Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī Rumi, Jalâl al-Din - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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.”

Biographical Information

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'.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

*The Mathnawi of Jalálu'ddin Rúmí, edited from the oldest manuscripts available, with critical notes, translation and commentary, by Reynold A. Nicholson, in eight volumes 1925-1940

Divan-i Shams-i Tabrizi (translated by Nevit Oguz Ergin) 1995

Fihe mâ fih [The Discourses of Rumi] (collected sermons, stories and letters, translated by A. J. Arberry) 1961

Fihe mâ fih [Sights of the Unseen: The Discourses of Jelaluddin Rumi] (collected sermons, stories, and letters, translated by W. M. Thackston) 1994

*Originally written c. 1260-1273.

†Originally written c. 1244-1273. Contains Rumi's quatrains, or Ruba‘iyat.

‡Original date of composition is unknown.

Ghulam M. Fayez (essay date March 1980)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Fayez, Ghulam M. “Images of the Divine in Rumi and Whitman.” Comparative Literature Studies 17, no. 1 (March 1980): 33-43.

[In the following essay, Fayez analyzes the concept of “the Divine” in Rumi and Whitman and also argues, through close readings of several of Rumi's ghazals, against Whitman's “Chanting in the Square Deific,” “A Persian Lesson,” and “Song of the Rolling Earth” that Rumi's work was critical to Whitman's transcendentalism. Fayez notes that Whitman read Rumi’s poetry in Poetry of the East in 1865 and strongly identified with the medieval mystic.]

Mystic poets like Rumi and Whitman reveal a more humane and...

(The entire section is 4528 words.)

Julie Scott Meisami (essay date May 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Meisami, Julie Scott. “Allegorical Gardens in the Persian Poetic Tradition: Nezami, Rumi, Hafez.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 17, no. 2 (May 1985): 229-60.

[In the following excerpt from a comparative essay, Meisami examines the significance of the image of the garden as Paradise in Rumi's ghazals and in medieval Persian literature.]

A striking feature of medieval Persian poetry is the abundance of nature imagery that permeates every poetic genre, and especially imagery relating to gardens. The royal gardens and parks evoked in the descriptive exordia of the qaṣīda, the luxuriant gardens of romance that provide settings for...

(The entire section is 19038 words.)

Annemarie Schimmel (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Schimmel, Annemarie. “Poetical Expression.” In I Am Wind, You Are Fire: The Life and Work of Rumi, pp. 34-50. Boston and London: Shambhala, 1992.

[In the following essay, Schimmel provides an introduction to the relationship between spiritual experience and poetic expression in Rumi's ghazals, Mathnawi and Divan.]

Where am I, where is poetry?
But that Turk breathes into me: Ho, who are you?

(d 1949)

This couplet, with its citation in Turkish, expresses Maulana's attitude toward his own verse: he never fully understood how he had turned into a poet. The deprecative remark in Fīhi mā fīhi that he spouts verses...

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Kabir Helminski (essay date summer 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Helminski, Kabir. “I Will Make Myself Mad.” Parabola 23, no. 2 (summer 1998): 9-14.

[In the following essay, Helminski, a translator of Rumi and practicing Sufi, explores the place of ecstasy in Rumi's ghazals, Sufi spirituality, and contemporary culture. Helminski argues that the source of ecstasy is experiential, spiritual and ontological.]

What is the place of ecstasy in a mature spirituality? Are there different states to be discerned beyond that overarching label? Can it be reconciled with sobriety? Should ecstasy be pursued?

The poetry of Jalaluddin Rumi and other Sufis often exudes a fragrance of ecstasy that has attracted...

(The entire section is 2369 words.)

Fatemah Keshavarz (essay date 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Keshavarz, Fatemah. “‘How Sweetly with a Kiss Is the Speech Interrupted’: Rumi's Poetics of Silence.” In Reading Mystical Lyric: The Case of Jalal al-Din Rumi, pp. 49-71. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Keshavarz notes that Rumi produced “over 35,000 verses celebrating the absence of speech,” analyzes the varieties of silence in Rumi's Divan, and compares the silences of Rumi with the silences of Beckett and Kierkegaard, among others.]

Rumi's lyric is occupied with the thought of silence. In the Dīvān, speech is not worthless, but silence is infinitely more powerful. Words draw strength...

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Farooq Hamid (essay date winter 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Hamid, Farooq. “Storytelling Techniques in the Masnavi-yi Ma'navi of Mowlana Jalal al-Din Rumi: Wayward Narrative or Logical Progression?1Iranian Studies 32, no. 1 (winter 1999): 27-50.

[In the following essay, Hamid considers the narrative structure of and absence of telos in Rumi's Mathnawi to explore the nature of language in that work.]

ba‘d az samā‘ gūyī k-ān shūr-hā kujā shud yā khud na-būd chizī yā būd va ān fanā shud2

Confounded, after the samā‘ you inquire, “What became of that tumult?” I say,...

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Dick Davis (essay date 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Davis, Dick. “Narrative and Doctrine in the first story of Rumi's Mathnawi.Journal of Semitic Studies, Supplement 12 (2000): 93-104.

[In the following essay, Davis examines the first story of the Mathnawi and suggests that the interruptions and interpolations within the story undermine the entire structure of explication, leaving the reader with a poem that simultaneously demands and resists interpretation, subverts allegorical meanings as soon as it establishes them, and remains stubbornly grounded in human experience even as it attempts transcendence.]

I first read medieval Persian in Tehran, in the early 1970s, under...

(The entire section is 6576 words.)

Leslie Wines (essay date 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Wines, Leslie. “The Poet of Love and Tumult.” In Rumi: A Spiritual Biography, pp. 13-22. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2000.

[In the following essay, Wines examines the significance of Rumi's love poetry to a contemporary, Western audience while also providing a historical context for Rumi's ecumenical spirit and ideas about love and spirituality.]

The meaning of poetry has no sureness of direction;
                    it is like the sling, it is not under control.

Jalalu'ddin Rumi

Jalalu'ddin Rumi, the thirteenth-century Persian lawyerdivine and Sufi, widely considered literature's greatest mystical...

(The entire section is 2825 words.)

David Barber (essay date 2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Barber, David. “Rumi Nation.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 25, nos. 1 & 2 (2001): 176-209.

[In the following essay, Barber reviews several contemporary translations of Rumi's works, including Coleman Barks's The Glance: Songs of Soul-Meeting, Coleman Barks and John Moyne's The Essential Rumi, Dick Davis's Borrowed Ware: Medieval Persian Epigrams, Andrew Harvey's The Teachings of Rumi, and Shahram T. Shiva's Rending the Veil: Literal and Poetic Translations of Rumi, in a wide-ranging discussion of translation across time and culture and the phenomenon of the popularized, simplified Rumi as a “New-Age Mystic” whose work only vaguely...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Ali, Bishop Michael J. Nazir. “Iqbal and Rumi.” Iqbal Review 29, no. 3 (October-December 1988): 31-46.

Explores the influence of Rumi on the Al-Jili Iqbal's thought, particularly the place of mysticism in Iqbal's personal idealism and activism.

Arasteh, A. Reza. Rumi the Persian: Rebirth in Creativity and Love. Lahore, Pakistan: Ashraf Press, 1965, 196 pp.

A compelling, book-length examination of Rumi's achievement in terms of western psychological concepts. With a preface by Erich Fromm.

Arberry, A. J. “Introduction.” In The Ruba'iyat of Jalal Al-Din Rumi: Select...

(The entire section is 762 words.)