Rumi:  “Wherever you turn …”

Waliya Inayat Perkins

Posted Oct 8, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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“Wherever you turn …”

by Waliya Inayat Perkins

Annually on December 17th the Whirling Dervishes celebrate the “Wedding Night” of the great mystic poet Mevlana Jalaluddin Muhammad Rumi’s passing from the circle of time—through their legendary whirling prayer-dance, one of the world’s most beautiful and stirring sacred rituals. This year Southern Californians have a rare opportunity to enter this circle of love as the Mevlevi Order of America presents the prayer-dance (sema) of Rumi at UCLA’s Royce Hall. To the accompaniment of stately yet impassioned Turkish classical music (with verses sung in Farsi, Arabic, and Turkish), the dervish dancers turn in prayerful surrender, to become vessels for bringing divine blessings to earth. There is truly no way to convey in words the moving and spiritually potent ceremony.

The whirling prayer-dance will be led by Postneshin Jelaleddin Loras, who comes from Konya where Rumi lived, and who has followed in the footsteps of his visionary father, Hz. Haji Suleyman Hayati Dede, by teaching both men and women the traditional practices of the Mevlevi Sufis. Joining MOA musicians are master Turkish musicians Necati Celik (oud and middle eastern lute), Timucin Cevikoglu (vocalist), and Celaleddin Biçer (ney). Celaleddin tours internationally as a Turkish musician, performing in the United States, Bulgaria, Malta, Italy, Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia.  He was educated at the University of Ankara in Sinology, and speaks English, Flemish, French, and Chinese, in addition to his native Turkish. Since 1990 he has performed with the Hacettepe University Chorus as a Saz artisan, and in 1991 he joined Ankara Radio as a Saz & Ney musician.  In addition to his work at Ankara Radio, he teaches nazariiyat, solfeggio, and Ney at Middle East Technical School.  His previous international tours have been with the Mavera Turkish Young Musicians Group and the Turkish government’s Promotions Department. 

The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named 2007 as the “Year of Rumi” to mark the 800th anniversary of Mevlana Rumi’s birth [1207-1273]. Ban Ki-moon of the Republic of Korea, the eighth Secretary-General of the United Nations, in welcoming remarks at a United Nations event celebrating Rumi [June 26, 2007], spoke to the universal awareness that Rumi is a panacea for our times: “Rumi’s poetry is timeless. But its celebration at the United Nations is extremely timely. Events of recent years have created a growing gulf between communities and nations. They have led to a worrying rise in intolerance and cross-cultural tensions. Reversing these trends has become vital to long-term peace and stability in our world.” The New York Times wrote, “Not since the popularity of ‘The Prophet’ by Khalil Gibran has a poet made such a dent in American popular culture.”  The Los Angeles Times, The Christian Science Monitor, TIME magazine, and affirm Rumi is one of the most loved poets in the United States. 

Rumi’s father, Bahâ‘u d-dîn MuHammad-é Walad [1152 – 1231], a venerated scholar of his day, took flight with his family from Genghis Khan’s armies in the Balkh region of what is now Afghanistan. Hagiography disputes whether Muhammad Ibn ‘Arabi [1165 - 1240] or Farid ud-Din Attar [1119? - 1220?] one day came upon Rumi who was walking behind Bahâ‘u d-dîn and observed, “What a wonder! An ocean is following a lake!” Bahâ‘u d-dîn eventually settled his family in Konya and after his death Rumi assumed his father’s position at the madrassa [literally means “a place where learning/teaching is done”]. After Bahâ‘u d-dîn’s death the role of teacher to Rumi passed to his father’s close friend Sayyid Burhaneddin of Balkh. Burhaneddin guided Rumi his spiritual practices and in a forty-day retreat. After nine year of training Burhaneddin pronounced that Rumi had become “a lion of knowledge” and another would come and the two would complete each other’s training. Then, one day Hazreti Shams-e-Tabrīzī appeared in Rumi’s life.

Eighty years after Rumi’s death, Ulu `ârif Chelebî, a grandson of Rumi, directed his student, Shams ud-Din Ahmad Aflaki, to recount the story of Rumi’s life. In Manakib ul-Arifin [written between 1318 and 1353], Aflaki embellishes the narrative with miracles and quatrains not to be found in authorized texts. He tells of a chance encounter on the street in Konya between Rumi and Shams. As Rumi rode a donkey through the streets of Konya a wild stranger grabbed the donkey’s reins and commanded Rumi to explain who was greater, the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) or the ninth-century ecstatic Bâyezîd Bistâmî, [804-874 CE]. According to Aflaki, Rumi responded that Bâyezîd, his thirst, satisfied by one gulp of nearness to God, was incomparable to Muhammad (pbuh) whose thirst after thirst for greater nearness impelled him to say, “We have not known You as You deserve to be known.”

This relationship between Shams and Rumi was to serve as a mirror for the two mystics; they found in experiencing the other, they found themselves. Sura al-Hashr (59:19) reveals the power of remembering Allah Tallah “And be ye not like those who forgot Allah; and He made them forget their own souls! Such are the rebellious transgressors!”  In Me and Rumi: The Autobiography of Shams-I Tabrizi by Annemarie Schimmel, Shams speaks of his relationship with Rumi like this, “From the day I saw your beauty, inclination and love for you sat in my heart.” Shams continued, “There are many great ones whom I love inwardly. There’s affection, but I don’t make it manifest. Once or twice when I made it manifest, I did something while keeping company with them, and they didn’t know and recognize their duty in companionship. I took it upon myself not to let the affection become cold. When I made it manifest with Mevlana, it increased and did not lessen.”

Rumi emerged from this sohbet [spiritual conversation] with Shams transformed in a state of fana, or, of annihilation of the nafs [Nafs-i-ammara, ego-centered identity] in the One.  Rumi’s son, Muhammad Baha’u-‘d-Din Sultan Veled, wrote about his father after he had stopped searching for Shams in Syria, “he found Shams in himself, radiant like the moon.” Jealousy over this mystical friendship rose up with Rumi’s students and some of his family members and they drove Shams away. Rumi sent Sultan Veled to Damascus to find Shams and bring him back to Konya but the situation escalated once more. The final chapter of Shams’ life is unwritten as no one is certain of the story. One legend explains how at the same exact time on the day of his disappearance witnesses spotted Shams leaving the city at each of its four gates.

An outpouring of verse commenced and in the Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi Rumi expresses deep mystical states of realization in the voice of his teacher.  These lyric poems and quatrains speak to the relationship between Sun and Moon, Lover and Beloved, between servant and the One.

Two close companions, essential as scribes in recording the bounty of poetry to come after Shams disappeared, were themselves established spiritual guides. Rumi wrote of the first friend, the goldsmith Salah ad-Din Zarkub: “Generous Saladin, let your hand be a constant necklace on my neck.” [Version by Coleman Barks, “Open Secret”; Threshold Books, 1984] One story explains the origin of the Turning stemmed from the rhythmic sound of Saladin’s goldsmith’s hammer in the bazaar. Aflaki records it was Shams who instructed Rumi in sema, which at that time included numerous spontaneous movements in addition to Turning.

Rumi claimed the second companion, Husam al-Din Chelebi, to be his inspiration for the Mathnawi. Stories relate how Rumi was unhappy when Husam was not present. Rumi tells in the Mathnawi how the work ceased for a year when Husam al-Din’s wife died and he was in mourning.  Once when the two dervishes were walking outside Konya Husam posed a request for Rumi to write poetry in the manner of poets like Farid al-Din Attar [1142–1220] and Hakim Sana’i [circa 1050–1131] where mystical teachings were given with a mix of stories and adages. Rumi surprised Husam by handing him a piece of paper on which he had written the opening lines to the Mathnawi, his great work of moral and mystical teachings:

The Song Of The Reed (part one) Mathnawi I: 1-3

Listen to the reed (flute), how it is complaining! It is telling about separations,
(Saying), “Ever since I was severed from the reed field,
men and women have lamented in (the presence of) my shrill cries.
(But) I want a heart (which is) torn, torn from separation, so that
I may explain* the pain of yearning.”

From “The Mathnawî-yé Ma`nawî” of Jalaluddin Rumi. Translated from the Persian by Ibrahim Gamard

Husam wrote down the spontaneous musings of Rumi until six volumes were recorded. Rumi designated Chelebi to lead the dervishes after his death. Sultan Veled asked Rumi’s senior disciple, Karimuddin Baktamor, to serve as the sheikh after Chelebi’s passing. After Karimuddin’s death, Veled stepped into the position of grand sheikh. Rumi described the Mathnawi as beyond form and, “the root of the root of the Root of all religion.” However, that does not discount the fact, as the following lines clearly show, that Rumi was an observant Muslim:

I am the servant of the Qur’an as long as I have life.
I am the dust on the path of Muhammad, the Chosen one.
If anyone quotes anything except this from my sayings,
I am quit of him and outraged by these words.
[man banda-yé qur’an-am, agar jan dar-am
man khak-é rah-é muHammad-e mukhtar-am
gar naql kon-ad joz in, kas az goftar-am
bezar-am az-o, w-az-in sokhan bezar-am]

(Rumi’s Quatrain no. 1173, translated by Ibrahim Gamard and Ravan Farhadi (in “The Quatrains of Rumi,” an unpublished manuscript)

This quatrain may cause some modern day enthusiasts to scratch their heads since many who offer renditions of Rumi’s poetry streamline them until Islamic references seem to disappear. How would a novice know that when Coleman Barks writes, “There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground” Rumi is actually speaking about performing sajda, or prostration, during salaat, the five-times daily Muslim prayers? Adding more veils to the truth of Rumi’s standing as a devout and practicing Muslim are the poetic renditions attributed to Rumi that were actually written by other poets. Per Rumi scholar Dr. Ibrahim Gamard [], these oft-quoted lines are not to be found anywhere in Rumi’s original manuscripts:

“Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi, or Zen.
Not any religion or cultural system.”
A rendition by Coleman Barks based on the literal translation from Persian by R. A. Nicholson (1926-1934)

The good news is that Rumi is universal in his approach and this is founded in Qur’an and hadith where humanity is informed of the Divine intention for different authentic paths and that we should not hold one prophet above another. Reading in Sura al-Baqara Ayat 62 and then from Ayat 285 [translations by Laleh Bakhtiar]: ” Truly those who have believed, and those who have become Jews, and the Christians and the Sabaeans, whoever has believed in God and the Last Day, and is one who has acted in accord with morality, then for them, their compensation is with their Lord; there is neither fear in them nor shall they feel remorse.”  “The Messenger has believed in what has been sent forth to him from his Lord as do the ones who believe; all have believed in God, His angels, His Books and His Messengers: We separate and divide not among anyone of His Messengers; and they said: We heard and we obeyed; so grant Your forgiveness, Our Lord! To You is the Homecoming. The injunction Sura al-Baqara 256 [translation by Yusuf Ali]: offers is clear, “Let there be no compulsion in religion.”

Encouragement to respect others and to engage in dialogue to overcome differences is clear. Hadith points the way: “Whoever of you sees an evil action, let him change it with his hands; and if he is not able to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart- and that is the weakest of faith.” [Muslim quoted in An-Nawawi’s Forty Hadith, tr. Ezzedin Ibrahim and Denys Johnson-Davies, Holy Quran Publishing House, Damascus, 1977, p110]

On December 17, 1273, Rumi was called home by his Beloved Allah and laid to rest beside his father in Yesil Turbe or, “the green Tomb.”  A calligraphy near his tomb reads: “after my death, don’t seek my tomb in the earth, for my grave is in the hearts of the men of mystical knowledge.”  [Ibrahim Gamard translation] The sema or, whirling ceremony, of the Mevlevi Sufis is held each year in honor of Shebi Arus, or, Rumi’s great return. The ceremony portrays humankind’s spiritual unfoldment towards a state of perfection, or kemal.  The lessons in taming the nafs [the greater jihad or struggle] bring one to the love and service of all creation for, as the Whirling Dervish knows, “wherever you turn is the face of God.”

No wonder Rumi’s poetry sells so well “right here in River City!” Hazrat Inayat Khan [1882- 1927] wrote “The original words of Rumi are so deep, so perfect, so touching, that when one man repeats them hundreds and thousands of people are moved to tears. They cannot help penetrating the heart. This shows how much Rumi himself was moved to have been able to pour out such living words.” Coleman Barks, underlining the universal appeal of Rumi, renders one line as, “What was said to the rose that made it open was said / to me here in my chest.”  Rumi wrote about Truth and Truth is timeless.

This December 17 the poetry and Whirling of Rumi will grace the University of California Los Angeles’ Royce Hall in celebration of the anniversary of Rumi’s Shebi Arus, or Wedding Night. In the spirit of the universality of Rumi’s poetry, prior to the sema a stellar group of interfaith activists will step up to the microphone with offerings from the Mathnawi.  A glimpse at the list of readers confirms the diversity of Southern California’s “pursuers of peace”:

·      Swami Atmatattwananda, Vedanta Society of Southern California
·      The Reverend Dr. Gwynne Guibord, Officer of Ecumenical and Interreligious Concerns The Episcopal Diocese Consultant for Interfaith Relations The Episcopal Church USA
·      Imam Bilal Hyde, founder, The Hilal Institute, California Institute of Integral Studies, and Qur’anic reciter on CD accompanying Approaching The Qur’an by Michael Sells
·      Rabbi Steven Jacobs, founder, Progressive Faith Foundation
·      Khalil Momand, Board of Directors, Islamic Center of South Bay
·      Waliya Perkins, founder, Three Cousins a dialogue group for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim women, member the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions So. Calif. Chapter, authorized representative of the Sufi Order International
·      Yoland Trevino, MFCC, indigenous Mayan and United Religions Initiative’s Global Council Chair.

December 17, 2007 at 8:00 p.m.
UCLA’s Royce Hall
340 Royce Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90095

For more information, you may contact Waliya Perkins
at 310-575-1972 or

or go to the Mevlevi Order of America website at:

Tickets go on sale October 1, 2007 and can be purchased through:

Come early to shop the Sufi bazaar and
to speak with representatives of local interfaith groups.