Persian spiritual pain

Rumi, Past and Present, East and West

August 11, 2000

In a recent interview, Madonna declared that her favourite reading was the poetry of Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet and mystic. She is just one of many American luminaries who profess devotion to the poet. This has made him the best-selling poet in the United States. Artists, film-makers, composers and song-writers (Philip Glass, Leonard Cohen), claim him as a source of inspiration. His love poems set to music have provided the sound-track for fashion shows and he has been dragged into the discotheques. Why a poet born 800 years ago in Persia should become so universally admired is one of the questions Franklin D. Lewis's book attempts to answer.

As a student of Persian in his native California in the 1980s, Lewis delighted in watching Rumi's following grow. But gradually he began to worry that pop culture would "dilute and distort his message that modern secular culture would inevitably reduce the sacral to the banal through relentless commercialism and consumerism..." Armed with excellent knowledge of the Persian language, literature and careful scholarship, he set out to consolidate the disparate material on the poet to produce a comprehensive account of Rumi, "the teacher, the preacher, the poet, the humanist, the pious Muslim and mystic visionary". An ambitious project which, on the whole, Lewis has achieved admirably. There are some caveats: at times the book bears the marks of a doctoral thesis - longueurs, repetitions, irrelevant details - but it is fluent and mercifully free from academic jargon.

So who was Rumi? Jalal al-Din Mohammad Valad was born in 1207 in Vakhsh, a small town in east Iran. His father, Baha al-Din, was the town's preacher and jurisconsul ( faqih ), with the title of "the king of clerics". When he was three, the family moved to Samarkand, then to Balkh in Khorasan. In 1215, the Valads travelled west to Anatolia, via Baghdad, Mecca and Syria, and eventually settled in Qonia. The region was part of Byzantium, which explains the poet's title of "Rumi": Rum is Persian for Rome. The sultan, Ala al-Din Kay Qobad, welcomed Rumi's father, and gave him a house and a stipend to teach at the madrasa .

In exchange, Baha al-Din addressed him as king, saying: "We are both sultans but your sovereignty endures so long as your eyes are open and mine will begin once my eyes close forever." Baha al-Din's influence and teaching was crucial to Rumi's spiritual development: belief in the presence of God in the creation ("everything beautiful reflects the glory of God"), the importance of grace for attaining real knowledge, detachment and the suppression of the nafs (self/ego) as a precondition of union with the God. Rumi studied with his father and other Sufi masters, the most influential of whom was Borhan al-Din Mohaqqeq, to whom he refers in his poems.

In 1231 his father died and Rumi replaced him as preacher and teacher at the madrasa . The sultan became his devotee, and his fame spread. A collection of his discourses, Fih-e-Mafi , gives an example of his teaching and preaching, but without his poetry he would have been a footnote in Islamic jurisprudence.

At 40, he met Shams-e-Tabrizi, a wandering Sufi, and his life was transformed: he began to write poetry. Shams al-Din Tabrizi meant "the sun of faith from Tabriz". Few facts exist about him and accounts of his personality and life come from hagiographic biographies of Rumi. Legend depicts Shams as a charismatic galandar (wandering dervish) with miraculous powers. He is said to have cast a spell over all who entered his orbit; in that he "curiously resembles Socrates ... in his strong passions, his poverty, and his violent death", wrote R. A. Nicholson, who first translated Rumi into English a century ago.

Some doubted the existence of Shams, believing Rumi had invented the name as a focus of his devotional poetry, but the publication of Rumi's son's biography of his father (1937) and recent scholarship in the Islamic world have uncovered many manuscripts of the founding fathers of the Mevlevi order, including Shams's own writing, now collected in one volume, Magalat .

For Rumi, Shams was the true voice of his poetry, his Khizr , the mythical being who guided Moses and spoke the words of God through him:

"Speak, Sun of Truth and Faith, pride of Tabriz! But it is your voice that mouths all my words."

Shams travelled widely and met many famous Sufis, but in Rumi he discovered his soulmate, while Rumi met a master and teacher. By then Shams was 60. Legends abound about the spiritual coup de foudre that began their friendship: suddenly "the veil was lifted" and love took possession of Rumi's being the Platonic love of the Sufi disciple for his pir , master. Rumi took Shams to his house, where they fasted and prayed for 40 days and lived happily for two years, taking part in prayers and sama' ceremonies, the music and whirling dances of the Mevlevi Order.

Rumi wrote the ghazals , the collection of sublime lyrical poems that became Divan-e-Shams . Eventually their attachment provoked jealousy among Rumi's disciples, and Shams left. So disconsolate was the poet that his family feared for his life, and his son, Sultan Valad, went in search of the fugitive. He found him in Syria and persuaded him to return. Again the intense jealousy of Rumi's entourage drove Shams away, this time for good. He was never seen again and is believed to have been assassinated.

It seems that with the departure of Shams, Rumi ceased to write lyrical poetry, and began his Masnavi , a collection of Sufi philosophical and moral poems, which has made him famous as a mystic poet. Masnavi is more amenable to translation than the Divan-e-Shams , being often in the form of parables, stories and anecdotes.

Inevitably the love of Rumi for Shams has been interpreted by some people as homoerotic. But Lewis points out that nothing could be further from the truth: both were devout ascetic Muslims, who modelled themselves on the Prophet. Similarly, certain writers have attempted to "excise Islam from Sufism", as Lewis puts it, and present it as a "philosophy" and "pseudo-spiritualism". Lewis cites the late Idris Shah's The Sufis , as a notable example, in which God is almost totally absent.

This approach appeals to the modern mind, which finds the idea of a deity hard to accept, while longing for some spiritual basis to human existence. Sufism seems to be spirituality without pain. Yet Masnavi is often a commentary on the Koran: a quarter of the book, about 6,000 lines, are direct parapharases of Koranic verses. In Persia Masnavi has become "the Persian Koran", and the poet's popularity has soared since the 1979 revolution, perhaps because Rumi's ecumenical, gentle mysticism, with its focus on love and the tolerant spirit of Islam, contrasts with the official insistence on the minutiae of ritual observance and the oppressive use of the sharia .

After Rumi's death his disciple Hosam al-Din and his son took over the stewardship of the Mevlevi order, which has remained in the hands of his descendants. Soon his mausoleum became a shrine, with a mosque and a sama' hall built around. When in 1925 Ataturk abolished Sufi lodges in Turkey, the mausoleum was turned into a museum. Lewis's book is an excellent guide to Rumi's life, work and recent publications on him. His own rendition of 50 poems, some hitherto unpublished in Engish, whet the appetite. But nothing can convey the eloquence and passion of the original. It is worth learning Persian just to read Masnavi ; an inexhaustible source of wisdom, solace and love in an inclement world.

Shusha Guppy is a writer and London editor, Paris Review .

Rumi, Past and Present, East and West: The Life, Teachings and Poetry of Jalal Al-Din Rumi

Author - Franklin D. Lewis
ISBN - 1 85168 214 7
Publisher - Oneworld
Price - £26.99
Pages - 700

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.