Long before Islam surged out of the Arabian peninsula to engulf the Byzantine empire in the West and Persia in the East, Balkh had passed through cycles of greatness and decline. Hardly more than a town today, nothing but its ruins suggest that it is one of the oldest cities in the world. Legend holds that Zoroaster was born in Balkh, and history confirms that he taught there. Situated on a now dry tributary of the Amu Darya river, Balkh became Bactra, the centre from which the religion of Ahura Mazda spread throughout the Persian empire and converted Darius, 'the Great King'. Alexander the Great made Bactra the capital of Bactria, the easternmost province of his extensive though short-lived empire, and it survived as an autonomous kingdom. For several centuries Balkh was a great centre of Buddhist learning and monasticism, and though it was distant from the centre of the Islamic world, it became 'the mother of cities' for Muslim intellectual life.
When the Khvarizmshahs added Balkh to their rapidly expanding empire in A.D. 1206, it soon became the centre of court culture. Fakhr al-Din al-Razi represented the scholastic trend in Islamic theology and metaphysics, sparked by the Muslim discovery of Plato but increasingly Aristotelian in detail. Baha' al-Din Walad spoke for the school of al-Ghazzali, who sought to purify Islam with its scholastic outgrowth and restore its innate simplicity, and who found the basis of spiritual authenticity in intense mystical experience. Baha' al-Din Walad became so famous for his theological learning, mystic insight and personal sanctity that he was dubbed Sultan of the Ulema, the traditional legalists who were responsible for Muslim education. At the same time, he was honoured as a great Sufi mystic and teacher. He traced his descent through his father to Abu Bakr, the first caliph after Muhammad, and through his mother to the ruling Khvarizmshahs. When his son was born on September 30, 1207, he was named Jalal al-Din Muhammad, and he was nurtured in a home of learning and culture, grace and political sophistication.
For several years, court life was precarious in Balkh. Before Fakhr al-Din al-Razi died in 1210, several members of the Sufi movement of Baha' al-Din Walad had been killed or died in suspect circumstances. With the passing of his theological opponent, tensions were relaxed for almost a decade, and Jalal al-Din learnt to move with ease in the royal court, the orthodox schools and Sufi circles. In 1219 Baha' al-Din Walad saw that the advancing Mongol hoard under the disciplined leadership of Jenghiz Khan would not be stopped at the gates of Balkh, and he fled with his family to Nishapur. There the renowned mystical poet, Farid al-Din Attar, recognized the nascent spiritual gifts of Jalal al-Din and presented him with a copy of his Asrar-nama, Book of Secrets, a devotional work which Jalal al-Din assimilated and quoted throughout his life. Continuing their flight, the family spent three days in Baghdad before deciding to make the best of an unfortunate situation by undertaking the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca. For several years the fugitives wandered in Syria and Anatolia, eventually setting in Laranda, a village southeast of Konya in south-central Turkey. There Jalal al-Din married Gauhar Khatun, who bore him a son in 1226. The boy, Sultan Walad, would become his father's biographer and successor.
Konya was the ancient Iconium, thrice visited by Paul of Tarsus and, according to one legend, the final resting place of Plato. The Seljuqs took Konya in 1070 when they won Anatolia from the Byzantine empire. Kai Ka'us I had built a fine palace there, and his successor, Kai Qubad I, completed a great mosque, and Konya became the capital of the Seljuq empire. On hearing of Baha' al-Din Walad's reputation for wisdom and holiness, Kai Qubad invited him to Konya to head a madrasah or religious school. In the two years before he died, he gathered about him the best disciples in the area, many of whom were refugees from the ghastly destruction wrought by the encroaching Mongol armies. Jalal al-Din was appointed successor upon his father's death. From the first, his teaching and preaching were appealing in depth of learning and freshness of expression. Playing his appointed role with gracious precision, Jalal al-Din veiled the mystical dimension in his nature. A year after he took up his public duties, however, a mature disciple of his father came to Konya in search of his old master. Burhan al-Din Muhaqqiq, discovering that his teacher was dead, paid homage to him by instructing his son in the deeper Sufi mysteries and the spiritual Path. In his company Jalal al-Din studied in Aleppo and Damascus, meeting a number of Sufis, including the great Andalusian mystic Ibn 'Arabi. For nine years Jalal al-Din learnt from Burhan al-Din, and when his teacher died in 1240, he resumed his teaching with renewed vigour.
Jalal al-Din began to publish his sermons under the name Jalal al-Din Rumi, ostensibly because he had made his home in the Seljuq kingdom of Rum (from 'Rome', meaning the old Byzantine empire). Sufis knew, however, that Rumi is numerologically equivalent to 256, the number of Nur, the Persian and Arabic word for 'Light' and one of the ninety-nine contemplative names of Allah. Behind the elegant orthodox sentences of his sermons is to be found the light of spiritual vision for those with mystic sight.
On November 30, 1245, Jalal al-Din Rumi's life was torn from complacent routine and plunged into crisis and exaltation. A wandering Sufi from Tabriz named Shams al-Din (Sun of Religion) entered Konya and immediately joined the circle of disciples gathered around the respected teacher. Traditions vary greatly concerning this first meeting. One version says that Rumi had a collection of books before him as he taught. Shams-i-Tabriz broke into Rumi's lecture by pointing to the books and asking, "What is this?" Unused to curt interruptions, Rumi brushed the question aside by saying, "You don't know." At once the books burst into flame, and Rumi, startled, exclaimed "What is this?" "You don't know", Shams quietly replied, and walked away. Some say that Shams dropped the books in a fountain, and, when Rumi deplored the loss of precious texts, withdrew them undamaged. Another version holds that Shams stopped Rumi in the street, asking, "What is the purpose of wisdom and knowledge?" With calm confidence Rumi answered, "To follow and reach the Prophet." "This", Shams countered, "is commonplace." "What then is the purpose of knowledge?" Rumi asked back. "Knowledge", Shams replied, "is that which takes you to its source, for as Sana'i said, 'Ignorance is far better than knowledge which does not take you away from yourself.'" All accounts agree that Rumi instantly recognized the spiritual wellspring that poured forth from Shams and sought at once to become his disciple. Shams took Rumi into a secret retreat for forty days (or, according to some, three months). The contents of that privileged period are cloaked in absolute silence, for neither man ever spoke of it and no one living at that time or since has presumed to guess at what transpired behind the veil of withdrawal.
When Rumi emerged from this remarkable retreat, he was a transformed human being. His learning remained intact to the subtlest detail, but the seeds sown by his father, by Attar and by his teacher Burhan came into profuse bloom and splendid fruition. In Shams, Rumi found the spiritual friend, the divine Beloved, who represented the perfect spiritual relationship between divine and human, the immanence of Deity which is also its inconceivable transcendence. Rumi took Shams into his own home, leaving his disciples for long periods to sit at the feet of this sage who appeared more of a scruffy ascetic than a courtly scholar. The mystic intensity of the relationship aroused the jealousy of the disciples in the growing Mevlevi order founded by Rumi and scandalized his own family. Twice Shams was forced to flee for his life to Damascus; twice Sultan Walad, Rumi's son, travelled there to entreat him to return to his grieving father. The disciples repented their petty and disrespectful behaviour, asking and receiving the forgiveness of Shams. Nevertheless, envy and misunderstanding, a sense of alienation and exclusion, quickened their fear and dislike of the strange sage to such a degree that suddenly one day in 1248, he disappeared. Rumi long believed that Shams had simply left Konya for a third time, but others, some of whom might have been involved, thought that Shams had been murdered and hastily buried near a well that exists to this day.
Rumi was inconsolable. He renounced his teaching and abandoned his orthodox modes of life. Having rejected music, poetry and dance as frivolities, he now turned to them with ardour. Dancing to the sweet, abstract strains of Persian instruments, he began to cultivate that unique form of ecstatic trance that gave the Mevlevi order the name 'whirling dervishes'. Whilst moving in a profound state of divine unity and inner peace, Rumi would spontaneously utter ghazals, poems which follow a rigorous pattern roughly analogous to the sonnet, but which were devoted exclusively to Shams. Disciples scribbled them down or memorized them on the spot, and these became the magnificent Diwan-i-Shams-i-Tabriz, dedicated to his teacher.
For Rumi, Shams alone was drunk with Divine Wisdom, Shams alone keenly felt every subtle separation between his own consciousness and divinity. Rumi's distress over the loss of his friend was an expression of the soul's yearning for the Hermetic psychopomp in this realm of the 'living-dead'. Convinced that nothing appears objectively in the world that is not an aspect of the immortal Self of each human being, Rumi journeyed within to find Shams, and in time discovered that he sought his own Higher Self.
When this realization blazes up in the core of one's being, the lover and the beloved, the seeker and what is sought, become one. Beginning in fana, the removal of the personal sense of 'I', it ends in baqa, the total integration found in profoundest meditation.
Many of Rumi's disciples believed that Shams was Khidr, the mysterious sage who appeared in various ages and places to help sincere Sufis on the Path to illumination. For Rumi, Shams had become his own true Self.
Reconstituting his disciples as a distinctive Sufi order, in which the sacred dance became the chief mode of self-transcendence, Rumi taught by example. Whilst continuing to discourse to his disciples, he most often spoke in poetry, interspersing his verses with stories and maxims. Once, when hearing a goldsmith's hammer rhythmically working the metal, he was inspired to sing a ghazal. Rumi found that the goldsmith, though uneducated, handled gold with a reverent devotion that resonated with the alchemical process unfolding in himself, and soon took the smith, Salah al-Din Zarkob, into his confidence. For years they were fast friends. Sometime after Salah died in 1261, Hisam al-Din Chalapi became Rumi's close companion, serving him until Rumi died in 1273. Upon Hisam's suggestion, Rumi composed the massive Mathnavi-yi Ma'maui, Spiritual Couplets, eventually containing twenty-six thousand rhymed couplets and numerous illustrative stories and parables, several thousand odes and hundreds of rubai's (quatrains). The Mathnavi, always the source of inspiration for his disciples down through generations, became the greatest poetic work in the Persian language.
Rumi did not construct a systematic philosophy. His youthful studies had given his intellect clarity and precision, but his ever-growing soul-vision suffused everything he said. To truly understand any part is to understand the whole. Rumi renounced systems because divine philosophy is understood only as it pervades every aspect of one's life.
For Rumi, whatever one can know of reality, which is divine in nature and graded in manifestation, is known through purified inner experience. The so-called objective world is understood only through the lens of pellucid spiritual intuition. The root experience from which all else springs is love, "a spirit of oneness with the universe".
Love is the key to understanding, the guide to faultless conduct, the purifier of thought and the balm of sorrows. It is the physician, the alchemist, the teacher, the way. Demanding no proofs, it is both faith and devotion. Without a strong and consistent love, a human being is the victim of wahm, opinion and images. Reason stands against sensuality and images, but pure intuition directs the untainted reason. Reason gives knowledge, but love provides certitude.
The distinction in experience between internal and external, subjectivity and objectivity, requires the division of reality into two realms, that of spirit and that of nature. Material objects belong to the latter, but soul is wholly spiritual, and as such is ultimately undifferentiated. Being supersensual and super-rational, it is not other than Deity itself. The soul's seeming separation from itself into myriad souls and its return to its deific unity is the process of evolution. Whilst evolution begins in matter, Rumi adds that "my body is a product of my soul, not my soul a product of my body". The soul in its nature evolves matter and then invests it with itself in a long process of transformations which makes of manifestation the symbol of Deity.
Since the human will is free, and has its analogy in every level of nature, evolution is both progressive and cyclic. Evil is unavoidable in such a universe, a privation of perfection on each plane, and it functions to strengthen the will and character of the evolving creature. Absolute evil is impossible, and even Iblis (Satan) may be redeemed.
Just as the primordial impulse of love allowed that movement of the Divine Soul which is the universe, so the cultivation of love transcends all opposites in the soaring of the soul to itself, the Divine Unity. It is the fate of man to strive for perfection. Struggling against what seems to be destiny is the destiny of man.
By the time Rumi died in 1273, Muslims, Jews and Christians were to be found amongst his disciples. Though Rumi used the language of one religious tradition, he rose above religions and sectarian viewpoints, borne aloft by a flaming vision and pristine awareness that defies the categories and nomenclature of those who fashion schools and standpoints. When Rumi was buried, a Sufi asked a Christian present why he wept so bitterly. "We esteem him as the Moses, the David, the Jesus of the age", he replied. Rumi's tomb remains a place of pilgrimage today, and his order of whirling dervishes, still under the leadership of Rumi's direct descendants through Sultan Walad, spin with their wide skirts flaring out in grand revolving wheels rotating about an invisible centre which is the Divine Presence in every human being. For Rumi, the integrated individual is one with the Divine and is the Man of God. His desire is the universal will in its most splendid manifestation. Rumi aspired with his whole being to become just such a Man: