Rumi – or Mevlana, as he is known in Turkey – is one of the most famous Sufi poets in Persia and the world. 800 years after his death, his poems still bring comfort and joy to millions. His tomb in Konya, Turkey, attracts pilgrims and Rumi lovers from around the world – and is perhaps the most spiritual place in Turkey.
What is Sufism?
Rumi was a Sufi and poet from the 13th century. But what exactly is that – a Sufi? Sufism is often defined as the spiritual, mystical dimension of Islam. Sufis place a direct relationship with God at the center of their spiritual practice. For Sufis, the path to God is through love.
Sufism is a vibrant and extremely diverse tradition, especially in India and Pakistan. The numerous graves of Sufi saints on the Indian subcontinent are still visited by millions of people today – and not only by Muslims. For Hindus and Sikhs also revere the great Sufis of South Asia, e.g. Lal Shabaz Qalandar or Nizamuddin Auliya.
More about Sufism in South Asia here.
In Turkey, all Sufi gatherings were banned about 100 years ago in the process of secularization. The ceremonies of the whirling dervishes are nothing more than a tourist spectacle. But one can be sure that there are still “real” Sufis in Turkey. They are probably hiding underground. And this is nothing new. For since time immemorial, the Sufis have been persecuted and suppressed because of their liberal view of Islam.
Rumi: The Scholar turned Mystic
But back to Rumi. He was born in 1207 as Jalal ad-Din Muhammad in Balkh, Afghanistan. His father, Baha ud-Din Walad, was a famous scholar and theologian who was also influenced by Sufism. Rumi followed the same path as his father, studying the scriptures and teachings of Islam for decades, and eventually becoming a respected scholar himself.
But what turned a scholar into a world-renowned poet, a highly revered spiritual teacher? What turned Jalal ad-Din Muhammad into the great Rumi?
“I was a seeker, and I still am, but I stopped asking the books and the stars – and started listening to the teachings of my own soul.”
The Sun of Tabriz
Shams-e Tabrizi – the “Sun of Tabriz” is the answer to this question. Shams is – together with Attar, Hafiz, Dschami and Rumi – one of the great poets of Persia. He is revered as a great mystic and spiritual teacher. It was he who opened the gates to Rumi’s heart, it was Shams who gave him the keys to the source of mystical poetry hidden within.
There are different transmissions of the first meeting between Rumi and Shams. One version is as follows. One day, Rumi was sitting on a bench, next to a large pile of books, reading. Shams, dressed in old clothes with holes in them, addressed him, saying, “What are you doing?” Rumi – then quite an uppity scholar – replied, “Something you cannot understand.” At this, the books suddenly caught fire. Stunned, Rumi asked what had happened. Shams replied, “Something you cannot understand.”
Another version has the two meeting in the bazaar of Konya. Shams asks Rumi, riding on a donkey and followed by numerous of his disciples: “Who was the greater saint: the Prophet Muhammad or Bayazid (a Sufi saint)?” Rumi replies in amazement, “Muhammad, no one is greater than he!” Shams: “How can this be when Bayazid said, Oh, glory be to me! I have known Him, but Muhammad said, “I have never known You (God) as I should have.”
Rumi pondered for a few minutes and replied, “While Bayazid’s demand for God was fulfilled by only one meeting, that of Muhammad was without limit. Thus he is the greatest.” After speaking these words, Rumi felt a door open in his heart. Tears filled his eyes and he lost consciousness. When he regained consciousness, both Rumi and Shams knew they had found what they had been looking for. Hand in hand, they went to the school where Rumi was teaching.
It is certain that Shams left a deep impression on Rumi. They spent several months together in Konya, where their relationship developed into a deep spiritual love. Shams was considered a stern and often strange man, but behind his every word and gesture was a hidden teaching.
Eventually, Shams left his disciple Rumi. It is believed that he fled Konya because some of his other students were jealous of the close relationship between him and Rumi. The two friends were never to see each other again. Rumi was left alone. He transformed his pain and great desire for Shams and God into the most beautiful verses the world has ever seen.
The Divan-i Shams-i Tabrizi and the Masnavi
These are the two great volumes of poetry by Rumi. The Divan-i Shams-i Tabrizi was written by Rumi over a period of almost 30 years. It is dedicated to his friend and teacher Shams and contains over 40,000 verses; in many of them, Rumi laments the disappearance of Shams. Thus, love and (spiritual) desire are at the center of this great work.
The Masnavi, on the other hand, is so influential and popular that it is also called “the Qu’ran of Persia.” There are about 25,000 verses in the book, which are to be understood as a guide and companion for all Sufis and people on the path to God. Rumi wrote on this book for fifteen years before he died in 1273. He was unable to finish the last part of the Masnavi.
The Divan Shams and the Masnavi have not lost their spiritual power over all the centuries. They belong to the absolute classics of Sufi and world literature.
Quotes by Rumi
The wound is the place where the Light enters you.
What you seek is seeking you
“I searched in temples, churches and mosques. But I found the divine in my heart.”
The Tomb of Rumi in Konya, Turkey
When Rumi died in Konya in 1273, his body was carried through the city by thousands of Konya residents. Among them were Christians and Jews. A mausoleum was built over his grave, and later mosques and other buildings were added.
Rumi’s mausoleum was converted into a museum in 1927, today’s Mevlana Museum. This was because the newly established Turkish state banned all Sufi brotherhoods. But this did not diminish the attraction of Rumi and his tomb. Even today, people from all over the world come to Konya to pay their respects to the great Sufi master.
That his tomb has become an important pilgrimage destination is an irony that Rumi would probably have found quite comical. After all, his epitaph reads:
When we are dead, seek not our tomb in the earth, but find it in the hearts of men.
The story of the spiritual love between Shams and Rumi is one of the most beautiful in the Islamic world. Rumi is as present as ever 800 years after his death. In the United States, his books are among the best-selling ever; in Persia, he and other Sufi poets like Hafiz and Attar still exert a great influence on the daily and spiritual lives of Iranians. And in Turkey, too, Rumi’s mystical influence can still be felt today – especially in Konya.
By the way, the book The Forty Secrets of Love by Turkish writer Elif Shafak tells the story of Shams and Rumi in an extremely entertaining way. The book won several awards and contributed to the newly discovered love for Rumi and Sufism. An absolute recommendation for anyone who wants to learn more about Sufism, Rumi and Shams.
Be melting snow.
Wash yourself of yourself.