Redeeming Rumi (revisited)


To redeem: To take back, buy back, procure, deliver from sin.

For some time now, I have been thinking a good deal about the poetry of Rumi in the context of the Turkish film Zenne Dancer, which opens with the epigraph:

Dance in your blood,
Dance, when you’re perfectly free.
~Rumi (1207-1273)


More on Zenne Dancer later. For now, let us consider a question about Rumi, the question of Rumi’s sexuality, and the redemption of Rumi in relation to that question.

Rumi, or more properly “Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhī” or “Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī,” the thirteenth century CE Persian poet, jurist, theologian, and mystic born in Vakash in the region of Balkh (now part of contemporary Afghanistan and Tajikistan) and buried in Konya, Turkey. He was a teacher in a Madrassa, an inspirational speaker and leader, a respected philosopher, and a foundational influence behind the whirling dervishes. In 1997, The Christian Science Monitor cited Rumi as the best-selling poet in the United States.

Rumi is best known for his ecstatic poetry, which lauds dance, wine, passion, and union with the divine. He is a poet of transcendence, intensity, overflowing, and universalism. His poems focus on the ecstasy of the surrender of the self, of the soul returning to the embrace of the divine, and on the centrality of love to such ecstasy.

In “The Wine and the Cup,” from his epic Mathnawi, Rumi distills his teaching into a few lines of poetry—

The wine of divine grace is limitless:
All limits come one from the faults of the cup.
Moonlight floods the whole sky from horizon to horizon;
How much it can fill your room depends on its windows.
Grant a great dignity, my friend, to the cup of your life;
Love has designed it to hold His eternal wine.

Rumi married Gowhar Khâtun when he was seventeen. They had two children. After Gowhar Khâtun died, Rumi married a second woman, Kerrâ Khâtun. They had also had two children. By most accounts, he was an active father to his children and intervened responsibly in family matters.

In 1244, Rumi met an elder wandering dervish named Shams al-Din Tabrizi. The two became fast friends, and Shams later married a girl who had been raised in Rumi’s family. Shams transformed Rumi’s life and thought and inspired much of his poetry. Rumi and Shams grew inseparable and would disappear for long stretches together to discuss, debate, or just be in each other’s company. For most scholars, Rumi’s greatness as a mystic and a poet is a direct result of his friendship with Shams. For some, it is also a relationship in need of redemption.

How to describe their relationship? (And the relationships Rumi had with other men after Shams’ death in 1248: Saladin Zarbuk the goldsmith and Husam Chelebi, Rumi’s scribe and favorite student.)

In the “heretical” poem to Shams, “Split Wide Open,” Rumi proclaims:

You are the essence of the Sun.
I’m only the shadow of the willow tree.
When you shine down upon my head,
I get shorter, melt, and disappear.

My heart found the spark of life,
then split wide open.
My heart found your satin
and gave up this worn, patched cloth.

The embodied soul
was talking about glances and vision
in the early dawn.
I was but a slave who became a landholder
and then turned into the sultan who has everything.

In another, “He Embraced Me Like His Own Soul,” he sings:

My beloved caressed me yesterday
and let me,
who has tasted nothing but sorrow,
taste his soul.

He gave wisdom to my mind
and put an earring in my ear.
He gave light to my eyes
and brought sweetness to my taste.

He spoke to me:
“O one who’s become wasted
because of me,
O one who is afraid of me,
know that I’m kind.
I would never sell a slave I’ve bought.”

Look and see
how he does help,
the differences he makes.
Joseph remembers the ones
who cut off their hands for him.

He embraced me like his own soul.
My doubts and ill feelings left me.
He put his beautiful face on my shoulder.


For some readers, followers, and scholars of Rumi, the question of the relations between men represented in these and other poems raises questions of Rumi’s devotion, masculinity, virility, homoeroticism, and homosexuality. There are many camps in response to these questions—those who argue we will never know for sure about Rumi’s sexual practices, those who argue Rumi was gay, those who argue Rumi was not gay, those who argue Rumi had some other relationship (or not) with same-sex desire, those who argue we should not even be asking such questions.

At this moment, I find myself leaning toward those, such as Coleman Banks, author of The Essential Rumi, who say we do not know for certain. The history is sparse and the poetry metaphorical. If Rumi’s sexuality and sexual practices, show us one thing, that thing might be that sexuality and sexual practices are hardly transparent; embodiment—the intersection of desire and corporeality—can remain illegible. Thus, I find myself little drawn into seeing the debate resolved.

Yet, I do find myself pulled toward the debate of those more certain they already know the answer, not because I find their arguments compelling but precisely because I find the rhetoric of their assertions (in both directions) oddly contiguous. What runs through arguments for and against various versions of Rumi’s sexual identity (and they are all couched in an oddly anti-ecstatic, static language of identity) is an impulse toward redeeming Rumi. Arguments that Rumi was gay or was not gay are sometimes interesting and provocative claims about his poetry and spiritual teachings. However, they are all united in their drive to redemption.

There are different versions of the arguments, but the primary two seem to be Franklin D. Lewis’s section on “Rumi’s Sexuality” in Rumi Past and Present, East and West: The Life, Teaching and Poetry of Jalâ al-Din Rumi and the works of Andrew Harvey, especially The Essential Gay Mystics. Lewis asserts, unequivocally, in this section that Rumi was devote, masculine (even macho), virile (even to the point of sexually assaulting his second wife (?)), and a poetic master who “would never have submitted to the penetration” of another man but “did employ the symbolism of homoerotic, or more properly, androgynous love, in this poems addressed to Shams as the divine beloved,” a convention that long-preceded Rumi’s writing. Harvey links Rumi to a long list of some sixty gay and lesbian writers from ancient Greece to modern poets such as Dickinson and Ginsberg while suggesting that the unity of the masculine and the feminine found in homosexuals mirrors the unity of genders in the divine. Here, Rumi is not just devote, but his homosexual practice makes his spirituality ever more ecstatic.

While there are several problems, obsessions, and presumptions about religion and sexuality on both sides of this debate (more on these in a later post), here I want to close by noting the redemption drive behind the competing theories.

For both schools of thought—those who claim Rumi as homosexual and those who claim Rumi as heterosexual—at least in these writings, there is a sense of redemption behind the claims. For the one school, Rumi is better for being homosexual. For the other, Rumi is better for being heterosexual. The two disagree on their final findings (or suggestions), but they both agree that Rumi is better for being in their camp. They both see in Rumi a reflection of themselves they want to procure and to elevate. (And I am not arguing after their intentions here. Even if both sides have the best of intentions here, they fall into the perils of the drive to redemption precisely because they redeem Rumi for being a reflection of themselves and their biases.) Rumi is better because he reflects hetersexual or homosexual embodiment. Rumi is better because he reflects hetero- or homo-normativity. Both their stakes and goals remain the same—to deliver the Rumi most like themselves. Both sides seem to redeem Rumi in order to return him to themselves.

We must always historicize, especially in relation to the assumed nature of the body and how we live in it. However, we must resist the urge to ask, “Were they gay like us or like we imagine?” We must resist the urge to ask, “Were they straight like us or like we imagine?” We must always historicize, but never project.

How might we ask after Rumi, after Rumi’s sexuality, without redemption, without this projection, this return to self? Certainly, the answer is not to renounce Rumi as heterosexual or homosexaul. But, how might we think Rumi otherwise than in drives to redeem or renounce him? And how might this rethinking alter the way we describe and learn from the friendship between Rumi and Shams?

For some time now, I have been thinking a good deal about how we might redeem Rumi otherwise, especially in terms of his sexuality, his masculinity, his friendship and his deployment in the film Zenne Dancer. But more on that later.


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