Rumi is one of the most celebrated literary figures whose poems cannot be confined to a particular time and place. Rumi’s poetry transcends gender, nationality, race and can touch atheist, agnostic, evolutionist and pious people alike. Rumi, however, didn’t suddenly attain enlightenment and poetic insights through a divine revelation or by studying the Koran or any other texts. In his battles with his demons, Rumi managed to push the religious and cultural boundaries of his society and finally break free.
There are many stories and myths surrounding the encounter of Rumi with Shams. Unless you sift through, separating the facts from fiction you would lose the real story. The biggest obstacle in seeing the true nature of their relationship is Rumi himself because his prestige at the time of their friendship was at its peak and he tried to manipulate the people into believing that Shams was a spiritual giant. However, this he couldn’t quite achieve, for people could see that Shams was not what Rumi would have wanted them to believe. Historians also have polished and glossed over many incongruities in Rumi’s behaviour and conduct and portrayed him as someone whose intelligence and insight were already ingrained in him because of his incredible family tree. Now we know the veracities of such claims are highly doubtful and the sole purpose was to aggrandize a man who was no more than a humble refugee from Khorasan.
Because the encounter between Shams and Rumi was a turning point in Rumi’s life there is enough information available to draw a picture of their relationship which is closer to life than a myth.
Rumi was well established in Konya when he bumped into Shams. His typical week was filled with his commitments to his family, community, teaching posts and delivering his popular sermons. His life had a predictable pattern on which his reputation thrived. A routine life after so many years of wandering gave Rumi stability, the opportunity for further learning and allowed him to spread his roots.
Who was Shams and what happened between them? What was the nature of their relationship? Why Rumi who was a respectable figure in his community in Konya acted so childishly, manipulatively and out of character all of a sudden? What was going on in his mind?
It became gradually clear that Rumi was not prepared to let his friendship with Shams to change course or to end. By today’s standards Rumi would most likely be advised to see a counsellor who can help him to move on with his life. He would be told that he has co-dependency problem, put on a medication, even locked up in a mental asylum until he came to his senses.
By today’s standards Rumi would most likely be advised to see a counsellor who can help him to move on with his life.
Pressured and threatened by Rumi’s jealous disciples Shams escaped to Konya which sent Rumi into a frantic state. He tried to find him and bring him back. He was not able to look at their encounter/relationship in the past tense as if time only existed for Rumi to be with Shams. The temptation of going back is common to all and Rumi was no exception. Foolishly he tried to use his power to recreate the past by luring Shams back to Konya by sending him messengers bearing gifts. He wanted the freedom that he felt by being with Shams to continue. Yet, their friendship had run its course but Rumi couldn’t let go of it.
Rumi’s intense clinging to Shams posed a great danger for both of them. Rumi was risking his reputation, his job, and the good standing he enjoyed in the community. Not to mention the dangerous situation he was putting Shams in from those who wanted him out of Rumi’s life. It seemed Rumi had become quite impervious to all the perils. When Shams relented and returned to Konya the first time, Rumi, didn’t want to lose Shams again so he came up with an idea. He married Shams to Kimia, his young stepdaughter who grew up in Rumi’s household. Some historians want us to believe it was Shams who asked for her hand. How convenient! The question to ask is why now? He could have proposed before. Shams was old enough to be Kimia’s grandfather. He most likely yielded because of Rumi’s pressure.
For a short while, Shams gained a higher status in the eyes of the people who deemed him as a nobody. And he was less likely to run away again faced with new family responsibilities. Rumi’s masterplan seemed to be working but Kimia suddenly died. We don’t know why. No one has suggested foul play but giving it was the only way to undo the family ties between Shams and Rumi and open a way for another attempt to drive Shams out of town it cannot be dismissed. There are scant references to Kimia by the chroniclers as if she didn’t matter much in the scheme of things.
Shams came under relentless attacks soon after Kimia’s death. He was demonised even more, now accused of not having taken good care of his wife. Shams must have been in serious danger because after he fled he was never to be seen again.
By some accounts Shams was murdered, although there is no proof but a feasible theory giving Rumi’s life had turned upside down and as long as Shams was there it was not going to get any better. Shams was happy to move on as he always had been as a wandering dervish but it was Rumi who was pulling him back. Shams was not to blame for Rumi’s midlife crisis but in everyone’s eye Rumi was the role model and it was Shams that was leading him astray. If there was any outstanding spiritual virtue in Shams first it was his openness in religious and spiritual matters second his patience to put up with Rumi and all the insults from his associates. Shams couldn’t have been that much different from the next dervish but to Rumi he was a saviour.
Rumi even travelled to Syria, at least a few times, searching for him. This was no longer a friendship but a dangerous obsession, more about binding than liberating, manipulation than genuine fellowship. Shams and Rumi did not have a typical master and student relationship as it is proposed by some writers. In fact, it couldn’t have been further from the traditional model that was prevalent at the time. Shams more likely stirred deep, emotional backlog in Rumi which outpouring Rumi couldn’t handle on his own. Shams, twenty-two years older than Rumi (a fatherly figure) became the human altar that Rumi needed to cleave to. Rumi was trying to ground himself and couldn’t do it on his own and there was no one else who could understand what Rumi was going through. It is very doubtful that the author of Magalat is Shams. In Maqalat Shams is portrayed as a spiritual master who is trying to help Rumi in order to bring about his greatness. But the real Shams was used by Rumi and abused by his community. If Shams was resourceful enough he would have left to China or to another far away land where no one could reach him. Shams was being torn apart between Rumi who wanted to have him as his mihrab and his disciples who wanted him banished for good. He was always inclined to depart being true to his spiritual calling.
Only when Rumi was convinced that Shams was dead that he stopped writing poetry for him and gradually allusions to his name in his poems became less and less. Shams was the best catalyst for Rumi to integrate himself. Rumi’ motivation for pursuing Shams won’t be found in the copious verses in Divan-Shams that praises him but in those verses that were used sparingly,
Why should I seek? I am the same as
He. His essence speaks through me.
I have been looking for myself!
One way to understand Rumi’s behaviour is to look at his childhood which was turbulent and painful. By the time he settled in Konya at the age of twenty-four the family had travelled from Balkh to Samarkhand, Baghdad, Mecca, Damascus, Aqshar and Karaman. While living in Samarkhand the place was besieged by Khwarazmshah, it was a terrible attack and Rumi later recalled the memory of it. And the news that their hometown, Balkh and other provinces were conquered by the Mongols must have been very disturbing to the family. It was in Karaman where they stayed for some years that he married at seventeen and his mother and brother died. His father passed away in Konya when Rumi was twenty-four.
Rumi lived up to everyone’s expectations. He even accepted to go to Damascus to undertake further Islamic studies, so he could be fully qualified for his position back in Konya. His intellect, charm and religious understandings made him a perfect candidate to a promising career. However, prior to meeting Shams, he was still a dry scholar, probably modeling himself after his father. All his religious learning had taught him to be a mainstream mufti, abiding within the boundaries of Islamic laws. Rumi was in demand because of his knowledge of the Islamic jurisprudence and his informed verdicts on religious matters. The only thing that Rumi neglected was his own inner yearnings for a more meaningful spiritual life.
Rumi’s attraction to sama, a Sufi spiritual practice of song, dance and poetry only formed a small part of his religious practice. It was after meeting with Shams, we are told, that he practised sama more often. Sama stayed with him throughout his life. What his religious father and the orthodox community may have disproved of or frowned upon, Shams approved and encouraged because he was a Sufi and steeped in that tradition.
In the presence of Shams, the forbidden practices beckoned to deeper spiritual understanding. Rumi found the courage he needed to express himself, seek more spiritual freedom and most importantly felt the unconditional love of his creator which was ensnared in the web of Sharia law and the hadiths. Rumi began to see things differently when he communed with Shams. Any revisitation of the pain and terrors that he must have felt as a child were nothing to be embarrassed about because he could use them as materials for his poetry and become more reliance on God. Shams appearance in Rumi’s life allowed him to grow, and mature. Prayer no longer had the preeminent position in his worship and took its place along with silence, music, song and dance. Rumi was ripe for transformation but needed someone like Shams to consecrate the new Rumi. But the most difficult part for Rumi was to let go of Shams and stand on his own two feet.
It was through his union with and separation from Shams that Rumi’s real personality gradually emerged and flourished. Not because of any contrived pattern or master and student relationship. It was messy, painful and a murderous saga. It paid off for Rumi but perhaps ended not so good for the old dervish and Kimia!
With his whole life ahead of him, his genius intact and his popularity still untarnished Rumi stepped into his post-Shams phase. The first verse in his main body of work, Masnavi, is about separation. About the pangs of longing and pains of separation in his own life which made him who he was. Rumi became sensitive enough to tune into the universal chorus of all creatures seeking union and harmony as they are born, live and die.
Listen to the flute’s (ney) telling us its tale,
Complaining about separations.
The reed flute (ney), perhaps the oldest musical instrument is made by being cut off from its roots and branch and fashioned by a craftsman in order to play the musical notes. Reed is symbolic of its separation from its origin but has become something of much higher value through that process. Ney has seven holes which, according to some Sufi philosophy it represents the seven stages of human development. Only when the seven stages are harmonised and integrated music can be created.
Who better than the reed can talk about the pain of separation, the joy of union and the agony of emotional and spiritual entanglement? Ney is Rumi and Rumi the ney. It is hard not to see the enlightened author of Masnavi. Rumi’s impact is universal because it is a firsthand experience.
The post-Shams Rumi held no prejudices against anybody from any faith as he saw the road to maturity was hard and painful. In our modern times, M. Scott Peck, the author of The Road Less Traveled, once said growing up is the hardest thing in life. Rumi had to break away from the person that his father and the Islamic orthodoxy had groomed him to be and what the community expected of him. He had to overcome the terrors he must have felt in his childhood as a refugee going from one place to another in search of a home.
Rumi could have lost his sanity and destroyed his reputation or denied his calling but he managed to grow and begin a new life. He turned his sorrows and longings into poetry, his abandonment and fears into song and dance and meditated in silence for renewal and insight.
Rumi : a spiritual biography / Leslie Wines.Wines, Leslie. New York : The Crossroad Pub. 2000.
Rumi : past and present, east and west : the life, teachings and poetry of Jalâl al-Din Rumi, Franklin D. Lewis, New York : Oneworld Publications, 2014
The triumphal sun : a study of the works of Jalāloddin Rumi / Annemarie Schimmel. Albany, NY : State University of New York Press, c1993.
Tales of mystic meaning : selections from the Mathnawi of Jalal-ud-Din Rumi / translated with an introduction by Reynold A. Nicholson. Oxford, England : Oneworld Publications, c1995.