Garden of Secrets: The Real Rumi

by Rasoul Sorkhabi

Originally printed in the Summer 2010 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Sorkhabi, Rasoul. "Garden of Secrets: The Real Rumi." Quest  98. 3 (Summer 2010): 106-109.


 Each person, of his own imagination, made me his dear friend
None sought my secrets from within me.
My secret is not far from my lament
But the eye and the ear have no such illumination.

Rumi, Masnavi Ma'navi, 1:6—7

 I first learned about Rumi's poetry in my Persian textbooks as a young boy growing up in Iran. Thirty years ago, when I left my homeland, I took a few Persian poetry books with me, and one of them was of course Rumi's. A major part of my life has been spent abroad'in India, Japan, and the United States'and in all these countries, Rumi has been a spiritual companion to me. Over the years, I have witnessed with delight the rising popularity of his poetry in the Western world. This is largely thanks to the free-verse English translations of his poems, notably by Coleman Barks, whose 1995 book The Essential Rumi has sold hundred of thousands of copies'a rare achievement for a poetry book. I am delighted to see this phenomenon not only because Rumi, this thirteenth-century Persian poet, is part of my cultural roots but also because he represents one of the greatest mystical minds in human history, and his poetry and thought provide effective spiritual solutions to many of today's problems in our materialistic, divided, and violent world. Despite Rumi's popularity, several aspects about him and his poetry are less known or misinterpreted in anthologies and translations of his work. 

The Sufism of Khorasan 

The fact that Rumi's poems reach us across cultures, languages, and centuries is a testimony to his universal love and vision. But it is important to remember that this vision was rooted in his historical, geographical, cultural, literary, and spiritual background. I have sometimes noted that Rumi's popular image, and the translations of his work, tend to uproot him from his cultural soil and transplant him to today's world with its "politically correct" language and notions. Rumi did not appear in a vacuum; he stood on the shoulders of giants spanning centuries before him.

From the hagiographies that his son (Sultan Valad) and his disciples (Feridun Sepah-salar and Shamsuddin Ahmad Aflaki) have left, we know that Jalaluddin Mohammad, later to be known as Rumi, was born on September 30, 1207, and raised in the city of Balkh, which was then the capital of the Persian kingdom under Mohammad Kharazm-shah. Balkh, together with the historical cities of Neyshabur, Mash'had, Marv, and Herat, were parts of the province of Khorasan. After Afghanistan was separated from Persia under British influence in the nineteenth century, the Khorasan province shrank to its present extent within Iran, and its eastern sector, including Balkh, Marv, and Herat, became part of Afghanistan.

Khorasan is one of the major centers of religious and mystical thought in history. Its fertile intellectual soil has nurtured Zoroastrian, Buddhist, Greek, Manichaean, and Islamic traditions. It was also one of the two birthplaces of Sufism (the second being Mesopotamia). Among the earliest Sufi masters, for instance, was Ibrahim bin Adham, who was a prince in Balkh in the eighth century ad but left his palace (much like the Buddha) in search of a spiritual life. Other eminent Sufi masters, poets, and philosophers from Khorasan include Bayazid Bastami (804—874), Abol-Hasan Kharagani (960—1033), Abu-Said Abul-Khayr (967—1049), Abdullah Ansari (1006—1089), Abu Hamed Ghazzali (1058—1111) and his younger brother, Ahmad Ghazzali (1061—1126), Ibn Sina (Avicenna, 980—1037), Omar Khayyam (1048—1123), Sana'i (?—1131), and Attar (1145—1221). All of these luminaries preceded Rumi.

The Sufism that emerged in Khorasan should not be understood merely as the mystical dimension of the Arabic religion of Islam (although it reflected that as well), for this would be like regarding Zen Buddhism as Indian because the Buddha lived and taught in India. Drawing on its rich mystical and literary heritage, Khorasanian Sufism has made great contributions to mystical thought. These are too enormous to be discussed in detail here, but in order to place Rumi in his proper context, I should mention the following points:

1. The earliest didactic literature on Sufism was produced by Sufi masters from Khorasan. Some of these books were systematic theoretical treatises, for example, Hujwiri's Kashf al-Mahjub ("The Revelation of the Veiled"). Some were chronicles of Sufi masters, for instance Ansari's Tabagat al-Suffiya ("Generations of Sufis"); and some were anthologies of parables narrated in poetry, such as Attar's Asrar Nameh ("Book of Mysteries"). Legend has it that Attar presented a copy of this book to the teenaged Rumi when Rumi's family stopped in Neyshabur on their flight from Balkh to avoid the onslaught of Genghis Khan's hordes. It was in this tradition of didactic literature'more specifically, writing parables in poetry'that Rumi devoted the last decade of his life to composing the Masnavi Ma'navi ("Spiritual Couplets"); in doing so, he drew from Islamic, Christian, Jewish, Persian, Greek, and Indian sources. (Masnavi is a Persian pronunciation of the Arabic Mathnavi, "rhymed couplet." Rumi's Masnavi has six books, totaling about 25,000 couplets.)

2. The Khorasanian Sufis used Persian poetry as their main medium for mystical expressions. Sana'i, Attar, Rumi, and Jami (1414—1492) fall in this category. In some of his poems, Rumi views himself as heir to Sana'i and Attar (for example: "Attar was the soul, and Sana'i was its two eyes; I have come after them"; quoted in Schimmel, 37). Sufi poetry was often used in conjunction with music'a practice called sama, "listening" to music, but which sometimes also included dancing, such as the whirling dance developed by Rumi, and later institutionalized by his son Sultan Valad as a major spiritual practice in the Mawlaviyyeh (Mevlana) Sufi order (hence the so-called "whirling dervishes").

3. The Khorasanian Sufis drew a clear demarcation between the realm of philosophy and science (ilm) and the realm of esoteric knowledge and mysticism (irfan, an Arabic-Persian translation of the Greek word gnosis). They stated openly that the logic of the head was not capable of understanding the secrets of the heart. Rumi says, "The legs of argumentative logicians are wooden," implying that philosophical talk is one thing, walking on the spiritual path quite another. That is why Sufis did not seek a "scientific God" (as some of us try to do), although they appreciated the function of science in its own realm. As Rumi put it, "Water beneath the boat is life support, but poured into the boat sinks it to death." The word "heart" (dil in Persian, galb in Arabic), which frequently appears in Rumi's poetry, is not simply a symbolic organ for our emotions, but a faculty of inner knowing; it is a "garden of secrets."

4. The Sufis regarded God, not as an aloof heavenly king, but as their Beloved on this earth and in this life. They developed a rich symbolic language, full of feminine terms, by which to express their love, prayers, and ecstasy to the Divine. This language represented a shift from the masculine terms by which God had been addressed in Arabic and other languages.

Despite many translations of Sufi Persian poetry, including Rumi's, a reliable and comprehensive work in this field is yet to be published. Hence many of the nuances of the original will be lost on English-speaking readers. For instance, zulf, the beautiful, long, curved hair of the woman, symbolizes the interlinked, chainlike manifestations of God in creation, with beauty within beauty, lines and space within lines and space, and mystery within mystery. Consider this couplet from Masnavi 5:1917: 

Hundreds of chains, I cut and tear
Except the chain of my Beloved's hair.

"Chain" in the first instance refers to the attachments and desires of which the poet'the lover of God'is willing to rid himself; but grasping the chain of the Beloved's hair is like homecoming, so Rumi recommends enjoying the beauty and mystery of creation rather than renouncing it. It is akin to the famous Christian saying "Be ye in the world, but not of it." It will be difficult to grasp this couplet (and many others like it) without understanding Rumi's mystical language and background.

5. The Khorasanian Sufis are famous for their references to "intoxication" (sukr or masti) by the pure divine wine (sharab, mey, or badeh) as a metaphor for the state of mystical love, selflessness, and senselessness, or what Sufis call fana ("extinction," akin to the Buddhist idea of nirvana, which similarly means "extinction" in Sanskrit). We often encounter terms like wine, jug, grape, cup, cupbearer, tavern, drunkard in the poetry of Omar Khayyam and Rumi, and later in the works of Shiraz poets like Hafiz. Such expressions should not be understood as meaning that the poets were alcoholics! 

Rumi the Poet 

Rumi was connected with the mystical tradition of Khorasan through several important persons in his life. The first was his father, Baha Valad, who was a Muslim preacher and teacher. Fortunately, we have a collection of Baha Valad's discourses and writings, the Ma'aref Baha-Valad ("The Teachings of Baha Valad"), which clearly shows affinities with mystical doctrines as well as devotion to God and to a pious spiritual life. The young Rumi was very fond of reading this book.

In 1216, fleeing the Mongols, Baha Valad, along with his family and disciples, left Balkh and journeyed westward. Ultimately they settled in the city of Konya in Anatolia, which was then ruled by the Seljuq dynasty. Baha Valad spent his last years teaching in a religious school built for him by the Seljuq king, Sultan Alaleddin Kaygubad.

While growing up in Balkh, Rumi had a tutor, Burhanuddin Muhaggeg Tirmazi, who was himself a disciple of Baha Valad. After Rumi's father died in 1231 (at the age of eighty) and left his school to Rumi, Burhan came to Konya and took on the responsibility of training the young Rumi. Again we are fortunate to have an extant book of Burhan, which shows strands of mystical thinking that resemble those of Baha Valad. On Burhan's orders, Rumi spent several years in Aleppo and Damascus (in Syria) to study with the great Islamic scholars living there. While in Damascus, Rumi probably also attended the discourses of the renowned Sufi master Ibn Arabi, who taught the doctrine of vahdat al-vojud, "the Oneness of Being," which is also the philosophical basis of Rumi's poetry: the One Divine Reality is the source, manifestation, and point of return for the All.

Rumi was thus highly educated in both Persian and Arabic language and literature, and in Islamic scriptures, philosophy, and law. We also know that Burhan trained him in Sufi practices such as forty-day solitary retreats (chelleh). In this way, Rumi became a reputed teacher and master in Konya, based in his father's school.

On November 29, 1244, Rumi (then aged thirty-seven) met perhaps the important person in his life'a wandering dervish, probably aged sixty, named Shams ("Sun") of Tabriz (a city in northwest Iran). Shams is a mysterious figure, often believed to have been illiterate, and it puzzles Rumi's fans to think how a person like Shams could have transformed the great scholar Rumi into a passionate poet. What went on between these two? Who was the master and who was the disciple? To answer these questions, we need to consider two facts. First, Shams was not an illiterate beggar dervish. True, he was not a scholar, but he had studied with scholars and Sufi masters, and the extant book of his discourses (Magalat Shams, "The Discourses of Shams," written down probably by Rumi's son) shows him as an insightful and learned man. Second, Rumi was ready for Shams: he had been prepared by his father and teacher to take on the Sufi path of love, enlightenment, and ecstasy. Shams simply opened the mouth of a fiery volcano, and thus poured out all the beautiful, insightful, and ecstatic poems of Rumi. 

The Relationship of Rumi and Shams 

If Shams and Rumi had not met, neither of them would have remained in history. Such was the significance of the meeting of these two souls. But what was the nature of their relationship?

We know that after meeting Shams, Rumi began singing his lyric poems collected in the Diwan Shams ("Book of Poetry Dedicated to Shams"), also known as the Diwan Kabir ("The Great Book of Poetry"). This book contains about 3500 lyric sonnets (ghazal) and close to 2000 quatrains (rubaiyat), totaling over 42,000 lines. The book is full of passionate love poems, some of which specifically mention Shams's name. One consequence of uprooting Rumi from his mystical tradition is the misinterpretation of these poems as homosexual expressions (this theory has been articulated in the West as Rumi's poetry has become popular in recent years). Here I do not mean to criticize or praise a particular sexual orientation, but only to reflect on Rumi's love poems as he meant them. Several points are noteworthy in this regard:

1. In Rumi's original biographies, we do not find evidence that he or Shams were homosexual.

2. Shams stayed with Rumi in Konya for no more than four years (1244—47), while Rumi worked on the Diwan Shams for the rest of his life.

3. It is misleading to interpret the custom of another culture by the norms of one's own. For example, in the Middle East, when people greet each other, women kiss women and men kiss men on the cheek. To do so in the Western countries today would imply homosexuality. In Western societies, on the other hand, a man does not kiss his male friend but may kiss his friend's wife on the cheek, which in turn is a taboo for people living in the East. In Japan, kissing in public is very unusual: during my years in Japan, I seldom saw even a mother kissing her own baby in public, but that does not mean that Japanese mothers do not love their children!

4. Rumi was not the first Persian Sufi poet to write love poems, and this history should give us a context in which to analyze this issue. In the majority of Rumi's love poems that mention Shams, the expressions of love are for God, the Creation, the All, the soul, and the Beloved (much as in the poems of Persian mystics before and after Rumi). Shams's name appears in the last line. This way of ending the ghazal with a name was (and is) a common practice in Persian poetry, but while other poets usually use their pen names, Rumi used Shams's name out of love and devotion. Rumi also has many ghazal poems which he ends with his own pen name, Khamoosh ("Silent").

5. There is a Sufi tradition called soh'bat ("conversation"): two seekers, loving and respecting each other, regularly meet and share their experiences and wisdom; the pair could be a master and a disciple, or even two masters. This practice is believed to strengthen the spiritual wayfarers. Rumi treasures Shams as his ham-soh'bat ("conversation friend") because a spiritual friend of that caliber does not come by easily in one's life. Shams also has many sayings in praise of Rumi. These men were like two mighty rivers that flew and merged in the ocean of love.

Having mentioned these points to clarify the Rumi-Shams relationship, I should add that Rumi, like other mystic poets, was not oblivious to human love. For Sufis, God's love is the fabric of the entire creation. Sometimes we experience this love in relationship with the Source, the Divine; this is what Rumi calls ishg hagigi, "the true source of love." And sometimes we express or receive love in the creation and in humans (ishg mojazi, "love derived from the Source"), which is a reflection of the divine love. What is important is the quality of our love'whether it is selfish or "intoxicating and illuminating." 

A Bird from the Celestial Garden 

Rumi died during a Sunday sunset, December 7, 1273, and since then his tomb has been a shrine for his lovers and spiritual pilgrims. The poet known in the West as Rumi (because he lived in "Rum," as the Persians called the Byzantine kingdom in Anatolia) is in the East respectfully called Mowlana (Mevlana in the Turkish pronunciation; meaning "our master").

As a final note, I would like to contrast two popular images of Rumi in the West. At one extreme, some view him simply as a poet of love and praise him as an artist, "much like Shakespeare and Beethoven" (as one of Rumi's modern translators once remarked). At the other extreme, Rumi is viewed merely as the originator of a Sufi order, and thus remains far from our ordinary life. While there are elements of truth in both of these popular images, neither is, I believe, how Rumi would have regarded himself. The first camp looks at the fruit of his poetry without paying any attention to the tree, ignoring the fact that Rumi was a deeply religious person, a man of faith, who prayed, fasted, and meditated within the Islamic tradition (facts that some may find uncomfortable given the often negative image of Islam in the West). The second camp confines Rumi to a particular sect and puts this vast tree in a box. The spirit of his poetry is both vast and deep, rooted in rich mystical traditions, ancient wisdom, and Persian literature. The more we delve into these roots, the better can we connect to the flight of this "bird from the celestial garden" (as he calls himself) in the expanse of the spiritual sky. 

Annotated Bibliography 

Aflaki, Shamsuddin Ahmad. Manageb al-Ârefin ("The Virtuous Acts of the Gnostics"). Edited by Tahsin Yazici. 2 vols. 2d ed. Ankara: Turk Tarih Kurumu Basimeri, 1976-80 (reprinted, Tehran: Donya-ye Kitab, 1983). Partial English translations include James Redhouse, Legends of the Sufis (Wheaton: Theosophical Publishing House, 1976 [1881]), and Idries Shah, The Hundred Tales of Wisdom (London: Octagon, 1978). A recent complete translation is John O'Kane, The Feats of the Knowers of God (Leyden: Brill, 2002).

Rumi, Mowlana Jalaluddin Muhammad Balkhi. Kulliyat Shams Tabrizi: Diwan Kabir ("Poetry Collection Dedicated to Shams Tabrizi: The Great Book of Poetry"). Edited by Badi al-Zaman Foruzan-far. 10 vols. Tehran: Tehran University Press, 1957—1963. Rumi's ghazals have been translated into English by Nevit O. Ergin from the Turkish translation of Abdolbaqi Gulpinarli and published in twenty-two volumes (various publishers, 1995-2003). Rumi's rubaiyat have been translated by Ibrahim Gamard and Rawan Farhadi, The Quatrains of Rumi (San Rafael, Calif.: Sufi Dari Books, 2008). Partial translations of the Diwan include Reynold Nicholson's Selected Poems from the Diwan Shams Tabrizi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1898), and A. J. Arberry, Mystical Poems of Rumi (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

Masnavi Ma'navi ("Spiritual Couplets"). Edited by Reynold Nicholson. Tehran: Amir Kabir Press, 1957. Complete scholarly translation and commentary in eight volumes by Reynold Nicholson, London: Luzac, 1925—40. Partial translations include E. H. Whinfield, Teachings of Rumi: Masnavi (London: Octagon, 1979 [1898]); and A. J. Arberry, Tales from the Masnavi and More Tales from the Masnavi (London: Allen & Unwin, 1961-63).

Schimmel, Annemarie. The Triumphant Sun: A Study of the Works of Jalaloddin Rumi. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Sepah-salar, Feridun. Risaleh dar Ahwal-e Mowlana Jalaluddin Moulavi ("Treatise on the Life of Master Jalaluddin Mowlavi"). Edited by Sa'id Nafisi. Tehran: Igbal, 1946.

Tirmazi, Burhanuddin Mohaggeg. Ma'aref ("The Teachings"). Edited by Badi al-Zaman Foruzan-far. Tehran: Ministry of Culture, 1961.

Tabrizi, Shamsuddin Mohammad. Magalat Shams Tabrizi ("The Discourses of Shams Tabrizi"). Edited by Mohammad Ali Movvahed. 2 vols. Tehran: Kharazmi, 1990. A partial, biographically arranged translation from the original Persian is William Chittick, Me and Rumi: The Autobiography of Shams-i Tabrizi (Louisville, Ky.: Fons Vitae, 2004). A complete version (made from the Turkish translation) has been recently published: Refik Algan and Camille Adams Helminski, Rumi's Sun: The Teachings of Shams of Tabriz  (Louisville, Ky.: Moonlight, 2008).

Valad, Baha. Ma'aref ("The Teachings of Baha Valad"). Edited by Badi al-Zaman Foruzan-far. 2d ed. 2 vols. Tehran: Tahouri, 1973. A partial translation is Coleman Barks and John Moyne, The Drowned Book: Ecstatic and Earthy Reflections of Bahauddin, the Father of Rumi (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2004).

Valad, Sultan. Valad Nameh ("The Book of Valad"). Edited by Jalal Humai. Tehran: Igbal, 1936.

Rasoul Sorkhabi, Ph.D., a native of Iran, has lived, studied and widely traveled in India, Japan, and the United States. He is currently research professor at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, where he coordinates the Rumi Poetry Club. He has published numerous articles on Rumi and other spiritual masters. This article is part of a book on Rumi he is currently writing.