We are each so wrapped up in earthly desires that you may miss a sunset cloudbank that no one else in town bothers to notice, which God created just for you and you alone to see today—just to tell you that He is still here and that He loves you. Did you see that bird in your garden this morning? Nobody else did: was it merely an accident or was God trying again to reach and delight you?

The riddle begins with an insult: “I am drunk and you are crazy,” the poet exclaims. Among Muslims inebriation is disreputable and being crazy means bereft of reason and thus not fully human: a grave affront in many Muslim cultures and some Western ones too. Who would say such a thing, and why?

Maulana or Mevlana (Master) Jalaludin Rumi (1207-1273 AD) was born in Balkh, a great medieval city in northern Afghanistan, who with his family while in his teens fled Genghis Khan’s advancing armies through Persia to modern-day Turkey. Hence he is known by Persians and Afghans as Jalaludin Balkhi, by the world as Rumi (from Rum or Rome, meaning the easternmost edge of Byzantium) and by the adoring Turks merely as Mevlana as though there is no other. He founded the Mevlevi Order of so-called “whirling” dervishes who often worship in a complex and beautiful dance that appears to emulate the movements of the planets. He left behind a massive oeuvre of mystical poetry that is loved throughout the (especially non-Arab) Muslim world and he is sometimes said to be either the best-selling poet in modern America or, more likely, the most-translated. 

The drunks fear the police
But the police are drunk too,
And in my town we love them both
Like different chess pieces.

God creates nothing by accident. He makes no mistakes, Rumi tells us, and everywhere our Creator hides clues to explain Creation and lead us closer to Him through our God-given tools of observation and reason, but most powerfully, love.

Although true Sufis are Muslims who accept the four tenets of the faith (prayer, charity, pilgrimage, and the Shahada, a short prayer recognising one true God and Mohammad as His prophet), Sufism has its often anti-establishment and anti-legalistic roots in opposition to the oppressive and hidebound Umayyad Caliphate (661-750 AD). Like Christian Charismatics, this mystical movement is propelled by love of God. It is guided by the conviction that the physical world is a metaphor for the Divine, and its greatest enemies are the radical Islamists, often hate-driven legalists who accuse them of rank heresy and who blow up their shrines.

The word Sufi comes either from the Arabic suf, for coarse homespun wool in which the earliest, other-worldly, Muslim mystics dressed; or the Greek Sophia for wisdom. It is more of a tendency than a movement. While it has lay orders of dervishes; and wandering mendicants called malangs driven mad from love of the Divine; and poets commuting daily between the mystical and the mundane; it also includes millions of work-a-day enthusiasts in South Asia who frequent melas or crowded, family festivals of prayer and music at the tombs of favourite saints; and those who sit at the shrines all night long on Fridays while singing jazzy, improvisational songs as part of a Sufi practice called dikr, remembering God because it pleases Him. It is the most popular Islamic attitude across the non-Arab Muslim world, from Turkey and Central Asia to Iran and Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. Few call themselves Sufis because it seems arrogant, like a Christian calling himself a saint, but multitudes admire the Sufi approach and follow as best they can while attending to life’s practical demands.

Privation and defect, wherever seen,
Are mirrors of the beauty of all that is.
The bone-setter, where should he try his skill
But on the broken limb? The tailor where?
Not, surely, on the well-cut finished coat.

Omnipotent God gives you failings to temper and improve you; He sends you hardships with sweetness hidden inside to help you better understand and love Him back. Omniscient God focuses on everything but also on you fully throughout every second, Rumi says. God is simultaneously your parent, your teacher, your coach, and most importantly your lover aching for your recognition and remembrance, and overcome with joy when it occurs.

Don’t turn your head. Keep looking
at the bandaged place. That’s where
the light enters you.
And don’t believe for a moment
that you’re healing yourself.

For the Sufi, all created reality is a lesson, an analogy for the real spiritual world outside of the earthly cave. On all that God has made He has hidden His signature for you, an individual, to find; as a husband slips a chocolate under the pillow of his beloved wife, or finds a note that she tucked into the sock-drawer: “Honey, I love you.” But we keep being distracted by nafs, or self-centredness, which keep us from reading the Divine billets-doux.

We sit in this world
with our money bags of energy
wondering what will give the most return.
We get engrossed in knowledge, accomplishments,
business ventures, craftsmanship,
and other enthusiasms. Then we see something better.

We are each so wrapped up in earthly desires that you may miss a sunset cloudbank that no one else in town bothers to notice, which God created just for you and you alone to see todayjust to tell you that He is still here and that He loves you. Did you see that bird in your garden this morning? Nobody else did: was it merely an accident or was God trying again to reach and delight you? But your self-obsession deepens, bringing further repercussions.

I plot to get what I want
and end up in prison.
I dig pits to trap others
and fall in.
I should be suspicious
of what I want.

But we neither see the signs nor read the road map. We fail to learn that all earthly reality is a mere analogy for something better; something that is not just in the hereafter, but now and findable and made for you.

Imagine a man selling his donkey
To be with Jesus.
Now imagine him selling Jesus
to get a ride on a donkey.
This does happen.

Rumi’s epic “Masnawi,” around 26,000 couplets long, is a Boy Scout Manual for mystics. Full of religious insights and Arabian Nights-style tales mixed among surprisingly ribald educational stories (that are too long and off-colour to repeat here); populated with vivid characters that could have been borrowed from Chaucer, Shakespeare or Rabelais; his poem diagnoses the spiritual condition and guides his readers ever toward the Beloved, or God. But this is no feel-good, Californiac, salad-bar-help-yourself guidebook.

Don’t avoid discipline.
You have learned ways to make a living
for your body. Now learn to support
your soul. You wear fine clothing.
How do you dress your spirit?

Readers familiar with other mystical traditions may draw a few parallels with Taoism; and many more with Platonism, Christianity, and the Buddhism of the two northern schools (Sarvastivadan and Mahayana) that were born in or around Afghanistan and supported even by its later Muslim governors. Although emissaries from the great Indian Buddhist university, Nalanda (427 to 1197 AD), maintained an embassy of sorts in Alexandria, not much seems to have been written about Buddhist-Muslim pollination.

More has been said about Muslim influence on Christian mysticism: somewhere Joseph Campbell cites a circa-1910 Italian paper on Islamic influences on Dante’s cosmology (and the Muslim cosmology much resembles the older Mahayana one). Christian mystical poets including Saint John of the Cross and Saint Theresa of Avila are sometimes thought to have borrowed Islamic metaphors that could easily have entered Europe through the more studious Crusaders; or Churchmen such as Michael Scot (1175 to 1232 AD) who worked in Moorish Spain translating classics; and the cosmopolitan court of Frederick II of Sicily (1194 to 1250 AD), the Holy Roman Emperor who was excommunicated four times, occasionally for what Pope Innocent IV called his being a “friend of Babylon’s sultan” and “of Saracen customs” (inquisitive Frederick washed, dressed well and had some Muslim friends). Yet, despite the scholarly guesswork, I suspect that all mystical wells somehow tap the same aquifer.

Be melting snow,
wash yourself of yourself.

To Rumi and the other Sufis, ridding one’s self of nafs, and polishing one’s receptors to the Divine, requires study, discipline and self-awareness best imparted through a teacher. Signally, it also requires silence.

The world is drunk on its desire for words:
I am the slave of the Master of silence.

In Korean and some Japanese Zen schools (and Chan in the Chinese tradition) koans are riddles used by teachers who fear that their students are captured and distracted by talk, by spoken words and by the monologic chatter that occurs in the mind. These, for Rumi too, create dualities, unrealistic divisions and unwelcome definitions that impede a clear perception of God and His love.

Am I looking for you or you for me?
The question is wrong.
As long as I keep using two pronouns
I am this in-between, two-headed thing.

Then is Man the same as God? I think not. By overcoming nafs, the successful adept sheds Self to become as transparent as a lens, Rumi says, so that God and His works are reflected wholly, for as Meister Johannes Eckhart, O.P. (1260 to 1328 AD) remarked, “every creature is a word of God.” Sufis delight in crafting metaphors that are mistakenly called blasphemous or pantheistic: a Sufi poet may refer to being drunk on wine but he may be alluding to transcendental abandon (Masti in Persian, but no reference to this writer). For Rumi, dissolving one’s self into love of God is to discover one’s own, created nature – and true joy.

Break open your personal self
to taste the story of your nutmeat soul.

Thomas Merton (coincidentally, a friend and classmate of conservative writer Ralph de Toledano at Columbia University) compared Zen attitudes toward silence and clear perception with his own Trappist vocation in his “Zen and the Birds of Appetite.” For Rumi too, silence is one of the best ways in which to hear the soft-spoken voice of God.

I used to want buyers for my words,
Now I wish someone would buy me away from words.
…Only love.
Only the holder the flag fits into,
And wind. No flag.

For the accomplished Sufi mystic, the goal is fana or annihilation, shedding selfishness, and mind-chatter to dissolve into (at least temporary) communion with the Beloved who pines for us even more than we may long for Him.

Someone said, “there is no dervish, or if there is a dervish,
the dervish is not there.”
Look at a candle flame in bright noon sunlight…
but its light has become completely mixed
with the sun.
That candlelight you can’t find
is what is left of a dervish.

Sufis gather annually at Rumi’s grave in Konya to celebrate with song and prayer, with poetry, dance, and feasting, not his birthday but rather “the Master’s Wedding Day”the day on which he died and was finally reunited with his Beloved. His funeral was attended by Christian and Jewish leaders who welcomed his open-hearted beliefs, and today his non-denominationalism is but one of his attractions to Muslims and non-Muslims worldwide.

So, the saki, or cup-bearer, has put away the bottles, locked up the tavern, and gone home for the night, leaving you two alone in the empty, darkened street when the Master poses his riddle: “I am drunk and you are crazy, so who will take us home?”

Whether he means drunk on wine or mad with love of the Divine, he does not say; nor does he explain if he means a house of brick or your permanent home outside of Time. Rumi does not even bother to answer the riddle for he does not need to. He understands that you know the answer already.

God, who loves us completely, will see us home.

Note on translations: those in italics are from “Rumi Poems,” the Everyman anthology selected by Peter Washington. The famous riddle is doubtless identifiable but provided by an Afghan friend. The rest is from “The Essential Rumi” translated by the American poet Coleman Barks. Barks is said by some to be more improvisational and less literal than, say, Cambridge’s great R.A. Nicholson (1868 to 1945), but Barks replies that Rumi’s Persian is so rich and layered with meaning that ten different translations could be distilled from the same passage: I find Barks the most rewarding.

This essay first appeared here in April 2011.

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