Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (Rumi)

Sufi Mystic, Islamic Religious Teacher, Poet

Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207-1273) was a highly regard Islamic religious teacher who became world renowned through his creation of mystical poetry and ritual in the Sufi Islamic tradition. Known most widely today for his lasting legacy of poetry and the practice of the Whirling Dervishes, Rumi was a complex and deeply influential figure already in his lifetime.

 

Rumi spent time in some of the largest and most developed metropolitan areas in the Persian, Turkic and Arab cultural realms of the Middle East at a time when these areas were the center of cultural, linguistic, religious and economic exchange during what is sometimes referred to as the "golden age" of the Islamic empires. 

 

Born in a border region between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, he spent time in Mecca (current day Saudi Arabia), Samarkand (current day Uzbekistan, one of the older continuously inhabited cities in Central Asia), Aleppo and Damascus (current day Syria, historic centers of religious and cultural exchange and learning), before settling in Konya (current day Turkey). From the beginning Rumi had widely traveled in the diverse civilizational centers of his day.

 

Having already established himself as a highly accomplished and well respected religious teacher, Rumi's life changed in an instant. In his introduction to the English translation of Rumi's most famous work, the Masnavi, J.A. Mojaddedi explains the encounter: "According to one popular and relatively simple account, Rumi is asked about his books by an uneducated-looking stranger, and responds by snapping back dismissively, ‘They are something that you do not understand!’ The books then suddenly catch fire, so Rumi asks the stranger to explain what has happened. His reply is: ‘Something you do not understand" xvi 

 

This was the beginning of his encounter with the man that would serve as his most central spiritual inspiration and guide, Shams e-Tabriz, or Shams (which means Sun in Arabic). From this moment Rumi's life was changed and his poetry took on a life of its own which ultimately has inspired and guided people of all major religious and spiritual walks of life in the centuries since. The quote on our landing page comes from Elif Shafak's acclaimed novel which interperts this encounter between Rumi and Shams. 

 

"His poetry, for instance, emphasizes the importance of love to transcend attachments to the world, and dismisses concerns for worldly reputation, literal-mindedness and intellectualism. From dry scholarship and popular piety, Rumi turned his attention to mystical poetry, and he became known for his propensity to fall into an ecstatic trance and spin around in public." Xvii This practice was adopted by the brotherhood (spiritual practice group) which has become known to many outside of the Middle East as the "whirling dervishes" who can be seen participating in this ritual worship today in Istanbul, and Damascus (among others).  

 

Writing in Persian, Rumi was nonetheless fully versed in Arabic, even writing poetry at times in that language. Mojaddedi reminds us that "Rumi’s Masnavi holds an exalted status in the rich canon of Persian Sufi literature as the greatest mystical poem ever written. It is even referred to commonly as ‘the Koran in Persian’." Xx Although his writings and poetry have been translated into English extensively, often the rich cultural tapestry from which he drew is obscured even in the most celebrated or popular renditions. As rightly explained by Rozina Ali in a recent piece published in the New Yorker, this has profound implications for the ability of Western audiences to see Rumi's intimate relationship with Islam and the Persian, Arabic and Turkic cultural realms of his time. 

 

Rumi's versatility and the relevance of his poetic creation to people from a wide variety of cultural, religious, spiritual or ethical pratices was established immediately. Mojaddedi explains "His death was mourned not only by his disciples but also by the large and diverse community in Konya, including Christians and Jews, who converged as his body was carried through the city. Many of the non-Muslims had not only admired him as outsiders, but had also attended his teaching sessions. The ‘Green Dome’, where his mausoleum is found today" in present day Konya, Turkey) "was constructed soon after Rumi’s death. It has become probably the most popular site of pilgrimage in the world to be visited regularly by members of every major religion." xix

 

For more information on Rumi and his poetry see J. A. Mojaddedi's translation from Persian of The Masnavi, Book One (OUP Oxford, 2004),  or Franklin Lewis's recent work entitled Rumi, Past and Present, East and West (Oxford, 2000) (among others).

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