Academic journal article Social Education

A Poet and a Mystic: Jalaluddin Rumi

Academic journal article Social Education

A Poet and a Mystic: Jalaluddin Rumi

Article excerpt

IT MAY BE SURPRISING to learn that one of the most popular and best-selling poets in the United States is the thirteenth-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic, Jelaluddin Rumi (1207-1273). Although his spiritual verse has been revered in the Muslim world for centuries, it has more recently ignited the imaginations of contemporary American readers of all faiths; The Christian Science Monitor reported in 1997 that Rumi was the top-selling poet in the country. (2) Despite the fact that Rumi wrote about a world far different from our own, his lyrical poems are accessible, provocative, and surprisingly relevant. A man with firsthand experience of tragedy, war, and exile, Rumi offers us a vision of humanity that seems, even next to our contemporary notions of multiculturalism, boundless in its vitality and compassion. Rumi was a practicing Sufi, a branch of Islamic asceticism that originated in the eighth century in Persia (or Iran today). Yet his spiritual devotion led not to intolerance but to a greater feeling of unity among all living beings, disproving all-too-common misperceptions of Islam as a monolithic, fundamentalist faith.

"In profundity of thought, inventiveness of image, and triumphant mastery of language," one of his translators and biographers wrote, "he stands out as a supreme genius of Islamic mysticism." (3) Yet, like all great writers, Rumi's genius transcends specific labels. Learning about Rumi--both his life and his works--will not only expand students' understanding of Sufi history, culture, and belief, but will also bring to life a man who challenged the brutality of his times with sheer aesthetic pleasure. Even students who espouse to "hate poetry" will come away with a newfound interest, even delight, in its ability to speak to universal themes, such as love, loss, and the search for meaning in a chaotic age.

The Life

Born in September 1207 in Balkh (in what is now Afghanistan), Jelaluddin Rumi was the descendent of a long line of Islamic theologians and mystics. His father, Baha'al'Din Valad was a well-respected teacher, Sufi mystic, and theologian. Yet Rumi's honorable lineage could not shield him or his family from the tumultuous era in which they lived: To the west, the Christian Crusades were continuing to spread out of Europe; to the east, the Mongol armies were invading from the Asian steppes, with Genghis Khan extending his empire through Persia to the Adriatic Sea. When Rumi was only about twelve years old, Mongol invasions into Balkh forced him and his family into exile. They wandered for approximately ten years, and although little is known about their travels, they experienced a grave loss, the death of Rumi's mother. Scholars argue that experiencing such early uncertainty and turmoil played an inevitable role in Rumi's development as a mystic and a poet; as one biographer put it, "Rumi's imperturbable inner state and his mystic sensibility were cultivated in large part as a defense against the transience, loss, and terror he endured during his childhood." (4)

Eventually, Rumi's family settled in the city of Konia (now south-central Turkey). Konia had been a Muslim city since 1070, but it was also quite international: It was considered a meeting point among many cultures, including Islamic, Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Konia was also a trilingual city: Turkish was the spoken language; Persian, the written (literary) language; and Arabic, the language for religious worship. Once in Konia, Rumi's father was able to resume his role as the head of a dervish learning community. When he died, Rumi, still in his twenties but already respected for his erudition, assumed his father's duties.

Thus, despite living in exile, Rumi achieved great success in Konia during his early adulthood; he married, had children, and acquired many admirers for his teaching and scholarship. Yet Rumi at that time was not a poet--far from it. …

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