By Azadeh Moaveni
January 20, 2017
The Life of the Sufi Poet of Love
By Brad Gooch
377 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $28.99
Rumi the Aleppo-trained imam, whose sermons beguiled both the orthodox and the subversive of the medieval Islamic world. The theologian who likened writing to sticking his hand in tripe. The abstainer from wealth, who hid in the toilet to avoid the company of princely visitors. The Muslim who prayed toward Mecca five times a day so assiduously that he said, “Whoever looks into my face remembers to pray.” Rumi, one of the best-selling poets in the United States. The poet of love and ecstasy, whose verses inspire Deepak Chopra and Madonna and make their bowdlerized way into soundtracks played on catwalks and in humid rooms at Jivamukti yoga. Whose sayings can adorn your life on shower curtains, branded mats, Christmas tree baubles and iPhone cases. The stated inspiration for a number of workshops at Esalen, the Gestalt retreat in California where people sit naked in hot tubs overlooking the Pacific.
Few religious figures in the history of civilization have as successfully crossed borders of faith, language and geography as nimbly as Jalal al-Din Mohammad Rumi, the great 13th-century theologian and mystic poet. The son of an eccentric and ambitious Muslim preacher, Rumi, who is known in the Persianate world as Maulana, “our master,” circumnavigated the Middle East of the day, then overrun by invading Mongols and Seljuks, before eventually settling in Konya, in Anatolia.
There Rumi inherited his father’s mantle, presided over a shabby but magnetic seminary, and became one of the most beloved and discussed religious figures in the realm. His reputation and appeal, both across time and in his own, lay in some elusive layering of acute religious knowledge, personal charm and wit, and a capacious spirit that was both deeply human and haloed with otherworldly prescience. He brought musical instruments into prayer and practiced the whirling dance of Sama, declaring that these practices helped the human soul connect with its divine source. Princes and commanders flocked to him, tolerating icy reproach. Christians and Jews followed him in the street. Beggars felt comfortable approaching him.
But everything changed when the wild-eyed mystic Shamshuddin of Tabriz showed up in Konya. The two became interlocked in an intense months long encounter that transformed Rumi’s approach to devotion. The devotees around him grew jealous and ultimately ran Shams out of Konya. By then nearing his own middle age, Rumi went searching for him and eventually turned that search inward, infusing the lines of his masterwork, the “Masnavi,” with allusions to his spiritual teachings. That work remains one of the most widely read texts in the Muslim and Persian-speaking world, both for its Sufi wisdom and poetic force.
Within Islam itself, Sufism is a centuries-old current that sees religious practice as a means to oneness with God. Sufis have traditionally infused their devotion with poetry and music, and reached for love as a metaphor to describe the human longing for a relationship with the divine. Like many lay Rumi admirers before him, Brad Gooch, whose subtitle calls Rumi “the Sufi poet of love,” projects too much conventional romance onto a relationship that was left deliberately ambiguous in Rumi’s writings. “While no evidence exists of an erotic component, Rumi chose to speak of their spiritual love in the mode of Persian romantic love poetry, and from weaving the two came his evanescent message,” he writes. But language here should not be used as proof. By Rumi’s time, there was no separate mode for earthly love poetry; the Sufis’ metaphorical use of love had taken over the language of Persian poetry entirely. The nuance of that might be the realm of Persian literary scholars, but too much emphasis on earthly love makes Rumi seem like a 13th-century Pablo Neruda.
Gooch, a novelist and poet whose books also include “Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor,” aims to produce a continuous biographical narrative out of Rumi’s life and to make his spiritual journey intelligible to the people who buy the watered-down version of Rumi printed on shower curtains. Like most popular literary biographies, “Rumi’s Secret” may not be especially masterly as a work of criticism. For those who want a more precise portrait, Franklin Lewis’s scholarly biography remains the definitive work.
But Gooch’s book is nonetheless useful. He braves his own translations, and situates Rumi in the broader context of his time and place: a moment of vast creative productivity in the medieval Islamic world, where Sufis were pushing the boundaries of orthodoxy. This path was not without its perils. Nearly 300 years before Rumi, the Sufi saint Mansur al-Hallaj declared, “I am the truth,” an utterance that Sufis understand to this day as the recognition that there is a bit of the divine in all of us. Hallaj was executed for heresy in Baghdad in 922, his limbs chopped off in bloody succession. Rumi flirted with some of these same heretical boundaries, irking local sultans and dour jurisdictional types who often, in the end, forgave him, for he was the great Maulana.
Gooch’s biography brings the political and intellectual tumult of the early medieval era to life, producing vivid characters out of the reigning Seljuk sultans and memorable portraits of urban experience. But against this rich backdrop, he constructs a Rumi who has been simplified for our secular age. Gooch quotes Coleman Barks, the poet from Tennessee who in recent years has popularized Rumi in the United States primarily by riffing off extant English translations, as saying that Rumi had “no use for dividing up into the different names of Christian and Jew and Muslim.”
It is true that Rumi preached and lived by a stance of tolerance, for which he was greatly loved. He identified that all religions were fundamentally in pursuit of oneness with God. But his openness to other creeds did not mean he believed Islam was subsumable into some monotheistic mystical soup. His “Masnavi” is called “the Quran in the Persian tongue,” and is rife with references to Hadith, Quranic sayings and devotion to the Prophet Muhammad. If Rumi arrived at a place of tolerance, it was from within his Islamic tradition, not beyond it.
As part of his tendency to portray Rumi as a proto-humanist, Gooch quotes another scholar who says that “Rumi resonates today because people are thinking post-religion.” While this isn’t necessarily Gooch’s main thesis, his tendency to cast Rumi as Romeo in a turban pushes the book in this direction.
Many contemporary translations of Rumi strip the Persian, Arabic and Quranic references out of his verse, or simply ignore the vast bulk of the “Masnavi” dealing with hard Islamic theology. By divesting Rumi of his Islamicness — which is what today’s culture seems to demand of him — we miss the significance of his role in the history of Islam. As the late scholar Shahab Ahmed writes in his book “What Is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic,” the “historical and human phenomenon that is Islam” for centuries tolerated contradiction and paradox. It was not always the case that strict orthodoxy was viewed as the most authentic expression of the religion. Rumi was one of the earliest bearers of what Ahmed calls “explorative authority.”
In these days of cultural intolerance, there is certainly great value to books that add nuance to hateful, caricatured views of Islam. “Rumi’s Secret” may be a Lonely Planet guide to Sufism, but it is a sensitive and passionate introduction nonetheless. Each era will construct its own Rumi. But ultimately it is only by acknowledging his faith that we can appreciate the profound significance of the Islamic world’s tolerance for his dissidence, for being able to cherish and contain it, for this longstanding push and pull between orthodoxy and innovation that is the story of Islam itself.
Azadeh Moaveni is the author of “Lipstick Jihad” and other books. She is working on a book about women and the Islamic State.