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  Mystery & Mysticism What can I learn from Mystic Poets?

Mystic Poets | Hafiz | Hopkins | Rumi | Tagore | Rabbi Yitzhak


Mevlana Jalal’uddin Rumi: His Life and Poetry
by Mark W. Muesse

In the land where he spent the greater portion of his life, the country we today call Turkey, the mystic poet Rumi is scarcely known by that name. The Turks call him Mevlana, or “our master.” “Rumi” is more of nickname than a surname, and it simply means the “Roman” or more accurately, the “Byzantine,” since this part of the world was once the Byzantine Empire, the successor of the East Roman Empire.

But this “Rumi” was not a Roman, or a Byzantine, or even a Turk. He was born in the area of Balkh in present-day Afghanistan, then known as Khorasan, a place bustling with Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Zoroastrians. Jalal’uddin Rumi was born into this religiously diverse place on 30 September 1207, making him the contemporary of two other great mystics, Francis of Assisi (c. 1182-1226) and Meister Eckhart (c. 1260-1328). Jalal’uddin’s father, Baha’uddin Walad, was an expert in Islamic law and a preacher who tended toward mysticism. Jalal’uddin’s mother died early in his life. He himself was the only one of his father’s several children to survive childhood.

Rumi’s early life was characterized by frequent dislocation. When he was five, the family moved to Samarqand to escape invasion by the Mongols led by Genghis Khan. As the Mongols continued to encroach, Baha’uddin Walad took his family westward. They traveled in this general direction for about a decade, but their precise whereabouts are uncertain. When they reached the Middle East, they likely went on pilgrimage in the holy city of Makkah, to fulfill the requirement incumbent on all Muslims. But if so, Rumi never mentions the pilgrimage in his writings. In fact he seems rather skeptical about traveling for religious purposes.

Oh you who’ve gone on pilgrimage—
where are you, where, oh where?
Here, here is the Beloved!
Oh come now, come, oh come!
Your friend, he is your neighbor,
he is next to your wall—
You erring in the desert—
what air of love is this?
If you’d see the Beloved’s
form without any form—
You are the house, the master,
You are the Kaaba, you!
Where is a bunch of roses,
if you would be this garden?
Where, one soul’s pearly essence
when you’re the Sea of God?
That’s true—and yet your troubles
may turn to treasures rich—
How sad that you yourself veil
the treasure that is yours!

Rumi and his family settled for a while in Damascus, a great center of Arabic learning, where Jalal’uddin studied with eminent scholars and poets. The family’s sojourn did not end in Damascus but eventually continued to central Anatolia, in present-day Turkey, where they stayed in Laranda, then part of the Seljukid kingdom. In Laranda, Jalal’uddin married at age 18 and fathered his first child, a son.

Rumi’s early travels would certainly have made him familiar with the caravanserai, the guest house where weary travelers stayed and refreshed, often for months during winter, before proceeding on their journey. In his later poetry, the caravanserai becomes an image encouraging hospitality toward all life, all experiences:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Eventually, Rumi’s family settled in Konya, the Anatolian capital, once called Iconium when it was part of the Roman Empire. In the 13th century, Konya was becoming a center for refugee scholars and artists under the patronage of the sultan. Konya was also center for Islamic piety, and it still is today. There is a decidedly different atmosphere in Konya than in other parts of Turkey, which are far more secularized.

In Konya, Rumi’s father taught traditional Islamic theology at a madrasa, or seminary. When Baha’uddin died, Rumi assumed his father’s post as a theologian and jurist. Apparently, Jalal’uddin had little or no inkling of his father’s mystical bent, which Baha’uddin may have kept secret from his son.
It also seems that Jalal’uddin himself had no interest in mysticism as a young man. Sufism was rather suspect among orthodox Muslims, and Rumi seems in his early life to have been every bit a conventional Muslim. During this period, in the 1230’s and 1240’s, he led a normal life for a religious scholar, teaching, praying, and helping the poor.

But in October 1244, when he was 37 years old, Rumi had an encounter that would forever change his life. There are several conflicting accounts of this event. One story maintains that on his way home from the madrasa, Rumi met a wandering dervish (Sufi) who asked him a question that impacted him like a Zen koan. There are even different versions of this question, and today we are not certain of its actual content. But it stirred Rumi profoundly.

In another account, Rumi was teaching by a fountain in a square in Konya. The wandering stranger pushed through crowd and tossed into the fountain the books from which Rumi was teaching. When Rumi demanded to know who this stranger was and why he did this, the stranger replied: “You must now live what you have been reading about.” The stranger then turned to the books at the bottom of the fountain and said “We can retrieve them. They’ll be as dry as they were.” He picked one up from the bottom of the fountain, and it was dry. Rumi said “leave them.”

From that moment, Rumi and the stranger, whose name was Shams’uddin of Tabriz, became inseparable companions. Rumi writes, “What I had thought of before as God I met today in a human being.” Rumi and Shams were literally inseparable for the next several months. What took place between them during this time is not altogether clear; later, Rumi would speak of that time as being transported into sphere of Divine Love. They isolated themselves from the rest of the world to enjoy this deep communion (sohbet), much to the consternation of Rumi’s family and students. Rumi was so rapt in this experience with Shams that he totally neglected his teaching and family responsibilities.

Shams, apparently, was not such an easy person to get along with. He was reputedly rather arrogant with a sharp tongue. He even said himself that he prayed to find a single person who could bear his company and was thus “directed to Anatolia.” In spite of Shams personal qualities, it is clear that Rumi encountered in him the very embodiment of the divine itself. Rumi writes:

It is not right that I should call you human [banda, servant]
But I am afraid to call you God [khuda]! (Diwan-i 2768).

Shamsulhaqq [Sun of Divine Truth], if I see in your clear mirror
Nothing but God, I am worse than an infidel! (Diwan-i 1027).

Whether it be infidelity or Islam, listen:
You are either the light of God or God, [khuda]! (Diwan-i 2711). 3

To understand the scandalous nature of these verses, one needs to know that idolatry is the highest sin in Islam. To Muslims idolatry is shirk, associating God with something that is not God. When Rumi compares Shams to God, he could commit no greater sin from the conventional point of view.

Thus it is not surprising that Rumi’s family and students were extremely suspicious of the mysterious Shams. He was probably not very likeable, and he seemed to be leading Rumi towards heresy. Shams must have caught drift of their suspicion because one day he simply disappeared without warning, after about a year with Rumi. Rumi was devastated by the loss.

Yet, it is at this point that his transformation began to accelerate. Rumi became a poet. He began spontaneously to sing and whirl, and he himself did not understand why this happened. He maintained that he was not the author of the verses that began pouring forth from his mouth.

Do you think I know what I’m doing?
That for one breath or half-breath I belong to myself?
As much as a pen knows what it’s writing,
or the ball can guess where it’s going next
. 4

He compared himself to a flute, which cannot sing unless it is played by master flautist.

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. But 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.”

At one level, this poem expresses Rumi anguish over his separation from Shams, and he attributes the music of his mouth to that anguish. At another level, the poem alludes to the Sufi notion that as humans we are separated from our true home, which is God, and we long to return.

Rumi tried to contact Shams, but was unable to do so. He continued to create poems inspired by Shams. He never referred to Shams by name in his poetry but alluded to him as the “sun.” The name Shams’uddin translates “sun of faith.” That image played a key role in Rumi’s subsequent poems. Rumi also referred to Shams as the Beloved or the Friend; what is more, these names applied equally to God and to Rumi himself.

Eventually, Rumi received word that Shams was alive and well in Damascus, and he sent his eldest son to fetch Shams back to Konya. When Shams arrived in Anatolia, Rumi insisted Shams live with him. Again the family was not pleased. This time, they insured that Shams would not take their father away from them. As best we know, Rumi’s younger son and a group of Rumi’s students conspired to kill Shams. Rumi was told that Shams had left once more, but it seems more likely that Shams had been stabbed and the body thrown into a nearby well and later buried.

At first, Rumi tried to believe that Shams was still alive. He even traveled to Syria in search of the missing dervish. Eventually, Rumi began to accept that Shams was dead, and he probably suspected his son’s and students’ involvement in the death. His grief was eased, I believe, by the experience of mystical participation in the life of Shams. Rumi writes: “he found him in himself, radiant as the moon.”

He said: Since I am he, what need to seek?
I am the same as he, his essence speaks!
Indeed I sought my own self, that is sure,
Fermenting in the vat, just like the must. 6

Rumi comes to identify completely with Shams; he even takes Shams’ name as his pen name. His collection of poetry is entitled Diwan-i Shams-i Tabriz, the “Divan of Shams of Tabriz.”

Rumi experienced what the Sufis call fana, or complete annihilation in the Beloved. In fana, there is no difference between lover and beloved, between self and other, the soul and God. Many of Rumi’s poems are about the experience of fana, and he uses many metaphors to express it. Sometimes Rumi calls it burning; sometimes drunkenness; sometimes it is bursting, falling, emptiness, or love and sex.

In the early morning hour,
just before dawn, lover and beloved wake
and take a drink of water.

She asks, “Do you love me or yourself more?
Really, tell the absolute truth.”

He says, “There's nothing left of me.
I’m like a ruby held up to the sunrise.
Is it still a stone, or a world
made of redness? It has no resistance
to sunlight.”

This is how Hallaj said, I am God,
and told the truth!

The ruby and the sunrise are one.
Be courageous and discipline yourself.

Completely become hearing and ear,
and wear this sun-ruby as an earring.

Work. Keep digging your well.
Don’t think about getting off from work.
Water is there somewhere.

Submit to a daily practice.
Your loyalty to that
is a ring on the door.

Keep knocking, and the joy inside
will eventually open a window
and look out to see who’s there.

After Rumi came to identify completely with Shams, his life entered a period of relative serenity. It was somewhere during this time that Rumi’s first wife died, and he married a woman of a Christian background and had two more children with her. Rumi’s reputation as a spiritual teacher continued to grow and he accepted increasing number of students from all walks of life, including many women, a fact that upset many in Konya. One estimate claims he had over 10,000 students, including the grand vizier.

His students encouraged Rumi to compose a mathnawi, a genre of didactic Persian poetry used by other great mystics. Mathnawi means “couplet” and is a compendium of wisdom written in verse. In the year 1256, Rumi began to compose his Mathnawi, dictating it to his friend and disciple Husam’uddin. The Mathnawi comprised over 25,000 verses composed over a period of twelve years. Yet despite his prodigious compositions, it is clear that Rumi was not attached to his poetry; he counted it as nothing when compared to the experience of the divine.

Don’t worry about saving these songs!
And if one of our instruments breaks,
it doesn’t matter.

We have fallen into the place
where everything is music.

The strumming and the flute notes
rise into the atmosphere,
and even if the whole world’s harp
should burn up, there will still be
hidden instruments playing.

So the candle flickers and goes out.
We have a piece of flint and a spark.

This singing is sea foam.
The graceful movements come from a pearl
somewhere on the ocean floor.

Poems reach up like spindrift and the edge
of driftwood along the beach, wanting!

They derive
from a slow and powerful root
that we can’t see.

Stop the words now.
Open the windows in the center of your chest,
and let the spirits fly in and out.

During this time, Rumi continued to teach and tend to social and familial responsibilities. He rarely left Konya. In 1262, his second son died, but Rumi did not attend his funeral. Most scholars think his absence was due to his suspicion of his son’s role in Shams’ death.

In the fall of 1273, Rumi himself took sick, but the physicians could not diagnose his illness. He consoled his friends with lyrics expressing the Sufi belief that death is the great return to God. The Sufis call death the “wedding night.”

Don’t cry: “Woe, parted!” at my burial—
For me, this is the time of joyful meeting!
Don’t say “Farewell” when I’m put in the grave—
It is a curtain for eternal grace
(Diwan-i, 911). 9

Rumi’s attempt to console his friends at the time of his death is reminiscent of Socrates in the Phaedo. On the day he was scheduled to be executed Socrates tells his friends that as a philosopher he has lived his whole life in anticipation of dying, so there is no reason to be sad now that the day has arrived. He sees his death as the consummation of his life.

Rumi’s view of death is similar but draws upon distinctive Sufi imagery. Sufism, according to one interpreter, is actually “based on the meditation of death, the hour when the soul had to meet its Lord after undergoing interrogation by the two angels Munkar and Nakir in the grave.” 10 The lovers of God no longer dreaded death but rather longed for it, for “death is a bridge that leads the lover to the Beloved.”

If death’s a man—let him come close to me
That I can clasp him tightly to my breast!
I’ll take from him a soul, pure, colorless;
He’ll take from me a colored frock, no more! 11

After he died on 17 December 1273, Rumi’s funeral was attended by Christians, Jews, and Muslims. His son writes that the Christians grieved saying “He was our Jesus!” and the Jews cried “He was our Moses!” After Rumi’s death, his cat refused to eat and died one week later. She was buried near him by his daughter, as a sign of his friendship with all creatures. Today, Turks still celebrate the 17th of December as Rumi’s wedding night.

After his death, his followers were organized into a Sufi order known as the Mevlevis, which became the most influential mystical group in Turkey. This is the order most closely associated with the practice of the sema, the whirling dance. A mausoleum was later built to house Rumi’s remains. The Yesil Türbe (the “Green Dome”) contains the sarcophagus of Rumi, his father, Baha’uddin Walad and his immediate successors in the Mevlevi order. It is the most visited site in Turkey. In a more obscure neighborhood few kilometers away lies the body of Shams, enshrined in a mosque.

1 Diwan, 648, quoted in Annemarie Schimmel, Rumi's World: The Life and Works of the Greatest Sufi Poet (Boston: Shambhala, 2001) 148.
2 Coleman Barks, The Essential Rumi (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997) 109.
3 Schimmel, p. 21.
4 Barks, 16.
5 Barks, 17-18.
6 Schimmel, 19.
7 Barks, 100-101.
8 Barks, 34-35.
9 Schimmel, 30.
10 Schimmel, 3.
11 Diwan-i kabir, 1326, 1326.

Copyright © 2004 Mark Muesse
(Woodstock, Vermont: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2004.) 36-37.



> What makes
someone a Mystic?

> How do I find the
Mystic Path?

> What can I learn
from Mystic Poets?

> How can I nurture
my connection to the Sacred?



>How can I explore
the Mystery?

>What can I know for certain?

>What shows me that
God cares?

>How can Jesus help
me understand?

>Where can I touch
the edge of heaven?










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