Master Rumi: An Enlightening Poet for All Ages
By Dr. Rasoul Sorkhabi
Many literary, cultural and spiritual organizations have organized events to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Rumi's birth in 2007. UNESCO organized an international seminar, performance and exhibition from 6-14 September in Paris, and issued a Commemorative Medal in honor of Moulânâ Rumi. On 26 June, the United Nations Organization hosted a gathering in New York (with the participation of representatives from Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey), and the UN Secretary-General Mr. Ban Ki-moon commented: "Rumi's poetry is timeless. But its celebration at the United Nations is extremely timely. Events of recent years have created a growing gulf between communities and nations. They have led to a worrying rise in intolerance and cross-cultural tensions …
As Moulana teaches, we must be mindful of the people around us, and love them as human beings and God's creatures." Rumi's poetry reaches our heart and mind seven centuries after his death and in various lands and among different peoples because Rumi sees the Divine love shining everywhere and in all ages. His path and poetry is based on love. In the very beginning of his great work Masnawi Ma'nawi Rumi says that his poetry of love is the "root of the root of the root of all religions." He thinks of love as food ("Mâ eshgh khoreem: we eat love"); he sees love as a creative force in the fabric of the universe; he considers God as a friend (doost or yâr) and beloved (mahboob or ma'shoogh) on earth and in our heart.
Who was this ecstatic poet and enlightened teacher? What we know of Rumi's life story comes from three Persian biographies written shortly after his death, one by his son Sultan Valad and the other two by his disciples Feridoon Sepah-sâlâr and Ahmad Aflâki.
Jalâluddin Mohammad was born on 30 September 1207 in the city of Balkh (in present-day Afghanistan) which was then a political, economic and cultural center in the eastern part of the Persian kingdom. His father, Bahâ Valad, was a Muslim teacher and preacher who favored the mystic's path of experiencing rather than the philosopher's method of arguing to understand spiritual truths. His sermons criticizing the philosophers of his day angered the followers of Imam Fakhruddin Razi, the great theologian of Balkh who was also a teacher and close friend of Sultan Mohammad Khârazm-Shah. The king himself, although attended some of Bahâ Valad's sermons, apparently did not like the growing gathering around a pious, mystic preacher who criticized philosophers and kept distance from the court. Jalâluddin grew up in Balkh and was educated by his father and also by a tutor Borhânnuddin Tirmadhi (who was Bahâ Valad's disciple).
As the power of Genghis Khan and the threat of his Mongol army grew and as the supporters of the king and philosophical scholars made life difficult for Bahâ Valad in Balkh, he decided to take his family and migrate westward. This was around 1219 when Jalâluddin was barely a teenager. About three hundred people were in Bahâ Valad's caravan. They stopped at the city of Nishabour where the great Persian poet Attâr lived. Attâr was impressed by the young Jalâluddin and presented him with a copy of his Asrâr Nâmeh ("The Book of Secrets") which he had composed during his own youth.
He also told the boy's father: "The fiery words of this boy will kindle the hearts of lovers all over the world." (If this conversation did take place, Attâr's prophecy has come true.) Jalâluddin was fond of reading poetry by Attâr and Sanâ'ee (another Persian Sufi poet) and viewed himself as continuing their tradition of spiritual poetry.
Bahâ Valad and his family were in Baghdad when the Mongols sacked Balkh and massacred its people. After making a pilgrimage to Mecca, Bahâ Valad and his family moved to Anatolia (Asia Minor or Byzantine) which was then called Rum in Persian – hence the name Rumi as he is known in the Western languages. (The Eastern people usually call him Moulânâ, "our master," or Mevlana in Turkish pronunciation. The name Moulavi, "my master', often used in Iran is relatively a newer title.) Anatolia was then ruled by the Seljugh Dynasty whose Persian-speaking Muslim kings were of Turkish origin and had conquered the Byzantine kingdom in Anatolia in the 11th century. In the town of Laranda (Karaman), Rumi's mother died (her tomb still exists there), and in 1224 the eighteen-year-old Jalâluddin married a girl – Ghouhar Khâtun – whose family had accompanied Bahâ Valad's westward sojourn. They soon had two sons – Sultan Valad (who became Rumi's successor) and Alâ'eddin (who died long before Rumi). In 1228, Bahâ Valad and his family moved to the city of Konya (now in southwest Turkey) at the request of the Seljugh king Sultan Alâ'eddin Kayghobâd. A school was built there for Bahâ Valad for his classes and sermons. In 1231 Bahâ Valad died at the age of 80. Rumi took over his father's position, and shortly later, his tutor from Balkh, Borhânuddin Tirmadhi, came to Konya and undertook a systematic training of the young scholar both in the Islamic and literary subjects and in the Sufi tradition. In 1233, Rumi was sent to Aleppo and Damascus (both now in Syria) to study with the great teachers of the day. Seven years later, Rumi returned to Konya. A scholar par excellence Rumi became a popular preacher and teacher in Konya with numerous students and followers. However, his wife died of illness and shortly later, in 1241, his teacher Borhânnuddin passed away too. Rumi then married Kira Khâtun, a widow with a child from a previous marriage. This second marriage brought two more children (one son and a daughter) to Rumi's family.
29 November 1244 is a second birthday for Rumi. On that day, he met Shams Tabrizi in Konya. Shams (literally "Sun") was a wandering dervish born in Tabriz, a city in northwest Iran, and had led a long life of traveling, practicing and studying with Sufis. His lectures collected in Maghâlât Shams ("Discourse of Shams") demonstrate that Shams was a learned person with deep insight and wisdom. In their first meeting, Rumi (then 37) and Shams (possibly 60) fell for each other, and subsequent conversations and retreats (a tradition called Soh'bat among the Sufis) with Shams revolutionized Rumi's lifestyle and perspective. He was transformed from an Âlim (scholar) to an Ârif (mystic), from a preacher to a poet. After that Rumi seldom read books and drastically reduced his teaching schedule. Instead he spent his days on murâghibah (meditation), samâ (music and dancing which were later developed by his son Sultan Valad into the tradition of the Whirling Dervishes), and mushâ'irah (poetry). Rumi's disciples resented Shams who, in their opinion, had kidnapped their master. Once Shams left Konya for Damascus in protest of the disciples' misbehavior toward him; Rumi dispatched his son to bring him back. Shams returned but after a while the same problems surfaced up. In 1248, Shams disappeared once and for all. (Some believe that he was killed by the angry disciples and that his tomb lies in Konya; many scholars doubt this to be true.) Shams' disappearance devastated Rumi. He went to Damascus twice in search of Shams, but finally concluded that Shams was within him. In years to come, Rumi found two other soul brothers, Salâhuddin Zarkub (death in 1258), a goldsmith and a former disciple of Borhânuddin Tirmadhi, and Husâmuddin Chelebi (death in 1284), a young disciple of Rumi.
Rumi's poems (98% in Persian and about two percents in Arabic) are collected in two great works: (1) Diwân Shams ("The Poetry Book of Shams") or Diwân Kabir ("The Great Book of Poetry") which contains some 3500 lyric odes (Ghazal) and nearly 2000 quatrains (Rubâi'yât) and is dedicated to Shams Tabrizi. This book is full of ecstatic love poems and in many of the poems Rumi addresses himself with the pen-name of Khamoosh ("Silent") in many poems. (2) Masnawi Ma'nawi ("Rhymed Couplets on Spiritual Matters") is a six-volume book of didactic poetry (stories and parables) which Rumi recited to Husâm Chelebi during the last decade of his life. Many of the Rumi translations in English available on the market today (and with varying quality) are all selections from these two works.
Rumi died on 17 December 1273, aged 67. People from diverse religions and ethnicities – Muslims, Christians, Jews, Persians, Turks, Arabs and Greek, the rich, the poor, the elite and the illiterate, women and men – all came to his funeral and mourned the loss of their great spiritual master. Buried in Konya, Rumi's tomb (called "Ghobat al-Khidhra" the Green Dome, or "Yashil Turbe" in Turkish) has become a shrine for thousands of visitor and pilgrims each year. 17 December is celebrated as Sheb-i Arus ("Wedding Night" symbolizing reunion with the Divine) in Konya in the spirit of Rumi's will that those who come to his tomb should not cry and grieve but rejoice in prayer, poetry and contemplation.
It is interesting to note that Rumi was born on Sunday and this year 30 September (his birthday) also falls on Sunday. Rumi died at sunset on Sunday. This symbolism of his birth and death on a day named after the Sun is beautifully consistent with the place of Moulânâ Rumi's personality and poetry among us. For seven centuries, his art and vision has shined like a bright, warm sun upon our minds and hearts. Master Rumi is an enlightening poet for all ages and peoples.