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Echoes of Rumi

Jalâl al-Din Rumi, who has long been one of the most admired Persian poets and now has a remarkably wide following in the US, was born on September 30, 1207, in Balkh, a small town west of Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan. He was descended from several generations of Muslim scholars and preachers adhering to a relatively liberal interpretation of their doctrine. His father, Bahâ al-Din, a Sufi known in his lifetime as “The King of the Clerics,” was one of the principal influences on Rumi’s development and subsequent teachings.

When Rumi was an infant, Bahâ al-Din moved the family to Vakhsh in present-day Tajikistan and, when Rumi was five, to Samarkand, finally settling in Konya, in present-day Turkey, where Rumi grew to adulthood. There his father, a mystic preoccupied, in the words of the scholar Franklin Lewis in Rumi—Past and Present, East and West, with “the presence of God and with divine intimations and promptings,” who left a spiritual memoir and diary treasured by his son Rumi, lived until Rumi was twenty-seven. Rumi had married at the age of seventeen and had studied law, and apparently had attended his father’s lectures and had been taught by him. He became a scholar and ascetic, and at his father’s death he took over his place, at the bidding of his father’s disciples, and besides religious teaching he wrote legal opinions.

Rumi’s father had provided him with another teacher, a disciple of his named Borhân al-Din, a Sufi mystic who lived for years as a hermit, and who, Bernard Lewis writes in Music of a Distant Drum, seemed “wholly unconcerned with systematic expositions of the path or with spiritual genealogies.” His early teaching must have had a deep effect on Rumi.

But the most powerful influence of all upon Rumi’s insights and teaching was Shams al-Din Tabrizi, an intensely impressive wandering dervish some thirty years older than Rumi. Their meeting transformed Rumi’s outlook and his expression of it. Their first encounter, like almost everything about the relationship between them, became a subject of myth almost at once. Shams contributed to the legend in his own accounts, saying that he had been observing Rumi for fifteen or sixteen years until he thought the younger man was “ready for this secret.”

The actual meeting, when Shams felt the time had come, was in 1244, when Rumi was thirty-seven. The relationship, whatever it may have been, clearly went beyond that of ordinary teacher and disciple. Shams recognized Rumi not only as the most gifted student he had ever had but as his spiritual reflection. He wrote at length about the bond between them, speaking of exclusivity and jealousy as well as of the stages of his own teaching of Rumi. The name Shams means “sun” in Arabic, and in Rumi’s poems the meaning is continually evoked as a reference to light and, of course, love, which has encouraged a literal erotic interpretation. In his poems Rumi extols Shams in every possible way, as “Lord of the lord of the lords of truth” and as the revelation, beyond the careful obedience of religious observances, of a further immensity of love, an opening into unity with the divine. Shams finally turned him from a monkish observant into a mystic and an ecstatic celebrant who has forgotten himself. At the heart of Rumi’s teaching is a surrender to a divine presence, which is finally without external attributes. This is the ecstasy of which Rumi tells, and he ascribes his realization of it to Shams.

According to the accounts and the legend, the transformation included a fundamental change in Rumi’s attitude toward poetry, and prompted his use of what had often been a secular form of expression, denounced in the Koran as immoral, for mystical and visionary expression. Rumi went on to become a prodigiously prolific poet, composing, writing, or dictating thousands of lines of verse.

Some of Rumi’s followers were jealous of the influence of Shams on Rumi, and Shams was driven away. Rumi is said to have gone to Syria twice looking for him. There is an often-repeated story that Shams was murdered by disciples of Rumi and his body hidden. In his book on Rumi Franklin Lewis devotes extensive attention to the various forms of this dramatic legend and he concludes that the rumor on which it is based “arises late, circulates in oral context, and is almost certainly groundless.”

Another legend attributes the origin of the whirling dance of the dervishes to Rumi’s grief at the loss of Shams, and his dazed circling in his garden, around a pillar. He certainly founded the Mevlevi order of dervishes, whose history Franklin Lewis traces into the present, and his influence—or the influence of some image derived from him—continues to spread in European languages and in the Western world in spite of the distances in time and culture and the provisional nature of translation.

Franklin Lewis notes at the beginning of his exhaustive study of Rumi that on November 25, 1997, in the Christian Science Monitor, Alexandra Marks pronounced Rumi the best-selling poet in the United States. Professor Lewis’s book, with its careful attention to Rumi’s life and teachings, and to his reputation from his own time until the end of the late millennium, includes in the introduction a marveling survey of the fervor surrounding Rumi’s name in recent decades. In a section entitled “Rumi-Mania” he writes of large, enthusiastic audiences at readings of versions of Rumi’s poems by the contemporary American translator Coleman Barks, “who, more than any other single individual, is responsible for Rumi’s current fame.” By the late 1990s that fame, in a variety of forms, had become established in contemporary popular culture, in which Rumi was claimed as a forerunner of New Age aspirations, of heterosexual and homosexual eroticism, and of current manifestations of a quest for ecstasy. (The subtitle of Barks’s most recent volume, The Soul of Rumi, is A New Collection of Ecstatic Poems.)

In case this phenomenon has escaped anyone it is worth repeating a few among Franklin Lewis’s collection of highlights. According to William Davis in The Boston Globe of March 30, 1998, “spiritually driven commuters now unwind to audiobooks of Rumi’s poetry as they sit in traffic jams….” And in New York, in that year, some four hundred people a day (celebrities among them) at the Jivamukti Yoga Center were doing “spiritual aerobics to a background beat that sometimes mixes rock music and readings of Rumi….” He enumerates concert recitations with live music on stage, and CD recordings. This was all in place by the year 2001, when the books listed here were published. (A.J. Arberry’s Sufism is a reprint from an original 1950 edition.) The books were in print or on their way to it before September 11.

If Franklin Lewis has continued his survey since the event of that day I have not seen it, but I have heard that the shock of its horrors turned a larger number of people than usual—temporarily at least—to poetry of all kinds, and I think the available versions of Rumi are probably even more popular now than they were when his book was being written. From that date on we were reminded regularly that nothing would be the same, and one of the obvious things urgently demanding reassessment was the relation of the Western world to Islam. One unexpected form of that reassessment was reported in the Honolulu Advertiser on November 11, 2001, two months after the attacks. The article described the ceremony of induction into Islam of a woman convert, in a mosque in Manoa, Honolulu, which the author, Mary Kaye Ritz, said was an example of a recent national trend. Muslim clerics across the country, she wrote, had stated that since September 11 they were experiencing four times as many conversions to Islam as they were used to, with women converts outnumbering men by as many as four to one. The woman convert whose testimony of faith began the article was a petty officer in the US Navy, stationed at Pearl Harbor.

The new interest in all aspects of Islam inevitably forms part of the context of the enthusiasm for Rumi, and for Sufism, which we can understand as a term encompassing a variety of ascetic and mystical movements that originated within Islam and incorporated elements of Indian mysticism, among other sources. A.J. Arberry’s 1950 study Sufism: An Account of the Mystics of Islam, recently reissued, suggests how dramatically the context has changed in half a century. Arberry’s writings on Rumi, which in the course of his life included translations of many of Rumi’s poems and teachings (he published Mystical Poems of Rumi in 1968, and Discourses of Rumi in 1961) continued the work of his close friend Ronald A. Nicholson. When Nicholson died in 1945 his introduction to his translations from Rumi was unfinished. Arberry “saw his work through the press.”

Nicholson’s passion for Persian poetry and for the insights and exhortations of Sufi mysticism was the heir of his Victorian predecessor with similar interests, Edward FitzGerald, the author of the famous translation of the Rubaiyat (the word means “quatrains”) of Omar Khayyam. The late W.G. Sebald, in The Rings of Saturn, has left a haunting portrait of the eccentric Victorian, shut up for fifteen years in a cottage at the edge of the family estate of Boulge Hall near Bradfield, reading, writing letters, assembling a collection of commonplaces, and devoting tracts of time to his translation of Omar Khayyam, with whom, Sebald wrote, “he felt a curiously close affinity across a distance of eight centuries.”

FitzGerald obviously read with roving curiosity whatever he could find of the Persian (and perhaps Turkish and Urdu) poetry of the great centuries of Sufism in the late Middle Ages, and he left an unfinished version of a classic of Persian poetry which Rumi certainly would have known, Farid al-Din Attar’s Mantiq al-tair (Speech of Birds), an allegory of the soul’s progress to God. The Persian poem is in couplets (mathnawi) and FitzGerald, many centuries later, painstakingly transported its sense into Victorian couplets and diction, like this:

Once on a time from all the Circles seven
Between the stedfast [sic
] Earth and rolling Heaven
The Birds, of all Note, Plumage, and Degree,
That float in Air, and roost upon the Tree…

Whatever the relation of this to the original, it falls far short of the refracted rhetorical splendors of FitzGerald’s version of Omar Khayyam. That work would have been inimitable in any case, but when Nicholson came to translate Rumi, many of the poems he worked from were in couplets, and FitzGerald’s example in that form consisted of lines like the ones above.

There may have been other temperamental affinities between FitzGerald and Nicholson and perhaps Arberry, with their shared predilection for ancient Persian poetry and mysticism in Victorian and Edwardian England—a strain of eccentricity perhaps went along with their learned exoticism. FitzGerald’s Omar Khayyam translation (or imitation, or paraphrase) was the only one of his many literary enterprises which he actually saw through to completion and which was published in his lifetime.

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