"Light your beacon!"

Dervishes on a ceiling painting in a cultural centre in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan
Dervish images on a ceiling painting in a cultural centre in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan (image: Marian Brehmer)

In Rumi's lifetime, too, people were frightened by war and uncertainty. His poetry has much to teach us about human nature

By Marian Brehmer

On 17 December 2023, as hundreds of people were streaming into Konya's Mevlana Museum to gather at Rumi's tomb for a ceremony marking the 750th anniversary of his death, a bomb was falling on Gaza every minute and the war in Ukraine was approaching two years old. Do not say: everyone is waging war, so what good will my peace do? / You are not one, but thousands. Light your beacon! Rumi wrote in one of his ghazals – verses which now seem relevant once again.  

"Everyone is waging war" – someone growing up in Rumi's time may also have got the impression that the world was literally drowning in spilled blood. Just a few years after Rumi and his family left their home in Balkh in what is now Afghanistan, the Mongols swept through the region. Genghis Khan and his hordes laid waste to entire areas and cultures. 

Riding in on their horses, the Mongol warriors mounted campaigns that were an unprecedented catastrophe in the Islamic world of that time. Balkh was reduced to rubble. Later, when Rumi was already living in Anatolia, the Mongols advanced all the way into the Seljuk empire: the city of Sivas gave in without a fight, and the Mongols took Kayseri in 1242 and razed it to the ground. Konya was spared – something that religious literature later ascribed to Rumi's presence in the city. 

Rumi later declared, in a poem in the Divan-i Shams: The people are fleeing from the Mongols / We serve the Creator of the Mongols. The verse is a good example of Rumi's vision of the unity of all existence, which remains unaltered by the constant battle of opposites in our world. He also displays the unshakeable equanimity of a mystic, who has tapped a source of faith and certainty within himself that will not be defeated by any external event – including the threat of war. 

From theologian to mystic

How did Rumi attain this vision of unity, in which there is neither friend nor foe? Rumi's transition from intellect-focused theologian to mystic drunk on love came about thanks to his spiritual companion Shams al-Tabrizi. When Shams entered his life, Rumi – who was at that time a 37-year-old preacher and Koran scholar – stopped teaching. 

It is said that the pair withdrew together for months, as Shams conveyed his wisdom to Rumi and led him beyond the intellect into worlds that eluded conventional thought. What Shams did with Rumi was what Rumi later called on his pupils to do in the Masnavi: Sell your cleverness and buy confusion! / Cleverness is opinion, but confusion is vision. 

But the crucial process of maturation only began with Shams's sudden disappearance. Twice Shams left Konya very suddenly, and the second time he was never to return. Rumi couldn't bear not knowing whether he would ever see his friend again. Later he taught that fearful yearning for certainty and security is an obstacle on a person's spiritual journey: All your uncertainty comes from a yearning for certainty. / Yearn for uncertainty, and certainty will come to you. 

The pain of separation from Shams was like a fire for Rumi, roasting all that was still "raw" in him over blazing flames. Ultimately, Rumi came to understand that in reality, Shams never parted from him. He overcame the loss of his friend, integrated Shams's teaching into his own and from then on lived in a state of complete unity with everything that exists. The Sufis call such a master insan-i kamil, a "complete person" who has fully developed his potential in this world. 

Sarcophagus in the Rumi Mausoleum in Konya, Turkey
More than an "ambassador of tolerance": sarcophagus in Rumi's mausoleum in Konya, Turkey. Rumi's students included Christians, who are said to have honoured the wisdom teacher after his funeral as the "Jesus of our time" (image: Marian Brehmer)

More than a "ambassador of tolerance"

In this way, Rumi became a beacon, drawing in people from all cultures and religious denominations in Konya – in fact, his pupils included some Christians who, after Rumi's burial, are said to have described their wise teacher as the "Jesus of our age". This is remarkable, and shows that to simply call Rumi a "messenger of tolerance" as people often do today is to sell him short.

After all, the word "tolerance" implies something different that is tolerated, be it a different worldview, a different notion of God, or an opposing political opinion. But for Rumi, these divisions did not exist. He could see himself in every other person and saw the divine essence in everyone first and foremost. 

Tensions and conflicts between people, so Rumi reminds us, rest on the paradigm of separation – seeing two where in reality only one exists. Between religions in particular we see repeated wars over names and forms, although all these external appearances ultimately derive from an indivisible unity. 

Iran's national poet Hafez, who lived in the century after Rumi, also recognised this: Forgive the war of the 72 sects – because they did not recognise the truth, they set out on the path of fantasy. 

Mural in Mazar-e Sharif showing Rumi's face
From Afghanistan to Turkey: Rumi is still revered across the region today. Mural painting in Mazar-e Sharif depicting Rumi's likeness (image: Marian Brehmer)

A lack of humility

This problem becomes especially vivid in one story from the Masnavi about an Arab, a Greek, a Persian and a Turk, who want to go shopping at the market with a dirham. A bitter argument breaks out: the Arab wants to buy "anab", while the Greek would like "istafil", the Persian has a yearning for "angur" and the Turk wants "uzum".

A passer-by who speaks all four languages takes the dirham from the squabbling men and comes back a short while later with a handful of grapes. The four friends are delighted: this is exactly what I wanted! The mediator explains that in fact, they all wanted the same thing; they just hadn't understood one another. 

In Rumi's words, the moral of the story is: The disunity among people is caused by names / Peace comes when they get through to the inner meaning. What makes it difficult to see the inner meaning is nafs, that egotistical force in people that leads them into division and incites them to do bad things. Rumi compares nafs to a sleeping dragon, just waiting for an opportunity to emerge. One of the characteristics of the "appetitive soul" as it is sometimes called in translations of Sufi works is arrogance and a lack of humility – a problem that can frequently be seen in our modern culture of debate. As Rumi writes in the Masnavi: There is no greater evil in your soul, you proud man, than the delusion of perfection. 

Calligraphy of a Rumi verse
Calligraphy of a Rumi verse: "When it comes to the mistakes of others, you split hairs / But as soon as you realise your own mistake, you are clueless" (image: Marian Brehmer)

Against dogmatism and fanaticism

Rumi was firmly against all forms of dogmatism and fanaticism, and recognised how these things have so often led to wars and conflicts in the history of humanity. He saw opposing poles between people and their views as forms of expression for the multifaceted manifestation of the divine on earth. 

But as long as people are fragmented internally – meaning, as long as their inner life is dominated by a war of opposing voices and impulses – there can be no peace in the external world, either. 

This link may well be one of the most important lessons from Rumi's teachings for today's world: to understand that peace in the world can only be brought about by a transformation of human consciousness. Rumi reminds us again and again that this change is possible. 

And this makes him a figure so timeless that his words continue to touch millions of hearts seven and a half centuries after his death. Rumi encourages us to give up the search for fulfilment in the constantly changing external world, and instead to embark on a journey inwards, which will lead us to treasure deep within ourselves: Journey from yourself to your Self! For this journey will turn dust into a gold mine

Marian Brehmer

© Qantara.de 2024

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

This concludes our series on the 750th anniversary of Rumi's death 

Marian Brehmer studied Iranian Studies and is a freelance writer with a focus on Islamic mysticism. He is the author of "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.