Rumi: The Songbird of Sufism

Writer: Rummana Choudhury Category: প্রবন্ধ (Essay) Edition: Dhaboman - Eid 2019



Rummana Chowdhury



Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi, known to all of us simply as Rumi, was born on September 30th 1207. After 65 years of creating some of the most renowned poetry humankind has ever known, his creativity and brilliance left us on Dec 17th 1273. Today, more than 700 years later, he is still ranked the number one best selling poet in the United States of America. Not that the United States is gold standard for recognizing brilliant poetry, but Rumi’s writing has made its mark the world over, including in a country whose reputation for appreciating mystic poetry (and a Persian Muslim at that) is arguably dismal, and that says something about Rumi and his literary ingenuity.

Rumi is best known for his expertise in creating timeless Sufi spiritual literature. However, many of us know him not just as a Sufi mystic and poet, but also as a Jurist, Islamic scholar and Theologian. His work expresses discipline, clarity, courage and integrity. He was originally from Greater Khorasan (Afghanistan) but has spread the light of poetry and love throughout the universe. His legacies for the past 7 centuries have transcended national borders and ethnic divisions. Despite differences in religion, cast, creed, sect and a myriad of other divisive factors, he is as loved by Iranians, Taziks, Turks, Pashtuns, Central Muslims and Asian Muslims alike. Rumi, who said “I just see one Altar at the core of all religions, not a Muslim mosque, Jewish synagogue, Christian church or a Hindu temple.” He said he belonged to the beloved, not to any particular religion, just like the sea, sky or the sun which are all infinite and endless, continuously flowing and ebbing like tidal waves in this universe. So, what is it about Rumi’s writings that make his work still live in the innermost crevasses of our hearts seven centuries later?  

Rumi’s book ‘Masnavi’ (Mathnawi), composed in Konya, is voted to be one of the all-time greatest poems of the Persian language. His writing monumentally influenced the development and progression of Persian language and literature itself. Further, his writing also deeply impacted the linguistic and poetic development of Turkish, Azerbaijani, and other Turkic, Iranian and Indo-Aryan languages. Rumi’s father influenced him to a large extent, as did the Persian poets Attar and Sanai, and Shams of Tabriz. Rumi expresses his appreciation for them, “Attar was the spirit, Sanai his eyes twain and is time thereafter, came we in their train.” And he again mentions in another poem, “Attar has traversed the 7 cities of love, we are still at the turn of one street.” The whirling Dervishes concept originated from Rumi’s unbearable grief when his mentor Shams of Tabriz passed away. Rumi went to his backyard and went round and round a pole, over and over again, contemplating and processing the grief, loss and death of his mentor. Those whirling dances were perfect in rhyme and meters.  Most people know that whirling Dervishes perform a dance called the Sema, a religious dance performed to express emotion and achieve the wisdom and love of God, but few know that it originated in Turkey through Sufism.

Can Rumi’s work be appreciated in its full force when translated from Persian? His original poetry was always composed in the Persian language but we read him in English and many other languages of this world. How much of his work is translated accurately and perfectly? Many of us wonder. A translator who could do a just interpretation of his work would need to be able to translate emotions, moods, and cultural context in order to allow a reader to truly appreciate Rumi’s words. Yet, it is imperative that we acknowledge that there are many rhymes in the Persian language which are entirely un-represented in the English language and cannot be translated with any sort of meaningful accuracy. In order for a translation to be valuable, the translator must be intimately aware of the specific settings, moods and modes of the Persian language, as well as the culture and poetry of Afghanistan. Despite these hurdles however, even an attempt to translate Rumi’s work on a wider scale can only benefit humankind as we might gain newer exposure to the brilliance of his work.

 One of Rumi’s major themes is the reed flute with its plaintive sound, which echoes the grief of separation from the soil of the river bed. The reed flute speaks about this tender agony of parting. A broken heart can be compared to the reed, which cannot make any music until it is separated, cut, and eventually holes are made on it. Love is the goal of all, as the melody from the reed flute evolves from the agonized heart and touches our souls.

            In the Bengali language there is a terminology, “Jaffri Kata Rodh” meaning the enchanting crimson Sunrise. And in this early morning just before dawn the lover and the beloved wakeup. Do they see a world of existence or is this a Ruby or a Stone? Or a world of resistance? And then as the crimson sea water merges with the dazzling ruby red horizon, they become one Rumi kept on saying to keep on digging and that water will be there somewhere. We should keep on knocking and he predicts positively, that a window will eventually open. And ultimately the nameless, faceless spirit goes back to it’s own home.

As touched upon earlier, the Sufi order in Rumi originated from his irreparable grief and loss. The ritual of the whirling Dervishes is a circling motion giving rise to creating poetry. Rumi felt the secret turning in, is an image of surrender and discipline, making the universe turn. Afterall, he teaches us that, the galaxies and molecules followed the same principles. Seers and Sages concluded, that this is the circle of love and compassion and we should share it with others. Reading and enjoying poetry is like reading a prayer to wide-eyed curious children. Dr Deepak Chopra said, “The world may be chaotic but poetry transformed the world, the soul and the spirit screaming for nourishment, and this nourishment comes from poetry.” It is because of this, even after seven hundred years we are still yearning for Rumi’s poetry and he shares it so poignantly, so clearly, gently and elegantly. Even after 700 years, people can feel the touch, caress and fragrance of Rumi’s poetry. Many of us accept the fact that reading and comprehending Rumi is like prayers, just like bread, and that we should have it many times a day to nourish us. As the mysticism in his poetry sweeps in, we feel that we are in paradise, way up in the sky. Rumi said, “I am so small I can hardly be seen, how can this great love be inside me? In the galaxy of this universe a star circulates with the moon, and inside the endless water an unknown unseen water wheel turns.”  

This philosopher and mystic of Islam has his tomb in Konya, which attracts pilgrims from all over the world, both Muslims and non-Muslims.

Rumi’s most notable poetry and prose works include:

  1. Mystical poetry, titled MATNAWIYE MA’NAWI (Spiritual Couplets). This contains Persian poetry, around 27,000 lines, six volume poem
  2. DIWAN-e-KABIR (Great Work)
  3. DIWAN-e- Shams-e-Tabrizi (The Works of Shams of Tabriz), honouring his master Shams. This contained around 35,000 Persian couplets and 2000 Persian quatrains.
  4. FIHI MA FIHI (In It What’s In It) Persian prose comprising of 71 lectures and talks to his disciples.
  5. MAJALES-e-Sab’a (Seven Scissors) is in the Persian language containing seven sermons or lectures.
  6. MAKATIB (The Letters) is the title of this book. He wrote sophisticated letters to his disciples, family members and statesmen in the Persian language.

In the year 1273, month of December, Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi became very sick. He composed a classical song (ghazal), the lyrics of which spoke about his own death: “How doest thou know what sort of king I have within me as companion? Do not cast thy glance upon my golden face, for I have iron legs.” Rumi’s transcendental philosophy can be compared to a string through the beads of his prose and poetry. His main emphasis, is in a single thought, the unity of being, which can be compared to Tagore’s, Fakir Lalon’s (the folklore King), Muhammad Iqbal or Nazrul’s universal humanism, philosophy of life, compassion for all and understanding the spirituality of mankind. The epitaph of Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi reads: “When we are dead, seek not our tomb in the earth, but find it in the hearts of men…” And today, we feel Jalaluddin Rumi never left us. Emotions like joy or grief, elation or sadness, come and go but the Presence that he spoke about, in which he included himself, does not ever go away. Rumi advocated this simple truth of life.

          The vibrant, ethereal beauty of the cherry blossoms and the fragrant pomegranate blossoms, overpower our senses as an unknown magical breeze encompasses us… and your mind flutters like a butterfly and asks the eternal question, as Rumi had stated so may centuries ago, “I do not know who am I.”

(The writer humbly acknowledges the different sources of information with gratitude)