Rumi’s Secret: The Life of the Sufi Poet of Love
Rumi has always been a miracle and a mystery to me. Like many other Americans, I first met Rumi in the dark days after 9/11, when this poet from the Muslim world made his unlikely ascent to the top of the best-seller charts. Raised in conservative circles, I ferreted his poems away from critical eyes, savoring them with all the relish of a guilty pleasure. His spiritual hunger, reckless love and tolerance of people no matter their faith or ethnicity spoke to me almost against my will. In his new biography, Rumi’s Secret, Brad Gooch captures all of these elements that have caused some to place Rumi in Walt Whitman’s family tree. At the same time, Gooch remains true to his title, preserving an air of mystery around the divine secrets Rumi himself found expressible only through poetry, music and the whirling dance of sama.
Rumi’s Secret is as much the story of the places Rumi lived and the people who influenced him as it is the story of the Sufi poet. Because Gooch travelled the same roads Rumi’s camels trod more than eight centuries earlier, he is able to capture not only the geographical outlines but the character of the cities Rumi encountered on his 20-year trek from Vakhsh, in present-day Tajikistan, to Konya, Turkey. Gooch treats readers to a 2,500 mile-long feast for the senses, transporting us from the willow trees and glacial streams of Rumi’s birthplace to the splendor and squalor of the Samarkand bazaars, with their snake charmers, jewel-toned bolts of fabric, and tiled fountains. Gooch’s travelogue is the story of a journey that “was as much inward as outward,” since the devotional poetry of Nishapur, the universities and Sufi lodges of Baghdad, and the rituals of hajj in Mecca were as important as any human influence in Rumi’s development (45).
The travel narrative meanders through the three major sections of the biography, each section crystallizing around one of Rumi’s principle human influences. In Part I, Gooch renders Rumi’s father, Baha Valad, with rich complexity as a man at once proud, ambitious, and argumentative, yet one who regularly brushed shoulders with humble townspeople, loved music and poetry, and journaled in “an intimate yell” that inspired Rumi’s own poetic voice (20). Gooch animates Shamsoddin of Tabriz with equal force in Part II, allowing readers to see the rough cloak of the wanderer who spent decades searching for a kindred spirit; hear the “spare, yet musical” speech of the sheik who compelled Rumi to abandon books to heed his own soul’s voice; and hear the rustle of intrigue that Sham’s unconventional behavior sparked in Rumi’s hitherto staid community (122). In Gooch’s telling, Shams’ fierce free spirit eventually drove him to separate from Rumi forever, and Part III casts Salahoddin Zarkub less as a character in his own right than as a substitute for Shams. Gooch still, however, provides a vivid picture of the “wizened mystic” who, from his humble goldsmith’s shop, drew hordes of working class Greeks and Turks toward Rumi’s vision of ecstatic love (203).
Gooch’s skill as a verbal portraitist does not, unfortunately, extend to his portrayal of Rumi himself. All too often I found myself losing sight of Rumi in the midst of his domineering influences. Gooch offers readers faint glimpses of the precocious schoolboy; the serious, yet unsatisfied, religious teacher; and the bereft lover flirting with insanity after Shams’ departure, but generally I felt as if I were reading mini-biographies of Baha Valad, Shams and Salah. Not until Part III does Gooch attempt to manifest Rumi in the flesh, describing him as “of medium height, with gray hair, a sallow complexion, and an intense stare, and dressed always in his tightly wound turban, rough linen cloak, and orange shoes or boots” (236).
But the issue is more than skin deep. Readers have to wait until Salah’s death in Part III before Gooch portrays him with the same level of complexity as Shams, one who is capable of lighthearted joking and scathing denunciation, acts of kindness and extreme asceticism, love for children and conflict with his own sons. Perhaps Rumi’s submersion in the first two parts of the biography is natural, since as a youth he “aspired mostly to become a man exactly like his father” and his years with Shams were spent largely in seclusion (34). Yet despite these considerations, I couldn’t help feeling that Rumi’s transformation from pious cleric to unconventional Sufi would be more revealing if Gooch had etched his figure definitively from the beginning.
Of more concern is Gooch’s vagueness about Rumi’s “religion of love,” a term he sprinkles liberally throughout his text as an amorphous panacea for the world’s ills. The catalyst for this religion was Rumi’s relationship with Shams, but Gooch leaves readers adrift in a sea of possibilities. Was Rumi and Sham’s relationship that of a sheik and disciple, two friends, or homoerotic lovers? Of course, their relationship defies any attempts to harness it with traditional definitions, but Gooch doesn’t even attempt to moor his readers until his Afterword, when he finally says that “in speaking of the beloved, he was also speaking of the unspeakable, or approaching the unspeakable, as the essence of God is love” (308). This statement, which Gooch leaves readers to accept at face value, seems too little too late, since all the preceding chapters constructed Shams as a turbulent force that divided Rumi’s community, estranged his family, and then walked away. In this light, Rumi’s poems to Shams lose their universality and devolve into the blasphemous ranting of a crazed individual, mourning the loss of a relationship so exclusive that it exuded cruelty rather than love.
If readers are willing to connect Gooch’s dots for themselves, however, Rumi emerges from the shadows in all his startling relevance for contemporary society. Living in lands that were ever susceptible to Mongol invasions, Rumi shares our vulnerability as fragile humans living in desperate times. He knew what it meant to daily “wake up empty and frightened,” yet he chose transcendent love as the antidote to despair (Barks, The Essential Rumi, 17). The cities Rumi inhabited were home to Muslims, Jews and Christians, yet he was able to both teach and learn from the different faith communities instead of allowing diversity to breed division. By including women and members of the working class in his community of followers, Rumi made spirituality available to everyone, not just the privileged elite. And in his joyous death, even more so than in his life, he showed us how to lose ourselves in the pursuit of the divine beloved, affirming that “love rather than fear was the single choice if you did not wish to lose the only life that mattered” (294).