Persians and Afghans call Rumi “Jelal’uddin Balkhi.” In Turkey, he is known as ‘Mevlana.’ He was born September 30, 1207, in Balkh, Afghanistan, which was then part of the Persian Empire. The name Rumi means “from Roman Anatolia.” He was not known by that name, of course, until after his family, fleeing the threat of the invading Mongol armies, emigrated to Konya, Turkey, sometime between 1215 and 1220. His father, Bahauddin Walad, was a theologian and jurist and a mystic of uncertain lineage. Bahauddin Walad’s Maarif, a collection of notes, diarylike remarks, sermons, and strange accounts of visionary experiences, has shocked most of the conventional scholars who have tried to understand them. He shows a startlingly sensual freedom in stating his union with God. Rumi was instructed in his father’s secret inner life by a former student of his father, Burhanuddin Mahaqqiq. Burhan and Rumi also studied Sanai and Attar. At his father’s death Rumi took over the position of sheikh in the dervish learning community in Konya. His life seems to have been a fairly normal one for a religious scholar–teaching, meditating, helping the poor– until in the late fall of 1244 when he met a stranger who put a question to him. That stranger was the wandering dervish, Shams of Tabriz, who had traveled throughout the middle east searching and praying for someone who could “endure my company.” A voice came, “What will you give in return?” “My head!” “The one you seek is Jelaluddin of Konya.”

The question Shams spoke made the learned professor faint to the ground. We cannot be entirely certain of the question, but according to the most reliable account Shams asked who was greater, Muhammad or Bestami, for Bestami had said, “How great is my glory,” whereas Muhammad had acknowledged in his prayer to God, “We do not know You as we should.”

Rumi heard the depth out of which the question came and fell to the ground. He was finally able to answer that Muhammad was greater, because Bestami had taken one gulp of the divine and stopped there, whereas for Muhammad the way was always unfolding. There are various versions of this encounter, but whatever the facts, Shams and Rumi became inseparable. Their Friendship is one of the mysteries. They spent months together without any human needs, transported into a region of pure conversation. This ecstatic connection caused difficulties in the religious community. Rumi’s

students felt neglected. Sensing the trouble, Shams disappeared as suddenly as he had appeared. Annemarie Schimmel, a scholar immersed for forty years in the works of Rumi, thinks that it was at this first disappearance that Rumi began the transformation into a mystical artist. “He turned into a poet, began to listen to music, and sang, whirling around, hour after hour.”

Word came that Shams was in Damascus. Rumi sent his son, Sultan Velad, to Syria to bring his Friend back to Konya. When Rumi and Shams met for the second time, they fell at each other’s feet, so that “no one knew who was the lover and who was the beloved.” Shams stayed in Rumi’s home and was married to a young girl who had been brought up in the family. Again the long mystical conversation (sohbet) began, and again, the jealousies grew.

On the night of December 5, 1248, as Rumi and Shams were talking, Shams was called to the back door. He went out, never to be seen again. Most likely, he was murdered with the connivance of Rumi’s son, Allaedin; if so, Shams indeed gave his head for the privilege of mystical Friendship.

The mystery of the Friend’s absence covered Rumi’s world. He himself went out searching for Shams and journeyed again to Damascus. It was there that he realized,

Why should I seek? I am the same as
he. His essence speaks through me.
I have been looking for myself!
The union became complete.

The union became complete. There was full fana, annihilation in the Friend. Shams was writing the poems. Rumi called the huge collection of his odes and quatrains The Works of Shams of Tabriz.

After Sham’s death and Rumi’s merging with him, another companion was found, Saladin Zarkub, the goldsmith. Saladin became the Friend to whom Rumi addressed his poems, not so fiery as to Shams, but with a quiet tenderness. When Saladin died, Husam Chelebi, Rumi’s scribe and favorite student, assumed this role. Rumi claimed that Husam was the source, the one who understood the vast, secret order of the Mathnawi, that great work that shifts so fantastically from theory to folklore to jokes to ecstatic poetry. For the last twelve years of his life, Rumi dictated the six volumes of this masterwork to Husam. He died on December 17, 1273.