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CULTURE: REUNIFYING RUMI

September 17, 2017
Photos by the writer
Photos by the writer

There are many versions of the legendary first encounter between Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi and his spiritual mentor Shams of Tabriz. Most describe the moment as Rumi, the religious scholar, sitting by a pond, immersed in his scholarly reading, when Shams, a stranger to him, comes by and asks him what he is doing. “You will not understand,” Rumi is reported to have replied, upon which Shams throws all of Rumi’s books in the pond. But the books spring back up dry, defying the laws of physics. At this point, Shams is reported to have said, “But you do not understand.”

This was the moment, then, when Rumi began fathoming Allah not just with the mind but also with the heart. In a world of sharp binaries, Rumi’s admirers seem bent upon separating Rumi the man of knowledge, from Rumi the mystic poet. In reality, the two are not mutually exclusive; in reality, both are the same person.

As I recently travelled by bus in Turkey from Antalya to Konya, the city of the 13th-century Sufi scholar, its unusual and diverse landscape reminded me of his message that is so universally appealing — to the rich and the poor, the pious and the sinner, the scholar and the unlettered. While the pluralism in his message is prominent, one thing becomes clearer than ever when you visit Konya — that Rumi was not just a Sufi, he was also a Muslim scholar, and taking that away from Rumi is telling half the truth.

Maulana Jalaludin Rumi’s Islamic scholarship is often forgotten by those extolling the universality of his message although it is an essential part of his work

Konya has distinct old-world charm. The people are kind and the roses are abundant. But the highlight of a visit to Konya is the Mevlevi Sema, a mystic religious rite practiced by dervishes, who emulate the whirling of Rumi, lost in ecstasy. It is an enchanting experience, the kind that leaves you with goose bumps. In the courtyard of the Mevlâna Museum that houses Rumi’s shrine, a common sight is a teacher with a flowing beard, a rosary in hand and a smile on his lips, sitting under the shade of a tree, surrounded by students learning about Islam. Calligraphy from Quranic verses are put up alongside verses from his extensive, famous poem, Masnavi. The sound of the azaan is loud and clear in Konya. Imprints of traditional Islam in the district where Rumi rests do not seem to disagree with imprints of Sufism.

The exterior view of the Mevlana Museum
The exterior view of the Mevlana Museum

There is an honorary grave of the Poet of the East, Allama Iqbal, near Rumi’s grave. Iqbal is often called a spiritual protégé of Rumi, and is reported to have had a metaphysical experience when he felt Rumi’s presence.

In his book Stray Reflections: The Private Notebook of Muhammad Iqbal, Allama Iqbal observes that “To explain the deepest truths of life in the form of homely parables requires extraordinary genius. Shakespeare, Maulana Rum (Jalaluddin) and Jesus Christ are probably the only illustrations of this rare type of genius.”

The popular interpretation of Rumi does not do justice to where he came from. Rumi is a mystic all right, but he is more than just mystic pulp fiction, and the Masnavi is more than just couplets that can be used to soothe the after-effects of a lovers’ brawl. Yet, few of those smitten by the universality of Rumi’s poetry recognise the visible imprints of verses of the Quran. The popular reductionist approach towards Rumi has reduced his poetry to memes, and selected couplets with aphorisms that are easy to quote.

The Mevlevis greet each other as the Sema begins
The Mevlevis greet each other as the Sema begins

“Modernity has an allergy to religion. They have pushed religion into a private space, saying ‘religion is just between man and God’ and not collective,” says Abbas Husain, educationist and Islamic scholar known for teaching the nuances of Tasawwuf and Ishq. In Husain’s opinion, a fine parallel can be drawn between Rumi and the likes of Socrates and Plato. “The latter two were religious but have been reduced to being just philosophers. Rumi and his poetry have been exoticised, and there has been an erasure of the religious in him.”

There is religion and there is religion, he says, and to Husain, the distinction is clear. “Religion puts before us deeper questions like ‘why are you here’, whereas religion also is focused more on rituals and minor details. We can’t see the wood for the trees,” he says.

The pull of Rumi is that his words are relatable. “He strikes a resonance with the inward level of man in any era,” says Husain. Scholars have pondered on the various meanings of his work since long. “Rumi is not new; he has been around. The first translation of Rumi’s Masnavi came from R.A. Nicholson, between 1925 and 1940.”

A teacher imparts spiritual wisdom to youth, under a tree near Mevlana Rumi’s sarcophagus
A teacher imparts spiritual wisdom to youth, under a tree near Mevlana Rumi’s sarcophagus

But there is no denying that Rumi has been re-popularised. And his fandom is not limited to Muslims, because his message was and is universal. “I love that Rumi sees Divine beauty in all aspects of creation and speaks to people of all cultural tastes and perspectives. I love that he uses bawdy tales in his poetry,” says Laury Silvers, a lecturer at the University of Toronto’s Department for the Study of Religion.

According to Silvers, Rumi explains the most difficult of concepts by translating them into easily understood simpler concepts that help everyone own him. “Early on when Rumi was translated into English, these parts were translated into Latin so that only the most elite, scholarly fellows could enjoy them — exactly the opposite of Rumi’s intention in composing these verses,” she says.

Silvers further explains how these bawdy tales not only bring Divine truths to those who are best reached with rough and tumble talk. “They teach all of us that God is fully present and calling to us in every moment and through all things, not just that which we deem socially acceptable or ‘pretty’.”

A depiction of the members of the Mevlevi order inside the Mevlana Museum
A depiction of the members of the Mevlevi order inside the Mevlana Museum

For some today, their first exposure to Rumi has been through the Turkish writer Elif Shafak’s book Forty Rules of Love. In a sense, Shafak did a service by producing an easy version of the often complex themes of Tasawwuf for her readers. Although Husain sees this as positive, he recommends graduating to books such as Me and Rumi: The Autobiography of Shams-i-Tabrizi by William C. Chittick for those interested in understanding Rumi better.

Whether represented in a complex or an easy manner, Rumi remains the bridge we need today — he bridges the gaps polarisation has created. Those who cling to the more comfortable and less demanding interpretation of the spiritual path of love for God and those who hold on to the path of adherence to Islamic jurisprudence or Sharia as the road to Paradise — both can find something to guide them. In a world torn apart by extremes, Rumi’s message of love of God can be a meeting-point.

“Rumi invites us to become whole,” says Husain. “But to become whole, we would first have to accept that we are incomplete.”

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 17th, 2017

https://www.dawn.com/news/1358182

Of Daal Chawal and Rumi…..

My back aches as I get up….a remnant reminder of the eight hours I spend every day in front of a computer in a chair with a straight back, the only luxury being its wheels that I use to swing myself around in moments of utter boredom or frustration. 15 minutes after shutting down the AC, the heat has begun to show a teaser…..It is almost mid June….we have no pre-Monsoon rain in Karachi. Dousing down the lure of more time in bed  with a cup of chaai, I’m up. It’s another day…..Is it a new day? That’s debatable.

A malaai lawn shirt is picked up for ironing. The phone is switched on….messages of early risers await to be answered. The tv is switched on; the newspaper breaks free of the stifling hold of the rubber band. The pressure of “knowing” mounts as usual…..what kind of journalist are you if you do not know what’s going on in this world?

It’s just another day. Or is it?

The phone vibrates. A Whatsapp message awaits. I read it. My inner pace simultaneously slows down and speeds up.

We search for Him here and there
while looking right at Him.
Sitting by His side we ask,
“O Beloved, where is the Beloved?”

Enough with such questions! –
Let silence take you to the core of life.

All your talk is worthless
When compared to one whisper
of the Beloved.

The message is Rumi’s poem: One Whisper of the Beloved.

The message has opened a door inside me……a door that best remain shut if the usual business of life is to carry on.

Yet, I cannot unswitch……a weakness by default.

So Rumi it is, sporadic but sure, all through the day. He’s got me thinking. And thoughts overlap. Dots are connected. The heart is on a roll. The mind follows suit.

With Rumi come all his friends….some more spiritual than others, but all masters of words, raising existential questions: Why am I here? What am I doing? Who is my beloved? Is He my Beloved? What does the wind mean and the sunlight say and the lark sing?

My inner questions are beautiful but exhausting. Worst of all, they don’t gel with what’s happening around me. A long queue at the fuel pump, cars honking at other cars – all owned by impatient drivers. I must go to Mangal bazar to buy veggies & fruits for the week. The tailor had promised to give the clothes today. Three stories wait to be edited and I have to file a report today.

And I find myself zoning out repeatedly….like one in love.

But this is love, isn’t it? For a centuries’ old soul had once told me that “love is love….majazi (for a worldly beloved) or haqeeqi (for God)….and one who cannot love humans cannot aim to love God”. And all that poets, writers, philosophers and the important people in life have talked about is….well….love.

The work day is trudging along. Inside me, a dervish longs to whirl. On the outside, the world continues to go round.

Once back home, I long for some solitude.

But the daal chawal and qeema must be made.

I am walking toward the kitchen. And Rumi refuses to be silenced.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense.

deeya

A Book of Love, A Novel of Rumi – 40 Rules of Love

Love and empathy
Elif Shafak’s novel is full of lyrical beauty

By Farahnaz Zahidi Moazzam 


The Forty Rules of Love:
A Novel of Rumi
By Elif Shafak
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 350
Price: Rs. 895

It is difficult to say who is the main protagonist of The Forty Rules of Love by Turkish author Elif Shafak. It is equally difficult to decide which century should we choose the protagonist from —the 13th or the 21st. Such is the fluidity and exuberance with which Shafak has written this popular fictional.

Ella Rubenstein is forty, Jewish, unhappily married, and has forgotten who she is, revolving her life around her infidel husband and children. As part of the work she is doing for a literary agent, she comes across the manuscript of a novel called “Sweet Blasphemy” which mesmerises her in how it revolves around the relationship between 12th century Islamic theologian-scholar turned poet Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi and the mystic Sufi Shams of Tabriz who is Rumi’s spiritual master.

This is a turning point in Ella’s life, who is inspired by Shams’s life-altering forty rules of love that ultimately aim at helping people achieve communion with the Absolute, the Creator, through the path of love, and in so doing learning the answers to the deepest questions of life that would in turn help transform a person’s conduct and behaviour towards other creatures in a beautiful manner.

This was what Shams was teaching Rumi. This is what, indirectly, the writer of “Sweet Blaspehmy”, Aziz Zahara, teaches Ella, forever changing her life.

Aziz does to Ella what Shams did to Rumi – he becomes her mirror in which she sees her real self. He is the stone that flings itself into the stagnant waters of Ella’s uneventful, complacent, almost dead life, and causes a ripple effect that brings to the surface everything she truly is and is meant to be. Thus, she discovers love.

Shams of Tabriz was an Iranian Sufi mystic, a wandering dervish, responsible for initiating Rumi into Islamic mysticism. Rumi’s poetry has immortalised Shams, who is said to have been the reason Rumi evolved from a scholar used to the Aristotelian style of questioning and scholarship in faith, and became a love-poet, whom Shams brought to the path of a direct and ecstatic connection with God.

The word “Shams” literally means the Sun in Arabic. While the beauty of Rumi’s poetry continues to be celebrated world over, Rumi can be compared to the moon who actually reflected the resplendent light of the sun, by passing on the message he learnt from his spiritual master, Shams.

Shafak’s ingenious technique of usage of the literary device where each chapter is named after the character, whose inner soliloquies comprise that chapter, makes it very believable and relatable. An essential part of Rumi’s poetry, of Sufism, and in turn of Shafak’s book, is about empathy, in which you understand the other’s perspective. Through the different voices in the book talking in first person, in an almost “stream of consciousness” narrative technique because they are so intimately monologue-like, Shafak has achieved the objective of keeping empathy as one of the central threads that keep stringed together the many themes in the book.

The message of empathy and understanding different perspectives is spell-binding in the book. We look at the world not just through the eyes of Ella and Aziz, and Shams and Rumi, but also characters like Desert Rose the Harlot, Sultan Walad (the son of Rumi), Suleiman the Drunkard and even The Killer who is hired to kill Shams.

As a writer Shafak is capable of using much more intricate phraseology and vocabulary, but it seems as if she on purpose keeps the choice of words and the tone very simplistic and basic, as if she is afraid of diluting the basic strength of the profound message of the book through unsolicited use of jargon.

The fact that the novel catapults the reader from past into the present and vice versa, from the world of Shams of Tabriz in 13th century Konya to the world of Ella Rubenstein in 21st century New Jersey, is deeply symbolic. The fluidity with which this has been done gives the novel as surreal timeless quality, where even the characters from the 13th century seem relatable today. This is where Shafak is truly brilliant, for this is an underlying message that Rumi and Tabriz’s message of love is not and cannot be limited within encapsulations of time and space.

To understand this further, we have to take a look at Rumi’s position over the centuries. His funeral it is said, was a historic event in that it extended over forty days of grieving, where he was mourned by Muslims, Christians, Jews, Greeks, Arabs and Persians. Rumi, himself, it is said, married both a woman of Islam and a woman who was originally a Christian. In the present day context, Rumi is prided over by Muslims who see him both as a commentator of the Quran and a scholar (especially his life pre-Shams), as well as a proponent of the universality of the message of Sufism. But what is doubly interesting is how Rumi has managed to be celebrated even by the West, thereby bridging many of the gaps between the East and the West centuries after he died. He has influenced the writings and philosophy of the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Recent years have seen an upsurge in Rumi’s popularity in the West. According to the Christian Science Monitor, Rumi got ranking as America’s best-selling poet in 1997. Rumi-following and coffee table books boasting a dabbling with the message of Rumi are quite the fad. In a world where the mantra “I am spiritual, not religious” has gained momentum, Rumi is one person the past, present and probably the future, and both the East and the West, agree upon.

The Forty Rules of Love has been hugely successful. It sold more than 600 000 copies, becoming an all time best-seller in Turkey and in France awarded with the Prix ALEF – Mention Spéciale Littérature Etrangère. While there is no doubt in the lyrical beauty of Shafak’s work, part of the reason for the success of this book lies in the fact that in the world that we live in today, you cannot go wrong with Rumi and Sufism.

Published in The News on Sunday: http://jang.com.pk/thenews/mar2012-weekly/nos-18-03-2012/lit.htm#2