Jalaleddin Rumi was one of the great spiritual masters and poetic geniuses of mankind, and the Mevlevi Sufi order was founded to follow his teachings. He was born in 1207 in Balkh in present day Afghanistan to a family of learned theologians. Escaping the Mongol invasion, he and his family traveled extensively in Muslim lands, performed pilgrimage to Mecca and visited Medina; the journey brought the family to Erzincan and then Karaman, where Rumi studied for a short period in the Halaveye School. In 1228, at the invitation of the Sultan of the Seljuks, Alaeddin Keykubad, they settled in Konya, Anatolia, in present day Turkey, then part of the Seljuk Empire. Here Jalaleddin married and lived with his wife, Gevher Hatun, who bore him two children. He is called ‘Rumi,’ meaning ‘Anatolian’ because of his life in that place. He also gained the title Mevlana which means ‘Our Master’ through his life’s work there.
When his father Bahauddin Veled passed away in 1231, Rumi succeeded him as professor in religious sciences at the largest theological school in Konya. Only 24 years old, Rumi was already an accomplished scholar in religious and positive sciences. He died on the 17th of December 1273 in Konya, where he had spent most of his adult life and composed all his works, and where his tomb lies today.
His religious life
Although Rumi had already succeeded to his father’s position as a teacher, when the great scholar and Sufi Burhaneddin al-Tirmithi arrived in Konya, Rumi studied under him and devoted himself to his service for nine years. This training was focused on divine love, worship, austerity and abstinence, piety, consciousness of God, humility, and tolerance, which are the foundations of Sufism. Rumi spent his days mostly praying and serving people who came to visit the Sufi center, preparing food for them, collecting wood for cooking and heating, and cleaning the toilets and bathrooms used by visitors. He thus learned the merit of serving people and knew that serving people is ultimately serving God. On Burhaneddin’s advice Rumi completed his scholarly education in Aleppo, mastering also the classical Islamic sciences, including jurisprudence (fiqh), commentary on the Qur’an (tafsir), tradition (hadith) and epistemology (usul). There were thus a number of significant figures in Rumi’s spiritual development. Apart from his father and Burhaneddin, he met many great philosophers and scholars of the age including the renowned Ibn Arabi in Aleppo and Damascus, and others in Konya under the patronage of the Seljuk Court. He thus acquired both the inner and outer sciences within sixteen years.
The most famous and probably the most fruitful relationship in his development was with Shems-i Tebriz, whom he met in Konya at the suggestion of Ruknuddin Zarqubi. Modern historians may argue about who influenced whom in their long association but this is not profitable. What we know is that for a particular period of time, two skillful and acute spirits came together, and by sharing the divine bounties and gifts they received from their Lord, they reached peaks that most would not be able to reach easily on their own. To this day the place where the two first met in Konya is known as Marc’al Bahreyn, the meeting point of the two oceans. Through their spiritual cooperation, they enlightened those of their own age, and have also influenced all the centuries which followed.
Following the departure of Shams, Rumi continued to compose his works and to develop the principles that would be followed by the order formed and named in his honour after his death. He started to live in seclusion and abstinence practicing ascetics in series of three periods of forty days; eating little, talking little and sleeping little were essential components of this discipline.
Here it is important to remember that while Rumi was informed by numerous sources of ideas, on his journey he seemed to leave many of his contemporaries behind—his love and compassion flowed like the waters of the world’s oceans; so much so that while continuing to live physically among humans, he managed to become ever closer to God. He never elevated himself above others but his writings, both during his life and after his entering into eternal life, provide a guiding star which reflects the light of the spiritual life of the Prophet of Islam. Thus, he is among the few figures who have exerted great influence over large parts of history and large regions of the world.
His place in the Islamic tradition
Rumi was not, and is not, the only hero of love. He was and is one of the great representatives of the school of love in the Islamic tradition based on the life and practices of the Prophet, which we call Sufism. This tradition, which includes names like Hasan Basri, Ibrahim Ethem, and Bishr-i Khafi in the Arabian Peninsula in the second century of Islam, grew rapidly with Ahmed Yasawi and Yunus Emre in Central Asia and Anatolia during the rule of both the Seljuks and the Ottomans. In recent times this understanding of Islam has been represented by Sufis and scholars like Mevlana Halid-i Bagdadi, Bediüzzaman Said Nursi, Muhammed Lutfi Efendi and recently Fethullah Gülen. Rumi was one of the important rings in that golden chain of Islamic tradition, and was deeply affected by and benefited from the wealth and experiences of those Sufis and scholars preceding him, as well as influencing those to come.
His Sufi understanding
Rumi’s love for Allah was a fiery one, with a constant weeping and longing for God’s mysteries. Love for anything other than God is not real Love: ‘Wherever I put my head, that is my place of worship. No matter where I am, that is where God is. Vineyards, roses, nightingales, the sema and loving . . . They are all symbols, the reason is always Him.’ Allah is the Beloved and Rumi bewails his separation from Him, as the ney weeps at its separation from the reed bed whence it came and longs for return. He experienced love and passion both through his solitary asceticism and his communal engagements and said: ‘The way of God’s Messenger is the way of Love. We are the children of Love. Love is our mother.’ It was in his solitariness that he became most open to the truest union with God, and it was in his separation from all things except God that he became like a ball of fire. And while such a sense of burning would prove difficult for many to bear, Rumi, considered it an essential part of passion, and not complaining was viewed as a tradition of loyalty. To him, those who profess a love of God must necessarily accompany their statement of ‘I love’ with a sense of furious burning—this is the price one must willingly pay for being close to God or in union with Him: ‘I was raw, I am now cooked and burnt.’ Additionally, one must engage in ascetic behavior such as moderate eating, drinking, sleeping, and a constant awareness and directedness towards God in one’s speech, and one must inevitably experience bewilderment at God’s bounties. Rumi cannot understand how a lover can sleep in an immoderate way, as it takes away from time shared with the Beloved. For him, excessive sleeping was offensive to the Beloved. As God instructed David by saying, ‘O David, those who indulge in sleeping without contemplating Me, while they claim passion for Me, are really lying,’ so also Rumi states, ‘When the darkness falls, lovers become intense.’ Rumi continually prescribed this in word, and also showed it in his actions.
His literary works
Rumi's poetry and prose writings have a spiritual content that is the universal language of the human soul. They speak of the spiritual journey of man's ascent through the mind and love to Perfection. His works were recorded, collected and compiled during his lifetime and after his death by his son, his friends and his students, particularly his much-loved disciple Husameddin Chelebi.
Soon after his spiritual friend Shems appeared in his life, Rumi started his marvelous work, The Masnawi, consisting of twenty-five thousand verses. Written in couplets and collected into six large volumes The Masnawi expresses Rumi’s burning love, refined spirit, fine intelligence and mysticism through the form of linked stories.
Also known as Divan-i Shems-i Tebriz (the collected poems of Shems of Tebriz) because Rumi used his friend’s name as a pseudonym, and consisting of over forty thousand couplets, this is a monumental work of divine lyricism. The whole is studied in depth in Muslim countries and selected passages have been widely translated and read throughout the world for centuries.
Fihi ma Fihi
Fihi ma Fihi (It Is What It Is), written in prose, is a collection of discourses and spiritual discussions given at gatherings with his students. Again using stories and examples it covers such topics as the mystical view of life and death, the phases of initiation into the mystical life, the relationship between the master and the initiate, faith, love, conduct, ethics and worship.
His continuing significance
Rumi was a devout Muslim and his teaching of peace and tolerance has appealed to men and women of all sects and creeds, and continues to draw followers from all parts of the Muslim and non-Muslim world. As both a teacher and a mystic, his doctrine advocates tolerance, reasoning, goodness, charity and awareness through love, looking with the same eye on Muslims, Jews, Christians and others alike.
Recognized as perhaps the greatest mystical poet of Islam, he communicated something through his writing that has attracted spiritual seekers from almost every religion in the world, for hundreds of years. Although at the time that Rumi emerged as a teacher and spiritual guide, the lands and the people of the East had been scourged and exhausted by the assaults of the Mongols, the Seljuk State much weakened by incursions and invasions by the Harzemshahs, who had previously defended Muslim lands against the Mongols, and in the chaos of the weakened state intercommunal and interreligious violence and schism were starting to arise, Rumi was able to produce an atmosphere of tolerance and dialogue. His message was to clarify the relation of human beings to our Creator, and our relation to others and our fellow beings. Even in his day, Rumi was sought out by merchants and kings, devout worshippers and rebellious seekers, famous scholars and common peasants, men and women. When he passed away in 1273, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Arabs, Persians, Turks and Romans honored him at his funeral, and men of five faiths followed his bier. That night was named Sheb-ul Arus (The Night of Union with the Divine). Ever since, the Mevlevi dervishes have kept that date as a festival.
Although Rumi was known and loved during his lifetime by the Christians in his immediate environment, the West only came to know him many centuries later, in part because the great German poet, Goethe, one of the fathers of the hugely Romantic movement, came to know and be influenced by some of the works of Rumi through the translations of the Austrian historian, Josef von Hammer. Even though most Islamic scholars would argue that von Hammer’s translations were for the most part inadequate, nevertheless the power and beauty of Rumi’s thought, mysticism and love shone through. By this route, Rumi has long been a strong, albeit indirect, influence on religious, cultural and even political life in Europe and the United States, and provides a real point of unity for East and West. The current truth and great potential of this cultural meeting is best proved by the fact that Rumi has been the best-selling poet in the United States for the last thirteen years.
Rumi’s life and works show us that it is not faith, belief and religion which cause hatred, conflict and violence, but the sins of hatred and greed and other symptoms of the unrestrained ego, and he showed us how the true practice of religion, the purification of the heart, is the remedy for these.
In our days his life and works are a reminder to all that the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ is far from inevitable and they show us how to derive hope, renewal and reconciliation, rather than despair, fear and enmity from our differences. He invites us to call constantly to mind that we are all one, from God we come and to God we will return:
Come, come, come again,
Whoever you may be,
Come again, even though
You may be a pagan or fire worshipper,
Our hearth is not the threshold of despair.
Come again, even if you may have
Violated your vows a hundred times,