Jalal-uddin Rumi (1207 -1273)
by Dorothy C. Buck
Talk sponsored by the M.I.T.Rumi Club
We know him as the Islamic mystic and poet, Rumi. But he is well known in
the Muslim world as Mevlana, founder of the Mevlevi Sufi Brotherhood. He was
given the name Jalal-uddin which means the keeper of the faith, by his
parents when he was born. There is some confusion as to whether the city of
Balkh where he was born was in Afghanistan or Pakistan, however it is clear
that this was a time of great turmoil and invasions of Islamic lands by the
Mongols that continued throughout Rumis life. There is also some confusion
about the exact date of his birth although most texts say September 30, 1207.
His father was a famous spiritual teacher who became known as the Elder Master,
the Sultan of the Ulema, or Sultan of the scholars.
After his son was born Bahau-din, Rumis father, left the city because of the invasions and some tensions in the community about his popularity as a teacher, and travelled for 16 years before reaching the city of Konya in Anatolia, in present day Turkey, where the family settled in 1221. There he taught in a Medresa as a Doctor, or scholar of Sacred Muslim Law and Theology and guided his students toward the Light of the Divine. The young Rumi attended his fathers lectures. There are many stories about him that reveal his giftedness from childhood. For example, the family had stopped in Naishapur to visit Attar, the great mystic of that era. Attar recognized the young Rumis gifts of wisdom and knowledge and gave him his book entitled, Interpretation of Mystery as a gift.
On January 12, 1231 the Sultan of the Scholars, Rumis father died and was buried in the Mevlana Tomb where he rests to this day. His fathers students gathered around Mevlana, and Rumi soon gathered a large academic circle around him because of his great learning. He was not only a secluded scholar teacher who lectured in the medresas but also a fiery preacher in the mosques and an authority on Islamic doctrine. As his interior life and ascetic practices increased he longed for somewhere to reveal his experiences since one of the demands of Sufi practice is not to reveal personal ecstatic experiences of the Beloved. It was then that he met Muhammad Shemseddin Tebriz who became known as Shems. This adept Sufi was the guide and companion who opened the door of divine mystical love to Mevlana.
All religions have within their traditions a form of spiritual practice called mysticism. Islamic mystical traditon is called Sufism. Mysticism is a path towards God that leads one through a process of painful purification of oneself to the heights of Divine Love alive in the depth of every human soul. This is not an easy road and an experienced guide helps the seeker through the rigors of increasing ascetic practice. Therefore, when Shems came into Mevlanas life his spiritual path to transformation blossomed. Through Shems, Mevlana had become a poet and a lover of music. One day as he walked by the goldsmiths shop he heard the hammers of the apprentices pounding the rough sheets of gold into beautiful objects. With each step he repeated the name of God; and now, with the sound of the hammers beating the gold, all he heard was Allah, Allah and he began to whirl in the middle of the street. He unfolded his arms, like a fledgling bird, tilted his head back and whirled and whirled to the sound of Allah that came forth from the very wind he created by his movement.
The dance became an integral part of the rigorous training of the dervishes in the school of the order of Sufi ascetics known as the Mevlevi Whirling Dervishes. The persian word Dervish literally means the sill of the door and describes the Sufi dervish as one who is at the door of enlightenment. Some say that the word Sufi comes from the Arabic word for wool sufdescribing the wool cloaks worn by the Sufis. But others suggest it comes from the Greek word sophos meaning wisdom. Annamarie Schimmel, the great scholar of Sufism wrote, Dance was practiced by the Sufis from the earliest days of Sufism in the ninth century but the only brotherhood in which the whirling was institutionalized as part of the ritual was the Mevlevi because Rumi himself sang his immortal verses while whirling, enthralled by passionate longing for his friend Shems, the Sun of Tabriz who had opened the way to him to immediate experience of the Divine Beloved.
Love however means to die to ones self and to be revived in the Beloved, (or God). As much as the whirling dance can be interpreted as the dance of everything created around the central Sun of Divine Love, it also means to re-enact death and resurrection: the dervishes cast off their black coats which are symbols of earthly life, and appear in their unfolding white gowns, symbolizing the clothing of immortality, like moths in an enraptured and yet carefully measured dance, burning, it seems, in the flames of the transfiguring Love of the Beloved.
Rumis mystical poetry has become well known all over the world.It is a great expression of Islamic mysticism and present day Sufi members from many traditional brotherhoods find inspiration from Rumi for their daily lives, and courage for their journeys towards transformation through Love. Rumis greatest masterpiece is the Mathnawi consisting of 25,618 couplets in verse originally written in the Persian language. This is a collection in six volumes expressing mystical experience and the refining of the human soul through fables. Rumi is known as an advocate of universal love and world peace.
The rigorous training of the dervishes in the school established in Konya included living in seclusion in small cells, and 10001 days of prayer, study, and fasting. The initiates were sent into the city to beg with golden bowls, making it clear that they had no need to beg but were on a path to learn humility. When Turkey became a republic in 1926 the school was closed and the Shrine of Mevlana, his father and their families, and the mosque became the Mevlana Museum. In 1964 a group of dervishes revived the Whirling ritual as a historical tradition and they perform the ritual around the world.
This month we are honoring his death on the evening of December 17, 1273, what Rumi himself called the Wedding Night, the passing of Jallal-uddin Rumi into union with the Beloved. Every year on this night the Sema, or Whirling Dervish ritual, is performed in Konya, in Turkey.
Let us end with the words of Jallal-uddin Rumi:
I died from a mineral, and plant became;
Died from a plant, and took a sentient frame;
Died from the beast, and donned human dress;
When, from my dying did I eer grow less?
Another time from manhood I must die
To soar with angel-pinions through the sky.
Midst Angels also I must lose my place
Since Everything must perish save Gods Face
Let me be naught! The harp-strings tell me plain
That unto God we return again.
1. Schimmel, Annemarie. Mystical Dimensions of Islam, University of North Caroline Press, Chapel Hill. NC 1975.