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Big Thinker: Rumi

by The Ethics Centre
25 June 2018
BIG THINKERS;
EXPLAINER;
RELIGION

"The pen would smoothly write the things it knew
But when it came to love it split in two,
A donkey stuck in mud is logic’s fate –
Love’s nature only love can demonstrate."
Rumi 


Rumi (1207-1273) has long been recognised as one of the most important contributors to Islamic literature and Sufism, the spiritual and mystic element of Islam. His enormous collection of mystical poetry is considered among the best that has ever been produced. His seminal text is the Masnavi, a six book poem written in rhyming couplets. It is so revered as an expression of Godly knowledge that it is referred to as “The Koran in Persian”. 


What is Sufism?

To understand Rumi, you need to understand Sufism. It is often misrepresented as a sect, school, or deviant form of Islam but is better described as a distinct stream in Islamic spirituality. Sufism was first embodied by Muhammad and his early followers, then medieval scholars like Abu Hamid Al-Ghazzali, Ibn Arabi, and of course, Rumi.
 
Sufism is characterised by its focus on moral cultivation and establishing a personal connection to God through reforming, disciplining, and purifying the ego. It seeks to attain this intuition of God through disciplines that practice an austere lifestyle known as ascetism. One example of this is dhikr, a form of worship where you become absorbed in rhythmic repetitions of God’s name.
 
Sufism seeks a type of knowledge outside worldly intellect – one that is intuitive and is inextricably tied to the Divine.
 

Life of Rumi 

Rumi, known in Iran and Central Asia as Mowlana Jalaloddin Balkhi, was born in 1207 in the province of Balkh, which is now the border region between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. His family left when he was a child shortly before Genghis Khan and his Mongol army arrived. They settled permanently in Konya, central Anatolia, which was formerly part of the Eastern Roman Empire. Rumi was probably introduced to Sufism through his father, Baha Valad, a popular preacher who also taught Sufi piety to a group of disciples.
 
The turning point in Rumi’s life came in 1244 when he met a wandering Sufi in Konya called Shamsoddin of Tabriz. Shams, as he was most often referred to by Rumi, taught him the most profound levels of Sufism, transforming him from a devout religious scholar to an ecstatic mystic.
 
Rumi died on 17 December 1273 shortly after completing his work on the Masnavi. His passing was deeply mourned by the citizens of Konya, including the Christian and Jewish communities. His disciples formed the Mevlevi Sufi order and named it after Rumi, whom they referred to as ‘Our Master’ (which translates to Mevlana in Turkish and Mowlana in Persian). They are better known in the West as the Whirling Dervishes, because of the distinctive dance they now perform as one of their central rituals.

Rumi-3-(1).jpg
 
Rumi’s death is commemorated annually in Konya, attracting pilgrims from all corners of the globe and every religion. The popularity of his poetry has risen so much in the last couple of decades that the Christian Science Monitor identified him as the most published poet in America in 1997 and UNESCO declared 2007 to be the Year of Rumi.
 

Overvaluing intellect

Rumi, like most Sufis, praised the intellect and considered its refinement a religious imperative. But he was clear about the types of knowledge he believed it could sufficiently possess. He considered the domain the sentimental and material world, not the theoretical and metaphysical one.
 
Rumi’s caution was this: when one relies solely on their own intellect to understand Being and Reality, they risk confining their understanding to a mortal and ultimately finite resource – themselves. He regarded it a folly of the ego to believe one’s intellect limitless and warned against reducing God to abstract puzzles in order to maintain that belief. Rumi scorned placing the intellect too high and pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s own sake.
 

“He knows a hundred thousand superfluous matters connected with the (various) sciences, (but) that unjust man does not know his own soul.
He knows the special properties of every substance, (but) in elucidating his own substance (essence) he is (as ignorant) as an ass.” – Rumi

 

The transcendence of man 

So, if intellect isn’t enough, what is? Rumi would say, ‘Divine love.’
 
This divine love can also be translated as grace or friendship with God. In the Islamic worldview, humanity is unique in its capacity to autonomously know God, and this gives people an honoured status. Even so, no human can achieve divine love out of their own efforts. They can only be granted it.
 
Rumi was of the view that seeking essential knowledge – knowledge about the essence of humanity – was a way one might be granted divine love. It was the best type of knowledge, because it was tied to questions of meaning, purpose, and death.  In other words, knowing yourself was a means of knowing God.
 
According to the Sufis, knowledge of God comes in three levels: material, conceptual, and experiential. Think of it as the different between knowing an apple exists, reading a detailed Wikipedia page about it, and eating one in the flesh. All three are different forms of knowing what an apple is – but each deepens in understanding. The last level is transformative in a way the other two are not. Try explaining what an apple tastes like to someone who has never had one. You may come very close, but they will never know what you mean unless they take a bite themselves.
 
Likewise, the Sufis believed that the highest knowledge of God was something that could only be experienced. To read and contemplate upon God or the universe was one thing. But experiencing God was something totally different, something impossible to intellectualise.
 
Rumi believed manifesting the four virtues – courage, wisdom, and temperance, which when balanced, lead to perfect justice – would lead to some form of transcendence above the hubbub of life’s claims and counterclaims. But when every human being’s views cannot be divorced from their experience, how was this possible?
 
For Rumi, this highlighted humanity’s dependence on God. Only a friend of God, or Wali, could be objective enough to see truth and loving enough to be just.

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