Rumi SyndromeShe was at the pinnacle of her academic career. Before even finishing her Masters thesis, she had co-authored a paper on popular writer Deepak Chopra and had it published in a major academic journal. By her mid-20’s, she was already regarded as a force in her field. Her family were proud of her. She was proud of herself.
Then crisis struck. Her heart was broken. She just had to get away.
Within 3 months, she was serving beer, wine and spirits in various pubs and at various public gatherings in Sydney. From scholar to barmaid. It was at one of these gatherings that I first met her.
As our friendship grew, she revealed her confused love/hate relationship with a part of her life that was always there yet rarely understood by her or explained by her acquaintances. Her father was Muslim, but she never met him. And when she wanted to meet him and was able to visit his homeland, it was too late. All she could meet were her half-siblings. The only traces of her father were photographs and a gravestone. And her unusual yet beautiful name which had been the butt of many a joke by her anglo-friends at primary school.
I felt her pain as if it was my own. Because both of us had been to hell and never wanted to return there. Shaykh Hamza Yusuf Hanson tells of one of his friends who was addicted to drugs. After years of struggle and social withdrawal, that friend now assists other addicts. Shaykh Hamza mentioned a golden saying of his friend …
“A religious person is someone who is scared of going to hell. But a spiritual person has already been to hell and never wants to go back.”
The barmaid and I had both been to hell and back. And both of us developed a deep attachment to Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi.
She was already a deeply spiritual person, having a large collection of books by the Dalai Lama and Deepak Chopra. The latter, in particular, influenced her greatly. Then on one of my visits to her bar, I introduced her to Rumi. She closed the dishwasher she had just stacked with beer glasses, washed and dried her hands, and looked at this humble book.
The next time I saw her, she replaced her usual “Hello, nice to see you again” with “Rumi is just so amazing. And I read an introduction to one of Deepak’s books. Even he says his greatest inspiration was Rumi. All his book titles are words from a Rumi poem. Thank you so, so much for that book!”.
So what is it about Rumi that can touch a scholarly barmaid and a lawyer with a hopeless grade-point-average? I guess it is the Rumi syndrome.
Rumi was at the pinnacle of his career. He was a professor of law, a qadi (judge) and a respected jurist. He had official patronage of one of the wealthiest and most sophisticated rulers of the time. He had his own house, servants, lots of admirers and students and a scholarly pedigree second-to-none.
But the higher they fly, the harder they fall. Rumi fell hard after meeting one roaming dervish named Shums. This meeting led to Rumi withdrawing from all his pomp and position, avoiding his students and spending months with Shums trying to sort out much deeper issues. And Shums, being the master of Islamic psychology (known as tasawwuf in the sunni tradition and irfan in the shi’i tradition), was able to diagnose and cure Rumi’s spiritual and emotional ailments.
Rumi’s students thought he was mad. He was maligned and insulted and humiliated. Yet he persisted. This process was about him, not them.
And when the process was complete, Rumi emerged a man with much more to offer than dry legal dissertations or books of fatawa (legal judgments). Rumi emerged as the universal poet, a man whose verse has influenced people and dragged hearts and souls to the message of peace through surrender to God (i.e. Islam).
Had Rumi remained a respected professor, had he refused the yearnings of his heart and the company of his spiritual practitioner (“murshid”), he will have remained one of a galaxy of hanafi jurists. His books would have been quoted in the footnotes of other juristic works. Perhaps a biography of his would be written and published from time to time. But God had greater things in store for the Mevlana.
If we are fortunate, God sends us some kind of murshid. That source of light may be a person. It may be a life-experience, a trial, a psychiatric illness or even a broken heart. One of my greatest trials was to travel all the way to South America to visit someone I had my heart set on marrying. When it did not work, I was devastated. The traces of that devastation stayed with me for years. And how ironic it was that the person who unintentionally broke my heart also introduced me to Rumi.
Rumi syndrome is all about withdrawal. The mad rush of modern life does not provide enough opportunities for us to stop and smell the roses. And yet our staying in the company of the rose garden will enable us to emerge with a smell that will beautify the lives of people around us.
If we do not allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by Rumi syndrome, we may go on for a while on the road to apparent success. But as we rise higher, we risk falling even harder. Rumi syndrome may seem like a crash landing, but its alternative is a crash.
Which explains why I can never bring myself to criticise those who spend days and weeks and months following the path of the Indian chishti master, Maulana Muhammad Illyas Kandhalwi (may God have mercy upon him). I might wonder about the families and jobs and businesses and commitments these soldiers of the soul leave behind. Yet what would I know of their real commitment to their soul and to the prophetic responsibility of tabligh which they feel so heavily?
It is only when we take ourselves out of our usual environment that we can really take stock. And so my dear sister-barmaid, if you are reading this, know that you too are experiencing Rumi syndrome. And just as I came out the other end of my retreat even more refreshed, so will you. And perhaps you might recover the heritage that you previously believed had died with your father, may Allah have mercy upon him.
© Irfan Yusuf 2005