By Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr
What makes the 13th century Persian poet-mystic Jalaluddin Rumi so significant to the quirky materialism of this century?
Move over Nostradamus. Jalaluddin Rumi is here. Through the 1990s, the great 13th century Persian poet-mystic has become literary delight, a fashionable name and an undefined spiritual solace to many among the confused middle classes in the United States. Some of the most educated and most aware men and women of the sole superpower in the world are seeking refuge in the musical words of the Muslim theologian-turned-Sufi.
There are Rumi circles where his poetry is read and discussed, there are musical groups where his poetry is sung, and the tradition of ‘whirling dervishes’ started by the Mevlevi order set up by Rumi, is re-enacted in American salons. Fashion designer Donna Karan has based one of her creations on the Rumi theme. The popular spiritual physician Deepak Chopra has released a CD with Rumi’s poems set to music for calming the frayed nerves and buffeted souls of some of the Americans living in their materialistic paradise.
The rising popularity of Rumi among the glitterati in New York and San Francisco has its flip side as well. They read Rumi’s life in the light of their decadent cultural norms. His friendship and adoration for his friend and mentor, Shams Tabriz, has been interpreted as gay love, and overnight Rumi had become a gay icon. The distortion, of course, reflects more the confusion in American society than the life of the great poet.
But sober Rumi scholars and admirers in the US have recognised that the learned Sufi is read differently in the Islamic world, especially in Persian speaking circles. His famous epic poem, Mathnawi, has been described by Jami, one of the great Persian poets, as the ‘Koran in Persian’
Though Rumi was born in the province of Khorasan, which now lies in modern Afghanistan, he was constantly on the move through his childhood, travelling to Mecca and Jerusalem before settling in a place called Konya, which is now in modern Turkey. His father, Bahauddin, was a respected Islamic scholar, who taught theology and law. When he died, Rumi inherited his scholarly mantle, and established himself as a reputed scholar and interpreter of The Koran.
At the age of 37, Rumi encountered the wandering mystic, Shams, who completely changed his life. Shams was both a dear friend and spiritual mentor for Rumi, and this relationship became an eyesore for both friends and family members of Rumi. It is narrated that Shams disappeared from Rumi’s life for a while, and the poet’s sorrow was boundless. The second time around, Shams is said to have been killed by one of Rumi’s sons. There is a whole Divan, which expresses Rumi’s sorrow at the separation from his friend and mentor. Rumi uses the traditional love metaphors to describe the friendship, and this has led to misinterpretations among modern Americans. But in the Islamic world, there is no such confusion.
The literary traditions are well known, and it is also recognised that Rumi’s love poetry, like that of all mystics in all religions, uses the language of physical love to talk about love for God, and the desire of the soul to be one with God. Literary critic Fatemeh Keshavarz seems to have caught the real significance of the impact of Shams on the life of Rumi.
She says: “Shams awakened in Rumi the wayfarer who had to free himself of rational and speculative knowledge to seek new horizons.”
It is this aspect of Rumi, which is of supreme importance for all readers of Rumi. He would have probably remained a great scholar, as much respected if not adored as he is today, because of his amazing literary creation. There would have been no Rumi poetry without the experience of the mystical bliss.
So, we find Rumi’s life progressing through three phases. The first is that of the scholar and the intellectual. The second is that of the humble mystic, who suddenly realises that rational knowledge is too narrow. Then emerges the great poet who uses poetry, music and dance to express the mystical experience. What makes Rumi attractive to the weary souls of the modern world is this brave new world of poetry, music, dance and spiritual truth.
Keshawarz translates one of the poems which speaks of this union of spirituality, poetry, music and dance, that reveals the irresistible beauty of Rumi’s poetry and message:
…what is sam? A message from
the fairy, hidden in your heart;
with their letter comes serenity to
the estranged heart.
The tree of wisdom comes to bloom
with this breeze;
The inner pores of existence
open to this tune.
When the spiritual cock crows,
the dawn arrives;
When Mars beats his drum
victory is ours.
The essence of the soul was fighting
the barrel of the body;
When it hears the sound of the daf
it matures and calms down.
A wondrous sweetness is
sensed in the body;
It is the sugar that the flute and
the flute-player bring
to the listener.
Rumi is not really the typical anti-intellectual, who turns away from rationality and knowledge to seek higher truth. He uses his knowledge and creative genius to reveal the divinity and beauty hidden in the universe lying before our eyes. He does not deny life. He affirms life. That is why he seems to draw modern people, who are in love with the world they experience with their senses, and who are forever afraid of losing it.
Rumi shows through his poetry that it is possible to experience great joy that lies beyond the physical world by experiencing the beauty of the world around us.
And he sounds an absolute contemporary when he writes in the Mathnawi:
Passion makes the old medicine new:
Passion lops off the bough of weariness.
Passion is the elixir that renews:
how can there be weariness
when passion is present?
Oh, don’t sigh heavily from fatigue:
seek passion, seek passion,
A TASTE OF RUMI
These spiritual window-shoppers,
who idly ask, ‘How much is that’
Oh, I’m just looking.
They handle a hundred items and put
shadows with no capital.
What is spent is love and two
eyes wet with weeping.
But these walk into a shop,
and their whole lives pass sud-denly in
in that shop.
When someone mentions the
of the nightsky, climb up on the roof
and dance and say,
If anyone wants to know what
or what ‘God’s fragrance’ means,
lean your head toward him or her.
Keep your face there close.
We are as the flute, and the music
in us is from thee;
we are as the mountain and the echo
in us is from thee.
We are as pieces of chess engaged in
victory and defeat:
our victory and defeat is from thee,
O thou whose qualities are comely!
Who are we, O Thou soul of
that we should remain in being
Make yourself free from self at
Like a sword be without trace
of soft iron;
Like a steel mirror, scour off all
rust with contrition.
And Rumi loudly proclaimed what every mystic of every religion knew in his or her heart. He is shouting from the rooftop as it were in these lines:
What is to be done, O Moslems?
for I do not recognise myself.
I am neither Christian, nor Jew,
nor Gabr, nor Moslem.
I am not of the East, nor of the West,
nor of the land, nor of the sea;
I am not of Nature’s mint,
nor of the circling heaven.
I am not of earth, nor of water,
nor of air, nor of fire;
I am not of the empyrean, nor of the
dust, nor of existence, nor of entity.
I am not of India, nor of China,
nor of Bulgaria, nor of Saqsin
I am not of the kingdom of Iraqian,
nor of the country of Khorasan
I am not of this world, nor of the next,
nor of Paradise, nor of Hell
I am not of Adam, nor of Eve,
nor of Eden and Rizwan.
My place is the Placeless, my trace
is the Traceless;
’Tis neither body nor soul, for I be-long
to the soul of the Beloved.
I have put duality away, I have seen
that the two worlds are one;
One I seek, One I know, One I see,
One I call.
It is interesting that when Rumi died at the age of 66, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Greeks, Arabs and Persians formed part of the funeral procession. It is also revealing that his second wife was a Christian.
Rumi then is both a great Muslim scholar and Sufi as well as the truly cosmopolitan intellectual and universal mystic. It is easy to understand him as well as misunderstand him. Rumi, however, will survive the fickle fashions of the time, and to anyone seriously interested in religion and philosophy, and to anyone interested in the visible and the invisible world, he will remain a subtle guide who, through his beautiful poetry, points to divine beauty.
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