A Divine Love Affair
Fairly recently, for the first time, some of the words of the Sufi saint Shams of Tabriz have been translated into English and so become available to seekers not familiar with the Persian and Arabic languages. It was only in the 1940s that recorded sayings of Shams came to light, after lying undiscovered in Turkish libraries for more than seven centuries.
But who was he, this giant of a mystic whose writings remained hidden for so long? First of all, he was a highly unusual spiritual Master who apparently came for only one disciple. But what a disciple! He was none other than the man who would become the greatest and most prolific Sufi poet of all time, Jalal al-Din Rumi, better known to us simply as Rumi – whose poetry has remained highly popular till today, so much so that quite recently he was judged the best-selling poet and literary figure in bookshops throughout the United States!
Shams was born in the twelfth century in the city of Tabriz in Iran, then Persia, at a time of great turmoil. Islam was under pressure from the West because of the Crusades; and from the East there was a threat from Genghis Khan, the warlike Mongol leader who’d swept through Asia after conquering China and eventually also invaded Persia.
Shams travelled widely and lived simply, wholly wrapped up in his own close relationship with God. When Rumi was 37 years old Shams came to Konya in what is now Turkey to seek him out. Shams had been waiting, he said, until he saw that Rumi was mature enough to receive what he had to give to him. That was in the year 1244. Almost instantly their meeting sparked between them an intense and ecstatic spiritual love, a love that would change Rumi from a dignified and sober teacher and jurist into a wild, abandoned spiritual adept.
The initial differences between Shams and Rumi were immense. Whereas Rumi was a learned and highly respected legal and religious scholar, with quite a large following of his own, Shams was rough and even crude, with little respect for book learning and social niceties or refinements. One may have even suspected that he was illiterate, but he certainly was not. From childhood he was possessed of a yearning to see God, but he was also well educated, with an extensive knowledge of Persian and Arabic poetry, science, astronomy, mathematics, and Islamic law.
Shams became Rumi’s beloved friend and inspiration, leading him to the very peak of spiritual experience. Rumi saw in Shams the expression of God’s beauty; he saw the very face of God in him. And Shams revealed to Rumi new and greater dimensions of divine love – he showed him a direct path to the Beloved through the heart, an ecstatic way of worship through poetry, music, and Sama, a meditative whirling dance which freed him from all restraints and limitations of self.
For 16 months the two were hardly ever away from each other, to the extent that Rumi’s own followers became jealous and angry and started slandering Shams. The result was that Shams left Konya, leaving Rumi disconsolate and full of despair. Eventually he learned that Shams was in Damascus and he sent his son with gifts to bring him back. He also sent this poem:
From the moment you travelled away,
I became separated from sweetness like wax from honey.
Burning every night I am like a candle,
But one with fire, deprived of the sweetness,
Away from your beauty.
Ruined has become my body, and my soul,
like an owl because of this!
Shams could not resist Rumi’s appeal to return to him, and he went back to Konya. They resumed their intensely close and ecstatic friendship. But in time Rumi’s jealous followers again began to insult and harass Shams, and this time he left for good. No trace of him could be found after that. Some even believed that he had been murdered.
During their earlier separation, Rumi had withdrawn into himself, and in his agony he even stopped writing poetry. But now the loss of his beloved Shams ignited a fire in him, producing an outpouring of poetry full of love and longing. Day and night he composed his wonderful poetry. And now it’s available to us in his Mathnavi – an epic poem consisting of some 25,000 rhyming couplets – and his Divan, a collection of about 35,000 poems full of an intoxicated love of God and the deepest longings of the heart.