Rumi and Emerson: A bridge between the West and the Muslim world
by Craig Considine
The writings of Jalalud’din Rumi, the 13th century Sufi Muslim philosopher from modern-day Afghanistan, and the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th century Christian transcendentalist from Boston, Massachusetts, are filled with lessons that enrich every human soul. Rumi’s and Emerson’s similar thoughts on religious tolerance, love, and care for the soul can help bridge the ever-growing chasm between the West and the Muslim world.
Both Rumi and Emerson viewed all religious groups as equal before God. If they were still alive today, neither would have a problem praying in a house of worship outside of their own religious tradition. As we will see in their poetry, essays, and lectures, Rumi and Emerson encouraged people to search for their own personal connection with God through existential and wondrous ways. Their love for everyone and everything, regardless of who or what they were, shows that non-Muslims and Muslims are not as different as many people imagine.
As a young man, Rumi was trained as a theologian and Muslim cleric, but he later became a mystical poet after meeting his mentor Shams in 1244. Rumi conveyed his thoughts mainly through poems, many of which speak to infinite tolerance and compassion for people outside of Muslim circles. Despite his Muslim background, Rumi did not discriminate against Jews, Christians, Hindus or even Atheists. In one piece of writing called “He Was in No Other Place,” Rumi wrote about his relationship with Jesus:
Cross and Christians, end to end, I examined. He was not on the Cross. I went to the Hindu temple, to the ancient pagoda. In none of them was there any sign. To the uplands of Herat I went, and to Kandahar I looked. He was not on the heights or in the lowlands. Resolutely, I went to the summit of the [fabulous] mountain of kaf. There only was the dwelling of the [legendary] Anqa bird. I went to the Kaaba of Mecca. He was not there. I asked about him from Avicenna, the philosopher. He was beyond the range of Avicenna… I looked into my heart. In that place, his place, I saw him. He was in no other place.
Rumi not only respected Christian teachings, but he also greatly admired the life and values shared by Jesus. In essence, for Rumi, all religions were more or less equally beautiful because they all sought the divine truth:
I am neither Christian, nor Jewish, nor Muslim
I am not of the East, nor of the West…
I have put duality away, I have seen the two worlds as one;
One I seek, One I know, One I see, One I call
(Divan-I Shams-I Tabriz, II)
Rumi did not judge people through a narrow interpretation of God. Instead he emphasized what we would today call pluralism, or the belief that there is not one consistent set of religious truths about the world and that all religions can work in harmony in a single society. Similarly, Rumi emphasized that there are many ways through which people can come into contact with God and that Islam is not the sole path to the hereafter.
Rumi’s fondness for interfaith dialogue between people of different faiths is visible in one of his “Quatrains,” in which he notes that
There is a path from me to you
that I am constantly looking for,
so I try to keep clear and still
as water does with the moon.
This moment this love comes to rest in me,
many beings in one being.
In one wheat grain a thousand sheaf stacks.
Inside the needles eye, a turning night of stars.
Rumi’s appreciation and devotion to interfaith dialogue and to people of non-Muslim backgrounds was also on displayed at his funeral in Konya, Turkey in 1273. Attended by people from all walks of life, it is said that a weeping Muslim man asked a Christian man, “Why are you crying at the funeral of a Muslim poet?” The Christian answered: “We esteemed him as the Moses, the David, the Jesus of the age. We are all his followers and his disciples.” It is the Christian man’s affinity for Rumi’s life work that has made the Sufi poet so revered in most, if not all, religious circles.
Ralph Waldo Emerson devoted his young adulthood to studying Christian theology. During his time training to be a Unitarian Minister at the Harvard Divinity School, Emerson was considered by his peers to be “radical” for his post-Christian philosophy. In his posthumously published Journal, Emerson argued that while “[the] heart of Christianity is the heart of all philosophy… It is the sentiment of piety which stoic and Chinese, [Muslim] and [Hindu] labor to awaken.” Emerson, as you can see, shared a similar belief with Rumi in that all religions have great value and are thus more similar to one another than they are dissimilar.
Throughout his life Emerson had a particular interest for Hindu spirituality. In fact, it is said that much of his philosophy on “oneness” – a theme which I will return to later – is borrowed from Hindu scripture. For Emerson, the concept of “oneness” could be found in all nations, in which “there are minds which incline to dwell in the conception of the fundamental Unity.” “This tendency,” he stated in his Journal, “finds its highest expression in the religious writings of the East, and chiefly in the Indian scriptures, in the Vedas, the Bhagavat Gita, and the Vishnu Purana…” On several different occasions, Emerson singled out the Bhagavat Gita, which to him was “an empire of thought” and “the voice of an old intelligence.” This affection for Eastern philosophy no doubt proves that Emerson would be a major proponent of pluralism and interfaith dialogue if he were alive today.
Emerson, however, did not limit his non-Christian exploration to Hindu scripture. He also translated roughly 700 lines of Persian poetry, most of which was written by the Sufi poet Hafiz, whom he described as a hero and “a name of anecdote and courage… [a sally] of freedom.” Islam appears again in Emerson’s essay “History,” in which he mentioned Hafiz as “one of the great writers, in whom a reader may find.” Moreover, in his Journal Emerson wrote that Hafiz was “characterized by a perfect intellectual emancipation which also he provokes in the reader… He is not to be scared by a name, or a religion. He fears nothing. He sees too far,… such is the only man I wish to see and to be.” Emerson was not afraid of turning to Muslims in the hope of gaining knowledge. His inquest into Islamic writings makes Emerson one of the leading American philosophers who encouraged his fellow citizens to understand others through reading and research.
Emerson’s essays “Love” and “Herosim” also carry Islamic epigraphs. “Love” begins with the Quranic inscription: “I was as a gem concealed; Me my burning ray revealed.” “Heroism” begins with an epigraph from Muhammad: “Paradise is under the shadow of swords.” Emerson, however, did not perceive Muhammad as a violent prophet as many contemporary critics of Islam believe. He instead portrayed the prophet of Islam as a man of self-control: “Every great and commanding moment in the annals of the world is the triumph of some enthusiasm. The victories of the Arabs after [Muhammad], who in a few years, from a small and mean beginning, established a larger empire than that of Rome, is an example.” Here Emerson advocates that the ascendency of Islam was not due to “the sword” and violent expeditions of expansion, but rather faith in God and the universal appeal that so many people find in Islam.
In his essay “Essential Principles of Religion,” Emerson shows his appreciation for other religious traditions by stating that there have been noble saints among “the Buddhist, the [Muslim], the highest stoic of Athens, the purest and wisest Christian…” He added that if these saints “could meet somewhere and converse, they would all find themselves of one religion,” which reminds us of Emerson’s belief in the oneness of humanity.
Both Rumi’s and Emerson’s embrace of religious tolerance is a useful example in a world today which is increasingly fractured along religious lines. Instead of fearing one another, we can embrace, as Rumi and Emerson had done, our different religious interpretations as simply God’s hospitality for His own creation.
In addition to being open to ideas in other religions, Rumi and Emerson were also strong proponents of the power of love. Rumi’s poetry, for example, was only possible after his deeply felt personal experiences of God’s love. James Cowan, an internationally renowned author, stated that Rumi was “[p]ossessed by such an overwhelming vision of love, [that] he was unable to confine himself to any one spiritual discipline for his inspiration.” Rumi’s poem “Love is the Master,” supports Cowan’s thesis:
Love is the One who masters all things;
I am mastered totally by Love.
By my passion of love for Love…
In addition, “I am a child of love” shows Rumi’s true “religious” beliefs:
I profess the religion of love,
Love is my religion and my faith.
My mother is love
My father is love
My prophet is love
My God is love
I am a child of love
I have come only to speak of love.
The great Sufi poet did not limit his love to family members or fellow Muslims. He shared his love with people from different practices and beliefs, which is depicted on an inscription on Rumi’s shrine in Konya, Turkey, which reads:
Come, come, whoever you are
Wanderer, worshiper, lover or leaving.
It doesn’t matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times.
Come, yet again, come, come.
For Rumi, those who follow the message of seeking and spreading love are able to escape “the chain of birth and death,” as “the heart that is not in love will fail the test” of God’s judgement. For Rumi, God is the source of all love and it is this love which permeates the entire universe.
Love is an infinite ocean whose skies are a bubble of foam.
Know that it is the waves of Love which make the wheel of the
Heavens turn; without Love the world would be inanimate.
How is an inorganic thing transformed into a plant?
How are the plants sacrificed to become gifted with spirit?
How is the spirit sacrificed for the Breath, of which only a
Whiff was enough to impregnate Mary?
Each atom is intoxicated with this Perfection and hastens
Toward it … Their haste says implicitly: “Glory be to God.”
(Masnawi, V 3843 quoted in de Vitray-Meyerovitch, 1987, p. 102)
Like Rumi, Emerson was also passionate about the overwhelming feeling of love. His thoughts and feelings, which were brilliantly expressed in his essays and poems, make one feel as if he or she is empowered and uplifted. For Emerson, all living beings experience love in one form or another. Emerson’s famous poem “Give All to Love” echoes Rumi:
Give all to love;
Obey thy heart;
Friends, kindred, days,
Estate, good fame,
Plans, credit and the muse;
In this poem, Emerson encouraged his readers to extend love to all things and to never refuse love. Later in the poem, he stated that those who focus on love and loving are “wise and [are] becoming wiser.” To him, one cannot be loved unless he or she give love to others.
Emerson’s monumental essay “Love” reminds us of the benefits of being affectionate towards others. In “Love” Emerson states that he became “a new man with new perceptions, new and keener purposes and a religious solemnity of character and aims.” Although he was someone who greatly admired the beauty of nature, Emerson wrote in “Love” that a beauty more “secret, sweet, and overpowering” than that of physical beauty is “the sentiment of virtue.” Only if man pursues virtue, a component of which is indeed love, does Emerson believe that man can be in harmony with all of God’s creation.
Looking closer at the writings of Rumi and Emerson, we find the common theme of “oneness.” In his poem “One Song,” Rumi shares a desire for mankind to unite to end conflict and war, which he calls “an unnecessary foolishness, because just beyond the arguing there is a long table of companionship set and waiting for us to sit down.” Rumi encourages us to put aside our differences and to listen to each others’ grievances in an honest and calm way. He continued in “One Song” by writing,
What is praised is one, so the praise is one too,
many jugs being poured into a huge basin.
All Religions, all this singing, one song.
Rumi’s emphasis on the oneness of humanity is again found in another of his poems, conveniently titled “All Religions are but one:”
Since the object of praise is one,
from this point of view,
all religions are but one religion.
Know that all praise belongs to the Light of God
and is only lent to created forms and beings.
Should people praise anyone but the One
who alone deserves to be praised?
But they go astray in useless fantasy.
The Light of God in relation to phenomena
is like light shining upon a wall -
the wall is but a focus for these splendors.
Rumi cared not so much for religious differences and divisions but rather the “oneness” in everything. In theory, he believed that God existed before the creation of all religions and it is this universal idea of “oneness” in God that the human family should celebrate.
One of the key components of Emerson’s transcendental philosophy is non-duality, which essentially means “not two.” The time Emerson spent in the natural wonders of 19th century Massachusetts offered him many experiences of deep mystical union with the universe, of which its ultimate reality is “oneness.” If he were alive today, Emerson would likely speak about the world population as a single domain. He would not focus on religious or cultural divisions as a way of speaking about humanity.
Emerson’s theory of “oneness” is most clear in his essay “Over-soul,” which he argued that mankind should be united like “the water of the globe, [being] all one, and, truly seen, its tide is one.” The topic of the soul is in fact one of the the main sources of truth and the catalyst of spiritual growth for Emerson: “… within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal One.”
A disdain for materialism and worldly pleasures is another common theme in the writings of Rumi and Emerson. In his poem “Heart,” Rumi scolded those who know “the value of every article of merchandise,” adding that, “if you don’t know the value of your own soul, it’s all foolishness.” Rumi believed that a person who was preoccupied by worldly possessions is a person that prevents themselves from living freely. Acquiring material objects is a way to please the spirit, but only for a short moment.
Emerson, too, spoke out against materialism. In an address to the Phi Beta Kappa Society in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1867, he stated that “the spiritual is stronger than any material force” and “that thoughts rule the world.” In addition, in his remarkable lecture “Religion” in 1836, Emerson even portrayed Confucius, the Chinese philosopher, as among a class of heroes who pursued virtue rather than “worldly riches.”
The world today is rife with suffering, mistrust, and wars, but by turning to the writings of Rumi and Emerson, we can find inspiration to build a stronger bridge between East and West, between Muslims and non-Muslims. The writings of these two mystical figures should remind us of the absurdity which is the “clash of civilizations” between “Western culture” and Islam. In Rumi and Emerson we have a confluence of civilizations, not a clash of them. As Rumi said in his poem “Look at Love:”
why are you so busy
with this or that or good or bad
pay attention to how things blend.