Review: Ali Hammoudon Rumi

That I May Unfold The Pain Of Yearning

During her many travels, Emily Jane O’Dell finds herself roaming through rural Afghanistan. She is escorted to a village in the Balkh province, and led to a ruin widely believed to be Rumi’s childhood home. Within the dilapidated home, she encounters a group of Afghan children, none of them older than seven. Besotted by this stranger, they surround her, gleefully exclaiming that they stood in the house of ‘Al-Balkhi!’, the epithet – along with the more popular Mawlana (our master) – by which Rumi is affectionately known in the Persian speaking world. From the throng of giddy children, a young girl named Parvane approaches O’Dell, and recites the following lines of Rumi’s poetry:

There is a treasure buried in the earth, concealed!
From the faithless and the faithful, concealed!
We saw that it was certainly love, concealed!
We became naked from what was concealed!

Curiosity bubbled up when I came across this vignette. I found myself returning to it periodically, almost hypnotically, as though the passage itself was beckoning me to read it again. There was, to be sure, an element of the visual that attracted me. I could almost imagine the scene playing out before my eyes, barely suppressing a smile before Parvane’s prowess. And I was perplexed: how does a seven-year-old child recite poetry reverberating with mystical tones during a war, with the threat of death looming large? Why was such poetry relevant? What role did Rumi’s poetry play in Persian society?

And yet, there was still something lingering beneath all these questions that eluded my grasp, for I did not just envisage the scene; I could feel it. It is difficult to describe what this feeling was, except to say that it pressed upon me gently. It resembled neither joy nor sorrow, and bore no kinship to epiphany. As I continued to read, the ineffable feeling eventually revealed itself; an emissary imparting not only the ubiquity of Rumi within Persian speaking communities more than seven hundred years after his death, but also distilling the essence of Rumi’s poetry. And that is, a love that emerges from sorrow, a love infused with profound suffering. 

Within the popular imagination, Rumi’s poetry is inextricably entwined with love – a love that is resolutely unfettered, an unconditional love that permeates the cosmos, caressing one and all. Although this depiction is not baseless, it obscures other dimensions of Rumi’s character that enhance our appreciation and understanding of his poetry. Rumi was very much a product of his time: a practicing Muslim; a jurist; a scholar of the Qur’an – in other words, a man whose worldly orientations were in alignment with the sacred. Modern depictions of Rumi often bypass his religious identity, with some translations wilfully misinterpreting, or completely erasing overtly religious references. What remains of Rumi when he is stripped of all dimensions save love, when the religious foundation of his spirituality is uprooted, is little more than a caricature shaped to fit the confines of contemporary New Age spirituality.

Where then, can a new reader find an introduction to Rumi that is rigorous, accessible, and faithful?  O’Dell achieves the right balance in The Gift of Rumi. O’Dell situates Rumi within his milieu, and fleshes out the contours of his life, thought and poetry – and resolutely refuses to chain him to a particular perspective. Mirroring the structure of a medieval manual of Sufi ethics, O’Dell explicates the key themes in Rumi’s poetry, weaving them in the culmination of Rumi’s gifts: love; and the Mevlevi Sufi order (founded by Rumi’s son), which continues to flourish until today. 

The book’s charm derives in part from the shifts between explanations of Rumi’s poetry and key events in his life, and an account of O’Dell’s 40-day retreat with the Mevlevi Sufi order. This structure allows the reader to better grasp Rumi’s ideas and thoughts as they play out in O’Dell’s experiences – echoing a key theme in Rumi’s worldview that theoretical knowledge is ineffectual without concomitant experiential knowledge. It also allows O’Dell to toy with ambiguity and paradox in Rumi’s poetry; like all great poets, Rumi does not shy away from ambiguity, but revels in it. This ambiguity is particularly striking in the relationship of love and sorrow.  

Rumi’s childhood bears an uncanny resemblance to that of Parvane. He was born in what is today Tajikistan, and spent the formative years of his life in the eastern lands of Persia. He was the scion of a scholarly family and his father held high hopes for his son, but hope rarely manifests in ways which we can foretell. Political machinations and the vicissitudes of time trespass upon carefully laid plans, and what once seemed a formality is dispersed into a forlorn ether. Destiny’s disruption arrived in the form of the Mongols, which along with internecine political disputes, compelled Rumi’s family to leave their home. Displaced by the impending threat of conquest, they fled westward across the Muslim world before settling in Anatolia. 

The devastating effects of the Mongol invasion resounded across the Persianate world. Hitherto prosperous lands with an effervescent courtly life, the Mongol invasion tore asunder the fabric of Persian society. As repositories of communal memory, poets took upon the task of expressing communal grief, of capturing emotions and amplifying them through verse. Persian poetry, which had extolled the superiority of the intellect over the heart, now turned inward. The lustre of Persian court life withered, and the unbridled, celebratory expressions of Persian poetry became relics of a bygone era. In their place emerged a new style of poetry, one that privileged the heart over the intellect, that bore witness to the marriage of love and sorrow. As a witness to the death and destruction brought forth by the Mongol invasion, Rumi was one of the key practitioners of this new poetic style.

All majesty is for the king of spirits, Shams of Tabriz.

All existences before his eminence emerged
are trivial in comparison.

Rumi, however, was not always a master poet. His scholarly life in Konya was, in truth, unspectacular. Granted, he had gathered a dedicated group of students around him, and had even travelled to other cities to meet and study under spiritual luminaries, including one of his father’s pupils, Burhan al-Din. But Konya was not Baghdad or Damascus, and Rumi had not yet composed any of the poetry that would immortalise his name. But this would all change when he encountered a wandering dervish named Shams.

Much has been written on the relationship between Rumi and Shams, and it’s difficult to untangle history from myth. What we know is that Rumi was completely enamoured by Shams, neglecting his familial and scholarly commitments. Locked away together, Shams divulged the secrets of the spiritual path to Rumi, which for Shams, held love at its core. Amongst other teachings, Shams emphasised the ecstatic power of semaa (alternatively rendered sama or samāʿ), which takes shape as the ritual of whirling in the Mevlevi tradition. Although Rumi was not a novice on the spiritual path, Shams’ guided him to a state of blissful immersion into the Beloved hitherto unfelt by Rumi.

Rumi, then, was shattered when Shams mysteriously vanished one night. He inquired far and wide in search of any clue of Shams’ whereabouts. Hearing that the dervish was sighted in Syria, Rumi dispatched his son to retrieve Shams. Once they were reunited, they fell into old habits, and again isolated themselves, disclosing spiritual mysteries. After a few weeks, though, tragedy struck again. Shams once again disappeared, with murmurs hinting that Rumi’s disciples murdered him out of jealousy. Rumi was utterly distraught, falling into a deep grief that first found expression in whirling; eventually that grief poured out in Rumi’s poetry, resulting in some of the finest love poetry ever produced.

‘Zemzem, what does a dervish look like?’ Baba said, encouraging me to step off the board for a break. 

Scanning the faces of my dervish brothers for an answer, no answer came. I saw many dervishes standing before me—I knew what they looked like. I was staring right at them—but I knew that wasn’t what Baba was asking. An answer eluded me. 

As part of her 40-day retreat with the Mevlevi Sufi order, O’Dell, or as she came to be known amongst the dervishes, Zemzem, was initiated into the sacred ritual of semaa. The word semaa denotes movement that is often accompanied by music and poetry. Etymologically though, semaa means to listen, although it means more for dervishes, for they, as O’Dell reminds us, ‘also listen to the song of the divine in their own hearts.’ For a dervish, whirling encapsulates every emotion and encompasses all of creation, mimicking the movement of the smallest atoms in the universe. When the dervish whirls, a conduit is formed, linking the heavens and earth; when the dervish whirls, they flit in and out of consciousness, mind and heart coalescing; when the dervish whirls, their sorrow melts into joy, and all else fades, rescinding before the luminous countenance of the Beloved:

If a messenger of sorrow comes to you,

 embrace it like a friend. 

A chill that comes from the beloved— 

give it a warm and happy welcome. 

Then sorrow will emerge from behind the veil,

sweet-voiced, tender, and charming. 

Grab the edge of sorrow’s veil,

 for she is so beautiful,
but easy and a cheat. 

Nothing is more blessed than sorrow,

 for its reward has no end. 

For Rumi, pain and sorrow are not to be avoided – rather, one must embrace them, as the Mevlevi shaykh Şefik Can writes ‘the essence of Rumi’s approach is not to endure difficulties silently, uncomplainingly, but rather to love the agony.’ Rumi does not intend to glorify melancholy for its own sake, but views it as a key step in the path of self-purification. It is only when a dervish is catapulted into the throes of pain that they realise their sheer destitution. From this nadir, they may seek out cures to their ailment, acquiring material possessions and feeding the ever-growing desires of the ego. But these will only exacerbate the pain, until one comes to realise that solace will not be found but in the bosom of the Beloved.

A true dervish has a smiling face, but is full of sorrow; is humble, but dignified; tired, but a fighter; happy, but grieving; sad, but hopeful; quiet, but crying out; with everyone, but alone; alone, but with everyone; poor, but rich; suffering, but helping; wounded, but healing; grounded, yet wandering,’ Baba said, picking up the wooden board and putting it back against the wall. 

‘For your dervish education, I want you to start learning how to play the ney,’ Baba said one day, surprising me with a new spiritual musical practice to integrate into my retreat. 

‘Before we start, do you know the opening lines of Rumi’s masterpiece, The Masnavi, which begins with the voice of the ney, lamenting of its separation from its source and its desire to be reunited?’ Kemal said, opening up Rumi’s masterpiece to those famous lines: 

Listen to the ney, how it sings its story and laments over separation. 

Ever since I was cut from the reedbed, men and women have been breathing their cries of sorrows into my songs.

I want a heart ripped to shreds from separation, so I may relate the pain of yearning desire. 

Whoever’s been left far from their origin, seeks for the time of return to their source. 

The sorrow that characterises Rumi’s poetry is the longing and grief caused by the separation of the lover from the Beloved – one that persistently provokes the lover into a fervent frenzy. In addition to his aptitude for whirling, Rumi was also a noted musician. His choice of instrument was the rebab, which like the ney, is empty and hollow; for Sufis, this signifies that one must empty themselves and become a conduit for the Beloved to breathe into them, to create melodies that spur their hearts to dance. For this to occur though, one must also have experienced the harrowing separation that the ney narrates to the readers – that of the lover from the Beloved. One who has failed to experience this agony will remain deaf to the ney’s sorrowful pleas.

As I puckered up, Kemal placed the ney on the tip of my lips, just so. I huffed and I puffed into the shaft of the coy ney. Nothing. Baba chuckled as I handed the hollow baton back and forth with Kemal. Still, nothing. 

‘Zemzem, in order to play the ney, you must have the fire of love in your belly, not just wind,’ Baba said, putting on his glasses to read more verses from the opening of Rumi’s masterpiece:

The cry of the ney is fire, not wind— whoever lacks this fire is nothing. 

It’s the fire of love that makes the ney’s songs burn, and the fervor of love that makes wine sparkle. 

The ney is a companion to whomever
has been separated from a friend,
and torn the veils covering the truth from us. 

Who ever saw a poison and antidote like the ney?
Who ever saw a confidant and longing lover like the ney? 

Being a lover means your heart must break

No sickness hurts as much as when the heart breaks

What role then, can the arts play in the sublimation of sorrow into love? O’Dell makes recourse to the medieval Islamic world, where hospitals wards were dedicated to patients suffering from melancholia, ‘love sickness,’ and other mental and emotional illnesses. Recitation of poetry, music, and other artistic endeavours were performed for the convalescents, aiming to lift their spirits. For they realised that the heart operated on a different wavelength to the body; that it required its own medicine. 

I said to the doctor: Prescribe me a cure.
He took my pulse with his esteemed learning, and said: ‘What hurts? You should show me.’ So I guided his hand to my passionate heart. 

A transcendent love, adorned with poetry and music, and embellished with the transformative power of sorrow: this is the gift of Rumi, which O’Dell surmises as ‘a map for living virtuously and loving fiercely in the midst of suffering so that we might uncover the treasure buried in our hearts and, together, experience the transcendent potential of our illuminated and enlightened souls.’

It is the gift that Rumi has bestowed upon his readers for centuries; it is the gift that Parvane treasured, ensconced in Rumi’s poetry amidst a raging war; it is the gift that the love sick received in medieval hospitals; it is the gift that those from Persian speaking lands have cherished above all, gilding their souls with his healing words; it is the gift that non-Persian speaking peoples have become acquainted with, those that sought Rumi to console their broken hearts. It is this same gift, with hands stretched out generously, that Rumi deigns to offer us; we would be wise to accept it.

Works Cited

Şefik Can, Fundamentals of Rumi’s Thought: A Mevlevi Sufi Perspective. Tughra Books: 2004.