A study of the life and poetry of thirteenth century Sufi mystic and educator Jalal al-Din Rumi yields much to support the idea that he was both deeply compassionate and creatively maladjusted. (Spellings of his name vary and he most frequently referred to simply as: Rumi.)
Part of Rumi's immense enduring popularity as a poet of universal acclaim may be attributed to the aspects of knowledge, concern for all humanity, recognition, and application of love as recommended by Armstrong. Regarding knowledge in particular, as the son of distinguished Muslim cleric Baha al-Din Valad, Rumi was equipped with a first-class education in religious studies as well as in history, geography, astronomy, linguistics, legal doctrines, and the natural environment.
The historically-recognized Rumi (605-672/1207-1273) seemed to have become a champion of creative maladjustment when, following the death of his spiritual companion Shams of Tabriz, he adopted poetry and dance as methods of healing meditation and educational instruction. At the time, poetry itself was not highly-regarded because of those who had used it for purposes of corruption.
However, as Mawlana (the name by which disciples and devotees often called him) came to employ it, poetry became a vehicle for affirming divine love and mystery with an enthralling intensity unlike any before him. It also transformed the sober nature of his professorial character in a manner that later led biographer Afzal Iqbal to describe him in terms that evoke the essence of the Do-unto-others-as-you-would-have-them-do-unto-you Golden Rule:
"Simple, sincere, and selfless, Rumi was respected because he respected others. He was considerate even towards his enemies. He was no bigot. Petty differences of creed did not upset him. He always stood for tolerance and toleration..." (Iqbal, The Life and Work of Jalaluddin Rumi, Octagon Press, London, 1983, p. xx)
To this day, such qualities can make the men and women who adhere to them targets for ostracization, or sometimes assassination, within societies where religious, racial, or social diversity is viewed as a threat. For the most part, despite criticisms of his inclusive embrace of humanity as a whole and the adoption of metaphor to discuss certain spiritual principles, Rumi's lineage and renown made him secure: to a degree.
Another observer his life and work, Annemarie Schimmel, pointed out his practice of writing letters to wealthy patrons on behalf of impoverished families or others who had met with misfortune. She offers the kind of example, via an excerpt from a letter by Rumi, which in fact has made numerous mistreated or neglected adolescents vulnerable to human trafficking in our own time. It is that of a youth trapped between his mother's allegiance to, or dependence on, an abusive husband and his own need for guidance and support:
"He has no place where to go at night, his mother is poor. His mother's husband is a bad-tempered, stingy person. He has thrown the child out, telling him 'Do not come to my house, do not eat my bread...'" (Rumi, Schimmel, The Triumphal Sun, State University of NY Press, 1993, p. 31).
Possibly Rumi's greatest act of compassion was one he extended to himself and which since has radiated through the ages to provide solace and inspiration for millions. It first occurred when, as stated, he began to employ poetry and dance to celebrate his spiritual friendship with the legendary contemplative Shams of Tabriz. And then again when mourning his loss. Reportedly, Sham was murdered by followers who resented the qalandar's influence on their teacher and the time it took away from them.
These events did more than inspire the composition of his masterful poetry published in The Divan of Shams and The Mathnavi. They resulted in Rumi's son Valed establishing the Mevlevi Order popularly known as Whirling Dervishes.
An exceptionally poignant illustration of how Rumi's practice of compassion as symbolized by the graceful performances of the Whirling Dervishes can be seen in the 2015 film The Water Diviner. (SPOILER ALERT: Anyone who has not seen it and would prefer not to know revealing details should stop reading here.)
Rumi's name is not mentioned once in The Water Diviner, yet it is suffused throughout with a powerful sense of his poetic compassionate nature. The movie tells the story of Australian farmer Joshua Connor (played by Academy-Award winner Russell Crowe) who at the end of World War I travels to Istanbul, Turkey, after burying a wife destroyed by the knowledge all three of their sons were lost to the conflict.
In Turkey, Connor hopes to go to Gallipoli, where one of the bloodiest battles of the war was fought, causing the death of half a million people, and gather the remains his sons. He successfully finds the corpses of two and has reason to believe the third, Arthur, might be alive somewhere in a prison. However, officials block attempts to continue the search.
The distraught exhausted father is prepared to leave Turkey and go back to Australia when he dreams of his son slowly spinning around in the middle of a small group of dervishes circling about him. The dream proves prophetically accurate. Having lost his brothers and a good deal of his sanity to war, Arthur has made his way to an order of compassionate dervishes where he paints religious icons and helps maintain the facilities to atone for what he believes was failure to protect his brothers.
It clearly is not inappropriate to say that the poetic traditions of compassion and creative maladjustment exemplified by Rumi served Russell Crowe's cinematic vision very well. Even more significant, in our too-often war-torn, poverty-afflicted, and greed-driven world today, they continue to do the same for millions throughout the international community.
author of ELEMENTAL, the Power of Illuminated Love
and The River of Winged Dreams
National Poetry Month 2017