Mystical master of love poetry
by Brian Bromberger
Rumi's Secret: The Life of the Sufi Poet of Love by Brad Gooch; Harper, $28.99
Rumi, Rumi, everywhere. Not only is Rumi the best-selling poet in the United States thanks to the popular Coleman Barks translations, he is a cultural whirlwind, appearing on shower curtains, in fortune cookies, quoted at weddings, and source of a Madonna song. These are distinct achievements for a medieval Muslim preacher who died almost 850 years ago. So it is not surprising that Brad Gooch, a gay poet and novelist, author of the superb memoir of life in 1980s AIDS New York Smash Cut, and the self-help Finding the Boyfriend Within, has written the first popular biography of this 13th-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic. Gooch spent eight years researching, learning Persian so he could read Rumi in his original language and provide his own translations of his poems, as well as traveling to Iran, Turkey, and Syria. He has made Rumi accessible to Western readers who know few facts about his life.
Rumi was born Jalaloddin (Splendor of the Faith) Mohammad Balkhi on Sept. 30, 1207, in present-day Vakhsh, Tajikistan, the son of Baha Valad, a scholar and cleric. Around age 6, to escape the invading Mongol armies of Genghis Khan, his family began a 10-year journey, trekking 2,500 miles through the Muslim world, including Baghdad, Samarkand, and Mecca, his father employed as a teacher and jurist. Eventually the family settled in Konya, Turkey, a cosmopolitan city with a diverse population, where Rumi spent most of his adult life after studies in Aleppo and Damascus, becoming a precocious student of history, philosophy, astronomy, Arabic grammar, commentaries on the Qu'ran, and law. Because Turkey had only recently been conquered by the Muslims after being part of the Byzantine Christian empire for centuries, later generations would call him Rum, which meant Rome or Byzantine, to distinguish him from other scholar-poets with similar names. Known for his wisdom, compassion, extraordinary intellect, vast religious knowledge, and humility, Rumi became a beloved teacher heading his own seminary, even attracting some Christian and Jewish devotees. At age 17, in a traditionally arranged marriage, he wed Gowar, who bore him two sons.
The central event of his life occurred when, in 1244 at age 37, he met the Sufi nomadic 60-year-old Shams-e Tabrize, who encouraged him to follow a path of love rather than the law-centered knowledge in which he had been trained. It was an intense love relationship in which they spent months alone together in mutual obsession ("My entire life has come down to three words – I was raw, I was cooked, I was burned.") A Sufi, he encouraged Rumi's mystical inclinations as well as incorporating poetry, ecstatic dance, music and fasting into his prayer life, transforming him into an ascetic. Shams instructed him to stop reading other writers, especially his father, and start connecting to his heart. The uncompromising but charismatic Shams complemented the gentle and self-effacing Rumi. But his family and followers became jealous and either drove out Shams, or Shams, wanting to teach Rumi about separation, left of his own accord. Shams would return a year later, then disappeared one night, rumored to have been murdered with the help of one of Rumi's sons. Rumi entered an extended period of grief but turned his love for Shams inward into his poetry as a metaphor for his love of God. The beloved Sham inspired the search for the divine Beloved. He found another companion in Salah, a goldsmith, who, upon his demise, was replaced by Hosam, a favorite student, who became his scribe for his six-volume poetic masterwork Masnari , often considered the Persian Qu'ran. Rumi died on Dec. 17, 1273, mourned by the entire city, including Christians and Jews. His son Sultan Valad, incorporating Rumi's teachings, helped found the Mevlevi religious order, the whirling dervishes, which survives to this day.
There has been much speculation about whether the relationship between Rumi and Shams was gay. In an email reply to the B.A.R., Gooch wrote, "Rumi definitely loved Shams, describing him as 'the sunshine of the heart.' While no evidence exists of an erotic component, Rumi chose to speak of their spiritual love in the mode of Persian romantic love poetry. Their love and obvious intimacy was a threat in the society of the time, since it failed to conform to any neat teacher-student model, in this traditional, hierarchical society. The obvious electricity of their companionship, 'as the meeting of two mature men,' challenged the norm and therefore seems all the more modern to us."
Speculation about their affair is the most exciting part of this book. Most of the energy for this project apparently went into research and traveling, since the final product is plodding and uninspired, with little of Rumi's joy coming through, even in the translations of his poetry. Perhaps rather than a conventional biography, a more inventive format reflecting Rumi's maverick nature might have made him come alive. Gooch observes that every generation constructs its own Rumi, so we have the ecumenical poet of love who transcends organized religion ("Since we worship the one God, then all religions must be one"). The problem is that Gooch, like many modern interpreters of Rumi, in an attempt to universalize him, downplays the Islamic theology that was the source of his work. The contradictions and paradox, the tension between orthodoxy and innovation that animates Rumi's poetry, are central to Islam. Rumi is Rumi because of Islam, not in spite of it. Still, this flawed book reminds that there is richness, compassion, and diversity in Islam far beyond the terrorist propaganda we read in the media. For this reason Gooch's emphasis on an exemplar creative Muslim less concerned about right doctrine, and more focused on merging human and divine love, merits attention.