Rumi was a preacher before being a poet. Coming from a line of Islamic theologians, he was a celebrity delivering sermons to hordes of followers at the age of 38. Eloquent and magnetic, wearing a turban and a silk robe, he evangelized in the mosques and theological institutions of Konya. Disciples and admirers from Nishapur to Damascus to Makkah called him Molana – our Master.
He was beginning to tire of fame. It was a trap, he would later suggest in his writings, just like dogma, as were the obsessions with title, rank, and prestige that plagued the religious and scholarly milieu. While extolling self-transcendence, sheikhs and scholars yearned for robes of honor and, as height indicated status, some stuffed their turbans with rags. Rumi yearned to be freed from this suffocating world, for a friend and seer free from worries, for an honest and intimate conversation. He longed to really feel what he called for in his sermons: liberation from the cramped shell of self, union with boundless Love, with God.
It was then that Rumi met Shams, a scruffy, rebellious wanderer in a coarse felt robe, 22 years his senior. Shams was a free thinker, an independent scholar, and a well-versed mystic who worked as a henchman. Content to remain on the fringes of spiritual and scholarly circles, he occasionally spoke at gatherings or engaged in private discussions. He had a sharp tongue, an unabashed love for music, and a knack for piercing through artifice. Some dismissed it as rude and blasphemous. Others found his honesty refreshing and sought him out as a sheikh. But Shams was not interested in followers. He said, “They kept insisting, take us as disciples, give us robes! When I fled, they followed me to the inn. They offered gifts but I wasn’t interested and left. Moving from town to town whenever he felt the urge, Shams earned himself the nickname “Parandeh” – bird.
He longed to really feel what he called for in his sermons: liberation from the cramped shell of self, union with boundless Love, with God.
Just as Rumi grew tired of fame, Shams grew tired of loneliness. “I was bored with myself,” he said. “I wanted to find someone who shared my level of devotion . . . I wanted someone with a deep thirst . . . It was providence, Shams claimed, that led him to travel to Konya and seek out Rumi, whose intelligence, eloquence, dedication and talent he had heard of. met one afternoon in November 1244 in a crowded bazaar. They had barely stopped talking when Rumi got off his mule and, leaving behind him his entourage and his social conventions, rode away with the dervish, his “door of the sun”. The reunion was no less significant for Shams, who said, “I had become a stagnant pool. . . Molana’s spirit stirred mine and the waters began to pour out . . . happily and fruitfully.
Shams issued Rumi a series of challenges. He demanded that Rumi put his books aside and stop reciting passages from them. “Where is your own voice? Answer me in your own voice! Shams insisted. On one occasion, Shams ordered Rumi to buy a jug of wine, which good Muslims were supposed to avoid, and bring it home for all to see. If Rumi was to be freed from the shackles of convention, he had to give up his good name.
Shams also introduced Rumi to the practice of sama, or deep listening. Conventionally understood, sama refers to the practice of listening to a book read aloud with the aim of not only gaining knowledge but also enhancing concentration. The successful student would receive a certificate called the ijazateh sama. Shams understood sama in a radically different sense. For him, the object of attention was not scholarly texts but music and poetry, which he saw as a means of accessing mystical trance, revelation, ecstasy and divine drunkenness. Shams and Rumi kept company with musicians and spent countless hours listening to music. It was an act of defiance of conservative religious authorities, for whom music, apart from chanting passages from the Koran, was at best a distraction and at worst a sin.
If Rumi was to be freed from the shackles of convention, he had to give up his good name.
Sama also came to mean the whirling dance, a demanding and joyful devotional practice to which Shams introduced Rumi. In sama, the dancer rotates counter-clockwise around the axis of the left leg, forever turning towards the heart. Arms outstretched, right palm facing skyward and left toward the ground, the dancer becomes a conduit between heaven and earth, engaging in a 360 degree embrace of creation. As Rumi would say,Sama is the food of lovers. . . In sama the dream of union comes true. . . The roof of the seventh heaven is high. by Sama the scale extends far beyond that.
Shams opened Rumi. His bold spirit, deep understanding of Sufi mysticism and generous guidance in the spiritual practices of fasting, chanting and sama allowed Rumi to move from conceptual understandings to embodied experiences of ego death, union and divine intoxication – states of being central to Sufism. Loving and devoted, Rumi invited Shams, a man many considered inferior, to teach and deliver sermons in his place. When outraged former disciples succeeded in driving the dervish out of town, Rumi was devastated. It was then that he composed his first poems, love letters to absent Shams, who, upon receiving them, return. Although they only spent a total of two years in each other’s company, Shams’ impact never wavered. Rumi continued to compose poems for the rest of his life, occasionally spinning on drums as friends wrote his lyrics. “You broke my cage,” he said in praise of Shams. “You boiled my spirit, turned my grapes into wine.” The sober preacher had become an ecstatic poet.
Rumi wrote some 65,000 verses, which are collected in two books: the Masnavi, a didactic and narrative poem in rhyming couplets, discovering “the roots of the roots of the roots of religion”, as Rumi describes it; and the Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizia vast collection of lyrical quatrains and ghazals. Here, Rumi speaks as a humble seeker, a demanding sage, a kind elder, and an ecstatic and ravaged lover. With one exception, the Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi is the source of the poems of Gold, a forthcoming selection of my translations of Rumi’s work.
the ghazal is a lavish and demanding form, consisting of a chain of five or more verses, each ending in a single refrain, or less commonly, a single rhyme. Although bound together by repetition, the verses stand as distinct units, and their tone, imagery, and perspective are meant to vary and amaze. Word ghazalthe Oxford English Dictionary tells us, is etymologically related to gazelle and like a gazelle, the ghazal is moving by leaps and bounds.
Rumi’s gold is not the precious metal, but an emotional state achieved by the alchemical process of burning through layers of self, greed, pettiness, calculation, doctrine – all of it.
The Farsi and English languages have quite different poetic resources and habits. In English, it is impossible to replicate the rich interplay of sounds and rhymes (internal as well as terminal) and puns that characterize and even animate Rumi’s poems. Meanwhile, the tropes, abstractions, and hyperboles that are so abundant in Persian poetry contrast with the simplicity and concreteness characteristic of poetry in English, especially in the modern tradition. As a translator, I seek to honor the demands of contemporary American poetry and evoke its music while perpetuating the swirling motion and leaping progression of thought and imagery in Rumi’s poetry.
Translation, especially of poetry, is always a form of interpretation. Sometimes Rumi’s lines lend themselves to literal transcription. Elsewhere, its meanings baffle even the most well-versed Farsi readers. AT shab-e-shers, evenings of Persian poetry, it is not uncommon to hear people argue over one or more verses of Rumi, offering their different interpretations. Perhaps it is its elusiveness, its leaps and its paradoxes, their challenges and the invitations they offer, that attract so many readers and translators to its text.
“Gold” is a word that recurs throughout Rumi’s poetry. Rumi’s gold is not the precious metal, but an emotional state achieved by the alchemical process of burning through layers of self, greed, pettiness, calculation, doctrine – all of it. In short, the prayer of Sufism is “teach me to love more deeply”. Gold is the deepest love.
Rumi lived to be 66 years old. He did not return to preaching, although he remained active in the Konya community, helping to resolve disputes between townspeople, offering advice and comfort, writing letters to royalty to help poor students and others in need. . And of course he continued to write poetry, his greatest service. He spent the last years of his life completing the Masnavi and write more quatrains and ghazals for the Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi, composing poems even on his deathbed. The final couplet of the ghazal typically introduces the poet’s name, as a sort of signature. In all of his work, however, Rumi never includes his name. Often he invokes Shams or he simply asks for silence, khamush. He was above all a follower of the mystical state of summer, selfless anonymity and a believer that anything worth saying emerges from silence.
I hope Rumi’s spirit lives on in the translation and that his love, wisdom and dedication to liberation move you.
From intro to Gold by Rumi, translated from Farsi by Haleh Liza Gafori, published by NYRB Classics. Introduction copyright © 2022 by Haleh Liza Gafori.