Is Rumi What We Think He Is?


By Massoume Price


Popularity of Rumi in North America is known to anyone interested in Persian poetry. He is quoted by the likes of Barbara Streisand on Larry King Live. Even Madonna the self-proclaimed goddess of sexuality turned Catholic has a CD out in his name. The recording was made in collaboration with Deepak Chopra the guru of the New Age movement, who once in a live broadcast on public television called Rumi, “the guy from Lebanon”. Pseudo translators who don not know a world of Persian or Turkish are selling thousands of copies and making Rumi a best seller. At the same time real hard working scholars who have spent a lifetime studying Rumi and Persian Medieval literature such as Professor Annemarie Schimmel and the late professor Nicholson are virtually unknown to the general public. In fact it is translations by such scholars that are rewritten, rearranged and sold by the pseudo translators. There are Rumi classes everywhere, often several in the same city, all taught by individuals with all kinds of qualifications except Persian literature or to be more precise Medieval Persian literature. New terminology such as Sufi and or Mystical Music have entered the language of arts with no clear definition of what constitutes such types of music and where they have come from. A friend’s daughter in Iran was under the impression that Sufi Music was a new trend in American Folk Music since the term did not exist in established repertoire of Persian Music!


The evolution of Islamic though and ideologies is a subject systematically and meticulously researched by scholars from all continents for well over a century. It is generally believed (Watt, The Formative Period of Islamic Thought, p.63) that  “the early period of Islamic thought is dominated by the conception of the unchangeability of true religion and the special Arab and Islamic conception of the nature of knowledge. Knowledge that is important for the conduct of life –and this is knowledge in the fullest sense-is obtained in the revealed words of God and in the sayings of prophets and other specially gifted men. From this conception of knowledge it follows that the work of the scholar is to transmit accurately the revealed text and other wise sayings”. The words ‘No judgment but God’s’ (la hukm illa li-llah) based on several Quranic verses (esp. 6.57; 12.40, 67 etc.) became the basic motto not just for the scholars but also for jurists and movements such as Kharijiyya, the first Muslim group employing sectarian violence to achieve political ends against Uthman, Ali and Muawiya. Though the movement did not last, it had major consequences for the later development of doctrines. The Kharijiyya introduced two significant statements that has prevailed in Islamic ideology till now, though at times these were challenged by opposing sects and others mainly philosophers.


First they insisted that the Islamic community must be based on the Quran. The second point emphasized the communistic and not the individualistic way of thinking, and articulated God’s will as opposed to men’s will. They called themselves the believers or ‘the people of Paradise’ and regarded salvation or damnation a matter of association with the right people, i.e. Muslims (in the way they perceived Islam). The community is the bearer of the values that constitutes meaningfulness, in other words men’s life has meaning only if he belongs to Muslim community. Such ideas were picked up and also evolved on their own and with minor variations prevailed and became central to debates amongst Muslims.  Of all the sects and doctrines that followed during the first four centuries of Islam, such as Shia, Qadariyya, Murjia, Jahmiyya, Zaydia, Rafezi, Ismaili etc., two made significant impacts.


Mutazilih constituted a more liberal and rationalistic group amongst Muslim scholars. They partially believed in free will and placed reason above revelation. Though they could not resolve the issue of predestination and remained partially deterministic (Jabri), their influence on promoting rationalism was substantial. Ashariyya on the other hand remained closest to the traditional Sunni view of fate, destiny and forcefully

maintained that the rationalists detracted from the power of God and the status of revelation. They opposed rationalistic objectivism and believed that values in actions are determined exclusively by the will of God and supported the idea of an all-embracing divine law. They eventually dominated religious thinking and Islamic scholarship; their ideology still dominates Islamic education.


What all this has got to do with Rumi?  He happens to be one of the most celebrated Ashari thinkers!

Dr. Shaffiee Kadkani in his brilliant edition of a significant early text, ‘Creation and History, (Afarinesh va Tarikh, p.50) correctly states that “unfortunately the emergence of geniuses such as Rumi and other Urafa who unconditionally supported Ashariyya did not give freedom of thought a chance”. In fact he concludes, “if it wasn’t because of Ashariyya our history might have evolved differently”.  It is not a coincidence that in Mathnavi, Rumi attacks all thinkers including atheists, naturalists and philosophers etc. He particularly attacks rationalists whom he compares to people standing on wooden legs as opposed to real legs. When Ibn Khadon in his ‘Introduction (Mogadameh) mentioned that Africans are black because of geographical and environmental conditions, it was the Ashariyya who ended such scientific observations by declaring people are black because God created them as such. When Physicians tried to find the connection between the brain and hand’s movements, it was Imam Muhammad Ghazali who mocked scientific inquiry and stated “hands move because God wants them to move” (Alchemy of Happiness, Kimiyaya Saadat). It was Ashariyya who imposed inquisition culture that still exists today and haunts us even in North America.


Rumi full heartedly accepted the unconditional submission to the will of God as opposed to the will of man. For him nothing and no one including the whole human race was worth anything compared to his beloved God. Ironically he is regarded a Humanist by his modern followers. His beautiful and expensive outfits preserved in his mausoleum at Konya, his magnificent turban made from the finest fabrics of the time, his priceless Bahrain pearls, gold inlaid ink set, his pen adorned with peacock feather, and beautifully embroidered leather shoes, attest to a life of luxury, wealth and power. Amazingly it is believed that he had no interest in material and earthly life!  He is regarded a liberal, one who did not distinguish between mosques, churches and synagogues. Yet his apparent stereotyping of Christians and particularly Jews

as evil and dark sided is overlooked.


No doubt Rumi was an extraordinary man, mystic, poet and scholar. The expanse of knowledge in his works is phenomenal. His masterpiece Mathnavi is a wealth of information with respect to medieval life. It names different foods, animals, birds, people, places, folklore and even mythologies and saints. It has stories going back to The Byzantine Turkey; Muslim Turks conquered Konya over a century before Rumi and the Byzantium influence is still evident in his work. There are stories that have emerged out of Iranian pre-Islamic literature and one can study their new forms or trace their origins. His superb imagery contains a number of allusions to figures from Islamic history and even different sects such as Ikhvan as-Safa who are transformed in his poetry into a symbol of spiritual purity and loyalty. Yet very few people study such aspects of this colossal work.  Psychology of religious phenomenon has provided valuable insight into religious behavior, yet very few attempts are made to study Rumi’s literature in this manner.


Modern psychological thinking revolves around finding oneself; Rumi is read to find out how people can loose themselves!  Contrary to ancient mythologies and creation stories in which humans were determined to gain their independence from gods, even if that meant expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Rumi’s poetry strives to gain entry back to God’s workshop. In fact the goal of men’s life is permanent adoration of God as it is said in Quran: ‘Verily we created spirits and men that they might worship’ (Sura 51/56).

His ideology is well in tune with early Kharijiyya believing in ‘la hukm illa li-llah’.


Religious authorities cursed Rumi’s works for a long time, a direct result of the inquisition culture propagated by Ashariyya and supported by the likes of Rumi.  It is only as of 20th century that people have been able to read his works freely. Iranian writers, activists and intellectuals of the early 20th century encouraged the new generations to move away from the medieval literature. Some like Ahmad Kasravi went to extremes and called such literature including Rumi’s works as harmful to the health of our nation. Such statements as sarcastic as they might sound have found a new meaning in the context of our cultural developments or distortions of such developments in our current experiences. We condemn the happenings during the last two decades and correctly label the ideology as irrational and dogmatic and at the same time seek comfort by indulging ourselves in ideologies and personalities responsible for propagating the irrational in the first place.  Somehow we have missed to recognize the difference between sense and sensibility.