The Life Stories of Rumi and Shams-e Tabrizi: Their Tumultuous Times
by Majid Amini
Delving into an in-depth discussion and analysis regarding the Erfân, Tasavvof, and Sufigary, which in the West, are often collectively referred to as Mysticism, Gnosticism, Sufism, or sometimes Dervishes’ thoughts, would have been beyond the scope of this work titled, “The Greatest Meeting”. Among the numerous books that have appeared in the West in the past few decades (mostly inept translations of Rumi’s poetry, or a few scholarly works on his life and time), it is challenging if not impossible to find a clear and convincing definition for these schools of thought. Even if there has been any sporadic attempt to define Mysticism, these efforts are vague, abstract, or expressed in language in which their meaning cannot be easily discerned from the context of the subjects that were not clearly defined by the founders of this thought in the first place. Therefore, it seems appropriate to attempt to frame a brief definition for these schools of thought; derivatives of Islamic religion, or social movement, particularly when this movement had the potential to change the fabric of Islam, at least in Persia (Iran) and possibly elsewhere. In addition, by presenting a clearer definition for this school of thought it may assist the reader in a better understanding of my work.
Numerous definitions for Gnosticism, Erfân, can be observed from the original torch holders of this form of thought from early years of Islam and onward. Perhaps an acceptable definition is: “Possessing intellectual or esoteric knowledge of spiritual things.” But perhaps Hâfez, the renowned Persian poet of the eighth century, defines Erfân the best in one of his verses.
“There’s only one relevant point,
In the sorrow of eshgh, love,
From whomever’s tongue I hear that point,
It is utterly unrepeatable.”
The essence of Erfân is an inner personal experience, a mental transformation, a metamorphosing process, a special feeling of being connected to all beings and the entire universe. It is a sentiment of closeness, connection, and oneness with each and all other beings that one experiences. It is an ambiguous and secretive realization, a feeling of self-actualization that an individual senses that is not expressible, nor transferable to another person. It would perhaps be acceptable to articulate that this kind of experience creates a relationship with life and the process of living that cannot be expressed otherwise. But an Âref, a gnostic person, is naturally receptive to this experience and understands it wholeheartedly. It may also shine more light on this complex and, to some degree, abstract form of thinking if one would relate to what Carl Jung, the renowned psychologist describes as, “Establishing a momentary connection with one’s subconscious.” It is then that this connection would open a vast horizon to the mind of the individual’s vision. The person who attains such an inner experience reaches an almost supernatural level of peace and tranquility, and he lives in harmony and serenity with himself and his surrounding world. In other words, this person’s relationship with the world and everything in it would be based on the eshgh, love. She or he embraces all the world’s events and challenges related to living things with a peaceful and healthy attitude, for she or clearly see the casting shadow of a collective wisdom on this world. The person becomes in accord with Sa’adie, another renowned Persian poet, who eloquently stated,
“I’m elated in this world for it belongs to Him
I’m in love (âshegh-e) with this whole world
For the entire world is derivative of Him.”
Was the evolutionary emergence of Erfân an attempt to give an earthly meaning to the fast-decaying religion of Islam? Did Erfân possess sophisticated secret messages under its cloak that if it could have survived and spread its social and political ramifications would have drastically altered the direction of today’s Muslim societies? Was Erfân a conscientious effort to place the highest unimaginable and immeasurable value on human beings? Was Erfân a manifest, a confirmation that the existence of man on earth was an evolutionary process? Was Erfân advocating a process to take the power from the hands of God and give it back to man; thus, internalizing the locus of what determines human beings’ values, so that the human being would accept responsibility for hers or his actions? Rumi, as the voice of Shams, answers these questions with comprehensive volumes of over seventy thousand verses of poetry. As an example, in the following poem, Rumi addresses three issues movingly: First, the evolutionary process of man’s existence on earth and his destiny. Second, the paramount and unimaginable importance he places on human beings by equating them to God and perhaps beyond. Third, he presents an accurate and perfect definition of Erfân.
“I died as object-form—minerals, transformed to a plant,
I passed on from plant-form and appeared as an animal.
I died from realm of animal and became a human,
Then why should I be frightened of death?
For it would not reduce my stature as a human.
I will die as a human-form in another phase,
Only to metamorphose, growing feathers and wings like an angel.
As an angel, I must also leap over this barrier of water,
For everything except God will perish.
Then again, I will fly and soar as an angel,
And will become one whose entity is unimaginable by all.
Hence, I will be annihilated as the sound of a flute does in the air,
Conveying: Everything except God will perish.”
The two most important features of Erfân that can be attained after this inner experience are eshgh, which is the essence and, at the same time, a valuable fruit of the tree of Erfân, and the harmony a person experiences in hers or his relationship with others and their surroundings. Many texts of Erfân and poetry related to Erfân are artistic and unique expressions of the saga of this eshgh that have been expressed in a variety of forms.
The true Tassavof, Sufism, aside from its subsequent deviation from its original concept, should not have substantive differences with Erfân. In fact, there are many commonalities between these two forms of thinking. The harsh religious, political, and social conditions that persisted from the twelfth century onward caused masses of people to become attracted to Erfân; thus, the creation of various systems of thinking of which Sufism is one.
The influence of Christian monks’ monastic lifestyle, and beliefs in Persian and Islamic Erfân in fragmenting it into different branches and forms of Tassavof, historically seems plausible. This influence becomes especially evident when khâneghâhs, for housing dervishes and Sufis, began to appear throughout the Muslim world, with their primary functions being very similar to monasteries.
To attain personal freedom, a true Sufi would deny himself all worldly possessions, comforts, and pleasures, and would become a dervish, a true Fagheer, a destitute. Since living with this frame of mind would have eliminated the conflict between a Sufi and his unjust surroundings, Sufism became very attractive to those who felt powerless in their struggles against the harsh social, religious, and political conditions. The people under these rigid religious rules and laws, which became the roots of political oppression, hard economic, and harsh social conditions, sought refuge in Sufism because it presented them personal protection, comfort and security. The Sufi’s khaneghâhs adopted the role of protectors and saviors; however, they gradually and invariably created the corrupt Tassavof that instead converted the urgent needs of the people to an opportunity for personal monetary gain and power by the leaders. As early as the thirteenth century we come across statements such as Abul Hassan Boshânji’s, “Tassavof is now a name without the truth, while before, it was a nameless truth.”
If we believe that to become a Sufi, a dervish, there are certain established rituals that one must observe and perform in order to achieve the title, we have inevitably considered the differences between Erfân and Tassavof. Because, to become an Âref, as one can find numerous of them in the histroy of this movement, the observance of these rituals are not required. At least in the language of early Erfân, we see the expression that in order to become an Âref, one can employ the method of a Sufi. And also, though we find many people who wear the Sufi and dervish cloaks, they have never reached the level of insight, knowledge, wisdom nor eshgh of an Âref.
With the accumulated traditional rituals that today’s Tassavof carries as obligations for its practitioners, it has evolved into a lifestyle that appeals only to a certain class of people. The original Erfân, on the other hand, being an inner personal experience and without having the burden of any rituals, differs significantly with Tassavof, a difference that is often ignored.
Faith means people believing in a higher power, a subtle and pleasingly delicate and pure wisdom that can embrace all the facets of their lives. If this faith is not the derivative of an inner religious belief, it is invariably from an inner personal experience, and that is Erfân. The vast majority of people’s beliefs in God are from the religion that is prevalent in that culture and not from a direct inner experience. The religious God appears to differ from the higher being that a person acknowledges and believes in as a result of direct inner personal experience. The God of religion is the sort of God who has the role of a referee and a judge, who possesses polar characteristics. He holds a carrot (heaven) in one hand and a whip (hell) in another. But the God of Erfân, from the inner personal experience, is far from this role of refereeing, judging, rewarding and punishing. He is the essence of giving life, wishing everyone well, and He is the source of eshgh. When a person becomes connected to this inner feeling and opens and maintains a relationship with it, he or she understands it fully but is unable to express it properly. That person’s understanding is not transferable to another being and cannot be acquired through study. The “Unity of Being” of the Sufi’s belief differs from the inner experience of Erfân. The Erfân is noble and true when a person does not lose his own identity and individualism but is able to establish a perpetual relationship and connection with the universe and all living souls.
Rumi often praises and criticizes the Sufis, but always highly praises the Âref. The following poem by Rumi is an example of this claim.
“There is a lock on his lips and his heart is full of secrets.
His lips are silent, and his heart is full of songs.
Ârefs who have drunk the cup of the truth,
They have known secrets, but have hidden them.
Whoever learned the secrets of the truth,
They sew and sealed their lips.”
My curiosity for discovering and revealing the unknown is what motivated me to search and write this work. Since my late teenage years, when I was first exposed to Molânâ Jalâleddin Mohammad-e Rumi’s poetry by my late brother, Hamid, a student of Rumi’s works, and a poet himself, I had been puzzled about the phenomenon of how an ordinary clergy, a jurist at best, Rumi, meets with a wanderer, a revolutionary of his time, Shams-e Tabrizi, for 30 or 45 days in seclusion and thereafter becomes the most prolific renowned poet in Persian literature. The more I read Rumi’s poems, the more I became curious and interested about Shams’ character and life. He undoubtedly was the mentor who created Rumi, and for valid reason, he remained an enigmatic figure in the Persian culture. In winter of 1976, I read “The Third Script,” a scholarly work on Shams, perhaps one of a kind, particularly in the Persian language, by Dr. Sâheb-Zammâni, a psychologist. Dr. Sâheb-Zammâni’s work is an excellent in-depth study of Shams’ life, the details of his psychological makeup, the political, religious, social, cultural, and even the economical environment of Shams’ time. Although, reading the book numerous times certainly shed a bright light on the man’s life and his time, I wondered what took place between those two men when they met on November 29, 1244, in the city of Ghonieh, presently located in Turkey, which was part of the Persian Empire in the thirteenth century.
To satisfy my nagging curiosity as years rolled on, I began to read as many works as I could find about the luminary man, Shams, and the giant among the poets, Rumi. The combination of my intense interest in Shams and Rumi, my cumulative knowledge about the lives and works of these two men, along with acquired experience in the technique of screenplay writing, resulted in the screenplay “The Greatest Meeting” that was completed in the summer of 2002. The other reason for writing the screenplay and not a novel was that rather than shrouding the enormity of these two characters with meandering narratives as most novelists inevitably do, and since there is an extraordinary volume of poetry available from Rumi and some anecdotes and statements from Shams, I thought letting the characters tell their own stories through the media of cinema would serve the subject matter more effectively. However, with my limited contacts in Hollywood, and inability to attract an executive producer for this challenging project that is deemed non-commercial, and since I had a respectable outline of the story in my hands, I decided to convert the screenplay to a story telling arrangement. This decision was reinforced when I realized that there has never been a book in this format narrating the lives of these two giants in a clear and simple language that could be enjoyed by a greater readership.
We have a good deal of knowledge of Shams and his beliefs from his scattered words, and detailed fabric of Rumi’s thoughts as an ordinary clergy, prior to this meeting. This meeting, according to various sources, consisted of 30 or 45 days in seclusion. Also, although we know that there were not substantial changes in Shams’ thoughts after this meeting, there were revolutionary—almost unbelievable changes in Rumi that have been referred to as the, “Rebirth of Rumi.” Then the attempt to unravel the apparent dialogue between those two men that convinced Rumi to abandon his previous approach to religion and spirituality and instead follow Shams became closer to acceptable reality than just mere assumption. It is during this intense and grueling sohbat, private conversation, that Rumi develops an eshgh-o mohebat, love and affection, for Shams that it is unprecedented in the history of mankind, and that does not fit any modern psychological definition. Also, it is as a result of this private meeting that Rumi seemingly becomes Shams’ voice. With thousands of eloquent verses of poetry, he expresses his love for the man in one volume, “The Collection of Shams-e Tabrizi,” and about all other subjects, including poetic interpretations of Qurân’s stories and wisdom in another volume, the “Masnavi.”
Besides the two collections of Rumi’s poetry, the “Maghâlât-e Shams,” there are only four other sources of information available about the lives and works of Rumi and Shams. These four books are by Bahâeddin Valad (1226-1312), the oldest son of Rumi, and three historians—Freydoun-Ebn Sepahsâlâr, who lived in the same period Rumi and Shams were alive, and Shamsoddin Ahmad Aflâki, who wrote his accounts forty years (1318) after Rumi’s death, and Abdul Rahmận Jậmi (1438-1519). All other works are based on theses sources.
Since detailed information is not available about both Rumi and Shams lives, I have also looked at their lives as jigsaw puzzles where big pieces connect with smaller pieces until vivid images of their lives come into focus. By putting these pieces together as authentically as I could, I hope, I have opened a small window into the beautiful and spectacular garden of the Persian culture that has poetry as one of its most important features, poems that bloom like flowers through centuries of time. I also hope that I have put together and rendered an honest and true tribute to these two great sons of Persia, and that Western readers can have a glimpse of my country’s treasures.