Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi (1207 – 1273) was a 13th century Persian poet, Islamic jurist and Hanafi Theologian. His name literally means "Majesty of Religion"; Jalal means "majesty" and Din means "religion". Rumi is a descriptive name meaning "the Roman" since he lived most parts of his life in Anatolia, which had been part of the Byzantine Empire two centuries before. In Islam, the spiritual and literary influence of Jelaluddin Rumi is so pervasive that his name is prefaced by the reverential term “Mevlana” (“our master”). However, he is known to the English-speaking world simply as Rumi.
Rumi was the son of Bahauddin Walad, a theologian and jurist and mystic. After his father’s death Rumi was to follow in his footsteps, taking over the position of sheikh in the dervish learning community in Konya.
Rumi was thus a learned and respected religious teacher in Anatolia when, at the age of 37 in the Autumn of 1244 Rumi met the wandering dervish, Shams of Tabriz. This contact was to transform Rumi’s life. Their passionate friendship had a profound impact on his understanding of the human experience. The ‘transmission’ that took place throughout their relationship, the impact of Shams disappearance, subsequent return, then final irreversible disappearance inspired the writing of a collection of ecstatic poetry that is treasured by many not only as profoundly moving poetry of love and yearning but also as a vehicle for spiritual development.
Their friendship has been described as an ecstatic connection, and is often referred to with a capital F – “The Friendship,” it says in the introduction to the selected poems, “is one of the mysteries.” There is no doubt of its impact upon Rumi. Shams and Rumi became inseparable. It’s said they spent months together without any human needs, transported into a region of pure conversation. Then Shams disappeared. Rumi scholar Annemarie Schimmel thinks that it was this first disappearance that Rumi began the transformation into a spiritual artist. “He turned into a poet, began to listen to music, and sang, whirling around, hour after hour.”
Shams was to return to Rumi’s life then depart for good in strange circumstances. On December 5, 1248, as Rumi and Shams were talking, Shams was called to the back door. He went out, never to be seen again.
The Mystery of the Friend’s absence dominated Rumi’s world. So much of his subsequent poetry has the theme of the search for the Beloved, although his search was far more than a “missing persons” search. For Rumi early on realised:
Why should I seek? I am the same as
he. His essence speaks through me.
I have been looking for myself!
Thus the poems composed were truly about his search for the lost Divine Beloved.
Rumi was to have two further muses, or Friends, to whom he addressed his poems: the goldsmith Saladin Zarkub, and, following Saladin’s death, Husam Chelebi, Rumi’s scribe and favourite student. It was to Husam that Rumi dictated the Mathnawi, the six-volume poem that is considered his major work – in fact considered by many to be one of the greatest works of mystical poetry. It is regarded by many Sufis as second in importance only to the Qu’ran.
Rumi is one of the most read poets of both east and west, probably read by more people now than at any other time. He is said to be the most popular poet in America! Why is Rumi so popular? His words can be taken as teachings or simply enjoyed for their integrity, passion and beauty. And, while he is certainly a spiritual poet, he is neither pious, prissy nor preachy. His poems are by turns challenging, comforting, haunting, comical and achingly beautiful. Frequently all of the above.
They are also difficult to categorise. Coleman Barks in the Penguin Classics Selected Poems: “The mind wants categories, but Rumi’s creativity was a continuous fountaining from beyond forms and the mind, or as the Sufis say, from a mind within the mind, the qalb, which is a great compassionate generosity.
Barks goes on, “…these poems are not monumental in the Western sense of memorialising moments; they are not discrete entities but a fluid, continuously self-revising, self-interrupting medium. They are not so much about anything as spoken from within something. Call it enlightenment, ecstatic love, spirit, soul, truth, the ocean of ilm (divine luminous wisdom), or the covenant of alast (the original agreement with God)."
Some of Rumi’s metaphors are rough, raw, unacceptable to refined tastes. He uses anything human beings do, no matter how scandalous, cruel or silly, to examine soul growth. After a particularly graphic, outrageously elaborated comparison of breadmaking with lovemaking, he concludes, “Remember. The way you make love is the way God will be with you.” As Barks points out, “For Rumi, the bread of every experience offers nourishment.”
His poetry is by turns challenging, comforting, comical, haunting and achingly beautiful. Frequently all of the above. By bringing the divine in to the everyday and finding the wonderful in the commonplace, Rumi has the gift of making the ineffable accessible.
Some commentators’ views
“Rumi,” says scholar Peter Lamborn Wilson, “can only be compared to such Occidentals as Dante and Shakespeare.”
Shahram Shiva, Iranian-born performance poet, actor and author, known for his Rumi concerts, says, "Rumi is able to verbalize the highly personal and often confusing world of personal/spiritual growth and mysticism in a very forward and direct fashion. He does not offend anyone, and he includes everyone. The world of Rumi is neither exclusively the world of a Sufi, nor the world of a Hindu, nor a Jew, nor a Christian; it is the highest state of a human being — a fully evolved human. A complete human is not bound by cultural limitations; he touches every one of us."
According to Professor Majid M Naini, author of The Mysteries of the Universe and Rumi’s Discoveries on the Majestic Path of Love, Rumi's life and transformation provide true testimony and proof that people of all religions and backgrounds can live together in peace and harmony. “Rumi’s visions, words, and life,” he says, “teach us how to reach inner peace and happiness so we can finally stop the continual stream of hostility and hatred and achieve true global peace and harmony.”
Oh my brother, you are all thoughts,
The rest are bones and flesh.
If your thoughts are flowers
You are a flower garden
And if your thoughts are shrubs
You are firewood for burning
Where to find out more about Rumi’s work
His works have been celebrated and discussed by such writers as Andrew Harvey, Deepak Chopra and his most celebrated American translator, Coleman Barks. In America Coleman Barks has created accessible and popular books and recordings. Also Shahram Shiva, quoted above, has presented Rumi concerts at various venues. Helen Chadwick  and Ashley Ramsden have made beautiful recordings.
His work exists in many translations from many different translators and publishers. Because he is celebrated quotes from his work are available online at such sites as
- The Life and Works of Rumi
- Rumi's Works
- Sufi poetry
As well as providing lists of, and links to, a variety of publications, these sites provide a good introduction to the work of one of this planet’s most celebrated poets of the last thousand years.