The Beauty of Rumi
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, February 22, 2004
Nor Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu,
Buddhist, Sufu, of Zen. Not any religion
of cultural system. I am not from the East
or the West, nor out of the ocean or up
from the ground, not earth or air, not
composed of elements at all. I do not exist,
am not an entity in this world or the next,
did not descend from Adam or Eve or any
origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless. Neither body nor soul.
I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one and that one [I] call to and know,
first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human being.
But he was an “entity in this world”—and an amazingly fascinating one, at that.
Mowlana Jelaluddin Rumi was born in Wakhsh, near the present-day border between Afghanistan and Tadjikistan, on the 30th of September in the year 1207 (or according to the Islamic calendar, the year 604 After the Hajj). His given name “Jelaluddin” may be translated as “the glory of faith”. Rumi’s father was a great theologian and religious leader of the Sufi community, and indeed, Rumi was descended from a family of learned intellectuals, teachers, and jurists. As a young child, however, as Afghanistan lay under the threat of invasion from marauding Mongol armies, he fled with his family-- just before the invasion of the Mongol. They traveled first to Bagdhad, then to Mecca, then to Damascus, before settling finally in Konya, in eastern Turkey. Konya at the time was located along the trade routes, and so was melting pot of different cultures, as well as a center for science, literature, and learning.
At Konya, Rumi continued his studies under his father’s tutelage, and soon became an outstanding student with a keen and incisive grasp of the Islamic tradition. When his father died in 1231, Rumi—just 24 years old—succeeded him as leader of the Sufi community of Konya.
There, his life showed every sign of following the pattern expected of him. He raised a family; was active in community affairs; honed his skills as a teacher and thinker; gathered a school of disciples around him, and in so doing made a decent living for himself.
Then, one day in 1244, Rumi met a stranger who would change his life. A wandering holy man named Shams from the city of Tabriz in Iran came to Konya. Shams was a John the Baptist-like figure, given to mysterious sayings and fits of enthusiastic frenzy, which struck many people as insanity. Often, instead of inspiring others with his visions, he scared them away.
Legend has it that, in despair, Shams began wandering from land to land throughout the Islamic world, searching for a true soul mate with whom he could share his divine visions and explore the truth. He took to fasting and meditation. “Allah,” he prayed, “please send me someone who could endure my company!” At last, it is said, a voice came to him, and asked: “What will you give for this person?” Shams answered: “My very life.” And the voice told him, it is said: “The one you seek is Jelaluddin Rumi, of Konya.”
So Shams el-Tabriz came to Konya, and met Rumi as he was leaving his school, on the back of a mule, accompanied by several of his students. Shams came up beside Rumi, and asked, “Great scholar, who is greater, Mohammed or Bayazin?” (Bayazin was a leading mystic of the Sufi tradition.) Rumi answered immediately, “That is a strange question, seeing the Mohammed, blessed be his name, is the seal of the prophets.”
But Shams pressed on: “Then tell me why Mohammed said to God, ‘I have not known thee as I should,” and Bayazin says, :Glory be to me. How high is my dignity.”
According to legend, on hearing Shams’s question, Rumi fainted dead away (or at least, fell of the mule): He had heard the voice of enlightenment. The question Shams asked had pulled Rumi out of his rational thinking about the world, and had shown him the ecstasy available in our fully knowing our unity with the divine. Like Bayazin—and like Shams el-Tabriz—Rumi now understood (not just in his head, but with his whole body and soul) that there was no separation between the divine and all of the creation.
Rumi was immediately infatuated with Shams, and the two became inseparable soulmates, spending all of their time in each other’s company, discussing and pondering endlessly every aspect of life and faith and the nature of the sacred and its relationship to the material world. The pair became inseparable. Rumi wrote: “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!”
But the deep and intimate friendship between Rumi and Shams inspired jealousy among Rumi’s students and families. They believed he was neglecting them, leaving them to fend for themselves, no longer leading their studies, as he spent all of his time in the presence of this strange and deranged old man. Finally, Rumi’s students rose up and drove Shams out of town. Rumi went after him, and after several months of searching, found him in Damascus, and brought him back to Konya. There, the pair resumed their friendship and their spiritual discourse, more deeply than ever.
But then, one night in 1247, there was a knock at the door, and Shams went to answer it. It was one of Rumi’s sons, who called Shams outside. He was never seen again, and was assumed to have been murdered. Indeed, it seemed, Shams had paid for his friendship with Rumi with his very life.
Of course, Rumi was devastated by the news of his dear friend’s death. He wandered the streets of the city alone, in deep despair, and entered into the deserted marketplace, where, dazed and confused, he swung himself around one of the pillars. In confusion and grief, he just kept swinging—swinging—swinging. And it was here—in the swinging—in the whirl—in the great dance of life that enlightenment came to him.
Rumi discovered that through the ecstatic trance that came through this whirling and dancing, one could grow to sense a harmony with the Divine, a oneness with God that transcended all separation, and led to a clearer spiritual vision. So was developed the school of Sufi practice known as the “whirling dervishes”, and the pattern of spiritual practice known as “Sufi dancing”.
Sufi dancing represents the mystical journey of the human spiritual ascent through mind and love toward the perfection of God. Turning towards the truth over and over again, the dancer grows closer and closer; he or she grows deeper and deeper in love; the smallness of ego is discarded; there is a glimpse of oneness, a glimpse of the truth, a sense of perfection; then, the “unwinding’-- the gradual return home from the spiritual journey; and the ultimate return home of a loving, deepened, newly spiritualized man or woman, now able and willing the answer the call to service to all human beings, without distinction of race, or class, or nationality.
Through his experience of grief, Rumi had arrived at a vision of a new, universalist form of Sufism, a truly universalized Islam.
The death of Shams also opened within Rumi wellsprings of creativity unimaginable to him before. Poetry poured out of him like a torrent, and for every day for perhaps the next 25 years, Rumi would write poetry. His major work, he named in honor of his deceased friend, the Diwami Shamzi Tabrizi (The Works of Shams of Tabriz), and he often signed poems under Shams’s name, if they were inspired by his discourses with him. Eventually, the Shamzi would contain 40,000 verses. Rumi’s other major work was the Mathnaw, sometimes called the “Persian Koran”, which contains more than 20,000 verses. In addition, there was also theDiwan, composed of 3,230 poems (or 35,000 verse); 44 trajiat, or long poems, and 2,000 rubiyat, or short quatrains. In addition (again), several volumes of Rumi’s letters and talks were also preserved.
As might be imagined, Rumi draws from a wide variety of sources for his inspiration—from his life and love, especially his love for Shams; from the Koran; from folktales of various cultures; and, of course, from his own ecstatic experience. A complete and thorough cataloguing and analysis of Rumi’s work would require an entire career—and has.
But we can glimpse some of the main points:
His deep love for Shams often pervades Rumi’s sense of longing and searching. There is a deep sense of finding oneself at home in the presence of the beloved—and of the one’s love for the beloved as a deep metaphor for one’s relationship with the Divine:
Joyful the moment when we sat in the bower, Thou and ;
In two forms and with two faces - with one soul, Thou and I.
The color of the garden and the song of the birds give the elixir of immortality
The instant we come into the orchard, Thou and I.
The stars of Heaven come out to look upon us -
We shall show the moon herself to them, Thou and I.
Thou and I, with no 'Thou' or 'I', shall become one through our tasting;
Happy, safe from idle talking, Thou and I.
The spirited parrots of heaven will envy us -
When we shall laugh in such a way, Thou and I.
This is stranger, that Thou and I, in this corner here...
Are both in one breath here and there - Thou and I.
A central theme of Rumi is our essential oneness with the Holy, our oneness with God. Until we sense this Oneness—and live it out-- we will never be fulfilled. Enlightenment only comes when one senses no separation between oneself and the Other:
One went to the door of the Beloved and
knocked. A voice asked, 'Who is there?'
He answered, 'It is I.'
The voice said, 'There is no room for Me and Thee.'
The door was shut.
After a year of solitude and deprivation he returned and knocked.
A voice from within asked, 'Who is there?'
The man said, 'It is Thee.'
The door was opened for him."
The universal medium in which all life exists, Rumi believed—in which we live and move and have our being—is love. There is never far from the surface in Rumi’s work a deep and palpable sense of love of God—and the love of Life—and the inseparability of the two:
Love is the One who masters all things;
I am mastered totally by Love.
By my passion of love for Love
I have ground sweet as sugar.
O furious Wind, I am only a straw before you;
How could I know where I will be blown next?
Whoever claims to have made a pact with Destiny
Reveals himself a liar and a fool;
What is any of us but a straw in a storm?
How could anyone make a pact with a hurricane?
God is working everywhere his massive Resurrection;
How can we pretend to act on our own?
In the hand of Love I am like a cat in a sack;
Sometimes Love hoists me into the air,
Sometimes Love flings me into the air,
Love swings me round and round His head;
I have no peace, in this world or any other.
The lovers of God have fallen in a furious river;
They have surrendered themselves to Love's commands.
Like mill wheels they turn, day and night, day and night,
Constantly turning and turning, and crying out.
Rumi was a mystic, but he not an ascetic. He believed that the divine was best experienced, not by closing down the senses, but by opening them up fully to all the glories of life—and to all of its pain, as well.
There is a community of the spirit Join it, and feel the delight
of walking in the noisy street, and being the noise.
Drink all your passion and be a disgrace
Close both eyes,
to see with the other eye.
Open your hands,,
if you want to be held.
Dance when you are broken ope.
Dance if you have torn the bandage off.
Dance in the middle of the fighting.
Dance in your blood.
Dance when you are perfectly free.
My place is nowhere,
my trace is traceless.
‘This neither body nor soul,
for I belong
to the Soul of the Beloved.’
I have put duality aside,
I have found
the two worlds to be one.
One I seek, One I know.
One I see, One I love.
Life is a precious gift, for which we should feel the deepest and most profound gratitude, Rumi believed. We need to keep alive within us our sense of being created by holy hands:
A craftsman pulled a reed from the reedbed,
cut holes in it, and called it a human being.
Since then, it's been wailing a tender agony
of parting, never mentioning the skill
that gave it life as a flute.
When we hold this deep sense of being a child of God, then God becomes as close and intimate and imminent to us as our next breath—and God becomes the animating breath, leading us to deeper and deeper creativity:
In your light I learn how to love.
In your beauty, how to make poems.
You dance inside my chest,
where no one sees you,
but sometimes I do,
and that sight becomes this art.
Rumi knew that, as the spiritual beings we truly are, so many deep experiences are beyond words. We need simply to experience them—and let them be:
He set the world aflame,
And laid me on the same;
A hundred tongues of fire
Lapped round my pyre.
And when the blazing tide
Engulfed me, and I sighed,
Upon my mouth in haste
His hand He placed.
Rumi sensed the absurdity and folly of our human competitiveness—our constant desire to know who was “on top”—of all of our hierarchies and pecking orders:
Inside the Great Mystery that is
we don’t really own anything.
What is the competition we feel then,
before we go, one at a time, through the same gate?
Rumi had little patience with the need of organized religions to pigeonhole the Divine—to fit God into neat and tidy little boxes and categories:
We’re quite addicted to subtle discussions;
we’re very fond of solving problems.
So that we may tie knots and then undo them,
we constantly make rules for posing the difficulty
and for answering the questions it raises.
We’re like a bird which loosens a snare
and then ties it tighter again
in order to perfect its skill.
It deprives itself of open country;
it leaves behind the meadowland,
while its life is spent dealing with knots.
Even then the snare is not mastered,
but its wings are broken again and again.
Don’t struggle with knots,
so your wings won’t be broken.
Don’t risk ruining your feathers
to display your proud efforts.
Rumi was a true universalist, a prophet who sensed the deeper unity at the heart of all things:
You come to us
From another world
From beyond the stars
and void of space.
Of unimaginable beauty,
Bringing with you
the essence of love
You transform all
who are touched by you.
troubles, and sorrows
dissolve in your presence,
to ruler and ruled
To peasant and king
You bewilder us
with your grace.
You are the master alchemist.
You light the fire of love
in earth and sky
in heart and soul
of every being.
Through your loving,
existence and nonexistence merge.
All opposites unite.
All that is profane
becomes sacred again.
It is said that Rumi died in the city of Konya, where he had spent almost all of his life, at sunset on the evening of December 16, 1273. He was 66 solar years, or 68 lunar years old. His pall bearers represented five different faiths: Sufi, Muslim, Christian, Jew, and Zoroastrian; they came from six different nations, and were of several different races. He was gone, and yet in death, his spirit lived on:
The day I've died, my pall is moving on –
But do not think my heart is still on earth!
Don't weep and pity me: "Oh woe, how awful!"
You fall in devil's snare - woe, that is awful!
Don't cry "Woe, parted!" at my burial -
For me this is the time of joyful meeting!
Don't say "Farewell!" when I'm put in the grave -
A curtain is it for eternal bliss.
You saw "descending" - now look at the rising!
Is setting dangerous for sun and moon?
To you it looks like setting, but it's rising;
The coffin seems a jail, yet it means freedom.
Which seed fell in the earth that did not grow there?
Why do you doubt the fate of human seed?
What bucket came not filled from out the cistern?
Why should the Yusaf "Soul" then fear this well?
Close here your mouth and open it on that side.
So that your hymns may sound in Where- no-place!
Rumi also once said, “The prophets and their words are many. But the work is one.”
The theologian Frederich Buechner once wrote that “Hope is the small light that burns on the horizon, and keeps our faith moving toward the goal.”
May men and women of universal vision—of deep hearts and profound minds— men and women like Rumi, and Kabir—and Gandhi, and Jesus, and the Buddha—and so many more-- always be beacons of hope for us, burning brightly on the horizon, as we take up the work of the Spirit that is ours to do.