Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī

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(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: Rūmī is the leading poet of Sufism (Islamic mysticism), the eponymous founder of the Maulawiyah Sufi order (which is still active in Konya), and a direct inspiration for almost all subsequent Gnostic writing in the Islamic world.

Early Life

Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī, also known as Maulānā (Our Master), was born in the fall of 1207 in Balkh, a major eastern city in what is now Afghanistan. His father, a well-known Sufi preacher and scholar, moved his family from Balkh across Iran and into Turkey shortly before (and perhaps in anticipatory fear of) the Mongols’ devastating westward incursion into the Islamic world. Neyshabur, the home of ʿAttar, the leading Sufi poet before Rūmī, fell to the Mongols in 1219-1220. A generation later, in 1258, Hülegü, Genghis Khan’s grandson, overran the Islamic capital of Baghdad and ended the caliphate.

Rūmī’s family settled in Konya, in Turkish Anatolia, a region then called Rum, from which the poet later got the name “Rūmī,” by which he is best known in the West. Rūmī studied the Koran, religious sciences, and literature. He was expert in Arabic, but Persian was to be his literary language. When his father died, Rūmī, then twenty-three or twenty-four and married, assumed his position as a teacher in a religious school in Konya. Also at this time, Rūmī began further study of Sufi doctrine and further initiation into Sufi practice with Burhan al-Din Muhaqqiq, a former pupil of Rūmī’s father. Burhan al-Din died in 1239 or 1240, by which time Rūmī was being referred to as “Shaykh,” the title indicating his standing as a Sufi mentor with students and followers.

To this point in his life, Rūmī was presumably an orthodox Sufi and had demonstrated no special interest in poetry or in music and dance as vehicles for or accompaniments to religious devotion and expression of faith. All this was to change in the fall of 1244, when he met a peripatetic and charismatic Sufi called Shams-e Tabrizi. Rūmī felt mystical love for Shams of Tabriz, who introduced the latter to wholehearted love as the true Sufi’s requisite attitude and who became Rūmī’s chief “sun” and source of illumination. Rūmī had apparently found in Shams the image of the Divine Beloved, a focus which would inspire the rest of his life. The intensity of the relationship caused Rūmī to begin to express himself in Persian lyric verse and to find special meaning and joy in music and dance.

The attraction of Shams for Rūmī and the former’s influence on the latter did not please Rūmī’s family and students. Presumably as a result of verbal abuse, perhaps including threats, Shams suddenly left Konya without telling anyone of his plans. This event brought Rūmī great sorrow and inspired the composition of Sufi verse lamenting the separation of lover from beloved. Nearly two years later, after hearing that Shams was in Syria, Rūmī sent his older son to bring the wandering dervish back to Konya.

The reunion of the two Sufis inspired Rūmī to compose further Sufi poems, this time on the union of lover and beloved. Yet again, however, some of Rūmī’s followers and family members were vexed at Shams’s presence in their community and his hold on Rūmī. Shams disappeared for good in late 1248 (reportedly murdered by Rūmī’s son and disciples). Rūmī was again inconsolable and set out for Syria to find his mystical guide and beloved. The poet gradually came to realize, however, that the spirit of Shams was with him, that his poems were really Shams’s voice. He consequently chose “Shams” as his own nom de plume.

Life’s Work

Rūmī’s life after the disappearance of Shams became as creative and inspirational as that of any literary-religious figure in history. He composed the bulk of the much-loved and inimitable Sufi lyrics in Persian that comprise the Divan-e Shams-e Tabriz . The following is an especially appreciated example of these lyric poems, in a version by...

(The entire section is 2,180 words.)