Seven times with water.
Then you can become our companion
Drinking from the wine of love.
Poetry has become less and less present in our daily life and modern society. Even the word poetry is sometimes (mis)used to imply not-serious ideas or irrelevant sayings. This is in sharp contrast to the significance of poetry in historical cultures where poetry had a practical role: Parents read poems to their children; students memorized poems in schools, people recited poems as proverbs, and eminent poets were icons of wisdom and refined soul. Against this backdrop of the marginalization of poetry in our life and society, it is heartening to see Rumi shelves in major bookstores with Coleman Barks’ "The Essential Rumi" as a best-selling book -- a rare achievement for a poetry book. Despite the popularity of his poetry books, we will not see Rumi in book-signing events, lecture halls or television interviews. He was a thirteenth-century Persian poet, and people often do not know much about his life and thought. Who was Rumi, what is he saying in his works, why is he popular or even relevant to our generation? This article explores these questions.
In his poems, Rumi does not talk about himself, his family or his past. This should not come as a surprise. He was first and foremost a deeply spiritual person living life “here and now.” Rumi did not even jot down his own poems; he simply recited them and his disciples recorded. What we know of Rumi’s life comes from three historical documents (hagiographies):
- "Valad Nameh" (“The Book of Valad”), a narrative poetry by Rumi’s eldest son, Sultan Valad (1226-1312);
- "Risaleh Sepah-salar" (“The Treatise of Sepah-salar”), written by his disciple Feridoon Sepah-salar (death 1319); and
- "Manaqeb al-Arefin" (“The Virtuous Acts of the Mystics”) compiled by another disciple Ahmad Aflaki (death 1356).
These are all in the Persian language, and only the third book has been recently translated into English.
Modern scholars, who have researched Rumi’s life in detail, include
the Iranian scholars:
- Badi ul-Zaman Foruzanfar (1900-1970) and
- Abdul Hossein Zarrinkub (1922-1999),
the Turkish scholar: Abdulbaki Golpinarli (1900-1982),
the Pakistani scholar: Afzal Iqbal (1919-1994),
the German scholar: Annemarie Schimmel (1922-2003) and more recently
the American scholar: Franklin Lewis .
From East to West
Don’t seek me in this or that world
Both worlds have vanished in the world I am.
Tradition places the birth of Jalaluddin Mohammad on September 30, 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. Through centuries, Balkh was a hub for various spiritual traditions including Zoroastrian, Buddhist, and Islamic faiths. Rumi’s father, Baha Valad, was a Muslim mystic and preacher, and indeed his first teacher.
When Rumi was a young boy, his family decided to leave Balkh and emigrate westward. Two reasons are cited for this emigration. First, Baha Valad in his speeches often criticized the philosophers who based their understanding of truth merely on logical, verbal arguments. Rumi himself inherited this notion from his father, for in one of his poems Rumi says that “the legs of argumentative logicians are made of wood,” implying that they only talk but cannot walk on the path of spiritual understanding. Such criticisms surely hurt the feelings of powerful philosophers who were friends with Sultan Mohammad Kharazm-Shah, the ruler of the Persian kingdom in Balkh. The king himself, although sometimes attended Baha Valad's sermons, apparently did not like the growing gathering around a pious, mystic preacher who kept distance from the court. The king’s followers may thus have intimidated Baha Valad. The second reason for his departure from Balkh was that Baha Valad, who often traveled to towns and villages close to Mongolia, must have sensed the growing power of Genghis Khan and his imminent threat to the unpopular Kharazm-Shah.
In 1219 Rumi’s family left Balkh. About three hundred people were in Baha Valad's caravan. They traveled along the historical Silk Road and stopped at the city of Nishabour (now in northeast Iran) where the great Persian poet Attвr lived. There is a famous story that when Attar saw the young Jalaluddin, he was so impressed that he presented Rumi with a copy of Asrar Nameh ("The Book of Secrets") -- a book Attar had composed during his own youth. He also told the boy's father: "Time will come when the fiery words of this boy will kindle the hearts of lovers all over the world." If this conversation did take place, Attar's prophecy has indeed come true. This story, however, is not recorded in Rumi’s earliest biographies and appears in literature centuries later. Nonetheless, Rumi was fond of reading Persian poetry, especially that of Attar (killed in 1221 by the Mongol army) and Sana’ie (death 1131), and viewed himself continuing their tradition of spiritual poetry. (“Attar was the soul, and Sana’ie its two eyes. After them, I came.”)
Baha Valad and his family were in Baghdad in 1221 when the Mongols sacked Balkh and Nishabour massacred their inhabitants, including pets! After making a pilgrimage to Mecca, Baha 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 West. The Eastern people respectfully call him Moulana, "our master," or Mevlana in Turkish pronunciation. Interestingly the word Moulana,” which is a general name for an eminent sage, scholar or poet, has come to be a specific name for this mystic poet only.
In the 13th century, Anatolia was ruled by the Seljuq Dynasty who had conquered the Byzantine kingdom two centuries earlier. The Seljuq kings were of Turkish origin but over time had blended with the Persians, converted to Islam, and their courts were supporters of Persian poets and Sufi scholars. In the town of Laranda (now called Karaman), Rumi's mother died (her tomb still exists there), and in 1224 the eighteen-year-old Rumi married a girl -- Ghouhar Khatun -- whose family had accompanied Baha Valad's westward sojourn. The couple soon had two sons -- Sultan Valad (who became Rumi's successor) and Ala'eddin (who died long before Rumi).
In 1228, Baha Valad and his family moved to the city of Konya (now in southern Turkey) at the request of the Seljuq king Sultan Ala'eddin Kayghobad. Konya (an ancient city called “Iconium” in Latin) was then Sultan Kayghobad’s capital where peoples of various religions, languages and ethnicities peacefully lived together. A school was built in Konya for Baha Valad to hold his classes and sermons. In 1231, Baha Valad died at the age of 80. Rumi took over his father's position as the head of the family and the school, but he still needed to complete his education. A year later, Borhanuddin Tirmadhi who was a student of Baha Valad and had tutored Rumi back in Balkh, came to Konya and undertook a systematic training of the young scholar in various subjects of learning. In 1233, Rumi was sent to Aleppo and Damascus (both cities 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 hundreds of students and followers. His wife died of illness, and shortly later, in 1241, his teacher Borhannuddin passed away too.
Rumi married Kira Khatun, a widow with a son (and probably also a daughter) from a previous marriage. This second marriage brought two more children (a son and a daughter) to Rumi's family. Rumi’s descendants from the line of Sultan Valad still live in Turkey and are called Chelebi (a Turkish title meaning “respected person”).
A poet is born
The outcome of my life is no more than three lines:
I was a raw material.
I became mature and cooked.
And I was burned into nothingness.
November 29, 1244 is a second birthday for Rumi. On that day, he met Shams Tabrizi in Konya’s marketplace. 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.
In their very first meeting, Rumi (then 37) and Shams (possibly 60) were impressed by each other’s wisdom and spirituality. Subsequent conversations and retreats with Shams (a Sufi tradition called Soh'bat or “communion”) drastically changed Rumi's lifestyle and perspective. He was transformed from a scholar to a mystic, from a preacher to a poet. Of course, Rumi himself was ripe for this spiritual transformation. After that he seldom read books and reduced his teaching schedule. Instead Rumi spent his days and nights on meditation, sama (listening to music), “whirling dance” (which was later developed by his son Sultan Valad into the tradition of the Whirling Dervishes), and poetry.
Shams was an enigmatic figure but a learned man. Rumi's disciples resented him who, in their opinion, had kidnapped their teacher. 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 for good. Nobody knows where he went or what happened to him. Some scholars believe that he was killed by Rumi’s angry disciples; others, however, doubt this story as well as the tomb in Konya presently attributed to Shams. Nevertheless, Shams' disappearance devastated Rumi. He went to Damascus twice to look for him, but finally concluded that Shams was within him. In years to come, Rumi found two other soul brothers for communion: Salahuddin Zarkub (death in 1258), a goldsmith and a former disciple of Borhanuddin Tirmadhi, and Husamuddin Chelebi (death in 1284), a young disciple of Rumi.
The first four decades of Rumi’s life were the “preparation period,” while the last three decades may be called his “poetic period.” Rumi's poems (98% Persian and about 2% in Arabic) are collected in two great works:
1. "Diwan Shams"  ("The Poetry Book of Shams") or "Diwan Kabir" ("The Great Book of Poetry") contains some 3500 lyric odes (Ghazal) and nearly 2000 quatrains (Rubaiyat), and is dedicated to Shams Tabrizi. This book is full of ecstatic love poems, in many which Rumi addresses himself with the pen-name of Khamoosh ("Silent");
2. "Masnawi Manawi" ("Rhymed Couplets on Spiritual Matters") is a 6-volume book of didactic poetry (stories and parables) which Rumi recited to Husam Chelebi during the last decade of his life. The English translations of Rumi’s poetry available on the market today (with varying quality) are selections from these two works.
A poet in love
Someone asked: What is love?
I said: Don’t ask about this meaning.
You will see when you become like me.
Rumi’s poems are filled with expressions of love, beloved, friend, mercy, joy, grief, longing, heart, wine, drunkard, selflessness, senselessness, God, separation, and union. Love is a key to understanding Rumi’s poetry but it is also important to have a right view of what he means by love. Sometimes we use love for a strong feeling of liking which is actually rooted in our self-centered desires. Such love can thus easily turn into hatred, because both feelings are two sides of the same coin -- selfishness and craving. Rumi’s love should not be confused with these transient, shallow, egoistic feelings.
Love for Rumi was the outcome of his deep meditation into the nature of reality and life. A close reading of his poetry and parables reveals that Rumi’s realization of love was based on (1) transcendence from the small self and its endless wants and its dualistic thinking (us versus the rest, this versus that), and (2) union with the mercy, beauty, goodness, glory, and peace of God and the whole creation. The first process is like “dying before death” (as Rumi and other mystics have said) and the second process is like “flying of the falcon in the vast sky” or “the elephant breaking its chains and returning to its homeland, India.” He uses the symbolism of wine and drunkenness to describe the ecstasy of melting into the mystery and presence and of God and identifying oneness with all. Out of this union, an all-inclusive and deep love emerges in the poets’ heart. The heart, which appears over and over in Rumi’s poetry, is like a shining sun, a green garden of sacred secrets, a boundless desert or an ocean without shores, which Rumi finds to be his true home and the source of his poetry. (In one poem, he even says that he is spying on the heart!)
In Rumi’s poetry and thought, universal love is not something abstract, aloof, and impractical, but alive, rich and relevant on three levels. On a cosmic level, Rumi considers love to be the very matrix of existence and creation. That is why he refers to God as the Beloved. On a personal level, he views the path of love as the fastest and strongest link between humans and the Divine, between the perishable and the eternity. And on a social level, Rumi believes that the Divine love should be manifested in our daily life. That is why he does not draw a rigid boundary between a human being’s loving of God and a human love for his or her fellow beings. Because true love, no matter whose and to whom, is a reflection of the Divine love in the heart.
A poet of peace
The religion of love is separate from all forms of religions
Lovers are of one nation and one religion - love
And that is God.
In Rumi’s vision, the expressions “God is Love” and “Love Thy Neighbor” either go together or go nowhere. From his biographical records, we read many stories of Rumi’s compassion and humbleness towards people whoever they were. A Christian monk, who had heard about Rumi’s scholarly and spiritual reputation, went to meet him in Konya. Out of respect, the monk prostrated before Rumi, and when he raised his head, he saw that Rumi had been prostrating before the monk. This is significant story because those were the days of the Crusades and the bloody wars between Christians and Muslims.
Rumi’s poetry (like his life) expanses love from something abstract in our prayers and metaphysics into our life and world encompassing our interpersonal, international and interfaith relations. In this sense, he is a poet of peace.
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 sage and poet. Buried in Konya, Rumi's tomb (the Green Dome, called "Ghobat al-Khidhra," in Arabic and "Yashil Turbe" in Turkish) has become a shrine for thousands of his lovers, tourists and pilgrims each year. 17 December is celebrated as Shab-i Arus (a Persian word meaning "Wedding Night" symbolizing reunion with the Divine) in Konya in the spirit of Rumi's own will that those who come to his tomb should not come to cry and grieve but rejoice in poetry, prayer, contemplation and compassion.
Rumi comes to America
The poet digs a waterway
To flow through centuries
Each age has its own speakers, I know
But the poets of the past can help too.
English translations of Rumi date back to late 19th and early 20th centuries, notably by two Cambridge University professors of Persian literature:
- Reynold A. Nicholson (1868-1945) and
- Arthur J. Arberry (1905-1969),
who produced literal or scholarly translations. Arberry once remarked:
“In Rumi the Persian mystical genius found its supreme expression. Viewing the vast landscape of Sufi poetry, we see him standing out as a sublime mountain-peak; the many other poets before and after him are but foot-hills in comparison … To the West, now slowly realizing the magnitude of his genius, … he is fully able to prove a source of inspiration and delight not surpassed by any other poet in the world’s literature.”
The current fascination with Rumi is due to free-verse translations of his poetry which makes it easier for the reader to approach this poet. A pioneer of this venture is Coleman Barks, a retired professor of poetry and creative writing from University of Georgia, who started his work on Rumi in late 1970s and has, since then, produced over a dozen volumes of Rumi’s poetry. Barks does not read Persian himself, but works from literal translations made by other scholars and tries to offer a flavor of Rumi’s poems in modern English. Over the past two decades, several other poets and translators (partly motivated by Barks’ success) have popularized Rumi’s poetry.
Why is Rumi popular?
Partly because of his personality - Rumi integrated in his life:
- the learning of a scholar,
- the insight of a sage, and
- literary gem of a poet.
And partly because Rumi’s experience and message appeal to our thirst for meaning, warm heart, happiness, love, tranquility, and spiritual solution. Somehow we sense that spiritual solution does not merely solve a single problem but heals us wholly and dissolves the causes of our pains. Rumi appeals because, as he believed, each one of us carries a memory (no matter how faint) of our Divine home and each one of us (no matter how often) hears echoes of the celestial bird’s song hidden in the garden of our heart.
1. "The Feats of the Knowers of God", translated by John O’Kane (Brill Academic Publishers, 2002). (Marketed at an exhortative price of $231!)
2. Badi ul-Zaman Foruzanfar, "Risaleh dar Ahval va Zendeghani-ye Moulana Jalaluddin Mohammad" (“Treatise on the Life of Master Jalaluddin Mohammad”) (Tehran, 1954, 2nd edition) [in Persian]. No translation is available but authors referenced below have extensively utilized this source.
3. Abdol Hossein Zarrinkub, "Pelle Pelle ta Molaqhat-e Khoda" (“Step by Step to Meet with God”) (Tehran, 1990) [in Persian]
4. Abdulbaki Golpinarli, "Mevlana Celaleddin: Hayati, Felsefesi, Eserleri, Eserlerinden Secmeler" (“Mevlana Jalaluddin: His Life, Philosophy, Works and Anthology”) (Istanbul, 1959) [in Turkish].
5. Afzal Iqbal, "The Life and Thought of Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi" (Karachi, 1956, 1999, 7th edition, Oxford University Press).
6. Annemarie Schimmel,
- "The Triumphal Sun: A Study of the Works of Jalaluddin Rumi", (London, 1978, 2nd edition, 1993, State University of New York Press);
- "I Am Wind, You Are Fire: The Life and Work of Rumi" (Shambhala Press, Boston, 1992).
7. Franklin D. Lewis, "Rumi, Past and Present, East and West" (OneWorld, Oxford, 2000).
8. "Kulliat Shams Tabrizi: Diwan Kabir" (10 volumes), by Moulana Jalaluddin Mohammad Balkhi Rumi, edited by Foruzanfar, Tehran University Press, 1957-1975 [In Persian].
9. "Mathnawi Manawi" (6 volumes), by Moulana Jalaluddin Mohammad Balkhi Rumi, edited by Reynold Nicholson (Luzac, London, 1925-1933); published in a single Persian volume by Amir Kabir Press, Tehran, 1971.
10. Some modern translations or renditions of Rumi’s poetry include:
- "The Essential Rumi" (Coleman Barks and John Moyne, 1995);
- "The Soul of Rumi" (Coleman Barks, 2002);
- "The Rumi Collection" (Kabir Helminsky, 1998);
- "In the Arms of the Beloved" (Jonathan Starr, 1997);
- "Rending the Veil" (Shahram Shiva, 1995);
- "Dancing the Flame" (Nader Khalili, 2001);
- "The Forbidden Rumi" (Nevit Ergin and Will Johnson, 2006);
- "Swallowing the Sun" (Franklin Lewis, 2008).
11. All translations of Rumi’s poems cited in this article are the author’s translations from the Persian sources (References  and ).
Rasoul Sorkhabi, Ph.D., first encountered Rumi’s poetry as a young boy living in Iran; Rumi’s books have accompanied him in his life journey through India, Japan and the USA. He lives in Salt Lake City, Utah and coordinates the monthly meetings of Rumi Poetry Club.
1. Rasoul Sorkhabi, "Rumi is the Answer to All Our Problems" - http://hojja-nusreddin.livejournal.com/1430180.html
2. Rasoul Sorkhabi, "Rumiyat: A Guide to Reading Rumi" - http://hojja-nusreddin.livejournal.com/1429822.html
3. Rasoul Sorkhabi, "Jesus Christ in Rumi’s Poetry and Parables" - http://hojja-nusreddin.livejournal.com/2279109.html
4. Rasoul Sorkhabi, "Poetry of Universal Love: The Journey of the Poet Rumi" - http://hojja-nusreddin.livejournal.com/2548441.html