Home » All My Posts » Book Review: The Life and Work of Jalaluddin Rumi

Book Review: The Life and Work of Jalaluddin Rumi

‘Life and Work of Jalaluddin Rumi’ is among those kind of books which I keep seeing regularly on the shelves of libraries as well as the bookstalls but which couldn’t induce an uncontrollable desire within me to pick up and read. After reading it completely in just about 10-12 hours expended on well over 3 days, I am stupefied why I have taken so long to decide going for this pleasingly satisfying experience. A lot is written about Jalaluddin Rumi and his thought by experts like Forouzanfar, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Annemarie Schimmel, A.J.Arberry, R.A.Nicholson and Whinfield. Almost everything from the poet has been translated into Indo-European languages. This endeavour of Dr Afzal Iqbal is perhaps unique in a sense that it covers not only the life and poetry of the great maestro but his philosophy, personality and peculiarity of communicative import as well.

Its difficult to place the work strictly in a prticular genre of literature. Its neither a conventional biography, nor a critical analysis of the Sufi poetry but a complete monograph dealing with everything Rumi dealt with or remain connected to in his life. While exploring about the life and thought stream of Rumi elsewhere, a casual reader (like me) always finds himself into a perplexing state where the attention moves back and forth in search of focus. Dr Afzal has wisely divided the life of his subject into three periods, thereby supplying the reader with a continous method to get focussed on. It was revealed to me while turning the pages that these three periods are not so distinctively stand out as I believed at first. Interestingly author has chosen to reveal this division to the reader somewhere in the middle of the book. It seems to be an automatic point for a thoughtful reader to pause and reflect what he has learnt and assimilated about the great Sufi.

The first period titled as ‘Period of Preparation’ is used as a canvas by the author to paint the later Rumi. This is actually the time of a devoted pursuit of knowledge and intellectual activity. A fifty page description of the 13th century challenges of Christianity to Islam, Mongol Invasion, the turmoils Golden Hordes brought along and their ultimate adoption of Islam can be called a prefixed prelude to this period. Author has chosen to reflect back at times, to see what Ghazali tried to achieve two centuries ago and what Rumi was about to achieve in his own way. There is a gripping feeling of following the migrating footsteps of Rumi’s family in this part of the book. It proved to be a compelling page-turner as I read through the fixation between Bahaudddin (Rumi’s Father) and Fakhruddin Razi and the former’s hostility to philosophers and particular attraction to Ghazali’s mysticism. Author has analysed in detail the reasons why Bahauddin migrated from Balkh and moved through Nishapur, Baghdad and Syria after he finally reached Konya. With a brief account of the life of Rumi’s teacher – Burhanudin Muhaqqaq, who was perhaps the most important man in the development of his early thought, book reaches into one of my favorite parts. These are some scintillating comparisons between Rumi and others. The imports, no matter how subtle, of Ghazali, Attar, Burhanuddin and few others on Rumi’s later poetry are presented beautifully with citations. Reader should not get confused here as Rumi was not a poet in first 37 years of his life and his study of others in this ‘Period of Preparation’ made this later import possible. This period ends with the death of Burhanuddin Muhaqqiq as Rumi embarks on a career of teaching and abandons the role of student. To add a little rigidity to the context, author has chosen to border this phase between 1207 and 1244.

The second phase in the book begins with a weird figure, ‘wrapped in a coarse black felt’[1], appearing on the scene. The bloodline of this obscure figure is sufficiently dug out and a great deal of time is spent analysing accounts of Jami, Aflaki, Muhyiddin Abdul Qadir, Daulat Shah and Ibn Battuta of first meeting between Rumi and Shams. Author has cited the complete account and its effects from Mathanavi Walad (Mathnavi by Rumi’s Son), to drive home the point that chroniclers have sadly missed the actual spirit of the meeting. Nevertheless, my favorite one is from Daulat Shah, perhaps due to my ever growing love for aphorisms. However, I agree with the author that the dialogue as produced by Daulat Shah makes Rumi seem like a toddler in terms of grasping Sufi semantics. Book goes on describing the expressions of new mode of life that was adopted by Rumi in this phase. Singing, dancing and tribulations of soul as depicted in his poetry are just to name a few. Author analyses in depth the reasons of first disappearance of Shams and how Rumi’s son brought him back. The complete lyrical activity of this phase is timely cited by author to give reader an insight into the contextual importance of poetry in regards to poet’s life. This phase ends with the death of Rumi’s disciple and his second muse after Shams, Salahuddin Zarkob, in 1261. The chief product of this lyrical activity is Divan-e-Shams Tabriz and author has dedicated a sufficient portion to analyse the attribution of this title. The poetic themes, mystic metaphors and aims and ambitions of bringing out this collection are dealt with in detail.

The longest part of the book deals with the shortest phase of poet’s life. Rumi occupied himself completely for these 12 years to dictate about 25000 verses to his disciple Husamuddin Chalapi and attributed the long poem to his name titling it Husami Nama,generally known as Mathnavi Manavi. Limitations of logic and intellect, nature of life, good and evil, experiencing God and the ultimate reality of existence, self knowledge, nature of love and innumerable sublime concepts are neatly interwoven into the lines of this work which is remembered by many Sufis as ‘Quran in Pahalvi‘. Dr Afzal has tried to touch most of these with comfortable depth and skill, relating them to the other poets, thinkers and philosophers on many occassions. He has also given some valuable insights into the overall style and construct of Mathnavi. Reader is presented with paradoxical and sometimes completely stochastic nature of anecdotes in Mathnavi, wherein ‘God is described as a Dyer, as a magician, as a hidden treasure, as a rider hidden behind the dust that he raises, as a painter or calligrapher, as a butcher, as the hunter of the soul, as a camel driver, as a mother, as a diceplayer, as a shepherd, as a vine, as the ultimate source of all good and evil and all opposites’[2]. Author has tried to dissolve many differences encountered by the reader but poetic mysticism cannot be enclosed within two covers – its a genre which is strictly for experience.

The last chapter comprises of commentary and analysis regarding some 133 lines of Mathnavi which were latinised by the esteemed Professor Nicholson for its alleged eroticism and bestiality. Dr Afzal has analysed these assertions of the Professor where he has drawn similitude between Rumi and the likes of Apuleius and Petronius. Moreover the objectionable parts are rendered by the author into English for a wider audience to judge for themselves. The author has dicussed in sufficient detail the morals behind these graphical anecdotes and suggested that Rumi is no pedlar in pornography.

From a literary point of view, author has produced an excellent work for those who are neither proficient in language nor have the energy to dig deep into original persian sources. It provides lot of answers to those who are unable to find it for themselves. However from a philosophical perspective, its not fulfilling upto satisfaction. Dr Afzal is a good teacher but to take the reader to the depth of Rumi’s heart through his poetry is a mammoth task and cannot be accomplished in one odd book. To describe it in Rumi’s words, its an elephant in the dark. The assertion gets strength as our subject is not a systematic thinker who neatly delineates the canons through which he is trying to communicate. Rumi’s philosophy is scattered all over in some 76000 lines of Divan and Mathnavi and will be taken differently by different people according to their respective disposition. Dr Afzal has done a tremondous job of seperating the grain from the chaff and the book which was first published in 1956 will keep on serving the appetite of generations of readers to come.

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  1. R.A. Nicholson, Selected Poems from the Diwani Shamsi Tabriz, Introduction
  2. Dr Afzal Iqbal, Life and Works of Jalaluddin Rumi, P 252

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