Reading Rumi after 9/11

Cover of “A Moth to the Flame” by Connie Zweig

“The lovers crawl in and out of your alley,
They bathe in drips of blood; and not finding you, they give up and leave.
I am forever stationed at your door like the earth,
While others come and go like the wind.”
–Jalalludin Rumi

Many Americans first fell in love with the poetry of the thirteenth century teacher and spiritual Jelaluddin Rumi during the early 1990s when the unparalleled lyrical grace, philosophical brilliance, and spiritual daring of his work took modern Western readers completely by surprise. The impact of its soulful beauty and the depth of its profound humanity were so intense that they reportedly prompted numerous individuals to spontaneously compose poetry.

One of Rumi’s most renowned translators, Coleman Barks, one of the renowned translators of Rumi’s work, confirmed that he was aware of such instances where people with a deep passion for Rumi’s poetry not only spontaneously composed poetry but recited and sang it too.

That sense of blessed enchantment is one that various readers have come to associate with all things related to Rumi. Consequently, they might very well expect and yearn for some semblance of that enchantment in the novel A Moth to the Flame, the Life of the Sufi Poet Rumi, by Ph.D. Connie Zweig.

From the first page to the last, there is much to admire in Zweig’s amazing recreation of the places, people, and events that shaped the life and work of Rumi. The author skillfully brings to life the everyday colors, activities, and diverse religious customs of the Middle East in the thirteenth century. She also–having been for 30 years a student of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sufism–proves more than a little adept at describing various states of psychological and spiritual consciousness.

A Moth to the Flame begins as Rumi’s father, the spiritual leader Bahaoddin Velad, is dying. The future author of the massive and now classic book of world literature, the Mathnawi, is left to face life alone in Konya, where threats of war and invasion increase daily. As Rumi takes on the mantle of leadership and enters into marriage and fatherhood, Zweig exercises her privilege as author to make readers privy to his thoughts and most intimate moments. Those who prefer their spiritual heroes presented in their basic humanity may nod approvingly at the portrayal of Rumi’s consummation of his two marriages while those who empower the grace of their own spirituality with that gleaned from his may feel differently. In one sense, these brief scenes–in which Rumi experiences both disappointment and erotic intoxication–appear crucial to illustrating the contrast between the nature of carnal desire and the elevated spiritual consciousness towards which Rumi was evolving. In another, they do not, and become even more questionable when the sexual focus is place on his wife Kira’s fantasies regarding her mystically preoccupied husband.

It is difficult sometimes to determine whether A Moth to the Flame is intended as a celebration of Rumi’s life, as a feminist critique of it, or simply a balanced account presented in the form of fiction. Much of the book’s substance is a matter of historical record while much of it is a matter of interpretation of that record. By nearly every account, the Rumi now famed for his boundless defense and espousal of life as a manifestation of divine love, would be unknown to the world had it not been for a spiritual transformation triggered by his meeting, and subsequent friendship with, the wandering dervish known as Shams of Tabriz. That fact is a dominant theme in A Moth to the Flame as well. But it is often difficult to understand exactly why or how this is so when the overwhelming impression of both Rumi and Shams in these pages is that of two men whose esoteric obsessions caused devastating–even fatal–psychological harm to those who loved them, particularly the women in their lives.

Consequently, we note with stunned sorrow the forced marriage of Rumi’s young daughter Kimiya to the much older Shams; and the painful desire-filled loneliness that Rumi’s wife Kira suffers while her husband engages, seemingly to the exclusion of everything else, in sacred conversations with Shams. Readers even find themselves empathizing with Rumi’s son Aloeddin’s stinging sense of rejection when his relationship with his father appears to be obliterated by the presence of Shams in their lives. Eventually that rejection leads to Shams’ murder.

Please click here for Part 2: The Concept of Jihad

by Aberjhani

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