Prof. Farhang Jahanpour, former Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Languages at the University of Isfahan, part-time tutor at the Department of Continuing Education at the University of Oxford and a member of Kellogg College, University of Oxford
Sufism is a term that is applied to Islamic mysticism. Sufi ideas started shortly after the birth of Islam and there were many early Arab Sufis. However, Sufism achieved its poetic expression in the hands of some great Iranian writers and poets, including Attar, Rumi, Sa’di and Hafiz. While Sa’di and Hafiz have been known to the West for a few centuries, Rumi’s popularity is more recent. Born nearly eight hundred years ago, Jalal al-Din Rumi has become the best-read poet in America today. Recent translations of his poems have become bestsellers, sold in hundreds of thousands of copies. The fact that Rumi’s poems are still on our lips and in lands far from his home testifies to the power, the vision and beauty of his poetry and his mystical vision.
His Spiritual and literary influence is pervasive in the East. He has had great influence on subsequent poets not only in Iran, but also in the whole Islamic world, most notably in Turkey and India. From Hafiz and Jami in the 14th and 15th centuries right up to Iqbal Lahuri at the beginning of the 20th century, many poets have taken him as their model and have tried to imitate his mystical verse.
The great Cambridge scholar Professor R. A. Nicholson was one of the first Western scholars to translate Rumi’s voluminous Mathnavi and many poems of his Divan, together with extensive notes and biographical information, into English. He called Rumi the greatest mystical poet of the world. Professor Nicholson’s successor at Cambridge, Professor A. J. Arberry, also produced extensive translations from the work of Rumi, including Mystical Poems of Rumi, Tales from Mathnavi and More Tales from Mathnavi, as well as many works on Sufism. However, in recent years many British, German and American scholars and poets have produced dozens of volumes of scholarly work on Rumi and have made him almost a household name in literary circles.
The Sufi message is a message of love and spirituality. In the words of Rumi
To Love is to reach God.
Never will a Lover's chest
feel any sorrow.
Never will a Lover's robe
be touched by mortals.
Never will a Lover's body
be found buried in the earth.
To Love is to reach God.
To Rumi, love transcends everything, and this vision makes him not a follower of any religion or denizen of any land, but a lover of Truth and a citizen of the world:
Nor Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi, or Zen. Not any religion or cultural system. I am not from the East or the West, not out of the ocean or up from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not composed of elements at all. I do not exist, am not an entity in this world or the next, did not descend from Adam and Eve or any origin story. My place is placeless, a trace of the traceless. Neither body or soul.
I belong to the beloved, have seen the two worlds as one and that one call to and know, first, last, outer, inner, only that breath breathing human being.
There is a way between voice and presence where information flows.
In disciplined silence it opens, With wandering talk it closes.
According to the Sufis, there is One Real Being, the Haq or Ultimate Reality, who is the ground of all being. He reveals himself in the world and in the soul of man as Divine Self-Manifestation. According to Rumi, “Our book is the shop of Unity. Apart from Unity whatever else you see is idolatry.” While forms are transient, the essence is eternal, and it is the essence that binds everything together. “Praise be to Almighty Love, that binds a hundred thousands objects together. While scattered like grains of sand, the Master Potter shapes them into beautiful pots.” God is both Immanent and Transcendent. While absent from vision, He is the ground of understanding and is manifest beyond appearance. The Divine Essence is unknowable, but we can know God through his Names and Attributes. The Divine Mind, which rules and animates the Cosmos, displays itself most fully in the Perfect Man. Prophets, saints and seers are channels for divine revelation in the physical world. Therefore, all religions are basically divine and there is no difference between them.
To Rumi, religion should be the source of joy and enlightenment, not a cause of morbidity, fear and disunity. In a famous poem after meeting with Shams-e Tabriz and achieving his mystical vision, Rumi wrote:
I was dead, I came alive
I was tears, I became laughter
All because of love
When it arrived
From then on
My temporal life
Changed to eternal
These concepts give Sufism a universal outlook and consequently it is the most perfect antidote to the deadly fanaticism and fundamentalism that has gripped the world, especially extremist Islamic groups, at the moment. The poetry of Rumi and other Sufis can lead us away from the darkness of limitation and fanaticism towards the light of unity and tolerance.