Rumi as Religious Genius

Carl W. Ernst

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

For a religious genius from the tradition of Islamic mysticism, probably the best-known example is the Sufi poet, Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi (1207-1273). He was born near the city of Balkh (present-day Afghanistan), but when he was a child his family journeyed west and avoided the onslaught of the Mongol armies. They eventually settled in the city of Konya (present-day Turkey), where Jalal al-Din became first a theologian and later a mystic and poet, called simply “Mawlana” (“our Master”) by his disciples.

While Rumi was the subject of lengthy and reverential biographies, he is best known for his prodigious output of Persian poetry, about 30,000 lines of lyrical verse collected in the Divan-i Kabir, plus 25,000 lines of the great mystical epic, the Masnavi. For centuries, his powerful writing has enjoyed a tremendous popularity from the Balkans to India, and in recent times through English adaptations he has become a cult favorite, in selective renderings that downplay his Muslim identity and accentuate his humor, eroticism, and universality.

When we approach Rumi in terms of “religious genius” as a new category of analysis, a number of methodological issues arise concerning the sources and how we use them to approach Rumi as a religious genius. The first category is Rumi’s own writings. Do those texts, in the words of the project summary, “allow us to study the individuals in and of themselves, rather than their social manifestation”? To what extent may the writings of a mystic be considered to be a transparent index to the author’s inner consciousness, and to what extent should such expressions be viewed as deliberate formulations designed for particular audiences? Certainly this is a common assumption of scholars who measure Rumi’s greatness by his literary production. As one of his translators, A. J. Arberry, remarked, “In Rumi we encounter one of the world’s greatest poets. In profundity of thought, inventiveness and image, and mastery of language, he stands out as the supreme genius of Islamic mysticism.” But the question of Rumi as a mystical author is not a simple one. Leaving aside the fact that Rumi dictated his poems while others wrote them down, one should consider the collaborative character of another important text, his conversations with a member of the local Turkish nobility and other associates, recorded by a disciple, taking the form of a potpourri of topics known by the catchall Arabic title Fihi ma fihi (roughly, “It Is What It Is”). While this book undoubtedly preserves a strong flavor of the oral dexterity of Rumi, it is also a both a dialogical interaction in a particular social context and a written record produced by a third party, underlining the way in which community recognition is a necessary component of religious genius.

Furthermore, there is the question of the relationship between the author’s literary expression, clarification, and analysis of spiritual qualities, and the actual presence of such qualities in the author’s person. Should we assume that Aristotle possessed the positive virtues described in the Nicomachean Ethics, just because he had the perspicacity to define them so insightfully? Another approach to the qualities of religious genius would be to switch from a focus on the individual as the supposed locus of key characteristics, turning instead to a reader-oriented perspective. From this point of view, the main issue would by the ability of the author to engender the qualities of religious by evoking them in the consciousness through literary creativity. In this way, religious genius would not be located so much in the personal qualities of Rumi (whether enunciated in his writings or attributed to him in hagiographies), but in the ongoing responses to his words experienced by ongoing generations of readers.

Moreover, both the composition and the preservation of Rumi’s writings presuppose a process of canonization that explicitly elevated both his lyrical poetry and his epic to the status of sacred scripture. The Sufi scholar Jami (d. 1492) expressed this view when he said, “The spiritual Masnavi of Molevi [Rumi] is the Qur’an in the Persian language.” Rumi himself had underlined the sacred status of this work in his Arabic preface where he states, “This is the book of the Masnavi, which is the roots of the roots of the roots of religion.” Likewise, his lyrical poems in the Divan-i Kabir (“The Great Collection”), as preserved in the splendid contemporary manuscript housed in Konya, are organized according to meter, facilitating their presentation in liturgical performance as a sacred text for the community of his followers. Rumi’s stature among his followers quickly assumed larger than life dimensions. His son and successor, Sultan Walad, drew repeatedly upon an extra-Qur’anic divine saying reported by the Prophet Muhammad, in which God says, “My friends (saints) are beneath my domes; none knows them save Me.” According to Sultan Walad, this saying referred exclusively to Rumi and Shams-i Tabriz as constituting the unique class of God’s most elite hidden saints (thus ironically revealing by this community recognition what is ostensibly a divine secret). Surely the aura of authority conferred by this canonization enhances the literary reputation of the author, predisposing the reader to succumb to the charm of the text, as we see in the theological doctrine of the miraculous inimitability of the Qur’an.

Yet there is something undeniably distinctive about Rumi’s literary expression, which continues to make him stand out as perennially charismatic amid a host of other poets who wrote in Persian over more than a millennium. While Rumi was clearly embedded in the tradition of Islamic mysticism and was a master of the conventions of Persian poetry, his particular genius was the freedom with which he treated these materials, by emphasizing universal themes of human experience and the nature of the cosmos. That freedom accounts for both his accessibility and his immense popularity. Remarkably, over 700 after his death, his writings are quite understandable to Persian speakers today, and there is an enormous amount of contemporary musical performance of his verses by outstanding vocalists. Rumi also broke the conventional rules in lyrical poems, where he never used a signature line to end his verses as most poets did. In roughly a third of his more than 3000 ghazals, Rumi closes the poem with the word “silence” (khamush), effectively conveying the power of inexpressible emotion by confessing the inability of words. In hundreds of other poems, he closes with an impassioned address to the enigmatic Sufi who had inspired Rumi’s spiritual transformation, Shams-i Tabriz. The innovation that led Rumi to break the mold of the standard poetic persona was too original for some conventional audiences to understand. Imitators forged dozens of imitation ghazals with the phony signature “Maulana Rumi,” utterly failing to grasp the point of his self-effacing strategy.

The relationship of Rumi to Shams was an extraordinary one, and its exact significance is still debated. Still, it is clear that this did not exactly fit the model of the archetypal master-disciple relation, which became highly articulated in the later development of Sufism as a formalized pedagogy. For Rumi’s circle, Shams was an overriding presence, even after his death; the opening pages of the Masnavi are suffused with Rumi’s sense of loss, and the framework of storytelling that he adopts for this massive epic is clearly a way of exploring “the secrets of beloveds” (i.e., Shams) through “stories of other people.” The subsequent institutionalization of the Mevlevi Sufi order established by Rumi’s family members indeed brought about a routinization of the charismatic effusions of the founding figure, as can be seen in the highly formalized ritual sema` of the so-called Whirling Dervishes,  which the Turkish Ministry of Culture makes available as an artistic event for tourists and concert audiences around the world. The ecstatic and impromptu musical sessions described by Rumi’s biographers, filled with scenes of fainting and ecstasy, must be imagined rather differently than the muted and serene performance authorized today by Turkish secular politicians.

Here is a classic example of Rumi’s originality, the famous “song of the reed” from the opening verses of the Masnavi. In terms the traits of religious genius, this is dominated by love, and expressed in a highly innovative way.

Listen to the way this reed flute grieves, telling stories of its separations:

“Ever since I was torn from the reed bed, men and women lament from my cry.

“I want a heart that’s torn from separation, so I can explain the pain of longing.

“Whoever remains far from his source one day seeks again the time of union.

“I was mourning during every gathering, joined with both the wretched and the lucky.

“Everyone liked me from his own opinion, but none sought out my secrets from within me.

“My secret is not far from my lament, but mere eyes and ears are not illumined.”

Body is not hid from soul, nor soul from body; but none has the power to see the soul.

The reed’s lament is fire — it’s not the wind! Whoever lacks this fire, may he be nothing!

It’s the fire of love that fell into the reed, and it’s the boiling of love that fell into the wine. (Source: Masnavi-i ma`navi 1 :1-10, ed. M. Isti`lami, trans. C. Ernst)

These verses display a startling innovation in the form of the Persian mystical epic. In previous treatments by masters such as Sana’i and `Attar, this genre adhered to the formal conventions of beginning with lengthy praises of God and the Prophet Muhammad, which were commonly expected as ritual gestures at the commencement of any text. In contrast, Rumi begins with a powerful invocation of the image of the reed flute as symbol of the human soul cut off from its divine source, and its haunting melody expresses the divine longing that only the experienced can understand. The simple imagery was drawn from an old fable about reeds that when played told an embarrassing secret, but Rumi transformed this folk tale by making it into an image of his own longing and his need to confess it (“Listen to the way this reed flute grieves”). The intensity of Rumi’s expression of love and longing is sharpened by the realization that few are capable of grasping it. Nevertheless, the surprising focus on the agony of the human soul, in place of formally Islamic theological doctrines, is extraordinarily effective in making this experience available to the reader.

The invocation of the reed flute as a symbol of the soul played upon a deep familiarity with music, which has long been a key element of Sufi practice, though the focus is on listening rather than the production of music. Not everyone possesses the capacity to listen at the highest level, as indicated by this anecdote:

One day he [Rumi] said, “The sound of the lute is the squeaking of the door of heaven, which we now can hear.”  A skeptic said, “We hear the same sound. How is it that we do not become as excited as the Master?” The Master said, “God forbid! What we hear is the sound of the door opening, and what he hears is the sound of the door closing.” (Source: Jami, Nafahat al-uns, in C. Ernst, Teachings of Sufism).

Music and the recitation of poetry were profoundly important to the spiritual practice of Rumi and circle, and to judge from his biographies, this practice was frequently a source of ecstasy to many (though not all) of the participants. Differences of temperament and capacity mean that the same recital can engender different responses; the Sufi aesthetic presumes that, for sensitive souls, even ordinary events can become the stimulus for a heightened insight into the nature of reality. This brief episode brings out Rumi’s ability to convey this point with ingenuity and humor.

While different responses to music can be chalked up to intention and awareness, Rumi clearly also was dedicated to practices of purification, particularly fasting. The following lyric expresses this well:

The mother of fasting / comes to her children / bearing gifts

Don’t let slip your hold / my child, from the hem / of the mother-veil of fasting

Look into her gentle face / drink her succulent milk / Make your homeland here

Sit down right here / at the door of fasting

See how the contented hand / becomes verdant before God!

See the Eden of the soul / drenched with the daffodils of fasting!

Why so carefree and smiling, Rosebud / when you’re drenched in blood?

Could you be the Isaac of God’s Abraham, / delighted by the dagger of fasting?

Why so in love with bread? / see the world baked afresh

Take the wheat of spirit / Watch out for the harvest of fasting

(source: Ghazal 2375, trans. Franklin Lewis, Swallowing the Sun, p. 13)

Despite popular representations of Rumi that dwell on his ecumenic appeal, the fact remains that he was a Muslim, not only committed to basic Islamic rituals but also dedicated to ascetic practices like fasting. Indeed, fasting was one of the key items that Rumi highlighted in his last testament to his disciples. This elegant personification of fasting as a mother parallels other passages where Rumi (following an ancient Persian motif with Qur’anic echoes) uses female figures to depict the ethical actions that confront the believer in the afterlife. This poem also illustrates Rumi’s characteristic reference to the larger prophetic heritage, citing the sacrifice of Isaac as a parallel for the ascetic practices of fasting.

The issue of Rumi’s Muslim identity (recall that his first name was Muhammad) raises the question of interreligious genius. This is a particularly acute problem because of the way that Rumi has been anachronistically cast as a figure beyond any religious definition, who embodied the secular virtues of tolerance. In part this ecumenic image of Rumi has been fostered by the attribution to him of verses that are demonstrably by others. There is, for instance, a widely-circulated ghazal beginning with this line: “What advice (is there for me), O Muslims? For I do not know myself. I am neither Christian nor Jew, neither Zoroastrian nor Muslim.” Though widely circulated as a poem by Rumi, this verse was excluded from the critical edition of the Divan and does not exist in the oldest manuscripts, and this is not the only example of misleading ascription of such sentiments to Rumi.[1] Another reason for the ecumenic image of Rumi is the description of his funeral, where local Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians are said to have mourned him as someone greater than their own prophets; this hagiographic testimony to his sainthood, with the trope that he was recognized even by unbelievers, has been taken to imply his approval of all religions. Such an inference is arguably more suitable to modern secularism (whether Turkish or American) than the cultural atmosphere of 13th-century Anatolia. Like the Andalusian Sufi Ibn `Arabi, Rumi clearly regarded Muhammad as the foremost of the prophets and was deeply immersed in Islamic theology, and it would be rash to ignore this obvious dimension of his thought. This stricture has not prevented New Age popularizers from taking liberties in their versions of Rumi (often produced with negligible relation to the Persian text) to present him as a fun-loving poet whose spirituality is basically groovy.

That being said, it cannot be denied that Rumi has had a strongly interreligious appeal. This is not, as indicated above, because of his supposed ecumenism, but arises instead from his powerful ability to invoke universally recognizable themes and to portray the dilemmas of the soul in memorable images. It is in this sense that we may see Rumi as a religious genius, whose appeal is certainly not limited to those who identify theologically with Islam. Readers of other faith backgrounds (or none) have regularly found much to admire in Rumi’s generous humanity and sharp insight into human psychology. Those who are from Christian and Jewish backgrounds are frequently surprised at the way he draws on Jewish and Christian figures (perhaps forgetting that they are also ipso facto Islamic). Such is the case with the following brief excerpt from Rumi’s conversations, where he talks of the power of intuition and imagination, proposed as core traits of religious genius:

It is pain that guides a man in every enterprise. Until there is an ache within him, a passion and a yearning for that thing arising within him, he will never strive to attain it. Without pain that thing remains for him unprocurable, whether it be success in this world or salvation in the next, whether he aims at being a merchant or a king, a scientist or an astronomer. It was not until the pains of parturition manifested in her that Mary made for the tree: And the birth pangs surprised her by the trunk of the palm-tree [Qur’an 19:23]. Those pangs brought her to the tree, and the tree which was withered became fruitful. The body is like Mary. Every one of us has a Jesus within him, but until the pangs manifest in us our Jesus is not born. If the pangs never come, then Jesus rejoins his origin by the same secret path by which he came, leaving us bereft and without portion of him (Source: Discourses of Rumi, trans. A. J. Arberry [1978], p. 33).

In this passage, he deploys the logic of imitation by using the image of the Virgin Mary giving birth to Jesus (following the Qur’anic narrative) as a model for the transformation of the soul of the ordinary believer by going through pain. At the same time, while Christian readers might find this to be a surprisingly “Christian” gesture, this example actually illustrates a characteristically Sufi approach to the imitation of Muslim prophetic models. But the basic point is expressed with a universality that is eminently approachable.

Another element that is strongly emphasized in Rumi’s poetry is self-surrender and humility, which is finely expressed in the following passage:


You said, “Who’s at the door?”

I said, “Your slave.”

You said, “What do you want?”

“To see you and bow.”

“How long will you wait?”

“Until you call.”

“How long will you cook?”

“Till the Resurrection.”

We talked through the door. I claimed

a great love and that I had given up

what the world gives to be in that love.

You said, “Such claims require a witness.”

I said, “This longing, these tears.”

You said, “Discredited witnesses.”

I said, “Surely not!”

You said, “Who did you come with?”

“The majestic imagination you gave me.”

Why did you come?”

“The musk of your wine was in the air.”

“What is your intention?”


“What do you want from me?”


Then you asked, “Where have you been

most comfortable?”

“In the palace.”

“What did you see there?”

“Amazing things.”

“Then why is it so desolate?”

“Because all that can be taken away in a second.”

“Who can do that?”

“This clear discernment.”

“Where can you live safely then?”

“In surrender.”

“What is this giving up?”

“A peace that saves us.”

“Is there no threat of disaster?”

“Only what comes in your street,

inside your love.”

“How do you walk there?”

“in perfection.”

Now silence. If I told more of this conversation,

those listening would leave themselves.

There would be no door,

no roof or window either!

(Source: Ghazal 436, trans. Coleman Barks, The Essential Rumi, p. 78)


In this dialogical lyric, Rumi displays the logic of surrender with a terse and witty style. The divine beloved is typically portrayed in Persian convention as aloof and indifferent to the tortured lover, but here the voice of the poet performs credibly to demonstrate his bona fides as a lover. The “cooking” referred to at the beginning of the poem is the process that leads to what the Sufis call “annihilation” (fana’), the effacement of the self in the irresistible reality of God. The poem ends with the invocation of silence, leaving the powerful suggestion that this surrender is beyond description and would overwhelm anyone who even hears about it.

Probably the most notable motif that permeates Rumi’s poetry is the passionate evocation of love and surrender, portrayed in this poem as dying to self:

Die now, die now, die now in this love.

When you die in this love, you’ll find all of the soul.

Die now, die now, but don’t fear this death.

When you rise up from this earth, you seize the heavens.

Die now, die now, and cut off this carnal soul,

for this soul is like a shackle, and you are a prisoner.

Take a hatchet to this grave and prison,

and when you break out, you will be the emperor.

Die now, die now, in the court of the beautiful king.

When you die before the king, you will be the king and ruler.

Die now, die now, and rain down from these clouds.

When you rain down from these clouds, you’ll be a radiant moon.

You are silent, you are silent; silence is the breath of death.

When you trumpet forth silence, that is life itself.

(Source: Ghazal 636, trans. C. Ernst)

In the age-old symbolism of “die before you die,” Rumi connects self-surrender “in this love” with freedom from the tomb of earthly existence. The annihilation of the self leaves the divine beloved as the only reality. Once again, silence is the only possible conclusion. Here, too, Rumi frames self-surrender around universal themes of life and death.

On a fundamental level, it is love as a cosmic force that pervades the universe and animates the entire world:

It’s waves of love that make the heavens turn

Without that love the universe would freeze:

no mineral absorbed by vegetable

no growing thing consumed by animal

no sacrifice of anima for Him

who inspired Mary with His pregnant breath

Like ice, all of them unmoved, frozen stiff

No vibrant molecules in swarms of motion

Lovers of perfection, every atom

turns sapling-like to face the sun and grow

Their haste to shed their fleshly form for soul

sings out an orison of praise to God

(Source: Masnavi 5:3854-9, trans. Lewis, Swallowing the Sun, p. 161)

In a very Neoplatonic vision of the universe, and language recalling his younger contemporary in Europe, Dante (“the love that moves the sun and the other stars,” from the concluding lines of the Paradiso), Rumi sees love as the force animating nature on every level. With another allusion to Mary, Rumi offers this portrait of all creation worshiping God and seeking to transcend the physical body. This is another example of the universalizing reach of Rumi’s symbolism, which makes him accessible to a wide range of readers.

[1] Ibrahim Gamard, message posted on Adabiyat (Middle Eastern literature) listserv, Feb. 15, 2013.