Voices from the Other World: Jalal al-Din Rumi and the Poetry of Ecstasy

As a poet who wrote in Persian at a Seljuk capital where many other languages were spoken, Jalal al-Din Rumi has been described as an archetypal representative of a Persianate culture that flourished across an immense area and in the most diverse circumstances. The Mawlawi Sufi order that was established by his son, Sultan Valad, as a way of preserving his legacy remained the most influential repository of Persianate culture throughout the Ottoman Empire. At its heart was the most famous of Rumi’s poems, the Masnavi-ye Maʽnavi, which was revered as ‘the Quran in Persian’. In more than 25,000 couplets, the Masnavi includes so many stories and discusses so many subjects that an attempt to describe only one of them as of primary significance may well seem arbitrary or misleading. Nevertheless, the importance of the Masnavi in the Mawlawi order is inextricably linked with the experience of ecstasy.

The lectures that comprise the panel will offer four different approaches to the ecstatic experience that Rumi described in his poetry. The first will consider the impact on Rumi of the mysterious Qalandar Shams of Tabriz. It will therefore discuss the way in which ecstasy is aroused. The second will consider the structure of the Masnavi as an attempt to reproduce a sense of ecstasy within those who read it or listened to it. It will therefore discuss the way in which ecstasy is transmitted. The third will examine the analysis of ecstasy among Mawlawi dervishes by Ismaʽil Anqarawi, the greatest of the commentators upon the Masnavi. It will therefore discuss the way in which ecstasy is understood. The fourth will examine the way in which a Mawlawi sama that arose through ecstatic dance became a liturgical performance. It will therefore discuss the way in which ecstasy is enacted.


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Although the question has received less attention from historians than it should have received, Shams of Tabriz was evidently incapable of speaking himself about ‘what he has witnessed in the invisible realms’. This was first mentioned by Baba Kemal of Tabriz, one of his early masters, who offered the following prayer for Shams: ‘May God the Glorious assign a friend to you, a friend who can describe the realities and the gnosis on your behalf. Rivers of wisdom may flow from his heart to his tongue, his words may dress this wisdom in letters and sounds, and the adornment of the dress may belong to you.’ The friend who would possess these qualities was, of course, Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi.

Drawing on primary sources as well as on modern scholarship in Persian, Turkish, and English, my paper will reconsider a number of questions that are central to the relationship between Shams of Tabriz and Jalal al-Din Rumi. The intensity of this relationship was obviously of fundamental importance for the transformation of Jalal al-Din Rumi into an ecstatic poet. Any attempt to understand the nature of ecstasy in the poetry of Rumi will therefore naturally begin with Shams.

I shall argue in the paper that the love displayed by Shams, more than any particular ideas that he expressed, assured his elevated status in the eyes of Jalal al-Din Rumi as a sultan of spirituality. The result of this extraordinary mystical encounter was an intellectually sophisticated literary legacy that emerged from experiences in which intellect seems to have played only a secondary role.

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The Masnavi-ye Ma‛navi of Jalal al-Din Rumi is undoubtedly one of the most loved and widely read books in the canon of Persian literature. Nevertheless, its structure has often seemed mysterious. Reading it or listening to it can easily induce a sense of confusion or bewilderment that arises from the author’s apparently wayward approach to composition and narration.

Drawing on my experience of translating the Masnavi into English, I shall argue that confusion is exactly the response that Rumi intended to provoke. In my view, the Masnavi is a polyphonic narrative whose purpose is to guide the reader towards a mystical ecstasy. I shall substantiate the claim by providing examples of the ways in the Masnavi is constructed and of the highly unusual approach to language that Rumi has adopted. The poem induces in its readers a series of transformations that are effected through confusion and complication. As a result, readers are frequently disoriented. Transported out of their usual habits of thought and indeed out of themselves, they are introduced to previously unimagined ways of thinking and ways of being.

I shall therefore argue that as one enters a closer relationship with the structure of the Masnavi one also enters into a closer relationship with the meaning that Rumi is attempting to convey. This claim is based upon the assumption that Sufism should not be treated in an intellectual manner as if it were a philosophy. I shall argue that Sufism is primarily emotional rather than intellectual. In saying this, I am referring not to a sentimental emotionalism but to the reeducation of the emotional being. As the teachings of Rumi are delivered not conceptually but mimetically, they cannot effectively be conveyed as prose. Rumi was one of the great Sufi teachers precisely because he possessed such extraordinary skill as a poet.

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After the presidential decree of 1925 that declared Sufi orders in the new Republic of Turkey to be illegal, a visitor came to call on Ahmed Remzi Dede, the last shaykh of the Mevlevihane at Üsküdar. When he discovered that his friend was not at home, he wrote a gazel and left it for him. Remzi Dede in turn added three lines to each couplet to produce a remarkable tahmis in which he lamented the closure of the Mevlevihanes. He believed the decree to be a catastrophe that barred the gates to the other world, and he described the anguish of the musicians whose skills had been essential to the performance of Mawlawi ritual.

To explain why Remzi Dede wrote in such terms, I shall describe the emergence of the Mawlawi sama from the ecstatic dance of Jalal al-Din Rumi and its codification into a liturgical performance of remarkable sophistication and complexity. This process reached its zenith when the centre of Mawlawi culture moved from the great asitane in Konya to the five Mevlevihanes of Istanbul. Not only were they close to the imperial court and to the wealthy and sophisticated circles that served it, they were usually controlled by a small number of families that provided shaykhs who were themselves often excellent musicians and gifted poets in Persian as well as in Turkish. I shall therefore draw upon a description of the performance of the liturgy by Resuhi Baykara, the younger brother of the last shaykh of the Yenikapı Mevlevihane, which has been translated into English for the time.

As a conclusion to the panel, I shall also place the closure of the Mevlevihanes in the context of a new Turkish nationalism and describe its effect upon the Persianate legacy of the Ottoman era.