Original Articles

Rumi: The divine dancer – by Ammar Ali Qureshi

Ammar Ali Qureshi has kindly sent his article published in “The Friday Times” to be posted at LUBP.
How relevant is Rumi today? asks Ammar

Rumi, according to the German philosopher Hegel, was one of the greatest poets and thinkers in world history. His translator, R.A.Nicholson, rated him as the “greatest mystical poet of any age.” Professor Edward.G.Browne, a noted Orientalist and the most celebrated authority on Persian literature, termed Rumi as “without doubt the most eminent Sufi poet whom Persia has produced, while his mystical Masnawi deserves to rank among the great poems of all time.” Maurice Barres, French writer and politician, once declared: “When I experienced Rumi’s poetry, which is vibrant with the tone of ecstasy and with melody, I realized the deficiencies of Shakespeare, Goethe and Hugo.”

In the last couple of decades, Rumi has emerged as a best-selling poet, surpassing Shakespeare, in the West- according to Time magazine as well as Christian Science Monitor and Los Angeles Times. It is his message of universal love and tolerance which has a powerful appeal and relevance both in the East and the West.

Love is the water of eternal life, cures every woe;
Gardens where lovers re-unite drive away all sorrow
They say there is a window that opens from heart to heart;
If there are no walls, there is no need for any window

In the West, admirers of Rumi can be divided into three broad categories: academics who view him as a literary force, research groups who promote the mystical message and heritage of Rumi, and commercial concerns which sell Rumi memorabilia and his works for profit. Out of these three groups, only academics  have known Rumi for more than a century,while the other two groups have discovered him in the last few decades. However,more than being a highly admired export of the Islamic world, or performing the role of cultural ambassador to the West, Rumi and his message of peace and pluralism needs to be rediscovered and popularized more in the Islamic world, during these times of turmoil and confusion. Rumi’s advice on becoming a Sufi is as applicable today as it was many centuries ago:

To be a Sufi, forget the past, put it all away;
Turn a brand new page, rescue your being from yesterday;
Become a child of the present age, of youth, of wisdom,
Never leave this bountiful moment, this eternal day

Born in 1207 in Balkh, which is situated today in Afghanistan but was then part of the Persian province of Khorasan, Mawlana Jalaluddin Muhammad Rumi spent most of his life in Konya, located in today’s Turkey, which was then part of the Seljuk Empire of Rum (Anatolia)- hence the title Rumi. Rumi lived in and visited different cities such as Balkh, Samarkand, Baghdad, Mecca (for Hajj), and Damascus, but it is Konya where he spent most of his life and where he lies buried. His lineage and birthplace signify his Persian descent. A jurist, theologian,and scholar of Arabic, Rumi preferred to convey his thoughts in his native Persian:

Say all in Persian even if Arabic seems better
Love will find its way through all languages on its own

It was his meeting with the dervish Shamse-Tabrizi in 1244 which completely changed his life and converted him to mysticism. His devotion to Shams and his sense of bereavement at his death resulted in the outpouring of poems collected in Divan-e-Shams-e-Tabrizi. Rumi’s central theme in his Masnavi and other poetic works is Divine Love and the relationship between Man and God. He believed in the use of dance, music, and poetry as vehicles and paths for reaching God. He is the founder of the Mawlawi Sufi Order, known globally for their Whirling Dervishes who dance in ecstasy, and who believe in performing their Zikr in the form of Sama.

Rumi utilized artistic emblems and symbols to convey his ideas. His association with art can be gauged from the starting and ending poems of his Masnavi- it commences with the “The song of the Reed” and ends with a poem about a painting. His mystical message is beautifully conveyed in the following gem from his Divan-e-Shams-e-Tabrizi:

I am enslaved to fate, of all else say no more
With a sweet tongue speak, else I plea say no more
Speak not of troubles, of treasures tell me more
And if of this you know not, be not troubled, say no more.
I have gone insane, Love found me, then whispered in my ear
“I am here, cry not aloud, curse yourself not, say no more”
I said “O Love it is other than Thee that I fear!”
Said “it may thus appear, yet is not so, say no more
I speak in your ear, to you bring secrets near
Speak with your head, confirm a nod, say no more!”
I asked, “what do I see? Is it an angel or a man?”
Said “no more an angel than a man, is another, say no more”
“Tell me what is, why withhold? Why the flames of my torment fan?”
Said, “Just be tormented, confused, say no more
For leaving this colourful and false abode you’ve made no plan
Rise up and just depart, leave this home, say no more!”

Hegel was inspired and impressed by Rumi’s focus on the dialectic of divine love in his discourse, long before his systematic use of the concept of dialectic in his own theories. However, it needs to be stressed that Rumi’s message of divine love is firmly anchored in the teachings of the Holy Quran, as Islamic Sufism has organically evolved from two sources: meditation on the Quran, and obeying and following the example of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). Syed Hossein Nasr, an eminent professor of Islamic Spiritualism, quotes an unpublished work by Haddi Hairi- an authority on Rumi in Persian- showing that nearly 6,000 verses of the Masnavi, and his Divan are direct translation of the Holy Quran into Persian.

Rumi lived in a time when the Muslim world was ravaged and traumatised by the devastating invasions of the Mongols. Eight centuries ago he observed that when weapons and ignorance come together, tyrants devastate the world with cruelty. In Pakistan today this observation can be easily understood, as we are witnessing suicide bombings and terrorism by the Taliban due to their ignorance of true Islam and their intolerance of any opinions other than their own.

This is why Rumi’s message of love and tolerance, knowledge and compassion, peace and harmony is more relevant today than ever before. One of the most ardent admirers of Rumi, Allama Iqbal, poignantly wrote: “The world … needs a Rumi to create an attitude of hope, and to kindle the fire of enthusiasm for life.” It is about time Pakistanis listened to Rumi and his devoted disciple Iqbal, in order to nullify the nihilism of the Wahabi-Salafi creed which has prevailed in such a devastating manner during the last three decades.

Ammar Ali Qureshi is a London-based finance professional

By the same author : Qa’ani’s elegy and Imam Hussein (AS) —by Ammar Ali Qureshi