Rumi: Love and Transcendence
Jalal al-Din Rumi’s golden rule is “The way you make love/ is the way God will be with you. (Rumi, Year 145),” according to Coleman Barks, an American translator of his work. Rumi, a Sufi mystic poet who wrote in the thirteenth century, fused love of a person and love of the divine in his poetry, his discourses, and in his teachings. Throughout his poetry, Rumi describes love using highly sensuous language. He uses the same sensuality when talking about a beloved friend, a sexual partner, a family member, and God, making no distinction between divine and human love.
Rumi’s examinations of love show connections between the Ancient Greek concepts of eros, sensual/sexual love, and agape, love of God and God’s love for humankind. There are countless ways that Rumi intertwines eros and agape in his poems. However, there are three commonly recurring themes: love of the divine and human love being undistinguishable from one another, human love as practice for loving God, and direct explanations of love being a gift from God through poetry.
John Baldock, an American scholar, quotes Rumi, “Love is the astrolabe of the mysteries of God. / Whether love is from earth or from heaven, it leads us to God (Baldock, 181).” Baldock further explains:
Love is the glue that holds the Divine Unity together and our transition from duality to nonduality, from existence to non-existence, is effected through the activity of Divine Love […] As Afzal Iqbal says, ‘Love solves all the mysteries of the world’[…] (Baldock, 180-181)
Baldock explains that Rumi believed that love was the only way to reach God. Baldock is not as explicit as other scholars in describing the connection between human sexuality and its connection to the divine in Rumi’s work. But even a prudish scholar can’t deny the connection between eros and agape in Rumi’s writings.
In a radio interview on NPR, Fatemeh Keshavarz, an Iranian-American scholar and poet, discussed her belief that in Rumi’s poetry, the religious and the profane are the same:
The [religious] imagery is very often almost identical with profane, you know, mundane love poetry. By this, I don't mean to give any negative connotation to it, but love that is purely sensual and emotional, human love. To me, I think it's a statement by poets like Rumi and others like him, that there isn't really a boundary between the two. It's the same thing. It's the same human experience.
Keshavarz explains that Rumi’s poetry shows the links between all kinds of love being connected to God’s love. She also cautions readers against taking Rumi’s work out of the personal, religious, geographic, and historical contexts in which he wrote.
Rumi’s practice of Islam, and specifically his identification as a Sufi, guided him to believe and teach that there should be no separation between sexual desire and a desired union with God. He saw the two as linked in a variety of ways and human bodies as vessels made to love one another in expression of their devotion to God. He describes this idea in his poem “Like This”:
If anyone asks you
how the perfect satisfaction
of all our sexual wanting
will look, lift your face
Like this […]
If anyone wants to know what "spirit" is,
or what "God’s fragrance" means,
lean your head toward him or her.
Keep your face there close.
When someone quotes the old poetic image
about clouds gradually uncovering the moon,
slowly loosen knot by knot the strings
of your robe.
If anyone wonders how Jesus raised the dead,
don’t try to explain the miracle.
Kiss me on the lips.
Like this. Like this […] (Rumi, Essential 135)
There are several versions of English translations of this poem, but all of them reflect the basic concepts apparent in Bark’s translation. In this poem Rumi is explicit in his examples of how eros and agape are tied together. God’s fragrance can be found on a lover, the beauty of the universe is reflected in a body, and a kiss is as miraculous as Jesus raising someone from the dead. Although some Western religions do teach the concept that “God is in all of us,” most would not stretch the idea as far as Rumi does. Some would consider it sacrilegious to compare a kiss to Jesus’s miracles.
“Love as a way into God is wild and bewildering,” wrote Barks about Rumi’s love poetry (Rumi, Love 62). Barks is writing to an English speaking, American audience in 2003. He is trying to make Rumi’s work available and accessible to the American public, but is speaking to a country founded by Puritans and with a continuing, strong conservative bent. Barks’s analysis seems to be forming an argument designed to speak to a precisian-filled audience who believes that sensual love is wild. He writes:
Rumi says, astonishingly, “God lives between a human being and the object of his desire” (Discourse No. 44). This is radical theology to this day, when major crises have roots in sexual repression—the Catholic pedophile priesty boys; the Muslim enraged-at-women, dismayed-by-Western-ease-with-impurity vandals. We Americans have our own deadly-to-life version of denying the horny animal energies. We lie a lot. (Rumi, Love 69)
Although Barks uses “we” to refer to Americans, it is clear that he has separated himself from a public that could be astonished by Rumi’s ideas. Unlike his conservative audience, he doesn’t see Sufi mysticism as being radical. In fact, he gives examples of the ways that modern-day sexual repression has led to truly scandalous and harmful behavior.
Translations of Rumi’s work by Barks and other scholars are often taken out of context. Small quotes are taken from Rumi poems and used during wedding ceremonies, on greeting cards, at the bottom of email addresses. For example, a mug that can be purchased at cafepress.com (image at right) reads “Let the Beauty You Love Be What You Do.” Although the words still hold a fragment of their original intention, there is something lost in the translation from Persian, to English, to coffee mug. The entire poem that this quote is pulled from is “Let the Beauty We Love:”
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are a hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
(Rumi, Year 28)
In this context, Rumi’s words lose the message about various ways of praying and about combating fear.
Before it wound up on a coffee mug, this quote was more than likely pulled from a collection of poetry that was translated by Barks, who admittedly doesn’t speak or read Persian. Baldock explains the complications of reading Rumi in translation in his introduction to The Essence of Rumi:
A point of debate among students of Rumi is the difference between a ‘translation’ and a ‘version’. Strictly speaking, ‘translations of Rumi’ are the rendering into English from an original text by linguists, scholars, or followers of Rumi with a knowledge of Persian and/or Arabic. ‘Versions of Rumi’ are the works of those who, in the absence of sufficient knowledge of Persian or Arabic to translate from the original, produce an interpretation based on one or more of the available translations. ‘Versions of Rumi’ should therefore not be considered as accurate word-for-word renderings of the original. (14)
Despite their access to imperfect translations and/or versions of Rumi’s original text, Americans have begun to clutch Rumi to their chest on mugs and in books.
The American public has embraced Rumi’s work more fully in the past several decades. Perhaps this is in rebellion to other contradictory ideas of love that permeate our culture, ones fueled by consumerism, plastic surgery, and Disney love stories. Our entertainment culture is filled with “reality” television shows such as “The Bachelor” (ABC), which forces participants into a decision of marriage within mere weeks, and “Temptation Island” (FOX), which is designed to encourage infidelity. These examples mimic rather than portray true love relationships. As a culture, we are obsessed with love stories that don’t reflect the actual hard work and devotion true love needs in order to thrive.
Rumi’s love poetry explores the realm of true love. It is romantic, sensual, and analytical at the same time. Love is not a concept in Rumi’s work; it is the focus. In his introduction to Rumi the Book of Love, Barks writes on this topic:
Maybe we’re ripe for Rumi’s knowing, his way of love. I take great delight in meeting bright twelve-year-olds who love certain Rumi poems, such as ‘The Guest House.’ They know the media and their community have lied to them about love, with all the fake love stories. They hear Rumi trying to tell them some truth about love, and they appreciate it. Maybe it’s time to hear about going-in, about the joy of the witness in love, in meditation, in dreams, time to meet the one who looks into the creek. (xv-xvi)
Barks continues to say that he hopes that this collection of poems that he put out in 2003, will not be considered a fad-love book that gets moved to the front of book stores on Valentine’s Day. He hopes instead that readers of Rumi’s work will recognize that he was a real person with real ideas who experienced real love.
It is sociologically fascinating that the words of a poet who wrote in the Middle East in the thirteenth century are still applicable and attractive to people living and loving in the United States in the twenty-first century. It is even more fascinating that as we gobble up his poetry and wisdom, we bomb the region of the world he came from in war. Despite the fact that hate and fear of the Middle East has grown since the terrorist attacks on the northeastern United States in 2001, love of Rumi grows. Perhaps Rumi’s poems transcend these biases, because he struggled and wrote about the same truths and confusion in love that we are still grappling with today.
It is limiting to separate the poet from his environment. Reading Rumi’s poetry separate from his historical and religious contexts is possible now that his popularity has exploded in the United States and English translations of his work are widely available. However, his work becomes richer and clearer in context, and the intentions and ideas in his work make more sense.
Rumi was born in 1207 in what is now Afghanistan and in his youth fled with his family to what is now Turkey to avoid Mongol invaders. He wrote in Persian. Baldock writes, “Rumi was a Sufi teacher (shaykh), and many members of his audience were either his disciples or well acquainted with the terminology associated with the Sufi Path (11).” There are many stories and characters from the holiest text of Islam, the Qur’an that show up in Rumi’s poems.
There were two people who influenced Rumi’s work greatly. One was his father, Bahauddin, and another was a beloved friend Shams Tabriz. His father’s influence was well documented by Rumi’s students. Rumi was said to have carried his father’s notebook The Maarif with him everywhere, and could dictate the entire book from memory. In The Drowned Book: Ecstatic and Earthy Reflections of Bahauddin, the Father of Rumi, Barks describes The Maarif as:
a collection of visionary insights, questions and responses, conversations with God, commentary on passages from the Qur’an, stories, bits of poetry, sudden revelations, medicinal advice, gardening hints, dream records, jokes, erotic episodes, and speculation of many kinds...Other than Shams Tabriz, Rumi’s fiery friend, perhaps no one had more influence in shaping his awareness than his father. (Barks, xv)
Bahauddin’s writing is highly sexually charged but not nearly as poetic or refined as his son’s writing. He jotted down stories and ideas in his notebook along with gardening tips and recipes. However, his influence on Rumi’s work is evident. It was Bahauddin who introduced his son to the idea that eros and agape are tied to one another. In his prose piece “The Call to Pleasure,” for example, Bahauddin writes:
From the minaret the call to prayer comes to us from the outside in. Other callings come from inside us, the animal energies, the various wantings, even our attraction to the purity of angel…When my sexual desire gets satisfied, my entire body feels pleased and peaceful. And looking at beautiful women delights me greatly. Why are people so agitated about these things, when all they have to do is live in the love of the presence? I am faithful to that, and the way of pleasure and satisfaction has been opened to me…God knows best. (Barks, 16)
Bahauddin is asking God to make his human and sexual cravings more intense. He feels the divine moving through his body because of his desire.
Rumi was also influenced and guided by a friend and teacher Shams Tabriz. There is a lot of conjecture about Rumi’s relationship with Shams. Some scholars assume they were sexual partners, while others see them as devoted companions whose relationship did not have a carnal aspect. It can be difficult to decipher the details of a relationship through poetry when the poet shows little distinction between eros and agape. Rumi’s poems use the same language of devotion when addressing the poem to God, a beloved friend or a sexual lover. Regardless of weather or not Rumi and Shams were having sex, they were intimate companions. Many of Rumi’s love poems are addressed to Shams or talk about a beloved friend. In “An Egypt That Does Not Exist” Rumi writes:
I want to say words that flame
as I say them, but I keep quiet
and don’t try to make both worlds
fit in one mouthful.
I keep secret in myself
an Egypt that does not exist.
Is that good or bad? I don’t know.
For years I gave away sexual love
with my eyes. Now I don’t.
I am not in any one place.
I do not have a name for what I give away.
Whatever Shams gave,
that you can have from me. (Rumi, Year 124)
In this poem, Rumi is expressing that the love he received from Shams was an ideal form of love. Shams died in 1248, twenty-five years before Rumi. Assuming that his poem was written after Shams’s death, we see that Rumi is offering love to someone (i.e. a lover, his wife, God) in response to and as defined by the quality of love that he received from Shams. The tone of the poem is a mixture of regret and resolve. Rumi sounds sorry for the years he wasted solely on sexual love and is now offering only the highest quality of love: the love he learned and received from his beloved friend.
Sufi is a sect of Islam that maintains ancient mystical traditions of the religion. Historically, Sufis were rebels within their societies. They were the philosophers and artists who questioned authority, debated politics, and analyzed the mainstream religious teachings from the Qur’an. In Sufi: Expressions of the Mystic Quest, Laleh Bakhtiar describes the archetypal Sufi:
The Sufi, through creative expression, remembers and invokes the Divine order as It resides in a hidden state within all forms. To remember and to invoke, in this sense, are the same: to act on a form so that that which is within may become known. The Sufi thus re-enacts the process of creation whereby the Divine came to know Itself. The receptacle in which the creation is re-enacted may be an external form such as an artifact, or it may be the life form of the mystic which is transformed. (6)
In an American context, Sufis would be considered artists on the fringe, hippies, and travelers. They questioned the ruling class and spoke out against political injustice. They were also artists and writers who created as a reflection of divine creation. Rumi’s Sufism more readily enabled him to explore the creative within him, and his consistent focus on the combination of eros and agape were heavily informed by his religion.
Keshavarz also explained in her interview about Rumi that the intimacies described in Rumi’s poetry were based in the religious theologies he inherited. “There’s a famous Sufi tale that this young disciple approached the master to enter the order day after day. And finally the master said, ‘Have you ever fallen in love with a woman?’ He said, ‘No, not yet. I’m only 18.’ He said, ‘Well, go try that first’ (Keshavarz).” Keshavarz also described a popular Sufi story that came after Rumi’s time that describes this idea with a bigger less specific scope:
You can't look at the sun directly, but you can look at its reflection in the water. Our humanly experience of love is that reflection in the water of our senses, and it's God's way of teaching us and guiding us from this to the actual looking at the sun when you have gained the ability. (Keshavarz)
This story speaks to the Sufi ideas of creation. It may also reflect the idea that Rumi shows in some of his poems that imply that human romance is good practice for divine love, which is explored later in this paper.
In Sufi Studies: East and West, Rushbrook Williams explains the Sufi path:
The ancient Sufis lived an austere and simple life, in protest against the luxuries of the world, searching for Truth. They sought to realize God in themselves and the answer to the question: What is God in relation to man and the creation? […] They believe in Fana and Baqa and try to rise to a state of Union with the Eternal One. God is immanent but can be realized through Dikhr and Muraqabat. Fana is the death of self and merger with the Eternal One. Baqa is the continued existence of self in this condition of Union. Dikhr is remembering God, and Muraqabat is meditation. The Sufi must pass through several stages of spiritual existence and development known as Maqamat. Contemplation, renunciation, abstinence, love, poverty, and belief in God are the spiritual exercises. (xxxii-xxxiii)
Although Rumi didn’t teach or write about abstinence, he did write about abstaining from sex if it wasn’t combined with pure love (as seen in his poem “The Many Wines” on page 15 of this paper). His poetic intent was largely a product of his Sufi background. The backbone of his religion beliefs, according to Williams, was to figure out God’s relationship to man. Rumi taught that the way to God was through love.
Combining Eros and Agape
In his introduction to Rumi the Book of Love, Barks writes:
I like watching the changing moods and nuances of falling in and out of love, and so does Rumi. He’s not some mystic snob. He sees the beauty and the importance of anything human beings do, no matter how scandalous or violent. The slipping and sliding around sex, the posturing of combatants prior to combat. But he always uses human incident as a lens to look into soul growth. (xviii)
At times, eros and agape are combined in such a way in a single poem that it is impossible to tell whether Rumi is speaking about a person or God. In “The Seed Market,” for example, is Rumi talking about the abundance provided by God, or is he asking a lover to recognize his own romantic generosity?
Can you find another market like this?
Where, with your one rose
you can buy hundreds of rose gardens?
Where, for one seed you get a whole wilderness?
For one weak breath, the divine wind? […]
When the ocean comes to you as a lover,
marry, at once, quickly for God’s sake.
Don’t postpone it. Existence has no better gift.
No amount of searching will find this.
A perfect falcon, for no reason,
has landed on your shoulder, and become yours. (Rumi, Year 62)
He is talking about both perhaps or, by creating this poem, making them the same. Rumi is encouraging his readers to embrace every opportunity for love. In his imagery he compares a lover to an abundant market, an ocean, and a falcon. In the United States we use the phrase, “for God’s sake” in jest, but in this poem Rumi is speaking sincerely. He suggests that we marry a perfect lover to bring us closer to God.
Another example of this combination of eros and agape is in Rumi’s poem, “There is Some Kiss We Want:”
There is some kiss we want
with our whole lives,
the touch of spirit on the body.
Seawater begs the pearl
to break its shell.
And the lily, how passionately
it needs some wild darling.
At night, I open the window
and ask the moon to come
and press its face against mine.
Breathe into me.
Close the language-door
and open the love-window.
The moon won’t use the door,
only the window. (Rumi, Year 80)
With his use of the word “spirit,” it is difficult to know if Rumi is talking about another human spirit or a divine spirit. The language of this poem is sexually charged, with the image of the sea begging a shell to open and reveal its pearl, and a flower waiting for a “wild darling” to pollinate it. However, Rumi writes of God with sexual undertones in other poems. It is possible that this poem is about a lover he is hoping to entice away from language to consummate their love. It is also possible, he is writing about waiting to feel God’s love. With this interpretation, the moon is the divine.
Eros as Practice
In many of Rumi’s poems, he writes about eros being good practice for engaging in divine love. One example of this is in his poem “One Swaying Being:”
Love is not condescension, never that,
nor books, nor any marking on paper,
nor what people say of each other.
Love is a tree with
branches reaching into eternity,
and no trunk.
Have you seen it? The mind cannot.
Your desiring cannot.
The longing you feel for this love
comes from inside you.
When you become the Friend,
your longing will be as the man in the ocean
who holds to a piece of wood.
Eventually, wood, man, and ocean
become one swaying being,
Shams Tabriz, the secret of God. (Rumi, Year 387)
Rumi is speaking specifically of his beloved friend Shams in this poem, but also about love in general. He explains that love is a tree. A tree is the perfect symbol for Rumi’s ideas about love. It has roots in the earth, many branches, and reaches towards the sky. Rumi believed that love ‘s roots were attached to human love. This love had many facets (or branches): friendship, sex, kinship, etc. All of these kinds of love help us to reach towards God’s love. Rumi describes Shams as divine in nature. He is a perfect expression of eros and agape in practice and emotion.
Love as a Gift From God
In “The Many Wines” Rumi compares love to intoxication and explains love as a gift from God:
God has given us a dark wine so potent that,
drinking it, we leave the two worlds.
God has put into the form of hashish a power
to deliver the taster from self-consciousness.[…]
There are thousands of wines
that can take over our minds.
Don’t think all ecstasies
are the same![…]
Be a connoisseur,
and taste with caution.
Any wine will get you high.
Judge like a king, and choose the purest,
the ones unadulterated with fear,
or some urgency about “what’s needed.”
Drink the wine that moves you
as a camel moves when it’s been untied,
and is just ambling about. (Rumi, Love 4-5)
In this poem Rumi recommends treating love as a divine gift and, to honor that gift, engaging only in exquisite love. Rumi hopes that humans will engage in pure love with one another, partake of only the kinds of eros that will improve their lives and take them, paired, to a higher plane of existence. In this way human eros will mirror agape, and bring us closer to God.
“The Many Wines” is Rumi’s “play within a play.” In some of Shakespeare’s plays, for example, Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, characters direct performances. At these times, the audience is given entry into the Bard’s thoughts on acting, directing, and performance. Similarly, this poem gives us insights into Rumi’s ideas of love. Instead of writing about an experience of love directed towards a lover (either ethereal or corporeal), as in “This Market,” “The Many Wines” is written directly to Rumi’s readers. He tells us to be picky, careful, sovereign in selecting who we bless with our love.
Rumi sees the divine and the potential for intoxication in and among all of God’s creations, but cautions us to be as selective as possible with who we share our heart. If love is God’s greatest gift, we should honor it by being selective. This is the “soul growth” Barks refers to in the earlier passage of his introduction. Rumi believes that eros can bring us closer to God when it is a pure and honest love between two people; and agape can be an example of how to devote yourself to another human.
Another example of love being a gift from God can be found in Rumi’s poem “From Out in Empty Sky:”
If you catch a fragrance of the unseen,
like that, you will not be able
to be contained.
You will be out in empty sky.
Any beauty the world has, any desire,
will easily be yours.
As you live deeper in the heart,
the mirror gets clearer and clearer. (Rumi, Year 334)
The last two lines of this poem exemplify this idea. The deeper a human being lives in his or her heart, the closer he or she becomes to finding personal truth. An understanding of the heart and of earthly love leads one closer to God’s love.
In her radio interview, Keshavarz said that Rumi saw human life and love as the closest we come to tasting and touching transcendence. Rumi’s translators explain that his poems are written to encourage us to lose ourselves in rapture. Rumi’s intention is to help his readers (and in historical context, his students) to achieve both rapture defined as a state of joyous ecstasy and also as being transported to heaven to be with God.
Individuals work out their relationship with God in different ways: some worship in a church, some seek transcendence in more independent ways, and some do not believe in the existence of a higher power. Those who do believe in a prescient being seek ways of finding, knowing, and worshiping God. Rumi’s personal path to God, influenced by his Sufism, was to love and to write poetry. He counseled that the only true sacrament was love.
Rumi’s poems and discourses are filled with a combination of eros and agape. His own life in the thirteenth century was an example of this combination. He carried around his father’s notebooks and let the love and influence of a parent shape his own life. He found a friend and teacher in Shams Tabriz and cherished their relationship. He was a lover and wrote about sex as a beautiful act of love.
In his poem “There is Some Kiss We Want,” Rumi wrote “And the lily, how passionately/ it needs some wild darling (Rumi, Year 80).” In these two simple lines, he expresses so much about his ideas of love. A lily is a flower and a creation of God. He uses it as an example of how everything in nature (all of God’s creations) are connected in their need for others. For a lily, it is a “wild darling,” an insect to pollinate it. As for humans, we need love passionately. Our own connections with darlings mirror, combine us with, and bring us closer to God’s love.
Rumi wrote in the thirteenth century, but his poetry is still read today. More and more people in the United States are seeking out his work. His ideas about love and God are still appealing. There is a quietness to his work, a truth that speaks across centuries. We are all still searching for what he wrote about: connections, love, sacrament, transcendence; perhaps, through study of his work, scholars and poets can begin to define these ideas and desires for themselves.
On a Personal Note
Rumi has become a part of my daily spiritual practice. Although I was baptized Catholic, I was not raised in any organized religion. Instead, I was introduced to many different religions and taught by my mother to respect them. I have trouble capitalizing the word “God” in my writing because it brings to mind a domineering, male, all-powerful being who is waiting to punish us for our sins. I have trouble accepting this version of a creator. Rumi is the first spiritual teacher that I have been able to accept and embrace;love is a concept I can worship and get behind.
For two years now, I’ve studied Barks’s collection, A Year with Rumi. Every morning, I wake up and read a poem or two. His poem, The Vigil, shows up on May 8, my birthday:
Lovers cannot sleep
when they feel the privacy
of the beloved all around them.
Someone who is thirsty
may sleep for a little while,
but he or she will dream of water,
a full jar beside a creek,
or the spirit-water you get
from another person.
All night, listen to the coversation.
Stay up. This moment is all there is. (Rumi, Year 152
Tucked into that page in my book, is a note my mother sent me last year on my birthday that reads, “Kristen—I love you! Mom.” I read this poem aloud to my beloved friends as often as possible. This combination of poetry, kinship, friendship, and love brings me as close to God as I have ever been.