Molana Jalal-e-Din Mohammad Molavi Rumi was born near Balkh (present-day Afghanistan) on September 30, 1207. Threatened by the Mongol conquests of Ghengiz Khan, Rumi's family fled westwards, through Baghdad and Nishapur (where Rumi met Farid al-Din 'Attar) before finally settling in the Seljuk kingdom of Konya, in what is now Turkey. Rumi followed his father in becoming an outstanding scholar and theologian, but in 1244 met the travelling derwish, Shams of Tabriz, who transformed his spiritual life.

Sufism is the the strain of Islam that places direct and ecstatic communion with Allah over the rules prescribed by the Shari'ah, and, with his eyes now opened, Rumi began work on his Masnavi (closed rhyming couplets), which was to grow to 24,000 verses. Later he wrote the equally well-known Divan-e Shams-e Tabriz (the collective poems of Shams of Tabriz). As is usual with mystics, Rumi was an immensely practical man, founding the Mevlevi order at Konya, the whirling dervishes, which is still a thriving community. He died on December 17, 1273, recognised then and since as one of the greatest of poets and spiritual thinkers.

The Masnavi is an extended narrative of some 27,000 lines containing Sufi philosophy and ethics, meditations, anecdotes and stories of all kinds. More than that, the work traces man's spiritual journey through the world with all its pitfalls, from first awakening to final union with the One. And in incorporating sacred history, simple tales, earlier Sufi writings, learned discourses of predecessors, and the lives of saints, Rumi discusses nearly every aspect of Islamic metaphysics, cosmology and traditional psychology. Like many such poems of medieval Islam, the masnavi blends instruction with delight, and its pithy comments and apparently simple but astute remarks are still quoted today.

The Diwan-e Shams is a 40,000-odd verse collection of ghazals (lyric poems). Rumi also wrote a Ruba'iyyat (quatrains), and extended prose works: the Fihi ma fihi (discussions on spiritual matters), the Makatib (collection of letters) and the Majalis-i sab'ah (sermons).

Rumi's ghazals are ecstatic poems of spiritual love portrayed in reflections on its earthly expression. His poetry created an elaborate vocabulary of wine and physical beauty, which took further the Sufi poetry of Sana'i and Attar, and inspired its greatest proponent, Hafez of Shiraz. The ghazal tradition draws on features of medieval Islamic life, and can be difficult for westerners to appreciate, appearing somewhat unworldly, melancholy and artificial. The lover is male, and is addressed through degrees of emotional rapport, which are not necessarily or generally physical. The verse exploits the rhyming facility of Persian, but allows great freedom and ambiguity within its set requirements. Words are often used as symbols, which play with great richness and ingenuity on the understandings of a world steeped in Islamic thought and poetry.

Since that world cannot be appreciated without a deep understanding of Islamic culture, start with general introductions to the history of the area. It will also help enormously to read sufficient Persian to sense the sound and structure of the poetry, and there exist many courses, books and CDs in what is not overly difficult language. For the critical literature generally, try as always the bibliography in the The New Princeton Encyclopedia section on Persian Poetry, E. Browne's A Literary History of Persia (1902-24: affordable in the Indian reprint), A. Schimmel's A Two-Colored Brocade: The Imagery of Persian Poetry (1992: good bibliography). Many translations can be found on the internet, some excellent, and there are also Rumi societies, promoting an awareness of the man's work and Sufi teachings.

Suggestion: The Mystical Poems of Rumi I Jalal al-Din Rumi, Translated by A.J. Arberry. University Of Chicago Press. 1974. $10.74.

Many translations of Rumi have been made in recent years, often departing very much from the master's words or intentions. Here is a faithful rendering of selected pieces by the noted Persian scholar A.J. Arberry — a book often consulted by those turning out popular versions.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.