The man behind the myth: Rumi – Sufi poet of love
In the Western world, the name Rumi seems to be popping up everywhere. From topping contemporary lists of best-selling poetry books, to the appearance on social media of colourful memes laced with his sage words, Rumi has increasingly entered the mainstream. But who is this man and how is it that a once forgotten 13th Century Persian poet is making such an impact on the wider world? Here Arcadia’s Co-Founder David Mannix delves deep into Rumi the man, the myths and the legacy of his teachings.
Who is Rumi?
Jalal al-Din Rumi was a Sufi mystic, theologian and philosopher who is perhaps best known today for his poetry. He was the founder of the Mevlevi order, known by many through a different name – the whirling dervishes.
Rumi spent much of his life in the city of Konya in Turkey, where he moved with his family at the age of 10. He was from a long line of prominent Islamic preachers and was born in what is now Tajikistan in Central Asia. Whilst on the pilgrimage to Mecca, the Mongol hordes swept across Rumi’s homeland, making it impossible for his family to return. In what was a serendipitous moment, Rumi’s father was invited by the Seljuck sultan to emigrate to Konya after one of his sermons was heard by an emissary of the sultan in Baghdad.
Konya was where Rumi’s spiritual journey began and at that time the Seljuck capital was one of the most cosmopolitan and diverse cities in Eurasia. Whilst Muslims only represented around 10% of Konya’s population, it was famed for its pluralism and exchange in ideas where the various religions lived a relatively peaceful co-existence.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Rumi began his rigorous education in Islam from a young age and was seen as a child prodigy in religious circles. When he was 25, he was sent to Syria to gain exposure to the most renowned religious scholars in the Muslim world, with his mentor Borhan predicting: “Like the sun, you’ll scatter light worldwide”. It was in the revered centres of learning in Aleppo and Damascus that Rumi received advanced lessons in the practice of spirituality and asceticism, giving him the ability to see through the surface for deeper meanings and develop his understanding that divinity was present in everyone.
Returning to Konya, Rumi’s eloquent and powerful preaching quickly led him to assume leadership of the Sufi community, where he held academic appointments at 4 separate colleges.
Whilst Rumi was a devotee of the Sufi order, the mystical branch of Islam, the religious diversity within Konya allowed him to learn from all faiths. It was these unique conditions that saw his teachings emerge beyond one faith, and in spirit, to become universal. Rumi’s key message, that the essence of God is love, saw him gradually emerge to a more controversial position whereby he stated that “Since we worship the one God, then all religions must be one.” This bold approach, that went beyond organised faiths, caused ruptures amongst the academic elite of Konya. Rumi was felt to be a threat and, at times, a heretic. Fatwas were issued and formal charges were bought against Rumi by religious scholars, who were deeply unsettled by Rumi’s liberated life and teachings and for his use of music and dance in religious practices.
His humility and kindness were understood as virtuous by Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. Renowned Rumi scholar Jawid Mojadeddi sums it up best when looking at Rumi from a modern perspective: “Rumi resonates today because people are thinking post-religion. He came to see mysticism as the divine origin of every religion”.
The turning point: Shams of Tabriz
The key moment in Rumi’s life, and the ultimate inspiration for his incredible poetry, occurred in 1244 when he met Shams of Tabriz. A knowledgeable man who had spent 40 years on the road travelling throughout the religious capitals of the Muslim world, Shams was an eccentric sheik who had a reputation for being abrasive, sharp-tongued and unpredictable.
From the very beginning, the friendship between Rumi and Shams was intense. Shams challenged Rumi like no-one before or after in his life, and radically transformed him from a respected religious leader to a visionary mystic and poet. It was Shams who introduced poetry, music and dance into Rumi’s daily studies, including the practice of sama, the whirling dance designed to literally free the shackles of language and logic whilst opening the heart to God.
Rumi and Shams uncommon connection was based on a deep love for one another, however their months spent locked away in intellectual debate and spiritual immersion soon led to rumours, resentment, paranoia and jealousy amongst Konya’s religious scholars. They tried to drive the domineering and guileless Shams away, labelling him a bewitching sorcerer who was corrupting the very soul of their treasured leader. Shams, fearing reprisals, abruptly left Konya after just 15 months, leaving Rumi distraught and inconsolable. After returning to Konya briefly a year later and renewing the intensity of their friendship to even deeper levels, Shams disappeared once more, this time forever, and Rumi was left heartbroken and on the edge of madness.
The poetry of universal love
With the overwhelming emptiness he felt from being separated from Shams, Rumi turned to poetry to deal with the trauma. The expansive existence Shams gave Rumi unleashed his potential, allowing Rumi to find his own words, instead of quoting others, and lifted him from the weight of his own dignity and insecurities. In trying to articulate his love for Shams, he revealed his innermost secrets and the essence of his teachings – the nature and identity of the beloved and the borderline between the human and the divine. The midlife creative burst experienced by Rumi was exceptional in the history of world poetry.
Rumi spoke of a ‘religion of love’ and a ‘religion of lovers’ and believed that divine inspiration was universal. Whilst he remained committed to Sunni ideals throughout his life, his sense of a religion of the heart led him beyond denominations and religions to a universal vision, in his own words: “The mosque inside the hearts of holy men is a place of worship for everyone. God is there.”
Rumi’s legacy and relevance today
Whilst Rumi’s poetry has been adored throughout the Middle East and the Subcontinent for centuries, it was only in the 1970’s that the Western world started to take notice. In a world where traditional religious beliefs are fading, Rumi’s emphasis on love and spirituality has meant that his works have resonated today more than ever. Rumi’s poetry have given beauty, wisdom, simplicity and meaning to millions of people who live lives that seem more complicated than ever.
The Mevlana order founded by Rumi is still thriving and the whirling dervish meditative dance is practiced globally. Rumi’s tomb in Konya attracts nearly two million visitors a year and English translations of his poetry have recently made him the best-selling poet in the USA. This remarkable Sufi poet, the poet of love, will continue to teach and inspire for many centuries to come.
Arcadia’s 17-Day expedition to Turkey, entitled ‘Rumi and the World of Mystical Sufism’ explores the life and times of Rumi and is led by leading Sufi and religious expert Seem Ghazi. The trip is limited to just 16 people and has two departures: 3rd- 19th June 2022 and 18th May – 3rd June 2023. The expedition is also available for private departures.
For more information, visit our Turkey trip page.