Later, much later, I discovered Rumi. He became my hero because he represented an Islam vastly different from the Islam we are presented with these days.
He was born in Afghanistan, in the city of Balkh, in the 13th century. His father was already a great mystic. One day, he took to the pulpit of the great mosque and announced that all residents must leave the city because within three years it would be decimated and its entire population massacred. Many thought he was mad. Nevertheless, a thousand people followed him and emigrated to new lands. Three years later, Genghis Khan annihilated the city, killing all its inhabitants.
The colony of Afghans, led by Rumi’s father, travelled first through Damascus, and then to Konya in central Turkey, which was at the time under the reign of the dynasty of the Seljuk sultans, who were particularly tolerant and openminded, attracting thinkers of all kinds to the region.
Rumi’s father was generously welcomed. He continued preaching until his death. His son succeeded him. His real name was Jalal ad-Din, Rumi was only a nickname, a distorted form of “Roman”, which meant foreigner. Jalal ad-Din was a Rumi, a foreigner, because he came from Afghanistan.
Following in the footsteps of his father, he became the greatest mystic preacher in the region. The Court and the authorities paid tribute to his science and elevation. Hundreds flocked daily to listen to him preach. His students, ever multiplying, came from all over the region.
One day in the bazaar, he came face to face with a stranger, a man in his sixties, tall, skinny and ugly, and who proved to be mean and unpleasant on top of it all. And yet, at first glance, a passion was ignited.
It was not the old man who felt a pull towards young Rumi, but rather Rumi who was attracted to the old man, Shams, for that was his name. Shams-e Tabriz, for he was from the Persian town of Tabriz. Rumi took Shams to his monastery, and locked himself in his cell with him for 40 days. It was ecstasy.
Love came and like blood it flowed in my veins,
Love washed over me and filled me with adoration.
Every part of me was saturated with love, until,
Nothing remained but my name. All else was him.
Rumi was a married man and a father of two sons. After he met Shams, he changed his entire life. He no longer wanted to receive members of the Court, he sent away his students, he closed himself off to his flock and cut himself off from his wife. His first-born son was understanding and remained in his favour. But his younger son, who enraged Shams, was cast aside.
The intruder turned out to be a great mystic and a great poet just as Rumi was. Their “friendship” was filled with twists and colourful adventures. Rumi himself recounted these adventures, as did his closest disciples who became his chroniclers. The nature of this “friendship” that defied appearances and remained a profound mystery, continues to intrigue all who take an interest in Rumi.
One day, the two were dining at the monastery when Shams was told his presence was requested in the street. Shams and Rumi, as well as the disciples that were present, found this invitation suspicious. It was dangerous.
However, Shams got up while Rumi whispered a few words to him as he headed towards the exit. “It’s the right thing to do”, a sentence no one could explain. Shams left and did not come back. He was never seen again.
To this day, no one knows what happened. We suppose Rumi’s younger son, jealous of Shams and overshadowed by him, had him killed and hid his corpse. Rumi remained ignorant of the Beloved’s fate, and lived in anguish.
Shams had left once before, and Rumi spent months searching for him that time, so he thought perhaps this disappearance was just another one of his whims. He searched all over the Middle East for years, going from city to city, asking if anyone had seen Shams.
One day, without any new information coming to light, he declared to his entourage that he had found Shams. Surprised, they all asked him where he was. “In me,” Rumi replied, and went back to Konya.
He was very fond of one of his disciples, Husam al-din Chalabi, a young man who asked Rumi to dictate to him. Without hesitation and without fault, without backtracking or correction of any kind, Rumi thus composed before this young man his most famous poem, the Masnavi, more than 2,000 verses.
As with his other works, even translated into Western languages, his poetry reveals an unimaginable beauty, deeply mystical, and so gripping that one forgets its hermeticism. We need not understand it to be immediately seduced and carried away. We read it for the joy of reading:
Cloud of soft rain, come!
Oh drunkenness of friends, come!
Oh you, the king of cheaters, come!
The drunken ones greet you.
Surprise, erase the pain.
Destroy, and offer treasures.
Find the measure of words,
The drunken ones greet you.
You’ve turned the city upside down,
It knows everything and it knows nothing.
Thanks to you, the heart is lucid.
The drunken ones greet you.
Rumi’s Islam, is an Islam of total tolerance. He blended it with Greek Antiquity, for Rumi was filled with philosophy and wrote Greek, and he blended it with Christianity, which he spoke of constantly.
His openness, his scope, and his humanity are fascinating and moving. Among other things, Rumi understood that the body’s movement, revolving around itself, and the way one holds one’s hands and one’s head allowed communication with the universe and eternity.
He founded the Order of Whirling Dervishes whose members use dance to reach the pinnacle of spirituality. He died a beautiful death in all his glory, and his eldest son, who had always been faithful to him, succeeded him as head of the Order.