Siraj, you're an ass"
-Lyrics from "Rumi was a homo (But Wahhaj is a fag)" by the Kominas.
(A bit tongue-in-cheek that, but a cultural statement worth noting. More on that later.)
First, a strange bit of synchronicity: I decided to take a break from dissertating to write some notes about the 12th century Sufi mystic poet Rumi. And then I decided to take a break from that to surf the net for ten minutes. Within the first few minutes, I find this Daily Dish post about Rumi.
“Who has not heard the name of Jalaluddin Rumi?” asks the introduction to a Punjabi translation of his mystical poetry. Well, it’s perhaps not so safe to assume that English speakers are familiar with his work, which ranks among the highest of Islamic mystical poetry. The scholar Annnemarie Schimmel compares the many-sided richness of Rumi’s poetry to that of Shakespeare and its translation of personal suffering and love into something tangible and moving to Beethoven. One might disagree, but it remains the case that Rumi was one of the greatest poets in history.
Poetry has a strange relationship with Islam. The Prophet seems to condemn poetry in Sura 26, although he was most likely talking about very specific poets of his time who were rivals of a sort. Nevertheless, literalists often condemn poetry and Muslim poets often begin their works by downplaying their poetry as a trivial hobby. And yet, poetry is written throughout the Islamic world, much more than prose. It often seems as if whenever you scratch a Persian, you find a poet, and the same is basically true of Arabs. It’s hard to overstate the importance of poetry in this part of the world, especially to North Americans who might well be unaware.
Rumi, of course, could only express his faith through poetry, the language of mysticism. He was a professor and father of three, when in October 1244, he met the wandering mystic Shamsuddin, the “Sun of Religion”, from Tabriz, and was overwhelmed by his presence. “The two mystics spent days and nights, weeks and months together, deeply immersed in discussing spiritual love, and forgetting the world, family, and disciples.” Shamsuddin had achieved a remarkably high level of spiritual enlightenment; Rumi describes him as the “beloved”.
Understandably, this relationship aroused the ire of Rumi’s family and students and Shams was forced to leave secretly. Rumi was heartbroken and became an ecstatic poet of longing and suffering. As a mystic, he desired to be united with his “beloved” in the sense of Allah (a common trope in this sort of poem) and his spiritual leader. Eventually, the family found Shams and brought him back to live in Rumi’s home, albeit married to a girl from the household. As his eldest son described the meeting, “They fell at each other’s feet and neither knew which one was the lover and which the beloved.”
Tensions were still unavoidable, however, and most likely at the connivance of his youngest son, Shams was lured outside and murdered in 1248. Rumi was told he had left and searched for him in Syria before deciding that his friend lived inside him and his words were the words of Shams. Rumi’s poems describe his love and suffering for his friend, his similarity to the Prophet Muhammad, and his ecstatic union with God. As with most mystical poetry, terms like the “beloved” and “drunkenness” have multiple meanings, with an underlying idea being the desire to escape the material world and achieve unity with the Godhead.
Here is an example of Rumi's poetry:
Reason says, "I will beguile him with the tongue;"
Love says, "Be silent. I will beguile him with the soul."
The soul says to the heart, "Go, do not laugh at me
and yourself. What is there that is not his, that I may beguile him thereby?"
He is not sorrowful and anxious and seeking oblivion
that I may beguile him with wine and a heavy measure.
The arrow of his glance needs not a bow that I should
beguile the shaft of his gaze with a bow.
He is not prisoner of the world, fettered to this world
of earth, that I should beguile him with gold of the kingdom of the world.
He is an angel, though in form he is a man; he is not
lustful that I should beguile him with women.
Angels start away from the house wherein this form
is, so how should I beguile him with such a form and likeness?
He does not take a flock of horses, since he flies on wings;
his food is light, so how should I beguile him with bread?
He is not a merchant and trafficker in the market of the
world that I should beguile him with enchantment of gain and loss.
He is not veiled that I should make myself out sick and
utter sighs, to beguile him with lamentation.
I will bind my head and bow my head, for I have got out
of hand; I will not beguile his compassion with sickness or fluttering.
Hair by hair he sees my crookedness and feigning; what's
hidden from him that I should beguile him with anything hidden.
He is not a seeker of fame, a prince addicted to poets,
that I should beguile him with verses and lyrics and flowing poetry.
The glory of the unseen form is too great for me to
beguile it with blessing or Paradise.
Shams-e Tabriz, who is his chosen and beloved - perchance
I will beguile him with this same pole of the age.
This stuff about escaping the distractions of the material world might recall the Socratic distinction between the material and the sensible, with the latter being the mind’s grasp of reality, which exists as ideas in the mind of God. Indeed, Neo-Platonism was important to both Gnosticism in the Christian tradition and Sufism in the Muslim tradition. The underlying idea is that the mind can achieve a transcendent encounter with the face of God by escaping the distractions of physical existence. In Sufism, this is often compared to drunkenness (and was often tied to drunkenness!) or dizziness. Both Sufism and Gnosticism stand apart from doctrinaire faith because neither practice requires a “Church” or specific rituals. In fact, such things might get in the way. While Sufis often had “lodges”, they did not need the local mosque in the same way that Christian mystics didn’t need the local Church. Some consider this apostasy.
As for the Kominas, they are a "Punjabi Taqwacore" punk band, whose first single was entitled “Rumi was a Homo, but Wahhaj is a fag”, a somewhat childish attack (in true punk fashion) directed at the leader of The Muslim Alliance in North America, Imam Siraj Wahhaj, who has issued some virulently homophobic statements in the past. It should be obvious why young Muslims lambasting the reactionary homophobia of mainstream religious leaders is culturally significant. If it isn’t, think of how rarely you hear about it happening.
As for Rumi’s sexuality, I think the point is that Rumi is undeniably the spiritual superior of all of us, regardless of his love for another man. Muslims often argue that we can’t really call Rumi a “homosexual” because he likely never had sex with Shams, an argument that misses the point entirely. What defines you is your love, not how you express that love. The absurdity is in thinking that spiritual love doesn’t count, so long as nobody has an orgasm. Thus a man writing an epic poem of devotion and longing to another man who he is deeply in love with must be “straight as an arrow” because that’s what we define as “devout”. The smaller point is that Rumi was enlightened spiritually by his love for another man. The larger point is that spiritual enlightenment has nothing whatsoever to do with who you love and what parts they have, nor with sexuality.
[Note: Not being a scholar on any of this, I'm sure there are errors here. Note them politely and I'll gladly correct them.]