The Catalyst

We all know about him, we love his words and ideas, he is the bestselling poet in America and possibly many other countries, and Hollywood is even contemplating making a movie about his life. We know him as a mystic, an enlightened person, a teacher and the creator of the swirling dervish….I am of course talking about Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī or just Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet whose writings have been widely translated into many different languages. His influence transcends national borders and ethnic divisions: Iranians, Tajiks, Turks, Greeks, Pashtuns, other Central Asian Muslims, and the Muslims of South Asia have greatly appreciated his spiritual legacy for the past seven centuries. We all know his words and teachings, but what do we know of him? How did Rumi become this “master” of enlightenment? It all started with a catalyst called Shams Tabrizi and their story goes like this…

Rumi was born in Balkh during the time of the Persianate Seljuk Sultanate of Rum in 1207. His father was Bahā ud-Dīn Walad, a theologian, jurist and a mystic from Balkh, who was also known by the followers of Rumi as Sultan al-Ulama or "Sultan of the Scholars". The profession of the family for several generations was that of Islamic preachers of the liberal Hanafi rite, and this family tradition was continued by Rumi. When the Mongol Invasion started Walad, his entire family and followers started migrating westward and finally settled in Konya, Anatolia, on the invitation of the ruler. During this journey Rumi married Gowhar Khatun in Karaman with whom he had two sons. After her death he remarried and had another son and a daughter. Rumi was trained in Shariah and the Tariqa and after his father’s death, he inherited his father’s position as head of the madrassa (aged 25). Rumi’s public life started and he became an Islamic Jurist and gave sermons in the mosques of Konya. He was the most important member in the society and part of the elite group of aristocrats, highly respected and acclaimed. But this was all to change...

Shams Tabrizi was a powerful mystic known by many not just for his teachings, but also for his wild ways. By all accounts he was rude, obnoxious, and crude. He was a wanderer nicknamed "the Bird" (because he never stayed long anywhere, to great relief of everyone) and many thought him to be utterly mad. During the travels of Rumi and his family, Shams noticed him in one town and thought him to be a great candidate to teach and train as mystic, but Rumi was only 21 at the time and too young according to Shams, so he decided to give up the idea. Many years later Shams was still searching for a student to teach, but because of his reputation people avoided him, until "a voice" came to him one day and told him that "The one you seek is Jalal ud-Din of Konya". Shams remembered the promising candidate he met once and decided to go to Konya to find him.

On a day in 1244 Shams (clothed in black from head to toe), arrived in the famous inn of Sugar Merchants of Konya. He introduced himself as a travelling merchant looking for “something which he could only find in Konya”. Soon he found the promising candidate, Rumi (now in his late 30's), reading next to a large stack of books, approached him and asked, "What are you doing?" Rumi (thinking that Shams was a homeless, nosy and uneducated wanderer) scoffingly replied, " This is knowledge that cannot be understood by the unlearned”. On hearing this, Shams threw the stack of books into a nearby pool of water. Rumi hastily rescued the books and to his surprise they were all dry. Rumi then asked Shams, "What is this?" To which Shams replied, "Mowlana, this is knowledge that cannot be understood by the learned”. And with that Rumi was hooked and this meeting pretty much sealed the fate of Shams. From that moment on the two were inseparable, master and student, best friends, close companions, soul mates, seekers of enlightenment.

Rumi was an aristocrat and member of high society. Shams was a wanderer and wild man. Their relationship was not accepted by society and was hugely frowned upon. After moving into Rumi’s house Shams received various death threats and decided to leave shortly after. Rumi fell into a deep depression after losing his friend, and everyone in his family and the society were worried about him and his health. At this time Rumi was more famous and important than the emir, so the town and his family decided to bring Shams back. Someone spotted him in Damascus and once they told Rumi of this, he immediately sent a caravan laden with gifts for his master as well as his oldest son, to beg Shams to return.

Return Shams did. This time Rumi got clever. He arranged for a marriage between his only daughter, Kimia, and Shams to legalize their relationship and to create endless opportunity for them to spend as much time together as they wished. It was an outrage then and it would have been an outrage now, for his daughter was 12 (which was not an unusual age to be married back in the 13th century) but Shams was far older, just over 60, and not a refined aristocrat. Soon his family and the entire town regretted their participation in the return of Shams, this only escalated when Kirmia died a few months after her wedding. There is no historic records to show how she died, but there is enough records to show that everyone pointed fingers at Shams. The family of Rumi and the entire town were blaming him for her untimely death and they decided to get rid of him, once and for all. One night when Shams and Rumi were having their usual private sessions, there was a knock on the door. Shams went to open it and disappeared without a trace.

Rumi again fell into a deep depression, thinking that his mentor and friend, again left without saying goodbye. He offered rewards for finding Shams, he sent search parties everywhere, but Shams was never to be seen again. The official story is that Shams ran away to Khoy where he died shortly after. His tomb is still there and has been nominated as a World Cultural Heritage Center by UNESCO.

The “other” story is that Rumi’s youngest son, of his first marriage, was very close to his half-sister Kimia, and when she died he arranged for the honour-killing of Shams. Not only for causing the death of his sister, but also for bringing disrepute to his father’s image and legacy. The whole town was in on the conspiracy and Shams’ body was never found. No one ever revealed the truth to Rumi.

Whatever the truth, Rumi never recovered from the loss of his close companion, master, friend and soulmate. After waiting 40 days for the return of Shams or any news of him, Rumi put on a black cloak that he wore for the rest of his life and he completely gave up all his positions held in society. Like so many artists before and after Rumi the sheer excruciating, soul destroying agony of losing such an important person became the catalyst of transforming Rumi into the poet he became. Out of the depths of his despair and utter heartbreak, poured nearly 70,000 verses of poetry collected in two epic books, the Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi and Masnavi.

In honour of Rumi, The Mewlewī Sufi order was founded in 1273 by his followers after his death. In 1284 Rumi's younger and only surviving son, Sultan Walad, was installed as grand master of the order. The leadership of the order has been kept within Rumi's family in Konya uninterruptedly since then.