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Framing Rumi’s Ecstasy of Being

The parrots of heaven will be cracking sugar
As we laugh together

From Rumi’s Divan of Shams of Tabriz (translated by James Coleman)

Of late, I have been re-reading some of the writings of Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī, the thirteenth century Persian Sufi mystic whose poetry is so beloved in the contemporary West.

Rumi’s insistence on an ecstatic and mystical union with the divine through physical experience that is both ascetic and sensate, such as sacred dancing, resonates (in some senses) with the “divine materialism” of Sri Vidya tantra. (An interesting article on some possible congruencies between Islam and tantra historically can be found here: http://www.adishakti.org/pdf_files/islam_and_tantra_(sites.netscape.net).pdf .

Sufism, commonly known as the “mystical tendency” within Islam, itself has many branches (as tantra does). And like tantra, it emphasizes studying with a teacher or teachers. Rumi’s beloved teacher was Shams of Tabriz.

Rumi was forty and Shams was sixty when they met. Rumi, married with children, was a member of the privileged classes, a renowned scholar, a lawyer and a religious teacher; Shams was a wandering mystic, poor (although not uneducated) footloose and known as “The Bird” because of his inability to remain in one place for long. Between these two men, something ignited. They went into spiritual seclusion together for several months and from that encounter Rumi the ecstatic poet was born.

In this poem (translated by Will Johnson) Rumi speaks of Shams as his spiritual dancing partner:

Bats in the night sky
Love dancing with darkness

Birds that love the sun
Dance from dawn to dusk

A fast-blowing morning breeze
Go and tell Shams of Tebriz:
Tell me who you are
And come dance with me

Whilst, in this poem, (also translated by Will Johnson) Rumi speaks of Shams as his ecstatic mentor:

There’s not a lover in this world
Who could look at your face
For even one moment
And not be completely melted down

Shams of Tebriz
You’re the fountain of life

That water can only be found
In your entrancing eyes

Rumi’s language in relation to Shams is intense and passionate. They knew one another for just four years. Then, one evening whilst they were talking together at Rumi’s house, so the story goes, Shams was called by a voice at the door, he went out, and was never seen again; it is said he may have been murdered by Rumi’s family.

Some moderns have been drawn to the possibility that Rumi and Shams were in a homosexual relationship. Andrew Harvey (co-editor of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying) is an openly gay spiritual teacher and author based in the US, who has written The Way of Passion: A Celebration of Rumi (1994). He is also the author of an audio book called Gay Mysticism (2000) that locates Rumi, alongside Plato and Walt Whitman, as a “gay mystic”.

On the other hand, the Mevlevi order, founded by Rumi and today a traditional Sufi order based in Turkey, regards itself as the true heir to Rumi’s teachings. An article on their website, by Ibrahim Garnard, “A Reply to Misunderstandings about Rumi and Shams”, takes Westerners like Harvey to task for speculating that Rumi and Shams were involved in a sexual relationship (see http://www.dar-al-masnavi.org/rumi-shams.html ). Garnard argues that the language of love in Persian Sufi poetry refers to “lovers of Allah” and in that sense Rumi and Shams were spiritual lovers, united by their joint experience of the divine. He expostulates that sodomy was, and is, a sin in Islam and that, as devout Muslims, Rumi and Shams themselves condemned it.

Arising between these two perspectives on the relationship between Rumi and Shams, I find many of the contradictions of cultural and historical encounter. The citation of their bond in the service of undoing homophobia is strategically attractive – and oh what sublime love poetry to lay before the feet of gay pride. And yet Garnard is correct that the contemporary West sometimes impoverishes the complexities of close relationships by its tendency to view them only as “made real” through the defining prism of sex acts.

Exactly what kind of love was between Rumi and Shams must remain with them, but the lyrical outpourings it bequeathed to us continue to sing with the cosmos. And in Rumi’s poetic descriptions of ecstatic wholeness, I find strong resonances with the hymns to samadhi found in Hindu traditions, including the tantric.

When the lover breathes
Flames spread through the universe

A single breath shatters this world of illusion
Into the tiniest particles

The world becomes an ocean
From beginning to end
And then the ocean disappears into rapture

At that moment the sky splits open
An uproar fills the world
And all time, space, and existence disappear

(Rumi, translated by Will Johnson).

3 comments

  1. Phil Hine
    Posted August 23rd 2010 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    Jenny

    Some brief notes relating to Tantric/Sufi convergence can be found here: Aspects of Natha doctrines

    You might like Scott Alan Kugle’s Sufis & Saints’ Bodies: Mysticism, Corporeality, & Sacred Power in Islam (Univ. North Carolina Press, 2007). Kugle devotes an entire chapter to examining the life of a unconventional Qalandari Sufi saint, Shah Hussayn – another Sufi who could be described as a “gay mystic” – or at least, as Kugle says of him: “he never married, never raised children, never was the patriarchal leader of a household, and had a primary erotic attachment to another man who also never married.” (p184).

    “A burning oven is my body
    Ever full of flames, hot signs
    My heart pines and burns
    When I make for the bed
    So enamored of him am I

    A body alone could know
    The plight of a body in anquish
    A heart alone could measure
    The longings of a heart
    An intimate alone
    Could read my inner thoughts.

    Oh people of the world
    Why entangle and ensare me
    On false pretexts in vain?
    So asks Hussain, the Faqir.”

    Some interesting thoughts on this blog post

  2. Steve Davies
    Posted August 23rd 2010 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Jenny, a great post- I think that the subtlety that you are pointing toward, the erotic enigma of Rumi’s relationship with Shams is both enlightening and stimulating- the reductionism of Queer identity to a tick box of acts doesn’t feel that helpful to me- the sense of an expanded eroticism that encompasses the possibility of a number of outcomes (pardon the pun!) seems more tantric to my eye.

    Steve

  3. Phil Hine
    Posted August 24th 2010 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    Jenny

    You’ve opened up a reach seam for exploration here – not only in terms of tantric/sufi cross-overs, but also attitudes to sexuality in Islamic mysticism, and the Persian-Urdu poetic traditions which scholars such as Ruth Vanita have explored. There’s also the question of the intense devotion – often expressed in poetic terms – between a teacher and pupil – which hasn’t received much attention in contemporary occult discourse on the nature of the guru-pupil relationship.

    Another useful text in regard to these issues is Dror Ze’evi’s Producing desire: changing sexual discourse in the Ottoman Middle East, 1500-1900 (Univ. California Press 2006). Ze’evi examines the practices of heterodox Sufi sects which interpreted “the contemplation of beauty, especially the beauty of young beardless youths, as a worldly reflection of divine beauty, and, in consequence, encouraged accomplished Sufis to maintain such “spiritual” amorous relations with handsome young boys.” (p87). Ze’evi maintains that such practices, although they were denounced in Islamic moral and legal literature in the strictest terms, were not actually curbed or persecuted in practice, as long as they were done away from public gaze. However, by the 17th-18th centuries, conservative Sufis, alarmed at the spread of these heterodox views, began to issue treatises warning of the dangers of “gazing at beardless youths”.

    review, chapter summary and critique of “Producing Desire” by Khaled El-Rouayheb.