Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi and Islamic Spirituality

Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi and Islamic Spirituality

FAR AWAY, in the plains of central Turkey, there is a conical turquoise dome, unique in its form and beauty. Beneath it lies a medieval refugee from Central Asia. He is reported to be the best-selling poet in North America. He is widely regarded as a leading representative of the acceptable face of Islam. He is claimed as their fellow-countryman by admirers in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and especially Turkey. And he is also regarded by many as the forerunner, centuries in advance, of a New Age. He is the Majesty of the Faith, Muhammad son of Muhammad, of Asia Minor by residence. He is Jalal ai-Din Rumi.

Search for “the name “Rumi” on the Worldwide Web and you get, as of early 2005, 822,000 “hits”. There are books light and heavy including several novels, articles, websites, calendars, paintings, exhibitions, recordings, videos, drama and ballet performances, fan clubs, and even restaurants connected in some way with him – or, at least, with his name. He has been represented as a quasi-contemporary poetic voice; as a sage tranquilly dispensing messages of love and universal tolerance; as a love poet totally out of control; and so on.

How far do the authentic voice, personality, and teachings of this remarkable man differ from the misrepresentations? What does the real Rumi have to tell us today, given that so many different ideas and viewpoints have been attributed to him?


Jalal al-Din Muhammad ibn Muhammad was born in 604/1207, either in the city of Balkh (now in Afghanistan) or perhaps in a small town called Vakhsh (now in Tajikistan). His background was a scholarly, Persian-speaking, Sunni Islam. His father Baha’ al-Din Valad was a religious scholar and a mystic whose written Meditations (Ma’arif) clearly influenced his son. In about 1219, probably because of the threat of invasion by the Mongols, the family travelled west to Baghdad, then performed Hajj. Like many of those who had emigrated from the East they then proceeded to Asia Minor, where they lived for some years in various towns before finally settling in Konya. By this time Jalal al-Din and his wife Gawhar Khatun had two sons. In 1231, Baha’ al-Din Valad died and was succeeded in his teaching post by Jalal al-Din, who had received a traditional training in the Islamic sciences. He was recognized as a scholar of WanaW fiqh: and his answer to a legal question can be found in the Discourses (tr. Arberry, p.79). The next year, Burhan al-Din Muhaqqiq Tirmizi, a former disciple of Baha’ al-Din Valad, arrived in Konya to supervise Jalal’s further training. Under the guidance of Burhan, whose Persian Ma ‘arif awaits serious study, the young scholar travelled the spiritual path of Sufism, learned to flourish in the hardship of asceticism (zuhd) and spiritual retreat (khalwa), and enhanced his learning and experience through two periods of study in Syria. While there he may have encountered some of the leading Sufis of the day. This period ended with Muhaqqiq’s death in 1240. Jalal al-Din was by now a respected scholar and preacher in Konya, in Sufism as well as in Hanafi jurisprudence and other religious sciences. In time he gained influence with the most important political figures of the day. Some he corresponded with, and some came to visit and learn from him.


By now, the event that revolutionized Jalal alDin Rumi’s life has influenced the lives of millions. In 642/1244 a wandering dervish named Shams al-Din Tabrizi arrived in Konya. In the first encounter between the two men, Shams (whose name means “Sun”) showed Jalal al-Din that there were realms of knowledge and experience that remained closed to him. Both found that in one another’s company and guidance a door to spiritual realization had become unlocked, opening the way to love in the purest form a human being can know. Intoxicated with this love, Jalal al-Din no longer cared what others thought The radiance of Shams’ presence was the radiance of God Himself. Had not the Prophet Jacob suffered inexpressible sorrow at the loss of his son Joseph, a peerless reflection of Divine Beauty? For well over a year, Jalal and Shams were almost constantly together before Shams suddenly vanished, fleeing the jealousy of his companion’s disciples. Jalal’s loyal son Sultan Valad was sent to find him, and eventually brought him back from Damascus to Konya. Not long afterwards, however, Shams disappeared again – this time forever.

Who was Shams al-Din Tabrizi? Contrary to general belief, a fair amount is known about him. Besides the testimony of Mawlana Rumi’s biographers, his collected miscellaneous sayings (Maqalat) in Persian have survived. Shams was a highly educated man, a Shafi’i who had studied numerous works on fiqh. It was part of his way as a Sufi to conceal his true self from others and to shun respectability and diplomatic behaviour. We learn from the Maqalat that the main purpose of Shams’s travels was to find a true Friend of God (WaIi Allah), or saint In the Maqalat (no.385) he describes his first meeting with Mawlana. According to this version, Shams questioned him about the great Iranian Sufi Bayazid Bastami and why he had not found it necessary to say to God, as the Blessed Prophet had said, “We have not known You as You deserve to be known.” The Maqalat also reveal how greatly Shams admired Jalal al-Din as a scholar and spiritual figure who possessed qualities that he did not, and served as a teacher to him. Thus the relationship was not of the normal type between master and disciple.

Although Mawlana Rumi suffered grief at the loss of his teacher, it must be remembered that as a spiritual master he knew – through realization, not in theory alone – that all that is worth loving is ultimately attributable to the Divine Beloved and to no other. But Shams al-Din had demanded of him everything he had, in order that he transcend the bounds of conventional, cautious piety in the quest for complete iUumination. What he mourned so eloquently was the loss of that overwhelming inner sunlight, and of the companion – for him the Perfect Guide but a scruffy, boorish impostor in the eyes of many – who had completed his spiritual direction and been his continual inspiration.


With time, the impact of the trauma waned. That which Shams had essentially represented to him Jalal al-Din now found within himself, and in companions like Husam al-Din Chalabi, the chief inspiration of his immense poetical masterpiece, the Mystical MathnawL His equilibrium regained, Rumi lived on for over twenty years, supervising the training of his disciples (some of which was deputed to others) and teaching through discourses, letters, and poetry. His death in 672/1273 was mourned not only by Muslims but also by Ronya’s large Christian population. The future direction of the spiritual brotherhood rested in the capable hands of Sultan Valad. Founder of what became known as the Mevlevi Sufi Order (Tariqa), Valad was also an able administrator, diplomat and writer whose works include die collected Discourses, a Diwan, and a tiiree long didactic poems that together form an inside account (with some poetic exaggerations) of his father’s life.


Rumi’s lyric poetry has the intensity of a man who has given everything, lost everything, and once again in found everything. At times, praise of Shams reaches near-blasphemous heights. It is as though the light of his spiritual being was nothing other than the Divine Light itself. The poems are collected in the Diwan, originally known as Diwan-i Shams al-Haqa’iq or Diwan-i Kabir (the Great Diwan), which comprises about 40,000 verses, composed over more than thirty years. Resides ghazals, there are also qua- trains and longer stanzaic poems. Most are in praise of love of the Divine and the ecstasy of the lover “crazy” enough to give everything in his quest for the Beloved. Seyyed Hossein Nasr has aptly described them as “crystalliza- tions” of spiritual states; closeness to God, lon- ging, separation, hope, fear, self-reproach, exul- tation. They also contain narratives with morals, generally in briefer form than in the MathnawL These poems were chanted at the assemblies of Mevlevi dervishes. Later manuscripts and editions include many inauthentic poems. Several found their way into Selected poems from the Diwan-i Shams-i Tabriz, an early work of the same R. A. Nicholson whose excellent edition and painstaking translation and commentary of the Mathnawi have earned him the epithet Niku-lisan (“of goodly tongue”) from Husayn Ilahi Qumsha’i, a leading scholar of Persian thought and literature.

Rumi claimed not to care for poetry, alleging that he only composed it to please his authence, who had not the same appetite for sermons as people in Central Asia. Arberry and others, following Sultan Valad’s imagery, assert that Jalal al-Din was “wholly incapable of controlling the torrent of poetry that poured forth from him.” But the quality of the poetry shows technical mastery as well as eloquence and ingenuity. One of the Tarji’at comprises seven stanzas of twelve couplets, and their coherence is exemplary. Rumi also uses a wider variety of metres than any other Persian poet. The range of imagery and symbolism employed testifies to an extraordinary power of unitive vision.

Here are two examples of the way the poet sets the stage, evoking the quality of the moment, at the beginning of a stanzaic poem.


This brings us to the Mathnawi, Jalal al-Din’s masterpiece. This immense poem, which is a kind of treatise in rhyming couplets on Islamic spirituality comprising six parts, is also quantitatively vast, comprising over 25,000 verses. Those who know Arabic but not Persian may be interested to read the beautiful prefaces to the six Books (dqftars). Each deals with one or two themes of spirituality. The fifth, for example, sets out the relationship between the Sacred Law (Shari’a), Inner Reality (Haqiqa), and the Way (Tariqa). The Mathnawi was famously praised by the Sufi poet and metaphysician ‘Abd alRahman Jami (d. 1492) as being “the Qur’an in Persian.” This is poetic hyperbole; but certainly the Mathnawi offers, amongst other things, profound commentary on many passages of the Holy Qur’an. The Orientalists’ notion that the Mathnawi is rambling and lacking coherence is a serious error, for while the connecting thread may at times be subtle, time and again two or more themes are skilfully interwoven, left for a page or so, then resumed. While most of the tales in the poem are not original, the poet’s treatment of them is. Between the stories come passages in which the moral is dwelt upon (perhaps another reason for comparison with Islam’s Holy Book). The Mathnawi is like a kaleidoscope in which the author puts on view the multiple patterns of human existence. Mawlana himself described the poem as the Shop of Unity.


“All have – in their own view – become my close companion; / they have not sought the secrets from within me.” These words from the prologue to the Mathnawi have proved to be prophetic.

One kind of writing about Rumi emanates from writers whose success in presenting him as “relevant” and as speaking with a contemporary voice has earned their work tremendous popularity. By far the most popular and influential translator is Coleman Barks, an American professor of English literature who collaborates with Iranian-born John Moyne (born as Mu’in). Barks has sold a phenomenal number of books, and is also an accomplished public reciter. Another contemporary poet, Robert BIy, takes a similar view as to where to pitch the balance between accuracy and using familiar expressions. They have brought Rumi to the masses even if (as Frank Lewis, author of the one indispensable English book on Rumi, puts it) the poet had to become a naturalised American in the process.

Another kind of writing presents Jalal al-Din as a sage whose storehouse of colourful wisdom provides limitless material to present in handy, soundbite-sized pieces in various media: calendars, little “books of wisdom” that hang around the checkout areas of bookstores like candy bars in supermarkets; and even Tarotstyle cards.

Mawlana Rumi is often presented to the unwary as an apostle of tolerance who readily accepted all religious faiths as equally valid manifestations of a universal religion of love. Verses that appear to support this view include the following: “What is to be done, 0 Moslems? For I do not recognise myself / I am neither Christian, nor Jew, nor Gabr, nor Moslem” and “The man of God is beyond infidelity and religion / to the man of God right and wrong are alike” Selected poems from the Diwan-i Shamsi Tabriz, pp.125 & 31). But the poems in question are not present in any manuscripts from the first few centuries after Rumi’s death. Found in Indian printed editions, they were misattributed by admirers with ideas and motives of their own, and are altogether out of tune with Rumi’s poetical style and his thinking.

It is quite true that Mawlana saw positive things in non-Muslims, as he saw the good aspect of all things. Otherwise, he would hardly have (for example) written letters of counsel to Gurji Rhatun, a Georgian princess, wife of Par- vana Mu’in al-Din who was governor of Ronya under the Mongols and used to visit Mawlana. His rejection of Christian doctrine, however, is made very clear in an abrupt dismissal of the allegation that Muslims secretly accepted that Jesus Christ was God: “How could it be that a frail body, fleeing from the Jews’ plotting from place to place, whose form was less than two cubits, should be the preserver of the seven heavens … Moreover, before Jesus is He who was the Creator of the heavens and the earth – glory be to Him, above what the wrongdoers assert!” (Discourses, tr. Arberry, pp. 134-5).

Above: Whirling Dervishes beginning the sema
©Aasil Kazi Ahmad

Some of the mistranslations perpetrated by writers working with Persian-speaking collaborators seem too dire to be accidental. Possibly some arise from the desire to “reach out to a wider readership” regardless of any need for fidelity. In any case, although all these writers have contributed to Rumi’s worldwide renown and acclaim, the reader should be warned that what they are getting is sometimes a “filtration” rather than a translation. Here are a couple of examples. For a longer, though selective, list by Ibrahim Gamard including full details and footnotes, readers with internet access are recommended to visit the following website URL: www.dar-al-masnavi.org/corrections_popular.htm.

The original meaning of the lines which Barks and Moyne (Open secret: versions of Rumi, p.71) render as: “If you don’t have a woman living with you, why aren’t you looking? If you have one, why aren’t you satisfied?” is plain enough. They were accurately translated by Arberry as follows: “If you have no beloved, why do you not seek one? And if you have attained the Beloved, why do you not rejoice?” Elsewhere, Barks attributes this to Mawlana Rumi: “Listen and obey the hushed language. Go naked.” Arberry, reliable if unpoetical, renders this as “Unto his hushed lament / attend thou obethent Go not without the veil / so runs his whispered tale.” What this line actually means is that one should not divulge to others the secrets of divine love. In fairness to Coleman Barks, one must add that some of his versions manage to both sparkle with life and come close to the wording of the original.

When the work of translators who do not know Persian is followed and “improved on” by others, the results are sometimes bizarre. In one edition of Arberry’s translations of selected poems from the Diwan, the word “blind” was misprinted as “blond”. Barks, applying selectively the principle of taqlid (imitation) then came up with the following:

I know it’s tempting to stay and meet those blonde

women. I know

it’s even more sensible to spend the night here

with them, but I want to be home.

What Arberry wrote (Mystical poems of Rumi: second selection, Chicago 1979, p.76) was this:

Bright-hearted companions, haste, despite all the blond [= “blind”] ones, to home, to home! You reasonable, sober, full of sorrow, do not disturb our hearts! To home, to home!

This spectacular instance of “the blind misleading the blind” also exemplifies the kind of anachronisms visited on the memory of Rumi by those anxious to make him speak in terms easily accessible to the person in the street today.

Another popular translator, Shahram Shiva, is of Iranian extraction but has lived in New York for many years. Besides having translated a good many Rumi poems, some of them (like the famous poem beginning “Come back, come back, whoever you may be”) are both inauthentic and unfaithful to the true Rumi, Shiva performs readings in public and maintains a sizeable website. He also operates one of the modern “spin-offs” of the Mevlevi tradition: having developed by himself a special technique of “whirling”, he teaches courses on “whirling” in this art.

The potential of Rumiesque teachings to enhance present-day self-development exercises has been grasped by famous exponents such as Deepak Chopra. Through their influence, in turn, famous personalities such as the singer and actress Madonna have become acquainted with the sage of Konya and expressed enthusiasm for his teachings.

Yet another category of Rumiana emanates from thinkers who have engaged in a serious way with Jalal al-Din and Shams al-Din as Muslim holy men whose importance is universal because of their unique intensity and accessibility. Andrew Harvey, an English dropout from academia and follower of the Hindu Mother Meera, has analysed some key passages from Mawlana Rumi. His translations, however, tend to be discoloured by his apparent desire to find homosexual interpretations and by a predilection for expressions such as “fiery” and “burning” even where the poem has no mention of them. “Rumi is one of the greatest mystic poets in the world. He is also, I believe, of all the great poets and religious masters that we have, the supreme master of adoration” (The Way of Passion, p.3-4). “The Path that Shams has set down for humanity and that Rumi is talking about demands total sacrifice. Rumi and Shams are not talking about having mystic feelings; they are talking about burning away to become the Beloved, to live as the Beloved.” (Ibid., p.79).

The above examples apart, the manifestations of the new cult of Rumi are too numerous to cover in the present article. Chapter 15 of Lewis’s admirable book covers many of them. More positively, the widespread recognition of a Muslim saint and writer as having a message uniquely fitted to the needs of our time marks a new epoch in postmodern appreciation of Islamic thought and spirituality.


Revered throughout the Islamic world, Rumi is also of course a spiritual figurehead to Muslims. The sources are replete with miraculous stories, but the simple realities are impressive enough. Mawlana is at the same time a sage, love’s madman, and a poet of supreme power and virtuosity.

In Turkey, Egypt, Syria and other lands of the Near East, the Mevlevi Order – whose rules and organization were largely set down by Sultan Valad – continued to thrive for centuries, gradually acquiring a Turkish acculturation. The Mevlevis were especially influential in Ottoman Turkey; many important statesmen, ulema, and men of letters belonged to the Order. In some mosques, Mesnevihans were employed to chant the Mathnawi for the benefit of pious deceased Muslims who had left funds for the purpose. The Mevlevis became famous in Europe as the Whirling Dervishes; tourists were allowed into certain Mevlevihanes to witness the sema ritual. Sufi brotherhoods in the Republic of Turkey were outlawed by Atatürk, and although Mawlana’s tekke and tomb in Konya soon reopened as the “Mevlana Museum” the Order itself was driven underground, to be popularized towards the end of the twentieth century by Suleyman Hayati Dede, who initiated many Westerners. Several decades passed before the sema was performed again in public – this time as a promotion of the Konya Tourist Board and as a professional touring outfit Whatever the circumstances, the ceremony never fails to move spectators.

In Persian-speaking and -reading lands, the Mathnawi was cherished and revered, and (as with other poetical masterpieces) a great many ordinary working people did and do study and cherish the work, learning parts by heart The Diwan was mostly the province of dervishes who sang it in their sessions of sema (musical remembrance of God), until in modern times it finally entered the purview of Iranian literary scholarship. Above all, though, it is the wisdom in Rumi’s teachings that is most prized among Muslims. His predecessors among didactic Persian Sufi poets, Sana’i and ‘Attar, were giants. No one, however, has rivalled Rumi in accessibility and universal appeal. In the next section we shall look at a few passages from his writings.


One of the Mawlana Rumi’s exceptional qualities is the facility with which he resolves some of the thornier problems of dualities. For those perplexed as to the relation between such alternatives as predestination (qadar, jabr) and freewill (ikhtiyar), outer form (suraf) and inner reality (maiii), meditation (fikr) and invocation (dhikr); and for those fearful of life’s inevitable hardships and of death, there are words of profound, non-simplistic wisdom that bring solace and enlightenment

A keynote of Rumi’s thought is that on the level of ultimate truth (haqiqa) the appearance of individual existences apart from Allah Most High is illusory (see e.g. Mathnawi I, 1783-8). Attachment to our customary sensory perception things stops us seeing them as they truly are:

Seeing things as they truly are involves breaking through one’s normal perception of the world of forms to see the Reality and the meaning that informs them (Mathnawi, III 578-80). “Man is an immense volume; within him all things are written; but veils and darknesses do not allow him to read that knowledge within himself … Consider when these darknesses and veils are removed, how then he will be apprised and what varieties of knowledge he will discover within him!” (Discourses, Xr. Arberry, pp. 61-2). The spiritual Path is also the means to discover one’s true self behind the layers of pretence and illusion (MathnawiWl, 5774-6):

Lastly what you get here and Hereafter, is what you give: “This world is like a mountain, and all you say / comes back to you, carried by the echo.” (Mathnawil I, 2188).


It will by now be apparent that Jalal al-Din Rumi does not favour simplistic solutions or wishful thinking. Nor, again, does he offer a systematic philosophy. Anyone who knows his writings will have his or her own favourite passages. What follows is a small selection, covering just a handful of themes.

The importance of sorting out one’s priorities in life is illustrated in a story about a self-important specialist in grammar who sits down in a boat and asks the boatman whether he has ever studied grammar. “No” comes the reply. “Then half your life has gone to waste!” the grammarian exclaims. Both men are silent until suddenly the vessel begins to founder in a whirlpool. “Have you ever learned to swim, good sir?” enquires the boatman. “Never,” his passenger replies.” “Then the whole of your life has gone to waste!” says the other. “We’re sinking.” (Mathnawi 1, 2835-42)

Rumi adds this commentary:

We are all heading for the Next World, in which meanings take form; in this world, we are all hable to find ourselves in mortal peril, spiritually or physically. Hence it is vital, while still alive, to learn to swim: that is, to make progress in the world of inner meaning.

The approach to zuhd, detachment from worldly things, advocated by Maw lana (who had ample experience) entails finding a healthy balance rather than going to extremes. Essentially this means making worldly goods a means rather than an end. To continue with the aquatic theme: “Water inside the boat spells destruction / the water beneath the boat supports it” (Mathnawil, 985).

Success in achieving this balance requires that one overcome the nafs, the ego – not by crushing it but by understanding its nature and its ways; by training it; and by learning how to make it serve one instead of serving it For most of us, this involves a struggle.

This is all the more essential because the nafs steals the goodness from us without our even noticing. That means attention to priorities again:

This call to become spiritually active rather than passive is characteristic. It is easier to show determination once we understand that troubles come to teach and remind us that this world of misadventure and mediocrity is not our true home (Mathnawi III, 413-58).

Here “Bukhara” represents the material world or the realm of formal learning. The way to draw near to God lies not through becoming something or going somewhere, but through “becoming not”, as it were: admitting one’s existential poverty so that the Divine Qualities may mercifully cover one’s own – What our Lord looks for in us is a needy, contrite heart.

Generosity towards our fellow humans involves being a friend, a well-wisher, to one and all. The people you help may turn out to be Awliya’ Allah, the Friends of God (MathnawiU, 2141-9).

The power of repentance – another essential of the Path – is illustrated by a story of the Caliph Mu’awiya and the ritual prayer that he almost missed, the penitence for which would have brought him more benefit than the prayer he actually performed on time (Mathnawi Il 26042792).

The need for patient endurance on the path and submission to the sheikh is illustrated by a charming image of a housewife cooking chickpeas in a pot and explaining how this ordeal is necessary so that they may come joyfully to maturity in a palatable form (Mathnawi, 111 4159-4211). On the other hand, vigilance is called for in moments of success or happiness, lest the blessing be lost (Mathnawi IV 2145-53).

The Holy Qur’an (20:14, 29:45) specifies that the daily prayers are to be instituted for the sake of remembering Allah. Hence acts of worship devoid of presence of heart are of little value. As Sheikh Ibn ‘Ata’IUah al-Iskandari puts it, “Actions are static forms; it is sincerity that puts the spirit (or life) into them.” (al-Hikam al-‘Ata’iyya-, [10]). Sufis believe that a spiritual methodology is essential if our worship is to be sincere. Faith increases and decreases, and has to be nourished.

Someone asked what there was that was superior to prayer. One answer is what I have already said, that die “soul” of prayer is better than prayer, as I then explained. The second answer is that faith is better than prayer. Prayer consists of five times’ performance, whereas faitii is continuous. (Discourses, tr. Arberry, p. 43).

Those travelling the Path must fully submit to the guidance of a living Sheikh:

To show that there is “no gain without pain”, Mawlana tells the following tale (Mathnawi I, 2981-3001). The strongmen of Qazvin in Iran were accustomed to have themselves tattooed. One customer asks for a lion to be emblazoned on his shoulder. The tattooist starts work on the lion’s tail; but the pain is too much for his customer, who insists that the tail be left out. The same happens when the tattooist begins to draw an ear, and again with the lion’s belly. Enraged and at a loss, the artist flings down the needle: “Whoever saw a lion with no tail, head or belly? God Himself never created such a lion!”

Rumi comments, stressing the need to leave our “comfort zone” behind (Mathnawi I, 3002, 3009-12):


We have travelled swiftly over a vast landscape, pausing briefly to take in a few special beauty spots and landmarks. In conclusion, perhaps the most vital message from Rumi is that the purpose of human existence can only be fulfilled by those who seek to transcend their lower selves. It is through sacrifice, in the highest sense of recognizing everything as coming from and belonging to God, that we can “get a life” in this world, achieve an inward “Islamic state,” and gain everlasting joy Hereafter. This points to the uniqueness of the true human purpose: to know and serve Allah Most High. What, tf anything can make this not only possible but easy? Simply this: to be in love with Him.

Since [God] is beyond all, better than all, nobler than all, and subtler than all, how could He be desired for the sake of something lesser? So “to Him is the final end.|cf. Qur’an 55:42]”.Once tìiey have reached Him they have reached their complete goal, which cannot be surpassed, This human soul is a place of doubts and difficulties. It can never be rid of doubt and difficulties by any means unless it truly falls in love. Then all its doubts and difficulties vanish.” (Fihi mafihi, ed. Furuzanfar, p.101; cf. Discourses, tr. Arberry p.112-3).

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