What is the real meaning of life?
he eminent Sufi and Persian poet Rumi (1207-1273) has not only given us an inspirational meaning to human life but has also expressed his thoughts through poetry and inspired countless people across centuries. His poetry has not only been widely received in Muslim societies but has also been appreciated in other cultures. In 2007 in this country, he was declared one of the most popular poets in history.
Though all of Rumi’s work is admirable, his monumental work, “Masnavi,” comprising some 26,000 verses, is looked upon by Iranian Sufi orders as most sacred. His collected work, also known as “Kolliyat Shams Tabrizi,” is dedicated to his guru, Shams of Tabriz, another renowned Iranian mystic. The powerful allegorical and metaphorical expressions within it have transcended time and context. Even after the passage of several centuries his poetic message is still relevant.
Rumi’s prolific descriptions of love, devotion, and divine illumination cut through the layers of religious dogma, cultural belief, and historic circumstance, leading us all to the mystical core that silently waits within every major spiritual tradition. This devotion is all-inclusive.
Rumi starts his “Masnawi” with the story of a flute symbolizing the human soul. The human spirit was part of the divine soul before it descended to this world. Because of its separation from the divine soul, the human soul feels restless and is eager to seek reunion with its origin. He asserts that for reunification with its origin, the human soul needs to develop a strong relationship with God and human beings. To love the Creator one needs first to learn how to love His creations.
Rumi also stresses that all humans are from the same origins (anthropologists would agree) and if they want to avoid conflict they need to accept the physical differences and must delve deeper into the soul in order to find the common human bonds.
Rumi has given interesting examples of how differences in language and culture pose challenges in understanding simple things that cause conflicts between people. For example, in one of his parables he narrates that once four travelers — a Persian, a Turk, an Arab and a Greek — were on a journey when the pangs of hunger overcame them. Upon discovering they possessed a single coin between them they argued about how to spend it. Each individual wanted to buy grapes, but kept referring to the fruit in his own language, with no apparent common ground.
A polyglot was passing by and overheard their argument. He asked the men to give him the coin so he could satisfy their desires. Taking the coin, the expert went to a nearby fruit shop, bought four bunches of grapes and then gave each of the men a bunch. It was then that the four realized they were arguing over the same thing.
Rumi asserts that understanding each other requires openness and humility. He discourages scholastic vanity. Rather, the great sage prefers the disciple to explore commonalities among people. Negative thoughts lead to hatred, violence, greed, etc. and hinder the human potential.
Today, many societies are facing acute polarization. Sometimes, such conflicts are the result of competing religious interpretations, humans defining themselves with their racial, linguistic, or religious identities, selfish economic interests or narrowly defined nationalism. There is a dire need to highlight the literature that promotes peace and harmony. Rumi’s powerful poetry can be relevant to respond to the challenges of violence and polarization.
I conclude this essay with my favorite Rumi poem:
“I searched for God among the Christians and on the Cross and therein I found Him not.
“I went into the ancient temples of idolatry; no trace of Him was there.
“I entered the mountain cave of Hira and then went as far as Qandhar but God I found not.
“With set purpose I fared to the summit of Mount Caucasus and found there only anqa’s.
“Then I directed my search to the Kaaba, the resort of old and young; God was not there even.
“Turning to philosophy I inquired about him from ibn Sina but found Him not within his range.
“I fared then to the scene of the Prophet’s experience of a great divine manifestation only a ‘two bow-lengths distance from him’ but God was not there even in that exalted court.
Finally, I looked into my own heart and there I saw Him habitation.; He was nowhere else.”
— Khwaja A. Hasan