By Jan-e-Alam Khaki
October 21st, 2016
Maulana Jalal al-Din Mohammad Rumi
ONE of the world’s most celebrated poets, storytellers, and mystics, with a universal appeal in his message, is Maulana Jalal al-Din Mohammad Rumi (1207-1273). Indeed, he is like a diamond among the Muslim thinkers that dazzles — a jewel in the crown of Muslim civilisation. Acknowledging his greatness, UNESCO dedicated 2007 as the ‘Year of Rumi’.
Rumi is well known not only in the Muslim world but in many other societies as well. William Dalrymple, in a Guardian article on Nov 4, 2005 says, “It seems almost unbelievable in the world of 9/11, Bin Laden and the Clash of Civilisations, but the bestselling poet in the US in the 1990s was not any of the giants of American letters — Robert Frost, Robert Lowell ….; nor was it Shakespeare or Homer or Dante or any European poet. Instead, remarkably, it was a classically trained Muslim cleric [Rumi].”
Great scholars like A. Schimmel, R.A. Nicholson, A.J. Arberry, to name a few, have devoted substantial time studying Rumi. In Muslim societies, he has been highly regarded as a Sufi, and his Mathnavi is termed as the “Quran in Pahlavi language”, due to its teachings based on the Holy Book.
Rumi promoted many significant concepts, but the one I wish to focus on is peacemaking. He promotes peace by reconciling contradictory, paradoxical riddles caused by the diversity of human experience through simple stories. Take, for example, his story of the elephant and blindfolded strangers experiencing the elephant in a dark room. The people end up debating among themselves whose knowledge is accurate as to what kind of an animal it is. When they are shown the entire animal by lighting the room with a candle, they feel flabbergasted to see the actual animal as compared to what they had felt in the absence of light.
Rumi implies by the story that human experiences create multiple perspectives that often lead to debates about the truth, and what we need to do is to share our interpretations and learn from, rather than fight with, each other. In one of his Mathnawi verses, he says, “Do not take a single step towards separating people from each other; as the Prophet (PBUH) has said the most unwanted thing to me is the separation (Talaq)”, thus giving a strong message of unity. Similarly, in another verse, Rumi says/: “[O human beings], you have been commanded to unite, not to divide, people.”
Rumi draws arguments for diversity of forms by appealing to human nature. Referring to diversity of languages in which God is worshipped, he says: “God’s praise is in many forms; for a person living in Hind, his language of praise is Hindi, and for the same reason, a person living in Sindh, will use Sindhi [language] to praise God.” His story of Hazrat Musa and the shepherd further supports this argument.
He alludes to the diversity of human conditions in which we practice certain things, which may, in appearance, look awkward, but, at a deeper level, are reconcilable. In another verse, he further extends this thought by saying, “God looks not at just the outer (Biroon) condition and words spoken (Qaul) by those who worship; but their inner condition (Daroon) and state (Haal) of their existence with which they pray”.
In times of the dialogue of civilisations today, Rumi provides firmer grounds, and powerful language for meaningful engagement. He demonstrates by examples the rootedness of the human experience in socio-cultural contexts while admitting the essential unity of human oneness. He does not base his message of peacemaking on mere superficial grounds of ‘tolerance’ but on much deeper grounds of human nature and diversity of experience. He demonstrates the dictum “we see things, people, events and phenomena, not as they are, but as we are!”
G. Hofstede, a researcher, calls culture the “software of the mind” which filters all information that our brain accesses, in terms of our own cultural norms. Seeing the ‘other’ in an objective manner becomes very, very difficult, if not impossible. Rumi tries to sensitise us to this position of the ‘other’, advising us to be humble and not arrogant.
Rumi’s approach is so inclusive that people of many backgrounds — Muslim or otherwise — find relevance in his thoughts. The latter promote peace and connectedness. He abhors dividing people based on differing interpretations of life.
In sum, Rumi’s humanistic and inspiring thoughts promote brotherhood and peace among the entire human fraternity by showing reconciliation between apparent contradictions and inner harmony. He urges us not to just observe only external appearances and forms and pass judgements, but also to reflect on the diversity of human experience in different cultural contexts. For building peace on sound ideas, such rich thoughts may be the guiding principles for inter-communal and civilisational dialogues and harmony.