This piece was written by Bahar Davary, an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of San Diego.
Jalaluddin Muhammad Balkhī (1207-1273), better known as Rumi, is the best-selling poet in America and arguably the most universally respected poet of all time. Today, Rumi’s poems are recited by Madonna and Demi Moore among others, and presented to the market in selections by Deepak Chopra. He is commonly quoted on Reddit , as well as on t-shirts, mugs, and calendars. Among the signs of his popularity with celebrities is that Beyoncé and Jay-Z named one of their twin daughters Rumi! In spite of all of this publicity, few people know or acknowledge that he was a Muslim, let alone a Muslim theologian and jurist. Why is that? What do we know about Rumi? Was he a Muslim? And if so, why does it matter?
A few things are unequivocally clear in his biographies: First and foremost, that he was a Muslim, he was named Muhammad, and he was given the title “Jalaluddin,” meaning “glory of the faith,” at a young age by his father (who was a great scholar himself), due to his aptitude in theology. Rumi is by no means the only Muslim poet whose poetry has been depleted of its religious content, nor is this a new phenomenon. Other poets like Hafez and Omar Khayyam have suffered the same fate. If Rumi is to be understood more completely, he has to be known not simply by the vague epithet of mystic, but as an important commentator of the Qur’an. At a time when shari’a is increasingly casted as a boogeyman, it should be made known that he not only abided by the shari’a, but was himself a jurist. And that neither “Islam” nor “shari’a” are monolithic.
We also know that he was an immigrant; a refugee who had to flee not only his birth city of Wakhsh but northeastern Iran as a whole, along with his entire family and community. He was only a preteen during this mass exodus brought about by the unjust rule in Khorasan and eventually the massacre and destruction brought about by the Mongol invasion. Jalaluddin’s family and the other refugees moved westwards, making the 3000-mile journey to Konya (in modern-day Turkey). With the arrival of the best and brightest into Konya (which was, at the time, a newly Islamized polity), it became the new center of Islamic culture and learning. It was there that Jalaluddin started his teaching career as a theologian at age 24, and became known as Rumi.
We know that a little more than a decade later, at age 37, Rumi, the theologian-turned poet and mystic, produced 27,000 verses of the Masnavi and about 35,000 verses contained within his Divan-e Shams. These are the undeniable historical facts of his life. It is also undeniable that his work has universal appeal, and that his influence transcends ethnic, national, and religious boundaries. Rumi belongs to the world; to all people, all places, and all times. He wrote:
“What is to be done, O Muslims? for I do not recognize myself. I am neither Christian, nor Jew, nor Zoroastrian, nor Muslim.”
The question arises: why should we emphasize his religion, while he did not see himself within such narrow categories? To answer the question, we should observe the rest of this poem.
“I am not of the East, nor of the West, nor of the land, nor of the sea; I am not of nature’s mint, nor of the circling heavens. I am not of earth, nor of water, nor of air, nor of fire; I am not of the empyrean, nor of the dust, nor of existence, nor of entity. I am not of India, nor of China, nor of Bulgaria, … nor of Khorasan. I am not of this world, nor of the next, nor of paradise, nor of Hell; I am not of Adam, nor of Eve, nor of Eden and Rizwan. My place is the placeless, my trace is the Traceless; ‘Tis neither body nor soul, for I belong to the soul of the Beloved.” (Divan-i Shamsi Tabriz 125)