Mowlānā Jalāloddin Balkhi, known in Persia as Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhī and in the West simply as Rumi, was born on September 30, 1207 C. E. in Balkh Province, Afghanistan, then on the eastern edge of the Persian Empire. Rumi descended from a long line of Islamic jurists, theologians, and mystics, including his father, who was known by followers of Rumi as “Sultan of the Scholars.” When Rumi was still a young man, his father led their family more than 2,000 miles west to avoid the invasion of Genghis Khan’s armies. They settled in present-day Turkey, where Rumi lived and wrote most of his life.
As a teenager, Rumi was recognized as a great spirit by the poet and teacher Fariduddin Attar, who gave him a copy of his own Ilahinama (The Book of God). When his father died in 1231, Rumi became head of the madrasah, or spiritual learning community. The school reportedly had over ten thousand students, including masons, grocers, weavers, hatmakers, carpenters, tailors, and bookbinders.
Rumi’s oldest son, Sultan Velad, managed to save 147 of Rumi’s intimate letters, which provide insights about the poet and how he lived. Rumi often involved himself in the lives of his community members, solving disputes and facilitating loans between nobles and students. The letters are described as having lines of poetry scattered throughout.
In 1244, Rumi met Shams Tabriz, a dervish “God-man” who had taken a vow of poverty. Their meeting is considered a central event in Rumi’s life. Though accounts of their meeting differ, one story claims that Rumi was teaching by a fountain, and Shams walked up through the crowd of students and pushed Rumi’s books into the water, including his father’s spiritual diary. “You must now live what you have been reading about,” Shams told Rumi. Rumi believed both his real life and his real poetry began when he met Shams. “What I had thought of before as God,” Rumi said, “I met today in a human being.”
Shams and Rumi were close friends for about four years. Over the course of that time, Shams was repeatedly driven away by Rumi’s jealous disciples, including one of Rumi’s sons, Ala al-Din. In December of 1248, Shams again disappeared; it is believed that he was either driven away or killed. Rumi left the madrasah in search of his friend, travelling to Damascus and elsewhere. Eventually, Rumi made peace with his loss, returning to his home believing Shams to be a part of him: “His essence speaks through me.”
Rumi’s mourning for the loss of his friend led to the outpouring of more than 40,000 lyric verses, including odes, eulogies, quatrains, and other styles of Eastern-Islamic poetry. The resulting collection, Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi or The Works of Shams Tabriz, is considered one of Rumi’s masterpieces and one of the greatest works of Persian literature.
In his introduction to his translation of Rumi’s The Shams, Coleman Barks has written: “Rumi is one of the great souls, and one of the great spiritual teachers. He shows us our glory. He wants us to be more alive, to wake up… He wants us to see our beauty, in the mirror and in each other.”
For the last twelve years of his life, beginning in 1262, Rumi dictated a single, six-volume poem to his scribe, Husam Chelebi. The resulting masterwork, the Masnavi-ye Ma’navi (Spiritual Verses), consists of sixty-four thousand lines, and is considered Rumi’s most personal work of spiritual teaching. Rumi described the Masnavi as “the roots of the roots of the roots of the (Islamic) Religion,” and the text has come to be regarded by some Sufis as the Persian-language Koran.
In his introduction to an English edition of Spiritual Verses, translator Alan Williams wrote: “Rumi is both a poet and a mystic, but he is a teacher first, trying to communicate what he knows to his audience. Like all good teachers, he trusts that ultimately, when the means to go any further fail him and his voice falls silent, his students will have learnt to understand on their own.”
Rumi fell ill and died on December 17, 1273 C. E., in Konya, Turkey. His remains were interred adjacent to his father’s, and the Yeşil Türbe (Green Tomb) was erected above their final resting place. Now the Mevlâna museum, the site includes a mosque, dance hall, and dervish living quarters. Thousands of visitors, of all faiths, visit his tomb each month, honoring the poet of legendary spiritual understanding.
Rumi was brought up in the Islamic faith and became well acquainted with the Quran. Rumi became a celebrated scholar and was admired for his learning. At the age of 25, Rumi took up a position as the Islamic Mmolvi of a madras in Konya. Although following the Sufi path, he became an Islamic jurist and gave sermons in the mosques of Konya.
However, his life changed when he met the wandering Sufi mystic Sham al – Din in 1244. This meeting had a profound impact on Rumi, he felt Sham to be a divinely inspired person, and he took him to be his Guru. Under the guidance of Shams, Rumi lost interest in the more cerebral academic studies and became enamoured of the way of the mystic – the path of the heart. Rumi became an ascetic and devoted to the unorthodox spiritual path.
The sky was lit
by the splendor of the moon
I fell to the ground
has made me sure
I am ready to forsake
this worldly life
to the magnificence
of your Being
– Rumi, Translated by Fereydoun Kia
Only four years after meeting Shams, Shams disappeared (rumours suggested he was murdered with the connivance of Rumi’s son, jealous of his father’s devotion to Shams). Rumi’s grief led to some of his greatest poetry in the Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi.
This spiritual devotion manifested itself in Rumi’s ecstatic mystical poetry. In particular, Rumi captured the divine romance of lover and beloved – the perpetual yearning for the Divine.
The flowers are blooming
with the exultation of your Spirit.
I long to escape the prison of my ego
and lose myself
in the mountains and the desert.
Through his poetry, Rumi expressed his philosophy which included tolerance of all religious beliefs, the importance of goodness and charity, the belief in reincarnation and the soul’s evolution. Rumi also playfully hinted at the limitations of conventional morality and religion – hinting the way of the heart transcended religious doctrines. Above all, he advocated the importance of love. Rumi passionately believed in the capacity of poetry, music and dance as a path to union with God.
Both light and shadow
are the dance of Love.
Love has no cause;
it is the astrolabe of God’s secrets.
Lover and Loving are inseparable
Although I may try to describe Love
when I experience it I am speechless.
– Rumi, Translated by Fereydoun Kia
Rumi’s poetry contained lines based on the Quran, but he explored themes beyond the narrow boundaries of religion. People see in his poetry a glimpse of the Divine and the universal quest of love. This transcendental quality of Rumi’s poetry has given him a universal appeal. Even during his lifetime, he acquired followers from a diversity of religious background.
Rumi died on 17 December 1273 in Konya. The epitaph on the place of his burial states:
When we are dead, seek not our tomb in the earth, but find it in the hearts of men.
At his funeral, which lasted over a month, he was visited by Muslims, Jews, Persians, Christians and Greeks.
Rumi’s teachings and poetry formed a basis for the practice of the Whirling Dervishes and the path of the Mevlevi tradition of Sufism. Rumi’s faith was born from the Islamic religion. He makes frequent reference to the Quran.
Flee to God’s Qur’an, take refuge in it there with the spirits of the prophets merge. The Book conveys the prophets’ circumstances those fish of the pure sea of Majesty.
However, Rumi was never limited to scriptural interpretations of religious doctrine. He taught and exemplified the fact that the essential aspect of religion is an individual seeking and personal experience of the divine. According to E. Brown, Rumi was a Sunni Muslim, but it an interpretation of Islam that was mystical and universal.