(Illustration by ERIK VILET, from Rending the Veil)

An Essay by
Margaret Lottridge

July, 2004


mawlana - a derivative form of the Arabic waliy (friend,
       helper, protector, a man close to God, saint);
       being a respectful form of address to one of highest
       station or regard
sufi - a lover of Truth; from the Arabic sufiy, man of wool
       (possibly from the ascetic’s woven woolen garments)
sufism - ascetic, retiring and mystical branch of Islam;
       selfless experiencing and actualization of the Truth
sama - musical and ecstatic aspect of sufism; selfless
       remembrance of God, with specific movements and
       rhythmical music

Jalaluddin Rumi, Persia’s best known lyrical poet and mystic, was born circa September 30, 1207 A.D. in Balkh, Central Asia, in what is now modern Afghanistan. Eighteen years later his family fled from invading Mongols, settling for a time in Laranda, Central Anatolia (present-day Karaman, Turkey) where Jalaluddin married Jawhar Khatun. His father, Baha’uddin Valad, the “Sultan of the Learned," moved the family to Konya (modern Turkey) in 1228 and founded a school of Islamic philosophy and theology.

Jalaluddin Rumi became a teacher and theologian who wrote scholarly articles. His traditional education was enhanced by the guidance of his father, a mystic and theologian, and through initiation experiences with his first teacher, Sufi master Sayyid Burhanuddin Muhaqqiq of Termez (a former student of Baha’uddin). Upon his father’s demise in January of 1231, Jalaluddin Rumi inherited the school and took over the responsibilities of guiding its students.

Rumi’s theoretical knowledge of divine principles was transformed by his relationship with Shamsuddin Muhammad of Tabriz. Shams, an enlightened being, a wandering dervish with an existential initiation and teaching style, was searching for someone to receive his knowledge – “someone whose soul was as wide and deep as his own.” Rumi, with his open, questioning mind, found in Shams the perfect mirror of his own soul – his Beloved – the Friend in much of his poetry.

Rumi and Shams met on a street in Konya in the fall of 1244.
Various accounts of their first encounter illustrate that the bond between Shams and Rumi was immediate and life-changing. In one account, Shams falls to the ground in a faint at Rumi’s replies to his introductory queries. Another account has Shams throwing Rumi’s treasured books into a fountain and telling him to begin to live what he’s been reading. He says the pages will be dry, as they were, if he lifts them out. Rumi leaves them in the water and they begin the first of many mystical retreats together. This is when Rumi’s scholarly writings took on the wings of poetry.

The metaphor of drunkenness that is woven throughout Rumi’s mystical poetry expresses his intoxicated state of love, the awareness that was awakened by his relationship with Shams. He composed love poems while whirling in a circle to the music of beating drums or rushing water. The intent of the dance was to bring one closer to spiritual or mystical union with divine source. A scribe wrote everything as Rumi spoke from his centered, moving dance – this whirling dervish practice was totally new at the time and not fully understood or accepted by his more traditional contemporaries. People, nature and the commonality of everyday life were the subjects of his poetry and were expressions of God or Allah.

Rumi’s students, family and friends could neither accept nor fathom the depth of this relationship. Their once sober master was completely absorbed in this bizarre dervish. The essence of his poetry flowed from this relationship – with Shams – with life – and the complete abandonment of his previous habits, behaviors and thoughts.

…This madness rises
    out of love, and weeping.
We must not be afraid of
    what anyone might say.
Be source, not result.
			-from Illustrated Rumi, p. 65

His mystical poetry is an articulate expression of states, the existence of which leaves many of us speechless or in straitjackets. He employs an economy of words and the simplest of metaphors to share this experience with us. From the perspective of observer of self, he speaks about his search for meaning:

My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that
      and I intend to end up there…
Meanwhile I’m like a bird from another
      continent, sitting in this aviary.
The day is coming when I fly off,
      but who is it now in my ear,
          who hears my voice?
      Who says words with my mouth?
      Who looks out with my eyes?
              What is the soul?
      I cannot stop asking.
      If  I could taste one sip
      of an answer, I could break out
      of this prison for drunks.
			-from Illustrated Rumi, p.14

Rumi challenges, begs, pleads, entices, encourages us to come out of our sheltered boxes, our cozy comfort zones, to experience our own divinity and the divinity in the world. Presence, being alive to each moment, is the road he traveled.

Keep walking,
      though there’s no place to get to.
Don’t try to see through
      the distances…
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.

Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
			-from Illustrated Rumi, p.31

The morning wind spreads its fresh smell.
We must get up and take that in,
that wind that lets us live.
Breathe, before its gone.
			-from Heartwood, p.68

Rumi tells us to look for signs of our own growth – becoming heart-centered:

This is how you change
  when you go to the orchard
    where the heart opens.

You become
  fragrance and the light
 that burning oil gives off…

You’re walking alone without feet,
  as riverwater does…

The taste of a wine that is bitter and sweet,
  seen and unseen, neither wet nor dry,
     like Jesus reaching to touch…

Bend like the limb of a peach tree.
Tend those who need help.
Disappear three days with the moon…

You are the soul
  and the medicine for what wounds the soul.
			-from Illustrated Rumi, p. 48

Once again he reminds us to live:

Start a huge, foolish, project,
       like Noah.

and be at peace with ourselves:

It makes absolutely no
      difference what people
             think of you.
			-from Illustrated Rumi, p. 81

The eloquent expression in Rumi’s more than 2000 poems can be found anywhere you choose to open to his words:

Last night the moon came dropping
    her clothes in the street.
			-from Illustrated Rumi, p. 62

On joy and happiness:

Maybe a dawn breeze
     has blown the veil from
           the face of God.
			-from Illustrated Rumi, p. 64

On competition:

Inside the Great Mystery that is,
we don’t really own anything.
What is this competition we feel then,
before we go, one at a time, through the same gate?
			-from Heartwood, p. 72

On being human – the work of the heart:

How will you know the difficulties of being human,
   if you’re always flying off to blue perfection?
Where will you plant your grief-seeds?
   We need ground to scrape and hoe,
not the sky of unspecified desire.
			-from Illustrated Rumi, p. 75

He writes in an extended metaphor about being open to our own humanity:

This being human is a guest
house. Every morning
a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and attend them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture, still,
treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,                                                            
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Welcome difficulty.
Learn the alchemy true human
beings know.
the moment you accept what troubles
you’ve been given, the door opens.

Welcome difficulty as a familiar
comrade. Joke with torment
brought by the Friend.

Sorrows are the rags of old clothes
and jackets that serve to cover,
and then are taken off.
That undressing,
and the beautiful
naked body
is the sweetness
that comes
after grief.
			-from Illustrated Rumi, p. 77

There were rumors that Rumi’s family and friends from the beginning conspired to remove Shams from his life. In 1248, a few years after the initial meeting of the two, Shams disappeared (for a second time) and was never found again. The accusation of murder against Rumi’s second son is now accepted by historians as valid.

Rumi speaks on grief and loss when Shams disappears from his life:

What was in that candle’s light
that opened and consumed me so quickly?

Come back, my friend. The form of our love
   is not a created form.
Nothing can help me but that beauty.

There was a dawn I remember when my soul
heard something from your soul.

I drank water from your spring,
and felt the current take me.
			-from Illustrated Rumi, p. 116-117

Friend, our closeness is this
anywhere you put your foot
feel me in the firmness under you.

How is it, with this love
I see your world and not you.
			-from Heartwood, p. 58

Rumi continued to compose and grow as a poet. He realized not all was lost when he came to feel Shams’ presence within himself as a real entity. He spoke from this state of consciousness in which Shams and he were one, and continued to bless the world with his words.

On surrender:

Very little grows on jagged rock.
       Be ground.
Be crumbled,
       so wildflowers
will come up
       where you are.
Try something different.
			-from Illuminated Rumi, p. 121

He was a prolific composer of poetry, prose and teaching stories. He developed an attachment to Salahuddin Faridun Zarkub, an uncultivated craftsman – a goldsmith, who had been a student of Rumi’s former teacher, Sayyid Burhanuddin Muhaqqiq. Rumi's family also disapproved of Salahuddin, but the two shared a quiet friendship until Salahuddin’s death in 1258.

His major work, started in this time period, was the long epic on Sufi mysticism, Masnavi ye Ma’navi (“Spiritual Couplets”). It comprises some 25,000 couplets in six books and is a complete encyclopedia of all the mystical thought known in the 13th century. It is a rambling medium of story, anecdote and tale that blends human experience with mystical realization of divine purpose in a terse poetic form. It is regarded by Persian Sufis as second in importance to the Koran.

In this excerpt from the Masnavi we can perceive the importance of sound to Rumi’s awakened soul:

Pure is the Builder who in the unseen world
       constructs castles of speech.
Know that speech is the sound of the door
       coming from the palace of mystery:
try to discern whether it is the sound of opening or closing.

The sound of the door is perceptible,
but the door itself you cannot perceive:
ye see, you are aware of the sound,
but the door ye see not.
When the harp of wisdom breaks into melody,
consider which way the door of the Garden of Paradise is swaying.
Since you are far from its door, pay attention to the sound.
(VI 3481-3485)
			-from Jewels of Remembrance, p. 176

Husamuddin Chelebi, an ascetic man who inspired Rumi to compose his major epic, the Masnavi, wrote down the words as Rumi composed. He also became the third significant Friend or Beloved of Rumi and worked with him as scribe for the remainder of Rumi’s life. Upon Rumi’s death on December 17, 1273, Husamuddin became head of the school of dervishes which Rumi founded.

The second major work is his collection of short poems, The Divan: Shams-I-Tabriz (in ten volumes), which is mainly comprised of his quatrains and other, less common forms. His "ghazal" poetic style is an idiosyncratic, spontaneous outpouring of soul that is atypical of the highly artificial, controlled and refined style of the Persian ghazal of the time. Both the Masnavi and the Divan were recorded by Husamuddin and other students.

A third work, Signs of the Unseen (Fihi ma fihi) was likely composed from his students’ notes or memory following his death. It is a collection of Rumi’s lectures, discourses, conversations and comments on various topics. Translator W. M. Thackston, Jr. has this to say about Rumi in his introduction: “Ever chary of being forced into doctrinal terms, he generally prefers parable and symbol, not only for their elusiveness but more importantly because the symbolic is the only means available to the mystic to express realities beyond the intellect he wants to awaken within his audience.”   (Signs of the Unseen, p. XVI)

Central to sufism, from which Rumi’s poetry blossoms, is the idea of tawhid – the affirmation of God’s uncompromising unity and oneness – all things manifest God whether they are aware of it or not – the only way one has to know God is one’s own inability to know Him. Hence Rumi’s use of the mirror as symbol of form and substance – through our understanding and working with form (the back of the mirror) we can aspire to spiritual awareness (the front of the mirror).

Discourse Thirty-eight in Signs of the Unseen presents this principle to us as writers of poetry:

Someone said, ‘Mention us in your intention. The intention is the 
main thing. If there are no words, never mind. Words are secondary.’
Does this man think that after all, the intention existed in the 
world of spirits before the world of bodies to no good purpose? 
This is absurd, for words are useful and beneficial. If you plant 
only the kernal of an apricot pit, it will not grow; but if you 
plant it together with its shell, it will grow. Therefore we 
realize that external form is important too… Prayer is internal: 
‘There is no prayer without the presence of the heart.’ 

However you must necessarily perform it in external form, with 
physical bendings and prostrations. Only then do you gain full 
benefit and reach the goal. This is the prayer of the spirit… 
The spirit does indeed have a type of bow and prostration; 
however bowing and prostration must be manifested in external 
form because there is a connection between substance and form.
			-from Signs of the Unseen, p. 149-150

A builder is more subtle than a building he has built because 
he is capable of building, aside from that one, a hundred other 
buildings and things that would not resemble each other. Hence, 
he is more subtle and more precious than the building, but his 
subtlety cannot be seen except through the medium of a house 
or some other work that comes into being in the sensible world 
to display its subtle beauty.
			-from Signs of the Unseen, p. 222

A last quote from Signs is a bit of wisdom on opposites:

If all knowledge and no ignorance were in man, he would be 
burnt up and cease to exist. Therefore ignorance is desirable 
from the point of view that continued existence depends upon 
it. Learning is desirable inasmuch as it is a means to knowing 
the Creator. So, although they are opposites, each one helps 
the other. Although night is the opposite of day, it is an 
ally of day in that they both do the same thing. If night 
lasted forever, nothing would get done. If day lasted forever, 
people’s brains would get so addled they would go crazy and 
malfunction. Thus, people rest asleep at night so that all 
the instruments of the body – the brain, the mind, the hands 
and feet, vision and hearing – can regain their strength and 
be expended by day. Thus, although in relation to us opposites 
seem opposites, in relation to the wise they all do the same 
thing and are not opposites at all.

Modern literary scholars have devoted many years to bringing us incredibly beautiful translations of Rumi’s work. The western world is indebted to poet Coleman Barks, who has taken on the joyful work of translating Rumi’s poetry. He has completed more than twenty books in the past fifteen years as he journeys through the volumes of writing Rumi has left for us. He has collaborated with others for several translations. Coleman Barks and John Moyne brought out The Essential Rumi in 1995 and This Longing (poetry, teaching stories and letters) in 1998, then collaborated with landscape photographer, William Guion, in 1998, for Heartwood, Meditations on Southern Oaks. Coleman Barks and Michael Green created The Illustrated Rumi in 1997, a book filled with beautiful illustrations to accompany the poetry. Bill Moyers interviewed Coleman Barks on the subject of translations of Rumi and the interview includes readings of many of the pieces quoted in this essay, accompanied by music. Musicians who have been inspired by Rumi include Madonna, and Graeme Revell in Vision II (1997) which is an interesting contrast to Coleman Barks’ readings. The Way of Passion (1994) by Andrew Harvey is also noteworthy as is The Rumi Collection (1999) edited by Kabir Helmkinski. Jewels of Remembrance by Camille and Kabir Helminski is a daybook of spiritual guidance containing 365 selections.

During prayer I am accustomed to turn to God like this
and recall the meaning of the words of the Tradition,
‘the delight felt in the ritual prayer.’
The window of my soul opens,
and from the purity of the unseen world,
the book of God comes to me straight.
The book, the rain of divine grace, and the light
are falling into my house through a window
from my real and imagines source.
The house without a window is hell;
to make a window is the essence of true religion.
Don’t thrust your ax upon every thicket;
come, use your ax to cut open a window.
(III 2401-2405)
			-from Jewels of Remembrance, p. 22

Rending the Veil (1995), by Shahram T. Shiva is an inside look at the process of translating a literary work. Each page contains the written form in its original Persian, a transliteration, a literal translation, and a poetic translation. All pieces are written in the quatrain form. From this you can appreciate the genius behind fine works of translation and feel gratitude for the people who strive to bring the essence of the original into our lives.

(Rending the Veil, p. 84)
(Return to Top)
Visit author Shahram Shiva's web site:   www.Rumi.net


Why do we look at Rumi's work today?

It is as fresh, relevant and inspiring to us now as the day it was spoken. This timeless quality places Rumi next to Shakespeare and Dante in world literature. His poetry has become widely known, quoted, and his philosophy accepted more every day. The message of love places him beside Mother Theresa (“God loves the world through us”) and Christ (“. . . faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love” – 1 Corinthians).

Katherine Woodward Thomas in Calling in the One (2004), quotes Rumi’s poetry in her opening chapters when speaking of our capacity to expand in love:

I was there in the beginning
    and I was the spirit of love.
			-from Calling in the One, p. 17

A strange passion is
moving in my head.
   My heart has
  become a bird
  Which searches
    In the sky.
 Every part of me
  goes in different 
  Is it really so
That the one I love
  is everywhere?
			-from Calling in the One, p. 24

This expanded state is balanced with a centered existence where we can manifest our own true expression of love:

 Cease looking for
  There blooms a
garden in your own
While you look for
The treasure house
awaits you in your
     own being.
			-from Calling in the One, p. 182

A profound sense of the connection of spirit, when all events are interwoven and related, are felt in the words:

Lovers think they are looking for each other.
But there’s only one search:
     Wandering this world.
			-from Calling in the One, p. 285

We grow into a greater awareness of the joy of friendship-relationship-love-world consciousness, as well as deepened in our acceptance of life’s grief and sorrows. We are all one.

My heart has burned with passion
  and has searched forever
for this wondrous beauty
  that I now behold.
			-from Calling in the One, p. 322

The words of this mystic poet blend human, everyday life with a higher power in a grounded truth. Rumi compels us to come out of our hiding-places and into relationship with life wherever it speaks to us. The words are simple, direct, and resonate with truth. They share with us a love so intense, yet freeing – love grounded while ethereal. In his dervish dance with the Friend he found source and lived for source. His willingness to surrender began his journey.

Listen to presences inside poems.
Let them take you where they will.
			-from Heartwood, p. 48

Essay by Margaret Lottridge
Hamilton, Ontario

Return to Top


1. This Longing: poetry, teaching stories and letters of Rumi
     Coleman Barks and John Moyne (Boston: Shambhala, 2000, ©1988)

2. Feeling the Shoulder of the Lion: poetry and teaching stories of Rumi
     Coleman Barks (Boston: Shambhala, 2000, ©1991)

3. The Illustrated Rumi
     Coleman Barks and Michael Green (New York: Broadway Books, ©1997)

4. Light Upon Light
     Andrew Harvey and Eryk Hanut (Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books, ©1996)

5. The Essential Rumi
     Coleman Barks and John Moyne (San Francisco, Calif.: Harper, 1996)

6. The Way of Passion: a celebration of Rumi
     Andrew Harvey (Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books, 1994)

7. Rending the Veil: literal and poetic translations of Rumi
     Shahram Shiva (Prescott, Az.: Hohm Press, 1995)

8. The Glance: songs of soul-meeting
     Coleman Barks and Nevit Ergin (New York: Viking Penguin, 1999)

9. Heartwood: meditations on southern oaks
     Coleman Barks, John Moyne and William Guion (Boston: Bulfinch Press, 1998)

10. Jewels of Remembrance
      Camille and Kabir Helminski (London: Shambhala Press, 2000)

11. The Rumi Collection
       Kabir Helminski (1999)

more PROSE about Poetry . . .