A poet who spoke to everyone
Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi was a Persian Muslim poet and mystic theologian who lived in the 13th Century. He was born in Balkh, a region now in the area where Afghanistan and Tajikistan meet. As a child, this region came under the threat of Mongol invaders. So, his family began a long trek that eventually ended with them settling in Konya in Asiatic Anatolia, now part of Turkey.
Throughout Rumi’s life, there was a great deal of political and social conflict. Rumi’s family was caught in a vise-like collision of forces, threatened by Mongol invaders from the East and Crusaders from the West.
Early in his adult life, Rumi was a prestigious Islamic lawyer and scholar, but he developed a friendship with an eccentric mystic dervish named Shams-e-Tabriz, which means Shams of Tabriz, a city in what is today Iran.
Shams introduced Rumi to the wondrous depths of mysticism and the two men became great friends, learning a great deal from each other. However, one night, Shams was murdered, allegedly by jealous followers of Rumi.
In his grief and his thankfulness for Shams’ friendship, Rumi’s creativity exploded in poetry that was stunning in its scope and creativity. Much of his poetry is famous for its ecstatic delight in ordinary encounters with nature and everyday activities. Rumi’s poems in Persian are still widely read in Central Asia and the Middle East, and through translations, his work is very popular in the United States today. He also wrote poetry in Arabic, Greek and Oghuz Turkish.
Rumi explored themes and concepts that were central to Sufi thought, such as unity and turning toward the truth. He believed that music, poetry and dancing were pathways reaching toward God. After his death, Rumi’s teachings led to the formation of the Mevlevi Order of “whirling dervishes,” who created a sacred dance that represents a mystical journey through the mind and love to the
Perfect. Rumi taught that when one returns from this mystical journey, one will be able to love and serve the whole creation without prejudices that discriminate against a person’s belief, race, class, or nationality.
Early in his life, Rumi lived in a religiously diverse region. Balkh was rich with Buddhists, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians all living together. Rumi had friendly relationships with all the people he met in these various faith traditions. He was a devout Musim, completing the hajj to Mecca early in his life. In a quote traditionally attributed to Rumi, the poet said,
I am not a Christian, a Jew, a Zoroastrian, or a Muslim. This quote was not an expression of unbelief. Instead, it reveals that Rumi believed deeply in humanity and in the oneness of God, which transcends human differences and touches all people.
In his personal life as well as his poetry, Rumi crossed lines of religious difference. His first wife was Muslim. After her death, Rumi married a woman believed to be a Christian, even though, at the time, Christian and Muslim warriors were entangled in bloody battles of the Crusades. When he died, his funeral lasted 40 days, attended by grieving Muslims, Christians, and Jews as well as by people from Greek, Arab, and Persian cultures.
Rumi truly was a man whose heart and poetry embraced all humanity. Here are a few lines from his lengthy poem,
Masnavi, a cycle of verse that eventually stretched to more than 50,000 lines:
Love’s nationality is separate from all other religions,
The lover’s religion and nationality is the Beloved (God).
The lovers’ cause is separate from all other causes
Love is the astrolabe of God’s mysteries.