Rumi (Mawlana, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi, Maulana Jalal al-Din Rumi, Mevlana Jalaluadin Rumi)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Rumi (Mawlana, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi, Maulana Jalal al-Din Rumi, Mevlana Jalaluadin Rumi)

Rumi (Mawlana, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi, Maulana Jalal al-Din Rumi, Mevlana Jalaluadin Rumi) (1207-1248) Persian philosopher and poet

The Persian philosopher and theologian Mawlana Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi, who wrote under the pen name Rumi, represented the golden era of Sufism. At a time when the Persian nation and culture were under attack, he provided Muslims of the Seljuk Empire with the Mathnawi (Spiritual Couplets, ca. 1270), a masterwork of Islamic teachings. Born on September 30, 1207, Rumi was the son of Mumine Khatun, who came from the caliphate line of Abu Bakr in Balkh, Ghurid, in eastern Persia (present-day Afghanistan); his father, Baha ud-Din Walad, a mystic essayist and teacher, earned the favor of the Seljuk sultan Al- oddin Kay Qobad. The family journeyed west in 1218 to Nishapur, Iran, to escape Genghis Khan and his Mongol invaders. Behind them, the raiders conquered Balkh and Samarkand and spread their empire west over Transoxiana (present-day Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan). Episodes of burning, starving, looting, torturing, and murdering earned this era the name of “Islamic holocaust” for reducing the indigenous Muslim population to 10 percent of its original number.

Safe in Konya, Anatolia (present-day Turkey), as Mongols pressed into Persia and destroyed the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, Rumi was able to complete his education. At Aleppo and Damascus, he delved into Sanskrit folklore, the encyclopedias of AL-JAHIZ, and Persian collections of odes, meditations, and pious confessionals. Rumi mastered versification in Arabic, Greek, Persian, and Turkish and led a religious academy while training himself in Sufism, an asceticism rejecting human restraints and religious orthodoxy. At age 37, he met the wandering dervish Shams-e Tabrizi (Shams of Tobriz, Iran), a religious visionary with whom he lived and studied until Shams’s disappearance on December 5, 1248. Historians surmise that Rumi’s students may have martyred Shams.

Persuaded by the goldsmith Salah ud-Din-e Zarkub and the scribe Hussam-e Chelebi, Rumi, like his predecessor AL-GHAZALI, made a dramatic midlife break from formal teaching. He expressed his beliefs and faith in the Diwan-e kabir (The great divan, ca. 1240), a six-volume compendium of lyrics that transcend warfare and cultural destruction. He contradicted the widespread view of Mongols made “drunk on wine of violence”: “Their war and peace are made upon illusion, their glory and their shame are from illusion” (Rumi 2007, 116, 13). One of his most famous short works, the perceptive FABLE “The Blind Man and the Elephant” (ca. 1270), describes the limited range of human understanding. He urges the sorrowing to accept death as a form of change rather than extinction. In a prediction of cellular biology, he explains that “God’s joy moves from unmarked box to unmarked box, / from cell to cell. / As rainwater, / down into flowerbeds” (quoted in Roberts and Amidon 1991, 44). He muses, “Whatever came from Being is caught up in being, drunkenly forgetting the way back” (40). Of the wonder of both earth and the afterlife, he urges individuals to remain alert to natural phenomena and joy.

Over 12 years, the poet dictated the Mathnawi to his scribe. Revered as the Persian KORAN, the six-volume classic is composed in ghazals—10- or 12-line odes or love lyrics linked in a lulling monorhyme, aa, ba, ca, da. The anthology drew on scripture, superstition, and fable and stressed a universal longing for wholeness and unity with passion and beauty.

To achieve the sublime states described in Rumi's verse, the sufist mevlevi (whirling dervishes) developed a mental and physical frenzy during their sacred dance. The ecstatic gyration produced fana (euphorias) that, according to the poet, “liberate the spirits from the body's trap and wipe the records clean” (Rumi 2007, 41). The whirling generated a mystic release from time and space and a call to “Behold the power of God in his composure!” (12). The rapid rotation of the trunk and limbs freed the mind of idol worship, rid the soul of guilt, and intoxicated the spirit with an epiphany of self-surrender. Enraptured with thoughts of God and universal love, the dancer became free of formal religious forms and the greed and powermongering around them.

Venerated as the height of Persian poesy, the Mathnawi revived Islam after an era of Mongol suppression. The text praises fascination with nature and stresses an intuitive sanctity. Verses give only God control of earthly events. Rumi warns the usurper, “Do not pretend to rulership and power” and invites, “Come in and see the power and grace of God” (65, 79). When set to drum rhythms and flute strains, the poems mimic the motions of stars and the regular cycle of planetary orbits. The universality of moral uplift served soldiers before and during combat, lovers at weddings and in sexual union, and pilgrims at shrines. Through recitation of the verses, worshippers stripped themselves of fault, repented of sin, and lifted clean hearts to God.

At Rumi's death in Anatolia on December 17, 1273, his eldest son, Sulfan Valad, replaced him as leader of Sufism. Rumi won recognition for the Sufi ideal—zealotry and abandonment of worldly distractions to become one with divinity and eternal truths. Holy men still recite his utopian verses in monasteries, sanctuaries, and synagogues and in the mosques of Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Turkey.


Lane, George. Genghis Khan and Mongol Rule. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2004.

Roberts, Elizabeth, and Elias Amidon, eds. Earth Prayers from Around the World. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.

Rumi, Mevlana Jalaluddin. Spiritual Verses. Translated by Alan Williams. London: Penguin, 2007.