Pen Portrait: Rumi
Updated: Sep 15, 2018
Welcome to our Pen Portrait series, where we look into the lives and works of some of the world's most influential thinkers. Today, we are focusing on the poet Jaal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, most commonly known as Rumi.
Wander into the poetry section of most bookstores and you will see a remarkable phenomenon. Not one but several copies of the works of a poet who lived over 800 years ago. His works transcend society, culture, religion, philosophy, and defy the erosion of time. There are even claims that he is one of the most widely read poets in North America(1).
The poet’s influence breached even some of the most intense political hostility of our era. In 2007, the Islamic Republic of Iran gave an award to Coleman Barks and Robert Bly for their translations of Rumi, both of them citizens of the United States of America. Even in our day, Rumi brings people together.
Rumi believed that there is an internal and unknown self – something beyond our external hostilities and conditioning. The path to understanding this was through the heart – through developing deep empathy. In his experience, those who had reached it were often left without words to describe their realization. He felt his best tools for explaining his realizations were music, poetry, and dance. It’s fortunate for all that a line or two of Rumi’s verses stands alone – universal in their appeal, and easy to digest. They populate kitchen calendars, dedications in books, and countless Tweets.
These words may not be pure truth,
but they contain an energy
that you can spend.
Rumi was not just a man of high-minded philosophy, however. While much of his work speaks to abstraction and questions regarding existence, happiness, and so on, just as much is focused on more practical issues, such as gaining control over one’s thoughts.
I want these words to stop.
Calm the chattering mind, my soul.
No more camel's milk.
I want silent water to drink,
and the majesty of a clear waking.
His sentiments often find parallels in a multitude of places. Rumi was born during a golden age of the Near and Middle Eastern nations, particularly where Iran was concerned. The Silk Road swept through where he was born in present-day Afghanistan, bringing all kinds of ideas with its many travellers. He had access to a multitude of wisdom, from Chinese Buddhists to the east, Indian Hindus to the south, European Christians from the west, and Levantine Jews nearby. Gathering and blending these with his Muslim faith and philosophical thought, Rumi produced a vast corpus of poetry and song.
Some of these deal with concepts we can clearly see mirrored in other schools of philosophy and spiritual exercise. A Theravadin might find lots to sympathize with in the following:
Be your emptiness,
What is inside that? You ask.
Silence is all I can say.
Had a Zen monk the opportunity to question Rumi, he might be enamoured with the poet’s reply:
The radiant one inside me has never said a word(2).
Besides just his body of poetry, the popular image of a Sufi – the whirling dervish with a red Fez and a long white robe – come from the Mevlevi order that his son founded to carry on his father's teachings and methods(3). Rumi is one of history’s great masters, a comfort in dark times, with wisdom for all.
(1) Shamram Shiva, Rumi: The Untold Story, The Rumi Network http://www.rumi.net/about_rumi_main.htm
(2) Colemen Barks, Rumi: Bridge to The Soul, Harper Collins.
(3) Coleman Barks, The Soul of Rumi: A New Collection of Ecstatic Poems, Harper Collins.