Understanding Rumi: A Concise Introduction


Rumi was a messenger of truth with high clarity of vision. And the only way we can truly honor him is to be as truthful and clear about his life as possible[1].

The above quote describes briefly the legacy of Rumi as a messenger of truth, at least from Shiva’s perspective. That quote also provides a practical guideline on how to honor the Rumi’s legacy correctly, again from Shiva’s view. But who is Rumi and why he has been so popular? This short aims at answering such a question concisely.

A Figure with Multiple Expertise

Rumi was a 13th-century Persian (30/9/177–17 /12 /1273). His full name is Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Muhammad. He is also known as Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhī, or Mevlânâ / Mawlānā (“our master”), Mevlevî / Mawlawī (“my master”). The label of master reflects his widely recognized expertise especially in the area of the Islamic Law. Like his father and grandfather, Rumi once worked as a mufti or fatwa giver in the field of Islamic Law.

At the age of 30, since meeting the mysterious Syam, Rumi abandoned his profession as a mufti. The nature of the relationship between the two is largely still a mystery. Syam had been widely recognized playing a crucial role in transforming Rumi to the perhaps most productive and popular poet with Sufistic genre.

In addition to mufti and poet, Rumi is also popular as an Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi; not the average class but expert level. In short, Rumi was a figure with multiple expertise. Just to note, the term “Rumi” means “Romans”. This designation is inherent because Rumi lived in an area that was previously part of Eastern Roman or Byzantine rule.

Rumi Popularity

Since his young ages, Rumi had been popular. The influence of his thoughts went far beyond national and tribal boundaries including Iran, Tajikistan, Greece, Pashtun, Central Asia, South Asia.

Rumi popularity remained unchanged until now, at least as a poet. His poems have been translated into many languages and transformed into various formats. Some observers portray Rumi as the most popular and the best selling poet in the United States[2].

Rumi popularity in the present day is associated with the successful efforts of Barks, a US linguist. One day (1976) it was said that he was presented with AJ Abbery’s translation of Rumi’s work. His comment at that time, “These poems need to be released from his cage”.

Since then Barks has spent 33 years translating Rumi’s work with freestyle, a style that is judged to suit contemporary tastes. As a result, 22 volumes of Rumi’s free-style translations had been available, including The Essential Rumi, A Year with Rumi, Rumi: The Big Red Book and Rumi’s father’s spiritual diary, The Drowned Book, are all published by HarperOne. His work has been sold out of two billion copies and translated in 23 languages.

The Power of Rumi Poetry

What made Rumi’s poetry widely accepted? Many theories about this. Barks summarizes the following[3]:

“Like the Sayings of Jesus (The Gospel of Thomas), they have been hidden away for centuries,” Barks notes, “not in a red urn buried in Egypt, but in the dervish communities and libraries of Turkey and Iran. Over recent years scholars have begun to organise them and translate them into English.”

“Just now,” Barks says, “I feel there is a strong global movement, an impulse that wants to dissolve the boundaries that religions have put up and end the sectarian violence.  It is said that people of all religions came to Rumi’s funeral in 1273. Because, they said, he deepens our faith wherever we are.  This is a powerful element in his appeal now.”

In this context, Barks is not the only one. Anne Walden, a poet who is also a professor of poetry, one day saw a line of Rumi’s poems: “Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and right doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there. “(Out of bounds there really is a field. It’s where we meet.”) For Anne, this poem is extraordinarily provocative and inspiring at once. He concluded that Rumi’s poetry was mysterious, provocative and prominent in our era when we were struggling to understand the Sufi tradition and the nature of ecstasy, devotion, and strength of a poem.

“Across time, place and culture, Rumi’s poems articulate what it feels like to be alive,” says Lee Briccetti, executive director of Poets House, co-sponsor of a national library series in the US that features Rumi. (It’s currently in Detroit and Queens and heads to San Francisco, Houston, Atlanta, and Columbus in 2015.)  “And they help us understand our own search for love and the ecstatic in the coil of daily life.” She compares Rumi’s work to Shakespeare’s for its “resonance and beauty”[4].

In short, in the contemporary era, there are many “fans” of Rumi in various parts of the world. But what made Rumi’s poetry widely accepted? Many theories about this. Barks summarizes the following[5]:

“Like the Sayings of Jesus (the Gospel of Thomas), they (meaning the works of Rumi) have been hidden for centuries … not in the red urns buried in Egypt, but in the dervish communities and libraries of Turkey and Iran. scholars have begun to organize them and translate them into English. “

In this context, Barks is not the only one. Anne Walden, a poet who is also a professor of poetry, one day saw a line of Rumi’s poems: “Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and right doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there. For Anne, this poem is extraordinarily provocative and inspiring. Ultimately she came to the conclusion that Rumi’s poetry was mysterious, provocative and prominent in our era when we were struggling to understand the Sufi tradition and the nature of ecstasy, devotion, and strength of a poem.

“All the time, in all places and across cultures, Rumi poems articulate how it feels to live”. That’s said Lee Bricceti, executive director of the Poets House. Rumi’s poetry, according to him, “helps us understand our search for love and ecstasy in the struggle of everyday life”. The director compares Rumi’s work with Shakespeare’s work in terms of resonance and beauty[6].

Esoteric VS Exoteric Approaches

Rumi’s works are filled with esoteric nuances that emphasizing more on the internal or essential aspect of religious teaching. This approach can be said driven more by the fascination of His Beauty or the aspect of His Jamal. Analytically, this approach can be distinguished from an exoteric approach that emphasizes the outward or formal side of religious teaching, and driven more by the Divine Beauty of SWT, His Jalal. Unfortunately, both of these approaches are often sharply opposed. The martyr cases of Al-Hallaj (858-922M) or Siti Jenar (for the Indonesian case) can be viewed representing such a conflict.

A brief note on Siti Jenar might be worth inserted here. Syech Siti Jenar was widely recognized as one of the spreaders of Islam on Java. He developed the teachings of the Sufi way of life which were considered contrary to be the teachings of the nine spreaders of Islam on Java called Walisongo. There are much conflicting information on the origin and the cause of his death.

It is worth noting that most of the prominent exoteric ulama (scholar) can accept Rumi’s work. These ulama had been reportedly “smile” when reading Rumi’s “jokes” as they recognize there are deep “wisdom” in them. This fact is interesting to note because Rumi’s works at first glance are dangerous if seen in the general perspective of exoterics. The following Rumi’s work illustrates the danger in question:

Not Christian or Jewish or Muslim, not Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi, or Zen. There is no religious or cultural system. I am not from East or West, not out of the ground, not natural, not composed of elements at all. I am not, I am not from Adam or Eve or any story of origin. My place is without a base, an trace that is not tracked. Either body or soul. I belong to my beloved, have two worlds as one and one call to know, first, last, outside, inside, only breath that man.

Rumi’s “secret” might be because he, like Busthami, was known to be very obedient in practicing religious teachings so that avoiding criticism from exoteric ulama. As mentioned, esoteric and exoteric differences are only useful at the level of analysis. On a practical level, it can be combined as shown by the greatest Sufis. This combination is ideal because God Almighty is One and His Divinity encompasses both Jalal (the Greatness) and Jamal (the Beauty).

Heart and Love

To  Rumi, the heart (qalb) is the source of essential knowledge and love. This is one of the main themes of his work. He strongly recommends that we regularly visit each other’s hearts regularly. This theme which is tried to be reflected in Imaginary Dialogue with Rumi.

Another main theme of his work is love, Sufistic love. For him, love is the only dependable way to approach Him. Both of these themes – heart and love – by Rumi narrated through his work in a spontaneous and humorous style so that they can be accepted by the audience with a smile… @

[1] Sharam Shiva, Rumi’s Untold Story: From 30-Year Research, http://www.rumi.net/about_rumi_main.htm.

[2] http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20140414-americas-best-selling-poet.

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] https://www.azquotes.com/author/12768-Rumi/tag/religion

[6] ibid

[7] https://www.azquotes.com/author/12768-Rumi/tag/religion

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