Jalaluddin Rumi is famed as much in the west as in east for the tradition of whirling and an assortment of devotional poetry. His death anniversary on Dec. 17 is known as Wedding Night, or Seb-i Arus in Turkish. Like every year, dervishes and devoted fans across the world, especially in his final resting place Konya, Turkey, whirl like a spinning wheel to pay tribute to their beloved Mevlana, meaning Our Master. Others read his poetry in gatherings or in solitude to reflect on the intended message.
It must be obvious, by now, that Rumi's death is no somber event for his devotees. It's actually a celebration. Timothy Winter, a lecturer of Islamic Studies at Cambridge University, explains why: "Rumi's death is the moment of his union with his Lord. In Sufism, God is often symbolized as a feminine beloved, known as Layla."
After his father died, the young jurist and imam left for Damascus to deepen his knowledge of the religious laws and codes. But what he learned elsewhere would change his life and those of millions who came after him. At a bazaar, he met a mysterious man who was the first to question the value Rumi had placed on a legalistic approach to God.
As the story goes, one day while Rumi was reading next to a large stack of books, a passerby, who he later learned was Shams of Tabriz, asked, "What are you doing?" Rumi, assuming he was a vagabond, replied, "Something you cannot understand." Shams threw all his books into a puddle of water. Seeing his prized possessions ruining, Rumi acted quickly to save the books and much to his amazement they all came out dry. "What is this?" asked Rumi, Shams replied "Mowlana [Our Master in Persian], this is what you cannot understand." In another version of the tale, the books suddenly caught fire but they were not consumed.
Shams was a man of knowledge, who had committed the Quran to memory, and who renounced all his worldly possessions in search for a man who could "endure his company." Rumi was the one. As a result of their friendship, Rumi's outlook toward the faith changed, dramatically.
Between the two, it's hard to tell who was the master and who the devotee.
Their deep relationship raised many eyebrows, but they were inseparable. Indeed, as Columbia professsor Hamid Dabashi noted, "much of what we know of Shams is through Rumi's poetry." One may "fetishize their relationship," Dabashi said, "but Shams had a catalytic effect on Rumi, especially on his mystical ideas and his understanding of the universe."
Mr. Winter adds that it is "only in the company of an illuminated sage do we awaken," adding an example from Hinduism to showcase that it's a common idea across world religions: "Arjuna is transformed by the presence of Krishna so that his actions have no karmic consequence and are pure spiritual act. Without Krishna he is trapped in ego."
Rumi's lyrical poetry "The Works of Shams of Tabriz," written after Shams' disappearance, consists of 40,000 verses -- all dedicated to his master/devotee. But it's more than an individual tribute.
William Chittick, author of "Me and Rumi: The Autobiography of Shams-I Tabrizi," said in an interview that the work is skillfully crafted to elevate the spirits of readers. And the requisite to understanding his poetry is to read it within the context of the religion, which is the only way to decipher the higher meaning of Rumi's works.
Some poems incorporate allegories to lure the reader to reflect on its deeper meaning. For many on the Sufi path, Rumi's poetry is a vehicle to transcend the mundane, transient world. It captures the intensity of his spiritual journey and internal turmoil, which act as a guide for a seeker. As in the opening lines of this Ghazal, from the Mathnavi, which sets a contemplative mood:
Everyday I meditate upon this, and every night I groan
Why is my own existence to myself the least known?
Whence have I come, why this coming here?
Where to must I go, when will my home to me be shown?
I am in desperate awe, why was I ever created?
For this, my creation, whatsoever was the reason?
Knowing "self" is key to seeking proximity with Allah. And it can be achieved by annihilating the egocentric self, or by dying to self before meeting the Beloved.
"As far as I know every sacred tradition uses the metaphor of death to self," wrote Mr. Winter in response to my query. "The Holy Prophet tells us: 'Die before you die.' It is a common image in the New Testament: for instance Galatians 5:24: 'All those who belong to Christ have put to death their own nature.' It refers to the slaying of the lower self so that the higher self can be liberated."
But if the poems are about seeking God, where is Shams in this equation? When Rumi met Shams, Chittick said, "he was raw," adding, Shams "cooked and burned him," preparing him for a rapturous journey. The cooking metaphor is in keeping with the Sufi way: it is the burning desire for seeking Oneness that culminates in the annihilation of everything other than the Beloved.
Only after Shams disappeared and was later found dead did Rumi realize that his purpose was to introduce him to the way of love, but the journey to seek "Union with the Beloved" is done alone.
The whirling dervishes, known for their dizzying dance, epitomize the lone journey. The premise is to rid oneself of everything material and mortal aided by powerful symbols: the black cloak the dervish wears represents a grave, the towering headdress their tombstones, the white dress their shrouds, and by removing the black cloak (before the ceremony) a Dervish renounces the worldly temptations.
The idea behind the whirling ceremony is symbolic of a spiritual ascent that consists of four parts -- that starts with a Dervish's spiritual rebirth and evolves to absolute submission to the Creator.
Rumi died in 1273. To this day, his devotees celebrate his departure from the world as one would in a marriage, apt for a man who sought the highest love in life, and found it most completely in death.