A Poet by the Grace of God
Moth to the Flame: The Story of Sufi Poet Jelaluddin Rumi
By Connie Zweig
Beloved Books, 2005; soft cover; 233 pages; $17.95.
by Tony Ellis
Eight hundred years after his death, Sufi mystic Jalaluddin Rumi is the best selling poet in the United States; ironic, that in this time of deep mistrust of all things Muslim in this country, an Islamic poet should so touch the hearts of Americans. In her new book The Moth to the Flame, author Connie Zweig puts a human face to this lyrical genius, who she describes as the ‘Shakespeare of the Muslim world.’
Rumi was born in 1207 in the rugged mountains of Khorasan, now part of modern Afghanistan, the son of a revered Islamic scholar. In 1215, to escape the marauding Mongol hordes of Genghiz Khan, Rumi’s father moved his family and his spiritual school to Konya in southern Turkey. Rumi grew up steeped in the scholarly world of books and the strict rules of Shari’a, Islamic spiritual law, becoming a respected sheik (spiritual teacher) and advisor to the local sultan. But Rumi was not happy. First his father’s death, and later that of his wife, left his soul restless and unsatisfied.
His chance meeting with a wandering Sufi dervish named Shams of Tabriz changed all that. Shams was an unruly mystical sprite desperately seeking a friend with whom to share his love affair with God. In return, he was prepared to offer his life. An inner voice guided him to Konya. The first time Rumi set eyes on the bedraggled medicant in his threadbare cloak and strange pointed hat, legend say he fell to the ground in a swoon. The merging of the two souls was instantaneous even though Shams’spiritual honesty challenged the stiff-hearted and rule-bound Rumi. At one point, he threw Rumi’s precious books into the fountain (only to retrieve them later perfectly dry). Why don’t you teach what you know, he demanded of Rumi. The scales fell away from Rumi’s heart; the scholar became a lover of God, bowled over by his ecstatic union.
Their time together was fated to be short-lived. Shams threatened the religious orthodoxy of the community and the harmonious relationship between Rumi, his students and his family. He paid the price with his life, murdered by a jealous student. For Rumi it was a baptism of grief, but eventually it set him free and gave him the wings of a poet. Thousands of lines of devotional verse poured spontaneously from his heart. “I am a poet by the grace of Shams,” he said, “(and) by the grace of God.” Through love, he found his way to truth:
I am not of wind or fire or of strong seas.
I am not formed out of painted clay…
I am the essence of laughter.
I am pure light.
In this time of global ideological conflict, Rumi’s experience of finding God in the heart seems particularly relevant.
Zweig tells her story with a colorful hand and a passionate spirit, quoting liberally from Rumi’s poems as translated by Jonathan Star.