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These past few …

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These past few weeks (months) have been spent trying frantically to manage all my school work in my last year at college. I was in a class on Muslim Literature, Art and Film. Didn’t like the class so much but I did end up doing a project on Rumi, which has been very entertaining and fruitful. So here internet, judge my academia:

The Mystical Thought of Mowlana Jalal al-Din Rumi
as Sufi mystic and poet

  1. 1.      Introduction: Rumi in context

First and foremost, it has become necessary to mention, Jalal al-Din Rumi (poet, teacher, theologian, ecstatic mystic) was a Muslim. Rumi’s overwhelming popularity in the West and elsewhere, coupled with his message of tolerance that so many have espoused, makes it easy to forget that Rumi was a devout Muslim and attempted stridently, in thought and practice, to emulate the life of the prophet Muhammad. Franklin Lewis, in his impressive, expansive study of Rumi, claims that in the 90s, Rumi was the most popular poet in America: “Devotees of Sufism, adepts of New Age spirituality and those with a mystical orientation toward religion all revere Rumi as one of the world’s great spiritual teachers” (Lewis 1). There is now a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called the Rumi Forum that promotes interfaith dialogue and takes inspiration from Rumi. While it is gladdening to see so many appreciate the beauty, majesty and power of Rumi’s poetry and thought, often times one must take care to evaluate in context, his life and times. Nothing exists in a vacuum and while Rumi might have been appropriated by New Age mystics, he remains a Muslim and a Sufi before all else. His famed tolerance was no doubt present but it would be a mistake to interpret quotations and poetry as espousing a “syncretic spirituality” (Lewis 10). As Rumi and other Sufis are so fond of quoting: la elaha ella Allah, There is no god but Allah.

Born 1207 in a small town in the province of Vaksh in what is present Tajikistan to a devout preacher and Muslim scholar, Rumi, as he is known in the West, was given the name Muhammad and a title, Jalal al-Din, meaning ‘Spelndor of the Faith’ (Lewis 9). His father, Baha al-Din Valad was a preacher and Muslim scholar, the first Mowlana (master). He moved the family from the province of Vaksh to Konya in modern Turkey in order to spread the religious teachings of Islam. The area had only recently been colonised by Muslims and had previously been the province of Rome. Rumi’s name means from Rum, or Rome. Rumi’s father started a madrassa in Konya and continued to preach Islam, training the young Rumi in the Qur’an, the Hadith and various other Sunni texts and teachings. Lewis’s careful research shows that Baha al-Din was a deeply religious man whose faith was mystical in nature. Lewis quotes a noticeably mystical description of Baha al-Din: “he hovers in the air, predicts the life span of individuals, sees colors, fluids and matter flowing within and without himself  and other objects, and sometimes talks with God as one would with a friend” (Lewis 82). These visions that Baha had clearly impressed upon the young Rumi an understanding of the mystical and spiritual side of Islam, for these visions only served to deepen Baha al-Din’s faith in Allah. Rumi himself has described his father once as “Our Master, the King of Scholars, the (spiritual) axis of the world, Baha al-Haqq va al-Din, may God sanctify his magnificent spirit” (Lewis 83). Rumi clearly learned much from his father and when Baha al-Din passed away in his 80s, Jalal al-Din was touted as the next Mowlana.

Jalal al-Din was 24 at the time of his father’s death, too young to assume the mantle of Mowlana. He left on a journey to Damascus in Syria, an established Arabic centre for Islamic study where the premier theologians and authorities were teaching. Lewis quotes various sources that claim that Jalal al-Din might have encountered the famed mystic Ibn Arabi in Damascus but finds it more likely that Jalal al-Din stuck to studying the master poets that his father had recommended, namely Attar and Sanai (Lewis 120).

The depth of Jalal al-Din’s immersion in Islam is obvious to any careful reader of his poetry. For Rumi, Islam is not simply a religious faith but is present in every fibre of being. Every act of love is love for the Divine, the ultimate Beloved. Lewis quotes from a lecture by Rumi where he asserts: “la elaha ella Allah, No God is there but God” (Lewis 129) and

You’ll clean no thorn and thistle from this path
unless the creedal NO serves as your herald
When NO casts you from fame into confusion
Then follow Godhead’s light through BUT to GOD. (Lewis 133)

Lewis points out that for Rumi, and other mystics, this particular phrase is interesting in that it begins with a negation (la) before affirming the one God. Self-effacement comes prior to God’s affirmation, the annihilation of the self (fanaa) in the face of Allah (Lewis 129). Rumi urges his listeners to let the NO, the negation be their guide and realise that despite the self-effacement (the BUT), there is God at the end.

  1. 2.      Love and Friendship: Shams al-Din Tabrizi as the Beloved

Jalal al-Din’s spiritual and mystic education began with the arrival of one of the most enigmatic figures in Islamic mysticism, Shams al-Din Tabrizi (the Sun of Faith from Tabriz). Shams’ own Maqalat-e Shams (The Discourses of Shams) tells of his arrival in Konya on the 26th of Jumadi II in the year AH 642 (29 November 1244) (Lewis 155). By the time of his arrival, Shams was already an old man, in his 60s and said to be a qalandar (dervish) possessed of “miraculous powers” (Lewis 135). A more critical, although hagiographical, account by Aflaki paints Shams as being “fully apprised of the learning of his day, had studied Islamic law, met with the learned men of his age and even possessed knowledge of mathematics and astronomy” (Lewis 135).

The persona of Shams is clouded in much mystery and Rumi himself presents simply the apotheosis of Shams in the Divan-e Shams al-Tabrizi, one of Rumi’s masterpieces. Shams himself did not leave much written work behind, except for the Maqalat. This might have had to do with Shams’ own disdain for the written word. Unlike Rumi, who clearly invested much in the written word despite bemoaning its very limitation, Shams seems to have put much more faith in his own persona: “that which will free you is the servant of God, not abstract writings. He who follows words on a page is lost” (Tabrizi 18, quoted in Lewis 136). From this statement, it can be gleaned that Shams considered words ineffectual in their power to lead the human towards God. The body is corporeal and despite being transitory and ineffectual, it still remains more concrete than words. Words as abstract symbolic devices only point to something in a concrete established reality where things are static. But given what can be considered the basic ayat of the Qur’an (and mystical Sufi thought) that the world is eternally changing: “Everything is perishing but the face of God” (Qur’an 28:88) (also translated as “Everything will be destroyed except His face” but the former is a personal preference). In such a world, words then have no intrinsic meaning. They point to things that are always changing, always perishing and thus, are entirely unstable as a plane of stability on which to stand. Shams even goes so far as to prefer the person of the Prophet over the Qur’an itself: “The meaning of the Book of God is not the text, it is the man who guides. He is the Book of God, he is its verses, he is scripture” (Tabrizi 18, quoted in Lewis 136). Shams’ decisive turn away from the written word and towards the person as a gateway to God is reminiscent on another Sufi mystical poet, Nizami Ganjavi who dedicated the epic Layla and Majnun to this very ideal.  

Shams’ devotion to the person of the Prophet was very much the subject of his and Rumi’s first meeting. In the Maqalat, Shams describes coming across Rumi and a few scholars in Konya on his first day, whereupon Shams questioned Rumi on the exclamations of Bayazid Bestami, a famous and respected Persian Sufi who was famous for the “spiritual intoxication (sokr)” he would go through, uttering sayings that would be utterly blasphemous to orthodox Muslims (shathiat). Bayazid’s statement “Glory be to Me” which in a Sufi context would be emblematic of the intoxication that accompanies fana fi’ Allah, seems to have incensed Shams who had taken to heart the Prophet’s example in his unfaltering devotion to Allah. This statement is akin to one uttered by al-Hallaj: “I am the Truth” (ana al-Haqq) for which he was executed (Lewis 156). Shams then is said to have posed to Rumi the question of Bayazid and his deviance from the path of the Prophet. To which Rumi gave such an answer that Shams was immediately taken with his spirituality and devotion to God, which he describes as “his spirit was pure and cleansed and it shone within him” (Tabrizi 685, quoted in Lewis 155). It is not clear what that answer was as there are many conflicting, and conflated, accounts of this legendary first meeting. But given the gravity of Shams’ question, Rumi can only have answered in the Prophet’s favour, despite knowing that sokr was responsible for Bayazid’s utterance.

The discussion of Bayazid and his commitment to the person of the Prophet could be seen as a synecdoche for all of the relationship that Shams and Rumi had. Transcending traditional roles of master and disciple, of seeker and sought-after, much in the way Nizami collapses the separation between lover and object, Shams brought about a spiritual transformation in Rumi but was also transformed himself. Shams encouraged Rumi to move beyond the limited spheres of human knowledge and to progress practically towards true Knowledge. He chided Rumi for “his extensive knowledge [that] would come before him and get in the way” (Tabrizi 361, quoted in Lewis 162). For Shams, true Knowledge doesn’t come from book learning or reading about those who have come before. It comes from following the example set by the Prophet Muhammad and practicing mysticism in daily life as opposed to just reading about it. Shams engaged Rumi in extensive debate and would persist despite Rumi tiring of his questions (Lewis 163).

Shams had enlightened Rumi from a man obsessed with learning and following the example of others to one completely invested in the person of Shams. Says Rumi in the Divan:

You are that light which told Moses:
“I am God I am God I am God I am.” (Lewis 167)

This hyperbolic (and almost blasphemous) association of Shams to the light of God is Rumi’s way of acknowledging the intense spirit that Shams invested him with. Rumi, being the poet that he is, plays constantly with Shams’ name, meaning Sun and draws upon this analogical relation between knowledge, as represented by light, and the coming of Shams. For Rumi, Shams is the centre and himself just a mere orbiting planet:

Shams-e Tabriz, through your sun we shine just like the moon. (Divan 1579)

At last, Tabriz of the soul, look upon the stars of the heart, that you may see this mundane sun to be a reflection of Shams-e Din. (Divan 239)

Shams, as such, represents the ultimate gateway to God.

The relationship that came to be between Rumi and Shams came to a head when Shams made his first disappearance. There are many reasons historians give for Shams’ departure to Damascus for the first time but it is not much of a stretch to think of this separation as part of Shams’ teaching. Shams discovered Rumi to have become too invested in him. He wished for Rumi to feel the pain of separation and thus, draw him out of the state of blindness that such an investment can create. Shams’ idealisation of the person as a pathway to Allah seems to contradict his desire to liberate Rumi from his obsession with Shams but only seemingly. Shams’ idealisation is of the Prophet and not anyone else, not even Bayazid or Hallaj when they were said to have achieved fana fi’Allah. The inebriation that Rumi felt with Shams seems to have been seen by Shams himself as a false intoxication. This kind of intoxication he reserves for the Prophet and God and not with someone as lowly as himself.

That Rumi was infatuated and obsessed with Shams is evident in the poetry from the Divan where Rumi speaks of Shams in much the same way that Nizami’s Majnun speaks of Layla. For Rumi, Shams is the Beloved. As a teacher and a lover, Shams was able to provide Rumi with the necessary fodder to facilitate his poetic inspirations. Only once he had encountered Shams was Rumi able to express himself in verse. Once in love with Shams, Rumi seems to have been able to access that which is ineffable. In leading Rumi towards the transcendent (Allah), Shams allowed Rumi access into another inexpressible realm, that of poetry and the ineffable. The person of Shams and the feelings that Rumi had for him are expressed in the Divan in poetic form simply because they couldn’t be expressed otherwise. Poetry makes specific use of the written word. It does not simply point but it alludes to. Rumi’s poetry for Shams is a gateway through all can experience the love that Rumi had for him. But this love is not one limited to the form of Shams, as Shams himself sought to bring about this realisation by leaving Rumi.

Shams left Rumi twice. The first time, he left for Damascus and Rumi, in desperation sent Sultan Valad, his son and closest acquaintance after Shams, to look for him. Valad managed to find Shams and brought him back. On his return, Shams found Rumi a transformed mystic. No longer was he expressly obsessed with the person of Shams but had attained a sort of mystical peace with the hurt of separation. Like Majnun when he sees Layla for the first time after long years of separation, Rumi too had realised the evanescence of things. The intransience of all but God becomes evident only in the loss of the beloved, as love is always a quest for the ultimate Beloved. When Shams disappeared the second time, Rumi made no attempts to seek him out. Shams’ disappearances seem calculated, although they could’ve just been the flightiness of a qalandar but given Shams’ opinion of Rumi, the probability lies on the side of calculation. Rumi himself acknowledges as much:

I sleep and wake in love’s afflictions
my heart turns on the spit of passion’s fire
If you abandoned me to best refine me,
You are wise and I’m without you unrefined. (Divan 319, Lewis 183)

That Shams left Rumi comes as no surprise. And that Rumi found other muses to inspire his poetry is no surprise either. Love is always a quest and Rumi, like most mystics, realised that love of a person is akin to love of an object, for you are only in love with the husk, the transitory part of their being. But even that love is one that will lead ultimately to true Love in the face of the ultimate Beloved, God. God is the only constant and all love is a creative celebration for the love of God. It is armed with this knowledge that Rumi brought forth a collection of poetry that he aptly dubbed, Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi or The Works of Shams of Tabriz.

Nizami’s Layla and Majnun, a fable of Sufi proportions, parallels easily the relationship between Rumi and Shams for Nizami portrays what the Sufis consider their path to God: eternal love and pursuit of the Beloved. The Beloved, while manifest as a being, is always God, the ultimate Beloved. By love, I do not mean the modern conception of love; I mean not just romantic longing but a yearning of a more spiritual sort, the Platonic eros that typifies Socrates’ love of knowledge. This type of love is a constant pursuit, like Socrates’ philo-sophia, the love that is always a pursuit and never culminates in wisdom. Similarly, this Sufi love is an amalgam of longing and attainment. It is not entirely bereft of a culmination but plays upon this contrast as an essential component of all human love that is creative and generative. The love that sprang up between Shams and Rumi takes on a similar hue.

In a section from Nizami’s Layla and Majnun, upon finding a piece of paper with his and Layla’s name on it, Majnun proceeds to tear off the Layla and keeps only the Majnun. Upon being questioned, Majnun replies: “one name is better than two. One is enough for both. If you knew what it means to be a lover, you would realize that one only has to scratch him, and out falls his beloved” (Nizami 125). One can only wonder if Rumi was thinking similarly when he chose to name (one of) his masterpiece(s) after Shams. Rumi claims numerous times throughout the Divan that it is Shams who speaks through him and much of his poetry speaks of an effacement of boundaries between the two:

During the day I was singing with you.
At night we slept in the same bed.
I wasn’t conscious day or night.
I thought I knew who I was,
but I was you. (Quatrains 1242)

During the time they were together Rumi and Shams had effaced their selves in the face of their love and that is what allowed Rumi to write his poetry and say they emerged from Shams, for the distinction between lover and loved had already been erased. Rumi puts it beautifully:

When one is united to the core of another, to speak of that
is to breathe the name Hu, empty of self,
and filled with love. (Masnavi 4044)

  1. 3.      Apophasis: Negation and Affirmation in Rumi’s poetry

That Rumi’s work was much influenced by Shams is an understatement. After Shams, Rumi seems to have dedicated himself to poetry. Shams encouraged Rumi to distance himself from the writings of others and to focus more on the practice of spirituality. Rumi’s practice reflects itself in his poetry. As much as the Divan extols Shams, the praise is cogent upon Shams acting as a gateway to Allah. It was through Shams that Rumi would reach God. At heart of all of Rumi’s poetry is his unflinching, complete devotion to Allah. This devotion reflects itself in a number of ways.

The content of Rumi’s poems have been appropriated these days as sort of secular love poetry that transcends religions and boundaries. As poetry, it does transcend boundaries and there is nothing wrong with interpretations but to understand Rumi truly, one has to identify the theological underpinnings that the love poetry spouted from. For Rumi is not simply writing love poetry, his poems profess loyalty and love for Allah. They are simultaneously expressions of ultimate love and the base human love that leads to the ultimate Beloved.

Contradictions are common in Rumi’s poetry. An example is the simple but beautiful:

Come to the orchard in Spring.
There is light and wine, and sweethearts in the pomegranate flowers.
If you do not come, these do not matter.
If you do come these do not matter” (Quatrains 914)

Rumi begins with descriptions, as he mostly does. He fixates upon the everyday expressions of God’s will. The “you” is the beloved here and Rumi makes clear, by way of negation, that it is the beloved who matters and not the beauty he has just described. He displays both instances to his first exhortation of “come” (arrival/non-arrival) and in both cases, the setting does not matter, implying that it is the beloved who matters and whose beauty effaces that of the orchard in Spring.

The central problem that lies at the heart of all Islamic art is thus: how to represent the unrepresentable, to put it simply, but better yet: the problem of transcendence. In Islam, like the other Abrahamic religions, God is mostly transcendent (a full discussion on the Abrahamic God as immanent or transcendent are beyond the scope of this paper so I will assume, for brevity’s sake, the transcendence of God, which, I believe, is the more commonly held assumption). God is beyond the sphere of things, as He is the one who created the world ex nihilo. In the face of such a revelation, it is understood that God’s essence is something that no created being or object can ever suffice to describe. There is nothing comparable as everything falls short and there is nothing describable for it is impossible to describe something that is beyond the realm of imagination. The transcendent God is such a being and to compound the problem, Islam’s strict prohibition of the creation (and worship) of idols, leads one to wonder just how Muslim writers and artists, Rumi included, were ever able to carry out discourse on God.

Michael Lewis, in his book on mysticism Mystical Languages of Unsaying, calls this an aporia, borrowing from the Greeks, where it means an irresolvable problem. The problem easily stated is this: “The transcendent must be beyond names, ineffable. In order to claim that the transcendent is beyond names, however, I must give it a name, “the transcendent.” Any statement of ineffability, “X is beyond names,” generates the aporia that that subject of the statement must be named (as X) in order for us to affirm that it is beyond names” (Lewis 2). This problem might seem irrelevant to Rumi, as he almost never speaks of God as such, but always by pointing. The beloved is always a stand-in for God, as it was in Nizami and in various other Sufi writers and poets. Once understood that the beloved is God, everything falls into place. The poem being read or the story being told takes on a new hue and love for another becomes love for God.

Rumi escapes the aporia by refraining from speaking of any transcendence. The form of poetry is that it is ineffable. The problem of aporia is one that is language-based. Since language is a human creation, it cannot describe anything that is not in the human world. Language works within a symbolic order where every word is a signifier corresponding to a signified in the stable, objective reality. But as I have discussed earlier, the reality that we humans know is not stable at all. It is a world of passage and in such a world, language as semiotics doesn’t work. Consider:

Silence! For there are a hundred thousand differences between the tongue’s utterance and the light of revelation. (Divan 230)

Although Rumi was led away from words by Shams, he retains his love of language through poetry. Rumi’s poetry is not bound by semiotics, although it takes place within language. Poetry pushes the boundaries of language by not pointing but alluding. It doesn’t come coded with a fixed association that is unchanging. The affect of poetry depends upon what it evokes, not what it signifies. Rumi makes use of this attribute and thusly, escapes aporia. He is able to lead us to God, not by pointing out what God is but by setting us on a path that has as its end, Allah.

Rumi is much more interested in God’s attributes. Annemarie Schimmel, in her own study of Rumi, quotes the Prophet in this context: “Think little about the essence of God but think about his attributes” (Schimmel 237). Rumi understands ‘attributes’ as God’s various roles and not the anthropomorphic attributes that others have ascribed to Allah: “this is as blameworthy as calling a man Fatema. What is an honour for woman is a shame for man; and although hands and feet are an honour for human beings, it does not apply to the Divine Being” (Schimmel 237). To cast God in the role of the beloved is similar to this anthropomorphic attribution. For as human beings, one can only fall in love with another human being and despite the understanding that this being is simply a pathway to God, that this love is a creative expression of God’s love, there is still the problem of confusing the beloved with God. This is a problem that many casual readers of Rumi might face once they’ve gotten past the veil of secularism that has now been cast on his poetry. Rumi’s poems offer a novel way out of this fallacy. Here a poem:

I met last night in stealth with Wisdom’s elder
begged him to divulge in full life’s secrets
This he softly, softly whispered in my ear:
It must be seen, it can’t be told, so hush! (Divan 1035, Lewis 391)

Here Rumi recounts one of the basic tenets of Sufism: that the mystical secrets cannot be told and can only be experienced. The experiental nature of this knowledge means that Rumi’s poems, no matter how beautiful, could ever tell of it and do it justice. Rumi therefore seeks to only point to the Truth, give one directions on seeking out this Truth. Rumi goes a little farther though, by reflecting the roles that God takes on, Rumi hopes to showcase some of the power and majesty of God so as to encourage the unenlightened onto the right path.

An interesting characteristic of Rumi’s poetry is its use of negation, what Micheal Lewis calls apophasis or unsaying (Lewis 2-3). To affirm the transcendence of something, first it has to be categorised as ‘something’, while falling victim (knowingly) to the representationality of language. The second part is the apophasis, the unsaying of what was previously said, through an allusion or through form. Consider this quatrain from the Divan:

We’ve left our jobs and craft and store in flames
We’ve learned our ghazals and lyrics, lines of verse
In love, he’s heart and soul, our very eyes
We’ve left all three – heart, soul and eyes – in flames. (Divan 1293, Lewis 392)

In the previous poem, Rumi’s apophasis came as a negation of what was asserted before, namely that of the worldly in the face of the Beloved (‘he’). There is first an affirmation of the worldly duties that the pious would undertake. Rumi begins as if he were describing the right path by abandoning the material (jobs, craft and store) in favour of the spiritual (ghazals, lyrics, lines of verse) and progressed to the path of love. But Rumi still asserts that God resides in ‘our’ heart and soul and our eyes, only to negate it all in the last line as a sort of punchline (characteristic of Rumi’s quatrains). All that was asserted before is negated as even heart and soul are human attributes and to cast God with such attributes would be impossible. Only with the last line does Rumi both affirm and negate. The affirmation comes about as a result of the negation, it is not explicitly ever said. By saying that ‘we’ve’ left heart, soul and eyes in flames, Rumi is pointing towards the God that is transcendent, who requires the complete annihilation of all humanly characteristic as He is beyond all. This is how Rumi confirms the transcendence of Allah, not by directly bringing Him into language but by negating the worldly in favour of the Divine. This doubling back is characteristic of apophasis, which has been seen as “religious and anti-religious; as theistic, pantheistic, and atheistic; as pious and libertine; as orthodox and heretical” (Lewis 12).

In many of his poems, Rumi negates the very being of the I and the You. This boundary that separates the I from the other is dissolved in Rumi, not simply through saying as to say the I dissolves in the You is still to say the I and the You. Rumi goes further by presenting a theology closely bound in contrasts. Lewis characterises apophasis once again as something that has “as a subject matter neither divine nor human, neither self nor other” (Lewis 12-13). Rumi’s apophasis is also of this sort, that which rejects all boundary by presenting openly contradictory instances of experience that one cannot help but be confronted by the ultimate unknowability of God. Schimmel comments at length on Rumi’s love of contrasts: “if a bird has tasted sweet water he will understand the brackish taste of the water in his native brooklet” (Schimmel 231). Rumi’s understanding of God as creator is dependent upon his understanding of God as destroyer. Islam, in its strict monotheism, offers God as the ultimate source of everything, whether good or bad. The inclusion of another being to rival God (Satan as equally powerful) is incomprehensible. Rumi’s poetry is one built upon this nature of contrasts: God as khafid, He who lowers, and God as rafi, He who raises (Schimmel 231). By offering contradictory natures, God is elevated beyond this world where such contradictions are mutually exclusive.

In the world of Reality everything is still undifferentiated, but in the world of forms separation and union are possible. (Masnavi II 3695)

The duality of the I and the You must first be confirmed if there is to be any union. Fana fi’Allah is dependent upon the separation of the I from Allah. First the contrast must be stated, then the union, but for there to be union, the negation is absolutely necessary. There are forms and Rumi does not deny that but for Rumi, the forms are transitory and fleeting, their essence is what remains unchanged and unknowable, except at the moment of union: “man usually sees only the movement of the waterwheel but not the water which causes it to turn” (Schimmel 231). But these forms are necessary to understand what is beyond the forms, for true knowledge is a knowledge of contrasts, “only by the contrast of light one recognizes light” (Schimmel 232).

There will be misconceptions and misunderstanding for only Allah know His will and our world is a world that only reflects His decisions. These misunderstandings are natural but one must be careful not to be limited by them, one has to move past them, always in pursuit of the essence:

“How many enmities that were friendship! How many destructions that were renovation!” (Masnavi V 106)

Or as Rumi states in two different places, the love of contrasts:

I love both His Kindness and His wrath ­-
Strange that I love these two opposites! (Masnavi I 1570)

When I am with you, we stay up all night.
When you’re not here, I can’t go to sleep.
Praise God for these two insomnias!
And the difference between them” (Quatrains 36).

The contrast presented here, in both these verses, profess a love of the contrast, along with a love of both extremes. While this contrast is not exactly contradictory, it goes against logic and a common understanding of love and desire. Rumi understands that one cannot have the pleasure of union without the hurt of separation and he learns to take joy in the separation itself, not just for the sake of the union but on its own terms. The pursuit then is of both extremes, both poles, while holding fast to the idea that both poles are fleeting. While fleeting, they hide kernels of Truth and it is through this pursuit of both poles that one is able to attempt to understand the transcendence of the Truth.

  1. 4.      Conclusion: Rumi as Sufi exemplar

While the origins of Rumi’s poetry are distinctly Muslim and Sufi in nature, this hasn’t stopped his poetry from being extremely widespread and influential. From German romanticism to American transcendentalism, Rumi’s influence has been broad and deep. What is beautiful is that Rumi’s mystical aspirations continue to shine through the various translations that his work has been put through. Although I doubt the translation ever do full justice to the Persian originals, they retain most of his ideas, his beautiful imagery and the longing for the Beloved that characterises his work. What I cannot speak about is the form of the poems. Being unable to read them in the original, it would be presumptuous to try to speak of matters of form when one cannot access the form in its originality. The assonance and texture of words, the play of certain words off of others, the rhyme schemes and patterns can be described at length in English but it makes for very boring reading and imparts little of the effect it would have if one were able to actually read it. Rumi’s content though is largely preserved and it is this that I have sought to analyse and comment upon.

Through meticulous readings and research, it has lately become obvious that Rumi’s body of work is the work of a Sufi exemplar beyond comparison. While Ibn Arabi and other Sufi mystics commented at length upon God’s transcendence and the nature of mysticism through Lewis’ apophasis, Rumi integrated this form of discourse in his poems itself, combining the theory and practice. The poems, it seems, were very practical for Rumi. They teach and they impart the knowledge that Rumi considers worth following. It helps that Rumi presents a consistent theology, which although contradictory at times, doesn’t take away from his consistence. There is remarkable consistency in the contradictions. But this is poetry, which itself is a play of contrasts, that of attempting to express the ineffable through the most inadequate of devices: language.

Rumi’s theology places God at the centre of all thought. He is around which Rumi’s life and orientation revolves. Although Rumi’s espousal of tolerance has been rightly praised, his  was a personal pursuit of Allah. In this manner, Rumi represents the Sufi ideal who not only expressed his annihilation in the form of ecstatic sayings and Godly intoxication but actively sought to bring others into the light. This should be constructed as an evangelical gesture, for Rumi did not seek to convert. His poems lack the specificity and doomsaying of the evangelists. Rumi is a true spiritual guide. He asks from his readers what is most precious to them: life itself.

The sufi opens his hands to the universe
and gives away each instant, free.
Unlike someone who begs on the street for money to survive,
a dervish begs to give you his life. (Quatrains 686)

Rumi asserts that that are many paths to God, just as there are many beloveds. In beautiful verse, beautiful imagery, Rumi calls the faithful, who he calls “pilgrims” onto the path to enlightenment, one that will see this world of forms for what it is, differentiated and categorised. Once recognised, the true believer, the true seeker of Knowledge will pursue the path of the Sufi, the mystic, in seeking out God through the path of Love. Harken, as Rumi calls:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a filed. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in the grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense. (Quatrains 158)


The End




A note on quotations and translations: The Quatrains quoted in this paper were translated by John Moyne and Coleman Barks while the quotations from the Divan are translations by AJ Arberry. A few translations from the Divan and the Masnavi by Franklin Lewis have also been used and are noted in the citations as ‘Lewis’ and in a rare instance, from Annemarie Schimmel.

Works Cited


Lewis, Franklin. Rumi: past and Present, East and West : the Life, Teaching and Poetry of Jalâl Al-Din Rumi. Oxford: Oneworld, 2000. Print.

Rūmī, Jalāl Al-Din. Mystical Poems of Rūmī. Trans. A. J. Arberry. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1968. Print.

Rumi, Jalāl Al-Din. Open Secret: Versions of Rumi. Trans. John Moyne and Coleman Barks. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 1999. Print.

Schimmel, Annemarie. The Triumphal Sun: a Study of the Works of Jalāloddin Rumi. Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1993. Print.

Sells, Michael Anthony. Early Islamic Mysticism: Sufi, Qurʼan, Miraj, Poetic and Theological Writings. New York: Paulist, 1996. Print.

Sells, Michael Anthony. Mystical Languages of Unsaying. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1994. Print.

Works Consulted

Abu-Bakr, Omaima. “Abrogation of the Mind in the Poetry of Jalal Al-Din Rumi.” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 14 (1994): 37-63. Print.

Ghazzālī. Sawānih: Inspirations from the World of Pure Spirits.The Oldest Persian Sufi Treatise on Love. New York: KPI, 1986. Print.

Rumi, Jalāl Al-Din. Selected Poems from the Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi: along with the Original Persian. Trans. Reynold Alleyne Nicholson. Bethesda, MD: Ibex, 2001. Print.

Rumi, Jalāl Al-Din. The Mathnawii of Jalalu’ddin Rumi. Trans. Reynold Alleyne Nicholson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. Print.

Wilson, Peter Lamborn., and Naṣr Allāh. Pūrjavādī. The Drunken Universe: an Anthology of Persian Sufi Poetry. Grand Rapids, MI: Phanes, 1987. Print.



One Response

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  1. Rumi wrote “The lamp is different, but the light is the same. Love alone can end their quarrel. Love alone comes to the rescue when you cry for help against their arguments.”

    Scriptures, theologians and many religious leaders tell us what the divine is by listing grandiose attributes. Most mystics worship personal aspects of the divine, but they also speak of what it is not. Many of them said that the divine essence is nothing, i.e. no thing, that it is immanent in all things, yet it is transcendent to everything. Mystics consider this seeming paradox to be a positive negation.

    Avidya, non-knowledge in Sanskrit, is used in Buddhism for our “spiritual ignorance” of the true nature of Reality. Bila kaif, without knowing how in Arabic, is Islam’s term for “without comparison” to describe Allah. Ein Sof, without end in Hebrew, is the “infinite beyond description” in the Kabbalah. Neti, neti, not this, not this in Sanskrit, refers to “unreality of appearances” to define Brahman. In via negativa, the way of negation in Latin, God is “not open to observation or description.”

    Mysticism emphasizes spiritual knowing, which is not rational and is independent of reason, logic or images. Da`at is Hebrew for “the secret sphere of knowledge on the cosmic tree.” Gnosis is Greek for the “intuitive apprehension of spiritual truths.” Jnana is Sanskrit for “knowledge of the way” to approach Brahman. Ma`rifa in Arabic is “knowledge of the inner truth.” Panna in Pali is “direct awareness”; perfect wisdom. These modes of suprarational knowing, perhaps described as complete intuitive insight, are not divine oneness; they are actualizing our inherent abilities to come closer to the goal.

    (quoted from “the greatest achievement in life,” my free ebook on comparative mysticism)

    Ron Krumpos

    December 14, 2011 at 8:49 PM

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