“why are you so busy
with this or that or good or bad
pay attention to how things blend”
From Look at Love by Jalal al-Din Rumi
Rumi. The name is pronounced with love and respect far outside of Islamic circles. Jalal al-Din Rumi was a poet, mystic, and founder of the Mewlewi Sufi order, he was also a greatly respected professor, mufti (jurist of Islamic law), and lecturer. When thirteenth century Anatolia was still immersed in the Islamic golden age, Rumi was one of its most respected voices. At the height of his popularity and to the dismay of many of his followers he ‘raised his voice against authority and traditional learning in the pursuit of the mystic goal’ a change inspired by his friend and teacher, the dervish Shams-ud-Din Tabrizi. Rumi’s legacy consists of prose, lectures, sermons and a number of works of mystic poetry including the Masnawi, regarded by some as the Persian-language Quran. These mystical works bear witness to a seemingly gnostic union with divinity, through love, by seeking unity instead of conflict and duality. In his Diwan-i-Shams-i-Tabriz he writes: ‘I have put duality away. I have seen that the two worlds are one’.
The love and tolerance Rumi persistently wove into the tapestry of his work finds its way to open ears, not only those of the Sufis who follow his tradition and Muslims of other traditions but also to many belonging to people of the various beliefs scattered throughout modern Western culture.
Scholars have often pointed out that Sufi philosophy has the potential to bridge the misunderstandings propelled by Western versus Middle-Eastern polemics. Unfortunately, the intrinsic religiosity that makes Sufism so appealing to the modern Western zeitgeist stands in stark contrast to many dominating Middle-Eastern Islamic interpretations. Even Rumi, who was revered as a great Islamic thinker, in and outside of his time and place, caused much controversy when he embarked upon an increasingly mystic path. The underlying reasons for this controversy have much to do with the intrinsically motivated mystic’s inability to accept any authority above that which he experiences as a transcendental relationship with the divine. Rumi’s prose repeatedly describes a direct and personally experienced union with the divine. The road to this union is inspired and guided by Islam, but once the divine connection is made, that which it dictates inevitably holds authority over all worldly dictates, including those which are conventional to traditional Islam. The mystic is, therefore, inherently predisposed to question the authority of religious tradition, quite unlike the traditional believer, whom, not having experienced this direct divine connection, seeks to conserve religious tradition, protecting it from corruption that might weaken a connection to the divine through his prophet.
In the spirit of his reverence for non-dualistic love, Rumi also called for tolerance towards other beliefs, stating that acceptance of non-Muslims was a likelier way to open their hearts to Islam. This seems to be a logical deduction. Why is it that traditionally, religious communities have had a tendency to do the opposite? Much of the modern Islamic world lives in fear of its religious traditions being corrupted by Western influences, ultimately, cutting off its connection to the divine through its prophet, Mohammed. They seek to preserve their connection to the divine by clinging to literal interpretations of traditions and rules that may not be functional outside of the context in which they were formulated. This conservation of tradition can only be achieved by enforcing and perpetuating a strongly dualistic perspective of the relationship between Islam and ‘non-believers’. The consequences of this polemic, have, as yet, proved to be overwhelmingly negative. Rumi’s oeuvre attests to the possibility of achieving a new divine connection, one that can be initiated by opening one’s heart and putting duality away. Traditional believers of all religions have a long history of repressing mystical undercurrents for fear of their corrupting heresies. However, they so often forget that while it is probably true that not every mystic is a prophet, every prophet was a mystic.