Jalâl al-Din Rumi 1207-1273
(Also known as Mowlānā Jalāloddin Rumī, Jalāluddin Rūmi, Jelaluddin Rumi, Jalāl-ud-dīn, Mawlānā, and Mevlevi) Persian poet and prose writer.
Long one of the most widely read poets in the Persian-speaking world, Rumi was the founder of the Mevlevi Order, a controversial and often censored Sufi sect that practices sâma', or meditative, whirling dance. Rumi is best known for two masterworks, the lyrical Divan-i Shams-i Tabrizi (c. 1244-1273) and the didactic Mathnawi (c. 1260-1273). His influence and popularity in Turkey, the Middle East, and India is profound, and he has touched the lives of Western authors and thinkers as diverse as Hans Christian Andersen and Georg Hegel. Although he has always been well-known in the Middle East, Rumi has recently experienced a renaissance in the West, thanks largely to accessible translations by poets such as Coleman Barks and Robert Bly. In 1997 the Christian Science Monitor pronounced Rumi the best-selling poet in America. Long before Rumi became best-seller material, he was greatly renowned. Nineteenth-century scholar Edward Granville Browne proclaimed Rumi “without doubt the most eminent Sufi poet whom Persia has produced,” noting that “his mystical Mathnawi deserves to rank amongst the great poems of all time.”
Jalâl al-Din Rumi was born on September 30, 1207, in the city of Balkh, in the province of Khorosan, in what is now Afghanistan, the younger son of Bahâ al-Din Valad, a controversial Sunni Islamic scholar and preacher. When Rumi was about ten years old, Bahâ al-Din took his family and a small band of disciples on a pilgrimage through the Middle East, which most likely saved their lives, as Mongol invaders attacked many cities in Khorosan in 1221. After traveling to Baghdad and Mecca, Rumi's family stopped at Neishapour, where the young Rumi allegedly met with Sanâ'i ‘Attâr, a Sufi mystic and poet. The family lived in Damascus, Malatya, and Aqshahr before settling in Lârende, Anatolia, in 1220 and Konya, Anatolia, in 1229. Anatolia (now Turkey) was at that time a former outpost of the Byzantine, or eastern Roman, empire that had been recently conquered by Muslims; Arabs, Persians, and Turks called the area Rum, or Rome (Rumi is a toponym meaning “of Rome.”). In the course of his wanderings, the young Rumi was exposed to many different cultures, reflected in the ecumenicalism of his writings. Not long after settling in Lârende, Anatolia, Rumi's mother died. At seventeen, Rumi married Gowhar Khâtun, fathered two sons, and prepared to succeed his father as a religious teacher and leader. When Bahâ al-Din died in 1231, another disciple, Borhân al-Din, filled the position of mufti, while Rumi pursued legal and religious studies at elite seminaries in Aleppo and Damascus before assuming his father's scholarly and religious duties in Konya. Rumi was soon recognized as an expert in Islamic law and as a popular speaker on Islamic spirituality; he held professorships at four separate madrases in Anotalia. In 1244, after his first wife died, he married Kerra Khâtun, with whom he had a son and a daughter. The year 1244 also marked a change in Rumi's spiritual practice, in response to a learned but little-known wandering Sufi dervish named Shams al-Din Tabrizi, in whom Rumi found a spiritual guide. After encountering Shams, Rumi became more ecstatic in his worship, expressing his love for God through poetry, music and samâ' dance. In 1247 Shams was hounded out of Konya by Rumi's disciples, who felt that ecstatic worship was “beneath” their leader. According to some reports, they had Shams murdered. Shams’s disappearance was the catalyst for Rumi's writing Divan-i Shams-i Tabrizi, a collection of 3,229 ghazals, or verses, of mystical lyrics dedicated to Shams. From about 1250 onward, Rumi wrote ghazals to another chosen disciple, Salâh al-Din, and later to Hosâm al-Din. In the 1260s Rumi began composing the Mathnawi, a didactic, narrative poem. Not long after his death on December 17, 1273, the hagiographic tradition transformed Rumi from a remarkable man into a mythical, archetypal figure. By 1284, Sultan Valad, Rumi's son, began organizing the Mevlevi order, a Sufi religious sect that followed Rumi's teachings and practiced sâma'.
After the disappearance of Shams al-Din Tabrizi, Rumi wrote the Divan-i Shams-i Tabrizi, a collection of 3,229 interconnected ghazals varying in length from five to more than sixty lines. At more than 35,000 lines of verse, the Divan is the largest collection of mystical lyrics. Through the inversion of common tropes, paradox, praise of silence, playfulness, and juxtaposition of contrasting images and ideas, Rumi emphasizes the inadequacy of language to express human experience. The Divan conceptualizes poetry as another way to preach and pray. During the time Rumi wrote the Divan, he became a practitioner of samâ', which includes liturgical and ritual use of poetry and music to focus the listener's attention on God and induce a trance-like state of contemplative ecstasy, taking the form of meditative, whirling dance. The paradoxical ghazals of the Divan were used in the practice of samâ' as a means of approaching God. Rumi's other major work, the Mathnawi, consists of 25,700 verses, and is a didactic, discursive commentary on the Koran that retells some two hundred stories from a wide variety of sources, interweaving them and enriching them with Rumi’s own commentary on theology, law and Sufism in order to elevate its readers' spiritual state. The Mathnawi's sources include the Koran and the Hadith (the biography of Mohammad), the lore of earlier prophets, Islamic, and rabbinic literature and Jewish folklore. Although Rumi borrowed the narrative outlines of the stories, mostly from prose sources in Arabic and Persian, he not only versified them but altered endings, highlighted aspects not emphasized in the original, and tailored plots to underscore certain morals, so that, as R. A. Nicholson observed, Rumi “borrows much but owes little; he makes his own everything that comes to hand.” Fihe mâ fih, translated as The Discourses of Rumi, consists of seventy-one talks and lectures given by Rumi at various occasions, some formal and others informal. Probably compiled from notes made by disciples to preserve his teachings after his death, the Discourses is a transcription of oral speech. Its simple, straightforward style suggests that Rumi's audience included the lower and middle classes as well as statesmen and rulers. Included in the Discourses are the Majales-e sab'e, or Seven Sermons, homilies on questions of ethics and faith.
Historically, critics have primarily viewed Rumi's poetry as a vehicle through which he conveyed his mystical thought. Although early commentaries were written in India and the Arab world, Western criticism of Rumi began in the seventeenth century when European scholars began to translate Arabic and Persian works. Sir William Jones, an eighteenth-century British scholar of the Persian language, proclaimed that “so extraordinary a book as the Mesnavi was never, perhaps, composed by man. It abounds with beauties, and blemishes, equally great; with gross obscenity, and pure ethicks; with exquisite strains of poetry, and flat puerilities; with wit, and pleasantry, mixed jests; with ridicule on all established religions, and a vein of sublime piety.” In the early twentieth century, Edward Granville Browne declared Rumi “without doubt the most eminent Sufi poet whom Persia has produced,” adding that “his mystical Mathnawi deserves to rank amongst the great poems of all time.” Twentieth-century scholars of religion and philosophy, such as Khalifa Abdul Hakim, Afzal Iqbal, and Annemarie Schimmel attempt to organize Rumi’s teachings in a systematic linear fashion and to isolate several important issues, such as the station of man, Revelation and the role of the prophets, the progression of matter and spirit through the world of existence, and the nature of love and the function of prayer. Badi al-Zaman Forunzânfar (1900-1970), the most famous contemporary scholar of Rumi, defends Rumi from the criticism some modernists direct at Sufism, arguing that his deep metaphysical ideas should not be confused with the sometimes shallow practices of popular Sufism. From the eighteenth century, in which Sir William Jones declared, “I know of no writer to whom [Rumi] can justly be compared, except Chaucer or Shakespeare” to the early twenty-first century, with Franklin D. Lewis claiming that the Mathnawi “reflects a much more ecumenical spirit and a far broader and deeper religious sensibility” than Dante's Divine Comedy, Rumi's continuing popularity in both the Middle East and the West supports Forunzânfar's pronouncement that “there are still many things in ethics and philosophy in the Masnavi that mankind hasn't yet understood. … Rumi's poems are the continuation of the heavenly books and divine truths.”