I just finished Rūmī: Poet and Mystic, an anthology translated by Reynold Nicholson. And by finished I mean struggled through. I love Khayyam, and I appreciated Attar, but Rumi is a slog.

Which may be surprising, because Rumi is booming right now. Checking Amazon right now, he’s got the #30 bestseller spot under “Poetry”, and takes 4 of the 50 top slots under “Ancient, Classical, and Medieval Poetry”, including #3. That’s pretty impressive for a Persian dude who died in 1273, and for a Sufi Muslim.

At least I can say after reading Rumi how un-Sufi Khayyam is. The contrast is evident when Rumi uses one of the same subjects, wine:

He comes, a Moon whose like the sky ne’er saw, awake or dreaming,
Crowned with eternal flame no flood can lay.
Lo, from the flagon of Thy love, O Lord, my soul is swimming,
And ruined all my body’s house of clay.

When first the Giver of the grape my lonely heart befriended,
Wine fired my bosom and my veins filled up,
But when His Image all my eye possessed, a voice descended:
“Well done, O Sovereign Wine and peerless Cup!”

This is obviously about God– there’s no worry that the poet is secretly tippling; he’s just using a quick metaphor of wine overflowing a cup. It’s a million miles away from

And much as Wine has play’d the Infidel,
And robb’d me of my Robe of Honour— well,
I wonder often what the Vintners buy
One half as precious as the stuff they sell.

It may not be mysterious that people who like devotional poetry like Rumi. It’s not hard to see that his message is all about a loving though imperious God, about the devotion expected of his disciples, about God’s omnipotence and even his own craving for communion with humanity. It could equally appeal to a Muslim, a Christian, or a bhakta of Shiva or Vishnu. However, it’s not likely to appeal to someone who just doesn’t believe that a god like that exists, or that devotion to one is lovely and moving.

And to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with devotional poetry. And it would be odd to complain that there’s not much here besides the devotion: why would we expect there to be? It would be like complaining that fantasy contains a lot of fantastical elements. But, well, in other poets sometimes there is more. Attar is more readable, if nothing else because he’s also telling a story, and because his paradoxes (like the Sufi saint who falls in love with a Christian) are striking. Sometimes devotional works have other things with wider appeal, such as a fervor for social justice, or a celebration of human love, or just really groovy language.

Nicholson’s edition, at least, makes it very clear that Rumi was firmly rooted in both Sufism and Islam. Sufis are the mystics of Islam, and big on love and devotion and God’s immanence. Sometime this looks like pantheism: some Sufis said “I am God”, but this was not a claim to be divine; it was a claim (or dream) to have so defeated the self that nothing was present in them any more but God.

But they take Muhammad’s pre-eminence for granted, and are full of quotations from the Qur’an. Rumi even makes it clear that he’s Sunni rather than Shi’a, and throws a few barbs at the Christians. And the Zoroastrians, for that matter. (He has a dialog where a pious Muslim tears up a foolish Zoroastrian; this might have been a literary trope even in his time, but the old Persian religion was undoubtedly far stronger then than it is today.)

One of the barbs, by the way, was the supposed preference of Christians for hermitage. (Islam arose when hermits were a big thing in the Christian East.) Islam is big on community; it seemed strange and wrong for supposed holy men to go off to live by themselves. Plus, Rumi says, there’s no great worth in avoiding temptation by running away from it. “Hark, do not castrate yourself, do not become a monk: chastity depends on the existence of lust.”

One poem has some interesting comments on asceticism:

The mystic ascends to the Throne in a moment; the ascetic needs a month for one day’s journey. […]
Love (maabbat) and ardent love (‘ishq) also, is an attribute of God; Fear is an attribute of the slave to lust and appetite. […]
The timorous ascetic runs on foot; the lovers of God fly more quickly than lightning.
May Divine Favour free thee from this wayfaring! None but the royal falcon hath found the way to the King.

And yet there are also justifications for the tribulation of the world: the Sufi saint accepts mortification and asceticism as the purifying fire of God.  It’s a very old paradox, found in many religions: someone comes along and breaks all the rules, emphasizes that the Path is simple and made of love, and invites even the sinful to walk it. But then that simplicity offends others, who put all the rules back (or invent a new set), because salvation should require overt virtue and work.  (For ease of exposition I talk about this as if it’s a cycle in time requiring opposite personality types, and often it is; but in any mature religion it’s possible to have both tropes coexisting in the same person.)

By the way, his name was really Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī. The epithet Rūmī simply means ‘Roman’! Or to be precise, it refers to Rūm. In the Qur’an, this means what we call the Byzantine Empire, but which till its very end called itself Rome. When the Turks conquered Anatolia, they continued to call it Rūm. Rumi lived for years in Anatolia, thus the name. (Balkhī means ‘from Balkh’, which was his home town.)

The “whirling dervishes” belong mostly to the Mevlevi order of Sufis– which was founded by Rumi’s followers, and is still led by one of his lineal descendants. The dance is a form of worship. Atatürk banned the order, but the dances are now allowed because tourists like them.

A curiosity of Rumi’s life was his intense devotion to a male companion. The first was Shamsu’l-Din of Tabriz; he so monopolized Rumi’s time that his followers chased him to Damascus, twice. Rumi sent his son to bring him back each time. He named one of his major works (“The Lyrics of Shams of Tabriz”) after him. And when Shams disappeared, he had similar relationships with other Sufi men, one of which succeeded him as head of the Mevlevi order.

These days, this is bound to arouse speculation that he was gay (or bisexual). His followers generally insist that it was a deep love but entirely non-sexual. But gay writers are quick to point out that at lot of these historical “oh they were just really close friends” judgments are rife with homophobia. So who knows?