A poet and a mystic: Jalaluddin Rumi

by Carol Tell

IT MAY BE SURPRISING to learn that one of the most popular and best-selling poets in the United States is the thirteenth-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic, Jelaluddin Rumi (1207-1273). Although his spiritual verse has been revered in the Muslim world for centuries, it has more recently ignited the imaginations of contemporary American readers of all faiths; The Christian Science Monitor reported in 1997 that Rumi was the top-selling poet in the country. (2) Despite the fact that Rumi wrote about a world far different from our own, his lyrical poems are accessible, provocative, and surprisingly relevant. A man with firsthand experience of tragedy, war, and exile, Rumi offers us a vision of humanity that seems, even next to our contemporary notions of multiculturalism, boundless in its vitality and compassion. Rumi was a practicing Sufi, a branch of Islamic asceticism that originated in the eighth century in Persia (or Iran today). Yet his spiritual devotion led not to intolerance but to a greater feeling of unity among all living beings, disproving all-too-common misperceptions of Islam as a monolithic, fundamentalist faith.

"In profundity of thought, inventiveness of image, and triumphant mastery of language," one of his translators and biographers wrote, "he stands out as a supreme genius of Islamic mysticism." (3) Yet, like all great writers, Rumi's genius transcends specific labels. Learning about Rumi--both his life and his works--will not only expand students' understanding of Sufi history, culture, and belief, but will also bring to life a man who challenged the brutality of his times with sheer aesthetic pleasure. Even students who espouse to "hate poetry" will come away with a newfound interest, even delight, in its ability to speak to universal themes, such as love, loss, and the search for meaning in a chaotic age.

The Life

Born in September 1207 in Balkh (in what is now Afghanistan), Jelaluddin Rumi was the descendent of a long line of Islamic theologians and mystics. His father, Baha'al'Din Valad was a well-respected teacher, Sufi mystic, and theologian. Yet Rumi's honorable lineage could not shield him or his family from the tumultuous era in which they lived: To the west, the Christian Crusades were continuing to spread out of Europe; to the east, the Mongol armies were invading from the Asian steppes, with Genghis Khan extending his empire through Persia to the Adriatic Sea. When Rumi was only about twelve years old, Mongol invasions into Balkh forced him and his family into exile. They wandered for approximately ten years, and although little is known about their travels, they experienced a grave loss, the death of Rumi's mother. Scholars argue that experiencing such early uncertainty and turmoil played an inevitable role in Rumi's development as a mystic and a poet; as one biographer put it, "Rumi's imperturbable inner state and his mystic sensibility were cultivated in large part as a defense against the transience, loss, and terror he endured during his childhood." (4)

Eventually, Rumi's family settled in the city of Konia (now south-central Turkey). Konia had been a Muslim city since 1070, but it was also quite international: It was considered a meeting point among many cultures, including Islamic, Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Konia was also a trilingual city: Turkish was the spoken language; Persian, the written (literary) language; and Arabic, the language for religious worship. Once in Konia, Rumi's father was able to resume his role as the head of a dervish learning community. When he died, Rumi, still in his twenties but already respected for his erudition, assumed his father's duties.

Thus, despite living in exile, Rumi achieved great success in Konia during his early adulthood; he married, had children, and acquired many admirers for his teaching and scholarship. Yet Rumi at that time was not a poet--far from it. Indeed, the young man admitted, "By Allah, I care nothing for poetry, and there is nothing worse in my eyes than that." (5) His life changed abruptly, however, when he met his spiritual teacher, Shams al-Din of Tabriz, a wandering dervish. As with many incidents in Rumi's life, there are several versions explaining this crucial meeting between Shams and Rumi. (6) In one version, Shams interrupted Rumi while he was giving a lecture; Shams took all of Rumi's books and dumped them into a pool of water. In a similar version, Shams waved his hand over the books and engulfed them in flames. (In both versions, Shams was later able to restore the books to their original state.) A third version has Rumi riding through town on a mule, surrounded by his enthusiastic students. A strange figure in a cloak, Shams, approached and asked Rumi a question that seemed simple, but to which Rumi responded incorrectly. In all three versions, Shams showed Rumi the error of his ways: Book-learning, Shams explained, could only get a person so far; rather, the ecstatic pursuit of divine love, or of an intense and personal relationship with God, was the path to true enlightenment. Rumi describes this transformation in a poem written later for his teacher:

When I see your face, the stones start spinning!
You appear; all studying wanders.
I lose my place.

Water turns pearly.
Fire dies down and doesn't destroy.

In your presence I don't want what I thought
I wanted, those three little hanging lamps.

Inside your face the ancient manuscripts
Seem like rusty mirrors. (7)

For the next several months, Rumi and Shams were inseparable. Rumi's son wrote of the transformation of his father: "After meeting Shams, my father danced all day and sang all night. He had been a scholar--he became a poet. He had been an ascetic--he became drunk with love." (8) Thus, at age 37, Rumi was transformed from the "sober divine into an ecstatic wholly incapable of controlling the torrent of poetry which now poured forth from him." (9) After eighteen months, however, Shams mysteriously disappeared; some scholars say he returned once but then was driven away or even murdered by jealous students who resented Shams's power over Rumi. Not surprisingly, Rumi was utterly distraught at the absence of his teacher and dearest friend. To symbolize his anguished search for his beloved teacher, Rumi invented a whirling and circling dance, which was accompanied by pipes and drums; this practice was eventually copied by Rumi's followers--hence, the origins of the "whirling dervish." As the dance perhaps signifies, alongside Rumi's sadness came an eventual exhilaration. Thus, although Rumi's ecstatic poems began in grief, they ended in love, a triumph of the spirit. Yet Rumi never forgot the man who influenced him so deeply; when his poems mention his "beloved," they refer not to a female figure, such as his wife, but to Shams, his teacher.

Rumi presided over the dervish order (called Mevlevis) for the rest of his life. He devoted himself to his mystical writings and worship and, although he never had a greater influence than Shams, he developed other deep friendships with student disciples. Rumi died on December 17, 1273, and representatives of all major religions attended his funeral. Today, whirling dervishes around the world still honor that date--considered not his death but the "marriage" of Rumi and his maker--with traditional dancing, music, and celebrations.

The Poetry

Rumi wrote three main texts: the Diwan-I Shams-I Tabriz (odes), the Mathnawi; and the Rubaiyat (quatrains). The Mathwani is considered primarily instructional, whereas the Diwan and Rubaiyat are more personal and emotional. Yet all the books have common elements; as one critic wrote, they all suggest the "very madness of divine experience." (10)

Some contemporary readers may be more familiar with a quiet or rational kind of spirituality, not of the ecstatic sort that infused Rumi's writings. This rapturous mysticism is embedded in the practice of Sufism itself. An esoteric school of Islam that is widely practiced today, Sufism has as its primary goal to know love in all its forms, to see God everywhere. Every human relationship, too, is only a symbol of man's relationship to God. (11) Sufis do believe in the teachings of the Koran, but differ from more traditional Muslims in that they are mainly concerned with a direct experience of the Divine. They feel that because rationalism or logic is limited in its ability to explain and comprehend the immensity of the Divine, people must free themselves of the limitations of matter, of their bodies, even of rational consciousness. Rumi frequently describes such a feeling of oneness in his poems, such as in the lines "Stop the words now./Open the window in the center of your chest,/and let the spirits fly in and out." (12)

Rumi was certainly not the first Sufi poet, and elements of the Sufi poetic tradition are at play in his work. For example, Sufi poetry relies heavily on metaphors to evoke a belief in the Divine. One typical Sufi metaphor, which Rumi also uses, involves wine, taverns, and drunkenness in general. These images are not meant to promote alcoholism, but to symbolize man's delight in his relationship with God: Just as a person might become "drunk" on wine, so too does a mystic become "drunk" with God's love. In Rumi's work, wine often symbolizes such divine love; a cup is the mind and body of man; and the cupbearer is God, who fills our empty souls with wine. (13) As Rumi describes in another poem, "God has given us a dark wine so potent that, /drinking it, we leave the two worlds." (14)

Rumi's work incorporates many other sensual symbols: The nightingale often means the soul; a rose is the perfect beauty of God; and winter suggests a soul separated from God. (15) The Sun often symbolizes the teacher, or Shams, who Rumi believed awakened his soul to poetry and mysticism. Rumi translator and scholar Coleman Barks describes two predominant strains running through Rumi's poetry, which he labels with the Arabic terms fana and baqa; fana is "the streaming that moves from the human out into mystery," and baqa is "a living within," which streams, if you like, the other way, expressing God-like qualities in humanity, such as honesty, sobriety, clarity, or joy within limits. (16) Both strains, however, are concerned with the human encounter with the Divine. This encounter is often portrayed as man's greatest struggle, as in the following lines:

For sixty years I have been forgetful, every minute, but not for a second has this flowing toward me stopped
or slowed.
I deserve nothing. Today I recognize that I am the guest the mystics talk about.
I play this living music for my host
Everything I do is for the host. (17)

Rumi Today How did Rumi's verse become so well-known in America today? Although enormously popular in the Muslim world, his poetry was, up until recently, almost unknown in the United States. Coleman Barks, who is also a poet, is credited with bringing Rumi to the States. Twenty years ago, at the request of the American poet Robert Bly, Barks translated Rumi's poetry into a more accessible free verse, modernizing the language yet maintaining the "poetic color and fragrance of Rumi." (18) Barks's translations of Rumi have sold more than 125,000 copies.

We might ask what makes Rumi's poetry so appealing to a nation of predominately non-poetry readers. In many ways, especially with the help of Barks's translations, Rumi seems well-aligned to the American poetic tradition; indeed, his poetry reminds us of Walt Whitman's verse in its exaltation of the Divine in everyday life, its defiance of conventions, and its celebration of the language of common people. Ralph Waldo Emerson, another American poet and transcendentalist, was said to have read and been influenced by Rumi's work and philosophies. Like Whitman and Emerson, the speakers in Rumi's poems are both brazen and humble, at once reveling in their capacity for greatness and acknowledging their humility before God, as in the following lines:

I am so small I can barely be seen.
How can this great love be inside me?

Look at your eyes. They are small,
but they see enormous things. (19)

Perhaps another aspect of Rumi's poetry that endears him to contemporary American readers is his unabashed embrace of all cultures, nationalities, and mythologies. Although he clearly participates in a particular tradition--that of Sufi mysticism--he is able to integrate metaphors, motifs, and myths from multiple religious traditions; thus, his spirituality is not limited to or built on one specific law or text, but has a universal scope and appeal. Again, it is no surprise that such heterogeneity would attract a culture that long ago adopted as one of its founding myths the image of a "melting pot." And if, in an age of slick soundbites Americans crave more depth in their lives, Rumi provides it without making anyone feel excluded or weighted down by orthodoxy. Rumi may also appealing to our complex culture because he is, above all, a poet of paradox. He both challenges and affirms all religions. He wants us to strive for spiritual fulfillment by letting go of all striving. He asks us to exalt in commonplace objects and at the same time to recognize the impermanence of all worldly things. Through bodily movements--dancing, whirling, singing--Rumi aspired to transcend the body. Through rational means--the language of poetry--he aspired to transcend rationalism. What makes him refreshing for students and teachers alike is that, in contrast to many more recent poets, this poet is far from "bookish." Modern and postmodern poets, from T.S. Eliot to John Ashbery, tend to write intellectual, obscure, allusive, or ironic verse, whereas Rumi continuously challenges intellectualism and eschews insincerity. He invites us to reconsider reality, our relationships, and ourselves in radical ways, but always with an emphasis on simplicity and kindness. Thus, he beckons us into his world, advising us to "[l]isten to the presences inside poems/ Let them take you where they will". (20)

Teaching Ideas

When reading Rumi in social studies classes, teachers will need to tread carefully. Despite its enormous power and richness, Rumi's poetry is, above all, deeply religious. How can social studies teachers address religious themes without making students of different faiths, or of no faith, feel uncomfortable, defensive, or excluded? Here are a few suggestions.

* Present Rumi's life and poetry in a historical context. Have students research the time period in which Rumi lived, focusing on a particular topic, such as Sufism, whirling dervishes, the rise of Islam, the Mongols, or the Crusades. Ask students to research other early mystics, such as Francis of Assisi (c. 1182-1226) or Meister Eckhart (c. 1260-1328). Have students use Rumi's poetry to illustrate the ideas or issues that relate to their particular topic.

The American transcendentalist movement of the nineteenth century was influenced by eastern philosophy, including Sufi mysticism. Have students research the transcendentalist movement in the United States and compare it to the origins of Sufism. Next, have students write a short essay comparing one poem by an American transcendental poet to a poem by Rumi. Teachers may want to suggest poems for students to consider.

* Ask students to research a specific branch or offshoot of a major religion, such as Sufism (Islam), Lutheranism (Christianity), or Zen (Buddhism). What distinguishes it from the major religion? When was it founded, and by whom? What are its founding tenets or myths? How did the majority religion respond to its establishment, and has that response changed?

* Hand out the following poem.


This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing;
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Ask students to form small groups and discuss the poem. What is the central metaphor? What does the poem say about how we should treat "each guest" and why? Still working in small groups, ask students to think of another metaphor for the human body. Students should think of at least five details that make the comparison plausible. As a class, have each group discuss its metaphor. * In the poem "There Are Two Intelligences," Rumi discusses two kinds of knowledge, one that is acquired through books and formal education, and the other that is innate, "already completed and preserved inside you." After discussing these two intelligences, ask students to determine whether Rumi feels that one is more significant than the other. Have students debate which kind of intelligence is more important to them. What kind of intelligence do students need to take the SATs? To organize a class trip? To counsel a grieving friend? What kind of intelligence does our culture value more? Why?

* Ask students to choose one of the following poems in Coleman Barks's The Essential Rumi: "Only Breath," "The Food Sack," "The Cat and the Meat," "The Least Figure," "In the Arc of Your Mallet" (or others). Ask them to lead a class discussion, following the five steps in figure 1 (page 206).


DERVISH: A member of a Muslim religious order of mendicants noted for its devotional exercises, such as group repetitions or bodily movements leading to a trance.

KORAN: The book composed of writings accepted by Muslims as revelations made to Muhammad by Allah (God). Muslims believe that the Koran forms the basis of the religious, social, civil, commercial, military, and legal regulations for the Islamic world.

MEVLEVIS: The Sufi order founded by Rumi. They use dancing and music as part of their spiritual method and are known in the West as "whirling dervishes."

MONGOLS: Asian people located mainly in the Republic of Mongolia, the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region of China, and Kalmykia and the Buryat Republic of Russia. In the early thirteenth century, Genghis Khan helped unify numerous Mongol tribes to create the Mongol empire. The Mongols swept west into Europe and east into China, and by 1260 the sons of Genghis Khan ruled a great Eurasian empire.

MYSTICISM: The union or direct experience with an "ultimate reality" or the Divine.

PERSIA: The old alternate name for Iran and west Afghanistan.

SUFISM: Islamic mysticism. The term is derived from suf, meaning wool, which referred to the simple woolen clothing worn by the mystics. Sufism originated around the eighth century in Persia. It engages in a system of elaborate symbolism of which the goal is communion with the deity through contemplation and ecstasy. Sufism is said to have incorporated elements of Christian monasticism, gnosticism, and Indian mysticism, and its origins are traced to forms of devotion and groups of penitents in the formative period of Islam.



Poems can be rich and inexhaustible resources for a social studies teacher. How better to grasp the complexities of war than to read of the heroism--and brutality--in Homer's epic poem The Iliad? Can students find a more vivid context for the emergence of a leader like Malcolm X than in Langston Hughes's poem "A Dream Deferred"?
And when Robert Frost read at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, how did those lines describing a new age "of poetry and power" reverberate for the American people and set the tone for a new day in American politics?

Yet along with having tremendous power to inspire, motivate, and educate social studies students, poems also have their dangerous misuses. A poem is not like any other text. As poetry critic Helen Vendler describes, "Poetry is language used in a special way--not merely to convey emotion or to purvey information.... It is language used with particular attention to binding its phrases together by sheer interior association? ([dagger]) It is important
for teachers to do more than reduce a poem to a simple meaning or to a bunch of "facts' ("Locate on a map the rivers that Langston Hughes mentions"). This is not to say that particulars are unimportant. When a poem cites a river, a historical figure, an event, even a difficult vocabulary word, then students should, by all means, look them up. But the "facts" are only the starting point for understanding the poem's complexities. In the same way that we do not want students to think that war, for example, is only about dates and battles (of even that war is always an unambiguous struggle between good and evil), we do not want students to ignore the deeper patterns or, as Vendler calls
them, "interior associations"--psychological, social, ethical, metaphysical, aesthetic-that exist in all good poems.

How do we read a poem, then? There are countless ways, of course, but here area few steps to help students begin.

* First, read the poem aloud. Look up any words that are unfamiliar, including names, geographic locations, dates, or events.

* Describe the literal meaning of the poem. What is happening? Before interpreting the poem, students need to figure out the basics: Who is the speaker? What is he or she concerned with? Is there a story of action taking place, or is the speaker describing emotions or a past event? Students may even want to summarize the poem in a few sentences.

* Discuss the interpretive meaning or the ideas in the poem. Even without knowing anything about the poem's context of the poet's background, students should be able to come away with a sense of its themes. What is the poem saying about love, life, nature, or death, for example? Is it optimistic of pessimistic? What images does the poet use to convey an idea, tone, or mood? Can students relate to the ideas of emotions conveyed?

* Explore the structure of the poem. How does the form contribute to the theme? This is a difficult but essential
part of understanding how a poem works. A formal explanation of poetic forms is helpful but not essential. Does the poem rhyme? How does its rhyme scheme (or lack of rhyme scheme) emphasize certain words, ideas, or images? Is the rhythm regular or irregular? How does the flow contribute to the tone and overall meaning? Students may need to practice hearing the difference between stressed and unstressed syllables.

* Research the context of the poem. This is the meat of the social studies assignment. Students might focus on a biography of the poet, the historical times in which the poet wrote, or particular social issues that the poem raises. How was the poem received when it was first published? How does the context of the poem clarify or deepen
the themes?

([dagger]) Helen Vendler, "Poetry for the People," New York Times
Book Review (June 18, 1995): 14-15.
Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu,
Buddhist, Sufi, or Zen. Not any religion

or cultural system. I am not from the East
or the West, not out of the ocean or up

from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not
composed of elements at all....

I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one and that one call to and know.

first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human being. (1)

Notes (1.) Coleman Barks, ed. and transl., The Essential Rumi (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1995), 32.

(2.) Alexandra Marks, "Persian Poet Top Seller in America," Christian Science Monitor (November 25, 1997). Available at www.csmonitor.com /durable/1997/n/25/us/us.3.html

(3.) A.J. Arberry, transl., Mystical Poems of Rumi (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), 5-6.

(4.) Leslie Wines, Rumi: A Spiritual Biography (New York: Crossroad 8th Avenue, 2001); First chapter available on www.armory.com/~thrace/sufi/bio.htm

(5.) A.J. Arberry, transl., Discourses on Rumi (London: John Murray, 1961), 5.

(6.) Jonathan Star, transl., Rumi: In the Arms of the Beloved (New York: Putnam, 1997).

(7.) Barks, The Essential Rumi, 35.

(8.) Star, xvi.

(9.) Arberry, Discourses, 6.

(10.) Reynold A. Nicholson, transl., Rumi: Poet and Mystic (London: Allen and Unwin, Ltd., 1950), 25.

(11.) Nicholson.

(12.) Barks, The Essential Rumi 35.

(13.) Star, xvi.

(14.) Barks, The Esssential Rumi, 6.

(15.) Star, xiii.

(16.) Coleman Barks, transl., The Soul of Rumi (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 8-9.

(17.) Barks, The Essential Rumi, 98.

(18.) Marks, "Persian Poet."

(19.) Barks, The Essential Rumi, 279.

(20.) Ibid., 99.

Carol Tell is senior editor of Social Education.