Rumi – Sufi Poet of East and West

A statue of Jalaluddin Rumi, founder of the Order of the Whirling Dervishes, in Izmir, Turkey.
A statue of Jalaluddin Rumi, founder of the Order of the Whirling Dervishes, in Izmir, Turkey


The 13th century Afghan-born Jalaluddin Rumi (1207–1273) is one of the best-selling poets today in the West. His lofty, feel-good verses on the power and virtues of 'love' are embraced by many for their poignancy and inspiration. But as Idries Shah tells us in his comprehensive chapter about Rumi in The Sufis, the Afghan's poetry contains depths of meaning not often understood, or even appreciated. Rumi was also more than just a poet. He worked towards a specific, actionable purpose, Shah says, that went far beyond the emotional value associated with his writing.


Rumi the Mystical Master

An illustrated portrait of Jaluddin Rumi.Maulana (literally, Our Master) Jalaluddin Rumi, who founded the Order of the Whirling Dervishes, bears out in his career the Eastern saying, ‘Giants come forth from Afghanistan and influence the world.’ He was born in Bactria, of a noble family, at the beginning of the thirteenth century. He lived and taught in Iconium (Rum) in Asia Minor, before the beginning of the Ottoman Empire, whose throne he is said to have refused. His works are written in Persian, and so esteemed by the Persians for their poetic, literary and mystical content that they are called ‘The Qur’an in the Pehlevi tongue’ — and this in spite of their being opposed to the national cult of the Persians, the Shia faith, criticising its exclusivism.

Among the Arabs and the Indian and Pakistani Muslims, Rumi is considered to be one of the first rank of mystical masters — yet he states that the teachings of the Qur’an are allegorical, and that it has seven different meanings. The extent of Rumi’s influence can hardly be calculated; though it can be glimpsed occasionally in the literature and thought of many schools. Even Doctor Johnson, best known for his unfavourable pronouncements, says of Rumi, ‘He makes plain to the Pilgrim the secrets of the Way of Unity, and unveils the Mysteries of the Path of Eternal Truth.’

Rumi's Far-Reaching Influence

His work was well enough known within less than a hundred years of his death in 1273 for Chaucer to use references to it in some of his works, together with material from the teachings of Rumi’s spiritual precursor, Attar the Chemist (1150–1229/30). From the numerous references to Arabian material which can be found in Chaucer, even a cursory examination shows a Sufi impact of the Rumi school of literature. Chaucer’s use of the phrase, ‘As lions may take warning when a pup is punished…’ is merely a close adaptation of Udhrib el-kalba wa yata’ addaba el-fahdu (‘Beat the dog and the lion will behave’), which is a secret phrase used by the Whirling Dervishes. Its interpretation depends on a play upon the words ‘dog’ and ‘lion’. Although written as such, in speaking the password, homophones are used. Instead of saying dog (kalb), the Sufi says heart (qalb), and in place of lion (fahd), fahid (the neglectful). The phrase now becomes: ‘Beat the heart (Sufi exercises) and the neglectful (faculties) behave (correctly).’

This is the slogan which introduces the ‘beating the heart’ movements encouraged by the motions and concentrations of the Mevlevi — Whirling — Dervishes.

The relationship between the Canterbury Tales as an allegory of inner development and the Parliament of the Birds of Attar is another interesting item. Professor Skeat reminds us that, like Attar, Chaucer has thirty participants in his pilgrimage. Thirty pilgrims seeking the mystical bird, the Simurgh makes sense in Persian, because si-murgh actually means ‘thirty birds’. In English, however, such a transposition is not possible. The number of pilgrims, made necessary in the Persian because of the requirements of rhyme, is preserved in Chaucer, deprived of double meaning. ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’ occurs in Attar; the pear-tree story is found in Book IV of the Sufi work, the Mathnawi of Rumi.

Rumi’s influence, both in ideas and textually, is considerable in the West. Since most of his work has been translated into Western languages in more recent years, his impact has become greater. But if he is, as Professor Arberry calls him, ‘surely the greatest mystical poet in the history of mankind’, the poetry itself in which so much of his teachings is couched can really only be appreciated in the original Persian. The teachings, however, and the methods used by the Whirling Dervishes and other Rumi-influenced schools, are not so elusive, providing that the way of putting esoteric truths is understood.

Rumi's Mathnawi

There are three documents by means of which Rumi’s work can be studied by the outside world. The Mathnawi-i-Manawi (Spiritual Couplets) is Jalaluddin’s masterwork — six books of poetry and imagery of such power in the original that its recitation produces a strangely complex exaltation of the hearer’s consciousness.

An illustrated manuscript page from Rumi's 'Mathnawi-i-Maanawi'
Rumi's major work, generally considered to be one of the world's greatest books, is his Mathnawi-i-Maanawi (Spiritual Couplets).

It was forty-three years in the writing. It cannot exactly be criticised as poetry, because of the special intricacy of ideas, form and presentation. Those who seek conventional verse alone in it, as Professor Nicholson remarks, have to skip. And then they lose the effect of what is in fact a special art form, created by Rumi for the express purpose of conveying meanings which he himself concedes have no actual parallel in ordinary human experience. To ignore this remarkable achievement is like selecting the taste without the strawberry jam.

Nicholson, overstressing the role of the exquisite poetry in the ocean of the Mathnawi, sometimes shows a preference for formal verse.

‘The Mathnawi,’ he says (Introduction, Selections from the Diwan of Shams of Tabriz, p. xxxix), ‘contains a wealth of delightful poetry. But its readers must pick their way through apologues, dialogues, interpretations of Qur’anic texts, metaphysical subtleties and moral exhortations, ere all at once they chance upon a passage of pure and exquisite song.’

To the Sufi, if not to anyone else, this book speaks from a different dimension, yet a dimension which is in a way within his deepest self.

Like all Sufi works, the Mathnawi will vary in its effect upon the listener in accordance with the conditions under which it is studied. It contains jokes, fables, conversations, references to former teachers and to ecstatogenic methods — a phenomenal example of the method of scatter, whereby a picture is built up by multiple impact to infuse into the mind the Sufi message.

19th century ink watercolour of Jalaluddin Rumi on paper.A Brief Biography of Rumi

Jalaluddin Rumi was born on September 30, 1207, in Balkh Province, on the eastern edge of the Persian Empire in what is today Afghanistan. A decade or so into his life, his father, an esteemed religious scholar, took the young Rumi and his family west to escape the advancing Mongol armies of Genghis Khan. The family eventually settled in Konya, Turkey, where Rumi lived and spent most of his adult years working as a scholar, writer, and teacher.

In 1244, Rumi met Shams of Tabriz, a Persian Sufi saint who had taken a vow of poverty. Their meeting and four-year companionship is considered the central event that transformed Rumi’s life. Tabriz disappeared under mysterious circumstances, prompting Rumi to mourn and turn inward for a time before returning to his work, but with even greater erudition.

In the years to follow he became a prolific poet and wrote three works considered to be some of the greatest collections of verse ever produced: Fihi Ma Fihi (In it What is In It), Diwan-i-Shams-i-Tabriz (The Diwan of Shams of Tabriz), and foremost among them, Mathnawi-i-Manawi (Spiritual Couplets).

Rumi also founded The Order of the Whirling Dervishes, an organisation devoted partly to musical dance movements, which Idries Shah, author of The Sufis, claims was 'for the sluggish among the people of the (Eastern) Roman Empire, to stir up their spirits preparatory to giving them certain kinds of instruction'.*

Rumi fell ill and died on December 17, 1273, in Konya, Turkey.

During his life, Rumi referred to death as 'our wedding with eternity' – when the human soul is reunited with the love, truth, and essence of the Creator from which it came forth. Those who revere Rumi have ever since celebrated the anniversary of his passing as the jubilee of his 'Wedding Night'.

* See the introduction to E.H. Whinfield’s Teachings of Rumi: The Masnavi. London: Octagon Press, 1979.

Working in the Context of his Time

This message, with Rumi as with all Sufi masters, is arranged partially in response to the environment in which he is working. He instituted dances and whirling movements among his disciples, it is related, because of the phlegmatic temperament of the people among whom he was cast. The so-called variation of doctrine or action prescribed by the various Sufi teachers is in reality nothing more than the application of this rule.

Whirling dervishes in Konya, Turkey
Rumi founded the Order of the Whirling Dervishes, whose members were prescribed movements specific to the needs of what Idries Shah calls 'time, place and people'.

In his teaching system, Rumi used explanation and mental drill, thought and meditation, work and play, action and inaction. The body–mind movements of the Whirling Dervishes, coupled with the reed-pipe music to which they were performed, is the product of a special method designed to bring the Seeker into affinity with the mystical current, in order to be transformed by it. Everything which the unregenerate man understands has a use and a meaning within the special context of Sufism which may be invisible until it is experienced. ‘Prayer,’ says Rumi, ‘has a form, a sound and a physical reality. Everything which has a word, has a physical equivalent. And every thought has an action.’

One of the really Sufic characteristics of Rumi is that, although he will uncompromisingly say the most unpopular thing — that the ordinary man, whatever his formal attainments, is immature in mysticism — he also gives the chance to almost anyone to attain progress toward the completion of human destiny.

Rumi on Religion

Like many Sufis cast in a theological atmosphere, Rumi first addresses his hearers on the subject of religion. He stresses that the form in which ordinary, emotional religion is understood by organised bodies is incorrect. The Veil of Light, which is the barrier brought about by self-righteousness, is more dangerous than the Veil of Darkness, produced in the mind by vice. Understanding can come only through love, not by training by means of organisational methods.

For him, the earliest teachers of religions were right. Their successors, apart from a few, organised matters in such a way as virtually to exclude enlightenment. This attitude requires a new approach to the problems of religion. Rumi takes the whole question out of the normal channel. He is not prepared to submit dogma to study and argument. The real religion, he says, is other than people think it is. Therefore there is no virtue in examining dogma. In this world, he says, there is no equivalent to the things which are called the Throne (of God), the Book, Angels, the Day of Reckoning. Similes are used, and they are of necessity merely a rough idea of something else.

The The Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi shrine and mosque in the city of Konya, Turkey
The Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi shrine and mosque in the city of Konya, Turkey – where Rumi moved to in his youth and where he spent his life working and teaching

In the collection of his sayings and teachings called In It What Is In It (Fihi Ma Fihi), used as a textbook for Sufis, he goes even further. Mankind, he says, passes through three stages. In the first one, he worships anything — man, woman, money, children, earth and stones. Then, when he has progressed a little further, he worships God. Finally, he does not say, ‘I worship God’, nor ‘I do not worship God.’ He has passed into the last stage.

In order to approach the Sufi Way, the Seeker must realise that he is, largely, a bundle of what are nowadays called conditionings — fixed ideas and prejudices, automatic responses sometimes which have occurred through the training of others. Man is not as free as he thinks he is. The first step is for the individual to get away from thinking that he understands, and really understand. But man has been taught that he can understand everything by the same process, the process of logic. This teaching has undermined him.

‘If you follow the ways in which you have been trained, which you may have inherited, for no other reason than this, you are illogical.’

The Relationship of Sufism to Religion

The understanding of religion, and what the great religious figures taught, is a part of Sufism. Sufism uses the terminology of ordinary religion, but in a special manner which has always excited the anger of the nominally devout. To the Sufi, generally speaking, each religious teacher symbolises, in his creed and especially in his life, an aspect of the way whose totality is Sufism. Jesus is within you, says Rumi; seek his aid. And then, do not seek from within yourself, from your Moses, the needs of a Pharaoh.

An illusratiion of Jalaluddin Rumi meeting Shams of Tabriz.
A 16th century illustration from 'Jami al-Siyar' by Mohammed Tahir Suhravardi depicting the meeting between Jalaluddin Rumi and Shams of Tabriz

The way in which the different religious paths are symbolised for the Sufi is stated by Rumi when he says that the path of Jesus was struggling with solitude and overcoming lustfulness. The path of Muhammad was to live within the community of ordinary humanity. ‘Go by the way of Muhammad,’ he says, ‘but if you cannot, then go by the Christian way.’ Rumi here is not by any means inviting his hearers to embrace one or other of these religions. He is pointing to the ways in which the Seeker can find fulfilment; but fulfilment through the Sufic understanding of what the paths of Jesus and Muhammad were.

Similarly, when the Sufi speaks of God, he does not mean the deity in the sense in which it is understood by the man who has been trained by the theologian. This deity is accepted by some, the pious; rejected by others, the atheists. But it is a rejection or acceptance of something which has been presented by the scholastics and priesthood. The God of the Sufis is not involved in this controversy; because divinity is a matter of personal experience to the Sufi.

Rumi on the limits of Logic

All this does not mean that the Sufi is trying to take away the exercise of the reasoning faculty. Rumi explains that reason is essential; but it has a place. If you want to have clothes made you visit a tailor. Reason tells you which tailor to choose. After that, however, reason is in suspense. You have to repose complete trust — faith — in your tailor that he will complete the work correctly. Logic, says the master, takes the patient to the doctor. After that, he is completely in the hands of the physician.

Rumi's allegory of 'The Elephant and the Blind Men'
Rumi used the allegory of the Elephant and the Blind Men to demonstrate our human tendency to focus on the parts at the expense of the whole – and the divergence of views that result

But the well-trained materialist, although he claims that he wants to hear what the mystic has to tell him, cannot be told the whole truth. He would not believe it. The truth is not based upon materialism any more than upon logic. Hence the mystic is working on a series of different planes, the materialist on only one. The result of their contact would be that the Sufi will even appear inconsistent to the materialist. If he says today something which he said differently yesterday, he will appear to be a liar. At the very least, the situation of being at cross-purposes will destroy any chance of progress in mutual understanding.

‘Those who do not understand a thing,’ Rumi observes, ‘claim that it is useless. The hand and the instrument are as flint and steel. Strike flint with earth. Will a spark be made?’ One of the reasons why the mystic does not preach publicly is that the conditioned religious man, or the materialist, will not understand him:

A king’s hawk settled upon a ruin inhabited by owls. They decided that he had come to drive them out of their home and take possession of it himself. ‘This ruin may seem a prosperous place to you. To me, the better place is upon the arm of the King,’ said the hawk. Some of the owls cried, ‘Do not believe him. He is using guile to steal our home.’

The use of fables and illustrations like this one is very widespread among the Sufis; and Rumi is the master fabulist of their number.

The same thought is often given by the master in many different forms, in order to make it penetrate the mind. Sufis say that an idea will enter the conditioned (veiled) mind only if it is so phrased as to be able to bypass the screen of conditionings. The fact that the non-Sufi has so little in common with the Sufi means that the Sufis have to use the basic elements which exist in every human being, and which are not entirely killed by any form of conditioning. And these elements are precisely those which underlie the Sufi development. Of these the first and permanent one is love. Love is the factor which is to carry a man, and all humanity, to fulfilment:

‘Mankind has an unfulfilment, a desire, and he struggles to fulfil it through all kinds of enterprises and ambitions. But it is only in love that he can find fulfilment.’

This is an excerpt from Our Master Jalaluddin Rumi, the seventh section of The Sufis by Idries Shah. To continue reading this section, go to The Sufis by Idries Shah.

Copyright © The Estate of Idries Shah