April 3, 2018

Out Beyond Ideas of Wrongdoing and Rightdoing

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.

The above quoted verse is from a Rumi’s poem called “A Great Wagon”—here in the translation by Coleman Barks (The Essential Rumi, published by HarperCollins in 1995). Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, more popularly simply known as Rumi, was a 13th-century Persian Sunni Muslim poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic. His poems have been the best-selling poetry in North America for at least two decades. The most popular of them is probably “A Great Wagon,” which is somehow representative of the image of Rumi in the popular imagination of Western readers as a mystic beyond the realm of religious dogma. Actually, he wasn’t by any means a mainstream Muslim. In particular, he had a deeply transformative life experience—his meeting with the dervish Shams-e Tabrizi on  November 15, 1244—at the age of thirty-seven, that transformed an accomplished teacher and jurist into an ascetic, and changed his traditional Muslim worldview to an ecstatically mystical one, which provided the main inspiration for his poetry.

It is certainly not without reason that Rumi remains the most popular poet in America today. As Jawid Mojaddedi points out, to many who claim to be “spiritual but not religious,” his poems represent direct spiritual connection with a higher power: ‘There is a lot of correspondence between the teachings of Rumi and the increasing Spiritual But Not Religious trend; the popularity of both are undoubtedly related.’ Yet, he continues, ‘there is a huge difference between prioritizing the feeling of peace through individualistic practice and developing spirituality under the training of a master,’ as Sufism teaches—and Rumi was himself a Sufi—‘even though neither need be religious in the conventional sense.’

Rumi has sometimes been compared to Dante, with whom he was contemporary, even though Dante was much younger than him: when Rumi died in 1273, Dante was just eight years old. What is certain is that both Rumi and Dante closed the Middle Ages, because although their works are imbued with medieval thought, they introduce new concepts about life, love, compassion, and religion. It’s also certain that, according to both Dante and Rumi, beauty is a fundamental element in the road to truth, while love is the only way towards salvation.

As Nour Seblini puts it (“On Mystical Metamorphosis in Christianity and Islam: Dante’s Divine Comedy and Rumi’s Masnavi in Comparative Perspective”),

A search for absolute morals expressed with intense emotions and a spiritual ardor is a value shared in Rumi’s Masnavi and Dante’s Divine Comedy, the most influential medieval works of the East and West, respectively. Their inner selves undergo a purifying process from sins and get beautified with traits that permit their union with the Divine.
Love transforms the human heart by purifying its mirror and consequently prepares it to attract the Divine. Its personification comes in the figure of Shamsoddin of Tabriz that reflects the Sun of Truth for Rumi; while for Dante what is synonymous with such kind of love is the figure of Beatrice. Both poets, as it will be demonstrated in more details in this work, present love as the divine essence making the beloved a fundamental element in human’s search for the Eternal; in this way, love becomes the animating spirit of mysticism which in turn lies at the very heart of Dante’s and Rumi’s work. In the New Life, Dante’s declaration that “ladies understand Love’s every way” signals that love is the soul of knowledge. Dante the poet is seeking wholeness through love. A thorough examination of his mystical journey shows that since the beginning the quest was set by his love for a woman, Beatrice Portinari, with whom his relationship evolved back on earth in Florence, who would lead him through a synchronicity of time and eternity to his ultimate transcendence as he attains redemption.

Please note that in the first line of the above quoted verse, Rumi is talking of ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing, not rightdoing and wrongdoing per se. Which roughly means that what we think to be good or bad is not necessarily what is actually good or bad. Our ideas, though we may believe them to be based on God’s Word and will, are much less important than Love. Love transcends everything. Omnia vincit amor et nos cedamus amori (Virgil’s Eclogues 10:69, Love conquers all; let us, too, yield to Love!).

P.S. Click here to read the full text of the poem.