BORN: 1207, Balkh
DIED: 1273, Konya
GENRE: Poetry, nonfiction
Diwan-i Shamz-i Tabriz (1244–1273)
Persian poet and Sufi mystic Jalai ed-Din Rumi (1207– 1273) was a brilliant lyrical poet who founded his own religious order, the Mevlevis. His poetry showed original religious and wonderfully esoteric forms of expression, and his greatest work, the Mathnawi, has been compared to the Koran.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Young Traveler Born in Balkh (present-day Afghanistan), Jalal ed-Din Rumi left with his father at a young age, fleeing the Mongol invader of his day, Genghis Khan. On this trip in the city of Nishapur, the young Rumi was presented to the famous old poet Attar, who, according to legend, predicted his future greatness and gave him his Book of Secrets. Then, Rumi and his father traveled through Baghdad, Mecca, Damascus, and Erzincan, finally reaching present-day Turkey around 1217. They settled in Konya, where Rumi resided for most of his remaining life. His father was appointed to a high post in the empire of the Seljuks of Rum (now in Turkey). With his father's death in 1231, Rumi inherited his post, becoming a man of means. As such, he could devote his efforts to more esoteric fields: poetry and mystic theology or philosophy. He pursued his muse in these fields until his death in 1273.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Rumi's famous contemporaries include:
Temüzin (1162–1227): Better known by his official title—Genghis Khan—Temüzin united many of the nomadic tribes of northeast Asia to found the Mongol Empire. His descendants would go on to conquer much of Eurasia, making the Mongol Empire the largest geographically contiguous empire in history.
Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274): An Italian Catholic priest, Aquinas is best known today for his contributions to moral philosophy and theology. Many regard him as the Catholic Church's greatest theologian and philosopher.
Sheikh Saadi (1184–1283): An important Persian poet of the Middle Ages, Saadi is admired for both his poetry and his proto-sociological observations. A quote from one of his poems, emphasizing the oneness of all human beings, adorns the entrance of the United Nations Hall of Nations in New York City.
Roger Bacon (1214–1294): Also known as Doctor Mira-bilis (wonderful teacher), the English philosopher and natural scientist Bacon was one of Europe's early advocates of empiricism and of what would become the scientific method.
Louis IX (1214–1270): The only canonized king of France, Louis IX was a great patron of the religious arts and a fervent crusader, though both his crusades (in Egypt and the Middle East) were near-complete disasters.
Religious Inspiration The event that had the greatest influence on Rumi's intellectual and moral life was his meeting with the Sufi mystic Shams al-Din Tabrizi. Shams was a believer in spirituality and inspired Rumi with a religious fervor. As a result of this friendship, Rumi dedicated most of his writings to this wandering Sufi. Another result was Rumi's founding of the Mevlevi order of dervishes—the dancing dervishes—to celebrate the mysteries of Divine Love. The unique trait of this order was that, contrary to general Muslim practice, Rumi gave a considerable place to music (the drum and reed) in the ceremonies. Rumi's followers, however, were intensely jealous of Shams, and their abuse and threats of violence forced him to flee Rumi's presence on more than one occasion. When Shams disappeared in 1248—murdered by Rumi's disciples, according to some reports—the distraught Rumi began writing both poetry and philosophy at a frenetic pace.
Rumi's first work during this time is expressed as the voice of Shams. But, soon, Rumi found his own voice as evidenced in his work Mathnawi. This work is a collection of poetic narratives—poems, tales, anecdotes, and reflections—that illustrate the Sufi doctrine. His subject matter ranges from the saints of Islam to mystical interpretations of life, as well as commentaries on the Koran, all done in his clear and ecstatic prose verse.
A Poet of the First Order Rumi was a poet of the first rank. His style was simple and colloquial. His tales possessed diverse qualities: variety and originality, dignity and beauty, learning and charm, depth of feeling and thought. Taken as a whole text, though, the Mathnawi is rather disjointed; the stories follow one another in no apparent order. But it is filled with lyrical inspiration. Each small tale may be read separately, and one cannot help but be impressed by their succinctness.
Rumi died on December 17, 1273, in Konya. He was so well known in his lifetime that representatives of all major religions attended his funeral. He was not the first great Sufi poet, but his reputation for a wholehearted embrace of spiritual passion set him apart.
Works in Literary Context
Rumi's thousands of writings treated subjects ranging from love and sexuality to sadness and loneliness, from eternal beauty to human friendship. His Mathnawi is a staggering collection of over twenty-five thousand different pieces, which Rumi worked on for forty years. The anecdotes and stories in Mathnawi come from a variety of modes of Islamic wisdom—ranging from the Koran itself to common folktales—and are intended to illustrate and inspire others to emulate the Sufi way of life. On the other hand, Rumi's first collection of verses, Diwan, contains mystical poems focusing on ecstatic religious love and spiritual intoxication, among other things.
One Part Poet, Two Parts Spiritual Leader Regarded by many as having provided the second-most important spiritual text of Islam, second only to the Koran, Rumi embarked on the path of Sufi mysticism at a relatively mature age. Chief in driving his development in this arena was first his relationship with the Sufi mystic Shams, and then Shams's somewhat mysterious disappearance. The general idea underlying Rumi's poetry is that God is absolute, ecstatic love. With his skillful evocations of this idea in its human contexts, he gained many devotees—and even disciples—during his lifetime. He may truly be understood as having been a spiritual leader, and the religious ardor with which his texts have been criticized and espoused by both contemporaries and followers attests to his importance in the cultural formation of a Persian-language, Sufi spirituality.
Works in Critical Context
Rumi's critical reception has varied widely over the centuries, and is most consistent perhaps only in its endurance. In particular, Western readers have often found themselves confused or puzzled by what seem like unsystematic narrative structures in the Mathnawi, complaining that the stories themselves do not cohere. At the same time, however, Rumi has long been acknowledged as a genius in the non-Western world, with many commentators considering his Mathnawi as second only to the Koran in both religious and literary significance.
Although some contemporary detractors found fault with his reliance on anecdotes and what they saw as a lack of metaphysics in his work, he was revered by many during his lifetime. Even presently, the Western world has come to acknowledge the historical and human importance of his work, with scholarship on Rumi proliferating from the late nineteenth century onwards. Indeed, Charles Haviland wrote in 2007 for the BBC News that Rumi had become the “most popular poet in America.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
The inadequacy of language to communicate the deepest sorts of ecstasy or joy or pain or fear has often resulted in poetry that works on a more or less religious level, even when it is not explicitly religious poetry. Here are some examples of nonreligious poetry that become mystical in this way:
Leaves of Grass (1855), a collection by Walt Whitman. American poet Whitman's monumental lifework, this collection suggests a fundamentally different way of understanding and organizing human experience, an expansion of logic to allow for the perspective embodied in his famous lines: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”
The Tao Te Ching (c. fourth century bce), by Lao Tzu. Ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu's classic work of poetic philosophy, offers an understanding of the world around us as both unimaginably complex and also, somehow, intimately accessible and tangible.
Hymn to Aphrodite (c. sixth century bce), a poem by Sappho. Regarded in antiquity as one of the greatest of lyric poets, Sappho's poetry (of which only fragments today remain) prompted the Roman writer Horace to write that her lyrics are worthy of “sacred admiration.”
Divine Love for Sale
R. A. Nicholson, one of Rumi's early translators into English (1926), observed some time ago that Rumi was “the greatest mystical poet of any age,” asking, “Where else shall we find such a panorama of universal existence unrolling itself through Time into Eternity?” More recently (1994), John Renard has argued that “Rumi the teacher uses the prophets and their stories as a convenient reservoir of familiar and attractive images with which he catches the ear of his listener, and as the come-on with which he entices the prospective buyer into his shop. Leaving himself open to the charge of bait-and-switch merchandizing, what Rumi is really selling is a vision of the relationship of the divine to the human and of a way homeward.”
Responses to Literature
- One of the central preoccupations of Rumi's poetry is love, both divine and human. Analyze the messages Rumi is offering about love in one to three of his poems. To what extent is Rumi's work relevant to modern life?
- Preview Rumi's Mathnawi and consider the structure of the verses. Why do you think many readers have found it difficult or confusing. Structure your response as an essay.
- Examine some of Rumi's writings on Sufi mysticism. Discuss the meditations Rumi offers on the meaning of life and God. Explain why you think his message is still popular with modern Western readers.
- Rumi was a spiritual leader, a philosopher, and a poet. Compare and contrast his philosophy with that of a Western writer, such as Walt Whitman or Ralph Waldo Emerson. Structure your response as a thesis-driven essay.
Chittick, William. The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi. Albany: State University of New York, 1983.
Harvey, Andrew. The Way of Passion: A Celebration of Rumi. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2001.
Iqbal, Afzal. The Life and Work of Muhammad Jalal-ud-Din Rumi. 3d ed. Lahore, India: Institute of Islamic Studies, 1974.
Keshavarz, Fatemah. Reading Mystical Lyric: The Case of Jalal Al-Din Rumi. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.
Lewis, Franklin D. Rumi Past and Present, East and West: The Life, Teaching and Poetry of Jalal al-Din Rumi. Boston: Oneworld, 2000.
Nicholson, Reynolds A. Rumi: Poet and Mystic. London: Allen and Unwin, 1950.
Schimmel, Annemarie. The Triumphal Sun: A Study of the Works of Jalaloddin Rumi. Revised edition. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.
Wines, Leslie. Rumi: A Spiritual Biography. New York: Crossroad 8th Avenue, 2001.