Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Rumi, Poetry, & the BLOW OFF

You’ve probably all heard of the Persian poet Rumi. If you haven’t, you should know that the translations of his poems make him the number one selling poet in America –that’s right, Billy, you heard me right (in case you didn’t catch that, that means even more than William Shakespeare). And internationally, he is esteemed as much as any poet to have ever lived, his burial site being visited by millions of people each year.
But the question is, have you heard what led this man to recite some of the most amazing love poetry to have ever been uttered? If you’re reading this blog you can probably guess what it was. What else, right? An epic blow off.

You see, as a man in his late thirties, Rumi was an internationally renowned scholar not just well-known in his place of residence, Kunya (of modern day Turkey), but far beyond, including in the era’s other great centers of learning, Aleppo and Damascus. His position as both a great jurist, mosque leader, and head of the leading institution of learning in Kunya was a step taken in his father’s steed, who had a great reputation as a scholar himself. Trained in both Islamic law and philosophy, as well as mysticism, Rumi was highly regarded both at home and abroad. Rumi had learned a whole lot—perhaps more than anyone in his day—but how much had he really experienced?

So, the story goes that one day as Rumi sat next to a pile of books nearby a pool of water an old man dressed in ragged clothing came up to him and asked him what he was doing. Rumi, annoyed at the interruption and the inanity of such a seemingly dumb question, responded harshly, saying, “Something you do not understand”. In response, the old man grabbed Rumi’s books and tossed them into the pool, making Rumi scurry to save them from being destroyed. Yet, astonishingly, when Rumi recovered his books from the pool he found that not a drop of water sat on any of them. Shocked, Rumi turned to the man and asked, “What is this?!” The old man responded by saying simply, “Something you do not understand”.

Now, there is admittedly a bit of hagiography going on in the retelling of the story, but what is certain is this much: After meeting Shams, the old man who reportedly threw Rumi’s books into the water, Rumi, one of the great scholars of his time, gave up all claims to knowledge and spent the next two years of his life not just as this man’s disciple, but madly in love with him. Shams had been an itinerant who would travel from town to town--never staying long--selling baskets he had woven to make a living. His knowledge of the Koran and Islamic mysticism was weighty and his effect on Rumi profound. Rumi fell in love with him, and he likewise with Rumi, having finally found a mind worthy of his own. Upon meeting they reportedly spent every day of the next six months of their lives together (including 40 days of isolation where the two would just meditate in the Islamic tradition of chehleh neshini). Rumi neglected his role as jurist and academic chancellor and would instead be seen around town reciting poetry and demeaning his own previous ignorance. Many of his followers continued seeking his leadership, but many others, including his son, were said to have become jealous of the shame their teacher had subjected himself to. Remember, Rumi was a giant in his day, and this random stranger dressed in rags had made him renounce all his own claims to knowledge.

To make a long story short, after about two years of facing death threats from the townspeople and some of Rumi’s followers, Shams simply disappeared. He actually had left to Damascus once earlier because of the same pressure, but Rumi had hunted him down and convinced him to come back (woot, woot ---we all know how good it feels to win back someone who has blown you off!). This time, however, there was no word from Shams, and no one knew where he had gone. Some believe that Rumi’s son had actually killed him, others that Shams had just continued his itinerant ways, having accomplished his goal of finding the like-minded figure that he had always been seeking, and having helped form him into the legendary figure that he was to become. Upon hearing news of his disappearance, Rumi fell into an ecstasy of longing and began twirling to the rhythm of the sounds he would hear around him (the beating of a blacksmith’s hammer, the blowing of the wind, etc), all while reciting what has become one of the most famous works of poetry to have ever been written, the Masnavi (this is honored today by whirling dervishes, whose dance mimics the dance that Rumi would spontaneously begin).

In the beginning, Rumi would address his poetry to his lost beloved, but eventually in his spiritual quest for his companion, his sense of self disappeared and he considered himself and Shams as one and the same. Such that in his later poetry, he even refers to himself as Shams. For Rumi, love –and more specifically the love one feels when being blown off (who would’ve thunk it!) –is the ultimate manifestation of man’s individuation from God. The longing for Rumi to return to Shams is simply the longing of any individual to return to God, from whom he/she was separated at birth. And thus love, and the longing inherent in being blown off, becomes the highest form of spirituality out there.

You see this in the opening lines of the Masnavi, which is one of only two poems of its style in the classical Persian tradition to begin not with an invocation praising God, but with one describing the metaphor of love. Read the poem. It’s really beautiful. The translation really doesn’t do justice to the original, but what can you do. Keep in mind that it is the reed talking for much of this section of the poem, and the reed being torn from the reed bed is the metaphor of the lover/human being torn from the beloved/God (thus the music played with the reed, which was used as a flute, is naught but the sound of the lover wailing in pain as a result of this separation). Also remember that while he always remained burned from his blow off with Shams, Rumi came to the realization that he and his beloved were one. And this is the mystical reference you see pointed to in the bottom section of this opening excerpt of the poem. The section is called “the Song of the Reed” (the whole Masnavi is 6 books long with some 50,000 lines of poetry). Enjoy!

“the Song of the Reed”

Listen to the reed (flute), how it is complaining! It is
telling about separations,

(Saying), "Ever since I was severed from the reed field, men and
women have lamented in (the presence of) my shrill cries.

"(But) I want a heart (which is) torn, torn from separation, so
that it may understand the pain of yearning."

"Anyone one who has remained far from his roots, seeks a return
(to the) time of his union.

"I lamented in every gathering; I associated with those in bad or
happy circumstances.

"(But) everyone became my friend from his (own) opinion; he did
not seek my secrets from within me.

"My secret is not far from my lament, but eyes and ears do not
have the light (to sense it).

"The body is not hidden from the soul, nor the soul from the body;
but seeing the soul is not permitted."

The reed's cry is fire -- it's not wind! Whoever doesn't have
this fire, may he be nothing!

It is the fire of Love that fell into the reeds. (And) it is the
ferment of Love that fell into the wine.

The reed (is) the companion of anyone who was severed from a
friend; its melodies tear our veils.

Who has seen a poison and a remedy like the reed? Who has seen
a harmonious companion and a yearning friend like the reed?


  1. beautiful poem, ashamed to admit I didn't know much about Rumi's background. Great post!

  2. I know no one read this, but in case someone does in the future, I just came across this from Rumi today:

    "The minute I heard my first love story I started looking for you, not knowing how blind that was. Lovers don't finally meet somewhere. They're in each other all along."