culture, has in recent years offered its respects to the poet through an abundant outpouring of new scholarly essays.

So, why are there so many views of Rumi, and so many ways to read him? How can so many types of contemporary readers connect so intimately, and apparently quite sincerely, with this long-dead medieval writer?

In his work, Rumi tells us over and over that he is attempting to put into language the nature and significance of the invisible universe, a task he freely admits can only be achieved in part. In “The Story of Solomon and the Hoopoe,” Rumi writes: “Do thou hear the name of every thing from the knower? Hear the inmost meaning of the mystery of He That Taught the Names. With us, the name of every thing is its outward appearance, with the Creator, the name of every thing is its inward reality.”1

The best explanation for Rumi’s popularity may simply be that he was a very wonderful poet-uniquely capable of transcending “outward appearances” and conjuring up the mystical “inward reality,” yet entirely realistic and modest about the limitations of his words-and there are very few such writers in the world. It also must be remembered that the Mathnawi, Rumi’s longest work, is a Persian classic and by itself would ensure his literary immortality.

Another part of Rumi’s very broad appeal may derive from his genuinely cosmopolitan character; if many types of people today feel linked to Rumi, it may be because in his lifetime he enjoyed unusually good relations with diverse groups. Born in or near Balkh in the province of Khorosan, in what is now Afghanistan-an area with Buddhist, Islamic, Christian, Zoroastrian and Jewish traditions-Rumi apparently was familiar with all those religions and often friendly with their practitioners. After the death of his first wife, an Islamic woman, Rumi chose as his second wife a woman many people believed to be of Christian origin. This second marriage took place, somewhat remarkably, at the time of the Crusades, when large portions of the Christian and Islamic worlds were preoccupied with conquering each other. The hagiographers tell us that there was no more beautiful tribute to Rumi’s universality than his funeral, a forty-day marathon of grieving attended by distraught, weeping Muslims, Christians, Jews, Greeks, Arabs and Persians.
Then again, the loose, rambling structure of Rumi’s work-especially the Mathnawi, which is full of free associations and abrupt changes of topic-makes for a grab-bag style of poetry, capable of engaging many different people because it contains a wealth of topics. Some of the slightly chaotic quality of Rumi’s works may be attributed partly to the fact that he did not write it down himself. Rather, he dictated his poems and musings to scribes who followed him about, attempting to keep up with his fast-paced mind. The scholar Annemarie Schimmel in the Triumphal Sun tells us something about the conditions under which Rumi’s mysterious changeable poetry was produced:

The looseness of the Mathnawi, which most readers find difficult to appreciate, is reminiscent of the form of mystical sessions [which Rumi held with his disciples]; the master gives some advice or expresses an opinion; some visitor or disciple may utter a word; he takes it up, spins a new tale out of it, is caught by some verbal association- very common in the Islamic languages with their almost infinite possibilities of developing different meanings from one Arabic root-then, he may become enraptured and recite some verses, and thus the evening passes in an enchanted atmosphere; but it would be difficult to remember the wonderful stories and points the next day in any logical sequence.2

As for Western readers, there is another important reason for Rumi’s surprisingly strong appeal today: his ability to evoke ecstasy from the plain facts of nature and everyday life. One often gets the sense that merely to draw breath, or catch sight of another creature, are immensely pleasurable events. Many of Rumi’s poems convey feelings of great joy in being able to play any sort of role at all in the natural order. And such confident expressions of belonging and pleasure are too rare in the technologically sophisticated, but socially fragmented modern world. Consider this translation of a section of the Mathnawi, by Jonathan Star:

My soul wants to fly away when your presence calls it so sweetly.
My soul wants to take flight, when you whisper, “Arise.”
A fish wants to dive from dry land into the ocean, when it hears the drum beating “Return.”
A Sufi, shimmering with light, wants to dance like a sunbeam when darkness summons him.3

In short, Rumi’s work responds to an increasing need many of us have for an instinctive and mystical response to the ordinary events of life, and for a more joyful daily existence. For, although Rumi’s work is peppered throughout with biting social commentary, cynicism and a mordant wit, the overall effect of reading his poetry is very encouraging, as if some small portion of his vast inner state has been transferred to the reader. Moreover, Rumi was indeed a very great love poet-whether his work is interpreted in an earthy, secular context, or within a strictly spiritual framework. His aching longing for Shams and his poetical dissections of the many states of love provide readers with a vocabulary for exploring the wide array of their own emotional and spiritual states. The love documented by Rumi is very complex, a privilege and a torment, laced with many shades of sadness and joy and bewilderment. There is little sentimentality for its own sake in Rumi’s work; his meditations on love often shed light upon its turbulent and unsettling aspects, while also illuminating its transformational potential. In the Divan-e, Rumi writes:

You are in love with me, I shall make you perplexed.
Do not build much, for I intend to have you in ruins.
If you build two hundred houses in a manner that the bees do;
I shall make you as homeless as a fly.
If you are the mount Qaf in stability.
I shall make you whirl like a millstone.

These sorts of meditations on love probably are eagerly read today by many in the West, not just for their superb imagery, but because readers today desperately want to probe love more fully and participate in its most mysterious and inchoate aspects. Yet we find ourselves in a culture that sometimes approaches love as a dull series of kitschy moments, the better to patronize it.

Rumi’s contemporary relevance can also be found in the frequently severe and unsettling circumstances of his life. Like many people in both the Islamic and Western worlds today, Rumi lived through extraordinary social and political tumult. It appears that the poet was able to convey the chaotic nature of poetry and life very convincingly because his own life was placed in uncertainty and danger on many occasions, during both his childhood and his adult years, sometimes due to political instability, and other times due to profound inner change. Many modern readers, finding themselves in tumultuous conditions, take comfort in the way the poet transcended and triumphed over harrowing circumstances.

The area in which Rumi’s family lived during his early childhood was under threat of the Mongol invasion. There are many indications that the terror unleashed in the Islamic world by the Mongols was the principal reason his family left its native Khorosan while Rumi was still a young child. However, a few texts suggest that Rumi’s father decided to leave because he did not enjoy the level of influence he felt he deserved as a distinguished Islamic thinker.

In either case, Rumi, perhaps at the tender age of ten or twelve, along with many of his relatives, fled Khorosan, an area in which the family had lived for generations. They began an approximately ten-year, fifteen hundred-mile trek and eventually reestablished themselves in Konya in Asiatic Anatolia, or modern Turkey. Along the way, young Rumi lost his mother, one of his father’s four wives, and most probably experienced numerous other sorrows and deprivations. Scholars have suggested that Rumi’s imperturbable inner state and his mystic sensibility were cultivated in large part as a defense against the transience, loss and terror he endured during his childhood.

After settling in Konya, Rumi apparently had a fairly stable early adulthood, becoming his father’s intellectual successor and traveling to meet other scholars. Initially, he settled into the fairly conventional life of an Islamic lawyer-divine and scholar and enjoyed great prestige in Konya. Yet he was to purposefully rattle his own secure existence at the age of thirty-seven when he suddenly formed his extraordinary mystical friendship with the eccentric dervish Shams al-Din of Tabriz. After encountering Shams, Rumi’s life changed as much as it had when he had left Khorosan as a child. As the literary critic Fatemeh Keshavarz so aptly puts it: “Shams awakened in Rumi the wayfarer who had to free himself of rational and speculative knowledge to seek new horizons.” If encountering Shams was an experience of freedom and enlightenment for Rumi, losing the dervish was one of great loss and heartbreak, intensified by the possibility that Shams was murdered by one of Rumi’s own sons.
Rumi’s fascinating and itinerant, if sometimes harrowing childhood, as well as his watershed encounter with his mystical Beloved Shams, and his subsequent creation of brilliant lyrics, are stories which can be grasped by both medieval and modern people. These stories, as much as Rumi’s poetry, resound with people today caught up in social upheaval beyond their control, as well as those who deliberately unravel their own conventional security in search of more meaningful lives.

Taken from:

Rumi, A Spiritual Biography (Lives & Legacies) by Leslie Wines

Excerpt kindly provided by Eileen Judd