I have always imagined the quatrain above as being part of an intimate conversation between Rumi and his legendary friend, Shams of Tabriz. We live at a time when those “sweet words” are needed to rain down more than ever upon the soil of our universe.
Those who have discovered the heart-penetrating words of Rumi sense their beauty and urgency. And yet we may struggle to express, let alone explain, their importance. Poetry can be the language of the soul, communicating through image and metaphor something beyond tangible realities. It can lead us to where our footprints disappear into the Sea.
Rumi belongs to the honored category of wisdom teachers that would include: Plato, Ecclesiastes, Lao Tzu, the author of the Gospel of Thomas, Meister Eckhart, Shakespeare, Goethe, and in America, Whitman and Emerson. He can stand with any of them in terms of his intellectual contribution, and possibly beyond any of them in spiritual depth. Once, when the great German scholar Anne Marie Schimmel was asked to compare Goethe and Rumi, she responded: “The great Goethe is like an immense, majestic mountain; but Rumi, ah… Rumi is like the sky itself.” Her words capture the essence of what Rumi offers: an opening to a spiritual Reality even beyond the majesty and beauty of the physical world, a transparency that allows the spiritual Sun to shine upon us.
Rumi is not a self-help guru. He offers more than consolation to our neurotic anxieties. The ecstatic love he extols is not a form of mystical eroticism. He is not an iconoclast, a breaker of tradition, but an inheritor of the wisdom and revelations of the Prophets.
Using all the rich means of literature, and especially poetry, he awakens our imagination to the presence of the Divine. And as we gradually integrate the images, metaphors, and stories, our sense of reality is transformed, our place in the universe is clarified.
Underlying the vast and complex tangle of his vast work is a clear and coherent metaphysical understanding. The Omega point of nature and all existence is the complete human being. All the laws of the physical world are perfectly in balance, proportioned to manifest the heart-consciousness of the human being who has transcended ego limitations and distortions, and has been so humbled in love as to become an expression of the Divinity itself!
However, if we search on the Internet for Rumi quotes, much of what we find will be a mere caricature of the Master. By the time Rumi appears on Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms, his profound and nuanced wisdom has sometimes been reduced to one-liners, watered-down clichés, lame truisms, and misleading over-simplifications.
Everything in the universe
is within you. Ask all from yourself.
What this quote, for instance, seems to suggest is that the individual should be his or her own arbiter of truth and not depend on second-hand knowledge, theologies, and dogmas. This sentiment fits well with our postmodern era in which all certainties are dismissed, in which the sacred is just one option among many of equal or no value.
Rumi would never let an assertion like this stand alone without taking us a further step. He says, for instance:
Listen, open a window to God
and begin to delight yourself
by gazing upon Him through the opening.
The business of love is to make that window in the heart,
for the breast is illumined by the beauty of the Beloved.
Gaze incessantly on the face of the Beloved!
Listen, this is in your power, my friend!
[Mathnawi VI, 3095–97]
What must be sought is a portal that can be found within ourselves, but like a window redirects our vision to something beyond ourselves, the Beloved, the Divine Reality. When that window opens, our sense of ourselves is transformed; we see the artificial nature of what we thought was ourselves. This is a great discovery and a great mystery that cannot be contained or adequately described.
Since the Internet rarely acknowledges who the translator is, I don’t know whose translations I’m commenting on, perhaps even one of my friends, but bear with me for a little bit longer.
Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others.
Unfold your own myth.
There is no doubt that Rumi was a master of authenticity, but personality development was not the aim of his teaching, and the word “myth” is not a word to be found in his work. And yet it may have appeal to those creating online identities through social media. Contrast this with the “bitter medicine” that Rumi sometimes hands out:
Unless the seeker is absolutely erased,
in truth, he will not come into union.
Union is not penetrable. It is your annihilation.
Otherwise anyone would become the Truth.
Often these “internet quotes” are partial truths that can be misleading if one has little knowledge of the spiritual universe Rumi inhabited.
You have to keep breaking your heart until it opens.
Rumi would never say this either because he understands that the individual ego cannot undo itself; rather when the false self faces the consequences of its own ignorance and denial, it is the Divine Mercy that offers a solution, a remedy. And sometimes the true “Breaker of Hearts” is offering us a lesson, the bitter medicine that is needed:
The gate of union has been closed to me by the Friend.
My heart has been broken by the sorrow and pain of the Friend.
From now on I and my broken heart will wait at the gate,
for those with a broken heart have the favor of the Friend.
But it seems that once a “quote” is elevated to Internet heaven, it gets repeated and repeated, confirming that many people only read him online. Furthermore, some of the most popular are not from Rumi at all, as far as I can tell, and I’ll be happy to be corrected if I’m wrong:
Yesterday I was clever and wanted to change the world
today I am wise so I am changing myself.
Who is this? Gandhi perhaps?
Your task is not to seek for love but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.
Actually, this is from The Course in Miracles.
I point these things out, knowing that there are well-meaning people who have found meaning and beauty in Rumi, but have not encountered the true range and depth of his legacy, or have not had the opportunity to experience the living tradition which he represents. And all of us, after all, are students, seekers, incomplete in encompassing the vast universe of spiritual knowledge and human possibilities.
So, if you will allow me to conclude with some words from “our master,” Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, just one of many possible examples that expresses that more comprehensive meaning to be encountered in his work, a vision of the “possible human” from Discourses of Rumi (published as Signs of the Unseen): Discourse 16:
The “person of heart” is the All. When you have seen such a person, you have seen everything. “The whole hunt is in the belly of the wild ass,” as the saying goes. All the people in the world are parts of him, and he (or she) is the Whole.
All good and bad are part of the dervish.
Whoever is not so is not a dervish.¹
Now when you have seen a dervish you have certainly seen the whole world. Anyone you see after that is superfluous. A dervishes’ words are the most complete words of all. When you have heard their words, whatever you may hear afterwards is unneeded.
If you see him at any stage, it is as though
you have seen every person and every place.
O copy of the Divine Book which you are,
O mirror of awesome beauty that you are,
nothing that exists in the world is outside of you.
Seek within yourself whatever you want,
for that you are!²
This is an amazing view of what it means to be a complete human being, and this view is reflected in Rumi’s own work, especially the Mathnawi, encompassing so many aspects of earthly life — saints and sinners, dervishes and the kings, creatures of every sort, humor and metaphysical reflection, humble fables and sublime supplications — all of these revealing the Divine Love and Intelligence at work.
We hope that Awakening with Rumi will likewise reflect the Divine Love and Intelligence at work in our lives, in matter-of-fact and miraculous ways.
It is clear that Rumi did not take up a position outside the context of traditional Islam. His frequent references to the Qur’an and his love of the Prophet Muhammad are evidence of his alignment with the primary sources of Islam. In a future article, however, I hope to explore Rumi’s idea of the “Religion of Love,” to clarify that Rumi’s Islam is not a legalistic program ordained by a judgmental God, but a spiritual path leading to intimacy with the Divine Beloved.
Within the Ka`ba the rule of the qibla does not exist:
what matter if the diver has no snow-shoes?
Do not seek guidance from the drunken:
why do you order those whose garments are torn in pieces to mend them?
The religion of Love is apart from all religions:
for lovers, the religion and creed is — God.
If the ruby has not a seal, it is no harm:
Love in the sea of sorrow is not sorrowful.
[Mathnawi II, 1768–71]
1. The line is from Rumi, Divan, i, ghazal 425, line 4476.
2. A quatrain by Najmuddin Razi, Manarat al-sa’irin, manuscript at Tehran, Malek Library.