March 5, 2013 By Ramziya Ashraf

A Door Opening into Rumi


Rumi is one of the literary sensations especially in the West . He serves as a beacon of hope for a lot who are lost in the desolate world of spiritual famine.   He is a friend of the love-starved romantic and a master of the traveler on the metaphysical quest. The most widely read poet in the West today, his writings have been adopted by the likes of Madonna.


Coleman Barks, the man who played cupid by firing the Rumi arrow into many hearts, has played a big role in the popularization of Rumi. His translations manage to convey the exquisite beauty and life of Rumi’s poetry, unlike other literal translations. But it’s also true that they do not provide much insight into the doctrines that govern Rumi’s mysticism; rather they give a one-dimensional introduction to Rumi’s oeuvre.  I wonder whether half of Rumi’s die-hard fans are aware that he is a Muslim. Rumi’s mysticism is rooted in Islamic fundamentals; and it is this aspect of his philosophy that William C. Chittick’s richly illustrated book The Sufi Doctrines of Rumi seeks to explore.

The book is adorned with beautiful calligraphies and a handful of quotes from Rumi’s Mathnawi and Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat. It talks about Sufism in Islam and the two complementary perspectives of Shahada- transcendence and immanence, which epitomizes Islamic doctrine and hence Sufi doctrine. The last chapter deals with operative Sufism – which deals with fan’aa or “the union with God.”

This book is different from other works on Rumi in that it does away with the New Age connotations and universalisation of Rumi’s words. Instead of illustrating merely the transcendental features of Rumi’s poetry, the author tries to examine the intellectual elements of Rumi’s philosophy. In the first chapter Sufism and Islam, Chittick declares Sufism as “the most universal manifestation of the inner dimension of Islam; it is the way man transcends his own individual self and reaches God”.

The all-embracing reach of Rumi’s poetry is significant in a very individualistic sense; he is a friend for the distressed lover, a guide for the spiritual seeker, a companion for the lost soul. For each person, his poetry appeals from a very subjective perspective; and so it’s kind of difficult to determine what exactly Rumi aims through his poems. For that, you need to take an intellectual peep into the circumstances from which his thoughts spring up-and that is precisely what this book offers. Rumi believed man to be a derivative of this world; a prototype which originated as well as gave birth to the world – “like two mirrors facing each other; each contains all of the other’s qualities, but the one in a more outward and objective manner and in detail (mufassal) and the other in a more inward and subjective manner and in summary form (mujmal).”

According to Rumi “the fleshly soul and the Devil both have (ever) been one person (essentially); (but) they have manifested themselves in two forms”. It is this devil form that “is the preventer of the intellect, and the adversary of the spirit and of religion”. And so, it is only when you conquer the devil and embrace the spirit and intellect simultaneously that you can comprehend and appreciate the depth of his words.

Despite being an authoritative book on the principles that governed Rumi’s thoughts, this is not a book for beginners. It contains a lot of esoteric terms and references, and would hence make more sense to readers who are already familiar with Sufism, and have previously read Sufi works like those of Lings, Al-Ghazzali or Chittick’s own The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi. In the words of Syed Hossein Nasr, who wrote the forward for the book, it “opens doors that give us access to the inner sanctum of Rumi’s thought”.

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