The Icon and the Man: In Quest of Rumi

In trying to fathom the crux of Rumi’s mystical ghazals, 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. 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 encounter 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 Salâh al-Din then Hosâm 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.

Franklyn Dean Lewis
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