A 16th century manuscript of Jalalludin Rumi's Masnavi-e-Manavi (Spiritual Couplets), from Iran, ink, watercolour and gold on paper.
A 16th century Iranian manuscript of Jalalludin Rumi's Masnavi-e-Manavi (Spiritual Couplets).

The Meaning of Rumi's Work by Peter Brent*

Jalaluddin Rumi, whom Sufis call ‘The Master’ and Professor Fatemi entitles ‘The Light of Sufism’, was born in Balkh, now in Afghanistan, in 1207. His father was a famous scholar and theologian, so that Rumi’s early training was in the rigorously classical and logical modes. When he was twelve his family left Balkh and, after some time spent in travelling about the Middle East, finally settled in Konia, anciently Iconium, in what is now Turkey. Rumi married, was left a widower, married again; from both marriages he had children.

He early became a teacher, but soon he was himself wandering through western Asia in the company of a Sufi master named Burhan al-Din, his task now self-development. When after some years he returned to Konia, he resumed the teaching of theology, but added to it a new spiritual resonance through the guidance he was able to give. As a result, he quickly achieved a position of great religious – and thus, in Islam, social and even secular – importance. When he was at the height of this relatively conventional fame, he met the Sufi teacher, Shamsuddin of Tabriz.

This strange and powerful man, who seemed to some no more than a noisy, arrogant blusterer, at once dislocated Rumi’s life. In the esoteric traditions of Asia, relying as they do on the transmission of a mystic essence from a teacher to a disciple, there occurs again and again that moment of recognition in which Master and student understand – wordlessly, at once – that they are destined to work together. Such a moment evidently occurred between Rumi and Shamsuddin; the revered theologian, seized with an intoxication that expressed itself at times in solitary dance, placed himself without reservation among the wandering Sufi’s pupils. As his son wrote, ‘The great professor became a beginner in self perfection.’

The orthodox criticised, bewailed the loss of their teacher or decided simply that Rumi was mad. Shamsuddin after fifteen months left Konia, but Rumi continued his inward, intensely devoted progress. Perhaps then, perhaps a little later, in 1248, Shamsuddin died, apparently in violence caused by the jealousies and antagonisms Rumi’s ‘strange’ behaviour had provoked. Eventually, however, Rumi, who was no longer to be deflected, reconciled the increasing pressures of his inward search with the social demands of the people of Konia, or, more accurately, reconciled the people of Konia to the demands of his inward search, in part by guiding them in their own.

To understand the role that Shamsuddin – internalised by his pupil, his religious essence transferred – played thenceforth in the life of Rumi, one must understand the nature of the feeling that exists, in living mystical traditions, between murshid and murid, guru and shishya, between teacher and taught. The Master becomes a living metaphor for the perfection of the Absolute. He seems for the disciple at once the stepping-stone to divinity and, as a self-realised man, divinity made flesh. At the same time there exists in both the conviction that between them the transmission of a quality, indefinable yet unmistakable, can take place, through which the disciple will be permanently altered. When this transmission has occurred, the disciple is in no doubt about what he has gained, nor will the departure or death of the Master diminish one iota of it: he has been flooded by a perception of the Absolute so clear that almost nothing he can do will make him lose it, especially since all he does is done only in its light. In him, therefore, the fact of the teacher and the fact of the divine merge into an inextricable whole, fusing with his own essence to produce a new level of being.

Thus Rumi could write:

When I go into the mine he is the carnelian and ruby;
When I go into the sea he is the pearl.
When I am on the plains he is the garden rose; when
I come to the heavens he is the star...
My master and my sheikh, my pain and my remedy;
I declare these words openly, my Shams and my God.
I have reached truth because of you, O my soul of truth.

These lines come from his Divani Shamsi Tabriz; he was now in the condition that Professor Arasteh has described in his Rumi the Persian. ‘He was all love, all joy, all happiness. He had no grief, no anxiety. He was totally born, totally spontaneous...’

Rumi now felt able to set up a school of devotees of his own, and in it to guide others towards that state to which the fact of Shams had guided him. It was now, too, that he probably began to work on that six-volume compilation of fables, poems, tales, examples and speculations, the Mathnavi, through which, perhaps more than anywhere else in his work, he attempted to induce in the reader something of his own state of mind; as Idries Shah puts it, ‘a picture is built up by multiple impact to infuse into the mind the Sufi message’. In the ‘Mevlevi Order’ was later codified what had at times been his own practice of dancing, developing the steady whirling which is at one level a mechanical aid to the induction of trance, but is at another (I quote Shah again) ‘designed to bring the Seeker into affinity with the mystical current, in order to be transformed by it’.

But for Rumi trance was, as it must be for a Sufi, no more than a stage in the process of self-development. Again and again, in the Mathnavi, in his Fihi ma Fihi and elsewhere, he refers to the condition beyond trance, beyond belief, beyond mere creed or doctrine.

Cross and the churches, from end to end
I surveyed; He was not on the cross.
I went to the idol temple, to the ancient pagoda,
No trace was visible there.
I bent the reins of search to the Ka’ba,
He was not in the resort of old and young.
I gazed into my own heart;
There I saw Him, He was nowhere else.

And, as he stated explicitly in the Divani Shamsi Tabriz, ‘I have put duality away... One I seek, One I know, One I see, One I call.’ This monism Rumi experienced directly, and he interpreted the experience as love. He is above all the poet of transcendent love; he saw it clearly and never made it an excuse for rhetoric, imprecise although exciting. He had very definite ideas about the nature of the human being, and the struggle needed to transcend the polarity between reason and instinct in order to reach, once again, the state of peaceful certainty beyond. In that final condition, an individual was able to integrate instinct and reason with intuitive perception and the love that would both keep him whole and permit him direct involvement with every aspect of the cosmos.

Love, in other words, became at this level a medium for perceptions otherwise impossible to human beings. It is this vision of the person evolved that remains immediate and full of meaning. As we struggle earnestly to understand ourselves in a world where we seem, at precisely the same time and with precisely the same dedication, to be building endless barriers and creating endless pressures, Rumi’s insights and oblique admonitions are more relevant than they have ever been.

This is an excerpt from Peter Brent's article entitled The Classical Masters, which appears in Idries Shah's The World of the Sufi. To continue reading this piece and others in the collection, go to The World of the Sufi.

*PETER BRENT was the author of many books, among them a major biography of Darwin Charles Darwin: A Man of Enlarged Curiosity; also two studies of the mystical and religious traditions of the East Godmen of India and Healers of India.