750th anniversary of Rumi’s death – Academic research and spiritual exploration

Whirling Dervishes of the Mevlana order
Dancing dervishes from the Mevlana order in Turkey: the order’s origins date back to Rumi

No Islamic mystic in the past two centuries has touched literary figures and academics in both East and West as much as Rumi. A look at the history of research into this hugely influential spiritual teacher

 “Jalal al-Din, in the East you were the ointment seller. Now I have set up the stall in the West,” wrote Friedrich Ruckert (1788–1866), overcome with enthusiasm for his mystic paragon and inspiration. Rückert, a German Romantic poet, discovered Rumi through the translations of the Austrian diplomat Josef von Hammer-Purgstall.

He quickly recognised the transformative power of Rumi’s teachings, and in his study of Rumi’s poetry, Ruckert found ideas for reconciling the differences between peoples and religions. 

In the third book of the Masnavi, Rumi’s most important work, Rumi wrote: “Come, speak! For the Logos is digging a channel to the end that some water may reach a generation after us.” It seems as if Rumi was aware of the significance his words would have for posterity. And indeed, hardly any other Muslim mystic in history – with the exception of Ibn Arabi (1165–1240) – had such a lasting impact on the thoughts and emotions of Sufis as Rumi.

Rumi’s verses serve those seeking spiritual instruction and guidance. It is said that Rumi is one of the few saints to whom God posthumously endowed the ability to take seekers directly by the hand, as if he were physically alive. One Rumi researcher from Tehran once said to me that hardly any questions that arose along the spiritual path could not be answered by the Masnavi.

Manuscript of a masnawi by Rumi from the 15th century
Manuscript of a masnawi by Rumi from the 15th century (source: Khalil Collections https://www.khalilicollections.org/collections/islamic-art/khalili-collection-islamic-art-the-mathnavi-of-jalal-al-din-rumi-mss945/)

A work of infinite beauty

For over 200 years, the academic world in the West has also been fascinated by Rumi. In the late eighteenth century, British orientalist Sir William Jones wrote the following note in the margin of his copy of the Masnavi: “I know of no writer, to whom the Maulavi [Rumi] can justly be compared, except Chaucer and Shakespeare … so extraordinary a book as the Masnavi was never, perhaps, composed by Man. It abounds with beauties, and blemishes, equally great; with gross obscenity, and pure ethics; with exquisite strains of poetry, and flat puerility; with wit, and pleasantry, mixed jests; with ridicule on all established religions, and a vein of sublime piety; it is like a wild country in a fine climate overspread with rich flowers and the ordure of beasts.”

While the comparison with Chaucer and Shakespeare is debatable, it is worth noting that their works were considered the pinnacle of writing in England at the time. 

Over a century later, another Briton rendered outstanding services to Rumi research: the orientalist Reynold Alleyne Nicholson (1868–1945) is deemed to have paved the way for Rumi’s works in Europe. Although Nicholson never actually travelled to the Middle East and could not speak any of the languages spoken there, he studied literary Arabic and Persian at a level that only very few native speakers could manage. 

At the age of 30, Nicholson published his first translation of ghazals (poems) from the Divan-i Shams, followed by a collection with extracts from Rumi’s work of prose Fihi ma fihi. 

However, Nicholson’s magnum opus is considered to be his translation of the complete Masnavi, which Rumi translators in a range of languages to this day use as a reference when translating his works. Nicholson spent 15 years on his translation, for which he used Ottoman commentaries, especially those of the seventeenth-century Mevlevi sheikh Ismail Ankaravi. 

Ultimately, this project cost Nicholson his sight. His student, Arthur John Arberry (1905–1969), who became known as a result of his translations of Rumi poems from the Divan, said of his mentor that he was the perfect scholar, who was so devoted to his books that he went blind from reading, so modest and humble that he was not aware of his greatness. Arberry completed Nicholson’s translation of Fihi Ma Fihi, which was published as Discourses of Rumi.

Milestones in Rumi research

One important work in the field of modern Rumi research is William Chittick’s The Sufi Path of Love. The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi (1983), in which the renowned American professor of Persian mystic literature and researcher of Ibn Arabi’s work arranged quotes form Rumi’s poetry thematically and put them in the overall context of his teachings. When Franklin Lewis (1961–2022) passed away two years ago, the world lost one of its most important contemporary Rumi experts. 

Lewis, an American literary scholar, first read Rumi’s poetry in California in the 1970s and decided to learn Farsi as a result. Lewis taught Persian language and literature, Islamic philosophy and Iranian cinema at Chicago University. Twenty-four years after its publication, Lewis’s book, Past and Present, East and West (2000) is still considered a milestone in academic work on Rumi.

The 700-page book contains not only a meticulously researched Rumi biography, but also the detailed life story of Rumi’s father, his father’s successor and Rumi’s mentor, his spiritual instructor Shams-e Tabrizi. 

The book also provides an overview of the emergence of the Mevlevi order and the way Rumi’s work was received in the West and the Islamic world. “The book will serve as a touchstone for any future research on Rumi and has been translated into Persian, Arabic, Turkish and Danish,” wrote Paul Losensky, professor of Comparative Literature at Indiana University, in an article on his deceased colleague



"A constant orbiting around the mystery of God"

The Islamic scholar Annemarie Schimmel (1922–2003) was introduced to the works of Rumi by her teacher, the Iranologist Hans Heinrich Schaeder, at the age of 17, while she was studying in Berlin. She was awarded her doctorate only two years later. Schaeder suggested that she read Diwan-i Shams. It was to be the start of a lifelong passion for Schimmel. She studied Rumi’s life work more intensively than any other German and it became the focal point of her rich academic career.

“Maulana Jalal ad-Din Rumi’s entire oeuvre is a constant orbiting around the mystery of God, the beloved and love, an attempt to express the inexpressible, to put it into words,” wrote Schimmel in her Rumi biography I Am Wind, You Are Fire: The Life and Work of Rumi

Schimmel was the first European woman to forge cultural ties in the Turkish Republic through Rumi. At the Seb-i Arus ceremonies (the celebrations marking the anniversary of Rumi’s death – ed.) in Konya on December 17, 1954, Schimmel – who was professor of the history of religion at Ankara University in the mid-1950s – gave a lecture about Rumi to a group of Turkish parliamentarians. At the time, the cultivation of mystic heritage was taboo in Turkey as a result of Ataturk’s ban on Sufi practices.

Within the Mevlevi Order, there is a centuries-old tradition of studying the Masnavi, which is fostered to the present day by the Mevlevi teacher Hayat Nur Artiran. Abdulbaki Golpinarli (1900–1982) is the most renowned Rumi expert in modern Turkey because of his six-volume commentary on the Masnavi, his numerous books on Rumi’s teachings and his history of the Mevlevis. 

In neighbouring Iran, on the other hand, anyone who makes an in-depth study of Rumi’s works – the study of Rumi is one of the principal disciplines at the literary faculty of the University of Tehran – follows in the footsteps of Badiozzaman Foruzanfar (1900–1970).

From research to spiritual quest

As a young man, Foruzanfar met a Sufi who loved to recite Rumi’s verse and whose love for “Mowlana” left such a deep impression on Foruzanfar that he devoted his life to studying the mystic. 

Foruzanfar later read various editions of the Divan and discovered that they contained many poems that were not authentic and that had been written by other poets. Between 1957 and 1967, Foruzanfar published his own ten-volume edition of the divan. 

Foruzanfar died before he was able to finish his commentary on the Masnavi. Franklin Lewis wrote of the Iranian scholar: “Foruzanfar would recite poems in an expressive and emotional tone, the verse of Rumi often bringing tears to his eyes, a moisture which he would soon transfer to the eyes of his students with the cadences and intonation of his recitation.” 

And so, for those who research and study his works, the focus on Rumi’s teachings has always also been a spiritual fathoming and not just an intellectual undertaking. 

Many of them were themselves seekers or became so – imbued with the spirit of his poetry – after studying Rumi’s verses. When one of his students once asked Rumi how they could reach him after his death, he is said to have replied: “I am not the physical presence you observe but the pleasure and the happiness you sense inside as you hear my name and my words. If you feel such a pleasure, treasure the moment and express gratitude, for that is me.” 

Marian Brehmer

© Qantara.de 2024

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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

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