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The Life of Rumi

Jalaluddin Rumi

Jalaluddin Rumi, better known simply as Rumi, was perhaps the finest Persian poet of all time and a great influence on Muslim writing and culture. His poetry is still well known throughout the modern world, and he is one of the best selling poets in America.

Portrait of Rumi, a white-bearded man wearing a Sufi turbanRumi by Haydar Hatemi ©

Jalaluddin Rumi was born in 1207 in Balkh in present-day Afghanistan. Increasing Mongol incursions when he was around the age of eleven forced his family to leave Afghanistan, who travelled to Baghdad, Mecca, Damascus and finally settled in Konya in Turkey. Rumi lived here for most of his life.

Rumi was the son of a renowned Sufi scholar, and it is more than likely that he was introduced to Sufism from a young age. Sufism is a branch of Islam primarily concerned with developing the spirituality, or more precisely the inner character, of a Muslim.

Both he and his father were firm believers in the revelations of the Qur’an, but criticised the mere outwardly legal and ritual practice that was being promoted at the time. In fact, much of his work is dedicated to waking people up, and encouraging them to experience life themselves, rather blindly following the scholars of the day.

Rumi spent his early years, like many Muslims of the time, learning and studying Arabic, law, ahadith (the body of sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), history, the Qur’an, theology, philosophy, mathematics and astronomy.

By the time of his father’s death he had become an outstanding scholar in his own right, and took over his father’s position as one of the highest scholars in the country at the young age of 24.

He spent his time teaching and giving lectures to the public, and until the age of about 35, lived a fairly non-descript life.

Then in 1244 Rumi met a travelling Sufi, called Shams (or Shamsi Tabrizi) and the whole course of his life changed.

Shams became fast friends with Rumi, in whom he recognised a kindred spirit. The two developed a very close friendship and it was at this point that Rumi became more and more secluded, shunning the society of those he previously would discuss and debate matters with.

His relationship with Shams caused great jealousy in his family and other students, and after a few years, Shams disappeared. Many believe he was murdered, but Rumi himself did not think so. He travelled for years looking for his friend, and it was this loss that led to the outpouring of his soul through his poetry.

He wrote numerous lines of love poetry, called ghazals, but though they outwardly seem to be about Shams, it is not difficult to see that they are in fact poems describing his overpowering love of God.

Shams’ effect on Rumi was decisive. Whereas Rumi had before preached Islam soberly, he became, through Shams’ influence, filled with the love of God. What was inside his soul finally came out.

Many of Rumi’s ghazals are signed “Shams”. It is not clear precisely why he did this, although some orientalists believe this was out of humility and a sense of gratitude.

Rumi rarely wrote down his own poetry. The six books of poetry in the Mathnawi were written entirely by Rumi, who would compose and dictate the poetry, and his student Husam Chulabi, who would write and edit it.

It is believed that Rumi would turn round and round while reciting his poetry, and it is this dance which formed the basis for the Mevlevi Order, or Whirling Dervishes, after his death. Dervish means doorway, and the dance is believed to be a mystical portal between the earthly and cosmic worlds.

Rumi died in 1273 CE, halfway through the sixth volume of the Mathnawi.

The Mevlevi Order has been presided over by a member of Rumi’s family for over 800 years.

2007 was designated the UNESCO Year of Rumi.

His poetry

Rumi’s major works consist of two epic poems. The first is the Diwani Shamsi Tabrizi, named in honour of his friend Shams. It is often abbreviated to Diwan. It consists of about 40,000 verses in a vibrant and energetic style. It has been suggested that the Diwan represents Rumi’s feelings while in a dance-induced spiritual state.

Although the Diwan contains many short didactic passages, on the whole it appears as a collection of individual and seaparate crystallisations and concretisations of spiritual states undergone on the path to God. The overall ‘feeling’ of the Diwan is one of spiritual intoxication and ecstatic love.

The Sufi Path of Love, William C Chittick

At the end of the Diwan is a collection of poems of four lines, called quatrains. It is believed that about 1,600 can be correctly attributed to Rumi.

The Mathnawi is his other seminal work. It consists of 25,000 verses, in six books of poetry. The Mathnawi was written at the same time as the Diwan, and was probably intended to place the Diwan within the wider context of Islam. It is regarded as an explanation of some aspects of the Qur’an, placed within a more Sufi context.

…the Mathnawi is a commentary upon these mystical states and stations. It places them within the overall context of Islamic and Sufi teachings and practice. And it corrects the mistaken impression that one might receive by studying different poems in the Diwan in isolation and separating them from the wider context of Sufism and Islam.

The Sufi Path of Love, William C Chittick

Indeed, the problem with many translations of Rumi’s work is the separation of his poems on love from his belief in God and Islam. Many translations of his work have become mere love poems, and Rumi himself has become known as a love poet. Love is an overwhelming part of Rumi’s work, but for Rumi, this love was a higher love for God, and not for humans.

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 Quatrain, No. 1173

Nevertheless, the imagery and language used in his poetry has transcended cultures and seas, and a recent reading of some of his poems has been compiled by the health writer Deepak Chopra. The readings are performed by some of the most well-known artists in America.

In addition to his poetry, Rumi’s commentaries on various aspects of Sufism were also written down. These comprise transcriptions of his lectures and sermons, along with some 145 letters that he wrote.



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