Rumi: The Alchemist of Interfaith Tolerance
Toward the end of Candide, Voltaire writes in 1758 about a dervish saint who lived in Turkey without citing his name. In the novel, Candid approaches and asks the dervish: “Master…we have come to ask a favor. Will you kindly tell us why such a strange animal as man was ever made?
“When His Highness sends a ship to Egypt, do you suppose he worries whether the ship’s mice are comfortable or not.” The dervish answered.
This dervish was Jalaluddin Mohammad Rumi, also known as Mavlana-i-Balkhi, the greatest metaphysical thinker and Sufi poet of all times. He was born in 1207 AD in Balkh, a northern province of Afghanistan, in a revered family of theologians with a long learned line of Islamic teachings. Following the brutal invasion of Afghanistan by the Mongol hordes, his father and Rumi—still a young child—were forced flee their country and take refuge in Anatolia (Turkey)—at the time part of the Eastern Sultanat (Kingdom) of Roman Empire and then Byzantium.
Educated as a theologian and a grand mullah, Rumi was transformed into an ecstatic mystic poet after he had met a Peripatetic Sufi, Shams in 1244. Shams became a male Muse for his entire poetic creation. Their first meeting was a great episode in the world history of mysticism. Like Beatrice who in The Divine Comedy, encounters Dante at the top of the earthly paradise, legendary Shams encountered, by chance, in an oriental bazaar Rumiopus magnum. Rumi’s poetry was indeed as Coleman Barks says, like “eavesdropping” on this cosmic meeting and a few years friendship between the two.