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The Icon and the Man: In Quest of the Historical Rumi

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I would like to thank the Foundation for Iranian Studies, and its Board, especially Dr. Gholam-Reza Afkhami, for inviting me to be with you here tonight, and Prof. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, for that very kind introduction. Looking at the list of eminently distinguished speakers who have spoken at this podium before me, many of whom have been my teachers in various ways, I am truly honored and deeply humbled to be standing here before you.


The Foundation for Iranian Studies has repeatedly been a source of support and encouragement for me, by publishing the first article I ever wrote in Persian, by honoring and encouraging my dissertation, and by consistently publishing excellent articles and books on many aspects of Iranian Studies throughout the past quarter century. Perhaps not everyone here has thought about the difficulties for American graduate students of Persian language and Iranian civilization in the 1980s and 1990s. There were virtually no opportunities to go to Iran for Persian language study in the 1980s and into the early 90s. Though the interest in works of political and military science increased after the Iranian Revolution, there was not a tremendous amount of interest in Persian literature or Iranian, Afghan and Tajik cultures, even though these fields had been growing in the 1960s and 70s, with the establishment of academic societies like the American Institute of Iranian Studies and the Society for Iranian Studies in the late 1960s. Although several American universities had long-standing and prestigious Iranian Studies programs in place, some positions were allowed to lapse, and so, the work of the Foundation for Iranian Studies, including its recognition of doctoral dissertations in Iranian Studies, the fostering of new scholarship through the journal Iran Nameh and the Economic and Social Development Series, the preserving of important memoirs through its Oral History project; the creation and support of social initiatives for Iranian women and children, both at home and in the diaspora; all of this has played a significant role in sustaining and forwarding the field, and for that we are all in its debt.

I would also like to thank the audience for coming here this evening to celebrate the renewal of the spring as per the ancient tradition of greater Iran or Persia, Nowruz. The vernal equinox is an eminently logical celestial event to celebrate and to mark the calendar by. So, whether of Iranian heritage or not, I would like to wish you and your families and friends a very joyous New Day, and hope that you will enjoy health, mirth and wealth in abundance in the coming year. Contemporary enthusiasts of Rumi in Iran use the following line of verse from Rumi’s poems to congratulate one another on the occasion of Nowruz (in this poem, “lovers” refers, of course, to the mystics):


‛ayd bar ‛âšeqân mobârak bâd
‛âšeqân ‛ayd-etân mobârak bâd

Let the festival be a blessing to the lovers
Lovers, a happy celebration to you!


UNESCO has declared 2007 a commemorative year for Jalâl al-Din Rumi, in honor of the 800th anniversary of his birth in 1207. This officially makes Rumi an icon of not just Persian – or Turkish – national patrimony, or even Islamic civilization, but of global cultural heritage. We should be thrilled to see this strong interest in the poet and thinker Rumi, should we not? Even with some distortion, the popular interest in Rumi is bound to invigorate the religious life or the literary life of Americans and others who read him. Sa‛di may have been introduced to American readers at third-hand, via German, by Emerson, through a somewhat distorted lens, yes, but it is fascinating to think that Emerson’s “Sa‛di” has made an inspirational mark on the transcendentalist who made such a huge mark on American thought and letters.

But, let us examine more closely some of the things we tell ourselves we know about Rumi, and why they are important to us in our construction of who Rumi was and what he means. It is by now somewhat of an axiom that when we write history, we project our present on the past, even for those historians who strive to be meticulous about not misusing the past to present ends. The very choice of subject – what we highlight as important in the vast mass of detail that is the past – and how we then frame and narrate these at first disconnected events into a story, is something that we are perhaps subconsciously drawn to because if fulfills some need we feel in the present.

Writing in about 1262, as he was beginning his great narrative poem, the Masnavi-ye ma‛navi, “Couplets of true meaning,” Rumi already warned us of this propensity :


har kasi az ẓann-e xod šod yâr-e man
az darun-e man na-jost asrâr-e man

All befriend me hearing what they want to hear
None seek those secrets that I bear within

These words emanate from the reed flute, in the opening lines known as the Nay-nâme, or Reed’s Tale, which introduces the entire poem, indeed the nature of the human situation, as a tale of separation, told in the plaintive voice of that instrument:


be-šnow in nay chun šekâyat mi-konad
az jodâ’i-hâ hekâyat mi-konad


بشنو این نی چون شکایت می کند
از جدائی ها حکایت می کند

Listen as this reed pipes its plaint
Unfolds its tales of separation


It is only relatively recently, after century upon century of this poem being recited in Persian everywhere from Bosnia to Bengal, and after scores of commentaries were written on it from the fourteenth century all the way through the twentieth, that we discovered we had been reading the very first line of his magnum opus in a somewhat corrupted form. It had always been thought to go like this :


be-šnow az nay chun hekâyat mi-konad
az jodâ’i-hâ shekâyat mikonad


بشنو از نی چون حکایت می کند 
از جدائیها شکایت می کند


Hear from the reed pipe as it tells a tale
Complaining of separations


The difference, perhaps, is not large – specialists might argue the minutiae of the matter without the general reader’s understanding being much affected. And here perhaps we should recall that it was for the general reader that the Masnavi was composed, even though Rumi does complain about his audience, wishing for initiated listeners to whom he could reveal the greater depths of mystical understanding. But if we could be wrong about the very first words of this poem for so many centuries, what else might we have got wrong? And why did it take so long to perceive this error – and other errors about Rumi’s biography – as the historical errors which they are? Worse still, having seen certain errors, why do we – and even the scholars and researchers who work on Rumi are sometimes included in this “we” – choose to ignore discrepancies, or inconvenient facts, that would compel us to change our cherished narratives about the poet? For example, a certain poem previously attributed to Rumi, and often repeated as evidence of his ecumenical tolerance, we now suspect did not belong to him, as it does not appear in the oldest manuscript, or in the critical edition of his poems published by Foruzânfar. I therefore hesitate to repeat the poem, lest I perpetuate this association, but it is this:


če tadbir ay mosalmânân ke man xwod-râ nami-dânam
na tarsâ na yahud-am man na gabr-am na mosalmân


O Muslims, what is to be done! I do not recognize myself
I am neither Christian, nor Jewish, I am not Parsi or Muslim


Since 1898 when Nicholson published and translated this,[1] it has become an emblematic, an iconic, statement of Rumi’s thought. It was therefore easier for some to confront the disappointing evidence that this poem is not in the oldest manuscripts of the poet’s work with attitudes like, it should have been by Rumi, or it does not matter if it circulates in his name, since the poem nevertheless illustrates his thought, than it was to correct the attribution. Would scholars do the same with a misattribution to Chaucer, or to Shakespeare? If the assumption of many spiritually minded people in the West is correct – that Rumi has much to teach modern people, even if they come from wholly different traditions and contexts, about how to live authentically and spiritually in our present – then it is a matter of some moment whether what we are listening to is really Rumi, or a poem by someone who lived 150 years after him. Beyond that, even with the poetry that is really composed by him, we ought to continually challenge ourselves: Is what we are hearing Rumi say, that which he actually meant to say, or is it what we wish he would say, or need him to be saying?


This is, ultimately, a hermeneutical problem. Readers of Rumi come to him from different faith communities, or from an unchurched and secular background, or indeed from a tradition of agnosticism or atheism. Even contemporary Muslims, who share in the faith community of Rumi, inhabit a substantially different mental universe, usually with only the remotest sense of the intellectual problems and traditions which informed Rumi’s thought. How can we squint into the past, the deep past, and see past the secularization of our societies and of our minds, past – if not the death of God – the recognition of the relativism of religious truth and the concomitant ethic of religious tolerance, past globalization and widespread education, past electrification and modern medicine, past revolutionary notions about gender equality, ideals of a classless social order, and so on? The glass through which we gaze at Rumi is somewhat obscured by the dross of time, because the world has changed, and when we read Rumi now, we project his meaning onto our changed world. There is nothing wrong with this refraction, as long as we realize it is happening. One way to do this is to try to situate him in his historical context, so that the contours of what he has said, and also what he has not said, come into sharper focus for modern readers. Likewise, tracing the changes in the reception of his poems and teachings, how he has been viewed and even used in particular times and places, may help us to isolate a timeless essence from a temporal appearance.


We have already alluded to UNESCO and the proclamation of 2007 as the year of Rumi, which process was initiated by a petition of the Turkish government; because Rumi lived there most of his adult life, Turkey lays claim to Rumi as a native son, and as part of its cultural patrimony – its gift to world civilization. Iran, the largest Persian-speaking country, also claims him, because he was a Persian-speaking poet, and because he is a symbol of Islam that is accepted and celebrated in the West, one who is thought of as neither theocratic nor legalistic, and therefore not threatening, in his outlook. Afghanistan also claims him, because Rumi’s descendants claimed his origins in Balkh, located in the north of what is now Afghanistan. Since he lived from age five for a time in Samarqand, Uzbekistan may one day stake its claim to him. And yet modern scholarship, based upon a reading of what Rumi’s father actually says quite clearly, concludes that he was probably born in Vaxsh, a small town that has since disappeared from the map, but that was located in what would today be Tajikistan.

And the UN, we might note, though it follows what is described as the Common Era calendar, has in fact adopted the dating of the Christian Gregorian calendar, a solar calendar which begins in the conventionally accepted year of the birth of Jesus. But Rumi measured his life according to the Islamic lunar calendar, which has 354, not 365 days, and which is calibrated to the hijra, or migration of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina. So if we say that Rumi was born on 30 September 1207, we can rightfully declare 2007 as the 800th anniversary of his birth. But if we follow the lunar calendar by which Rumi measured his lifespan, he was born in 604 of the hijra, and by that calendar, his 800th birth anniversary has come and gone already, in December of 1983. Nor would we need to wait until 2073 to commemorate the 800th anniversary of his passing, but can prepare for the anniversary of that “shab-e ‛ors” (or “wedding night,” per the terminology of the Sufis), when the human soul of Rumi rejoined to its divine beloved, in 2050 A.D./C.E. which corresponds to the lunar year 1472 of the Hijra, 800 years after Rumi’s death in 672 A.H. Even a rudimentary thing, like how we measure time, effects our vantage point and what we see.


What is it, then, from our modern, globalized, vantage point, that so deeply attracts us to Mowlânâ Jalâl al-Din Mohammad, son of Bahâ al-Din Valad, from a family of Sunni Muslim preachers? Is it his exoticness? His canonization into mystical sainthood? Why should this particular man’s quest for reunion with God in the 13th century mean so much to us? There are, after all, plenty of other men and women who lived in the 13th century, who quested for a vision of the divine visage, for a direct apprehension of the core reality of the universe, for a way to capture the rarely experienced mysterium tremendum at the center of our being, and to find the all-orienting force that would ontologically transform them and remake the world?


Rumi does enjoy a reputation as a saint, and at his tomb in Konya today, though the government maintains and operates it as the Rumi Museum (Mevlana Müzesi), hundreds of needy supplicants – the ailing, the penitent, and the hopeful, those who know what is in his poetry and those who have almost no idea – visit this spot to offer prayers and receive the spiritual blessings, or baraka, associated with pilgrimage to a saint’s shrine – not just a local saint in this case, but one of national, indeed, international reputation.

He is indeed, part of the tourist industry in Konya and Turkey. Rumi’s own practice of contemplative turning, the samâ‛ – a moving orison, or rhythmic meditation – has entranced both the dancer and the observer; it was de rigeur for European travelers to Istanbul in the nineteenth century to pay a visit to the ceremonies of these “Whirling Dervishes,” and if you visit Konya today, you can buy little pottery figurines of a whirling dervish, or of the musicians who perform for the samâ‛ – icons of this spiritual dance and spiritual place – to take back home as souvenirs.


But we might ask ourselves, in the words of Yeats, how can we know the dancer from the dance? The answer is through the poems and teachings that Rumi bequeathed to us. It is because of these that Reynold Nicholson, the Cambridge University professor who devoted forty years of his life to study of the poetry of Rumi, has called Rumi perhaps the greatest mystical poet in any language. Without denigrating Nicholson’s experience with the poems, one may wonder if there really is an a priori category of “mystical poet,” and if so, can the people in this category be hierarchically evaluated, world’s best mystical poet, world’s top 15 other-worldly seers? For example, in Rumi’s own chronological, geographical and theological proximity lived the Sufi Ibn ‛Arabī, who died in 1240, when Rumi was in his early 30s. Like Rumi, Ibn ‛Arabī has modern followers, both within the Islamic tradition and outside it. It may well be agreed that his influence on later mystical thought was more pervasive and profound than was Rumi’s.
And then, there are striking parallels in the career of some other near contemporaries of Rumi, from the Christian tradition:


Francis of Assissi (1182-1226), who was born a generation earlier in Italy, and around whose saintly reputation and rules of spiritual discipline a lasting confraternity – the Franciscan Order – was formed;
Meister Eckhart of Hochheim (1260-1328), born during Rumi’s lifetime, who would come to be known and revered for his mystical sermons.
Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), who would have been seven when Rumi died. Dante composed the central expression in poetic form of his own religious tradition’s spiritual journey, the Divine Comedy, just as Rumi’s Masnavi became the central poetic expression of the Persianate Sufi tradition. There are further parallels: Dante’s poems were inspired by Beatrice, whereas Rumi’s poems were inspired by Shams. Both Dante’s Divine Comedy and Rumi’s Masnavi are conceived as journey poems, provoked by a profound sense of loss. Both poets lived in exile from their native land. Both poets chose to write in a non-conventional language – Dante chose Italian rather than Latin for his poem, after having argued in an earlier treatise for the eloquence of the vulgar, or rather vernacular, tongue.
With the Masnavi, Rumi wrote a mystical and very non-traditional commentary of the Qur’an, quoting hundreds of verses in Arabic from the Quran in Persian meter –which is no easy feat since the prosody of the two languages differs. The Masnavi has even been called by later writers, “the Qur’an in the Persian tongue” (Qor’ân dar zabân-e Pahlavi, but apparently not by Jâmi, as tradition would have it). By comparison to the Divine Comedy, which is structured spatially, and logically organized on the basis of the cosmic topography of inferno – purgatorio – paradiso, the Masnavi of Rumi has been seen to be discursive and digressive, undirected and frequently changing the narrative focus.


Perhaps. But I might make use of Rumi for another purpose, and challenge you to compare the theologies of Dante and Rumi, and the extent to which each text can speak to a modern reader beyond the particular theological presumptions of the author’s day and religion. To come to a better understanding of Rumi and the mystical tradition he represents, it will probably not help to claim an exclusive hierophanic status as sacred or mystic poet of his age, though considering him in juxtaposition to his near contemporaries, and by approaching him in the context of that wider period, we may indeed come to deeper insights.


It has frequently been repeated of late that Rumi is the best-selling poet in America. It would not be the first time this happened. The best-known Persian poet in English until recently was, of course, ‛Omar Khayyam, whose Rubáiyát, translated by Edward FitzGerald in 1859, was discovered by Alfred Lord Tennyson and Dante Gabriel Rosetti and eventually became perhaps the most successful poetry translation into English, both critically and commercially. By the early 20th century, there were Omar Khayyam society’s all throughout the English-speaking world. My own grandfather belonged to one of them in Washington DC in the 1930s. Khayyam’s carpe diem poetry of wine and love appealed to many secular-minded people as the theological teachings of an earlier age began to lose some of their conviction. It is undoubtedly true that versions of Rumi in English have sold well over a million copies, which is astounding for poetry in North America. So, even if more copies of Shakespeare and Dickinson, Whitman and Eliot, and Bly and Angelou, or other canonical poets, are sold to high school and college classes and theatrical companies around the country, we can certainly say that Rumi is the best-selling 13th century poet in America, and that is in itself quite remarkable, indeed.

Unlike some other translated Persian poets, the orientation of Rumi’s poetry was completely toward religion and mysticism, and he resonates particularly well – at least as he has been presented in translation – with the “New Age” movement, and a non-denominational outlook toward religions, in preference for a concern with personal spirituality. Rumi had been introduced to German readers in the 19th century as a pantheist, and adaptations of his poems by Friedrich Rückert were also used as the lyrics in the lieder of composers from central Europe. The German philosopher Hegel had included Rumi with high praise in his Enzyklopaedie der philosophischen Wissenschaften im Grundriss – an encyclopedia of world history and thought. Walt Whitman also seems to have had a brief acquaintance with Rumi’s work via translation. But Rumi was largely ignored in English, until around the turn of the 20th century, when Nicholson did some translations of Rumi into English and published them with facing Persian translation, and a Presbyterian minister from Scotland – wishing desperately to combat what he saw as the immoral, epicurean attitudes of Khayyam’s poetry – tried to call the attention of those English readers who seemed to enjoy the vogue for Khayyam and Persian poetry so much, to the more morally-minded and God-intoxicated Rumi. Perhaps this is why, in translation at least, we tend to think of Rumi as an older wise teacher who knows calmly how to guide us, whereas half of his poetry is frenetic and frantic, searching through an experience of overwhelming loss for a cathartic vision. Let me refresh your memory with one such poem:


če dânestam ke in sowdâ ma-râ z-in sân konad majnun[2]

How could I know this melancholy

would make me so crazy,
make of my heart a hell


of my two eyes raging rivers?
How could I know a torrent would
snatch me out of nowhere away,
Toss me like a ship upon a sea of blood,
that waves would crack that ship’s ribs board by board,
tear with endless pitch and yaw each plank
that a leviathan would rear its head,
gulp down that ocean’s water,
that such an endless ocean could dry up like a desert,
that the sea-quenching serpent could then split that desert
could jerk me of a sudden, like Korah, with the hand of wrath
deep in to a pit?
When these transmutations came about
no trace remained of that desert or the sea
How should I know how it all happened
since how drowned within Howlessness?
What a multiplicity of how could I knows!
But I don’t know -
for to counter that sea
rushing in my mouth
I swallowed a froth of opium


Clash of civilizations


Recently, 1993 to be precise, in the midst of the war in Bosnia, a theory was postulated to the effect that by their inner natures, Western civilization and Muslim civilization may be predisposed to perpetual conflict. Samuel Huntington dubbed this theory “The Clash of Civilizations,” and it seems at times to inform and animate the thinking of some influential people in both the West and the Muslim world. Many recent books echo this thesis in one way or another.[3] 


But are there intractable characteristics and qualities of cultural or civilizational outlook, deeper and more philosophical than the material conflicts of competition for resources, and the psychological need for dignity and equity, etc., that destine us as societies to clash? Is there really some essential unchanging outlook, some way we are brought up, a particular history and psychology that defines the character and characteristics of a civilization and predisposes us to act in a certain way, and in particular to resent to the point of belligerence other societies that see the world differently? Most people would probably deny that their own particular civilization is monolithic, simply because viewed close up, the diversity and internal fault lines, the differences of opinion and tradition within a tradition are manifestly evident. But lack of knowledge of other civilizations may make them seem monolithic to outsiders, viewed unsympathetically from a distance. But, in fact, are there not increasing numbers of people around the world who participate in both civilizations, whether by virtue of bi-lingualism, inter-marriage, commerce, the movement and displacement of peoples, the wide diffusion of shared technologies, processes and educational practices? If we have been undergoing globalization, then we are in fact living in a hybrid civilization with multiple loyalties and outlooks that compete within each of us, and not only across civilizational boundaries, if it is even possible to demarcate those clearly? By studying deeply the thought and ideas of individuals from the civilizations with which one is supposedly in conflict, some of our essentialist notions may be dispelled or at least deconstructed into rational competition for resources, recognition and opportunity.

In that same year that the Clash of Civilizations was discovered, Richard Brookhiser, a senior editor of the National Review, visited Rumi’s shrine in Konya and came under the spell of Rumi’s ecumenical and understanding spirit. As he result, he wrote, in an article entitled “Islamic Fundamentalism Revisited,” that American politicians should not consider Islam as a monolithic fundamentalist danger.[4] Here Rumi has been used again for a present purpose, as an icon of peace, an idea that has been reduced to a graphic or a symbol, and which can be deployed for particular purposes, such as dispelling the notion that Islam is monolithically fundamendalist.  

The former Iranian president proposed in 1998 that we take up just such “a dialogue of civilizations” to avoid that clash of civilizations, and Rumi, of course, has been made to serve as a bridge for that civilizational dialogue. While all this may be a heavy and unanticipated burden for a 13th-century poet to bear, it is not entirely without historical legitimacy. This “dialogue of civilizations” is in some ways a continuation or revival of the notion of the convivencia of medieval Andalusia and Norman Sicily, where under Muslim rule scholars of Jewish, Christian and Muslim background participated in a common scholarly life of translation (mostly from Arabic into Latin), of theology and philosophy and poetry, and a common civilization was created. Or the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s interfaith temple, the Din-e elâhi, where men of Catholic, Shiite, Hindu, and other faiths engaged in cross-tradition theological conversations.

In Rumi’s day in Seljuk Anatolia – what is today Turkey – the population spoke Greek, Turkish, Arabic, Armenian and Persian. Rumi interacted with Georgian and Armenian princesses and queens, with Greek and Turkic artisans, with Turkish sultans promoting Persian culture, and so on. Certainly he thought at one level that Islam as a religion was a superior way of life, and that the institutions of government should reflect that attitude, but at another level, he lived in a pluralist world and preached a rather ecumenical message that was listened to by Christians as well as Muslims, observant believers, as well as doubters and back-sliders.

And even if this project of making Rumi a bridge to defuse conflict between two civilizations were lacking in historical legitimacy, would that be a reason not to use Rumi as an icon of peace? In other words, if Rumi’s image has an irenic effect, for solid historical reasons or by accident, should we not make use of him to promote peace?

East and West, Past and Present


If the West has latched on to Rumi as an icon of this or that, the Persian tradition has done very much the same thing, in different ways. That is to say, in the years after his death, books purporting to be narratives or collections of recollected oral history about his life, began to appear. There was Solṭân Valad, the son of Rumi, who wrote in 1291 about his father and grandfather, expressing in verse, sometimes archetypally, events that would otherwise perhaps have sounded more mundane. There was Feridun Sepahsâlâr, writing his Resâle about Rumi circa 1318, and there was Shams al-Din Aflâki, who collected oral reports around the same time, finishing his work in 1353, a full 80 years after Rumi’s death. Later authors, like Jâmi and Dowlatshâh, writing at the end of the 15th century, some two hundred years and more after the poet died, rounded out the hagiographical process. They were concerned to depict a great saint and his emblematic life, and not with the kinds of information which today we tend to associate with biography. But sometimes they do provide some of the life details we would dearly like to know. There is a large question about whether those hagiographies can be trusted on the details, but we must rely upon them to some extent, because such biographical details are rarely to be found elsewhere in contemporary sources, beyond the few details found in the writings of Rumi, his father, and Shams.

We know that we cannot always trust the hagiographies, however. These works tell us that Rumi met with the mystic poet ‛Attâr in Nayshâpur, who passed on the mantle of greatest mystical Persian poet to the young boy. This did not happen, because Rumi himself never talks about it, nor does his son; it is a legend started many years after Rumi’s death. Another legend, that Rumi’s father was from Balkh, was started by Soltân Valad, Rumi’s son, who wanted to lay claim to an illustrious family heritage; this claim helped him to promote the Mevlevi dervish order he was systematically organizing. But Rumi’s father was not famous and did not live in Balkh. These hagiographies tell us various stories about how Shams came to Konya and met Rumi and either burned his books or cast them into the water, or asked a question that made Rumi swoon away and faint: a rudimentary theological question, who was greater the mystic Bâyazid, or the prophet, Muhammad. The point of these miraculous stories is to illustrate that Shams had special powers, and that their meeting was a cosmic event, the joining of two oceans, not the meeting of two people. But Shams briefly explains this meeting in his writings (Maqâlât), very sweetly, but not as a miraculous event. In any case, this was not even their first meeting, as Shams makes it clear that they had met fifteen years prior in Syria, while Rumi was a student.

The hagiographer Aflâki relates reports to the effect that because of the jealousy of the disciples, Shams was murdered, and again in miraculous circumstances: Shams cried out, causing each member of the murdering cabal to fall unconscious, and when they revived, the body was gone, with just a drop of blood on the stones where they had stabbed him. Once again, it unlikely in the extreme that a murder took place, but even if it had, this was certainly not the way it would have happened. But the tale somehow fits the legendary vita of how a saint might be killed.

Well, if Rumi has been, and is being, obscured East and West, left and right, should we even bother to combat this phenomenon?

Who is Rumi?


What identities did this Rumi hold? Most of us do belong to different professional, communal, intellectual, family, and social circles – and as such have simultaneous multiple overlapping identities. We are not one thing alone, and to understand any utterance we make, or anything we write, it helps to know the context of our comment, and the discourse in which we intend it to participate.

Rumi was of course, Muslim, but what does that mean? Not just a Muslim, but a Sunni Muslim (which is to say he was not Shi’i, though like most Shi’is and Sunnis, he did hold ‛Ali in especial reverence). He was trained in and followed the Hanafi school of law (i.e., he was not Mâliki, Shâfi’i or Hanbali, though he often was influenced by or admired others who did follow those other schools). He was a member of the ulema, the class of religious scholars (meaning he was not a farmer, not an artisan, and though he held the ear of several important people of state, and received state patronage, he did not work for the government). More specifically, he was trained, like his father, as a popular preacher (vā`eẓ). He has furthermore been identified as a ṣufi, in his case meaning someone who shares a mystical technique or approach to the reading of, and living out, the Qur’an and Islamic teachings. Sufism is a catch-all term that means different things and must itself be unpackaged. It was associated in Rumi’s case with ascetic practices – the term probably comes from the wearing of coarse wool cloaks (ṣuf) – and Rumi certainly did engage in extended fasting and other spiritual / physical disciplines as part of his quest for God. However, it more broadly came to mean that, in addition to following the path of behavior established in the Shari`a or Islamic law, one would also follow another word for “path” – the ṭariqa, a mode of insight and experiencing God that goes beyond the acquisition of religious and legal knowledge. It might in some contexts refer to wandering mendicant dervishes, who shaved their heads and eyebrows and beard and practiced reliance on god, or begging. It might designate a community of disciples who train with a particular master, spending time in his company (soḥbat) for many years learning his behavior and his teachings, and following specific rules. It might denote a person who is engaged in a contemplative gnostic quest to apprehend the Godhead – ‛erfân. And it was most certainly associated in this latter sense with Rumi after his time with Shams.


Ethnically Rumi was most probably Persian, though he himself does not make an issue of it. He wrote primarily in Persian, which was obviously his mother tongue, though he also wrote a good deal of poetry and prose in Arabic, and he even composed a little bit of verse with lines in Turkish or in demotic Greek. Though he would not have seen himself in terms of modern day nationalities or citizens of particular nation-states, this has not stopped various countries claiming him as their own, as I earlier alluded. How did Rumi identify himself? Well, we might try to understand that from the following lines of his Masnavi (1:1205-7):


ham zabâni xwiši o payvandi-ast 
mard bâ nâ-mahremân čun bandi-ast
ay basâ hendu vo tork-e ham zabân
ay basâ do tork čun bi-gânegân
pas zabân-e mahrami xwod digar ast
ham-deli az ham-zabâni behtar ast


A language shared brings kinship and a bond
But talk with folk of unlike mind’s a chain:

Often Turk and Hindu can communicate
Whereas two Turks may meet and feel estranged
The lingo the like-minded share is best!
Better a common heart than common tongue!

As part of this question of identity, there is even the question of what to call him. In the West we now refer to him as “Rumi,” meaning in Persian, from “Rome” or Byzantium, that is Anatolia, though this might also be said of thousands of other people of the pre-modern era. His given name was Moḥammad, his title was Jalâl al-Din (“the Majesty of the Faith”), his followers called him “Mowlavi” (an Arabic term used also in Persian, and later in Urdu, meaning “my master”) or Mowlânâ, meaning “our master.” In Turkish this is pronounced as Mevlana, the name by which he is generally known in Turkey, while Rumi is a name that is peculiar to him in the modern West.


Life of Rumi


What, then, can we say historically, not iconically, about his life? This historical biography may not reveal his inner secrets (az darun-e man na-jost asrâr-e man), but it may help to dispel some of our misconceptions (az ẓann-e xwod šod yâr-e man). The hagiographical sources portray Rumi’s father, Bahâ’ al-Din-e Valad, as one of the most important Hanafi scholars and theologians of his day, placing his family origins in Balkh (near Mazâr-e Sharif in modern Afghanistan), one of the four great urban centers of the Eastern Iranian cultural sphere in the pre-Mongol period. When Rumi was born in 1207, however, Bahâ’ al-Din was living in Vaxsh, a small town located in what is now Tajikistan, acting as an itinerant preacher (vā‘eẓ) and religious scholar. There is no indication that Bahâ’ al-Din belonged to any established Sufi order, nor do we know of any procedures by which a disciple might formally affiliate to Bahâ’ al-Din, though a small group of disciples does seem to have gathered around him. Bahâ’ al-Din kept a journal (Ma‘âref) to monitor his own spiritual development (a genre of writing known among Persian-speaking Sufis as ruz-nâme, or daybook, not intended for public distribution), and this shows him much concerned with ascetic exercises, dreams, mystical visions and insights into the divinely-infused workings of nature. Inspired by dreams, Bahâ’ al-Din began to sign his fatwas as “Soltân al-‘olamâ” (“King of the Clerics”), an unauthorized title which the local religious judge (qâżi) in Vaxsh would erase. The resulting conflict, which can be dated to about 1208 – as well, perhaps, as larger questions of political instability in the region – led Bahâ’ al-Din to move to Samarqand, where Rumi recalls living during the Khwarazmshah’s siege of the city, circa 1212. 


Although the hagiographers give the Mongol invasion of Balkh in 1220-21 as the reason for the family’s emigration, it would seem that Bahâ’ al-Din left eastern Persia (Khorasan) with much of his family by about 1216, probably heading for one of the princedoms of Anatolia where Persian was the court language. He was able to secure a position as teacher or preacher near Erzincan under the patronage of the Manguchak ruler Fakhr al-Din Bahrâmshâh (r. c1155–c1218). According to the dates conveniently, but perhaps not entirely accurately, provided by the hagiographical accounts mentioned above, it would appear that sometime around 1222, when Rumi was fifteen, his father obtained a similar position of preacher under the western Seljuk empire in the provincial town of Karaman (Lârende). Although the Seljuks were of Turkic ethnicity, they had adopted Persian language and customs about two centuries prior to this, and became great patrons of Islamic culture and Persian literature, attracting many scholars from eastern Persia, as they fled the on-rushing Mongol invasions in the years after Rumi and his family arrived. Here in Anatolia, 1500 miles away, Rumi lived in diaspora, as an exile, never to see his homeland again, until his death in 672 / 1273, at the age of 67 by the solar calendar, or 68 by the lunar calendar. 


During the approximately seven years the family spent in Karaman, Rumi’s mother, Mo’mene Khâtun, died, and Rumi, at the age of about 17, married Gowhar Khâtun, with whom he had two sons, including Soltân Valad (1226-1312), who would later compose a large body of Persian poetry expounding his father’s teachings, and a poem telling the family story.


By 1229, Bahâ’ al-Din had been invited by the Sultan, ‘Alâ al-Din Kayqobâd (r. 1219-1237) to transfer to the Seljuk capital in Konya, where he taught until his death two years later. In 1232, Bahâ’ al-Din’s protégé, a man named Borhân al-Din Mohaqqeq, arrived from Termez to take over the leadership of the disciples. Rumi was sent to Aleppo and Damascus to be educated, and he apparently also underwent a period of retreat and fasting under Borhân al-Din’s direction. When Borhân al-Din died in 1241, Rumi had assumed leadership of Bahâ’ al-Din’s classes and the circle of disciples in Konya.
Rumi’s teaching and spiritual praxis was noticeably altered under the influence of Shams al-Din-e Tabrizi, an itinerant religious scholar and mystic who came to Konya in 1244. It was perhaps under Shams’s influence that Rumi began composing poetry. Shams’s talks (preserved in Maqâlât-e Shams-e Tabrizi) demonstrate his strong desire to create an authentic form of spirituality that dispensed with pretensions and imitative piety. This attitude possibly detracted from Rumi’s reputation as a pious preacher, even though the ostensible goal of Shams’ spirituality was to closely follow the example of the Prophet Muhammad. The curtailing of Rumi’s teaching activities to devote more attention to Shams also led to resentment on the part of some of his disciples. Apparently in response to this situation, Shams left Konya abruptly in the spring of 1246, sending Rumi into a state of despair during which he ceased composing poetry. After about a year’s absence, Soltân Valad found Shams in Syria and convinced him to return to Konya. Shams, despite a marriage to a member of Rumi’s extended household, soon disappeared again, in late 1247 or early 1248, never again to return to Konya. Among the hagiographical accounts collected about a century later, as we have seen, there is some suggestion that Shams was murdered in Konya by jealous disciples. However, Shams had threatened to leave, and there is evidence to suggest that he returned to his native Tabriz and was buried there.


Rumi searched desperately for Shams, expressing his deep sense of loss in frenetic poems (mostly ghazals) that cast Shams in the role of spiritual guide, and were even frequently spoken through the persona of Shams of Tabriz (e.g., Divan 2056). Eventually Rumi found his own voice, after internalizing what he had learned from Shams, and even addressed other individuals, first Ṣalâḥ al-Din the Goldsmith (d. 1258) and then Ḥosâm al-Din Chelebi (d. c. 1284), to whom Rumi’s Masnavi is addressed, as spiritual mentors. Throughout his life, Rumi maintained cordial relations with several Seljuk Sultans, especially ‘Ezz al-Din Kay Kâ’us (r. 1246 or 1248-1260) and Seljuk ministers, such as Mo‘in al-Din Parvâne (executed 1277), several of whom expressed their devotion and extended their patronage to him.


The Mevlevi (Mowlaviye) order of “whirling dervishes,” founded in the last quarter of the 13th century through the efforts of Soltân Valad, bases itself on Rumi’s poetry and his practice of “turning” to music and verse (samâ‘). Rumi’s mausoleum in Konya, though now a museum, has functioned as a shrine and center of the Mevlevi order, which has been particularly influential in the history of Sufism in Anatolia, the Balkans and the Levant. Though this order was not active in South Asia, Rumi’s poetry was widely read in the subcontinent and frequently commented upon by sufis of other orders.

Rumi’s poetry and teachings have continued to exert an important influence on the thinking of Islamic modernists, such as Muhammad Iqbal in Pakistan, and Abdol Karim Soroush in Iran, who found Rumi provided support for projects that they found important with respect to Islamic social, intellectual and political revival. Let us review the nature of Rumi’s writings, since they provide direct evidence of what he thought, and sometimes give little pieces of evidence about his life. Rumi’ s Masnavi-ye ma‘navi (“Spiritual Couplets” or “Couplets of True Meaning”), a lengthy mystical-didactic poem of some 25,000 lines, was composed over several years, beginning probably circa 1262, and containing a series of versified anecdotes and tales, often amusing and occasionally quite ribald, varying widely in length, style and subject matter, and rather loosely organized into six books. The Masnavi illustrates a practical mysticism drawing from the eastern Sufi tradition (especially its expression in poetic form by Sanâ’i and ‘Aṭṭâr), provides a poetic commentary on the meaning of the Qur’an and hadith, and expounds Rumi’s views on many of the theological cruxes of Islam. It is arguably the most widely read and frequently glossed poem in the Muslim world, from Bosnia to Bengal.

The Divân-e kabir, or Kolliyât-e Shams-e Tabrizi, collects Rumi’s lyrical poems, including some 3300 ghazals, qaṣidas, and strophic poems, along with just under 2000 quatrains (rubâ‘iyât). These poems are characterized by an intense sense of transcendent longing or loss; a frequently conversational, though philosophically rich, style; and a captivating rhythmic musicality (many of the poems seem indeed to have been composed, and are often performed, to instrumental accompaniment). Rumi’s prose works include the notes recorded by his disciples during lectures, informal sermons and classes (Fihe ma fih, or “Discourses”); seven sermons delivered on formal occasions (Majâles-e sab‛e); and a number of letters (Maktubât).

Life History and its cruxes


For the moment, I want to point to several problems, or mysteries, at the core of his life story, most of which are a product of the fact that those who wrote about Rumi – were trying to represent the spiritual dominion and glory of Rumi, his sacred history, and not the profane historical realities of an individual’s life. In other words, they saw him hagiographically, as proofs of the greatness of the mystical tradition and as a spiritual exemplar. Given this situation, the effort to understand the historical personage Rumi, is not so very different than the quest for the historical Jesus, in which Christian scholars have been engaged, reading back beyond the Gospel accounts and trying to understand Jesus in his Jewish, Roman-Palestinian context.


Let me just briefly sketch some of the more interesting puzzles or cruxes in the life of Rumi, which scholarship has not yet been able to answer satisfactorily, leaving the miraculous and hagiographical stories to thrive:


1). who was Shams al-Din-e Tabrizi, the somewhat enigmatic figure, at the center of Rumi’s life, who came to Konya in 1244, when Rumi was 37 years of age, and catalyzed a revolutionary transformation in his life? Though Shams was not uneducated in Islamic law, theology and mysticism, he did not possess the formal credentials or the community of disciples that Rumi had, but nevertheless managed to transform Rumi’s life and way of thinking. He spent an intense period of about two years with Rumi from late 1244 to early 1247, disappearing for an extended period of months during this time, only to be brought back to Konya and briefly reunited with Rumi. Then Shams was gone forever, causing a terrific overpowering sense of loss for Rumi, who after several years of frantic search eventually internalized the example of Shams, and composed a large body of poetry as if spoken in the voice of Shams, which would come to be collected in the Divân-e Shams. Some casual modern observers have suggested that the nature of the relationship between Shams and Rumi must have been homosexual, but this is an anachronistic projection of modern orientations, categories of thought, and patterns of male-male friendship and interaction that do not apply to that era. Rumi, and other Sufis, were certainly aware that pederasty – attention given to boys by older males as objects of beauty to contemplate, as in the Hellenistic notion of the ephebe – was a temptation to which Sufis, who lived in a predominantly male social universe, might succumb. But they acknowledged the existence of this temptation openly, and rejected such relations, and critiqued others who indulged in them.


2) So what happened to Shams? We have discussed the report that he was murdered by jealous disciples, and then supposedly buried in the dead of night, keeping this “fact” from Rumi for several years as he went everywhere in search of Shams. In today’s Konya, you will find a tomb that was discovered in the twentieth century, which they will tell you is the grave of Shams. There are other graves for Shams: in Iran (in both Khuy and Tabriz, where he was originally from), and even as far afield as in Multan, Pakistan. Since Shams was a common name, or title, this may not be unexpected. But it leaves us in the awkward position of asking who is buried in Shams’ tombs, and where is Shams buried? More importantly, why did he leave Konya, and why does the story that he was killed by Rumi’s disciples seem to increase his importance and make the relationship seem more miraculous to us?


4) Rumi and Shams were very concerned to follow the example of the Prophet, like many other sufis and more traditional Muslims. The myth of how Rumi and Shams met, in fact, revolves around how certain Sufis could, in ecstatic or visionary reveries of divine contemplation, make such claims, claims such as Ḥallâj (“I am the truth”), or Bâyazid (“Glory be to me,” a subversion of the liturgical phrase “Glory be to God”) made. In this connection, we might mention that one’s guide on the mystical path is often perceived to possess knowledge that the prophets have not taught. Indeed, the paradigm by which Soltân Valad, described his father’s relationship with Shams was that of Moses and Khezr, as described in the Sura of the Cave (Sura 18 of the Qur’an). Khezr, or “a servant among [God’s] servants” as he is described there, encounters Moses and proves to possess greater divine inspiration and knowledge. He allows Moses to follow him on condition that Moses not ask questions about his apparently immoral doings (sinking a boat, knocking over a wall, etc.), which however have a hidden wisdom that Moses cannot see. Eventually Khezr leaves Moses, because Moses cannot stop questioning Khezr’s behavior.


Of course, the template of the Khezr-Moses relationship is a typological projection of the meeting of Shams and Rumi…in reality Shams came to Konya from Syria, after already having observed Rumi during his student days in Damascus. He seems to have come with the notion that he might be able to impact and work with Rumi, and change the way he taught from an ascetic and fearful worship of God, in which one worries about counting up each sin and peccadillo, each good deed and spiritual accomplishment, to the “religion of love”, in which God is adored as one would adore a beloved, and worshipped with an ecstatic, intoxicated devotion. This loving quest for God is the ascent rung-by-rung to meeting God (pele-pele tâ molâqât-e xodâ), which is attained by first slaying the lower self, the concupiscent soul, the animalistic and selfish part of us that tempts us to evil and introduces a duality, setting us apart from the divine. In many poems Rumi urges us: die before you die. By dying to your Self, you become living in God, and take on divine attributes. By becoming a hollow reed, the divine spirit can blow through you and make spiritual melodies that convey you back to your divine source. This struggle to slay the Self, thereby attaining eternal life, and become an instrument for the divine melody is known as the greater Jihad. What exactly did Shams contribute to Rumi’s thinking about these questions?  


5) And, what else did those who came after Shams contribute to Rumi’s development – Salâh al-Din the Goldsmith and Hosâm al-Din Chelebi? We know that Rumi taught that a guide was necessary for those who would tread the path. But were these figures, who do not seem to have either Rumi’s education and insight, nor Shams’ charisma, guides for Rumi, or did he make them guides for the community of disciples and speak of them in similar terms to Shams so that the people would follow them? This part of Rumi’s Islam is to some extent extra-Qur’anic and somewhat heterodox, though it is of course part and parcel of the Sufi tradition. Here is what Rumi himself says about it:


gar meḥak dâri gozin kon, var-na row
nazd-e dânâ xwištan râ kon gerow
yâ meḥak bâyad miân-e jân-e xwiš
var na-dâni rah ma-row tanhâ to piš


If you have a touchstone, choose yourself, or else
Go find a guide who’s wise and pledge yourself to him
You must have an inner touchstone in your soul
Or - if you do not know the way, you must not go alone.

-- Masnavi, 2:746-747




In answering these and other questions, there is the thrill of investigation, the mental challenge of evaluating discordant sources, and the prospect of a better understanding of what Rumi wanted to say to his disciples, and by extension, what he might have wanted to say to us. Rumi tells a famous story, ultimately from a Buddhist source, in which people encounter an elephant for the first time in their lives, but it is in a pitch-black room, so that they are forced to feel it with their hands. Everyone comes up with a different description of the beast, based upon whether he touches the trunk, the tusks, the legs, the tail, the sides, and they fall to disputation, for lack of a candle to illuminate the truth.


Az nazargah goftešân šod moxtalef

It was because of their vantage points that they disagreed.


All of us approach Rumi’s elephant from a particular, limited, vantage point. How might Rumi teach us to resolve these limitations? As we progress on our quest step by step toward the tryst with God, some are above us, some below us, but we cannot know where others are, and must be humble. We need a guide. Maybe not just one – who in Rumi’s case was the example of the Prophet Muhammad, but also there was Shams, then Ṣalâḥ al-Din then Ḥosâm al-Din, and of course all through his life, his own spiritual practices. Perhaps, whatever civilization we identify with, his work may have something to tell us about how to avoid the kind of clash that diverts us from the path toward truth. Even if it does not fulfill that very lofty function, you may find that there are very beautiful stories and engaging, memorable poems from this 13th century Persian mystic, Rumi. Try to understand them historically, try to understand them traditionally, try to understand them spiritually, try to understand them poetically, try to understand them seriously.


At the beginning, I greeted you and the New Year with this line of Rumi:


‛ayd bar ‛âšeqân mobârak bâd
‛âšeqân ‛aydetân mobârak bâd


Let the festival be a blessing to the lovers
lovers, a happy celebration to you!

Our present use of this salutation is for the Nowruz festival, of course. But the verses are originally written not for that festival, but for the ‛ayd al-fetr, the feast that comes at the end of Ramadan. But here Rumi is an icon of spring, and the national holiday of Iran, and secular joy. Nothing whatsoever to object to, even if it was not what Rumi intended.

Thank you for your patience.


[1] Selected Poems from the Dīvāni Shamsi Tabrīz (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1898), 124-5. 

[2] Ghazal 1855, Divân-e kabir, ed. B. Foruzânfar.

[3] E.g., Londonistan by Melanie Phillips, The Truth About Muhammad: Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion by Robert Spencer, America Alone by Mark Steyn, and National Book Critic Circle Award Nominee, Bruce Bawker’s While Europe Slept.

[4] “Islamic Fundamentalism Revisited,” National Review, 45 [November 15, 1993]: 62-3.