According to Ethnologue, an online resource on world languages, there are more than 7,000 living languages. Some are spoken by hundreds of millions of people, some by much smaller communities. Twenty-three languages account for more than half of the world’s population. All of them have the same goal and function: To communicate thoughts, meanings and feelings between humans. In the extremely diverse world of languages, we express our ideas and feelings and say something to ourselves and other human beings. We state the meaning of our actions through words and sentences. Ideally, we resolve our differences through rational communication. But can speaking the same language always allow us to express our ideas properly?
There are instances where speaking the same language does not help overcome clashes and conflicts. This is where we need more than linguistic capability to reach the minds and hearts of our fellow human beings. This is where Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi enters in when he says, “It is better to speak the same language of the heart than speaking the same tongue.” Meaningful thoughts, expressed through language, make sense when they reach not just the minds but also the hearts of our interlocutors. They have an effect on our souls and minds when communicated through the language of the heart.
Words spoken through the language of the heart can be heard only when they come from another heart. This means that we have to train our hearts to speak to other hearts. Rumi believes that all human beings are endowed with the capacity to speak this language. As a matter of fact, the Islamic intellectual tradition holds that the heart is an epistemic organ as important as the mind and the intellect. The heart is not just the abode of feelings and emotions. It is also a depository of thoughts, ideas and meanings. One of the costly mistakes of modern philosophy was to turn the human heart, the seat of blissful and realized knowledge, into a purely sentimental and psychological faculty.
The mind and the heart are not each other’s enemy. To the contrary, they make up and complete the human self. Without one of them, the human person becomes unfinished and rough. Mind or reason by itself cannot convey all of our thoughts and feelings because we are more than just “thinking machines.” We are also human beings who feel for others, who pray, who cry, who enjoy beautiful things, who think about the meaning of our existence on this transient world.
The heart by itself will not be sufficient to state our thoughts and ideas in a clear and logical manner. The heart and mind together give us an integrated self – a self that sees the world through the eyes of rational principles and transcendent values all at once. With our minds and language, we create meaning. But we also reach out to meaning that is embedded in the inherent nature of things. We approach things with mental frameworks to make sense of them. But it is also true that things present themselves to us as structures with meaning and significance. We create as much as unveiling meaning. This is where the mind and the heart feed each other off and give us a holistic understanding of reality.
Back to Rumi. Why does he prefer speaking the language of the heart to speaking the same tongue? The reason is simple yet profound. People of the same linguistic world may have different ideas but the heart of the language overcomes petty differences and elevates the understanding of human beings to a higher level of perception. It is like moving up to the top of the mountain where we see the whole valley rather than just a part of it. The higher we reach, the deeper is our understanding. It is this deeper understanding rather than bulk of undigested information that leads us to intellectual maturity, faith, virtue and compassion. It is these values and principles that bring out the best in our humanity.
This also explains Rumi’s universal appeal even though he wrote most of his timeless poetry in a particular language at a particular time and place. Like all sages, he seeks to reach the universal and enduring meaning of things beyond their particular expressions. He searches for meaning rather than form without neglecting the latter. After all, he is a poet who is able to express the most profound meanings in beautiful poetry and with head-turning stories. He grounds himself in meaning because he knows that meaning is what endures. And meaning sets us free.