Unbeknownst to many Rumi admirers in the West, there is significant controversy among Muslims on the subject of Sufism, both about its interpretation of scriptures and its practice of using music and spinning (i.e. Whirling Dervishes) to cause a feeling of mystical union with God (Allah in Arabic).

The publication in the 1990’s of new English editions of the poetic works of Jalal al-Din Mohammed Rumi (1207-1273), the most famous Sufi, sparked renewed interest in the movement as well as in the Persian poet himself.

Rumi’s work, woven with humor and vivid imagery, celebrates open-mindedness and tolerance. Rumi often uses a lover’s vocabulary, with intoxication symbolizing entry into the divine presence.

We have a huge barrel of wine, but no cups.
That’s fine with us.  Every morning
We glow and in the evening we glow again.
They say there’s no future for us.  They’re right.
Which is fine with us.[1]

A tolerant man in his preaching and dealings with others, Rumi was an exemplary Sufi Muslim who lived and died both following and exhorting others to follow the five pillars of Islam. Those who found him wanting were bothered, not by his Sufism, but by his devotion to another man: Shams of Tabriz, a difficult and solitary traveling mystic who became Rumi’s companion after the death of his wife. Rumi and Shams’s friendship would bring pain and separation, along with joy and yearning expressed in prolific verse. 

At the time of Shams’s arrival in Rumi’s town of Konya, in 1244, in modern-day Turkey, Rumi was a family man with four children. With impeccable academic credentials, Rumi was recognized as an authority within the Hanafi sect of Sunni Islam. He had studied alongside his father, who had also been a preacher, at famous madrasas in Syria. He had spent nine years as an apprentice to a shaykh (religious teacher/mentor), and he had grown a following. Rumi preached weekly sermons, mediated disputes, wrote letters of request or recommendation, and studied and taught the Koran while tending to his own spiritual development through fasting and prayer. 

Shams, in contrast, was a wandering dervish, or “poor man of God.”  A Shafi’i Sunni Muslim, he had traveled restlessly after leaving his hometown of Tabriz, visiting Baghdad, Damascus, Aleppo, and other places, working as a tutor, weaver, or day-laborer, and seeking out interesting lectures on Islamic theology as well as philosophy. 

Yet according to Franklin Lewis, author of Rumi, Past and Present, East and West, Shams was also an accomplished Islamic scholar, and had devised a method for learning the Koran in three months. He was thus both a faqir, a Sufi practicing spiritual poverty, and a faqih, a scholar of Islamic law. Lewis suggested that Shams had “probably spent much of his life…sitting in on the lectures of famous teachers, most of whom he found disappointing in one respect or another.”[2] 

In the company of Rumi, Shams wrote, “‘I come for friendship, relief.’” According to Lewis, “Shams searched long and hard and found none but Rumi who could tolerate his unhypocritical and unconventional pursuit of truth.” Shams called Rumi “Mowlana (Master),” and says he would be “‘a fitting shaykh, if he would agree.’” 

It seems both men yearned for a spiritual equal and companion. Shams described Rumi as having “‘a drunkenness in kindness,’” whereas he, Shams, had “‘both drunkenness in kindness and soberness in kindness.’” Not content to empathize with the troubled sinner, Shams was instead determined to pull him out of the state of sin.[3]  

Shams spoke, and Rumi was transfixed. Rumi began to adopt the rituals that Shams had brought with him from Tabriz. In mountainous Khorasan (now Tajikistan), where Rumi had been born, Islamic practices were tinged with mysticism, so that the Sufi practice of sama, an act of prayer using the ney (a reed flute) and the rebab (a stringed instrument) while spinning for long periods of time in order to reach a state of ecstasy, would not have been a new idea to him. Although some considered sama too similar to dance to be allowable in conservative Islam, no religious authority of his time considered Rumi a heretic. At the most, his practice raised eyebrows here and there. Political leaders (a Sultan and, later, a powerful Pavane, or provincial ruler) sought his guidance, and they and his other followers also adopted Sufism. 

Rumi’s encounter with Shams also inspired his first verses, published as Diwan-i Shams-i Tabriz (The Lyrics of Shams of Tabriz)

I once was an ascete – you made me sing
Made me riot of the party – drunk with wine
You found me on a prayer rug – dignified
Made me taunt and toy for children on my block [4]

Rumi’s writing would make him a legend, but there was trouble at home. Writing poetry; sequestering himself with his best friend; all but disappearing from his prominent role interpreting Islamic law…Rumi’s behavior caused an uproar around him. Shams, who was about 60 years old when he met the roughly 40-year-old Rumi, was not a people-pleaser. He scoffed at the widespread idea that strict adherence to practices mentioned in the Koran could make one holy. For him, righteousness came, not from imitating the Prophet Mohammed’s daily alimentary habits or routines, but from following the example of merciful leadership set by the man’s actions. 

In the community, there were many, including Rumi’s second son, who disliked Shams intensely. 

Under pressure, and perhaps even under threat, Shams left Rumi and Konya secretly twice, and returned twice, before disappearing completely, never to be seen again. Some give credence to the theory that he was murdered by factions angry over his relationship with Rumi.

Meanwhile, Rumi’s Diwan abounds in lyrics venting sorrow over losing a best friend: 

How could I know melancholia 
Would make me so crazy,
Make of my heart a hell
Of my two eyes raging rivers? [5]

Though he had disappeared forever, Shams’s iconoclastic ideas remained. His influence is ever-present in Rumi’s work. The Mathnawi, written after Shams’s departure, frequently expresses the value of breaking through a legalistic interpretation of Islam towards deeper understanding and fulfilment of its meaning. Using metaphor, Rumi challenges, as Shams had, the idea that the outward practice of religious rituals may be considered an equivalent of the inner faith itself: “‘Does any potter mound a jug for the jug’s sake and not in hope of the water?’” he writes.[6]

Rumi’s work has always been appreciated in Persia and beyond.  His Mathnawi has been compared to Dante’s Divine Comedy. Coleman Barks’s recent re-working of translations of his writings, with their frank references to wine and sex, have made Rumi a household name across the world. The popular singer Beyoncé even named one of her twins after him. But again, to focus on the sensuality of the works, or on Rumi’s relationship with Shams, expressed in appreciation for male beauty as dictated by literary customs of his day, is to miss its message. Rumi offers comfort to today’s angry everyman, inviting him to listen with reverence. In his words: 

The blind religious are in a dilemma, for the champions on either side stand firm:
each party is delighted with its own path.
Love alone can end their quarrel,
Love alone comes to the rescue when you cry for help against their arguments.
Eloquence is dumfounded by Love: it dares not engage in altercation.
The lover fears to answer back, lest the mystic pearl drop from his mouth.
‘Tis as though a marvelous bird perched on your head,
and your soul trembled for fear of its flitting. [7]

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Endnotes:

[1] Barks, Coleman.  Rumi, The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy and Longing. Harper Collins (2003)
[2] Lewis, Franklin.  Rumi Past and Present, East and West. Oneworld (2000) pp. 143-147
[3] Lewis pp. 154-164
[4] Lewis p. 391
[5] Lewis p. 335
[6] Nicholson, Reynold A. Rumi: Poet and Mystic.  Oxford: Oneworld (1995) p. 112
[7] Nicholson p. 173

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