The Spiritual Couplets

views updated

The Spiritual Couplets

by Jalal al-Din Muhammad Balkhi Rumi


A compendium of didactic stories and parables interspersed with diverse comments and told in rhyming couplets, set in the Persian Empire in the mid-to-tate thirteenth century; composed in Persian (as Masnavi-i ma‘navi) 1258 to 1273; published in English between 1925 and 1934.


The collection of stories, some derived from the Quran and prophetic traditions in Islam, others based on animal fables or street jokes, instructs the reader in the philosophy and lives of the Sufis.

Events in History at the Time of the Poems

The Poems in Focus

For More Information

Jalal al-Din Muhammad Balkhi Rumi (1207–73) was born near the ancient city of Balkh and died in the Anatolian city of Konya. His father, Baha al-Din, was a leading Islamic cleric and a Sufi who taught at a madrasah, or religious school. It was in such religious schools, as well as from his father’s circle of friends, that Rumi gained a basic knowledge of Islam and its mystical trend known as Sufism. Rumi was also an avid reader, not just of the Quran (also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times) but also of his father’s writings, which were later compiled into a book known as Ma‘arij (Teachings). Around 1215, Rumi’s family left Balkh and emigrated westward. The family eventually settled in Konya, capital of the young Seljuk dynasty of Anatolia, in modern-day Turkey. After his father died in 1232, Rumi succeeded him as the leader of the Konya Muslims. He had taken to writing poetry by then, mostly short lyrics of 5–15 lines known as ghazals. The remainder of Rumi’s life and work would subsequently be shaped by some telling encounters.

In 1244 Rumi met Shams-i Tabrizi, a dervish, that is, an itinerant follower of Sufism. The friendship lasted for some three years, during which Rumi is said to have spun ghazals day and night, producing some of the most passionate love lyrics in Persian poetry. Late in 1247 or early 1248 Shams disappeared as mysteriously as he had appeared. Rumi had already begun to use Shams’s name as his own pen-name, as if he had become Shams. He would proceed to call his collected book of ghazals “The Divan of Shams,” as if Shams, and not he, had authored the colossal work. Rumi next selected the goldsmith Salah al-Din Zarkub as his closest associate. Legend has it that Rumi was walking in the bazaar one day when, upon hearing the rhythmic tapping of a goldsmith’s hammer, he began to move his body in a quickening dance. So absorbed was the goldsmith in Rumi’s movement that he kept up the beat, even when the blows began to ruin the precious gold he was shaping to a customer’s order. Seeing how easily the goldsmith transcended his interest in material possession, Rumi walked over, led him out of his shop by the hand, and appointed him as his new friend and master.

In 1258 Salah al-Din passed away, and Rumi turned to a longtime associate, Husam al-Din, as his final closest companion. He is the one credited with recommending that Rumi compose The Spiritual Couplets. Begun in 1258 and finished just a few months before Rumi’s death, the collection conveys what many describe as the most wide-ranging series of stories ever submitted to allegorical interpretation for the purpose of communicating the principles of Islamic mysticism to the initiate and lay reader alike.

Events in History at the Time of the Poems

Institutionalized Sufism

As a way of conceptualizing and practicing Islam, Sufism experienced a gradual rise in importance among Muslims. In fact, the tradition had gained so much esteem by the thirteenth century that kings made a show of periodically receiving blessings from Sufi masters, noblemen sought to enhance their nobility by attaching themselves to great Sufi guides, and rich merchants donated large sums to the Sufi order, fraternity, or lodge of their choice. In this formative era, fundamental Sufi doctrine, based on the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, remained relatively stable. The early Sufis shared some foundational views, including such all-inclusive definitions of God as “the first and the last and the outwardly manifest and the inwardly hidden” (Quran 57:3). Another common view, arising in part from the categorical observation that “Wherever you turn, there is the face of God,” concerned the relationship between the human and the divine, which differed from orthodox views in that the Sufis saw it as centered more on love, less on fear (Quran 2:115). Such basic doctrine would endure; however, Sufism soon came to be interpreted in different, sometimes conflicting ways. For example, individual expressions of mutual affection between God and humans gradually gave way to established norms for imagining God as the un-needing beloved and human beings as the supplicant lover that formed a central theme in the Persian love lyric. Similarly, the practice of constantly repeating the many names of God as an act of reminding oneself and others of His presence, which was part of the ascetic lifestyle of the early Sufi saints, turned into ritual group dances such as the Sama practiced and propagated by Rumi himself and the Mevleviyeh order he founded. As such, the pietistic and ascetic Sufism of the early Islamic mystics underwent drastic changes. The early Sufis wore a coarse woolen robe, known in Arabic as suf (a word that has given its name to the whole movement).

Their belief was that in constantly scratching the skin, the coarse cloth served as a reminder that personal comfort and the pleasures of the body should be shunned or at least kept in check. Moreover, the coarseness symbolized pious renunciation by the virtuous of the many luxuries to which other Muslims had succumbed after Islam came into contact with the Mesopotamian and Persian civilizations—luxuries like the silk and satin robes that the Persians’ Arabic overlords in the Abbasid dynasty had begun to wear as a sign of social distinction.

By Rumi’s time, Sufism itself had given way to the lure of wealth. Monetary endowments supported competing Sufi orders, each of which grew accustomed to enriching itself and outdoing the others. As the Muslim community, or ummah, grew more diverse, with the proliferation of various sects and tendencies, Sufism became practically synonymous with tolerance. People conceived of the mystical tradition as a variant that viewed the relationship between the human and the divine—as well as the human bond among followers of all faiths—as governed more by love than by anything else.

At the height of the Sufi movement, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, what distinguished the Sufi movement from Muslim orthodoxy was the former’s reliance on experiencing religion individually and from within. While more orthodox Muslims sought to learn the shari‘ah, or canon of Islamic laws from established religious leaders, the Sufis, who called themselves men of the tariqah, the path, aspired to go their own ways. They set out to experience the spiritual dimensions of Islam personally and existentially.

In time, Sufism divided into various orders and brotherhoods, each with its own founder and version of beliefs, its own set of customs and followers, and its own sphere of influence. By the thirteenth century, Baghdad had become home to the Suhrawardi order, named after the Persian philosopher Shihab al-Din Suhrawardi (d. 1191); India to the Chishtiyah order, consisting of the followers of Muln al-Din Chishti (d. 1236); and Khwarazam to the Kubrawi order, named after its founder Najm al-Din Kubra (1158–1221), to which Rumi’s father is said to have belonged. In short, there was a great deal of effort to institutionalize Sufism through the establishment of monasteries, hospices, lodges, and other Sufi institutions during Rumi’s lifetime. Shortly before his death, Rumi himself founded the Mevleviyeh order, which is still a strong force today, especially in Turkey. Most medieval Sufis believed that the path they walked could only be traversed in the company of a guiding shaykh (sheik), one who knows the way and can lead the wayfarer on the right course. Rumi himself was certainly of this mind.

Sufis also believed that Adam’s transgression against God caused him to be exiled to the earth, an event that is known in Islamic philosophy as “the cosmic descent.” Although Islam is explicit about God’s forgiveness (which is why the concept of original sin does not exist in Islam), the challenge remains for human beings to find their way back to God. Sufis taught that this feat could be achieved if Muslims begin to purify their souls. They posited the concept of “the perfect man,” human beings like Jesus and Muhammad who achieved perfection by purifying their souls of all that was earthly. They could then ascend to the presence of God after death; and what is more, they could have glimpses of their ascent even while living.

Balkh and Konya—imperial outposts

Both of the cities with which Rumi is associated were large urban areas with ethnically and religiously diverse populations. The ancient city of Balkh, known as “mother of all cities,” lay at the crossing of major trade routes from the Roman Empire to China. In Islamic times, the city had attained a commercial and economic prosperity that put it on par with the largest of the urban areas in Asia. This allowed the city to nurture the development of many scientists, scholars, and Sufi saints, such as Rumi’s father. That Buddhists, Hindus, and others lived alongside the rising Muslim population in Balkh, and that their temples, though in ruins, were still visible when Rumi was growing up, provided contemporary and historical reminders of coexistence. These reminders were no doubt absorbed by him as he roamed the city.


Legend relates the event of Rumi’s death in this way: in the fall of 1273 an earthquake shook the city of Konya, When the frightened citizens questioned Rumi about its meaning, he told them not to worry. “The earth”, he said, “is opening its mouth because it is ready to swallow a big morsel” He died a few months later, on December 17, 1273

Rumi’s next hometown, Konya, had an ancient history too. Its name, derived from eikon or “image,” refers to the legend of the gorgon’s head, used by the Greek hero Perseus to vanquish the local populace and found the city as a Greek community two centuries before Christ. After the Greek civilization was overtaken by the Roman, Konya became part of the Roman province of Galatia, and later formed the headquarters of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire. As both the Persian Empire and the Byzantine Empire in turn fell to the Muslim Arabs in the seventh and eighth centuries, Konya lost much of its significance as a cultural center. However, in the late eleventh century, after the Seljuks of Anatolia—an ethnically Turkic people who had converted to Islam— conquered it and made it the capital of their sultanate of Rum, Konya thrived once again. The Seljuk palace still stands on the city’s acropolis mound. Near this important site are both a mosque that contains the Tomb of Ala al-Din, the Muslim ruler who rebuilt this Seljuk city on the model of Islamic urban architecture, and the monastery that houses the Sufi order Rumi founded. Clearly the diversity of the population played a part in the spirit of tolerance and the acceptance of different ways of worship.


The following ghazal from Rumi’s Divan of Shzms reads like a space journey, at least on the surface.

A luminous vessel appeared at dawn in the sky;
it descended from the sky and looked upon me,
then like a falcon picking up a bird in the hunt
that vessel picked me up and sped across the sky.
As I looked inward at me I did not see my self
inside the vessel my body turned tender as the soul
and as I traveled through my soul I saw nothing but the vessel
until the mystery of the pre-etemal epiphany was revealed to me
When the nine heavenly firmaments sank into the vessel
the whole ship of my being hid beneath an ocean
and as the ocean’s waves heaved, reason reared its head
roaring about how things were and what things became
And when the ocean’s waves made foam, each piece
made manifest a likeness of this thing, a body of that man,
thus every foamy particle that took in a glimpse of the ocean
melted at once, flowed, and became one with the ocean.
Without the fortune of serving the true Sun of Tabriz
you can neither see that luminary vessel nor be one with the ocean,
          (Rumi, Kulliyat-i Shams ya divan-i kabir, vol, 2, pp. 65–66; trans, Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak)

The poem depicts a spaceship snatching up the speaker and taking him to the depths of the ocean-like sky, The speaker tells of a grand meltdown where all apparently separate things become one flowing mass, The closing line mentions Rumi’s friend Shams, proclaiming that such an experience is possible only if one has the good fortune to select him for a master. Clearly, the whole journey is a metaphor for the ascent and transformation that becomes possible when a novice commits himself to the care of a Sufi master. The poem is also an example of the Persian ghazal, an important genre in Persian poetry.

that the Sufis espoused and that is ever-present in Rumi’s poetry.

In the Middle Ages, in the Islamic world as in Christendom, people were identified with cities rather than countries. Just as Dante is forever linked with Florence, many Muslim saints, scientists, and poets are known by the name of the city where they were born or where they made their careers. This is why Persian writers such as Fir-dawsi and Attar are associated with the cities of Tus and Nishapur—both in modern Iran—and Nizami is identified as Nizami of Ganja—today in the Republic of Azerbaijan. (See Firdawsi’s Shahnamah , Attar’sThe Conference of the Birds , and Nizami’s Khusraw and Shirin , all also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times.) In the case of Rumi, the Persians link him to Balkh while the Turks connect him to the region of Rum, or Anatolia, where the city of Konya is located.

The Poems in Focus

Contents overview

Although Spiritual Couplets is a compendium of 25,000 rhyming couplets with no overall plot, the work opens with a flute reed that laments its separation from the reed-bed. The image reflects the sense of exile from the presence of God that frames and permeates the whole work. The work takes an episodic, digressionary approach. It is, in effect, a rambling philosophical discourse, with parables and anecdotes that unfold according to the free association of ideas and are anchored by diverse moral observations. Instead of aiming for overall coherence, Rumi clarifies his philosophical or moral argument through parables and anecdotes. At times, a new purpose emerges from a tangential aspect of a story, creating the impression that, momentarily at least, the central theme has been lost. Thus scholars have turned to Rumi’s other works for his precise philosophical views, while this one provides access to Rumi as a teacher of Islamic mysticism. The 25,000 couplets are divided into six parts, of almost equal length. After the nay-namah (song of the reed-flute) come the various tales, each usually followed by a commentary, aimed at expounding the inner meaning of things from a Sufi perspective.

“The Reed Flute’s Song”

The opening poem alludes to a story told by the reed flute; lamenting that it has been separated from the reed bed, the flute relates its past experiences and its longing for home. If the book of couplets can be said to have a governing structure, it is hidden in this initial tale, whose first half follows:

Listen to the story told by the reed,
of being separated.
“Since I was cut from the reedbed,
I have made this crying sound.
Anyone apart from someone he loves
understands what I say.
Anyone pulled from a source
longs to go back.
At any gathering I am there,
mingling in the laughing and grieving,
a friend to each, but few
will hear the secrets hidden
within the notes. No ears for that.
Body flowing out of spirit,
spirit up from body: no concealing
that mixing. But it’s not given us
to see the soul. The reed flute
is fire, not wind. Be that empty.”
          (Rumi, “The Reed Flute’s Song,” The Essential Rumi, pp. 17–18)

The crying sound that the reed says it has made since separation can be interpreted as every human being’s recollection, in language, of the memory of an original state of existence in oneness with God and the desire to return to that state. This is the theme in a great many stories that follow, whether of a lover king suffering for the sake of his beloved slave girl, or an Indian parrot in captivity recalling the freedom of the forests (Rumi, Masnawi bk. 1. vol. 1, pp. 6–8, 95–96).

The poem moves on to the difficulty of communicating this condition. The people who hear my song, says the reed flute, cannot grasp the secret hidden in the notes. Sufis in general found language both inescapable and an impediment, a subject of many stories in The Spiritual Couplets. One of these describes an Arab, a Turk, and an Indian, each of whom craves a particular fruit (Rumi, Masnawi, bk. 2, vol. 1, pp. 454–56). If they only knew each other’s language, they would realize, the speaker concludes, that they all were asking for the same thing: grapes.

Sufi masters and teachers were also intent on pointing out the flaws and shortcomings in the way we perceive the world. That “few will hear the secrets hidden within the notes” of the reed flute—that many important aspects of life remain hidden from us—may be a commonplace, but a true Sufi would never give up his quest to discover them. It is the mark of the true Sufi to acknowledge the presence of things in the invisible world of the spirit, even though “it’s not given us to see the soul.” For the Sufi, the world is not confined to those things that can be seen or heard or touched. That the human mind, being finite, is incapable of grasping the infinite is a basic belief in Sufism. Scores of stories in The Spiritual Couplets illustrate the foregoing cluster of points. Finally, Sufis are encouraged to empty themselves of habitual ways of seeing the world and of being in it; they can and should become as empty (i.e., receptive) as the reed flute to gain the ability to turn the wind that blows through them into the fire of desire for oneness with God.

In its second half, “The Reed Flute’s Song” elaborates the conditions that may be obtained through higher states of consciousness. Because it has the fire of love in its notes, the reed flute can be a true friend to all those who wish to tear asunder the veil that prevents them from seeing the human body, the world, and life as they are in truth: a thing, a place, and a state of existence where opposites have temporarily come together. As a true seeker on the path of union with God, the Sufi must cherish and nurture the desire for that ultimate union to such an extent that its force would propel the Sufi forever and with increasing speed on this path. And what if someone does not wish to tread on the path at all? Then, Rumi counsels, the true Sufi must “cut the conversation, say good-bye, and leave.”

Hear the love fire tangled
in the reed notes, as bewilderment

melts into wine. The reed is a friend
to all who want the fabric torn

and drawn away. The reed is hurt
and salve combining. Intimacy

and longing for intimacy, one
song. A disastrous surrender

and a fine love, together. The one
who secretly hears this is senseless.

A tongue has one customer, the ear.
A sugarcane flute has such effect

because it was able to make sugar
in the reedbed. The sound it makes

is for everyone. Days full of wanting,
let them go by without worrying

that they do. Stay where you are
inside such a pure, hollow note.

Every thirst gets satisfied except
that of these fish, the mystics,

who swim a vast ocean of grace
still somehow longing for it!

No one lives in that without
being nourished every day.

But if someone doesn’t want to hear
The song of the reed flute,

It’s best to cut conversation
Short, say good-bye, and leave.
          (“The Reed Flute’s Song,” The Essential Rumi, p. 18)

As a metaphor for the great changes such a journey could lead to, winemaking was fascinating to the Sufi poets, particularly because of the imperfectly understood transformation it involved. What turns grape juice into wine was thought to be analogous to the imperceptible transformation that turned certain human beings into prophets, mystics, or poets. “Love” was the name given to that elixir that facilitated the transformation. Thus, the theme of love dominates the work. Another passage extols love through a series of seemingly disparate binary opposites, which are finally reconciled through love. Love, says this poetic passage, is the substance that can turn bitter things into sweet ones, copper into gold, lees and dregs into pure ruby wine, pain into remedy, and the dead corpse into a living and breathing creature (Rumi, Masnawi, bk. 2, vol. 1, pp. 330–31).

And what of those, motivated by love, who do set out to know the self and God, the ones who listen to the reed flute? Rumi suggests that they find themselves more and more fired by desire, more eager for greater and greater degrees of self-knowledge, which is key to knowing God. The idea is then concretized in the image of the Sufis as resembling the thirsty fish who, even in the midst of water, move their lips as if they are forever thirsty. This image is important to the Sufi poets because it establishes a relationship between the quest and the object, the path and the destination. Since Sufis believed that the path to a higher and truer understanding of God passes through self-knowledge, they posited the quest as internal, the effort to polish the mirror of the human soul.

One crucial story in the collection pits two teams of painters against each other (Rumi, Masnawi, bk. 1, vol. 1, pp. 213–15). While one group paints the most colorful mural on one wall, the other simply polishes the opposite wall for the most perfect reflection. Between the two teams is a divider. When the divider is removed and the patron king stands in the middle to declare a winner, not the wall with the mural but the polished wall that reflects it is judged more artistically accomplished because it invites a deeper glance. In the passage above, the fish move their mouths as if to drink the water all around them, and, though nourished by it every day, are not wholly satisfied. Theirs, like that of the mystics, is an internal thirst.

“Moses and the Shepherd”

One of the most significant lines of separation between Muslim orthodoxy and Sufism lies between strict adherence to Islamic “law” and the “path” the Sufis of Rumi’s day took in their quest to reach God. Those who obeyed the canon of the laws (shari’ah) believed that the observance of established religious prescriptions and prohibitions was the only road to salvation. In contrast, the Sufis advocated an individual approach to salvation. In The Spiritual Couplets the story of “Moses and the Shepherd” addresses that basic dichotomy (Rumi, Masnawi, bk. 2, vol. 1, pp. 341–46). A shepherd speaks words that sound blasphemous to Moses and, reproached severely, the shepherd flees the scene, as if to escape his former self. The exchange between the two might be paraphrased as follows:

“Where are you, God, O my God? Show your face to me, and I will do anything you command me to. I will sacrifice my sheep and goats, nay, my whole house and household, to you. I long to crawl to your bedchamber at night and make your bed, O God, carrying the best of my fresh milk for your nourishment. 1 will kiss your hands and rub your lovely feet, and then put your moccasins before you. And I will serve you most sincerely, O God, in every way you command.”

Enraged, Moses questions the shepherd and chides him. The words that ensue may be paraphrased thus: “Whom are you speaking to, man?” Moses demands to know. “Why God, of course!” responds the shepherd, to which Moses replies in the sonorous voice of ultimate authority: “You wretch of an errant creature, you! Cease your nonsense this instant, before a huge calamity engulfs us all. That’s not how you address the creator of the earth and the high firmaments, for heaven’s sake. Do you imagine God as like your uncle or something? Do you suppose him in need of milk or other nourishment? And what is this nonsense about his bed and his moccasins? Quick, man, supplicate yourself in abject repentance or else!”

At his wit’s end, the shepherd throws dust in his mouth, tears up his clothes, and runs aimlessly, trying to get away from his errant self. At this point God intervenes to tell Moses that he, and not the shepherd, is the one who has erred, by thinking that God listens to people’s speech rather than directly to their hearts:

                   You have separated me
from one of my own. Did you come as a Prophet
to unite, or to sever?
     I have given each being a separate and unique way
of seeing and knowing and saying that knowledge.

What seems wrong to you is right for him.
What is poison to one is honey to someone else.

Purity and impurity, sloth and diligence in worship,
these mean nothing to me.

                   I am apart from all that.
Ways of worshipping are not to be ranked as better
or worse than one another.

                   Hindus do Hindu things.
The Dravidian Muslims in India do what they do.
It’s all praise, and it’s all right.

It’s not me that’s glorified in acts of worship.
It’s the worshippers! I don’t hear the words
they say. I look inside at the humility.

          (Rumi, “Moses and the Shepherd,” The Essential Rumi, p. 166)

God also reveals such secrets to his prophet that, in Rumi’s words, “simply cannot be put into words.” When Moses hears God’s reprimand and is made privy to new and higher secrets and mysteries, he runs after the shepherd for hours to give him the good news. After many hours of following the erratic traces of the shepherd’s footsteps, Moses finds him, but in a new mental state. In answer to the good tidings that God has accepted his worship just as he had articulated it, the shepherd speaks words, paraphrased here, that bring the story—and its moral—to a close: “Moses, 1 am now beyond all that. Colored with my heart’s blood, 1 have moved hundreds of thousands of years beyond all describable conditions. I now live an existence that cannot be reduced to words.” In short, the shepherd has risen to a state of understanding far higher and more immediate than even Moses can comprehend: he now sees the relationship between himself and God in ways incomprehensible to him an hour earlier. The story’s moral, initially, that it is the condition of the heart and not the speech of the tongue that matters, now points to a wordless understanding far higher than anything language can express.

“The Merchant and His Pet Parrot”

When a rich merchant is about to embark on a commercial journey to India, he asks every member of his household what souvenir they covet: fine silk fabrics? gold necklaces? rare and much desired Indian spices? Each member names something he or she would like to have. When it is time for the pet parrot to speak, he says he wants only a message to be delivered to the parrots of India. “And what would that message be?” the merchant asks, in effect. “When you see them flying freely from one tall branch to an even higher one, say that here in my cage I am thinking of them” (Rumi, Masnavi-i, bk. 1, vol. 1, p. 96; trans. A. Karimi-Hakkak).

Although baffled by the unusual request, the merchant promises to deliver the message. As his trip concludes, he finds himself passing by a lush forest, where flocks of parrots freely sing and play. Remembering his pet parrot’s request, he stops and delivers the message verbatim to a nearby flock of parrots. Upon hearing the words of his caged kin, one parrot faints and falls from the tree branch, dead. The merchant regrets having caused the bird’s death. “Was this bird perchance my parrot’s relative?” he wonders. Alas, there’s nothing he can do (Rumi, Masnavi-i, bk. 1, vol. 1, p. 98; trans. A. Karimi-Hakkak).

Back home, having distributed all the material souvenirs, the merchant is questioned by his parrot about his message. “O do not ask,” comes the merchant’s reply, summarized here, “for it is a sad tale indeed.”

“Still, you must tell me,” the parrot retorts, “for you have promised.”

The merchant reluctantly relates what transpired at the edge of that lush forest back in India, falling silent in sadness as he recounts the death that his message caused. On hearing the account, the merchant’s pet parrot also falls dead on the cage floor, as if undone by the tragic tale. “What is the meaning of all this?” the twice remorseful merchant wonders. And he ponders the meaning of the two deaths long and hard. Yet what has been done cannot be undone. In utter sorrow, he opens the cage door and removes the lifeless bird, laying it down to prepare it for proper burial. It is at this point that the pet parrot flies toward the uppermost branch in the tallest tree nearby.

Dazzled, the merchant questions the parrot about the trick, and is told that both his message and the Indian parrot’s response were encoded communiqu’s. What the free parrot conveyed through his message was the fact that the caged parrot would not be liberated until he was perceived as dead, as no longer able to entertain and charm his master with his pleasing acrobatics and sweet speech. The parrot’s final speech, summarized here, goes thus: “He taught me that I must die to free myself from the bondage of your cage—adieu” (Masnavi-i, bk. 1, vol. 1, pp. 111–12; trans. A. Karimi-Hakkak).

The narrative makes its moral fairly clear. The Sufis conceptualized the human body, as a contradiction in terms, a temporary gathering of the discordant elements of mortal flesh and eternal soul. When death comes and the various elements fall apart, the soul is left free to return to its place of origin, for which it longs and labors through life. For the Sufi, death brings deliverance from the earthly cage of the body, a chance for the soul to soar upward all the way to the presence of its creator, there to be united with its essence once again. Whether the song of a reed-flute or the sweet words of a parrot, things related to our earthly existence are ephemeral and incomplete. They entrap us and only death frees us.

A poetry of dialogue

In The Spiritual Couplets, as in other poems by Rumi, dialogue is a common means of expression. The stories of “Moses and the Shepherd” and “The Merchant and His Pet Parrot” are but examples of the way Rumi relies on dialogue to move the reader to ever higher planes of argument. In many cases, the storyline simply presents vignettes in which two individuals, often a master and a disciple, are placed in conversation, or one, often the disciple, is addressing the other or recalling an encounter with him. This rhetorical situation seems particularly to suit the Sufi quest to seek his individual God, free from all the stereotypes in religious textbooks or preachy injunctions from the pulpit. This technique of using dialogue in Sufi verse upset orthodox Muslims. While the orthodox might find little objectionable in a Sufi poem when it came to doctrine or theology, clerics often protested depictions that humanized God more than they would have liked. As custodians of Islam, they thought such portrayals might have a deleterious moral effect on less sophisticated members of the Muslim community. Most importantly, because Sufi poets conveyed the notion that God was directly and immediately accessible to everybody, they appeared to undermine the authority of the clergy as intercessors between God and human being or interpreters of God’s words to lay people. Finally, the orthodox leaders argued that if people cease to fear God’s wrath and punishment, they would be less inclined to shun evil and do good.

As demonstrated by Rumi’s three central friendships (with Shams al-Din, Salah al-Din, and Husam al-Din), dialogue occupied a central place in his daily existence as well as his poems. The poet’s mind and spirit sought human company, or, more exactly, companionship in which dialogue played a major role. Rumi showed an ever-present need for an interlocutor, someone he could address, typically a Sufi teacher like himself. His desire for responsive understanding finds its fulfillment in his use of dialogue in his poems, be it with man or God or some real or imaginary, absent or present disciple or master. It was through his addressees, more than through any other means, that Rumi strove to gain union with the divine.

Sources and literary context

The stories Rumi tells in The Spiritual Couplets have their roots in his discourses as a Sufi leader and guide, and as a teacher of Islamic mysticism. His discourses may have provided opportunities for stories or anecdotes that could then be related to the topic at hand through commentary. For a long time, works by Sana’i and Attar formed the staple of the curriculum in Sufi madrasahs, or religious schools (see Attar’sThe Conference of the Birds , also in WLA1T 6: Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times). But these works had been written in a different environment, a century or two earlier. It


Legend has it that one day in October or November 1244, as Rumi was making his way back home from his daily prayer, a wandering dervish questioned him about the relative importance in the eye of God of the Prophet Muhammad versus a particular Sufi saint On the face of it, this was clearly blasphemous, even though it had been put in the form of a question. Nonetheless, Rumi must have sensed a deeper purpose in the question. He invited the dervish to his home and sat in private conversation with him for forty days and forty nights. Understandably, Rumi’s associates and disciples felt uneasy as nobody knew who this dervish was, under whom he had studied, or what ideas he held. Thus began a period of momentous changes in Rumi’s life and art, in which he accepted Shams-i Tabrizt (The Sun of Tabriz) as his master and guide and spoke of him not just in reverential terms but as his beloved, calling him the sun that illuminated the darkest recesses of his soul Everyone, Shams taught Rumi, must look into his or her own heart and develop a language of worship that suits it- Commonplace as this idea may seem, it was revolutionary for its time, since it followed that no religious orthodoxy could claim sole access to the truth. Unsurprisingly, the idea was vehemently opposed by orthodox Muslims.

was important, in light of new developments in mystical philosophy and in Persian poetry, to update the foundational texts of Sufism. Far more people now trod the path of Sufism, so many more madrasahs needed materials for their curriculum. Also Rumi and his circle of Anatolian Sufis may have found the language of Sana’i and Attar quaint, as many changes had occurred in the Persian language and in Persian poetry. In any case, many Sufi masters and teachers believed that an updating of the Sufi curricula was in order, and Rumi’s closest associates thought that they needed a fresh compendium of Sufi lore and legend.

The ideas Rumi expounds in The Spiritual Couplets were the result of intense introspection, dialogue (largely with the Sufi masters who became his closest associates), and assorted readings. Rumi’s first wife, Gawhar Khatun, recalled how in his youth her husband would stand under a tall lamp, reading his father’s writings all night long. Beyond his father’s works, Rumi familiarized himself with Plato and Aristotle, and perhaps also with leading Islamic philosophers such as Ayn al-Qudah, Suhrawardi, and Ibn Sina (Avicenna). No doubt, Rumi knew of the most famous living Sufi Muslim, Ibn al-Arabi (1165–1240) and of his philosophical system Wahdat al-Wujud (Unity of Being). Some scholars believe Rumi may even have studied with this master, who lived and taught for several decades in Aleppo, just a hundred miles south of Konya.

All this provided material for The Spiritual Couplets. Many of its stories are retellings of previous Sufi tales; some were well-known stories, which Rumi interpreted mystically. More than any single work, it was Attar’s Ilahi-Namah (Book of the Divine) that can be called the model for The Spiritual Couplets. In basing his masterpiece on that model, Rumi in effect “donned Attar’s mantle as the leading exponent of narrative Sufi poetry” (Lewis, p. 65).


Rumi’s poetry contributed immensely to the institutionalization of Sufism, particularly in Anatolia and Iran. It not only gave rise to a new Sufi order but provided ways for expanding mystical ideas and expressing them in poetry. In so doing, The Spiritual Couplets affected the course of Islamic mysticism more than any other single work.

Toward the end of his life, Rumi himself may have paved the way for the formation, shortly after his death, of the Mevleviyeh order, which takes its name from Rumi’s honorific name, Mawlana, meaning “our master.” It was left to his son Sultan Valad, Rumi’s friend Husam al-Din, and other followers to complete the institutionalization of the order, which they did rather successfully; the order has flourished through the centuries, at times under adverse circumstances, such as strong modernization projects in the Muslim world. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the order, and the poetry that forms its most central text, are beginning once again to find tremendous popular appeal, not just in Iran and Turkey but in the Western world as well.

In the larger Iranian world, Rumi’s fortunes have waxed and waned and waxed again with the tides of religious belief and the progress of more modern and tolerant versions of Islam. Abd al-Rahman Jami (1414–92), the last great medieval poet of Iran, was an adept adapter of Rumi’s mystical ideas while Muhammad Ali Sa’ib Tabrizi (1601–77) modeled much of his poetic divan on Rumi’s ghazals. In the sixteenth century when the Safavid kings made Shfism the official religion of Iran, restrictions were gradually placed on Rumi’s explicitly Sunni stance and his acceptance of religious differences were criticized. In the same period, however, Rumi’s poetry found large and devoted audiences in Afghanistan, in Persian-speaking Central Asia, and in the Indian subcontinent. In the late nineteenth century, a modernizing Iran began to rediscover Rumi. Iranian modernists recognized him, along with other poets such as Firdawsi and Hafiz (see the Shahnamah and The Divan of Hafiz , also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times), as fundamental to Iran’s national identity. Rumi’s works were incorporated into the creation of a modern nation-state from the remnants of a once thriving Persian-speaking culture.

In recent decades, efforts made by American poets such as Coleman Barks to produce modern versions of Rumi’s poetry in English have created an upsurge in his popularity in the United States. Himself a notable poet, Barks used existing translations of Rumi to create The Essential Rumi (1995), which contains his own renditions of episodes from The Spiritual Couplets and Rumi’s Divan. Barks’s renditions bring the essence of the Persian mystic’s thinking to modern readers. Lambda Book Report praises them as “crystalline, sensual, and utterly compelling…. Open [the book] anywhere, and you will lose yourself in moments. The freshness of the images is startling” (Lambda, p. 29).

—Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak

For More Information

DeBruijn, J. T. P. Persian Sufi Poetry: An Introduction to the Mystical Use of Classical Poems. Surrey: Curzon Press, 1997.

Karamustafa, Ahmet T. God’s Unruly Friends: Dervish Groups in Islamic Later Middle Period, 1200–1550. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1994.

Karimi-Hakkak, Ahmad. “Beyond Translation: Interactions between English and Persian Poetry.” In Iran and the Surrounding World, 1500–2000. Ed. Nikki Keddie and Rudolph Matthee. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001.

Lewis, Franklin D. Rumi, Past and Present, East and West: The Life, Teaching and Poetry ofjalal al-Din Rumi. Oxford, U.K.: Oneworld Publications, 2000.

Review of The Essential Rumi, by Coleman Barks. Lambda Book Report 5, no. 11 (May 1997): 29.

Rumi, Jalal al-Din Muhammad. The Essential Rumi. Trans. Coleman Barks. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.

.——Kulliyat-i Shams ya divan-i kabir. 10 vols. Ed. Badr al-Zaman Furuzanfar. Tehran: Danishgah-i Tihran, 1958.

——.Masnavi-i ma’nawi. Ed. Reynold A. Nicholson. 4 vols. Tehran: Amir-i Kabir, 1984.

——.The Mathnawi ofjalalu’ddin Rumi. 4 vols. Ed. and trans. Reynold A. Nicholson. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Schimmel, Annemarie. I Am Wind, You Are Fire: The Life and Works of Rumi. Boston: Shambhala, 1992.

About this article

The Spiritual Couplets

Updated About content Print Article