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Rumi in the Time of COVID-19

What did I expect to find in the mystical writings of the 13th-century maestro at this hour? Wasn’t Rumi to be savored in solitude, at peace, when one could be lost in admiration of his exquisite rubaiyat and marvel at the beauty of his Mathnavi? On a quiet, regular day looking out on a verdant patch somewhere? Instead, here I was, under lockdown, not too far from the Sufi heartland, in Kazakhstan, and browsing through Rumi for insights.

Entering the sublime world of Rumi is a welcome change, suspended as I am, between relentless coverage of the pandemic and its projected fearsome economic and sociological after-effects. Contrary to expectations, Rumi’s lyrical and magical words are not just a pleasant diversion, to spirit one away to an enchanting place and then to return to grim reality when the reading is over. Reading Rumi in the time of COVID-19 is a “turning inward,” a journey into the self in the most unusual of circumstances. The outcome is far more tangible and perceptible than one can imagine, for it promises happiness and peace in the midst of a swirling storm.

Eight hundred years may stand between Rumi and us today but his poetry touched a chord then and it touches one now. Rumi was familiar with uncertainty and disruption given the chaotic times he lived in, with the vast Seljuk Empire on its last legs. The threat of the marauding armies of Genghis Khan caused his family to flee his birthplace, Balkh, in Afghanistan when he was twelve. They wandered all over Asia Minor and Arabia before finally settling in Konya in southern Turkey. It is here that, eventually, Rumi’s transformation from a learned scholar and jurist to a true mystic and phenomenal poet occurred.

Rumi’s poetry is timeless and universal, and covers practically everything, what is important and what is not, what to avoid and what to embrace. The mystical Sufi master was a master of the human psyche – of its fears and terrors as well as its joys and ecstasies – of every conceivable virtue and vice. “In every instance a new species rises in the chest – now a demon, now an angel, now a wild animal, now a human friend.”1 Out of the myriad forms we seem capable of morphing into, Rumi favors the angelic or the good. It alone possesses the power to change us for the better and therefore, to change the distressing into the heartening. Could we hope, then, that there is something positive behind the current upheaval and uncertainty, something heartening behind the distressing? Rumi seems to think so. “[J]oy is hidden beneath sorrow.” After all, “[W]hy would anyone hide treasure in plain sight?”2

For Rumi, all that is good – joy, bliss, peace and love – is hidden, like treasure waiting to be discovered. Love, of course, is the sultan of them all and intrinsic to Rumi’s Sufi way of thinking. “[B]e foolishly in love. Because love is all there is”3 is his refrain. Yet, he does not fail to add that this love must not bind, but set free. “Fall in love in such a way that it frees you from any connecting.”4 Rumi’s love is boundless, beyond the limits of person, place, or thing and consequently, sets free. It is present within and therefore appears everywhere. But, he says, the restless mind keeps it out of sight. “Dear mind, such a traveler, always moving, like a fish looking for the sea, while the great heart’s ocean waits, all around and inside it. How can you live outside this love?”5

Rumi speaks of this love in hundreds of ways, each more fantastic than the other. It is where candles burn brighter than suns, where drops are really a hundred oceans, where rose gardens burst into laughter and where everyone says “How are you?” and no one says “How aren’t you?” Yet, so often, in the end, he resorts to silence. “Khamush” (silence, in Persian), he declares, this cannot be described any more, only sensed. “Now let silence speak.”6

Rumi’s poetry is replete with allegories, imagery and concealed messages, yet it is far from abstruse. Looked at carefully, it points to a way to peace and happiness here and now. For instance, he tells us how not to let our hearts be swamped by fear but to recognize and deal with a deadlier enemy, desire. “There may be fear in the air, but don’t put it in your heart. Be afraid of your desire and its fancies, but never of actual events.”7 He asks us not to fear actual events, even alarming and frightening ones. He calls them fantasies of phenomena flowing through our lives. “We seem to be sitting still, but we are actually moving, and the fantasies of phenomena are sliding through us, like ideas through curtains.”8

He urges us to be pragmatic and to let events take their course, because they are transient and, like “ideas through curtains,” will soon disappear. “Sometimes you get stuck in the mud like hunted prey. In the end, the thing will happen anyway.”9 The virus and its spread, however horrific and prolonged, is an event, and Rumi’s reasoning would be to accept the inexorability of such events. He warns against desire, since desire may or may not be fulfilled, and could result in unhappiness. Whereas about events, he says, they “will happen anyway.” Acceptance frees from the outcome of events and makes the inevitable meaningless, for without desire, the inevitable becomes powerless.

Expressed simply, Rumi’s poetry is a call to look at life through a different lens, to go beyond the I-ness, in which desire rules, to be grateful for what we have, and to turn inward. “If you cannot go somewhere, move in the passageways of the self. They are like shafts of light, always changing, and you change when you explore them.”10 Rumi’s little glimpses into the self are fascinating and, in these times of lockdown and confinement, spur us on the path of self-discovery. What is it that we will we find? If he is to be believed, then the noise of the outside world will lessen and the “passageways of the self” will light up. He calls it an excursion. “The great excursion starts from exactly where you are,” he says. “You are the world. You have everything you need.”He concludes, “[D]on’t look for the remedy for your troubles outside yourself. You are the medicine. You are the cure for your own sorrow.”11

Eternal, profound and inarguably the essence of Rumi. Why does his poetry resonate even in this sweeping sea of sickness and despair? Because it separates what is within from without. It tells us that, no matter what storms rage outside in the world, they need not affect what is inside, in our hearts. “Look and see: All that is good comes from the heart.”12 The good in our hearts, too, is a treasure that is obscured and needs to be unearthed. It begins with lightening the load, freeing oneself, and letting go. “Let go of your worries and be completely clear-hearted, like the face of a mirror that contains no images,” he says.13 The invisible shackles of anxiety and misgiving then melt away. And the crystal-clear heart is free to enter the world of love and experience joy and peace.

Throughout, in the thousands of verses he expounds, Rumi hardly ever strays from his core message of simplicity. Be simple, kind, generous, grateful, happy; become a child again, he tells us. “Don’t do things to others if you don’t want them done to you.” “Put cotton in your ears. Don’t listen to every word that’s spoken. You may have a clean soul, but even a clean soul can gather rust.”14 He is the caring parent instructing the child and the best friend trying to steer us away from the pitfalls of life.

Rumi’s advice may almost be too simple to be true, but it carries enormous weight. His was a distinguished lineage derived from eminent religious scholars and jurists, his own father being a renowned theologian and Sufi teacher. As expected, by his late twenties, he was a highly educated, devout scholar, as well as trained in the Sufi way of life. His father’s passing paved the way for him to become the leader of his dervish community and school. Interestingly, he was never referred to as Rumi in his lifetime, but by his formal title, Maulana Rum. Rum or Rumi essentially meant a person from Konya, or the sultanate of Rum, so named because of its Roman influence.

As a Maulana, a scholar, jurist, and esteemed member of the community, he was celebrated and feted with a large following of students and admirers (it is said that his school had ten thousand students). One may think that Rumi had achieved the height of success. Until he found that real joy was beyond everything he had studied and striven for. In classic Rumi style he then declared that conventional means did not help in the journey towards happiness and love. Cleverness and intellect would not take one there.

A voice inside says, You were given the intuition
  to shoot an arrow
and then to dig where it landed,
but you shot with all your archery skill.
You were told to draw the bow
  with only a fraction of your ability.
Do not exhaust yourself
like the philosophers who strain to shoot
the high arcs of their thought-arrows.15

It is an unusual piece of advice. To be asked not to try so hard. Rumi says we complicate the search, as we complicate our lives, with our tiresome thinking. Do not exhaust yourself, he says, the way is simple. Simplicity, in thought and action, leads to freedom. Become free and enter the infinite world of love. “Love lit a fire in my chest, and anything that was not love left: intellectual subtlety, philosophy, books, school.”16

Rumi’s poetry is universal. To him all of humanity is indistinguishable. “All people, all possible permutations of good, evil, thought, passion. The lamps are different, but the Light is the same.”17 The current pandemic, too, is universal, and the virus, the great leveler. Unusually we are all at risk irrespective of who and where we are. The idea that we are all human at a basic level has rarely been so widely perceived. It takes us a step closer to understanding why Rumi calls our outer selves, differentiated as they are between culture, color, gender, nationality and so on, as mere shells containing the real substance, the core. “You are a ruby embedded in granite. How long will you pretend it isn’t true?”18 Elsewhere he says: “You’re like water in a jug, encased in earthenware.”19 The ruby is hidden in the dusty, hard granite and life-sustaining water in the rough earthen jug. For Rumi our precious, gem-like, and useful qualities lie hidden in the inner self. To discover them is to look within and follow the path of love.

The deep love Rumi describes is synonymous with his feelings for Shams, his friend, philosopher and guide. Much of Rumi’s poetry is a homage to Shams. “I was a tiny bug. Now a mountain. You healed my wounded hunger and anger and made me a poet that sings about joy.”20

It is an extraordinary and well-known story. The young, erudite, celebrated scholar meets Shams, the coarse, disheveled, wandering mystic twice his age, and becomes a madman. Mad in his love of Shams and drunk with the joy of being with him. The story of their meeting and its consequences are legend, but so is the manner in which Rumi composed the imposing volume of poetry in its wake. Thousands upon thousands of verses were neither composed nor penned in solitude nor ever polished and edited, indeed he never even “wrote” them down. Instead they spontaneously flowed out, in public, on narrow and winding streets, in crowded bazaars and around taverns, where they were fortunately written down by companions and students.

Rumi had no use for recognition and emoluments. Neither did he feel the need to take credit for his brilliant verses, directly naming his teacher instead in almost a thousand of his poems. More than forty thousand lines of his poetry are ascribed to Shams and collected in the book titled Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi (A Collection of Poems of Shams of Tabriz). When speaking of Shams, he is at times voluble, enumerating Shams’s attributes, of one who dwells in the higher planes. “He doesn’t need horses. He flies without wings. He eats and drinks divine light. He’s the merchant of the universe, but he buys and sells nothing.”21 At other times, Rumi chooses to be concise, hinting that their relationship transcends words. “Shams is the way I know God.”22 Ultimately he uses love to describe it all – his friend, their relationship, his longing, and the Supreme One.

Love is a tree
with branches reaching into eternity
  and roots set deep in eternity,
and no trunk.
Have you seen it? The mind cannot.
  Your desiring cannot.
The longing you feel for this love comes
  from inside you.
When you become the Friend,
your longing will be as the man in the ocean
  who holds on to a piece of wood.
Eventually, wood, man, ocean become one swaying being,
  Shams Tabriz, the secret of God.23

Rumi’s poetry can be viewed as an extensive compilation of his experiences on the Sufi path of love. Yet, from all accounts, he was as much involved as anyone else in his family and community. The great Islamic scholar and translator Eva de Vitray-Meyerovitch said of Rumi: “[Rumi] achieved maturity and greatness in every conceivable way – as a father, as a husband, as a supreme spiritual teacher ... and as the greatest of all mystic poets.”24 What does that say about Rumi’s mysticism and other-worldliness? That it never seemed to conflict with his dealing with everyday life and its complexity. The setting, mood and style of his poetry reflect that – at times sublime and velvety, and then loudly admonishing and hectoring. His allegories never shy away from the ordinary, from haggling traders to burdened donkeys and camels, and rowdy drunks. His verses are not meant for us to escape into another world. They are meant to remind us that we live in a confounding world, with all that is good and bad, and that we live a dizzy life, with all its ups and downs, but always carry the secret of love and joy in our hearts.

So, where does that leave us? What does his poetry, filled with the ecstasy of pure love and the way to it, do for us right now? Rumi’s poetry answers to the need for an unconventional remedy to counter the effects of a novel virus. Its invisibility and rapid spread, the suffering and disruption in its wake, the severe measures to contain it and a looming uncertain future are our new world and its realities. What we need, surrounded as we are by a profusion of predictions and analyses, is an unorthodox approach and a deeper understanding of life.

Rumi’s poetry reaches the pinnacle on both counts.

Simple and direct, it asks us not to fear and to do what is right. It urges us to let go of our worries but also, to change our ingrained attitudes towards the world and towards life. Rumi means for his poetry to change us, to help us go inside in search of happiness and peace. “Where a poem belongs is here, in the warmth of the chest. Outside in the world it turns cold.”25 When his poetry is here, in our hearts, ensconced and nurtured by our gentle appreciation, we find something deep and timeless. “Listen to the presences inside poems. Let them take you where they will.”26 We let go and let the poems guide us. We begin to feel peace and solace of a different kind. Not something fleeting that needs to be caught and latched on to. But something soothing and calm and unchanging, whose essence happens to be our own selves. “Be silent now. Let your selves become living poetry.”27

To end with Rumi is to change and become. What he says we should become.

Living Poetry.

Barks, Coleman, Rumi: The Big Red Book, Harper One, 2010
Barks, Coleman, Rumi: Bridge to the Soul, Harper One, 2007
Barks, Coleman, A Year with Rumi, Harper One, 2006
Ergin, Nevit O. and Will Johnson, The Forbidden Rumi, Inner Traditions, 2006
Helminski, Kabir (ed), The Pocket Rumi, Shambala Publications, 2001
Helminski, Kabir (ed), The Rumi Collection, Shambala Publications, 1998

  1. Barks, 2006,187
  2. Helminski, 2006,116
  3. Barks, 2007, 76
  4. Barks, 2010, 200
  5. Barks, 2010, 409
  6. Barks, 2007, 8
  7. Ergin,103
  8. Barks, 2006,138
  9. Ergin, 77
  10. Barks, 2010, 129
  11. Ergin, 85
  12. Ergin,120
  13. Helminski, 1998, 49
  14. Ergin, 103
  15. Barks, 2006, 212
  16. Barks, 2010, 440
  17. Helminski, 1998,137-138
  18. Helminski, 2001,18
  19. Ergin, 149
  20. Barks, 2010, 425
  21. Ergin, 21
  22. Barks, 2006, 349
  23. Barks, 2006, 387
  24. Helminski, 1998, Introduction
  25. Helminski, 1998, 57
  26. Barks, 2006,156
  27. Barks, 2007, 65