January 20, 2017
Life of the Sufi Poet of Love
pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $28.99
Rumi the Aleppo-trained imam, whose sermons
beguiled both the orthodox and the subversive of the medieval Islamic world.
The theologian who likened writing to sticking his hand in tripe. The abstainer
from wealth, who hid in the toilet to avoid the company of princely visitors.
The Muslim who prayed toward Mecca five times a day so assiduously that he
said, “Whoever looks into my face remembers to pray.” Rumi, one of the
best-selling poets in the United States. The poet of love and ecstasy, whose
verses inspire Deepak Chopra and Madonna and make their bowdlerized way into
soundtracks played on catwalks and in humid rooms at Jivamukti yoga. Whose
sayings can adorn your life on shower curtains, branded mats, Christmas tree
baubles and iPhone cases. The stated inspiration for a number of workshops at
Esalen, the Gestalt retreat in California where people sit naked in hot tubs
overlooking the Pacific.
Few religious figures in the history of
civilization have as successfully crossed borders of faith, language and
geography as nimbly as Jalal al-Din Mohammad Rumi, the great 13th-century
theologian and mystic poet. The son of an eccentric and ambitious Muslim
preacher, Rumi, who is known in the Persianate world as Maulana, “our master,”
circumnavigated the Middle East of the day, then overrun by invading Mongols
and Seljuks, before eventually settling in Konya, in Anatolia.
There Rumi inherited his father’s mantle,
presided over a shabby but magnetic seminary, and became one of the most
beloved and discussed religious figures in the realm. His reputation and
appeal, both across time and in his own, lay in some elusive layering of acute
religious knowledge, personal charm and wit, and a capacious spirit that was
both deeply human and haloed with otherworldly prescience. He brought musical
instruments into prayer and practiced the whirling dance of Sama, declaring
that these practices helped the human soul connect with its divine source.
Princes and commanders flocked to him, tolerating icy reproach. Christians and
Jews followed him in the street. Beggars felt comfortable approaching him.
But everything changed when the wild-eyed
mystic Shamshuddin of Tabriz showed up in Konya. The two became interlocked in
an intense months long encounter that transformed Rumi’s approach to devotion.
The devotees around him grew jealous and ultimately ran Shams out of Konya. By
then nearing his own middle age, Rumi went searching for him and eventually
turned that search inward, infusing the lines of his masterwork, the “Masnavi,”
with allusions to his spiritual teachings. That work remains one of the most
widely read texts in the Muslim and Persian-speaking world, both for its Sufi
wisdom and poetic force.
Within Islam itself, Sufism is a
centuries-old current that sees religious practice as a means to oneness with
God. Sufis have traditionally infused their devotion with poetry and music, and
reached for love as a metaphor to describe the human longing for a relationship
with the divine. Like many lay Rumi admirers before him, Brad Gooch, whose
subtitle calls Rumi “the Sufi poet of love,” projects too much conventional
romance onto a relationship that was left deliberately ambiguous in Rumi’s
writings. “While no evidence exists of an erotic component, Rumi chose to speak
of their spiritual love in the mode of Persian romantic love poetry, and from
weaving the two came his evanescent message,” he writes. But language here should
not be used as proof. By Rumi’s time, there was no separate mode for earthly
love poetry; the Sufis’ metaphorical use of love had taken over the language of
Persian poetry entirely. The nuance of that might be the realm of Persian
literary scholars, but too much emphasis on earthly love makes Rumi seem like a
13th-century Pablo Neruda.
Gooch, a novelist and poet whose books also
include “Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor,” aims to produce a continuous
biographical narrative out of Rumi’s life and to make his spiritual journey
intelligible to the people who buy the watered-down version of Rumi printed on
shower curtains. Like most popular literary biographies, “Rumi’s Secret” may
not be especially masterly as a work of criticism. For those who want a more
precise portrait, Franklin Lewis’s scholarly biography remains the definitive
But Gooch’s book is nonetheless useful. He
braves his own translations, and situates Rumi in the broader context of his
time and place: a moment of vast creative productivity in the medieval Islamic
world, where Sufis were pushing the boundaries of orthodoxy. This path was not
without its perils. Nearly 300 years before Rumi, the Sufi saint Mansur
al-Hallaj declared, “I am the truth,” an utterance that Sufis understand to
this day as the recognition that there is a bit of the divine in all of us.
Hallaj was executed for heresy in Baghdad in 922, his limbs chopped off in
bloody succession. Rumi flirted with some of these same heretical boundaries,
irking local sultans and dour jurisdictional types who often, in the end,
forgave him, for he was the great Maulana.
Gooch’s biography brings the political and
intellectual tumult of the early medieval era to life, producing vivid
characters out of the reigning Seljuk sultans and memorable portraits of urban
experience. But against this rich backdrop, he constructs a Rumi who has been
simplified for our secular age. Gooch quotes Coleman Barks, the poet from
Tennessee who in recent years has popularized Rumi in the United States primarily
by riffing off extant English translations, as saying that Rumi had “no use for
dividing up into the different names of Christian and Jew and Muslim.”
It is true that Rumi preached and lived by
a stance of tolerance, for which he was greatly loved. He identified that all
religions were fundamentally in pursuit of oneness with God. But his openness
to other creeds did not mean he believed Islam was subsumable into some
monotheistic mystical soup. His “Masnavi” is called “the Quran in the Persian
tongue,” and is rife with references to Hadith, Quranic sayings and devotion to
the Prophet Muhammad. If Rumi arrived at a place of tolerance, it was from
within his Islamic tradition, not beyond it.
As part of his tendency to portray Rumi as
a proto-humanist, Gooch quotes another scholar who says that “Rumi resonates
today because people are thinking post-religion.” While this isn’t necessarily
Gooch’s main thesis, his tendency to cast Rumi as Romeo in a turban pushes the
book in this direction.
Many contemporary translations of Rumi
strip the Persian, Arabic and Quranic references out of his verse, or simply
ignore the vast bulk of the “Masnavi” dealing with hard Islamic theology. By
divesting Rumi of his Islamicness — which is what today’s culture seems to demand
of him — we miss the significance of his role in the history of Islam. As the
late scholar Shahab Ahmed writes in his book “What Is Islam?: The Importance of
Being Islamic,” the “historical and human phenomenon that is Islam” for
centuries tolerated contradiction and paradox. It was not always the case that
strict orthodoxy was viewed as the most authentic expression of the religion.
Rumi was one of the earliest bearers of what Ahmed calls “explorative
In these days of cultural intolerance, there
is certainly great value to books that add nuance to hateful, caricatured views
of Islam. “Rumi’s Secret” may be a Lonely Planet guide to Sufism, but it is a
sensitive and passionate introduction nonetheless. Each era will construct its
own Rumi. But ultimately it is only by acknowledging his faith that we can
appreciate the profound significance of the Islamic world’s tolerance for his
dissidence, for being able to cherish and contain it, for this longstanding
push and pull between orthodoxy and innovation that is the story of Islam
Moaveni is the author of “Lipstick Jihad” and other books. She is working on a
book about women and the Islamic State.