Rumi: the life of a Persian mystic and poet
Known popularly today by just one name, Rumi in fact has many. Named Mohammad when he was born in Persia in 1207 CE, Rumi was the only one of his parents’ many children to survive to adulthood. From a young age, his father called him Jalal al-Din, meaning “The Splendour of the Faith”. Maulana Rumi, as he’s also known, derives from “Maulana”, “Mevlana” or “Mawlana”, meaning “master”. Rumi comes from Rum (modern-day Konya, Turkey) where he spent his adult life.
Rumi is regularly described as being to Persian literature what Shakespeare is to English literature; both are widely and well known hundreds of years after their deaths, with writing legacies that promote their countries’ culture globally. Writers and researchers have gone so far as to call Rumi the “Shakespeare of Islam” or the “Shakespeare of the Mystics”.
Like Shakespeare, Rumi was prolific, even though he didn’t start writing until his late 30s. While Shakespeare’s plays depict life in mediaeval England, with all its power, class systems and intrigue, Rumi’s writings speak of enduring spiritual themes that reflect a seeker’s questions on existential matters such as the meaning of life, how to love and the purpose of being alive.
In his own time, Rumi was, according to Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero With A Thousand Faces, a key participant in the Mohammedan-Persian literary “Restoration”, which unfolded between the 10th and 15th centuries. On the Turkish government’s website, Rumi is called “the great Turkish philosopher”.
Today, it’s said that Rumi’s writing sells more copies than Shakespeare’s plays. English translations of Rumi’s poetry, especially those by Coleman Barks, are astoundingly popular. Barks’ The Essential Rumi, first published in 1995, has sold over 250,000 copies; comparatively, poetry books by modern award-winning poets are considered successful if they sell 10,000 copies.
Until his late 30s, Rumi was a theologian and teacher, having taken over his father’s scholarly, religious and legal responsibilities on his death, when Rumi was 24. It wasn’t until 1244, when Rumi was 36–37 years old, that he met his most influential teacher, known affectionately as Shams. It was Shams’ influence on Rumi, and the experiences Rumi gained while being mentored by Shams through his late 30s, that would shape his philosophy and writings for the rest of his life.
Shams, whose full name was Shamsuddin of Tabriz, was a Sufi dervish and mystic of no fixed abode. The relationship between Rumi and Shams was frowned upon by many: Shams was of a lower social standing than Rumi and speculation abounded as to the true nature of their relationship — which, while no records exist to conclusively qualify, has nonetheless helped endear Rumi to the gay community. The intensity of their relationship, most commonly thought to be that of master and student, aroused the ire of at least Rumi’s second son, Alaeddin.
Shams’ life came to an untimely end just four years after he and Rumi met and some suspect Alaeddin was involved in Shams’ demise. Rumi was heartbroken at the loss of his friend and mentor but he channelled his grief into his spiritual development and poetic writings. The meeting and experiences with, and subsequent loss of, his teacher proved the catalyst for Rumi’s spiritual awakening.
Sufism and Islam
Rumi belonged to the more mystical part of the Islamic faith, the Sufis. In What Do Muslims Believe?, Ziauddin Sardar writes, “Sufis believe that God is in all things and all things in Him”, and that it is possible to become close to God while you are still alive. Sufis are further divided into groups known as sects, one of which is the Whirling Dervishes of Turkey, Rumi’s lineage.
In the modern world, where to the uneducated or ill-informed all Muslims have come to represent “a religion of terror”, Rumi’s increasingly popular poetry translations are helping reveal a different side of the Islamic faith, one that reveals what many Muslims would describe as the true core of their faith, that of Islam as a “religion of compassion”.
Getting close to God through the Sufi tradition involves undertaking a journey known as a tariqa under the supervision of a spiritual guide. A key feature of Sufism, one that is prevalent in Rumi’s writings, is what’s known as the “unity of truth”, that “all spiritual paths lead to the one and the same God”.
Sufism has been connected to both mystics and poetry. Rumi’s greatest work, The Mathnavi, remains popular among Muslims today, an example of the enduring stimulus Sufism has provided for poetry and literature.
Sufi’s seek fana, which means “the annihilation of the ego”. To that end, they start by resisting material values. The word “Sufi” is thought to come from suf, which means “wool” and represents the undyed wool Sufis wear as robes. Rumi is one of the most famous Sufi mystics.
Rumi was influenced by his father, Baha’uddin Walad, himself a scholar and poet. Baha’uddin Walad’s own writing expresses an intense love of God. Rumi took over his father’s teaching commitments on his death, a career through which Rumi came to a comprehensive and intimate understanding of the traditional theology of his time. In Rumi’s World, Annemarie Schimmel writes of the power of Rumi’s father’s “perhaps subconscious influence” on his future spiritual direction.
Rumi’s passion for mysticism flowed directly into his son, Sultan Walad, who, after Rumi’s death, created structure among his followers and “established the rules for the mystical dance” for which Rumi is world-famous today.
It’s due to Sultan Walad’s writings of his father’s life story that the influences of Rumi’s father, and teachers such as Shams, Salahuddin and Humasuddin, on Rumi are known. Rumi’s adult home is now open to visitors as a kind of shrine or pilgrimage for those who follow his Sufi lineage or appreciate the mystery and divinity depicted in his writings.
Rumi as mystic
In her seminal book, Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness, Evelyn Underhill writes that mystics have “succeeded where all others have failed in establishing immediate communication between the spirit of man” and what she refers to as the “immaterial and final Being”. As such, the mystic’s role is to show a way to this inner communion with divinity, what Rumi calls the Beloved. She goes on to say that “mystics are the pioneers of the spiritual world” and therein lies your guidance as to what reading or experiencing Rumi can bring to you — a path into a more spiritual existence.
Rumi’s writings speak of nature and life, not as tangible two- or three-dimensional things but as enlivened, ensouled participants in the unseen — but often intuited — spiritual world. Rumi’s teachings and writings contain many spiritual messages, including suggestions about how to access what might be described today as your higher self, or intuition.
Like many mystics, and in line with his Sufi faith, Rumi believed that God or the Beloved was not an external, holier-than-thou judgemental being, but that the Beloved resided within you. Your “job” through this life was then to make space among the mundane tasks of living in a physical body to step out of your mental approach and remember your spiritual self. Doing so, according to Rumi, helps bring peace and stability, for if everyone lived with compassion and consideration, choices would be made for good rather than evil or destruction. This may be idealistic but the role of a mystic is to be a living example of “the life of spirit”.
Rumi’s open approach to faith also reveals his beliefs that each individual can cultivate a path to the Beloved, that it’s not necessary to use an intermediary to connect with God, in whatever form it manifests for you. It’s this self-empowered approach to faith – and ultimately to life – that still speaks to readers of Rumi’s works today. Rumi believed your life was your own doing; that what happens in your life is for your best interests, even if you don’t know it at the time.
Rumi’s teachings suggested all roads led to one divinity, no matter its name or the unique ways in which individuals and different religions suggested you might get there. He promoted an inclusive approach to religion, accepting that all paths led to the one ultimate place.
Rumi’s writings began as a way to explore and express his grief at the loss of the one he considered his Sun, the illuminator of his life – Shams. Having spent most of his 20s and 30s teaching theology, it’s easy to see the connection between the main themes of Rumi’s writing: the concept of God as Rumi saw him, as the Beloved and his early career.
In Rumi’s time, God was usually seen as a fierce, stern figure. Rumi’s portrayal of God as Love, and the way to God through loving, was unique for the 13th century. In some ways, Rumi previewed the peace, love and acceptance messages of the hippie 60s. Rumi’s words invite reflection, helping to bring you out of the mundane and the minutiae of daily, earthly life, reminding you of your larger spiritual self.
In A Subtle Truth, Rumi writes, “Whatever you love you are”, cautioning against wanting material success, such as lots of money, suggesting that such a wanting leaves you open to being “bought and sold”. While this message resonates with modern spiritual themes, these sage words were written more than 700 years ago, suggesting the struggle to balance a necessary focus on the material realm with basic spiritual values is nothing new. Rumi wrote of it 700 years ago because those in his time struggled with it, too.
On intimacy and self-care
Rumi’s poems speak of longing and love and the desire to be lost with the Beloved. Don’t confuse this longing for romantic love, though; to Rumi, the Beloved he so deeply longs for is God. As a Sufi, Rumi’s beloved divine being is Allah.
However, in What is Love? Gratitude, Rumi directly addresses romantic love. He writes:
What is the body?
What is love?
What is hidden in our chests?
Don’t ask what love can make or do.
Look at the colours of the world.
Here, Rumi suggests that love exists and that your participation in love through the body involves endurance, gratitude, laughter and compassion. This may serve to remind you of the eternal gratefulness required for love as a gift rather than love as a right.
Writing in A Mouse and a Frog, Rumi says: “There is no blocking the speech-flow-river-running-all-carrying momentum that true intimacy is. Bitterness doesn’t have a chance with these two.” Here, Rumi is alluding to the power of intimacy and the ease with which it flows steadily when you discover it purely. This may help you clarify whether what you think is love truly is.
Later in the same poem, Rumi asks, “Do you pay regular visits to yourself? Don’t argue or answer rationally.” Here, you can see the importance Rumi placed on the individual and your personal responsibility to take care of your being, your inner spirit, to ensure you can be all you have the potential to be.
Rumi’s reverence for the power of differences is also described in Awkward Comparisons, where he says this: “This physical world has no two things alike. Every comparison is awkwardly rough.” Here is a clear message to celebrate your individuality.
Rumi’s poetry is symbolic and best accessed in a quiet, contemplative state of mind. The truth of his work speaks to your spirit rather than your rational mind, and may reveal its meaning, not like a set of traffic lights at first glance but rather like life’s turning points, upon reflection and often once you are not immersed within them.
On life purpose
Rumi’s writings are also collected in numerous discourses, where he addresses different topics in greater detail. While his poetry is succinct and moving, his discourses are comprehensive and provide direction and perspective for life. You may find the wisdom of Rumi more accessible through his discourses rather than his poems.
In Discourse 4, Rumi tells a story that reflects his thoughts on life purpose. The essential passage is thus:
The master said there is one thing in this world which must never be forgotten. If you were to forget everyone else, but did not forget that, then there would be no cause to worry, whereas if you performed and remembered and did not forget every single thing, but forgot that one thing, then you would have done nothing whatsoever.
It is just as if a king had sent you to the country to carry out a specified task. You go and perform a hundred other tasks; but if you have not performed that particular task on account of which you had gone to the country, it is as though you have performed nothing at all. So man has come into this world for a particular task, and that is his purpose; if he does not perform it, then he will have done nothing.
Rumi doesn’t specify what this task is, as, it can easily be imagined, The Task is unique to you. The point is that doing many things is less important than doing one thing with intention, purpose and a deep sense of conviction. Rumi is alluding to the work that some undertake knowing that for them it is a true calling. You may have a simple calling or a complex calling, but it’s likely to be more single-minded than you imagine.
The healing power of poetry
The power of poetry to mark change, support diversity and spark dialogue across time and culture is so potent that UNESCO celebrates World Poetry Day each year on March 21. Rumi’s contribution to this poetic legacy is such that UNESCO went as far as creating a special celebration of the 800th anniversary of Rumi’s birth, on September 6, 2007.
The magic and power of poetry can be accessed through regular out-loud reading of inspiring poems. You can experience the energy in Rumi’s poems by hearing them spoken and will find samples of this on YouTube (try this link to start) or on CD/via iTunes where a 1998 recording arranged by Deepak Chopra of various celebrities reading Rumi is still available.
The simplest way to access the magic of Rumi’s writings is to read them aloud yourself. Poetry is simple yet complex, and reading the same poems over a period of time brings you into a deeper communion with both the words and the meaning behind them. Pick a poem or two of Rumi’s and read it daily, or once a week, read it through three, four or five times in a sitting. Each reading brings you closer to the heart of Rumi’s divinely inspired intention and closer to accessing the mystical realm he describes.
Throughout his life, Rumi resisted efforts on behalf of his patrons to systemise his teaching in a “confraternity or order”, as was the custom at the time. His repeated refusals to have a hall constructed for his Sufi followers were eventually ignored, though the ultimate building was more modest than initially proposed.
Rumi’s enduring Sufi legacy is enshrined within the Mevlevi order, established in the years following his death. (Mevlevi is the Turkish translation for Mawlavi or Maulana — Rumi’s title of “My Master”.) Its purpose was to offer those “committed to following the worship practices, spiritual discipline and teachings” of Rumi a place to gather. Formal steps to create this confraternity were not taken until nearly 25 years after his death.
A unique feature of the Mevlevi order is its active meditation, known as whirling or dancing dervishes. This is a spiritual dance designed to help its performers get close to the Beloved. Whirling dervishes dance by placing one foot on the floor, toes fixed around a peg, and turning around and around. This is done in Rumi’s memory and with a meditative frame of mind.
This dance, now referred to as traditional Turkish folk dancing, has been co-opted by the Turkish government as part of its tourism campaigns. After World War I, Sufi organisations in Turkey were declared illegal and many of the Mevlevi buildings, known as tekke, were closed. The main tekke — “Mevlevihane”, in Konya, Rumi’s burial place — remains a museum open to the public.
The whirling Mevlevi prayer ritual is known as Sema in Turkey and is performed annually in Konya, Turkey, at the Mevlana Week Festival. Rumi believed performing this whirling dance was one way to achieve mystical unity with God. Both the dancers and performers of this ritual dance are said to chant “Allah! Allah!” quietly to themselves while performing.
Rumi’s death, on December 17, 1273, is marked not as an ending but as his “Wedding Day”, the day Rumi finally met his often longed-for Beloved. Rumi’s passing from this world to the next is a day of celebration for many throughout the Muslim world.
In Konya, Turkey, tens of thousands people, including dignitaries and politicians, gather to remember Rumi and the impact of his work on this day each year, with whirling dervishes performing tribute dances. At the 2010 event, the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan commented that “the light emerging from the work of Rumi is rising day by day”.
More than 700 years after his death, Rumi’s passing is celebrated, along with his life and work, as bringing hope and inspiration from the heart of Islam to the world.
Kelly Surtees is a writer, astrologer, teacher and editor who loves reading, writing and escaping into the ocean. She travels regularly between Australia and Canada. Visit kellysurtees.com or facebook.com/KellySurteesAstrology, or follow her on Twitter @keldreamer.