Pathways of Faith

'Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī,' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

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This article discusses the life of Jalal al-Din Rúmi as background for Reynold Nicholson's translation of Rúmí: Poet and Mystic. The article by Parviz Morewedge is reprinted from The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World in Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


Mawlānā Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (d. 1273), known as Rūmī, was born in the city of Balkh in the greater Persian cultural sphere of Khorāsān, under the rule of Khwārizm shahs, in what is now Tajikistan. A year prior to the Mongol invasion, in 1219, Rūmī's family moved westward to some of the major cities of the Islamic world, such as Nishapur, where Rūmī met Fāriḍ al-Dīn ʿAṭṭār, then to Baghdad, Mecca, Damascus, and finally to Konya in Anatolia, where they settled in what was at the time a province of the Seljuk Empire. Its ruler, ʿAlāʿ al-Dīn (1219–1226), appointed Rūmī's father to the prominent position of judge, preacher, and teacher. At the age of 24, at the death of his father (1230 or 1231), Rūmī took his place as teacher of religious sciences, and continued writing and publishing collections of poems. In 1244, at the age of 37, Rūmī became the devotee of the sixty-year-old traveling dervish Shams-i Tabrīzī, whom Rūmī took to his home for forty days. Thereafter Rūmī's world was transformed through this turbulent personal mystical love relationship, one that troubled Rūmī's acquaintances. Shams attempted to escape by traveling to Damascus, but returned, having been persuaded by a delegation led by Rūmī's son, Sulṭān Walad. Finally, when Shams disappeared in 1247, it was rumored that Rūmī's acquaintances had secretly disposed of Shams.

After his experience with Shams, Rūmī became involved with other older sages, turning them into mediator figures for his mystical aspirations. He continued to teach and write poetry until his death. He also established the Mawlawī (Turk. Mevlevî) order of dervishes in Konya, which became a model for many mystical orders.

At Rūmī's funeral in Konya, Jews, Muslims, and Christians joined company in celebrating their memory of his life. The city houses a mausoleum of his remains. Now a museum operated by the members of his order, it attracts devotees from all over the world.

English translations of Rūmī's poems have been best sellers for decades in the West. Ṣūfī orders, societies, studies, and organizations devoted to Rūmī continue to grow in all parts of the world. The universality of his poetry resembles the appeal of the Christian ethos of love and service, and the charm of the Taoist notion of passive power (yin). In addition to his emphasis on love as a counterbalance to alienation, the following themes pervade Rūmī's poetry.

The Abstractive and Existential Contexts of Mysticism.

In some poems, a mystic perceives his or her existence as an ephemeral accident of an eternal essence. Consequently the mystic needs to annihilate (fanāʿ) the perception of an alienated soul-self, in order to persist (baqāʿ) through a return to his or her essence. An analogy would be a soul perceiving itself as a drop of water, falling into the river of prophecy that flows into the Ocean of God (Shams VIII, 14652). This mode of “abstractive” mysticism depicts the common vision of those who identify the goal and the meaning of their lives as a mere ephemeral symbol of a transpersonal cause, such as a family, a nation, an academic discipline, or a profession. In addition, in an echo of Plato's vision, persons may find their essence in atemporal forms, universals, or ideas. In this mode, Rūmī states that life is generated from the illumination of the Divine, for which persons are particles of rotating dust (Shams VIII, 1231–2); the lover, like a candle, burns in the night of alienation until the dawn (Shams III, 12729); and the lover's alienation burns away in love, as the Divine constitutes our inner eye and our burning lamp (Shams VI, 28410).

In contrast to this “abstractive perspective,” other poems advocate an introverted, existentialistic ethos according to which reality for the mystic is an authentic immediate phenomenon of the self and of being in the world that is echoed in Manṣūr al-Ḥallāj's assertion, “I am the Truth” (ḥaqq) and in Abū Yazīd Bestami's “Glory be to me.” Accordingly, Rūmī asserts that his master Shams is a reflection of himself (Shams III, 16061–66); his intoxication causes the intoxicating dance of the heavens (Shams III, 1605)—an icon for the Aristotelian unmoved mover, for the sake of whose love the heavens move. Rūmī notes that from the heart of the lover emanates a sun that depicts an eternal perspective (Shams III, 12874).

The Unity of Being.

The Islamic principle of unity (tawḥīd) is a theme that presupposes an underlying unity which the mystical vision integrates into an undifferentiated unity. In this tenor, Rūmī depicts a state of love in which there will no longer be an “I” (Shams VII, 36155), where the life of love implies the annihilation of our finite heart-self (Mathnawī I, 1751).

The Way of Salvation.

Mystics follow the standard “self-realization model,” the paradigm case of which is Plato's “Allegory of the Cave,” where salvation is presented in stages (darajāt), each containing an external station (maqām) as well as inner state (ḥāl). Together they transform the mystic from an alienated person into a de-alienated aspect of a total unity. To this end Rūmī holds that whoever is separated from source (that is, the ground of being) seeks to return to it (Mathnawī I, 4).

The Mediator Figure.

A paradigm of a mediator figure is Christ, the way and the necessary link between finite humanity and the infinite God. In Sufism the reference figure is a sage, as illustrated by Shams-i Tabrīzī in the case of Rūmī, but often a guide, symbolized by love, who brings about transformations of the self from the initial phase to later stages of the mystical way. For example, Rūmī refers to Shams as the heavenly Simurgh (Shams I, 775), the light of the sky (Shams IV, 18017), an eastern-illuminated breeze, and the light that emanates from the Divine and returns to it (Shams VII, 34994).

Pragmatics of Mystical Icons.

Rūmī's mystical poems include universal imagery from myths, rituals, parables, and icons by which humanity expresses its inner desire for mystical experience. The imagery may resemble sugar and spices that sweeten food, palatable for all tastes. A few typical examples show the use of this kind of imagery: The Sun of mystical inner gnosis orients itself by life and intelligence (Mathnawī II, 43). The fire of love emanates from a melodious lament of the reed as well as from the effervescence of intoxicating wine (Mathnawī I, 9–10). Love as a means of immortality is like the parable of the fountain of youth that was consumed by the Prophet Khizr (Shams VIII, 151).

Rūmī's ability to employ Islamic themes that transcend sects, nations, and cultures is unique. Rūmī shares the vision of a number of Muslims that Islam is not a creed for a chosen few; its essence confronts other ways of life. He takes Islamic themes to be a universal call to all humanity to realize peace and health (salām) through the pleasurable blessing of God and nature.


Primary Works
  • Rūmī, Jalāl al-Dīn. Dīwān-e Šams-e Tabrīzī (The Collections [dedicated to] Shams of Tabriz). Edited by Badīʿ al-Zamān Furūzānfar. 10 vols.Tehran, 1957–1967. Consisting of about 45,000 verses in Farsi. Referenced as Shams in the article.
  • Rūmī, Jalāl al-Dīn. The Mathnawi of Jalalu’ddin Rūmī. Edited and translated by Reynold A. Nicholson. 8 vols.London, 1925–1952. Consisting of about 24,660 couplets in Farsi and a few in Arabic. Referenced as Mathnawī in the article.
Secondary Works
  • Chittick, William C., trans. The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rūmī. Albany, N.Y., 1983. This work is a peerless comprehensive study of Rūmī's life, work, and philosophical ideas. Being well versed in complex systems of Islamic philosophy such as those of Ibn al-ʿArabī and Mullā Ṣadrā, Chittick's work is rich in philosophical insights into Rūmī's work.
  • Morewedge, Parviz. “Mystical Icons in Rūmī's Mystical Poetry: Light, the Mediator, and the Way.” In Essays in Islamic Philosophy, Mysticism, and Theology. New York, 2002. This essay relates Rūmī to the Greek Platonic tradition, and presents a new interpretation of Rūmī's concept of love and intoxication with reference to the theodicy of free will and determinism.
  • Moyne, John. Rūmī and the Ṣūfī Tradition. Binghamton, N.Y., 1998. Written by an expert translator of Rūmī's works, this monograph includes English translations of Rūmī's Greek poems and presents many penetrating insights into Rūmī's work.
  • Schimmel, Annemarie. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1975. This study of Islamic mysticism provides for the reader the historical and cultural contexts of Rūmī's doctrines.
  • Zaehner, R. C. Mysticism, Sacred and Profane. London, 1961. This work is a most influential theoretical analysis of mysticism that probes into religious and nature types of mysticism. It clarifies various senses of the “unity of being” and reveals several religious but also anti-monotheistic themes in Rūmī and other poets of the school of the unity of existents (al-waḥdat al-wujūd).


Morewedge, Parviz . "Rūmī, Jalāl al-Dīn." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online,

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"Muslim Journeys | Item #197: 'Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī,' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", June 20, 2024