More than seven centuries after his death, Rumi’s poetry still has the capacity to fascinate his readers.
The 13th century Sufi theologian and poet Jalal al-Din Mohammad Rumi is one America’s best-selling poets. His work is read at weddings, performed by artists and musicians in cramped Brooklyn basements, and endlessly quoted on Instagram.
But few people know much about the man behind these timeless lines of poetry. InRumi’s Secret: The Life of the Sufi Poet of Love, the author Brad Gooch seeks to give modern readers a glimpse into Rumi’s life by studying the poet’s travels and his spiritual formation.
Gooch told The Huffington Post that, like many others, he was fascinated by the beautiful and sensual imagery in Rumi’s poetry. While researching the book Godtalk: Travels in Spiritual America, he befriended a group of Sufi Muslims who met in New York City’s Upper West Side. It was there that he became exposed to the religious and spiritual dimension of Rumi’s work.
“I think the romance of the quest for meaning, of the spiritual quest, is what’s so special and seductive about Rumi,” Gooch told The Huffington Post. “He has displayed how human light and divine light reflect each other and go back and forth in this incredible romance and passion to search for meaning.”
Below, the Huffington Post gathered 10 things you probably didn’t know about this celebrated theologian and poet.
1. Rumi was born in Central Asia, most likely in present-day Tajikistan, near the border of Afghanistan.
This region of the world had once been part of the larger Persian Empire, and a result, influenced by the Zoroastrian religion. Beginning in the mid-7th century, Arab tribes began to conquer the land, adding Islam to the mix of religions practiced in the region. According to Gooch, by the time Rumi was born in the town of Vaksh on September 30, 1207, Buddhist influences were also present in the area.
“There was a great clash of cultures but also synergy of cultures in that part of the world that is really important to understand,” Gooch said. “It’s kind of the perfect place for him to grow up.”
2. His father and grandfather were well-known Muslim preachers and jurists, and he was expected to follow this more traditional path.
Rumi came from a line of preachers. His father, Baha Valad, was an occasional preacher at the local mosque and a Sunni jurist. Baha Valad was strict about keeping religious rules and regulations, although he was influenced by Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam that Rumi would later be identified with.
“They were respected people,” Gooch said.
3. As a boy, Rumi reported seeing angels.
There are several stories told about Rumi’s early childhood. When he was five years old, he reportedly saw angels. These episodes agitated the small boy. His father reassured him that the angels were showing themselves in order to offer their favors.
Within years of Rumi’s passing, his grandson had a writer interview people who had known him about the poet’s early life. In fact, many of the stories we have about Rumi’s early years emerged after his death.
“It’s an interesting way of indicating an early interest in religion, spirituality and poetic imagination in Rumi.”
4. Rumi spent part of his life as a refugee and migrant.
Baha Valad resolved to move his family from Vakhsh between 1210 and 1212. At that time, according to Gooch, Genghis Khan was preparing his armies to invade Tajikstan. His father could have also been propelled to leave the town because of local political problems, or by the desire to see Mecca. Whatever the trigger, by the time the family had moved away from their homeland, the Mongols came down and destroyed the great cities that his family had known.
“Rumi never saw his homeland again, never returned,” Gooch said. “They really became refugees and migrant.”
5. The map of Rumi’s life stretched over 2500 miles as his family’s migration lasted nearly two decades.
Rumi’s family traveled from Vakhsh to Samarkand in Uzbekistan, to Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and finally to Turkey, where Rumi spent the last 50 years of his life.
The experience of moving exposed Rumi to many different languages and religious practices.
“He was truly migrant in this sense of passing through all these places. You see it in the impermanence of things embraced in Rumi’s poetry,” Gooch said.
6. Rumi studied religion in a madrase, or college, in Aleppo, which is the scene of such tragic destruction today.
After Rumi’s father died, his boyhood tutor took charge of his spiritual education. Rumi was encouraged to study in Damascus and Aleppo so that he would bolster his presence as a religious teacher and a leader of his father’s community. The education he received at Aleppo was religious in the sense that the center of it was the Quran. He was also exposed to Arabic poetry.
An important part of education at that time was learning to emulate your teacher and receive certain ideas from them.
“There was a very developed academic, scholarly culture especially in Baghdad, Aleppo, and Damascus, and with that a lot of pride, a lot of status,” Gooch said. “The idea of fame or making your name was very important in those kind of scholarly circles.”