Rumi and Shams: The Way of The Lover

Jalaluddin Rumi, the great Sufi mystic and love poet, was born 800 years ago, in the city of Balkh (now in Afghanistan), Eastern Persia, to surroundings of wealth and power. His well-to-do family, relatives to the king of Khorasan, were scholars, theologians, and statesmen, and it seemed clear that Rumi would follow them into a profession befitting a member of the elite.

Rumi, however, was something of a rebel, more motivated by freedom and the quest for love and truth, than by social convention and the rules – and roles – that went with it – to the extent, in fact, that his behaviour was sometimes shocking to his peers. When his family moved to Konya (now Turkey), for example, Rumi made friends among the merchant class – which would at least have raised an eyebrow at the time. Perhaps it would even today. Imagine a child of ‘blue blood’ and ‘good breeding’ preferring the company of tradesmen to those of his own class. Rumi, however, made no distinction between people based on status, wealth, or fame. To him, everyone was an aspect of God and carried the divine spark within.

The area of Konya they settled in was called Rum, from which Jalaluddin acquired his name. He also acquired a reputation as an extraordinarily gifted spiritual teacher, even greater in power than his father, Bahauddin Veled, who was himself a revered Sufi scholar and the founder of a successful religious college, which Rumi was to inherit upon his father’s death. The mystic, Ibn Arabi, is said to have met them both and exclaimed in joyful surprise that “The father is a great lake, but the son is a mighty ocean!”

It was in Konya that Rumi’s life was to change forever, through a chance encounter with a fakir, a nomadic Holy Man called Shams of Tabriz. In fact, ‘Holy Man’ is a term that some would not have bestowed upon this itinerant eccentric. Deepak Chopra, in A Gift of Love: The Love Poems of Rumi, describes Shams (whose name means ‘Sun’), kindly, as “A sudden, elusive warrior who demanded everything life could give”.

Others were less kind, and regarded him as rude, antisocial, rebellious, and even possessed; at best a spiritual madman, but more likely a waster and vagabond. Others, still, believed that Shams, whose origins remain obscure, had been tutored in a highly unorthodox sect of Sufism which was involved with radical plant spirit practices, such as the use of hallucinogens as a means of breaking through spiritual barriers, and that this had affected his mind.

Shams would spend days in mystical reveries, lost in flight to God, weeping in the ecstasy of unconditional love. Then he would snap out of his soul-intoxication and work for days as a mason, carrying blocks of stone to ground himself and restore the balance of body and mind. But he would never stay anywhere long. His nickname was Paranda (‘Bird’ -“The flier” or “The winged one”), because birds are always in flight. He would arrive in a new town and a crowd would gather to hear his teachings, alerted by the reputation of this contradictory madman-spiritual genius, whereupon Shams would excuse himself for a moment and vanish into thin air, called back to the wild by the whispers of spirit. He seemed always to be searching for something: a deeper and more intensely-felt connection to – God knows what – the Infinite, the void, the world-beyond-forms; that special state that Sufis know as fana, where the self melts into nothingness and is absorbed by the Beloved’s heart.

The first time this strange and love-drunk Holy fool was to notice Rumi, Shams was in his 60s and Rumi his early 20s, with a following of students himself. Shams was looking for a ‘master student’ to whom he could pass on his wisdom and he saw sparks of this in Rumi, although he ultimately judged the young man too raw in his spiritual development. Shams became intimate with the wilderness again and the two men did not meet again for many years.

As soon as they met for the second time, however, sparks flew – perhaps literally, since one of the legends surrounding this encounter is that Shams’ very presence in Rumi’s house caused his shelves of sacred texts to burst into flames. True wisdom cannot be contained in books.

A deep bond developed instantly between the two men and they immediately went into seclusion for weeks to practice the mystical arts together. A deep mystery surrounds this time and no-one knows, to this day, what techniques of enlightenment or magical practices were exchanged.

Rumi, however, later gave hints as to what took place during his seclusion with Shams. “The one you call crazy is not really crazy”, he wrote. “He’s giving birth to his soul. That’s why he keeps his eyes so fixed”. The author Will Johnson, in his book, Rumi: Gazing at the Beloved: The Radical Practice of Beholding the Divine (Inner Traditions International, 2003) interprets this as a reference to gazing: a technique where, for prolonged periods, Sufis will stare meditatively into each other’s eyes in order to mirror each other and connect with the soul within. This is now a common practice for spiritual illumination but, at the time, was unheard of.

The social rules of the time did not support the association between Rumi and Shams. A member of the elite fraternising with a wandering beggar, even if he was acknowledged by some as the greatest spiritual teacher of his day, was something to be frowned upon, and Shams even received threats that he would be killed if he did not end his friendship with Rumi. Rumi, however – ever the rebel – would have none of this and found an unusual solution to the problem: he invited Shams to marry his stepdaughter, Keemia. Shams did so, and with that, his presence in Rumi’s household was at least partly legitimised.

This was not just a marriage of convenience, however; Shams and Keemia loved each other deeply, though, sadly, it was not to last. A few months after their marriage, Keemia became ill and died, and the grieving Shams vanished once again. What happened next is not known. Some say that Shams was murdered by those who were jealous of his friendship with Rumi; others that he became a wanderer, returning to the wilderness. Whatever the truth may be, the two were never to meet again.

In spirit, however, Shams was a constant companion to Rumi throughout the rest of his eventful life. During it, Rumi was to establish the Sufi order known as The Path of the Master, which was inspired by the teachings of Shams, and to compose thousands of verses of mystical poetry. Many of these in the Masnavi, Rumi’s epic work, 43 years in the writing and so revered among Muslims that it is known as “The Koran in Persian”, are devoted to, or reflect upon, Shams and his spiritual teachings. One of his other works is called Divani-I Shams-I Tabriz (‘The Works of Shams of Tabriz’). Here, the author gives himself the name of his friend and teacher, suggesting that he is a conduit for Shams’ spirit or, indeed, that he has become the master himself.

There are many today who agree that Rumi is the master of love. His poetry has been translated into every major language and these books sell in their millions to devoted followers who regard him not just as heir to Shams’ spiritual philosophy, but to that of the Prophet himself. Simply Googling the name Rumi brings up almost 4 million web pages and an Amazon Books search for Rumi highlights nearly 7,000 texts.

The teachings embodied in Rumi’s work concern the notion of tahweed (unity), where the Lover (of life, of good, of God, and of the self) becomes one with the Beloved (the God-energy that all Lovers aspire to). The concept underlying this is that we all carry the divine within us, and if we remember this and find it in ourselves, there is no need to look for other Gods to worship because we become God, capable of boundless love and connection – a “Gathering of Lovers, where there is no high or low, smart or ignorant, no proper schooling required”.

According to Rumi, to love well may be our most important task as spiritual human beings, because only in this state of grace can we forget our obsessions, addictions, and hang-ups, and reconnect with our true love-energy.

And yet, loving well is also one of the hardest things we can do, because there is no formal instruction in the Art of Love. It is not there on any school curriculum, and our parents, having never been taught to love themselves, cannot show us how to do it, be it, or live it either. Each generation must find love for itself – which is why we so often get it wrong, caught up in dramas, misunderstandings, or even conflict; the very opposite of what love demands and what we set out to do – because the path is different for us all and there are no worldly guides to turn to.

When we get it right, though, love is one of our greatest teachers, giving us the power to accomplish miracles in our lives and to create our own masterpiece of living.

Jalaluddin Rumi died in Konya (Turkey) in 1273.

This article is excerpted from The Way of The Lover: Rumi and the Spiritual Art of Love, by Ross Heaven, and published by Llewellyn, November 2007, and also partly based on Love’s Simple Truths: Meditations on Rumi and The Path of The Heart, also by Ross Heaven, and available at www.amazon.com.