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What Rumi Means to Me, or Why a Southern Baptist-turned-Buddhist
Came to Revere a 13th–century Muslim Mystic
by Mark W. Muesse

Portrait of Rumi by James Starks

I first learned of the Sufi saint Mevlana Jalal’uddin Rumi several years before he became one of the most popular poets in America, though I don’t quite remember when. I’m also not quite sure why others have come to appreciate Rumi; for me his appeal is as much based on the example of his life as on the written legacy he left the Rumi informationworld.

Born in 1207 in Khorasan, the region now known as Afghanistan, Rumi spent many of his early years on the road with his family. Leaving Khorasan to escape the onslaught of Genghis Khan, they journeyed throughout the Middle East until they settled in Anatolia in present-day Turkey. For the rest of his life, Rumi resided in the city of Konya. Following his father’s example, he became a professor of theology and taught at the local madrasa, or seminary. His life was rather conventional for an academic theologian until the age of 37, when he met a wandering dervish by the name of Shams of Tabriz.

The encounter with Shams changed his life forever. What happened when they met is not all together certain; there are several different accounts of that first meeting. Shams apparently catalyzed a profound experience for Rumi that transformed him from a dry academic to a mystic drunk with god. Shams enabled Rumi to encounter the divine reality that Rumi yearned for but until then had only known second-hand. The two men became enamored of one another and were for a time inseparable. But motivated by jealousy, some of Rumi’s students (and probably one of his sons) lured Shams away and murdered him. Rumi was grief-stricken. Out of his anguish, he began spontaneously composing poetry. He became like a fountain, pouring forth words of great beauty and profound meaning. As Rumi spoke, some of his friends and students followed him around, catching these beautiful words and writing them down.

His utterances were a salve to ease his broken heart. Through them, Rumi brought to expression the mystical sensibility that he had shared with Shams, and continued to share with him even in death. Rumi came to believe that just as he had experienced god through the ministrations of Shams, he could remain one with Shams through mystic union with god. The grief he endured now acquired a deeper significance. His longing for Shams reflected his longing for god, and, now indeed, the two desires were one.

In “The Song of Reed,” Rumi demonstrates how sorrow transmutes into music, music into insight, and insight into love.

Listen to the reed and the tale it tells,
how it sings of separation:
Ever since they cut me from the reed bed,
my wail has caused men and women to weep.
I want a heart that is torn open with longing
so that I might share the pain of this love.
Whoever has been parted from his source
longs to return to state of union.

When the rose is gone and the garden faded,
you will no longer hear the nightingale’s song.
The Beloved is all; the lover just a veil.
The Beloved is living; the lover a dead thing.
Love wills that this Word be brought forth. 1

Rumi’s consolation came from knowing that the sorrow of separation betokens a deeper, more fundamental, ineradicable unity.
We can only be estranged from that to which we really belong. In the state of estrangement, the Beloved lives in us as the burning passion for reunion. Absence sets the heart afire. For the Sufis, this raging desire, which sometimes appears to others as absolute insanity or intoxication, brings us home again, to the Beloved to whom we belong. This consummation is nothing less than the complete death of ego, drawn moth-like into the flame of god.

The lover wields the sword of Nothingness
in order to dispatch all but God:
consider what remains after Nothing.
There remains but God: all the rest is gone. 2

For Rumi, life and death, separation and unity, this world and the next are taken up into the divine reality. This is how Sufis understand Islam’s shah_dah: “There is no god but god” means that god is the only reality; all else is illusion.

When he died in 1273, he left a treasure house of poems (one work, the Divan of Shams of Tabriz, alone comprises 22 volumes) and an estimated 10,000 students. He was mourned by Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike. He was entombed in a beautiful mausoleum, such as only Islamic architects can design. Today, it one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in the Muslim world. Following his death, one of his sons began to organize his legacy into the Mevlevi order, a Sufi sect also known as the “Whirling Dervishes” for its ecstatic dancing.

I’m not all together sure I understand my affinity for Rumi. I cannot say that I believe in Rumi’s god. I cannot imagine that I will ever again conceive of Mystery as a being who loves me. But I positively exult in the fact that Rumi experiences god this way. Although I don’t embrace theism, it is beneficial for me to surround myself with the words and images of those who see the divine in such a vivid, concrete way. I need not subscribe to a saint’s theology to admire her or to find nourishment in his example.

What I long for is not Rumi’s theology but the way of being he seems to have discovered. Rumi symbolizes for me the upper reaches of the human spirit. He embodies those qualities that I regard as sacred but cannot impute to a cosmic supreme being. I yearn for the same courage and humility that prompted him to set aside academic credentials to learn at the feet of a humble dervish. I want the same wisdom that enabled him to face his deep anguish and to transform it into joy, the wisdom that knows death is nothing to fear. I crave the sheer elation that must have welled up from his heart when he began to sing his poems of truth and beauty. But most of all, I recognize in Rumi what is the very essence of the world’s wisdom traditions. He has dispelled the chimera of ego, relinquishing the last and greatest fetter of the spirit. To see through that illusion and to live one’s life free of it—that to me is the supreme being.

I think this is why I find this old Sufi so intriguing.

1. The Rumi Collection: An Anthology of Translations of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, ed., Kabir Helminski, (Boston and London: Shambhala, 2000), pp. 146-148.

2. The Rumi Collection: An Anthology of Translations of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, ed., Kabir Helminski, (Boston and London: Shambhala, 2000), p. 162

Copyright ©2005 Mark Muesse.

James Starks is an artist living and working in Memphis, Tennessee.


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