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 …