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Sufi sapience

Sufi Whirling Dervishes
Sufi Whirling Dervishes
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Who was Mevlana Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207–1273 CE)? Rumi is a paradoxical conundrum. Rumi is a religious teacher who taught that all spiritual philosophies are inadequate (including Christianity). Rumi is a great poet who regarded poetry as trifling entertainment. Rumi is a sophisticated scholar who delighted in colloquial jokes. He is a teetotaler who wrote enthusiastically about drunkenness. He is a narrator of fables who saw himself as a fictional character. He is a venerated sage who regarded himself as a devil. He is a mortal man who claimed to be God incognito.

Rumi is famous as a Sufi poet. The Sufis are Islamic mystics. Their doctrines are practically indistinguishable from those of other mystical traditions. This has led to the claim that Sufism is a syncretic mix of Islam, Hinduism, Neo-platonic Paganism, and Christian Gnosticism. These traditions influenced the Sufis, but this does not mean that Sufism is a later deviation from the original Islam of Muhammad. Although Sufis have often found themselves horribly persecuted by orthodox Muslim authorities (e.g. Gaafar Nimeiry), the Sufis see themselves as maintaining the genuine Islamic tradition. Sufis claim to possess secret mystical teachings handed down through a line of enlightened Masters from the Prophet himself.

Rumi was born in 1207 in Balkh-Afghanistan. As a boy, his family settled in Turkey. Rumi’s father was a Sufi teacher and author of a mystical treatise called Gnosis or “Mystical Knowledge”. Rumi met with many Sufi Masters, including the great Farid al-Din Attar, who gave him a copy of his Book of Secrets – a powerful mystical poem from which Rumi often quoted in later life. Attar immediately recognized Rumi’s greatness.

Rumi acquired a prestigious reputation as a religious scholar and teacher. Then, in 1244, at the age of 37, his world was turned upside down. Into town came a wandering sage from Tabriz called Shams al-Din. Shams was about 60 years old. He was a Sufi sage from the Shiite Ismaeli tradition of Islam, rather than the Sunni tradition in which Rumi was brought up. Shams had spent his life in search of “The Hidden Imam” – the perfect enlightened sage. Some have interpreted this as a search for a man. But it is more likely that Shams himself interpreted this as the search for the Divine Teacher within, which the Hindus call the “Satguru” and the Gnostic Christians call “Christ”.

Rumi was sober, devout, respectable, and influential. Shams was rude, forthright, unconventional, and on fire with devotion. Yet, when the two men met, they recognized in each other the same obsession with the great Mystery of Life. They fell into Love with each other and became inseparable. Shams was known as “Parindah” – “the flier”. Shams had no respect for religious authorities or spiritual niceties. He wanted to fly. He threw all of Rumi’s books into a fountain. Rumi abandoned his scholarly studies and stopped teaching his students. Instead, he spent his time soaring to the heights of ecstasy with this zany old man. Was Shams Rumi’s Master? Was Rumi Shams’ “Hidden Imam”? Were they soul-friends who shared a sublime enthusiasm for Truth? Whatever their friendship, they were mirrors of each other’s light.

And then, as suddenly as he had come, Shams left. Rumi was distraught. He sent his son to search for Shams and eventually he found him in Damascus playing chess. Shams was eventually persuaded to return to Rumi, only to disappear again in 1247 – this time without a trace.

The Rumi that Shams left behind was no longer the orthodox teacher he had once been. An uncontrollable torrent of poetry poured from his heart, unleashed by Shams. Rumi was not himself. Something deep and mysterious was speaking through him. On his mystical adventures into the depths of consciousness with Shams, he had learned to quiet the inner turmoil of his ego and become a passive echo of the Divine Word within.

Rumi’s students no longer gathered to receive traditional teachings from a conservative scholar, but to be swept up in the whirlwind of his devotion. To the music of pipes and drums, they danced symbolic dances that Shams had taught Rumi, becoming known as “The Whirling Dervishes”. To convey the intensity of his mystical experiences, Rumi turned to dangerous and forbidden metaphors. Although Muslims were not allowed to drink alcohol, he writes of being intoxicated with bewildering ecstasy. To capture his passionate rapture, he uses images of romantic love. His love of God and his love of Shams merged to become one consuming obsession. All of his life became a love affair with his Beloved.

Rumi raved on until his death in 1273 at the age of 66, leaving behind two great books of inspirational poetry – the Diwan-i Shams-i-Tabriz and the Mathnawi-i-Maanawi – as well as a prose booklet called the Fihi ma fihi (or Discourses). Mathnawi is a monumental poem of 25,700 verses – longer than the Iliad and Odyssey combined. Islamic scholar R.A. Nicholson described the Mathnawi as “a trackless ocean”.

For the Sufis, God is the Oneness of all that is. As separate individuals, we are waves on the great ocean of Allah, which is our deeper identity. We must dissolve our separateness into his ocean of Love. Then we will experience Gnosis, mystical enlightenment, and become a Gnostic (or Knower). For Rumi enlightenment is not a destination we can arrive at. It is an ongoing process of Evolution.

Rumi wants us to abandon ourselves to both the joys of mystical union and the suffering of separation as two necessary aspects of one extraordinary journey of spiritual evolution. Rumi wants us to know that essentially we are God, yet to also be authentically human. It is an impossible union of opposites. Existence is an all-consuming Oneness expressing itself as an infinitely granular manyness. The Good News is, “We are God.” The Bad News is, “We are also the Devil.” Like all good jokes, the Truth is delightfully ironic.

Ottoman emperor Abdul Hamid II was a Sufi aficionado. Mahatma Gandhi said, “There is no God higher than Truth.” John Dee felt that people should be beside God, not beneath God (Allah – Zeus). Rumi Wisdom by Timothy Freke is a great history book.