Javed Mojaddedi has written an excellent study about the tension between Rumi’s Islam, a “religion of Love,” and the more legalistic religious system that gradually gained authority in the third and fourth Islamic centuries. Beyond Dogma, Rumi’s Teachings on Friendship with God and Early Sufi Theories, soon to be published by Oxford University Press, is an original and welcome contribution to the understanding of Sufi history in general and Jalaluddin Rumi in particular. Rumi is the embodiment of the essence of Islam, but not an Islam that defers to a dry legalism determined by man-made concepts, but rather an Islam imbued with mercy, compassion, flexibility, and love. The noble character of Muhammad and the beautiful revelation of the Quran are to be found with those who valued sincerity above all and sought the experience of the divine with their whole hearts. ~Kabir Helminski Excerpts from that book follow:
In recent decades Rumi has been at the center of a tug-of war between those who would dissociate him from Islam and those who respond to this by stressing his proficiency in the Islamic religious sciences. The latter reaction, which is common among academicians, is understandable when one bears in mind early Orientalist assumptions that Rumi, and Sufis in general, were foreign to Islam, because they regarded the religion as a spiritually deficient Semitic legalism.12 However, a close reading of Rumi’s writings is unlikely to find that response any more convincing, which can explain why opinions have remained so polarized. It also highlights what is most problematic about such arguments, on either side of the debate, namely their common assumption that deference to the religious system of Muslim juridico-theological scholars should be the criterion for determining what is Islamic.
Out beyond ideas
of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.1
This translation by Coleman Barks of the first verse of a quatrain by Rumi is now one of the favorite lines to quote in the English language, especially at weddings. When it is read in the context of the whole quatrain, it is clear that a wedding may be an appropriate occasion for it to be used, although it refers to a specific kind of wedding: that between God and the mystic in the “field beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing” (or more literally “Islam and unbelief”).2 While the above translation leaves the nature of the union ambiguous, other translations by Barks expand on this theme, such as the very popular example below:
This we have now
is not imagination.
This is not grief or joy.
Not a judging state, or an elation, or sadness.
Those come and go.
This is the Presence that doesn’t.3
Whatever objections one might have about the word-for-word accuracy of these contemporary translations by Barks, which were never intended to be literal, anyone familiar with the thirteenth-century Sufi Rumi’s oeuvre will know that the message they convey is representative of it. The celebration of God’s presence and its effects in everyday life are at the root of the appeal of Rumi’s poetry, and these examples indicate that the translations that are enjoyed by millions of readers in North America and beyond may not be as far removed from the original on a fundamental level as some would fear.4 What has disappeared in the effort to make these translations as transferable as possible, is any sense of how Rumi’s world-view related to Islam, or any religion for that matter. This study aims to shed light on this issue that has become so contested.
In the technical terminology of the Sufis, the proximity to God that Rumi’s poetry is preoccupied with is known as “walaya.”5 This is usually translated into English as either “Sainthood” or “Friendship with God,” while the “wali” (pl. awliyaʾ), who has acquired such sanctity by experiencing God’s presence continually, is “the Saint” or “Friend of God.” The latter is preferable, not least because it avoids the assumption of too many similarities with the Christian concept of Sainthood. For instance, as the above-quoted poetry indicates, Rumi’s understanding of this concept is one that is far more immediately accessible and universal than Christian Sainthood.6
As Gerald T. Elmore has explained, the Arabic root “w-l-y” for these Qur’anic terms denotes closeness, while the way that cognate terms with this root are used in the Qur’an indicates that this closeness entails a high degree of reciprocity: for instance, God is the Friend to His servants and can use His ultimate power to protect and provide for them, while Friends of God serve as His “allies” by carrying out on earth what He wishes.7 In Sufi understandings of Friendship with God, this relationship involves communication arriving from God to His Friends, who thereby receive direct instructions about how to act as part of their mystical knowledge, as well as the ability to carry out the miraculous. It is therefore comparable with common Islamic notions of Prophethood. Friendship with God has of course been articulated in various ways in different historical contexts. Since this study will highlight many such developments, it is preferable at this point to limit to this much any definition.8
It should not be too difficult to see how Friendship with God can be regarded as a central and defining aspect of the world-view of a mystic like Rumi. After all, when his poetry is not directly preoccupied with transcending superficial matters in order to reach proximity with God, or the subtleties of the intimate relationship already possessed with his Divine Friend, it tends to focus on the communication he receives through that relationship. This communication enables him to perceive the world around him as being enchanted also with the effect of God’s Presence. The fact that his own biography identifies the most important turning-point in his life as his encounter in Konya with a Friend of God called Shams-i Tabrizi further underlines this point. However, it should be remembered that Rumi is in good company, because the oldest surviving Sufi writings, which date from some four centuries before his lifetime, indicate that Friendship with God had held such importance for many generations of Muslim mystics already. One could go as far as to say that Friendship with God is the basis of mysticism in an Islamic context, even though the term derived from the attire of early mystics, “taṣawwuf” (“Sufism;” lit. “wearing wool”), is the expression that has come to be used to identify it. Sufi theorizers themselves have made this point since a millennium ago.9 A major reason why it is often overlooked is that the Arabic term “walaya” can also have additional sectarian connotations.10
The themes that are familiar to all readers of Rumi’s lyrical poems and quatrains, whether in the original Persian or in popular translations, assume equal prominence in his didactic writings. This makes Friendship with God an obvious choice for any inquiry into Rumi’s mystical teachings. The man whose life was reportedly transformed by a question posed about the relative status of the Prophet Muhammad and the Friend of God Abu Yazid al-Basṭami (d. ca. 261/875) unsurprisingly taught about this relationship.11 Moreoever, as the author of the work known as “the Qur’an in Persian,”12 he himself shows a special interest in comparing the divine communication received by Friends of God with that of Prophets. Similarly, reports that he courted controversy with juristic scholars for his devotion to the wine-drinking Shams-i Tabrizi13 are consistent with his own teachings on the relevance of the Shariah for the actions of the Friends of God and those aspiring to that rank. Finally, as well as composing many memorable miracle-stories, he also taught about the significance of this particular kind of manifestation of the sanctity of the Friends of God.
Rumi’s didactic writings are his magnum opus, The Masnavi, and also the collection of transcripts of his teaching sessions, which is known as the Fihi ma fih. As discussed in detail in Chapter One, these two works are remarkably consistent and even overlap in content. Although The Masnavi is many times longer than the Fihi ma fih, its poetic form imposes more constraints than the informal prose of the latter work, which is why, for the purposes of this study, corroboration is consistently provided from the Fihi ma fih for teachings cited from The Masnavi. The central importance of Friendship with God in both, and indeed all of Rumi’s works, has facilitated this task considerably. Although many teachings about this topic are also attributed to Rumi in his later biographical tradition, in view of the tendency for such traditions to project later viewpoints back to their subjects, the method used in this study is to focus on the teachings in his own words.14 Biographical stories are nonetheless used here for illustration purposes.
Rumi’s Masnavi and Fihi ma fih represent his “practical” instruction rather than “theoretical” accounts of Sufism.15 Rumi’s teachings on any particular topic are typically scattered among the transcripts of his teachings sessions and the component books of his voluminous Masnavi. In consequence, there has been a tendency to resort to interpreting them on the basis of an external frame of reference, especially the influential 10th and 11th-century “theoretical” manuals of Sufism.16 These works have proven to be among the most widely-read prose works on Sufism ever written. This is largely because they are accessible introductions, which, at the same time, stress Sufism’s compatibility with the juridico-theological Islamic system that was consolidating its dominance at the time they were written. As that religious system’s dominance remained an important consideration through the centuries, these works continued to serve an important purpose. In recognition of their popularity and influence, they were also among the first Sufi writings to be edited and translated by modern academicians. This has arguably made their influence on the academic understanding of Sufism disproportionate, and so it has not been inconsequential that three of the four major theoretical manuals of this period were either edited or translated by scholars who also edited, translated and commented on Rumi’s Masnavi and Fihi ma fih, works of entirely different genres.17 This study aims to interpret Rumi’s distinctive teachings on Friendship with God on their own terms, and then to consider the broader significance and implications of the notion of Friendship with God in general for a more nuanced understanding of mysticism among Muslims.
The first task is made possible by the consistency and mutual-reinforcement evident between his Masnavi and Fihi ma fih, which both present extensive teachings by Rumi about this topic. In order to appreciate fully the significance of his teachings it is necessary to contextualize them, especially since the question of the relationship of Rumi, and Sufism in general, to the wider Islamic tradition has been the subject of debate. To this end, the theoretical Sufi manuals are also considered in detail, because they grapple specifically with this relationship, while Rumi had little interest in doing so, having opted not to compose any theoretical works. Since they were written during the tenth and eleventh centuries C.E., the critical time when the juridicotheological Islamic system was consolidating its dominance, the development of their theories about Friendship with God sheds light on the degree to which this doctrine was harmonized with the Islamic religious system that was then taking shape. Significantly, they debate a range of viewpoints among their contemporary Sufis about Friendship with God, including both those acceptable and those not acceptable to them, and the issues and controversies that they raised. Viewpoints either side of those expressed by Rumi are in this way considered by these predecessors, even if their own preferred positions are distinct, and this is what makes it possible to use their writings in order to gain insight into the relationship between mystical and scholastic Islam more broadly. Even though their preferred theoretical resolutions do not coincide with those of Rumi, and other Sufis living centuries later, these manuals remained popular because of the continued appreciation of their irenic efforts to present Sufism as compatible with scholastic Islam. An important fact to keep in mind is that works of this genre served this irenic purpose due to the circumstances when they were originally written, and are useful for the present study specifically for insight into that process; they have to be treated historically themselves, and not normatively.
The existence of older monograph mystical treatises on Friendship with God from the ninth century C.E., which are also examined in this study, is significant because they enable the tracing of the development of theories about Friendship with God from more than a century before the first of the irenic manuals. These older treatises also had irenic aims, meaning that in combination with the manuals they can offer invaluable insights into both a wide range of theories about Friendship with God and their relationship to the emerging Islamic religious system over two centuries, and also the dynamic nature of both the theoretical mystical writings and the emerging religious system itself. It should also be mentioned that the ongoing, dynamic debate about issues related to Friendship with God at that critical time also indicates the kind of “practical” teachings that were current then among Sufis, since these Sufi authors were responding to them as well as external pressure from juridico-theological scholars.the eleventh-century consolidation of juridico-theological Islam’s authority
In recent decades Rumi has been at the center of a tug-of war between those who would dissociate him from Islam and those who respond to this by stressing his proficiency in the Islamic religious sciences. The latter reaction, which is common among academicians, is understandable when one bears in mind early Orientalist assumptions that Rumi, and Sufis in general, were foreign to Islam, because they regarded the religion as a spiritually deficient Semitic legalism.12 However, a close reading of Rumi’s writings is unlikely to find that response any more convincing, which can explain why opinions have remained so polarized. It also highlights what is most problematic about such arguments, on either side of the debate, namely their common assumption that deference to the religious system of Muslim juridico-theological scholars should be the criterion for determining what is Islamic. While this is not an unreasonable position to take, since this is what is usually meant when referring to “Islam,” it needs to be acknowledged that the religious system of Islam was consolidated over centuries and with substantial debate and disagreement. That is to say, there have been Muslim communities since before those centuries who have not regarded the systematized religion to be the supremely authoritative representation of their faith.13 The mystical writings on Friendship with God examined here show that the rising influence of scholastic Islam in fact constituted an outside interruption, threatening the survival of their ongoing mystical endeavor, rather than an internal development enhancing it. Moreover, the extent to which irenic authors from among the Sufis did find ways to present their mysticism as being theoretically compatible with scholastic Islam still falls short of any evidence to assume that Sufism is based on it, let alone that to be “genuine Sufis” they must be wholly constrained by its formulated limits. At the same time, however, the particular understanding of mysticism shared by Rumi and most other Sufis, with its emphasis on divine verbal communication that can produce inspired books, and also direct the control of the mystic’s actions, could hardly be more distinctive of the mysticism found in the Qur’an and Muhammad’s life-story.
Since the main problem with this debate lies in the narrowness of the definition of Islam, restricting it to the scholastic edifice developed centuries after its sacred history, one wonders whether Rumi’s famous parable about the four men who fought over grapes might point towards a resolution.14 That is to say, the use of a more inclusive definition of Islam which embraces all movements that took inspiration from the Qur’an and Muhammad’s example, each according to their own interpretations, might satisfy both sides of the debate without resorting to ahistorical and essentialist arguments. On the one hand it would not gloss over Rumi’s low estimation of juridico-theological Islam from a mystical perspective, while on the other it would not strip Rumi of his own religious background. At the same time, this could contribute to fulfilling the urgent need for a more nuanced understanding of Muslims in general, beyond individuals programmed above all else to follows the laws and dogmas formulated by religious scholars.15 After all, Rumi’s popularity has itself been unrivalled across a huge swathe of the Muslim heartlands for several centuries, rather than belonging to a secretive minority.
. . . It is worth remembering that the first expressions of deference to scholastic Islam, in the Sufi manuals, represent a sudden change in approach from that of the oldest mystical writings, and that even works of this irenic genre only came to defer to juristic formulations through a gradual process: it ranged from an insistence on the minimum amount of compliance necessary to the adoption of the most conservative approach in any areas of ambiguity. The background of the author was a major factor, with Kalabadhi, who had the least Sufi credentials, being the most conservative. Although the manuals of Qushayri and Hujwiri, which have proven to be the most popular over the centuries, may appear at first, through their stated aims, to be similarly conservative, in contrast they include enough ambiguity to facilitate the preservation of divergent viewpoints.
The contrasting silence of Qushayri and Hujwiri concerning divine communication may at first seem more difficult to interpret. However, once it is remembered that their predecessors struggled with this particular quality of the Friends of God more than any other while arguing for the superiority of Prophets, their silence can be interpreted as simply a way of avoiding comment. When facing the prospect of the challenge to affirm their direct divine communication at the same time as expressing deference to the textually-based religious system of juridicotheological scholars, this might have then been the best option.
For instance, the theories of Ḥakim Tirmidhi, the most prolific mystic author of his generation, are ignored, marginalized, or drawn upon only selectively during the tenth and eleventh centuries, when irenic efforts at legitimizing the Sufi tradition were top priority. However, after this period he becomes the subject of a revival of interest, most famously in the writings of Ibn ʿArabi.8 Tirmidhi had dared to critique the juridico-theological scholars’ own understanding of the Shariah and was accused of claiming to be a Prophet, which seems to have been considered serious enough to make recourse to his idiosyncratic efforts at actually expressing deference to Prophets no longer an option for his immediate successors.
*** The main aim of this study has been to examine Rumi’s teachings about Friendship with God, which represents the major preoccupations of his writings, and to clarify their relationship with the theoretical prose manuals that have frequently been treated as normative, as well as the wider Islamic religious system. A close examination of those manuals in comparison with both those theoretical works that preceded them as well as Rumi’s didactic writings, has provided insight into the kinds of dilemmas and concerns Muslim mystics grappled with when the juridico-theological system was consolidating its authority. It has also highlighted some important developments in Sufi theory as a result of this challenging process. If insight into the direct influences on Rumi’s teachings is sought instead, this could be gained by considering the treatment of these same topics in the mystical writings of the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries CE, closer to his lifetime. Rumi was after all far from being alone during this period in expounding teachings that contrast with the irenic manuals. Though they may not have left extended theoretical discussions directly confronting the issue of Friendship with God, recent studies on the twelfth-century Sufis Aḥmad Ghazzali, ʿAyn al-Quḍat Hamadani, Ḥakim Sanaʾi, Ruzbihan Baqli, and Farid al-Din ʿAṭṭar indicate that such a project could still prove a rewarding endeavor.16 However, that is a subject for another book.