Ripening of Love: An Ode to Rumi on the Anniversary of His Death

Thursday, December 17, 2015 - 5:34am

Ripening of Love: An Ode to Rumi on the Anniversary of His Death

Today, December 17th, is the anniversary of Rumi’s death. It is an anniversary that is celebrated rather than mourned by millions of lovers worldwide.

On a few occasions, I have had the blessings of being in the amazing city of Konya on this magical holy day. Lovers, seekers, dreamers, poets, and worshippers gather from around the world to this city. Konya, the ancient Greek city of Iconium and later the medieval Muslim capital, is now a mecca for lovers of God as it has been for the past seven centuries.

The anniversary of Rumi’s passing to the realm beyond the Beyond is a communal honeymoon. All around the city you see lovers holding hands, walking with a book of Rumi poetry. A random conversation might start like this: What was the poem that touched your heart? Which Rumi story brought you joy in a moment of crisis? What metaphor was where the light entered your wound?

The lobbies of almost every hotel near Rumi’s shrine turn into impromptu concerts of mystical poetry and dance. Here, there is the venerable Iranian singer Shahram Nazeri; there, the marvelous Turkish ethnomusicologist Oruc Guvenc. Great Muslim mystical teachers convene humbly to recharge, rejuvenate, and to drink deeply from this fountain of love.

Rumi’s shrine today serves as a museum, but it is a museum only in name. In truth, it is a place of worship where over a million seekers come from every corner of the planet. For centuries, this was the center of the “whirling dervishes” Sufi lodge. Spiritually oriented Muslims would enter to be “cooked” in the fire of love. The expectation was that we come not because we are already whole, but precisely because we are broken. Above the main entrance to the shrine is written this beautiful line in exquisite Persian poetry:

This place is like the Ka’ba for lovers.
Any who come here broken and incomplete
leave whole.

An exterior view of the spires of the tomb of Jalal-ud-din Rumi.

(Captain Orange / FlickrSome rights reserved.)

This is the promise of any real spiritual path. We do not begin as saints, not as already illuminated beings. We come, again and again, because we seek to become so.

It is easy to say that it is the journey that counts, not the destination. And that is certainly true. But how often we forget that other crucial element: the beginning place on the journey. The Prophet told us to speak to people at the level of their understanding. What is our level? For me, for most of us, it is at what Rumi calls being spiritually “raw.” The path for each of us is to move from being spiritually raw and immature to being “cooked” and, for a select few, being on fire. This is what Rumi is reported to have said:

The whole of my life
Summed up in these words
I used to be raw
Then I was cooked
Now... on fire.

The quotation above the entrance to Rumi’s shrine reminds us: We come not because we are already formed, cooked, or mature, but because we aspire to become so.

Another metaphor Rumi was so fond of is ripening. We are all like unripe fruit, green. In the light of the sun we ripen, sweeten. To eat an unripe fruit causes stomachache. How lovely to bite into a sun-ripened peach with the juices running down your cheeks, your fingers. This, for Rumi, is a metaphor for what it is like for each of us to have an interaction with “unripe” fellow human beings, those who bring us headache and heartache. But how lovely to have juicy, sweet, ripe human beings next to us.

How beautifully he reminds us that any tree laden with ripe fruit has its branches hanging closer to the ground. The most spiritually sweet and ripened souls are also the most humble, the closest to the ground, the earthiest. He often reminds us that the Prophet Muhammad was the most earthy, the sweetest, the juiciest, the ripest of teachers, one who never held himself in the fake aristocracy that we see among spiritual charlatans.

Upon entering the shrine, we see poems that are now associated with Rumi, though they came from a bit earlier (from an earlier sage, Abu Sa’di Abi ‘l-Khayr):

“Come, come again!
Whoever you are, come again!

Even if you are an unbeliever
a Magian... an idol worshipper,
come again!

Our court is no place
to be hopeless.

Even if you have broken your vows
a hundred times,
come, come again!”

Inside the Mevlana Museum.

(Oliver Laumann / FlickrSome rights reserved.)

Every year I take a group of people to Turkey on a program called Illuminated Tours. The highlight of every visit is the time we spend in Rumi’s shrine. The program is open to everyone. This past year we had friends from nine different countries, aged 17 to 80. Somehow, watching people — those whose lives have been shaped by Rumi’s poetry and those who are reading him for the first time — makes me feel like the siren call of this magnificent lover of God who beckons us, even after 700 years.

He calls
We come running.

We seek
The One who puts the birds to flight
And our own selves.

I am reminded that Rumi instructed his followers, past and present, not to look for him under the ground, but to look inside their own hearts. He says to us: Examine every joy that you experience reading my words, open them up, and look inside. “I am the joy inside of that joy,” he tells us.

Once the king of Konya lamented, “I love Rumi, but it is the riffraff around him that I cannot stand.”

Rumi marched into his court and demanded of the king, “Did you call my followers riffraff, ugly, unrefined, and ill-mannered?”

The king, not one to lie to the great saint, put his head down and softly said, “Yes.”

Rumi’s followers were ecstatic, hoping that Rumi would rip into the king. Instead, Rumi simply said, “Everything you say about them is true. Their behavior is ugly, rude, crude, and unrefined. I took them on precisely because they are so. If they were already beautiful, I myself would have become their disciple.”

And because he is Rumi, he launched into a magnificent poem that gives all of us who are unrefined hope, hope in God’s mercy:

I walk around the market
Buying fake coin.
Everyone thinks me mad.
They don’t know
That I have a secret:

I turn fake coins
Into Gold

This is the saintly being for whom death is nothing to fear, but merely a chance to be more fully where he is: at one with The One, lit up through the fire of love, united with all the illuminated beings. This is one who says not to come weeping to his grave, but to bring an instrument, be ready to sing, stomp feet, and dance ecstatically.

There’s a party here: one of union. In fact, the whole anniversary night for Rumi is called Shab-e Urs, the night of Union. He says:

You’ve seen my descent
Now watch me

Oh how he rises...
May we rise with him.

How he cooks,
This being of pure love flame

How sweet he is
No longer raw
But fully ripe

Let us end with a simple poem of his, one that could take a whole life to live:

Oh faithful friend,
Come, come closer
Let get of “you” and “I”
Come, quickly.

You and I
have to live
As if you and I
have never heard
of a you
an I.


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Omid Safi

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University's Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York Times, Newsweek, Washington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads an educational tour every summer to Turkey, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trip is open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

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Wonderful essay, including a tantalizing detail about the 'Come, come whoever you are' poem. I have asked many people for info on how this poem of Abu Sa’di Abi ‘l-Khayr became associated with Rumi, and had heard that it was there in tomb, but other reports said it was not, that it was written in the margin of one of the oldest copies of the Mathnawi. Have you seen it personally?

We will be gathering for 'Rumi Night' at the Boise Public Library tonight, to share poems, dessert and conversation

One correction: this is the 742nd anniversary of his death; 800 years ago he was 8 years old.

Thank you for taking your readers with you in this story. Some of us will never get to make the trip, but after reading this the spirit of Rumi and his teachings is so much clearer. Thank you.

thank you Omid ❤️

What a wonderful article. I treasure the opportunity to learn more about Rumi! Thank You!

I am grateful for your sharing of Rumi's wonderful wisdom especially because I am noticing aging in body and mind if not in soul and need to find the peace and place that Rumi represents.

Thank you dear Omi Safi for sharing your Ode to Rumi with us who try to read your weekly columns!
I dolove the poetry of Rumi so very much.
The simple poem you choose for closing your column is one of my very favorite ones indeed.
When I read it again,the Hindu greeting NAMASTE also comes ti mind.
Please allow me to share that:

I honor the place in you
in which the entire universe dwells.
I honor the place in you
which is of love,
of truth,of light and of peace.
When you are in that place in you
and I am in that place in me,
we are one.

With much gratitude,

We visited Konya recently. It wasn't during December, but I'll never forget the feeling of deep reverence I witnessed and felt around Rumi's shrine.

I think the Sufis are an enlightened, small group though, who have the best understanding of Islam. They are much needed these difficult times.

Rumi was a fine poet and mystic. Like all literati and artistans he lived within a historical time period and being a cosmopolitan intellectual he most certainly knew what was happening in the Muslim world.
It is absolutely ironic that the period in which he lived and wrote (early 1200's) was described by historian Will Durant as "the Mohammedan conquest of India was probably the bloodiest story in history." The Hindu sage Padmanabha described the Islamic invasion of Gujarat in 1298 as "a conquering army that burnt villages, devastated the land, plundered peoples wealth, took Brahmins and children and women as captives then tortured them and made them into slaves."
In 1193 the Nalanda Buddhist University was destroyed with scores of thousands of monks slaughtered. Writing of the conquest of India, historian Koenard Elst estimated the murder of up to 100 million Hindus and Buddhists to be "the greatest holocaust in world history."
To this day there is hardly any regret amongst Muslims for the actions of their ancestors and the great majority believe they did the right thing.
It is fashionable to quote Rumi but was he being politically correct? Was his conscience true? Was he writing in a moral vacuum?

Dear Name Withheld: It is a tragic fact of life that we human beings hold simultaneousoly within ourselves the capacity to be "higher than the angels" and the capacity to be "lower than the beasts." In the name of religion, men have killed and murdered and tortured one another. If, however, the 20th century has taught us anything it is that men do not require religion to be cruel; it is simply a convenient excuse. The majority of human beings are always capable of bestial behavior. Fortunately, this does not mean that the ages do not hold examples of a few people who are "higher than the angels". Unfortunately, the few are rarely enough to prevent cruelty. You blame Islam for its cruelty. I, on the other hand, blame humanity for our cruelty. Blame itself is one of the heralds of cruelty: once a people has been blamed, then it is easy to justify whatever curelties they suffer at our hands. But human beings are capable of using any justification they want for their inhumane behavior: greed and selflessness, hatred and love, prejudice and equality, revenge and pre-emption, hunger and desire for more. We can blame religion, as I note, but religion's primary utility as a war-mongering device is that it puts a faux-righteous gloss on whatever lust for power or land has taken hold of those who want more and think they're entitled to it. Their real sense of entitlement does not derive from God, but from their own belief that if they have the power to take what others have, they have the right to take it. At its best-- and unfortunately this has never been a great obstacle to aggressors-- religion teaches that all human beings are brothers and sisters and share the same rights. A seed of light in a forest of darkness. Perhaps that's the best we can hope for.

Several years ago, my wife and I were guests of a prominent political figure in Konya who arranged for us to spend time alone in Mawlana's Mazhar. We also had the opportunity to spend time in the Mosque of Shams at-Tabriz. Where Rumi's tomb is ornate and gilded, well-carpeted; Shems' Mosque is simple and bare with walls and floors lined by straw. It came deeply to my heart that this reflected their relationship: Mawlana was the face of Wisdom and Love, who was given words to inspire the generations with love for God. Shems, however, was the heart of that same Wisdom and Love who poured himself into Mawlana as the Divine Beloved pours Himself into all the children of Adam and Eve. Shems was the Beloved Axis of Mawlana's heart and work. They are as inseparable as human life is inseparable from God's Living Presence.

For a moment I am an estatic with tears sloshing my face.

This is a beautiful piece!

Rumi's songs are the song of songs. His poetry touches deep, and we cannot escape without knowing ourselves.

Adored your uplifting essay...inspirational story of Rumi vs King riffraff...Oh for a forgiving world filled with Alchemists.
Thank you.
May LIGHT surround