Rumi Was Once a Twelve-Year-Old Refugee

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The heart-wrenching situation in Syria leaves many of us weeping for the loss of so many innocent civilians, including children. While our hearts lament with the darkest notes, our minds whirl in confusion. We may wonder, how can this be happening?

Syria was once a flourishing center for culture, arts, sciences, spirituality and religion. So was Afghanistan. Now both countries are in ruins.

Rumi’s Roots in Syria

In the thirteenth century, Damascus and Aleppo — both in present-day Syria — were bursting with scholars, Sufis, and seekers escaping the Mongol invasion. Damascus was known as the city where the saints gathered. Among the many amazing beings who took refuge in these cities was a young man in his mid-twenties named Jallâl al-Din Mohammad. This man’s spiritual coach sent him to Syria to learn from great Sufi masters and Muslim scholars.

In the West, we know Jallâl al-Din Mohammad as Rumi, the renowned mystical poet who continues to be one of the bestselling poets in North America since the 1990’s.

Little do Rumi Western admirers know, he was once a twelve-year-old refugee when his family emigrated from Balkh (modern day Afghanistan). They had to escape the Genghis Khan’s imminent threat, and started on their westward odyssey. Rumi and his family were accompanied by a couple of hundred others through modern day Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria.They eventually landed permanently in Konya, which is in modern day Turkey.

By the age thirty-four, Rumi was an acknowledged leader of more than ten thousand students from different frontiers. He dedicated his life to shedding light on the essence of Islam- the dissolving of the limited drop in the infinite ocean of oneness. He supported students from all walks of life — men, women, princes, public officials, laypersons, etc. He taught them to practice, and more importantly, to experience the teachings beyond theory. But little did he know that he would soon undergo a deep and profound transformation that would abrupt this very successful and satisfying career.

From Beloved Teacher to Renowned Mystical Poet

At the age of thirty-seven, Rumi, who was a ripe apple waiting to fall from the tree of intellect and theology, was picked by the hands of a whirling dervish named Shams al-Din Tabrizi. Shams took him on a journey of transformation from a smart, successful — slightly neurotic intellectual — into a mystical lover whose poetry now teaches the world how to love. Here are a few lines describing Rumi’s awakening:

I was dead; I became alive.
I was tears; I became all smiles.
The power of love arrived
and it became and remained my everlasting state!

—Rumi (Divân 1393)

Rumi went on to impact countless lives. His poetry is beloved the world over. By the time he died, he had written approximately 70,000 verses. Now his work has been translated into many of the world’s languages.

The Power of Hope

What would have happened to Jallâl al-Din Mohammad, if he were left in Balkh? What would have happened to him and his family if they were denied as refugees? What would have happened to the twenty-four year old Tenzin Gyatso (the 14th Dalai Lama) if the Indian government had not received him and thousands of other Tibetans traumatized by oppression and exile?

Refugee life has given birth to countless amazing beings throughout history that have embodied compassion, resiliency, and hope. They turned poison to honey. Pain, as an emotion, begs to move. Once it flows through the windows of human potentiality and creativity, it reveals its true nature, love.

If the house of the world is dark,
love will find a way to create windows.

—Rumi (Divân 1926)

Rumi’s role in providing timeless hope began with his own life. He found the Sun within his own heart while the earth was experiencing a major eclipse that included the residues of the Crusades, the immediate threat of the bloodthirsty Mongol armies, and the onset amnesia Muslims were experiencing.

At every age, people believe theirs is the worst and Armageddon is just around the corner. At the same time, at every age, the handful of seekers who refuse to forget find their truths, and following Buddha’s farewell message, they become lamps unto themselves and those around them, for they recognize the interconnectedness of our being, the responsibility we all carry to love one another, and the preciousness of this life. They too experience sorrow, pain, and suffering, but meet them with a different perspective. Their love for God and their love for God’s children are inseparable and spring from the same well.

“Even if the whole world is filled with thorns,
the heart of the lover remains an orchard.
Even if the wheel of heaven stops whirling,
the world of the lovers will function fully.
While all others become sorrowful, the lover’s soul
is always tender and kind, vivid and delightful.”

—Rumi (Divân 662)

Three Things We Can Learn From Rumi

1. Recognize the True Root of Our Longing. Our era’s technological, scientific, and industrial advances, coupled with over a hundred years of psychotherapy and the recent spiritual colonialism that has watered down most spiritual traditions it could get its hands on while promoting self-absorption have all left us more unhappy and dissatisfied than ever, for we have missed the most important thing. As Rumi so beautifully puts, this most important thing cannot be forgotten. It is our true essence and purpose.

Without recognizing our true purpose, we will never be satisfied. The hedonic treadmill we run on in pursuit of happiness is only a finger pointing to the truth that what our hearts truly long for cannot be found outside of us or obtained by materialistic values. As Rumi writes,

Money and real estate occupy the body,
but all the heart wants is expanding friendship. 

—Rumi (Divân 1926)

We are longing for our true essence whence we came from, yet we seek it outside of us. This recognition reframes our perspective on pain and suffering we experience and witness in life. We begin to see them as the never-ending gravitational pull towards the source of who we truly are, as blessings and signposts along this journey. From a Persian Sufi perspective, joy and sorrow are two sides of the same coin.

Every heartache and suffering that enters your body and heart
pulls you by the ear to the promised Abode.

—Rumi (Tarjiât 21)

When we are in touch with our own longing, we can bear witness to the suffering all around us and act in new ways.

2. Heed the Call of Love Through Remembrance. The invisible force that makes all life possible — Love — fuels the constant fire of our soul’s longing. It can show up in many forms including our feelings, losses, yearnings, and major life transitions. This tension needs our attention. Rumi, echoing the sacred verse of the Quran (2:152) and the core of The Prophet’s teachings, considers remembrance as the key in keeping the fire of this longing alive. That way, it can guide us home:

In the outside world, wind sets a tree in motion.
In the inside, remembrance rustles the leaves of the heart’s tree.

—Rumi (Divân 929)

When we remember the call to love itself, the self-absorption that is a product of our era will fall away.

3. Seek to Connect with Real Human Beings. It is through relationships that we become aware of what is alive in our hearts. With curiosity, excitement and hope, we can reach out and approach those we know the least about. Rumi’s life was transformed through a deep heart-centered relationship with Shams.

We tend to objectify those we don’t really know. Humans can’t have relationships with objects. Therefore, it’s through relationships that we get to dismantle objectification by pruning away all stereotypes, judgments, and labels. Rumi was known for his unconditional love for all people of diverse cultural, religious, and ethnic backgrounds, for he saw the One in them all.

The key to this dismantling is sharing our feelings and emotions. Thus, we capture each other’s hearts and attention. Rumi invites us again and again to welcome our feelings and emotions as guests that visit us and carry messages from beyond.

With friends of the heart you fly with your wings.
Without them, you are merely a single fallen feather.
Flying with your wings you master the world.
A single feather-the wind makes you wander aimlessly.

—Rumi (Quatrain 1872)

By accessing our hearts, lessening our self-absorption, and seeking to connect with real human beingswe can see beyond the post-raped images of war torn countries. All of our projections, judgments, and hatred will melt away like snow through the heart’s fire. The mind projects while the heart mirrors. If we focus on the heart, we might realize the interconnectedness of everything in a real and experiential way. This is the zeitgeist we have all been waiting for.

With every death, a part of us dies. How many more lives can we afford before we lose our collective soul? After all, we reap what we sow.

In this earth
in this soil
in this pure fertile field,
Let us not plant any seeds
other than the seeds of compassion and love.

— Rumi (Divân 1475)

Pouria Montazeri is the founder and teacher of In The Footprints of Rumi, 8-week experiential courses exploring principles and practices for turning Rumi’s sacred poetry and teachings into portals for spiritual awakening and transformation.

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