The latest news is that Beyoncé named one of her new babies after a Persian poet. Everyone is abuzz with discussions of who this man was and what exactly this means. Although the poetry was written in the 13th century, it has gathered popularity in the west beginning in the early 21st century. So who was Jalal al-Din Rumi?
Jalal al-Din Rumi was born September 30, 1207 in the city of Balkh, which is is in present day Afghanistan. He lived with his family on this far eastern edge of the Persian Empire, and was raised in the tradition of his family as an Islamic jurist. His father Baha ud-Din Walad was considered the “Sultan of the Scholars”. Balkh was a center of Persian culture and Sufism. There Rumi was exposed to the Persian poets Fariduddin Attar and Sani, who apart from his father were the most important influences on the young man. When the Mongols led by Genghis Khan began invading, the family moved 2,000 miles to the west to Konya in Anatolia. On the way to Konya, the family made the pilgrimage to Mecca and met Rumi’s idol, Fariduddin Attar, in the Iranian city of Nishapur. Attar recognized the eighteen year old’s talent and gave Rumi a copy of his book Asrārnāma, or The Book of God, a book about the entanglement of the soul in the material world. This meeting and Attar’s work had a profound affect on Rumi’s later life and work.
In Konya, Baha ud-Din became the head of a madrassa, or religious school. When he died in 1231, the twenty-five year old Rumi took his father’s place. He also became an Islamic Jurist, issuing fatwas and giving sermons. By this time, he had married twice and been widowed once and was the father of four children- three sons and a daughter. A very respectable life. However, things changed when he met Shams-e Tabrizi. Shams was a dervish, or “God-man”, who had taken a vow of poverty. He was a blunt man who was far below Rumi’s social class. His nickname was “the Bird” because he could not stay in one place for very long. Stories say that Rumi was teaching his students by a fountain and Shams crashed the lecture and threw Rumi’s books into the water. Rumi was horrified as the books he was carrying included his father’s journals, and now they were ruined. When asked why he did such a thing, Shams replied that now Rumi would have to live what he had been reading about. Instead of infuriating Rumi, this inspired him. Later he said that his true life and true poetry began at that meeting, and
“What I had thought of before as God, I met today in a human being.”
Not everyone shared Rumi’s appreciation for Shams. The fact that the two men were in such different social classes was a problem. The two were not supposed to be interacting on a friendly level. Plus Shams was irascible and had a terrible temper. He was said to swear in front of Rumi’s children and generally be anti-social. He was repeatedly driven away by Rumi’s disciples, and made a bitter enemy in one of Rumi’s sons, Ala al-Din. One story says, that after being driven off by death threats, Rumi was despondent because he was so lonely for his teacher and friend. Rumi got a harebrained idea, and married his young step daughter to the teacher to legitimize his presence in their home. Young Keemia was around twelve and Shams had to be about sixty. This was a bad idea all the way around. Keemia later died of an unknown illness and Shams disappears. Some stories say he reverted to his old wandering ways and ended up in India. Other stories say he was killed for religious blasphemy. Still others say he was killed by young Keemia’s step brother, Rumi’s son. No one knows for sure. Rumi is said to have gone looking for his lost friend, and wrote the verse:
Why should I seek? I am the same as
He. His essence speaks through me.
I have been looking for myself!
Rumi’s mourning for his lost teacher and friend was transformed into a collection of poetry called, Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi or The Works of Shams Tabriz. This was a collection of over 40,000 lyric verses of all types of Eastern-Islamic poetry and is considered one of the greatest works of Persian literature. The last years of Rumi’s life, he spent with his scribe and favorite student, Hussam-e Chalabi. Rumi dictated his masterwork, Masnavi-ye Ma’navi or Spiritual Verses, to Hussam-e Chalabi and it is considered one of his most personal works. It is regarded by some Sufis as the Persian-language Koran.
Rumi died of an unknown illness on December 17, 1273 and was buried next to his father in Konya. A shrine called Yeşil Türbe, or the Green Tomb, was constructed over his burial site. His epitaph reads: “When we are dead, seek not our tomb in the earth, but find it in the hearts of men.”