Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Roya Ahmadi-Moghadam: Oral Culture & Poetry, RP5

Rumi’s Poetry

Jalal al-Din Rumi, or Mawlana (literally “master”) as many Turks and Iranians know him, is considered widely in both the east and west as one of the greatest Sufi mystic and poet in the Persian language. Famous for his lyrics and his didactic epics in his Masnavi, Rumi had an enormous influence in regards to mystical thought and literature across the Muslim world.1

Like most other figures in Persian literature, Rumi’s poetry heavily emphasizes love and its transcendent nature, especially in regards to the poet’s love of God. Rumi repeatedly emphasizes the idea of tawhid, or God’s oneness/unity. In the terminology of Sufis like Rumi, tawhid is interpreted in a pantheistic manner; “all essences are divine, and there is no absolute existence besides that of God.” 2 He often asserts that we must negate our own sense of individualism and separate existence to be able to experience the full extent of love and unity with God.

Rumi expresses these ideas with many clever metaphors and goes to the point of almost sounding blasphemous in some of his poems.

As salt resolved in the ocean

I was swallowed in God’s sea

Past faith, past unbelieving

Past doubt, past certainty

Suddenly in my bosom

A star shone clear and bright;

All the suns of heaven

Vanished in that star’s light.3

Here Rumi creates a sense of unification with the divine by comparing himself to the salt within the ocean. Engulfed by the divine’s truth and love, Rumi effectively removes himself from the ideas of both a traditional believer and a non-believer by emphasizing the indistinguishable connection between God, himself, and the entirety of the universe. 

In another well known poem of his, Rumi further expands on these ideas and stresses deindividualization to the extent of almost denying his own existence when describing his devotion to and unity with God. 

Rumi first denies him self of any identity, whether cultural, religious or anything else, and then states:

My place is the Placeless, my trace is the Traceless; 

Tis neither body nor soul, for I belong to the soul of the Beloved. 4

Music and Opera Performances of Rumi’s Work

Poetry is deeply interconnected with music, and therefore by being able to listen to Rumi’s poems sung and accompanied by music we are able to unearth an even deeper understanding or connection to his poetry. In both  Homayoun Shajarian’s5 and Alireza  Qorbani’s6 performances of pieces of Rumi’s poems, the music elevates the listeners experience of the poem, while paying careful attention not to draw away the audience’s primary focus from the verse. While both have a distinctly Persian tonality, these two performances importantly demonstrate Rumi’s poetry is regards to how it has seamlessly crossed into more Western art forms. Rumi is well known as one of the Western world’s favorite Persain poets and the fact that his poems can be integrated into the form of an Opera (as seen in Alireza Qorbani’s performance) only go to further show that beauty of Persian poetry can be experienced in both traditional and non-traditional methods of expression.

Idyll Poems

Idyll poetry is in many ways is very similar to other types of narrative poetry in the sense that it aims to tell a story. However unlike the other didactic or epic poetry pieces we’ve looked at before, idyll poetry employs simple language without the need to uncover a great deal of underlying symbolism or deeper mulitlayered metaphorical meaning. Idyll are also often considered “sheperdic” as they paint a picture of everyday life and talk about everyday themes like one’s pursuit for pure love.

One of the best known examples of idyll is the story of “Layla and Majnun,” as written by Nezami.7  The story accounts a poet, Qays, falling deeply in love with a girl named Layla when he is young. As the two grow older, their love only grows stronger. Qays even begins publicly stating his obsessive passion for Layla in his poems, causing his tribe Banu ‘Amir and the community to give him the epithet of Majnūn (literally “crazy”). This unfortunately also causes Layla’s father to refuse the idea of a marriage between the two. Ultimately Majnun lives an ascetic life and Layla is forced to marry against her will, but the two preserve their chastity and love for each other. In the end, Layla even appears to him, but  Majnun strives to realize “perfect love” in Layla — a love that “transcends sensual contact with the beloved, a love that is free from selfish intentions, lust, and earthly desires.” 8

Nezami’s romance of Layla and Majnun is ultimately both very simplistic and very complex, making it open to a number of interpretations. While one can justifiably read it as a profound love story between two separated lovers, many have suggested a Sufi allegorical narrative. In this case, the lover seeks a pure love and “ultimate union, as well as annihilation in, the Beloved” or Divine.9

Memorization of Hafez and Calligraphy

The practice of memorization and calligraphy have together substantially aided in my understanding and connection to Persian poetry. As discussed in previous responses, memorization of lines has compelled me to carefully listen to the sound and rhythmic quality of a poem, while  instilling valuable lessons and sentiments. The memorization of Hafez’s poetry in particular has probably one of the most valuable thus far, seeing as many of Hafez’s ideas are so universal and that he is one of the ultimate sources of wisdom in Persian culture even today.

In regards to my practice of calligraphy, I think I have greatly improved in not only in my technique and overall quality of writing, but in my sense of coherence to a particular style. The same can be said about many of my classmates; I can clearly see an improvement in everyone’s writing, but more importantly, I can see that everyone (to some extent) has has developed a recognizable style that is reflective of their own aesthetic preferences and personalities.

My personal script favors soft, yet lively loops and curves, and words that tend to be written in a slant; Letters often nestle below or above one another, creating various levels. The front is comparable to the contemporary Persian style of Nas’taliq.

  1. Schimmel, Annemarie. “Rūmī.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., February 1, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Rumi.
  2. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Tawhid.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., March 2, 2009. https://www.britannica.com/topic/tawhid.
  3. Arberry, A. J. Persian Poems: An Anthology of Verse Translations. Tehran: Yassavoli Publications, 2005, 34
  4. Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī & Nicholson, Reynold Alleyne. 2013. Selected Poems from the Divani Shamsi Tabriz. London: Routledge, Taylor and Francis
  5. Youtube. (2019, November 22). ‌‌‌Rumi Poetry – Persian Music and Singing https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NQQIEUDe6Qo&feature=youtu.be
  6. Youtube. (2019, November 22) Rumi Symphonic Poem – Alireza Ghorbani – Houshang Kamkar -علیرضا قربانی- هوشنگ کامکار https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5T8keVXslk
  7. Arberry, A. J. Persian Poems: An Anthology of Verse Translations. Tehran: Yassavoli Publications, 2005
  8. Ahmadi, Wali. “The Story of Layla and Majnun: The Idealization of Love.” University Musical Society. Accessed November 22, 2019. https://ums.org/2016/09/23/the-story-of-layla-and-majnun-the-idealization-of-love/.
  9. Ahmadi, Wali

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