Seeking the essence of life

Seven-and-a-half centuries after the death of Muslim mystic poet Rumi, his verse has lost nothing of its profundity and transformative power. By Marian Brehmer

By Marian Brehmer

"Whatever we're seeking, we will find within us". The Farsi letters appeared on the board from right to left in flamboyant lines. They contain the quintessence of a poem that we had just read – or at least tried to read. We were students from Korea, North America, Italy and Germany, practicing reading 13th century Sufi poetry in a classroom in northern Tehran.

We shared a keen interest in Persian, the language of the poet Jalal al-Din Mohammed Rumi (1207-1273). Many regard Rumi as the greatest spiritual poet of the Islamic world. All schools of Sufism refer to his body of work and his humanist, positive, liberal interpretation of Islam.

In my bid to sense the soul of Rumi’s teachings, no one was more helpful to me than my Tehran-based Persian professor and Masnavi teacher. His name is unimportant here, but as I noticed early on, Rumi has passed into his entire being. What does that mean? I know few people who teach with such tranquillity and devotion that minutes in the classroom become meditation.

The benevolence, modesty and warm-heartedness of my professor are an indication of how continued engagement with Rumi can edify a person’s character; or, to borrow a Sufi expression, polish the mirror of the heart.

Rumi's tomb in Konya, Turkey (image: Marian Brehmer)
Jalal al-Din Mohammed Rumi (1207-1273) is considered by many to be the greatest master of spiritual poetry in Islam. All schools of Sufism refer to his work and his humanistic, hopeful and broad-minded interpretation of Islam. His tomb in the Turkish city of Konya is shown here

As the Iranian philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr wrote in an essay, Persian-mystic poetry creates "a kind of divine atmosphere for the soul to breathe". For many years, my professor has spent time every day reading the Masnavi, Rumi’s 26,000-verse masterpiece. Occasionally he'll spend hours with the book.

"Every time I open the Masnavi, it’s as though I’m reading it for the first time. It’s always fresh and wonderful," he explained as we talked in his office between shelves heaving with books. "I feel as though I'm being torn out of time and place." Then he pulled an old edition of the Masnavi from the shelf, a book he had bought as a student. The volume was illustrated with a drawing of Rumi with beard and turban; almost psychedelic with its bright blue and yellow tones.

Like a living master on the spiritual path

A little more than 2,000 kilometres to the west, in the central Anatolian city of Konya, the tomb of "Mevlana" (our master) draws hundreds of thousands of visitors every year – among them devout rural pilgrims from Anatolia, as well as students of Sufism, poetry lovers, people looking to inject their lives with greater meaning, and culture tourists from all corners of the world. Within the Mevlevi order, which bases its schooling system on Mevlana's teachings, the Masnavi is seen as a book through which Rumi still guides people along their spiritual path like a living master.

Using seemingly simple narratives and parables, the Masnavi takes the reader on an inward journey, maps out the spiritual path with its all challenges and plumbs the existential questions concerning what it is to be human. From the Balkans to East Asia, the book has had such a profound impact on the spiritual life of Muslims that it is also known the "Koran in Persian".

Sema performance in a cultural centre in Konya (image: Marian Brehmer)
Sema performance in a cultural centre in Konya, Anatolia: within the Mevlevi order, which bases its schooling system on Rumi's teachings, his 26,000-verse masterpiece Masnavi is seen as a book through which Rumi still guides people along their spiritual path like a living master

Rumi didn’t start writing poetry until he was 40 years old, when he underwent a transformation from bookish theologian to impassioned mystic after meeting his master Shams. When he and Shams parted company, the existential pain of that separation from his friend and mentor, and ultimately from the divine origin, accelerated this transformation. Rumi himself describes this process in a well-known verse: "I was raw, I became cooked, I was burnt".

For Rumi, poetry became the medium through which he could pass on his insights and experiences to students. Although experience of the divine can never really be expressed in words, for the Sufis poetry is the language form that gets closest to their experience of it. Poetry has something ambivalent and mysterious about it, like the mystical experience itself.

But ultimately, Rumi often laments the limits of language. He regularly urges the reader to be quiet (chamusch!) and discover the truth for themselves, not in poems, but in the silence.

Inner peace, all-encompassing love and the joy of living

Mevlana's poetry gives the reader a little taste of the experiences that they may have had on their way to maturation. The person can feel these states – called ahwal in the vocabulary of the Sufis – of inner peace, all-encompassing love and the joy of living in Rumi’s poetry. As my professor in Tehran explained, Rumi's verses bring "a profound inner contentment, a sweet internal peace as well as a wonderful enthusiasm and passion to my life".

He then added: "Reading these verses cleanses and purifies your entire being. Life changes. Externally, I’m still doing the same things, eating, for example, walking or talking to my wife. But all this happens with greater profundity, with a clear direction and a sense of internal expansion."

Rumi was himself conscious of the role his poetry should play for posterity. At one point in the third Masnavi book, he sings: "Come, speak (O my soul)! for the Logos is digging a channel to the end that some water may reach a generation after us". To this day, you'll be hard pushed to find a Tehran bookstore window that doesn't display copies of Rumi's work

Calligraphy with Rumi verses on a gate in the mountains near Tehran (image. Marian Brehmer)
Rumi verses on a gates in the mountains of Tehran. "'I’ve often wondered why I’m Iranian. Deep inside, I knew there had to be a reason why I was born here', photographer Sara told me," writes Marian Brehmer, "after we had read a poem from the Divan i Shams. 'Now I can understand why. If my language wasn't Farsi, I'd have to really make a huge effort to read Rumi. This is something that was gifted to me in my life," she said

On Islamic Revolution Street opposite the central campus of the University of Tehran, I speak to a book retailer. Masnavi commentaries have become very popular in recent years, he says; in particular the six-volume comprehensive analysis by literary scholar Karim Zamani, a compilation of the most important Masnavi treatises from past centuries.

This collection, which fills an entire bookshelf and would elsewhere be consumed by a highly educated readership at best, flies across the counter like a novel in Iran.

Counter-movement of inspired spirituality

For the many Iranians who have had enough of the politicised corruption of their religion as an instrument of power, Rumi's teachings represent a counter-movement of inspired spirituality. Rumi's verses give solace in economically and politically challenging times.

"I’ve often wondered why I’m an Iranian woman. Deep inside, I knew there had to be a reason why I was born here," photographer Sara said to me after we had read a poem from the Divan i Shams. "Now I can understand why. If my language wasn't Farsi, I'd have to really make a huge effort to read Rumi. This is something that was gifted to me in my life," she said.

The Muslim mystic’s legacy is still very much alive today – and not just in Iran, in Rumi’s birthplace Afghanistan or the focal point of his life Anatolia. For years, anthologies of Rumi’s work were on bestseller lists in the United States. In Germany, we have Islam scholar Annemarie Schimmel to thank for bringing us closer to the poet’s original power.

The 750th anniversary of Rumi’s death is also being marked here. But commemorative events should not only pay homage to the mystic as a museum-worthy poet from a distant past, but also try to bring his timeless teachings into the present, teachings that remind anyone who has forgotten themselves of what is important in life.

Rumi insistently encourages us to abandon the search for fulfilment in an ever-changing external world and instead raise the treasure from within. If peace does not prevail within a person, this discord manifests itself externally in the form of division and wars – a level that’s often overlooked whenever we wonder why bloodshed is a regular feature of history, whether on the borders of Europe or elsewhere.

Marian Brehmer

© 2023

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Marian Brehmer studied Iranian Studies and writes as a freelance author with a focus on Islamic mysticism. He is the author of the book "Der Schatz unter den Ruinen: Meine Reisen mit Rumi zu den Quellen der Weisheit" (Herder, 2022), a spiritual travelogue that tells of encounters with Sufis, seekers and sages in Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and Turkey.