Introduction By Doug Marman
Recognized as perhaps the greatest mystical poet of Islam, Jalal al-Din Mohammad Balkhi Rumi (1207-1273) communicated something through his writing that has attracted spiritual seekers from almost every religion in the world, for hundreds of years. Even in his day, Rumi was sought out by merchants and kings, devout worshippers and rebellious seekers, famous scholars and common peasants, men and women. At his funeral, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Arabs, Persians, Turks and Romans honored him. Listen to his call for seekers of truth:
Come, come, whoever you are.
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow
a hundred times.
Come, yet again, come, come.
Rumi’s love and honor for all religious traditions was not always popular in his day, and often provoked criticism from the more dogmatic. A story is told that one such public challenge came from a Muslim dignitary, Qonavi, who confronted Rumi before an audience. “You claim to be at one with 72 religious sects,” said Qonavi, “but the Jews cannot agree with the Christians, and the Christians cannot agree with Muslims. If they cannot agree with each other, how could you agree with them all?” To this Rumi answered, “Yes, you are right, I agree with you too.”
Although kings were his followers, Rumi’s critics could never understand why Rumi’s greatest love and dedication went to what they called, “the tailors, the cloth-sellers, and the petty shopkeepers – uncouth and uncultured ruffians.” Yet even amongst these, his dearest companions, Rumi allowed no vanity. The story is told that one day, while Rumi was in deep contemplation, surrounded by his disciples, a drunkard walked in shouting and stumbling. The man staggered toward Rumi, and then fell on him. To Rumi’s followers such a disgrace of their teacher was intolerable, and they rose as one to rush the ignorant fool. Rumi stopped them with his raised hand, saying, “I thought this intruder was the one who was intoxicated, but now I see it is not he, but my own students who are drunk!”
There are thousands who believe that Rumi’s presence (baraka) still exists today, and still teaches. If this is true, it is certainly largely due to the remarkable vitality that can be found in his writings and poetry, and a relevancy they contain that reaches to our inner core. Rumi’s poetry has captured the hearts of spiritual seekers around the world because of its depth and beauty. His verses sketch out the whole panorama of life, from human sorrow and devotion, to the universal breadth of God’s hidden plan. His poetry seems fathomless and endless.
Rumi has also left to us another manuscript that is not so well known – the collection of discourses given at the gatherings with his students. It Is What It Is (Fihi ma Fihi) is a record of these spiritual discussions that often followed music and dance, the reciting of sacred poems and phrases, and the now famous Whirling Dervish exercise that Rumi originated to enliven and bring spiritual opening to the rather somber people of Konya, Turkey, in his day.
This present book is edited and rewritten from A. J. Arberry’s original English translation, published in 1961 as Discourses of Rumi. Arberry himself admitted that his scholastic, literal, work “is not an easy book to read…and the original is by no means easy always to understand.” According to more recent studies of the original manuscript (Chittick and Shah, for example,) Arberry’s translation also has some technical errors, and better understandings of Rumi’s subtle spiritual teachings have come to light. I hope this edition will help illuminate and clarify such passages, and to build on Professor Arberry’s contribution.
If you were to compare the original manuscript of Rumi’s discourses with this present book, the first change you might notice would be the dropping of phrases like, “may Allah bless him and give him peace,” after every reference to a saint or prophet, which was the proper and respectful way of speaking in Rumi’s day, and still is today in some parts of the world. Also, Rumi makes numerable references to the Koran and quotes from it frequently. Since Rumi’s listeners knew the Koran well, such quotes were familiar and personal brush strokes. However, to many readers of this book this will not be so. Therefore, I have removed a few quotes that could prove confusing to those who do not know the Koran, or might disturb the direction of Rumi’s message.
Rumi’s reference to God is always deeply personal. Whether he uses the masculine term “Allah,” or refers to God as “The Beloved,” it is nearness and closeness to God that Rumi is expressing. Unfortunately, the English language has no personal, neutral pronoun for God. To always use “He” in referring to God, to mankind, or to any general person, was common practice when Arberry released his edition, but seems too masculine today. In Rumi’s Persian language, “God” has no gender, and Rumi’s symbolic portrayal of God uses images of the Lover, and the Ocean, as often as the King. Therefore, I have used “It” to refer to God in places, to help rise above gender, but have also used “He” and “Beloved” to give the personal closeness of Rumi’s message.
The flow, rhythm and impact of Rumi’s images are what I have tried to preserve, over everything else. These inner subtleties are, paradoxically, more important than the apparent point he is making. For example, in discourse Twenty-Six Rumi says, “Beware! Do not say, ‘I have understood.’ The more you understand and grasp these words, the farther you will be from understanding them. Their meaning comes in not understanding.” Such insights can not be explained, we must catch them inwardly, with only the subtle clues that Rumi leaves to guide us.
Follow Rumi closely in this way, and you will see a string that holds one pearl to the next on this necklace. Each story, each image, is a new moment in Rumi’s discourse, yet rarely is it broken from the last moment. Step by step, Rumi is dancing. We must be limber and flexible to follow without losing that thread. Yet, hidden in the rhythm and pattern of Rumi’s dance is his true intention.
Even today, Rumi challenges many of our basic cultural assumptions, and often in ways we may not notice if we aren’t careful. It is easy to make the mistake of rejecting an idea on the grounds that it is out of date, or that it sounds merely like a traditional, orthodox opinion. I would caution about ever jumping to this conclusion with Rumi, since you will more likely find that he has caught you making the very same error.
For example, in discourse Twelve, Rumi asks the question, “If a saint, who carries God’s secret jewel [spiritual grace], strikes someone and breaks their nose and jaw, who is the wronged party?” Rumi claims it is the saint who has been wronged. “Since the saint is consumed in God, their actions are God’s actions. God is not called a wrongdoer.”
At first glance, this smacks of religious zealotry. The same sort that brought about the killings and murders of the Inquisition. No different than any other self-justified excuse. Anyone can blame God for their own choices, we say. But read Rumi’s words closely; he is not talking about justifying violence. He is asking what makes an act right or wrong, good or bad. He is asking us to look beneath our cultural ideas of right and wrong to see the true cause: God’s will.
But the problem doesn’t stop here, since we have not yet caught Rumi’s vision. Our culture rejects ideas of Absolute Right or Wrong. We have learned that each person must decide for themselves what is true, and no outside authority has the right to force their perspective. And so, after centuries of petty religious battles and church-state slaughters, we have solved the problem socially by placing relative truth above Absolute Truth. In other words, we still don’t believe the saint has the right to strike out.
Rumi knows all this, and is way ahead. He goes on to say, “A westerner lives in the West. An oriental comes to visit. The westerner is a stranger to the oriental, but who is the real stranger? Is not the oriental a stranger to all the West?” In other words, sure the idea of a Holy War, or a true saint using violence sounds strange and wrong to us, but does that mean it is wrong? Who is the real stranger to Truth?
Rumi continues, “This whole world is but a house, no more. Whether we go from this room to that room, or from this corner to that corner, still are we not in the same house? But the saints who possess God’s jewel have left this house, they have gone beyond. Mohammed said, ‘Islam began a stranger and will return a stranger as it began.’
In this way, Rumi’s words come right through time and ask us today, “Can you accept that a true Lover of God could carry God’s authority? Can you see, because of what they carry, they will always be a stranger to this world?” So who is out of date? Certainly anyone bound by the culture of their time, anyone who is not moved by something greater.
If you see what is happening here, you will see that Rumi is using our own unexamined aversions and dislikes to teach us. Some of Rumi’s most profound poetry is ignored because of such thorns, prompting him to say, in discourse Thirty-Five: “How wonderfully gracious God is! It sets a seal on those who listen and do not understand, argue and yet learn nothing. God is gracious. Its wrath is gracious, and even Its lock is gracious. But Its lock is nothing next to Its unlocking, for the grace of that is indescribable. If I shatter into pieces, it is through the infinite grace of God’s unlocking.”
This raises an interesting observation. Rumi was never general in his discussions, he always spoke to specific situations. He addressed the particular beliefs and conflicts of those around him, and he was a witness and spokesman for The Way as it was manifesting in his day. And still his words can teach us now.
If a traveler tripped over a rock in their path 700 years ago, and from this event altered the course of their life, we might conclude the rock was only incidental. But if that same rock trips thousands, through the centuries, each walking away with a different message and a different lesson, then can we call this incidental? When foolish people trip, they get up and walk away as if nothing happened. They learn nothing. A wise person will find a greater meaning for their fall. But a rock that trips travelers in every age, each time imparting a different meaning, that is not just a rock. That is God.
Many of the terms Rumi uses have a very different meaning in their Islamic context than they do in their Christian sense. For example, the word “faith” amongst many Sufis is much closer to what we might call “knowingness.” This is not the same as “belief,” which refers to how a person chooses to see things. The Quakers had a term known as “convincement” that expresses some of this, but still betrays too much of man’s choice in the matter. As Rumi uses the word “faith,” he is talking more about the effect of having experienced something that changes how we see life, than he is talking about having been sold on some doctrine.
Likewise, when Rumi refers to Islam, he is talking about The Way. He is not talking about the preconceived notions that people have about Islam today, or even in his day, but the spiritual path itself and the religious tradition. It is not always easy to understand this as Rumi meant it, just as Rumi’s use of Mohammed as the Prophet and Voice of God is easily interpreted as traditional belief, which is only the outward cloak of what Rumi is really saying. It is just this sort of blindness that Rumi is speaking to when he says, in discourse Seventy: “Wherever men or women put a big lock, that is a sign of something precious and valuable. Just like the snake that guards a treasure, do not regard what repels you, but look instead at the preciousness of the treasure.”
The title of Rumi’s discourses, Fihi ma Fihi, was translated by Arberry to In It What Is In It, but I believe It Is What It Is comes closer to Rumi’s intent. In any case, this title is filled with multiple meanings, just as all of Rumi’s works are. This may be a foreign idea, that someone could be communicating many things, at many levels, at the same time, but let us look closely at this title for a moment.
First, it is making a very specific, physical reference. “It,” meaning this manuscript, is the same as what is in “It,” meaning Rumi’s most famous work, his six volume poem, the Masnavi. In other words, the Fihi ma Fihi provides explanations and keys to unlock the meaning of the Masnavi. The two works were written parallel to each other, and contain many references and stories that are continued from one to the other. This being true, it is quite surprising that Rumi’s discourses have not gained more attention. But this is only one of the title’s meanings, and by no means the most important.
At another level, It Is What It Is asks us not to put into this manuscript more or less than what it is. It is not clothed in the high cloth of religious sanctity, nor does it speak as some authority. Rumi wants us simply to see it for what it is. He wants us to be emotionally honest and not to get carried away with the form. In other words, don’t become attached to the beauty of this vase, it is merely a holder of The Rose.
At the same time, “It” refers to God. Therefore God is what God is. This is the same as the Muslim saying, “There is no God but God.” In other words, Rumi asks, “What more is there to say?” All the words here, all the stories and explanations are saying nothing more than this. There is no more to reality than reality. God is. Reality is. It is what it is. Explanations cannot explain it. Words cannot reveal it.
And so, “It,” meaning the manuscript, is what “It,” meaning God or reality, is. Therefore, the Fihi ma Fihi is cut from the same cloth as reality, it is the same substance as God.
If you can see these many meanings, all swimming like fish in the ocean that is the title, then you will know how to read Rumi. May it also help you catch real fish as well.
– Doug Marman