Method and Madness in Rumi

Method and Madness in Rumi

The poetry of the 12th century mystic Rumi is easy to love, but much harder to understand.  In a love poem for his spiritual Master, Shams Tabriz, Rumi writes:

        “…with longing for you
        I will increase a hundredfold.
        They ask, “Why are you circling him?”
        O ignorance, I am circling myself.”

Haunting and beautiful.  But to get anywhere with this, we have to understand what a Sufi Master is, why a disciple would write him or her a love poem, and most difficult, what Rumi might be meaning by “myself.”  Falling in spiritual love with a real Sufi Master is the time-honored first step for a Sufi disciple to seek the Love that is at the center of the universe.  And by giving oneself completely to this relationship, one both loses and finds oneself:

        "Listen, Oh drop, give yourself up without regret,
        And in exchange gain the Ocean.
        Listen, oh drop, bestow upon yourself this honor,
        And in the arms of the Sea be secure
        Who indeed should be so fortunate?
        An Ocean wooing a drop!
        In God’s name, in God’s name, sell and buy at once!
        Give a drop, and take this Sea full of pearls." 

I have spent the weekend at my Benedictine home, St. John’s Abbey, getting lost in mystical lyrics like these.  Rumi, a Muslim sage, scholar, and poet seems so inviting at first.  But when I try to puzzle out what he means, I get lost.  I still do not understand what Rumi means by “the self.” There are many different words (self, spirit , heart) with technical meanings and long histories behind them.  And I am beginning to understand the often quoted line that

         “Whatever can be spoken of is not Sufism.”

This is why Rumi calls everyone to become lost, all who would experience the deep things of the Spirit, and even all those who are not interested. As long as you love anything at all, you are on the way to the Ocean.  All loves, even shallow, incomplete ones, are a mirror in which we can see, darkly, the great ocean of Love. 

My life's early devotional reading was the clear-headed C. S. Lewis,  who even when writing fairy tales like The Narnia Chronicles made his moral difficult to miss.  Later I graduated to classical European mysticism (e.g. The Cloud of Unknowing) and settled for some time on St. Benedict's "little rule for beginners", reading it regularly through the year.  Having now begun my explorations of Rumi, I somehow cannot think of this as graduating too -- it feels more like falling off the cliff.  It is not "devotional," it is more like eminently scholarly, eloquent, evocative, drunken madness:


"The intellectual is always showing off;
The lover is always getting lost.
The intellectual runs away, afraid of drowning;
The whole business of love is to drown in the Sea.
Intellectuals plan their repose;
Lovers are ashamed to rest.
The lover is always alone, even surrounded by people;
Like water and oil, he remains apart.
The man who goes to the trouble of giving advice to a lover gets nothing.
He’s mocked by passion."

The intellectual “I” can feel the allure of this Sea, calling me.  But both the intellectual and the lover seem wrongheaded, one too self-important, the other passionate beyond the point of recklessness ("even madness runs from me" says Rumi). Can you hear this dangerous call of Love? It is a central theme of the Sufi way, as Rumi tempts us with it.  To leave behind one thing, to risk one’s self, even to cast off one’s self, by drowning in the Sea of Love.  Rumi rarely gives us reasonable advice. Instead he lures us into love, even imperfect, reckless love, as a gateway to the all-encompassing Love of the universe. 

But do not be mislead by Rumi's passionate ravings.  If you are lucky enough to have footnotes, and a scholarly edition, you will see that before Rumi was a drunken lover and Friend of God, he was a deep scholar of Islamic law and theology.  And though many translations of his writing have hidden it, his writings are steeped in his religious tradition and make constant reference to the Qur'an.  So it may be drunken madness, but it is madness with a strong cultural and religious foundation and purpose. Still, the Sufi way is beyond religious dogma, instead focussing on religious experience and practice, making it approachable for all spiritual seekers.

If you miss this, you will miss that the Ocean from which he draws his poetry is not only wide, but also very deep. Though Rumi knows the scholarship, he chooses to write of love.  And of the lover who experiences not only ecstasy ("ek-stasis," standing outside oneself) but also difficult trials and deep sorrow.  And so he says something like: "

       "Out beyond ideas of Islam and unbelief, there is a field.  I'll meet you there."

So there is method in Rumi's mad, drunken love poetry.  It draws us in, and tempts us to stand outside of ourselves.  And this is a beginning.

What does Rumi's poetry do for (or to) you?

Suggested Readings

While preparing for the upcoming cloister seminar on Rumi and Benedict, I have been exploring resources on Rumi and Sufi tradition and spiritual practice:

  • Love’s Ripening: Rumi on the Heart's Journey, translated by Kabir Helminski and Ahmad Rezwani. This is a luminous translation of selected poems from Rumi arranged in sections that describe the Sufi spiritual journey.

  • The first three (of six) books of Rumi's poetic spiritual guidebook, The Masnavi, have been translated by Jawid Mojadeddi. The scholarly introduction and footnotes actually help with finding the Spirit behind the text.

  • Beyond Dogma: Rumi's teachings on Friendship with God and Early Sufi Theories, also by Jawid Mojadeddi, is a treasure of knowledge about Rumi's spiritual path and its place in Sufi tradition. An amatuer like me must read it with a glossary of terms in hand, but it reveals the depth in Rumi's writings.

  • Me and Rumi: The Autobiography of Sham-i Tabrizi, translated by William Chittick, is look at the teachings of Rumi's master, Shams. Again, the scholarly notes help one be touched by the spiritual writing, rather than separating you from it.

  • The scholarly resources on Sufism at are thoughful and clearly written, with many helpful links to other sites. Some links are dead, but most are quite helpful.

If Rumi attracts you, and you want to puzzle with us about how it relates to our modern selves, do consider signing up for our upcoming Cloister Seminar:

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