The Persian poet and Sufi mystic Jalai ed-Din Rumi (1207-1273) was a brilliant lyrical poet who founded his own religious order, the Mevlevis. His poetry showed original religious and wonderfully esoteric forms of expression.
The unsurpassable peak of all Sufi thought was reached in the thought of Jalal ed-Din Rumi, born in Balkh. He migrated to Konya in Asia Minor at a young age with his father, fleeing the Mongol invader of his day, Genghis Khan. On this trip in the city of Nishapur the young Rumi was presented to the famous old poet Attar, who, according to legend, predicted his future greatness and gave him his Book of Secrets. Then Rumi and his father traveled through Baghdad, Mecca, Damascus, and Erzincan, finally reaching Konya about 1226 or 1227, where he resided for most of his remaining life. His father was appointed to a high post in the empire of the Seljuks of Rum. Rumi inherited this post in 1231, when his father died. Thus Rumi was a man of means and could devote his efforts to more esoteric fields.
The event which had the greatest influence on Rumi's intellectual and moral life was his meeting with the Sufi mystic Shams ed-Din Tabrizi. The latter, in the course of his wanderings, visited Konya and thoroughly inspired Rumi with religious fervor. As a result of this friendship, Rumi dedicated most of his writings to this wandering Sufi. Because of this also, Rumi founded the Mevlevi order of dervishes—the dancing dervishes. The unique trait of this order was that, contrary to general Moslem practice, Rumi gave a considerable place to music (the drum and reed) in the ceremonies.
The principal work of Rumi is his massive Mathnawi. This work is a compendium of poems, tales, anecdotes, and reflections—all meant to illustrate Sufi doctrine, the result of 40 years of work by Rumi. He also wrote a shorter Diwan and a prose treatise entitled Fihi Ma Fihi (What Is Within Is Within).
Rumi was a poet of the first rank. His style was simple and colloquial. His tales possessed diverse qualities: variety and originality, dignity and picturesqueness, learning and charm, depth of feeling and thought. The Mathnawi is no doubt very disjointed; the stories follow one another in no apparent order. But it is filled with lyrical inspiration. Each small tale may be read separately, and one cannot help but be impressed with its succinctness.
As a philosopher, Rumi is less original than as a poet. His subject is Sufism, expressed with glowing enthusiasm. But it is not systematically expounded, and lyrical fervor seems to run rampant. But it can be said that just as Ibn Arabi summed up and gathered into a single system all that had been said on mysticism in Arabic before him, so Rumi in his famous Mathnawi comes the closest to this in Persian.
As with other Sufi poets, many Neoplatonic ideas abound in Rumi's writing. Ties to Christian mysticism can also be found. But in the last analysis, Rumi was a Moslem of very special interest. He was philanthropic and strongly emotional, and his writings seem easily to fit in with the excitement of the dance of the whirling dervishes.
Further Reading on Jalai ed-Din Rumi
A. J. Arberry's translation of Rumi's Mathnawi (2 vols., 1961-1963) contains short but useful introductions. Arberry also translated the Discourses of Rumi (1961) and The Mystical Poems of Rumi (1968), both with biographical introduction.
Biographical studies of Rumi are Afzal Iqbal, The Life and Work of Muhammad Jalal-ud-Din (1956; 2d rev. ed. 1964), and A. Reza Arasteh, Rumi, the Persian: Rebirth in Creativity and Love (1965), an interesting psychological study. Also reliable is Khalifal Abdul-Hakim, The Metaphysics of Rumi (1933), a critical sketch. A classic background work is Edward G. Browne, A Literary History of Persia (2 vols., 1902-1906). For a comprehensive discussion of the Sufi thought of Rumi see A. J. Arberry, Sufism: An Account of the Mystics of Islam (1950), and Idries Shah, The Sufis (1964).