Ad-Din ar-Rumi, Jalal
Jalāl ad-Dīn ar-Rūmī
BORN: September 30, 1207 • Balkh, Persia
DIED: December 17, 1273 • Konya, Turkey
Persian Poet; jurist; theologian
Jalāl ad-Dīn ar-Rūmī was a thirteenth-century mystic poet and a member of the Sufi sect, or division, of Islam. His name is sometimes given as Jalal ad-Dīn ar-Rūmī. He is often referred to as Mawlvi in Arabic, Mawlana in Persian, or Mevlana in Turkish. All of these titles mean "our lord" or "our guide." Jalal is widely regarded as the greatest poet to have written in the Persian language, the language of ancient Persia and modern-day Iran. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries his poetry became widely popular in the West (the countries in Europe and the Americas). His name is also associated with the Whirling Dervishes. This name describes mystical Sufi Muslims called Mawlawiyah, who are noted for their joyful dances as they chant the many names of Allah, as God is called by Muslims.
"The Prophet cried with a loud voice, 'Trust in God, yet tie the camel's leg.'… / If ye really have trust in God, exert yourselves, / And strive, in constant reliance on the Almighty."
Birth and early life
Jalāl was born on or about September 30, 1207, in the town of Balkh, a section of the Ghurid empire which later became part of Afghanistan. His father, Baha ad-Din Walad, was a highly respected teacher, author, and theologian, or religious expert, whose work had strong mystical themes. ("Mysticism" has many meanings and is often associated with magic. In a religious sense, it generally refers to the notion of direct, mysterious communication with God.) Early in the thirteenth century, forces from Mongolia were invading Central Asia. Baha ad-Din recognized the threat they posed, so in about 1218 he left Balkh with his family and moved to Persia. Legend says that in the town of Nishapur, Persia, the family met a Persian mystical author named Farid od-Din Attar (c. 1142–c. 1220), who gave the eighteen-year-old Jalāl his blessing. This meeting with Attar made a deep impression on Jalāl, and when he began writing poetry himself, he thought of Attar as one of the people who inspired him.
The family continued its travels, careful to avoid both the Mongols to the east and the Christian Crusaders in Palestine to the west. (The Crusaders were soldiers who were attempting to bring the Holy Land of Palestine under Christian control.) They journeyed throughout the Middle East and made a pilgrimage to Mecca, the holiest city of Islam and the birthplace of the religion's founder, the prophet Muhammad (c. 570–632; see entry). Mecca is located in modern-day Saudi Arabia. The family then arrived in Anatolia, a part of modern-day Turkey also known as Asia Minor. In 1228 they moved to the capital, Konya, where Baha ad-Din secured a job teaching at a religious school. Jalāl was sent to the Syrian cities of Damascus and Aleppo for his religious education. After Baha ad-Din died in 1231, Jalāl took over his father's teaching position. He was twenty-four years old at the time, and he had already gained a favorable reputation for his scholarly, or intellectual, understanding of Islam.
Jalāl had engaged in years of study, but he had become displeased with the customary teachings about Allah and religion. He found the standard texts inadequate. He had come to believe that traditional Islam was placing too much emphasis on fine points of doctrine, or principle. In his view this method of worship was dry and without deep meaning. He was eager for something that would help him have a more intense relationship with Allah, and he did not believe that he would find that relationship in the accepted texts with their emphasis on law and tradition. In an attempt to achieve his goal Jalāl made contact with a number of well-known mystical teachers. In 1232 one of Baha ad-Din's earlier followers, Burhan ad-Din Muhaqqiq, came to Konya. He shared with Rumi the mystical theories he had developed in Persia. Burhan ad-Din left Konya in 1240, prompting Jalāl to journey to Syria. There he met other Sufi mystics, including Ibn al-Arabi and his stepson, Sadr ad-Din al-Qunawi, who became Jalāl's lifelong friend.
On November 30, 1244, Jalāl met a ragged, wandering dervish, or holy man, named Shams (sometimes spelled Shems) ad-Din. In Shams, Jalāl realized he had found what he had been looking for: a person with mystical knowledge of the beauty and greatness of Allah. The two immediately established a very close relationship. Jalāl lived with Shams and neglected his followers and his family. Jalāl's followers became so jealous of Shams that they forced the dervish to leave the city in early 1246.
Jalāl became so broken-hearted at the loss of his friend that his son, Walad, traveled to Syria to bring Shams back. The jealousy of both the family and the community, however, continued to grow, and one night Shams disappeared. For many years the source of this disappearance was a mystery. Some believed that Shams had simply left again, probably for Syria. Others believed that some of Jalāl's followers murdered Shams. Some even claimed that Jalāl's own sons murdered him. Only recently has it been proven that Shams was indeed murdered and buried near a well that still exists in Konya. Who was responsible for his death remains uncertain.
Sufism is often referred to as a sect, or subgroup, of Islam. This is only partially true. Sufism is less a sect than a way of approaching Islam. Members of the two main branches of Islam, the Sunnis and the Shiites, can also be Sufis. Sufism is the esoteric division of Islam, meaning that its members believe in mystical knowledge held by a small, restricted circle of people. Sufis can be recognized by their characteristic long robes and the wound turbans on their heads.
Sufism emerged during Islam's early years in the seventh and eighth centuries, when the religion was expanding and wealth was flowing into the Islamic empire throughout the Middle East. The Sufis believed that Islam placed too much emphasis on worldly concerns, rituals, and laws. They wanted a form of religion that led to inner ecstasy, or intense emotion and communion with Allah. Sufis believe that a devoted Muslim can experience Allah only through consistent chanting, meditation (focused and concentrated thought), love for other people, self-discipline, and self-denial. They also believe that the way to achieve spiritual wealth is through owning few material goods. Excessive worldly possessions, they believe, can corrupt the soul. Sufis are well known for their charitable work. They practice patience, a total reliance on Allah's knowledge of the future, and thankfulness to Allah.
Jalāl was grief-stricken. His sense of loss and mourning served as the spark that turned him into a poet. He identified himself so strongly with Shams that he even signed Shams's name at the end of most of his early poems. Many scholars believe that Jalāl composed most of these and later poems while in a state of mystical ecstasy, or intense joy or delight. They suggest that Jalāl wrote while listening to the sound of drums or flutes, or to the sound of a watermill, or even while just enjoying nature with his friends and followers. He often chanted his verses while taking part in the "whirling" dances of the Sufi mystics who came to be known as the Whirling Dervishes.
In the years that followed, Jalāl had relationships with other men similar to that which he had with Shams. One of these men was a goldsmith named Salah ad-Din Zarkub, whose daughter eventually married Jalāl's eldest son. His relationship with Salah ad-Din encouraged him to continue writing poetry. Legend holds that Jalāl would hear the sound of Salah ad-Din's hammer and begin his whirling dance on the street outside, chanting his verses as he did so. After Salah ad-Din died, Jalāl found another spiritual companion in Husan ad-Din Chelebi. Husan ad-Din inspired Jalāl to write his most famous work, the Masnaviye Ma'anavi, often called simply the Masnavi or Mathnawa.
The Masnavi was written over a long period of time. It is said that Jalāl wrote the verses in it on any and all occasions, such as when he was taking a bath or just walking down a road. He was always accompanied by Husan ad-Din, who wrote the verses down. Jalāl probably completed the work sometime around 1270. In the meantime he had become a respected member of Konya society. Many students, teachers, and even Christian priests visited him, both to pay their respects and to learn what they could about Sufi mysticism.
Jalāl died on December 17, 1273. He was so well known and respected that representatives of all the religions in the city attended his funeral. Rumi is buried in a mausoleum (a building that contains burial sites) called the Green Dome in Konya. The mausoleum is also a museum and is visited by thousands of people each year. Jalāl's son, Walad, organized Jalāl's followers into the Mawlawiyah, part of the Whirling Dervishes. Thus, although Jalāl did not create the Whirling Dervishes (who could be found in Baghdad, Iraq, at least one century before he lived), his name and teachings are associated with the group, which became a specific sect shortly after his death.
Jalāl's earliest work was titled Diwan-e Shams-e Tabriz-i (The Works of Shams of Tabriz). This was a collection of about forty thousand verses named in honor of Jalāl's companion and spiritual inspiration, Shams. The poems in this collection were written primarily in the voice of Shams. Many of the poems are odes, which are a form of poetry marked by intense feeling and emotion. Some read almost like love poems to Allah, but many readers believe that they were written as much in honor of Shams as they were to Allah.
Jalāl's major work is the Masnavi (Spiritual Couplets). (A couplet is a two-line poetic verse.) Written in three volumes, the book contains more than twenty-five thousand lines of poetry. It includes folktales, fables, philosophy, lyrical poetry, and parables, which are simple stories that illustrate moral or religious lessons. The book's subjects include the saints of Islam, commentaries on the Qur'an (the sacred text of Islam), and mystical interpretations of a large number of subjects, both religious and nonreli-gious. The Masnavi is the most widely read poem among Muslims. In fact, among Muslim texts, it is regarded by some as second in importance only to the Qur'an. It is sometimes even called the Qur'an-e Farsi (The Qur'an in Persian).
The Fihi Ma Fih is a collection of Jalāl's speeches. They were written down and collected by his son, Wahad. The Majalis-i Sab-a is a collection of seven of Jalāl's sermons.
The chief theme that runs throughout Jalāl's work, especially his poetry, is tawhid, meaning "unity." The unity he sought was a mystical unity with Allah and with all of Allah's creations. The poetry is dominated by a sense of longing for a complete love for and from Allah. Jalāl believed this love was at the center of everything, from the smallest details of life to the most complex philosophical theories. Much of the poetry has a double meaning. Jalāl's words could apply to his intense feelings for Shams and his other companions, but they also relate to his love of Allah.
One of the reasons Jalāl's poetry became and has remained so popular is that it does not deal with doctrine, or formal teachings. Jalāl, like most Muslims, believed in the truth of the Qur'an, but he had little interest in disputes about its meaning or which of its laws Muslims should follow. Many readers enjoy his poetry because it makes use of numerous simple, easy-to-understand symbols. He often used images of wine and taverns, for example, to suggest that life is like a big feast at which people celebrate out of sheer joy. He spoke of drunkenness to suggest how people might feel when they experience closeness with Allah. Other simple symbols Jalāl used include the nightingale, which represents the soul; the sun, which represents teaching and enlightenment; and winter, which suggests a soul that is somehow cut off from Allah and the joy of Allah's creations.
A representative sample of Jalāl poetry can come from virtually any page of his works. In the Diwan-e Shams-e Tabriz-i, he wrote an untitled ode about death. The theme of the poem, reproduced on Poetseers.org, is that death is not something to be feared or regretted, for it represents a unity with Allah, a "coming together." While death may look like a prison, it is really a release that allows one to experience the beauty of Allah.
On the day I die, when I'm being
carried toward the grave, don't weep.
Don't say, "He's gone! He's gone!"
Death has nothing to do with going away.
The sun sets and the moon sets,
but they're not gone. Death
is a coming together.
The tomb looks like a prison,
but it's really release into Union.
The human seed goes down in the ground
like a bucket into the well where Joseph is.
It grows and comes up full
of some unimagined beauty.
Your mouth closes here
and immediately opens
with a shout of joy there.
The Jalāl's "industry"
Jalāl and his poetry became somewhat of a commercial enterprise in the West in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Many western readers found meaning in Jalāl's poetry because of its simplicity and its efforts to find a direct connection with God. In 1995 a major publisher in the United States released a collection of his verse under the title The Essential Rumi, and the book sold about 250,000 copies. Publishers regard this as an amazingly large number for a book of poetry, which tend to be published by smaller companies and academic presses. A later collection, titled The Soul of Rumi, also became very popular with English-speaking readers.
The Sufi mystic also became popular outside of the publishing world. Singer Madonna (1958–) set Jalāl's poetry to music on a 1998 compact disc. Fashion designer Donna Karan (1948–) included recitations of Jalāl's poetry in some of her fashion shows, and film director Oliver Stone (1946–) talked about making a film of Jalāl's life. People can buy all manner of Jalāl products, including prayer books, collections of his verse around various themes, and calendars. Illustrated editions of his poems are also available, and oral readings can be found on compact discs.
For More Information
Barks, Coleman, trans. The Essential Rumi. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins-SanFrancisco, 1995.
Barks, Coleman, trans. The Soul of Rumi. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002.
Salam, Muhammad Nur Abdus. Rumi: Stories for Young Adults. Chicago, IL: Kazi Publications, 2000.
"About Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi." Dar Al Masnavi. http://www.dar-almasnavi.org/about-rumi.html (accessed on June 2, 2006).
"Life of Rumi." http://www.khamush.com/life.html (accessed on June 2, 2006).
Rumi. "Ode 911." Translated by Coleman Banks. Poet Seers. http://www.poetseers.org/the_poetseers/rumi/odes_of_rumi/7/ (accessed on June 2, 2006).