RUMI AND THE WHIRLING DERVISHES

MEVLÂNA CELALEDDIN RUMI

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Rumi
Jalaluddin Rumi, widely known simply as Rumi, is perhaps the greatest Persian poet. He was a great influence on Muslim writing and culture and, in recent decades, his poetry has enjoyed something of a renaissance and is well known throughout the world today. Known for its imagery and passion, his poetry transcends cultures, religions and languages and has brought Sufism to the masses. He is one of the best selling poets in America. Readings of his works have been performed by well-known artists, with the health writer Deepak Chopra being one of his biggest promoters. The year 2007 was designated the UNESCO Year of Rumi. [Source: BBC, September 1, 2009 |::|]

According to the BBC: “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 is often described as the best-selling poet in the United States. Rozina Ali wrote in The New Yorker: “A couple of years ago, when Coldplay’s Chris Martin was going through a divorce from the actress Gwyneth Paltrow and feeling down, a friend gave him a book to lift his spirits. It was a collection of poetry by Jalaluddin Rumi, the thirteenth-century Persian poet, translated by Coleman Barks. “It kind of changed my life,” Martin said later, in an interview. A track from Coldplay’s most recent album features Barks reciting one of the poems: “This being human is a guest house / Every morning a new arrival / A joy, a depression, a meanness, / some momentary awareness comes / as an unexpected visitor.” Rumi has helped the spiritual journeys of other celebrities—Madonna, Tilda Swinton—some of whom similarly incorporated his work into theirs. Aphorisms attributed to Rumi circulate daily on social media, offering motivation. “If you are irritated by every rub, how will you ever get polished,” one of them goes. Or, “Every moment I shape my destiny with a chisel. I am a carpenter of my own soul.” Barks’s translations, in particular, are shared widely on the Internet; they are also the ones that line American bookstore shelves and are recited at weddings. [Source: Rozina Ali, The New Yorker, January 5, 2017]

Websites and Resources: Islam Islam.com islam.com ; Islamic City islamicity.com ; Islam 101 islam101.net ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/islam ; BBC article bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam ; Patheos Library – Islam patheos.com/Library/Islam ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts web.archive.org ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam britannica.com ; Islam at Project Gutenberg gutenberg.org ; Islam from UCB Libraries GovPubs web.archive.org ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary pbs.org frontline ; Discover Islam dislam.org ; Shias, Sufis and Muslim Sects and Schools Divisions in Islam archive.org ; Four Sunni Schools of Thought masud.co.uk ; Wikipedia article on Shia Islam Wikipedia Shafaqna: International Shia News Agency shafaqna.com ; Roshd.org, a Shia Website roshd.org/eng ; The Shiapedia, an online Shia encyclopedia web.archive.org ; shiasource.com ; Imam Al-Khoei Foundation (Twelver) al-khoei.org ; Official Website of Nizari Ismaili (Ismaili) the.ismaili ; Official Website of Alavi Bohra (Ismaili) alavibohra.org ; The Institute of Ismaili Studies (Ismaili) web.archive.org ; Wikipedia article on Sufism Wikipedia ; Sufism in the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World oxfordislamicstudies.com ; Sufism, Sufis, and Sufi Orders – Sufism's Many Paths islam.uga.edu/Sufism ; Afterhours Sufism Stories inspirationalstories.com/sufism ; Risala Roohi Sharif, translations (English and Urdu) of "The Book of Soul", by Hazrat Sultan Bahu, a 17th century Sufi risala-roohi.tripod.com ; The Spiritual Life in Islam:Sufism thewaytotruth.org/sufism ; Sufism - an Inquiry sufismjournal.org

Jalaluddin Rumi’s Life


Rumi's father giving a sermon

Rumi Mevlâna Celaleddin Rumi (1207-1273) was a Persian born in what in now Balkh in Afghanistan. Mongol incursions forced his family to flee westward when he was around eleven. They traveled to Baghdad, Mecca, Damascus before settling in what is now Konya Turkey, where he lived most of his life.

Rumi was the son of a Sufi master. He was trained in Muslim theology and Arabic and Persian literature. According to the BBC: “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. [Source: BBC, September 1, 2009 |::|]

Rumi was a traditional religious teacher until he was 37, when he met a wandering dervish, Shams of Tabriz, who changed his life. Recalling his first encounter with the man, Rumi wrote: “What I thought of before as God, I met today in a human being." Their partnership was short. Three years after they met Shams disappeared. Some say he was murdered by one of Rumi's jealous followers. “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 ever since then.

In the early 20th century, Charles F. Horne wrote: We are told that in his house there was a central pillar, and that when Jalal [Rumi] was "drowned in the ocean of love," he would take hold of that pillar and set himself turning round it, and improvising his frenzied poetry. When the more conservative Muslims remonstrated with Jalal because his Maulavis danced and sang, even at funerals, Jalal responded "When the human spirit, after years of imprisonment in the cave and dungeon of the body, is at length set free, and wings its flight to the source whence it came, is this not an occasion for rejoicings, thanks, and dancing?" Jalal's religious exposition of Sufism is mainly contained in his "Masnavi", an enormous poetic work in six books, comprising almost 30,000 couplets.” [Source: Charles F. Horne, ed., “The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East”, (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), Vol. VIII: Medieval Persia, p. 111-130]

Rumi and His Sufi Teacher Shams


Shams of Tabriz

In 1244 in Konya, Rumi met an elder traveller — Shams (Shams-i-Tabriz,) — who became his mentor. The nature of their close friendship is a much debated topic, but no one disputes that Shams had a great impact on Rumi’s religious beliefs and poetry. According to the BBC: “ 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. [Source: BBC, September 1, 2009 |::|]

“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... 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. |::|

Rumi was devastated by the loss of his teacher. He poured out his feelings of sorrow, longing and love in a steam of poems that he wrote at a rate of 15 a day for the next 29 years until his death. In one poem he wrote, "When we are dead, seek not our tomb in the earth but find it in the hearts of men." Golpinarali wrote: Rumi was like a purely clean lamp, where the oil was poured in the holder and a wick placed therein, ready to be lit; and Shams was the spark to set it afire [Source: Golpinarali, introduction to Aflaki 1959-60, p. 648. |::|

“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 and Islam

Rozina Ali wrote in The New Yorker: “ The 50,000 lines of The “Masnavi,” a six-book epic poem that Rumi wrote toward the end of his life, are mostly in Persian, but they are riddled with Arabic excerpts from Muslim scripture; the book frequently alludes to Qur’anic anecdotes that offer moral lessons. (The work, which some scholars consider unfinished, has been nicknamed the Persian Qur’an.) Fatemeh Keshavarz, a professor of Persian studies at the University of Maryland, told me that Rumi probably had the Qur’an memorized, given how often he drew from it in his poetry. Rumi himself described the “Masnavi” as “the roots of the roots of the roots of religion”—meaning Islam—“and the explainer of the Qur’an.” And yet little trace of the religion exists in the translations that sell so well in the United States. “The Rumi that people love is very beautiful in English, and the price you pay is to cut the culture and religion,” Jawid Mojaddedi, a scholar of early Sufism at Rutgers, told me recently. [Source: Rozina Ali, The New Yorker, January 5, 2017 ^^]


Mevlana Mausoleum in Konya, the home of Rumi's tomb

“Rumi’s father was a preacher and religious scholar, and he introduced Rumi to Sufism. Rumi continued his theological education in Syria, where he studied the more traditional legal codes of Sunni Islam, and later returned to Konya as a seminary teacher. ...Shams, everyone agrees, had a lasting influence on Rumi’s religious practice and his poetry. In a new biography of Rumi, “Rumi’s Secret,” Brad Gooch describes how Shams pushed Rumi to question his scriptural education, debating Qur’anic passages with him and emphasizing the idea of devotion as finding oneness with God. Rumi would come to blend the intuitive love for God that he found in Sufism with the legal codes of Sunni Islam and the mystical thought he learned from Shams. ^^

“This unusual tapestry of influences set Rumi apart from many of his contemporaries, Keshavarz told me. Still, Rumi built a large following in cosmopolitan Konya, incorporating Sufis, Muslim literalists and theologians, Christians, and Jews, as well as the local Sunni Seljuk rulers. In “Rumi’s Secret,” Gooch helpfully chronicles the political events and religious education that influenced Rumi. “Rumi was born into a religious family and followed the proscribed rules of daily prayer and fasting throughout his entire life,” Gooch writes. Even in Gooch’s book, though, there is a tension between these facts and the desire to conclude that Rumi, in some sense, transcended his background—that, as Gooch puts it, he “made claims for a ‘religion of love’ that went beyond all organized faiths.” What can get lost in such readings is the extent to which Rumi’s Muslim teaching shaped even those ideas. As Mojadeddi notes, the Qur’an acknowledges Christians and Jews as “people of the book,” offering a starting point toward universalism. “The universality that many revere in Rumi today comes from his Muslim context.”“ ^^

Rumi and the Whirling Dervishes

Rumi was known as a “drunken Sufi” because he found ecstacy in dancing, poetry and music. According to the BBC: “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.”

The Whirling Dervishes belong to a Sufi mystical sect. The order was created in 1273 after the death of Rumi in Konya, which was a center of learning and art in the 13th century under the Seljuk Turk sultans.


early depiction of Whirling-Dervish-like dancers

The Mevlevis stress personal devotion and value the idea of relinquishing one's earthly ties to reach a state of tranquility, love and harmony. They believe that death is meant to be celebrated because a union forms with god. The sect often blends local practices into worship, is open to members of all religions but is based on the principals of Islam. Many were wandering mendicants.

Traditionally, dervishes have been only men. In the early 2000s, some groups began allowing women to join. The sect has also been the subject fo a sex scandal. In the 1990s, a leader of a dervish sect was arrested and charged with having one-night “marriages” with young followers. Ataturk ordered the Sufi lodges closed in Turkey in 1925 after the dervishes were deemed too powerful.

Dance of the Whirling Dervishes

A whirling dervish ritual begins with prayers and meditation in which each dervish, one after the other, receives a blessing from a superior. Then flutes play an introductory melody which symbolizes man's desire for mystic union, and the dance begins. Each dance consists of three stages: the first is the knowledge of God; the second is the seeing of God; and the third is the union with God."

The conical hats the dervishes wear represents a tombstone, the dervish's jacket symbolizes the grave, and the dervish's skirt, a funeral shroud. As the dervishes dance they remove their jackets to show they are shedding earthly ties, and escaping from their graves. As they whirl, the dervishes raise their right hands in prayer and extend their left hands toward the floor. The meaning of these gestures is "what we receive from God, we give to man; we ourselves possess nothing." Their whirling symbolizes the rotation of the universe in the presence of God."

Mevlevi is a form classical Turkish music associated with the Sufi Mevlevi sect (the whirling dervishes). It uses the same modal systems and instruments featured in Ottoman classical music five centuries ago. The mystical melodies are played with the ney , a Turkish flute made from calamus reed or hardwood with six holes on the front and one on the back. Most of the compositions were written by Kocek Dervis and Mustafa Dede from the 17th century, Dede Efendi from the 18th century and Rauf Yekta from the 19th century.

The dervishes sometimes whirl around for six or seven hours at a time. The whirling inflates their white skirts and puts them into a hypnotic trance which they say brings them closer to God. They whirl by crossing their legs and spinning, crossing their legs and spinning, over and over, and they claim they don't get dizzy. Careful footwork and deep concentration it is said keep them from getting dizzy.

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The fast, ecstatic dancing of Sufi mystics, scientists have said, causes hyperarousal and generates a feeling that one is channeling the energy of the universe. According to a Newsweek article on mysticism: “these rites manage to tap into a precise brain mechanisms that tends to make believers interpret perceptions and feelings as evidence of God, or at least transcendence. Rituals also tend to focus on the mind, blocking out sensory perceptions---including those that the orientation area uses to figure out the boundaries of the self."

Describing a whirling dervish Sufi sect in Istanbul, Thomas Abercrombie wrote in National Geographic, "The service began with a kind of deep breathing exercise, and congregation repeating, 'Alll-ahhhh, Alll-ahhhh, Alll-ahhhh. Then, to the rhythm of a slow drum, a young dervish in a conical hat and skirted robe began to spin counterclockwise. Edip pulled me into the congregation forming a concentric circles around the dance, shoulder to shoulder, chanting the sonorous Muslim creed, "La ilaha illa llah!" slowly at first, then faster and louder: 'There is no god but Allah.' We circled the spinning dervishes, in the opposite direction.Faster and faster we circled, at one with the atoms and the planets, cosmic sleepwalkers belying time and space, lost in the whirling and the rhythm of the chant: 'La ilaha-illa llah, La ilaha-illa llah.'...Only afterwards dir I realize we had spun for nearly an hour. Where did the time go?"”

Description of Whirling Dervishes From 1613

Describing a group of Mevlana in 1613, the English traveler Thomas Coryate wrote, “I entered a pretty fair room, to which I passed through an outward court, which room before me was almost full of Turks that came thither to serve God...A little after I came into the room the Dervishes repaired into the middle void space...Their habits differing much from the other Turks... first the covering of their Head was of a differing sort from the other, for they wear certain gray Felts made in a form not unlike the blocks of Hats that we use in England."

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Dervish by Amedeo Preziosi
“A certain singing man sitting apart in the upper room began to sing certain hymns, but with the most unpleasant and harsh notes that I ever heard, for the yelling and disorderly squeaking of them did even grate mine ears. Whenever he pronounced the Name of Mahomet all of them did cast down their heads to their knees” and “fell prostrate upon their faces and kissed the ground."

“Almost a quarter of an hour before he had done, three pipers sitting in the room with the singer began to play certain long pipes not unlike tabors, which yielded very ridiculous and foolish music...Having played for near a quarter of an hour...they sounded much louder than ordinary, whereupon some five and twenty of the two and fifty dervishes suddenly rose up barelegged and bare-footed, and casting aside their upper garment, some of them having their breast all uncovered, they began by little and little to turn about...Afterwards they redoubled their force and turned with such incredible swiftness, that I could not choose but admire it."

“This turning they kept for the space of one whole hour at least, during which time, sometimes they turned exceedingly swiftly, sometimes very gently. After they had half done, the singer in the upper room began to sing again, at the pronunciation of some of whose words," the dervishes mumbled out certain strange terms, with a most hideous kind of murmuring that did in a manner terrify and astonish us...The forms of their dancing is as strange as the continence of their swiftness, for sometimes they stretch out their arms as far as they can in length, sometimes they contract them in a lesser compass, sometimes they hold them about their heads, sometimes again they perform certain merry gestures, as if they were drawing a bow and shooting an arrow...The violence of their turning it so great, that I have heard some of them have fallen down dead in the place."

Translations, Interpretations and Erasing Islam from Rumi

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Rozina Ali wrote in The New Yorker: Rumi “is typically referred to as a mystic, a saint, a Sufi, an enlightened man. Curiously, however, although he was a lifelong scholar of the Qur’an and Islam, he is less frequently described as a Muslim. The erasure of Islam from Rumi’s poetry started long” ago. “Omid Safi, a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at Duke University, says that it was in the Victorian period that readers in the West began to uncouple mystical poetry from its Islamic roots. Translators and theologians of the time could not reconcile their ideas about a “desert religion,” with its unusual moral and legal codes, and the work of poets like Rumi and Hafez. The explanation they settled on, Safi told me, was “that these people are mystical not because of Islam but in spite of it.” This was a time when Muslims were singled out for legal discrimination—a law from 1790 curtailed the number of Muslims who could come into the United States, and a century later the U.S. Supreme Court described the “intense hostility of the people of Moslem faith to all other sects, and particularly to Christians.” In 1898, in the introduction to his translation of the “Masnavi,” Sir James Redhouse wrote, “The Masnavi addresses those who leave the world, try to know and be with God, efface their selves and devote themselves to spiritual contemplation.” For those in the West, Rumi and Islam were separated. [Source: Rozina Ali, The New Yorker, January 5, 2017 ^^]

“In the twentieth century, a succession of prominent translators—among them R. A. Nicholson, A. J. Arberry, and Annemarie Schimmel—strengthened Rumi’s presence in the English-language canon. But it’s [Coleman] Barks who vastly expanded Rumi’s readership. He is not a translator so much as an interpreter: he does not read or write Persian. Instead, he transforms nineteenth-century translations into American verse. ^^

“It’s verse of a very particular kind. Barks was born in 1937 and grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He received his Ph.D. in English literature and published his first book of poetry, “The Juice,” in 1971. The first time he heard of Rumi was later that decade, when another poet, Robert Bly, handed him a copy of translations by Arberry and told him that they had to be “released from their cages”—that is, put into American free verse. (Bly, who has published poetry in The New Yorker for more than thirty years—and whose book “Iron John: A Book About Men,” from 1990, greatly informed the modern men’s movement—later translated some of Rumi’s poems himself.) Barks had never studied Islamic literature. But soon afterward, he told me recently, over the phone from his home in Georgia, he had a dream. In the dream, he was sleeping on a cliff near a river. A stranger appeared in a circle of light and said, “I love you.” Barks had not seen this man before, but he met him the following year, at a Sufi order near Philadelphia. The man was the order’s leader. Barks began spending his afternoons studying and rephrasing the Victorian translations that Bly had given him. Since then, he has published more than a dozen Rumi books. ^^

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Dervish from Bosnia
“In our conversation, Barks described Rumi’s poetry as “the mystery of opening the heart,” a thing that, he told me, “you can’t say in language.” In order to get at that inexpressible thing, he has taken some liberties with Rumi’s work. For one thing, he has minimized references to Islam. Consider the famous poem “Like This.” Arberry translates one of its lines, rather faithfully, as “Whoever asks you about the Houris, show (your) face (and say) ‘Like this.’ “Houris are virgins promised in Paradise in Islam. Barks avoids even the literal translation of that word; in his version, the line becomes, “If anyone asks you how the perfect satisfaction of all our sexual wanting will look, lift your face and say, Like this.” The religious context is gone. And yet, elsewhere in the same poem, Barks keeps references to Jesus and Joseph. When I asked him about this, he told me that he couldn’t recall if he had made a deliberate choice to remove Islamic references. “I was brought up Presbyterian,” he said. “I used to memorize Bible verses, and I know the New Testament more than I know the Qur’an.” He added, “The Qur’an is hard to read.” ^^

“Rumi used the Qur’an, Hadiths, and religion in an explorative way, often challenging conventional readings. One of Barks’s popular renditions goes like this: “Out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing, there is a field. / I will meet you there.” The original version makes no mention of “rightdoing” or “wrongdoing.” The words Rumi wrote were iman (“religion”) and kufr (“infidelity”). Imagine, then, a Muslim scholar saying that the basis of faith lies not in religious code but in an elevated space of compassion and love. What we, and perhaps many Muslim clerics, might consider radical today is an interpretation that Rumi put forward more than seven hundred years ago. ^^

“Such readings were not entirely unique back then. Rumi’s works reflected a broader push and pull between religious spirituality and institutionalized faith—though with a wit that was unmatched. “Historically speaking, no text has shaped the imagination of Muslims—other than the Qur’an—as the poetry of Rumi and Hafez,” Safi said. This is why Rumi’s voluminous writings, produced at a time when scribes had to copy works by hand, have survived. “Language isn’t just a means of communication,” the writer and translator Sinan Antoon has said. “It’s a reservoir of memory, tradition, and heritage.” As conduits between two cultures, translators take on an inherently political project. They must figure out how to make, for instance, a thirteenth-century Persian poet comprehensible to a contemporary American audience. But they have a responsibility to remain true to the original work—an act that, in the case of Rumi, would help readers to recognize that a professor of Sharia could also write some of the world’s mostly widely read love poetry. ^^

“Jawid Mojaddedi is now in the midst of a years-long project to translate all six books of the “Masnavi.” Three of them have been published; the fourth is due out this spring. His translations acknowledge the Islamic and Qur’anic texts in the original by using italics to denote whenever Rumi switches to Arabic. His books are also riddled with footnotes. Reading them requires some effort, and perhaps a desire to see beyond one’s preconceptions. That, after all, is the point of translation: to understand the foreign. As Keshavarz put it, translation is a reminder that “everything has a form, everything has culture and history. A Muslim can be like that, too.”“ ^^

Rozina Ali wrote in The New Yorker: “Like many others, Omid Safi credits Barks with introducing Rumi to millions of readers in the United States; in morphing Rumi into American verse, Barks has dedicated considerable time and love to the poet’s works and life. And there are other versions of Rumi that are even further removed from the original—such as the New Age books by Deepak Chopra and Daniel Ladinsky which are marketed and sold as Rumi but bear little resemblance to the poet’s writing. Chopra, an author of spiritual works and an alternative-medicine enthusiast, admits that his poems are not Rumi’s words. Rather, as he writes in the introduction to “The Love Poems of Rumi,” they are “‘moods’ we have captured as certain phrases radiated from the original Farsi, giving life to a new creation but retaining the essence of its source.” [Source: Rozina Ali, The New Yorker, January 5, 2017 ^^]

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Persian Dervishes

“Discussing these New Age “translations,” Safi said, “I see a type of ‘spiritual colonialism’ at work here: bypassing, erasing, and occupying a spiritual landscape that has been lived and breathed and internalized by Muslims from Bosnia and Istanbul to Konya and Iran to Central and South Asia.” Extracting the spiritual from the religious context has deep reverberations. Islam is regularly diagnosed as a “cancer,” including by General Michael Flynn,” Donald Trump’s former national-security adviser, “and, even today, policymakers suggest that non-Western and nonwhite groups have not contributed to civilization. ^^

“For his part, Barks sees religion as secondary to the essence of Rumi. “Religion is such a point of contention for the world,” he told me. “I got my truth and you got your truth—this is just absurd. We’re all in this together and I’m trying to open my heart, and Rumi’s poetry helps with that.” One might detect in this philosophy something of Rumi’s own approach to poetry: Rumi often amended texts from the Qur’an so that they would fit the lyrical rhyme and meter of the Persian verse. But while Rumi’s Persian readers would recognize the tactic, most American readers are unaware of the Islamic blueprint. Safi has compared reading Rumi without the Qur’an to reading Milton without the Bible: even if Rumi was heterodox, it’s important to recognize that he was heterodox in a Muslim context—and that Islamic culture, centuries ago, had room for such heterodoxy. Rumi’s works are not just layered with religion; they represent the historical dynamism within Islamic scholarship.” ^^

Rumi’s Poetry

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.

According to the BBC: “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. 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. [Source: BBC, September 1, 2009 |::|]

“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. Rumi wrote in Quatrain, No. 1173: “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.”

William C Chittick wrote in “The Sufi Path of Love”: “Although the Diwan contains many short didactic passages, on the whole it appears as a collection of individual and separate 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 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 |::|


Spiritual couplets by Rumi

Rumi's poetry can be passionate, spiritual and sexual. He often wrote about the masteries of human desire and the ecstacy of love. In Daring Enough to Finish he wrote:
Face that lights my face, you spin
Intelligence into these particles
I am. Your wind shivers my tree
My mouth tasse sweet with your name
In it. You make me dance daring enough
To finish. No more timidity!
Let fruit fall and wind turn my roots up
In the air, done with patient waiting. [Translated by Coleman Barks]

Rumi eschewed ritual and emphasized tolerance. In Spiritual Couplets, one of the most influential pieces of Islamic writing, he famously wrote:
Come! Come ! Whoever, whatever you may be, come!
Heathen, idolatrous or fire worshipper, come!
Even if you deny your oaths a hundred times, come!
Our door is the door of hope, come! Come as you are!

Rumi Poems

Sorrow Turned to Joy
"He who extracts the rose from the thorn
Can also turn this winter into spring.
He who exalts the heads of the cypresses
Is able also out of sadness to bring joy."

Exert Yourselves
"Trust in God, yet tie the camel's leg.'
Hear the adage, 'The worker is the friend of God';
Through trust in Providence neglect not to use means.
Go, O Fatalists, practise trust with self-exertion,
Exert yourself to attain your objects, bit by bit.
In order to succeed, strive and exert yourselves;
If you strive not for your objects, ye are fools."

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Rumi Meeting Rumi and Molla Shams al-Din
White Nights
Every night Thou freest our spirits from the body
And its snare, making them pure as rased tablets.
Every night spirits are released from this cage,
And set free, neither lording it nor lorded over.
At night prisoners are unaware of their prison,
At night kings are unaware of their majesty.

The Kingly Soul
The kingly soul lays waste the body,
And after its destruction he builds it anew.
Happy the soul who for love of God
Has lavished family, wealth, and goods!—
Has destroyed its house to find the Hidden Treasure,
And with that Treasure has rebuilt it in fairer sort;
Has dammed up the stream and cleansed the channel,
And then turned a fresh stream into the channel.

Self-Satisfaction
No sickness worse than fancying thyself perfect
Can infect thy soul, O arrogant, misguided one!
Shed many tears of blood from eyes and heart,
That this self-satisfaction may be driven out.
The fate of Iblis lay in saying, "I am better than He,"
And this same weakness lurks in the souls of all creatures. [Source: Charles F. Horne, ed., “The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East”, (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), Vol. VIII: Medieval Persia, p. 111-130]

On A Valetudinarian
So careful is Isa, and anxious to last,
So afraid of himself is he grown,
He swears through two nostrils the breath goes too fast,
And he's trying to breathe through but one.

On A Miser
"Hang her, a thoughtless, wasteful fool,
She scatters corn where'er she goes"—
Quoth Hassan, angry at his mule,
That dropped a dinner to the crows.
—Ibn Al Rumi

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Arab News, Jeddah; Islam, a Short History by Karen Armstrong; A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). Also articles in National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated February 2019

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