by Shahram Shiva from near 30 years of research on Rumi
Rumi is now one of the most widely read poets in America. I began translating Rumi in 1988, and performing his poetry in 1992. In all of these years I never thought that he would become so popular in the West in such a short time. Rumi is one the world’s brightest creative talents. He’s on par with Beethoven, Shakespeare and Mozart.
Rumi was born on the Eastern shores of the Persian Empire on September 30, 1207, in the city of Balkh in what is now Afghanistan and finally settled in the town of Konya, in what is now Turkey. Today three countries claim him as their national poet: Iran, Turkey and Afghanistan. However none of these countries as they are today actually existed back then. Iran was called the Persian Empire, a monarchy, and it was quite larger than it is today. It included all of today’s Iran and Afghanistan also parts of Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkey and Iraq. Turkey had not yet formed then and Afghanistan was part of the Khorasan Province in the old Persian Empire.
Rumi’s life story is full of intrigue and high drama mixed with intense creative outbursts. Rumi was a charming, wealthy nobleman, a genius theologian and a brilliant but sober scholar, who in his late thirties met a wandering and wild holy man by the name of Shams. In Rumi’s own words, after meeting Shams he was transformed from a bookish, sober scholar to an impassioned seeker of truth and love.
Rumi and Shams stayed together for a short time, about 2 years in total, but the impact of their meeting left an everlasting impression on Rumi and his work. After Shams was murdered by Rumi’s youngest son, due to events that are explained further down on this page, Rumi fell into a deep state of grief and gradually out of that pain outpoured nearly 70,000 verses of poetry. These thousands of poems, which include about 2000 in quatrains, are collected in two epic books named, Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi and Massnavi (Mathnawi).
Please read our “Rumi & Shams, the Untold Story” below for a more in-depth biography of Rumi and an overview of his unconventional friendship with Shams.
It seems that the universe brought these two opposing characters (a wealthy nobleman and a poor, wondering, wild holy man) together to remind us that it is impossible to know where your next inspiration may come from or who might aid furthering your growth. For Rumi the life of mystics is a “gathering of lovers, where there is no high or low, smart or ignorant, no proper schooling required.”
The Growing Phenomenon of Rumi
Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet, has been called the greatest mystical poet of any age. During a period of 25 years, he composed over 70,000 verses of poetry. Poetry focusing on varied and diverse topics. His work covers deeply philosophical and mystical, with poems of fiery soulful expression to passionate love verses filled with yearning and desire.
He collection has an all embracing universality. A call from an independent soul yearning for true freedom from dogma and hypocrisy.
Rumi also writes about the abolishment of the established fear-based religious orders of the world. For Rumi fear-based religion is poison and his remedy is love-based doctrine–a life journey free of guilt, fear and shame.
Barely known in the West as recently as 15 years ago, Rumi is now one of the most widely read poets in America. His is an exciting new literary and philosophical force.
“Rumi deals with the human condition and that is always relevant,” says Shahram Shiva. “Rumi is able to verbalize the highly personal and often confusing world of personal growth and development in a very clear 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 a state of an evolved human. A human who is not bound by cultural limitations; a one who touches every one of us. Today Rumi’s poems can be heard in churches, synagogues, Zen monasteries, as well as in the downtown New York art/performance/music scene.”
Rumi’s work has been translated into many of the world’s languages including Russian, German, French, Italian and Spanish, and is appearing in a growing number of genres including concerts, workshops, readings, paintings, dance performances and other artistic creations.
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Why Rumi? Here are 12 Reasons
Mr. Shiva asked a group of about fifty participants in one of his workshops to define why Rumi meant so much to them. He then was able to group their responses in 12 distinct categories which are listed below with explanation.
They found Rumi to cater to their hearts, emotions and instincts rather than intellects.
They found many levels in Rumi’s poetry. The more they learned about Rumi,
the more they appreciated his depth and were encouraged to dig deeper.
They found the sense of unity and universal siblinghood in Rumi’s poetry to be very attractive.
They found him to be a friend.
5- Personal Process:
Reading Rumi for them is a personal process. They associate themselves with him.
6- Grace Descending:
Every time a Rumi poem was recited they felt Grace descending.
They associated with the sense of longing in Rumi’s poems.
8- Love Affair:
Rumi was like a lover to some of the participants.
9- Cultural Bridge:
They found Rumi to form a cultural bridge for the Persians, Turks, Afghanis and the Arabs in this country. Through Rumi some Middle & Near Eastern people found a new acceptance in the U.S.
10- They Don’t Even Like Poetry:
Some expressed that they don’t even like poetry but they love reading Rumi poems.
11- Participate in the Process:
They found Rumi extremely expressive and found themselves participating in Rumi’s own process.
12- Spiritual Guide:
They found Rumi to be a spiritual guide for them.
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Rumi & Shams: A Love Story, Tragedy or Personal Necessity?
The Untold Story
To comprehend the often misunderstood and misquoted connection between Rumi and Shams we should start by reviewing the personalities of these two historic figures.
Rumi, born into wealth, power and the world of politics, was a member of the high society. He was known to pull and offer favors. His mother was a relative of the king in the province of Khorasan in the Eastern Persian Empire, where he was born. His father was a respected court advisor on jurisprudence. Rumi indulged in personal contacts, favors and friendships. He was known to deepen his friendship to his favorite people by any means necessary. For example, he was close with a goldsmith in Konya. Since it was socially unacceptable for a member of the elite class to socialize with the merchant class, he arranged for his son to marry the daughter of the goldsmith to formalize his connection with him.
Shams, by the time he met Rumi was in his 60s. By then he was known mainly as a blunt, antisocial and powerful spiritual wanderer. His nickname was the Bird. The Bird, because he couldn’t stay in one place for too long, and because he was known to be in two distant cities around the same time, as if he could fly or transport his essence at will. This wanderer is known to have been seeking a “grand master student”–a student, who would be greater than many masters at the time. He chooses Rumi as his “master-student.” Apparently he initially notices Rumi when he was 21, but judging the time inappropriate and the student not ready, he waits 16 or so years to approach Rumi again.
They meet again when Rumi was in his late 30s and Shams in his early 60s. The initial spark of their connection inspires Rumi to take Shams into his home. Shams from then on becomes the new friend, the latest companion. As you can imagine problem is brewing from day one. Shams, same as the goldsmith wasn’t from the elite class. He was a simple wanderer, a powerful spiritual figure yes, but still a poor, homeless wanderer. Also, Shams was terribly antisocial, had a bad temper and used to curse in front of the children. The problem initially was put aside by Rumi’s magnetism; however, it gradually grew into a much bigger issue. After receiving repeated death threats Shams decides to leave town. Soon after, Rumi falls into a deep state of grief. A few months later, Shams is brought back into Konya. After all Rumi’s health and well-being was worth more than social boundaries. This time, Rumi decides to legitimize Shams’ presence in his home and uses the same tactic as with the goldsmith, he marries his very young stepdaughter Keemia (alchemy) to Shams. Keemia was around the age of 13 at the time. It is said that Shams for the first time falls in love. This must have been a truly memorable moment in his life–not only being with his chosen student, but also being married to his student’s early-teens daughter. The situation in the household quiets down during this time, after all Shams was now a relative. A few months later, due to illness caused probably by grief and depression Keemia dies, and with that comes the end of Shams and Rumi’s companionship.
One story reveals that Shams leaves Rumi and becomes the wandering, wild bird that he was. Another places Shams in the hands of Rumi’s youngest son and Keemia’s stepbrother, to die for ruining Rumi’s pristine reputation. Another attributes Shams’ disappearance to a successful assassination attempt for religious blasphemy. Yet another story places Shams in India, as an inspiration for a few spiritual figures at the time.
I believe that Rumi’s youngest son who had special closeness to Keemia, committed honor killing on Shams for causing the death of Keemia. Rumi should have expected this when he forced-marry his precious teenage daughter to someone of Shams’ personality type and old age.
The core explanation of Shams and Rumi’s relationship is that Rumi without Shams would not have been known to history. Rumi uses all his wit to keep this powerful, wandering, wild bird in a cage for as long as possible and becomes a major spiritual master and an artist of truly world-class stature. In the meantime, Shams achieves his dream of a “grand master student,” and falls in love for the first and only time and pays dearly for it. A love story, a tragedy or a personal necessity?
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The Collective Poems of Shams?
Rumi named his first epic “The Collective Poems of Shams of Tabriz.” In the past few hundred years reasons have been offered for Rumi’s decision to name his masterpiece after his mentor and spiritual friend Shams. Some explain, since Rumi would not have been a poet without Shams it is apt that the collection be named after him. Others have suggested that at the end Rumi became Shams, hence the collection is truly of Shams speaking through Rumi.
I tend to disagree with both of these statements. They mainly have been hypothesized by non-creative types. Any artist can attest that no matter the inspiration the final work is an expression of the creative individual. We are all inspired when we create. Inspired by nature, our environment, our childhood or culture, place of birth, romantic encounters, other artists, events in history and of course other individuals who cross our path.
Rumi named the collection after his mentor to make sure Shams’ name will be remembered along side himself. Rumi knew well that his students, family members and historians had little intention to remember this wandering, wild holy man who was severely disliked by almost everyone in town. They considered Shams a blemish on Rumi’s otherwise pristine reputation. Rumi as usual took the matter into his own hands. He not only named the collection after Shams, but used Shams as the pen name or signature at the end of hundreds of his love poems (Ghazals). He assured that his successors had no possible alternative but to perpetuate Shams. Even altering the title of the epic would not have wiped Shams from the history books, since over a thousand poems still enshrined him.
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Rumi, Hafez, Omar Khayyam and the Global Artistic Perspective
Major artistic movements, form, mature and grow in clusters of time and region. Whether it’s the American jazz movement, or the great European classical music composers, Impressionist painters, Italian post WWII neorealist filmmakers, British Rock invasion bands (which were inspired by the American blues) or in this case the Persian classical poetry. Without an exception all major, global, highly creative and intensely demanding artistic movements are a product of a very specific cultural vibration set within a particular time and geography.
The Persian classical poetry movement is not an exception and follows this natural flow quite precisely.
When an artistic movement is formed, a whole universe of activity starts to buzz around it. Enthusiast groups are formed and special viewing areas or performance halls are built. A structure of trade forms around these movements, whether it’s art dealers, publishers, record and film producers, distributors, agents, managers and collectors. A system of training and education also shapes to support these movements; meaning as the art form grows so does the understanding and appreciation of it. And the training structure allows the young to aspire to become the next big players within these creative fields.
Although poetry has been immensely popular in Persia (and today’s Iran) for over a thousand years (or in forms much earlier), what we commonly refer to as the Persian classical poetry movement in essence lasted about 400 years (about 1000-1400 CE) and produced many great poets. However, only three of which are globally recognized: Rumi, Hafez and Omar Khayyam. In fact some might argue that Khayyam in the height of his popularity in the West was more known than today’s Rumi. As far as I know Khayyam is being quoted on at least three major studio Hollywood movies of 1950s and ‘60s, the Music Man, Pandora and The Flying Dutchman and Payton Place. And there is also a biopic “Omar Khayyam” (1957), directed by William Dieterle (Portrait of Jennie, Elephant Walk, Salome…). These movies represent the very popular aspect of American culture. In contrast, except for an episode of the HBO series Six Feet Under, Rumi references are basically non-existent in American pop culture.
Since the English-speaking world appreciates Persian classical poetry through translations, the personality of these literary giants and the unique style of each poet is often ignored or morphed together to form an endless stream of brilliant verse. However, their work in the original Persian language is quite unique.
In the original Persian, Rumi and Hafez are as different from each other as Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. Hafez (1315-1390), who is undoubtedly the most popular of all the Persian classic poets in his homeland of Iran, is the true Persian word-meister. He has an immense grasp of the language, with a very distinct fluid style, that is often embellished with great care. The poetry of Rumi (1207-1273) by contrast is akin to Miles’ expression of Jazz, in many ways minimal, direct, honest, personal, soulful and masterful with a clear lack of embellishment. However, Hafez translations in English are often indistinguishable from Rumi, and this is of course expected when any great literary work is read through translation and interpretation.
Nevertheless, the beauty, grandeur, majesty, poetic craft and wisdom of these great beings come through not only in the original Persian language but in the English translations as well.
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Is Rumi the Inspiration behind Today’s Love Songs?
In the early days when I had just started translating Rumi I became aware of what I thought then were strange similarities between Rumi lyrics and the American blues. How could it be, I thought. How could lyrics from an 800-year old Persian poet have anything in common with songs from a 20th Century American phenomenon?
Despite my initial disbelief I found similarities in four major themes that run through these two genres: Heartache, Drunkenness, Disagreeable Lover and Aloneness.
The main theme of the blues is of course having the blues or heartache. Standard blues lyrics routinely talk about looking for a fix for this heartache. In fact just like the classic Persian poets, a blues performer considers having the blues a real privilege. There is a saying, that if you don’t have the blues, you aint got nothing.
Rumi of course routinely exclaimed proudly how the pain of love was exclusive to him. In fact in my Rumi translation of his poem “Go Back To Sleep,” he is shunning all those who aren’t fortunate enough to be suffering from this heartache. He is commanding them to go back to sleep, which means remain in darkness of ignorance and give up your desire for growth and evolution. Just like in the American blues, this heartache was also paramount for Rumi.
Love is best when mixed with anguish.
In our town,
we won’t call you a Lover
if you escape the pain.
The similarities don’t end there. Also like many of Rumi’s poems a blues singer is often singing about being drunk, or is getting drunk, or just woke up with a hangover. Rumi’s famous quatrain from my book “Hush, Don’t Say Anything to God” explains this point clearly:
“I am so drunk
I have lost the way in
and the way out.
I have lost the earth, the moon, and the sky.
Don’t put another cup of wine in my hand,
pour it in my mouth,
for I have lost the way to my mouth.”
The similarities continue. So far we have covered the core theme of heartache or the blues, and the concept of drunkenness in both genres. And here’s the next point of similarity: the disagreeable lover. In the famous Billie Holiday’s song “Fine and Mellow” she sings:
“My man don’t love me
Treats me oh so mean
He’s the, lowest man
That I’ve ever seen
Love will make you drink and gamble
Make you stay out all night long”
And here’s one from Rumi
“Everyday my heart falls deeper in the pain of your sorrow.
Your cruel heart is weary of me already.
You have left me alone, yet your sorrow remains.
Truly your sorrow is more faithful than you are.”
Here, Rumi’s sorrow is of course heartache or having the blues.
Also similar to the line “love will make you drink and gamble,” complaining about the heartless lover ruining one’s good name, is routine in Rumi poetry.
And the last major similarities between these two disciplines is complains of always being alone. They are alone for various reasons: they are misunderstood by others, their lover is never around, or nobody desires them. And this issue of aloneness is rampant in both the Persian classical poetry and blues lyrics.
So these similarities over the years made me aware about a connection between Rumi and the blues, in fact I used to perform a song called Rumi Blues with blues music and rhythms, honoring the connection without actually fully understanding the reason.
THE AFRICAN AMERICAN CONNECTION
Then a few years ago I came across an article in San Francisco Chronicle* that confirmed my assumptions.
The article exposed the missing link for me: that blues is an African American experience. And African American of course denotes origin from Africa and this is where things get interesting. Although the article focuses more on religion and the musical connection to Africa, the point that interests me is the lyrics.
The Persian classical poets, specially Rumi, where immensely popular in the East. In fact Rumi has been a giant in Middle East ever since the 13th Century. And the Persian classical metaphors for heartache, drunkenness, disagreeable lover, and aloneness were well established all through the Mideast from the Mediterranean Sea to India, North, West and East Africa and the Moorish Spain.
The African slaves, who were familiar with the imagery and metaphors of the Persian classical poetry, brought these ideas with them to the US and gradually through generations as English became their native tongue learned to express them in the New World.
THE BLUES IS THE SOURCE OF TODAY’S POP MUSIC
The modern day pop music, using electric instruments with drum kit started with Rock and Roll, and Rock is heavily based on the blues. Hence this African American experience inspired by Rumi and other Persian classical poets became the source for today’s popular music.
So next time you hear a young crooner tearing his or her heart out in a modern love song, you have Rumi to thank for.
— Shahram Shiva
*The full article can be found here:
The Music of the Famous American Blues Singers Reaches Back Through the South to the Culture of West Africa.
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Was Rumi a Sufi?
The short answer is no.
Rumi was a professor, a theologian and a scholar for most of his life. He was nearly 40 when he met the wild dervish named Shams who transformed his life. Until then he led a quiet, disciplined life of an orthodox religious figure from an elite family who was an incredibly popular university professor.
Going back eight hundred years and the life expectancy not being so great, 40 by the standard of the time was considered mature age. So, in essence his life should have remained the same for the remainder of his days, had he not met and embraced Shams.
Let’s look at what it means to be called a Sufi. To be a Sufi, is the same as belonging to any cult or sect or small religious or spiritual group that has a structure and a system of hierarchy. There is the master at the top, then officers below him and then the disciples. The master, whether it’s a small Christian cult in the Midwest of the US, or an ultra-orthodox Hasidic community in Jerusalem, or a small Sufi sect in Egypt, or a Guru in an ashram in a village in India, has complete and total control over the group. His or her word is considered a command and is obeyed by all the disciples blindly.
Unless the organization has grown very large to include multiple locations, no new student can join the group until deemed worthy by the master. Also, joining such groups means adhering to strict rituals and routine practices formulated by that cult.
Keep in mind that Sufism is a relative newcomer in the region that dates back many thousands of years and is rich with culture, spirituality, mysticism and the desire to explore the mysteries of humanity and the universe. Being a mystic in Mideast doesn’t necessitate in being a Sufi. For examples many dervishes in Iran trace their heritage back to at least 5,000 years and would clearly distinguish themselves from Sufism, which is only a several hundred year old tradition.
Based on the above, Rumi certainly was not a Sufi. He didn’t belong to any such sect neither did he pay homage to any particular master–short of Shams, who was not a Sufi and had no other followers. Lastly Rumi knew Shams for only a couple of years before Shams was killed in the hands of Rumi’s youngest son.
Rumi was a universal soul appearing as a Persian mystic poet, with an incredibly brilliant mind, who lived by his own code. Many years after he passed away, the order of Whirling Dervishes was formed in his honor and that often confuses people as though he was part of such a sect.
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Rumi for All Seasons
Who is the real Rumi? Was he religious, or a progressive thinker, or a hip spiritualist believing in the occult, or was he a scholar or a professor? The correct answer is all of the above. Due to his incredibly long and prolific creative life he has covered every topic imaginable from erotica to deeply philosophical, hence he has become a projection of the reader’s own mind.
For example Rumi talks about God in some of his poems and then dismisses him in many others. His prime message is that God is found in your own heart. He recited hundreds of poems where he mentions that he would set fire to Ka’ba and any temple or church, because God is not found there. He then encourages the reader to look into his or her own heart instead.
Due to the fact that Rumi recited poetry for about 25 years and 70,000 verses, he has covered every morsel of emotion, thought, idea and topic. Therefore, he can’t be pinned in one saying. Also because of the long duration of his creative expression he changed his mind often. Hence, you have poems where he praises God and then poems where he outright destroys any such concept.
In 800 years of popularity, Rumi has become a mirror projecting what the reader imagines. An orthodox or a religious reader, or a university professor, or a New Age type, or an advanced progressive thinker, all embrace Rumi as one of their own.