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Rm was a scholar and teacher of Islam, learned in the Qur’an and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. He developed his special messages from insights into human experience of conflict and struggle, love and hate. Through the experience of love, he realized that wisdom can come directly from God, without dependence on formal education and training, which are only guides to wisdom itself. What Islam needed was the Sufi emphasis on mystical revelation to the individual prepared to surrender absolutely to the love of God. This is what Rm brought from his background for his contemporaries and posterity.

The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi is a large collection of poems, totaling forty thousand lines, making it by far the longest of Rm’s works. These lines are composed in three kinds of poems: ghazals, or Persian love poems; tarji’ats, made up of two or more ghazals; and quatrains known as ruba’iyyats. The poems were composed over a period of nearly three decades, dating from the arrival of Shams in 1244 to Rm’s death in 1273. Although the poems are inspired by Shams and many persons are mentioned in them, they are taken by Sufi followers as representations of states of spirituality on the Sufi path of love.

The Divine Lover

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Early in The Sufi Path of Love, there is an array of holy images, described in ecstatic visions, celebrated as versions of the image of God. The loving poet-speaker is taken up by this image and transformed by its possession. The image is perceived as a form of God but felt as the love of the divine creator, fully available to the poet’s loving imagination.

This divine lover can be wrathful, however, like any jealous lover. The human soul is cautioned never to forget how angry and severe God can be if one forgets that his true self, his spirit, belongs to God. The human lover must not pollute himself by loving things of the world before and beyond love of God. To do otherwise would be to wallow in excrement. Rm pleads with the lover to leave the pleasures of excrement and find the joys of the spirit in God. In metaphysical imagery, the poems say the human form needs to keep itself empty of earthly things to make room for the divine feast, especially for the intoxicating wine of God’s love.

As soon as the lover catches a glimpse of the divine image, the lover will be consumed with desire that annihilates all other interests in life. This may be experienced as pain, because the human suffers separation from God and absolute reality. A direct and full view of the divine lover is denied; there is a screen, sometimes seen as tresses of hair, concealing his view. The human lover can hold onto the tresses and prevent falling away. This vision bestows intellect on the human lover, a knowledge of God that brings suffering as well as comfort. Through the beloved human, such as Shams of Tabrz, may this divine love be discovered. When Shams disappears, great suffering remains, and the human lover must battle despair. Memory of the beloved threatens madness when separation has divided the lovers.

It is clear that Shams brought something special to Rm, who found in Shams a mirror of God. In their relationship, Rm contemplated all the attributes of God and praised the path of love as the way to God. Shams is not the only person in whom Rm found God’s attributes, but it was in Shams that he found most, even perfection. One of the paradoxes of divine truth is that those human beings in whom God shows himself may not themselves recognize that God is in them. The lover wonders what it takes for human beings to see God regularly: intellectual or spiritual strength. Do the angels or Jesus or Moses see God in his highest sphere? It is clear that God’s beauty would burn the lover into cinders if God is viewed directly; therefore, a mirror must be used.

Divine Justice

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The glimpse of the beloved is a sign of the way to return to God, who has put everything in its proper place. Thus to find God is actually to return to God after fulfilling a role in the history of the world. This is Rm’s concept of justice, which operates as the will of God bringing all things to their proper place in the cosmic scheme. Each kind of creature or thing will find its just place and function in eternity, because each has come from that place in the beginning. Although in the world there are struggles and conflicts between opposites, in divine justice, like objects will attract only like subjects at the appropriate level and distance from the divine origin.

For the human soul, intellect must be used to overcome the ego, which interferes with divine justice. Help may be found from the prophets and saints, such as Moses, Jesus, and the Prophet Muhammad, who possess the highest form of intellectual power. Eventually, however, each individual must develop his or her own intellect to reach the place destined by God. There is no doubt that intellect is a primary attribute created for humans by God, but when God is achieved in the divine bliss of vision, intellect is annihilated in the absolute divinity. Angels are embodiments of the highest form of intellectual power, as Gabriel was to the Prophet. However, the angel Gabriel was not able to go all the way to God, and therefore the human lover cannot count on intellect to be there in the final union with the divine. It is love that annihilates the separation between humans and God, and therefore love transcends intellect in Rm’s philosophy, however significant and necessary intellect may be for human progress. It seems that intellect is too closely attached to ego to get to God; love must dissolve both intellect and ego.

There are several ghazals, such as number 182, that caution people to leave intellect behind in the ascent to love, the mi’raj. At this level, intellect is like the smell of dung on the wind. The intellectual effort is slow in progress; love flies to the seventh sphere while intellect labors like a camel across the desert. Ascent is the way of love from the physical world (which ends in the ninth sphere), through the spiritual, and ultimately to God himself.

Love As the Way to God

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The poems of The Sufi Path of Love express great discipline of mind and heart, following such Islamic practices as fasting and prayer, but they go deeper into the essence, or mystery, of the divine experience. They make their way to God through invocation of his name and attributes. This is crucial to remembering the source from which all things come. If it is not done correctly, however, as through meditation or with the guidance of a spiritual master (a shaykh), it may not succeed on account of an interfering pride of ego. Such discipline and guidance presume great faith in the human lover, and the faith is substantiated by intellect. There is no division between reason and faith in Rm’s writings. The person emboldened by these qualities will be ready to enter into a Holy War, the jihad, against evil. There is no distinction between the inner spiritual battle within a person and the external objective battle against evil in society and the world. Poem number 312 includes even prayer and wakefulness, fighting off sleep, as acts of jihad.

No matter what kind of love is experienced, true or false, it is in the end love only for God. Those unable to love God truly in this life will find God after death and then it is too late to unite with him. The true believer does not make this mistake, loving God as the only beloved. As in Western Platonism, the belief of Rm is that things of the world are but shadows of God the ideal and absolute. Love of the beauty of nature is purely derivative as an illusion that misleads, as described in verses 336-338. At best, a person may find in human love the practice that can prepare him or her for love of God, which is a gift of his grace, although the human’s way can be strengthened with the guidance of a master shaykh, God’s messenger, as in ghazals 374 and 695. Eleven poems later, the purified lover is celebrated as deserving the reward of resurrection through death in the Garden of Eden.

Joy and happiness are rewards of true love and they are signs that the love is true. The spirit of the lover is taken up in God’s spirit and made intoxicated as with music, dancing, and drinking wine in ghazal 81. Many poems celebrate this intoxication of union with God, as number 391, which calls for a minstrel to play a tune of drunken revelry. The person of intellect is sober, the person of love is lost in the annihilating power of God. Then, in number 419, the beloved is felt through his kiss, which cracks and chaps the lips of the human lover, set on fire by God, who lopped off the head of reason in poem number 33. These experiences seem to the rational and sober person to be signs of madness, and for Rm there is a deep kinship between love of God and insanity.

Ironically, poetry is without value to Rm, unless the poems convey his love of God. Poetry can inspire love of God through the energy of imagination, but this imagination must be burned into annihilation by divine reality. Like all other forms of experience, poetry is empty unless it has the meaning of devotion to God. The philosophical idealism of Rm is manifested in this theme of divine essence permeating all forms to give them meaning. Many of the poems express this point as a matter of duality, between the light of God as the First Cause and the shadows of experience as secondary (in ghazal 41). When God’s light is recognized in the annihilation of love, it is felt as the only thing that exists (poem 1400). All shadows disappear and all other things dissolve in its absoluteness, which is beyond both existence and nothingness (ghazal 1019). When the self, or ego, is obliterated by union with God, shadows dissolve into the pure light of the First Cause. Drunk on God, men find true essence in death and nothingness (poem 2102), leaving existence for women (poem 1601), who are dominated by ego and forms.

The Sufi is a poor person, because nothing belongs to the Sufi. All is annihilated in devotion to God, the only richness that counts (ghazal 260). The Sufi is literally the person who wears wool, practicing self-denial, and so the Sufi is also the person who has purified the self, eliminating desire for anything except the love of God. This lover of God breaks through the veil of ego, rips it away, and beholds the face of the beloved as the hidden treasure of absolute reality in poem number 3003. This experience can be had several times in a lifetime, and so an individual may experience death and resurrection several times on the path to God, as expressed in ghazal 582. When a person declares “there is no God but God,” as a declaration of faith, this person is expressing the Sufi principle of contraries between annihilation, or negation, and affirmation, or realization, of God: Each person must experience both of the contraries, passing through nothingness before reaching the absolute (as in poem number 734), in which it is manifested that ultimately all things are lovers, because all reality is infused with God’s love, from the fruit that drops from a tree to the hook that sticks in the mouth of a fish (ghazal 2327). When the lover finds God, then the lover may truly say he or she exists.

These poems have had profound influences throughout the Islamic world. They have called forth commentaries by generations of scholars, and they have inspired the ceremonies and rituals of Sufi practitioners, especially by the Mevlevi sect of dervishes organized and developed by Rm’s own son but still vital to this day. In addition, translations of his poetry into English by A. J. Arberry and others have made his art an increasingly popular subject for pleasure and study.


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Additional Reading

Arasteh, R. Rumi the Persian: Rebirth in Creativity and Love. Lahore, Pakistan: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1965. An appreciation of the mystical values that can come from devoted readings of Rm’s poetry.

Chelkowski, P. J. The Scholar and the Saint. New York: New York University Press, 1975. This book contains several useful essays on Rm and the importance of his work, such as his place in the culture of Turkey, the philosophical concepts to be found in his poetry, the style of his compositions, and the art of his narratives.

Iqbal, A. The Life and Work of Muhammad Jalal-ud-Din Rumi, 3d. rev. ed. Lahore, Pakistan: Institute of Islamic Culture, 1974. An appreciation and survey of the poet’s life, with respect for Rm’s influence throughout the Islamic world.

Keshavarz, Fatemeh. Reading Mystical Lyric: The Case of Jala al-Din Rumi. Studies in Comparative Religion series. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998. This work looks at Rm’s poetry and its religious content. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Jall al-Dn Rm: Supreme Persian Poet and Sage. Tehran: Shura-ye ‘Ali-ye Farhang o Honar, 1974. A good account of the impact made by Shams on Rm, including the use of the friendship as a symbol, or exteriorization, of love for God.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Sufi Essays. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1972. This book contains eleven essays on various aspects of Sufism in religious thought, Persian literature, and philosophical orientations. Rm receives generous credit for contributions to all these areas. Particularly useful is the fourth essay, “The Sufi Master as Exemplified in Persian Sufi Literature.”

Renard, John. All the King’s Falcons: Rumi on Prophets and Revelation. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. This book looks at prophets and religion in the works of Rm. Contains bibliographical references and index.

Schimmel, Annemarie. The Triumphal Sun: A Study of the Works of Jaalaaloddin Rumi. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993. This book examines the work of the Persian philospher Rm. Includes bibliographical references and indexes.