Rumi and his Muse, Shams

Blue Mosque of Tabriz, Iran

The legend has it that Jalaluddin Rumi developed an intense friendship with a man named Shams (“Sun” in Arabic) of Tabriz, a character whose place and date of birth are unknown, and whose life has been shrouded in layers of mystery. Shams has come to be known as an untutored charismatic mystic and a wandering Dervish possessed of miraculous powers.[1]

According to one legend, Shams arrived in Konya on a Tuesday morning, in November of 1244. Rumi was supposedly riding upon a donkey, when suddenly a wild mystic grabs the bridle of the donkey and asks: “Which was the greatest: Muhammad or Bayazid Bastami?” Rumi replies, “Muhammad.” The mystic asks: “Then what is the meaning of this? The Prophet said to God, ‘I have not known you as I should have,’ and Bayazid said, ‘Glory be to me!’” Hearing this, Rumi supposedly faints. When he comes to, he steps into enlightenment. The story is almost certainly apocryphal for a few reasons, not least because of its resemblance to the legend of Paul the Apostle who stepped into enlightenment as he fell from a donkey on his journey to Damascus.

Shams and Jalaluddin supposedly sat in a chamber for six months, “discoursing, without eating, drinking, or any human needs.”[2] In yet another tale, “Rumi was sitting in his library with some books.” Shams came along, sat down, and gesturing toward the books, asked: “What are these?” Rumi replied, “You wouldn’t know.” Before he finished speaking, the books and the library caught on fire. “What’s this?” cried he. Shams retorted, “You wouldn’t know either,” and walked out. Rumi got up, leaving his position and family behind, and followed him, captivated and [reciting] poems, from city to city, but never caught up with him.”[3]

According to other tales, Rumi’s disciples murdered Shams. How was he murdered? In Franklin Lewis’ landmark study, there is a section under the heading of “No Weapon, No Body, No Murder.”[4] Aflaki (a biographer of Rumi) gives different versions of the story. In one version, Shams and Rumi are sitting alone and there comes a knock at the door. Shams says, “They are calling me to my murder” and goes out. In a scene that reminds us of Caesar’s assassination, seven disciples of Rumi stab and kill Shams out of jealousy. Lewis shows many contradictions in various tales about Shams. A century after Rumi’s death, there was even confusion on where Shams was supposedly buried.[5]

Today, Shams remains an enigma. There is a large body of tales about him and they are, as R. Nicholson put it, “legends begotten by the credulous imagination of the dervish, stamped on the floating currency of popular imagination, and accepted by the biographer without scruple.”[6] The tales about Rumi and Shams have curious parallels in the lives of other Neo-Platonist philosophers. In his account of the life of Plotinus, his Phoenician (Lebanese-Syrian) disciple, Porphyry writes:

“From the day he met him, Plotinus remained with [his Egyptian teacher] Ammonius uninterruptedly: he penetrated so deeply into philosophy that he was anxious to gain experience of the philosophy which is practiced among the Persians.”[7] In Meccan Illuminations, Ibn Arabi speaks of the vision of meeting someone named Fata: “He replied to me with signs, with enigma that he had created, for he spoke only through symbols […] He made a sign, and I understood. The truth of his beauty was unveiled, and I was enthralled with love. He said to me: ‘I am knowledge, the known, and the one who knows. I am wisdom.’ ”[8]

In classical Persian literature, poets such as Saadi, Rumi, and Hafez often included their name in the closing verses of their odes, as a signature. “The poet effectively signs his pen name to the tableau vivant he has created.”[9] Rumi used two signatures, either “Khamush” (“Silent”) or “Shams.” Fatemeh Keshavarz, asks “perhaps [by using Shams as his pen name] Rumi is suggesting that his identity has fully merged with his master Shams and that he no longer exists as an independent being?”[10] Schimmel wrote, “some critics have even doubted [Shams’] very existence.”[11] The latter see Shams as the personification of Rumi’s poetic and mystical genius — his “Muse,” his alter ego, a fictional device that Rumi used — an image of perfection, “an imaginary persona erected by Rumi as a foil to convey his ideas.”[12]

If the allegoric character of Shams was a device that Rumi used to reveal to us the power of love in the universe, then the choice of the name “Shams” (the Sun), is indicative as the theme of Neo-Platonist poetry. Plotinus used the metaphor of an artist at work as “a symbol of the quest for our true self. Just as a sculptor tries, in a block of stone, to attain to the form which will render ideal beauty perceptible,”[13] so must we strive to attain spiritual beauty:

Go back inside yourself and look: if you do not yet see yourself as beautiful, then do as the sculptor does with a statue, he wants to make beautiful; he chisels away one part, and levels off another, makes one spot smooth and another clear, until he shows forth a beautiful face on the statue. […] Never stop sculpting your own statue, until the god-like splendor of virtue shines forth to you […] Be confident in yourself: if you have already ascended here and now, and no longer need someone to show you the way.[14]

Shams symbolizes Rumi’s idea of the Perfect Human being in the tradition of Ibn Arabi. Love for Shams is love for all that a human could bea precursor to modern humanism.

The utopian notion of the Perfect Human is articulated throughout The Book of the Sun (Divan Shams). The love that infuses its every line is for humanity and for humanity’s potential, for the Perfect Human (Insan Kamel), yet it is also love for the supreme being of Truth, the oneness of the universe. The persona of Shamsuddin, the Sun of Truth, is identified with the light that illuminates the universe “the heavens and the earth” (Koran).[15] The distance between the Sun of Truth and divine nature is thus obliterated. The quest for the Sun of Truth is a search for love, for Truth that is one with the universe. Love for Shams is love for the Perfect Human. The notion of the Perfect Human has a long history in Neo-Platonism.

For Ibn Arabi, there are countless stations of knowledge in the journey towards human perfection.[16] The utopian impulse that permeates Rumi’s Book of the Sun can be also found in later works of European history, Campanella’s City of the Sun,[17] and Thomas More’s Utopia.[18]

[1] See Lewis, Franklin, Rumi — Past and Present, East and West, Oxford, 2000, p. 135.

[2] See Schimmel, Anne Marie, The Triumphal Sun, SUNY Press, 1978, p. 18.

[3] See Lewis, Franklin, Rumi — Past and Present, East and West, Oxford, 2000, p. 160.

[4] Ibid. Lewis, Franklin, 2000, p 187.

[5] Ibid. Lewis, 2000, p. 188, pp. 198–199.

[6] See Nicholson, R. E., Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi, IBEX Publishers, 1898.

[7] See Hadot, Pierre, Plotinus, The Simplicity of Vision, University of Chicago Press, 1993, p. 75.

[8] See Ibn Arabi, Futuhat, I pp. 47–51 [quoted by Claude Addas, 1996].

[9] See Lewis, Franklin D., Rumi, Swallowing the Sun, OneWorld, London, 2008. pp. xiv, xv.

[10] See Keshavarz, Fatemeh, Reading Mystical Lyric, University of Southern California Press, 1998. p.39.

[11] Schimmel, Anne Marie, The Triumphal Sun, SUNY Press, 1978, p. 24.

[12] See Lewis, Franklin, Rumi — Past and Present, East and West, Oxford, 2000, p. 135.

[13] See Hadot, Pierre. Plotinus, The Simplicity of Vision, University of Chicago Press, 1993, p. 21.

[14] See Enneads, Volume I, 6, 9, 7–24. Cit. Hadot, Pierre, Plotinus, The Simplicity of Vision, U. of Chicago Press, 1993, p. 21.

[15] See Jambet, Christian, Soleil du Réel, Editions Imprimerie National, Paris, 1999, p. 42.

[16] See Article by William Chittick, accessed on June 5, 2009.

[17] The City of the Sun is a utopian philosophical work by Italian philosopher Tommaso Campanella (1568–1639 CE). The work was written in 1602 CE, shortly after Campanella’s imprisonment for supposed heresy (Campanella, Tommaso, The City of the Sun, University of California Press, 1981).

[18] Utopia (subtitled: On the best state of a republic and on the new island of Utopia) was written in 1516 by English scholar and statesman, Thomas More (1478–1535 CE). The book depicted Utopia, More’s vision of a fictional perfect island society. In Greek, “Utopia” signifies the non-place. Utopia, Penguin Classics, London, 2003.

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