Monday, February 11, 2008

RUMI مولانا جلال الدین محمد رومی

“I came to you, friend, to be sacrificed for love, and when I saw you, my desires were magnified.”

Invariably the gentle reader will have heard of Zorba the Greek, possibly even Nick the Greek, quintessential Greek types. However, a chance encounter with Jelaleddin Muhammad Balkhi the Greek, is certain to cause the uninitiated to raise the eyebrow. Yet, to the entire Muslim and Persian world, Jelaleddin Muhammad Balkhi al Rumi, arguably one of the finest and most important Eastern poets, is known as “the Greek,” not only because he spent much of his life in Asia Minor, but also because his Sufi poetry is heavily infused with elements of a Hellenistic culture that seems to have survived into Byzantium. Such is the importance of Rumi’s poetry, that it has influenced Persian as well as Urdu, Begali and Turkish literature. His poems have been widely translated into many of the world's languages in various formats, to the extent where BBC News has described him as the “most popular poet in America.”
Not bad for a boy who was born in the backwaters of Tajikistan in 1207. When the Mongols invaded Central Asia sometime between 1215 and 1220, his father, a noted scholar with his whole family and a group of disciples set out westwards to the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum, a kingdom comprising most of inland Asia Minor, newly conquered by the Turks but with a majority of Greek inhabitants. On the road to Rum, Rumi encountered one of the most famous mystic Persian poets, Attar in the Iranian city of Nishapur. Attar immediately recognized Rumi's spiritual eminence. Seeing his father walking ahead of the son, he said, “Here comes a sea followed by an ocean.” He gave the boy his Asrarama, a book about the entanglement of the soul in the material world, reflecting the Platonic ideas that informed and inspired much of Persian thought. it was to have a profound effect upon his future development.
Arriving in Iconion, now Konya, the capital of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum, Rumi became a teacher in a religious school, teaching the inordinately Byzantine curriculum of religion (albeit Islamic), philosophy and rhetoric. He also beame heavily inclined towards mysticism, a concept originally alien to early Islamic culture, through the influence of the mystical practices of Orthodox Christian monks, inhabiting the caves of Cappadocia. Their hesychastic practices of mediatation in order to see the uncreated energies of God are evident in Rumi’s devotional poetry, which concerned itself with the concept of Tawhd, (unity) and union with his beloved (the primal root) from which/whom he has been cut and fallen aloof, and his longing and desire for reunity.
Indeed, as the Sufi orders of Konya developed under his tutelage, they deviated in many ways from the early Islamic practice. Sufi doctrine grew in several stages, enriched by contacts with Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, and even Buddhism. They were also heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, especially the works of Aristotle, which reached them through Islamic philosophers like Avicenna and Averroes When Rumi and his movement were established in Konya, the city was still heavily under the influence of Christianity, and the Greek language was common among communities around the city. Thus Rumi and his Sufi followers could not avoid being influenced by the Greek culture and philosophy that were promoted by the Christians. The English orientalist, F.W. Haslucke, describes these situations and states that in a mosque in Konya, that was formerly the St.Amphilochius church, there was a tomb that was believed to be that of Plato and that Rumi’s disciples in the city revered it and even considered Plato to be a prophet. There are also indications that Rumi encouraged harmony and friendship between the Sufis and Christians. Much later when the Ottoman Sultans ordered the persecution and massacre of Greeks and Armenians in the region, Rumi’s Sufi successors sheltered and saved the lives of many of them, ensuring that a Christian community survived, isolated in the depths of Asia Minor until 1927, when they were deported..
Heavily infusing himself in the study of the ancient Greek classics, Rumi came to believe passionately in the use of music, poetry and dancing as a path for reaching God. For Rumi, music helped devotees to focus their whole being on the divine, and to do this so intensely that the soul was both destroyed and resurrected. It was from these ideas that the practice of Whirling Dervishes developed into a ritual form. He founded the order of the Mevlevi, the “whirling" dervishes, and created the “Sema” their “turning”, sacred dance. In the Mevlevi tradition, Sema represents a mystical journey of spiritual ascent through mind and love to Perfection, much in the manner prescribed centuries earlier by Orthodox Saint John Climacus. In this journey the seeker symbolically turns towards the truth, grows through love, abandons the ego, finds the truth, and arrives at the longed for “Perfection.” The seeker then returns from this spiritual journey with greater maturity, so as to love and to be of service to the whole of creation without discrimination against beliefs, races, classes and nations. The internationalsit nature of Rumi’s conception of such love is stiking ad modern in outlook: "Love’s nationality is separate from all other religions/ The lover’s religion and nationality is the Beloved./ The lover’s cause is separate from all other causes/ Love is the astrolabe of God’s mysteries.”
It was his meeting with the dervish Shams e Tabrizi on 15 November 1244 that changed Rumi’s life completely. Shams had traveled throughout the Middle East searching and praying for someone who could “endure my company”. A voice came, “What will you give in return?” “My head!” Shams answered. “The one you seek is Jelaleddin of Konya,” the voice advised. Rumi and Shams shared a passionate intellectual and personal relationship, akin to that expounded in Plato’s Symposium. On the night of 5 December 1248, as Rumi and Shams were talking, Shams was called to the back door. He went out, never to be seen again. It is believed that he was murdered with the connivance of Rumi's son, Alaudin, who was jealous of his influence over his father. Shams indeed then gave his head for the privilege of mystical friendship.
Rumi's love and his bereavement for the death of Shams found their expression in an outpouring of music, dance and lyric poems, the ‘Divan e Shams e Tabrizi.’ He himself went out searching for Shams and journeyed again to Damascus. There, he realized:
"Why should I seek? I am the same as
He. His essence speaks through me.
I have been looking for myself!"

For more than ten years, Rumi composed poetry in order to cope with his sense of loss. One day, Rumi and his scribe and favorite student Hussam-e Chelebwere wandering through the Meram vineyards outside of Konya when Hussam suggested: “If you were to write a book like the “Mantiq ut-Tayr” of Attar it would become the companion of many troubadours. They would fill their hearts from your work and compose music to accompany it.”
Rumi smiled and took out a piece of paper on which were written the opening eighteen lines of his poetic work entitled Masnavi, beginning with:
"Listen to the reed and the tale it tells,
How it sings of separation..."

Hussam implored Rumi to write more. Rumi spent the next twelve years of his life in Asia Minor dictating the six volumes of this masterwork, the Masnavi to Hussam. In December 1273, Rumi fell ill. He predicted his own death, composing the well-known ghazal, which begins with the verse:
“How doest thou know what sort of king I have within me as companion?
Do not cast thy glance upon my golden face, for I have iron legs.”
He died on 17 December 1273 in Konya and was laid to rest beside his father. A splendid shrine, the Yesil Turbe or “Green Tomb” was erected over his tomb, with an epitaph that reads:
"When we are dead, seek not our tomb in the earth, but find it in the hearts of men.”
Rumi’s influence on Middle Eastern poetry and thought was all pervasive. Written primarily in Persian, Rumi's poetry is displayed on the walls of many cities across the Persian-speaking world, sung in Persian music, and read in school books. Literally, Persian-speakers live with Rumi's poetry. What is not well known and what makes him ever more so fascinating is that through him, we find preserved rare examples of the mediaeval dialect of Cappadocian Greek, a dialect that developed in isolation from the rest of the Greek world, being cut off from it by the Islamic conquests and displaying heavy phological and grammatical influences from Seljuk Turkish. Rumi actually wrote poems in this almost extinct dialect, albeit using the Persian alphabet, which renders their exact transliteration difficult, as Persian does not indicate all vowels. For example, example Ode 2264 of Rumi's Divan of Shams is written in Cappadocian Greek as follows:
"Where are you my master? The dispenser of benevolence and the moon-faced charmer? I will say in Sarrazin who I am and who you are. I came to you, friend, to be sacrificed for love, and when I saw you, my desires were magnified. If you give me a glass of wine, I'll be happy. and if you abuse me, I'll be happy. My lord, what you desire, I desire and I seek."
Sadly, the rich lyrical and mystical quality of Rumi’s Greek poetry has had little if no influence on Modern Greek literature, presumably because of its remoteness to the genre’s Hellenocentricity. Yet Rumi’s is a quintessentially Hellenistic poetry, dexterously combining the sacred and the profane, in an artful harmonizing kaleidoscope of cultures and traditions. Indeed, had the conquerors been less inflamed with religious zeal and inclined to be more tolerant, Rumi’s poetry, along with morphologically fascinating Cappadocian stands as an example of the level of sophistication that a hybridized Graeco-Persian culture could have achieved. In this, Rumi’s poetry constitutes the swan-song in a long tradition of Graeco-Persian cultural and literary hybridization in the Middle East, stemming back from the time of the Persian Wars.
Even in Turkey, Rumi’s legacy has been a mixed one. While his dervish followers played an important role in the life of the Ottoman Empire, with the foundation of the modern secular republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk removed religion from the sphere of public policy and restricted it exclusively to that of personal morals, behavior, and faith. On 13 December 1925, a law was passed closing all Sufi tekkes. This law dissolved the Orders, prohibited the use of mystical names, titles and costumes pertaining to these titles, impounded their assets, banned their ceremonies and meetings; the law also provided penalties for those who tried to re-establish them. Two years later, in 1927, the Mausoleum of Rumi in Konya was allowed to reopen as a Museum. It was only in the 1950’s, that the Turkish government began allowing the Whirling Dervishes to perform annually in Konya on the anniversary of Rumi's death and then, in order to court the tourist dollar, However, since that time, there has been a resurgence of Sufism throughout Turkey and Rumi’s works are widely studied.
And just so that you don’t think that the legacy of Jelaleddin ‘the Greek’ is relegated to obsure phonological aspects of forgotten Cappadocian, consider the following: On 1 July 2005, the leader of the Sufi followers of Rumi in Greece was sentenced to twenty-five months' imprisonment for defamatory actions related to his “controlling the consciousness” of his followers. At that time, the Orthodox Church stated that it considered the Greek Rumi community a "sect" whose heresies "threaten to corrupt Greece's religious and national identity." Local and international NGOs condemned the conviction, and the Greek Rumi leader was acquitted on appeal in March 2006.
Until next week, some lines from the great lover himself, reminiscent of remarks uttered by the late Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens: “Come, come, whoever you are./ Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving./ It doesn't matter./ Ours is not a caravan of despair./ Come, even if you have broken your vow/ a thousand times/ Come, yet again, come, come.”


First published in NKEE on 11 February 2008