Excerpt from 'Rumi's Secret'
The Life of the Sufi Poet of Love
By Brad Gooch
All rights reserved.
"In a lightning flash from here to Vakhsh"
When Rumi was five years old, he saw angels and would occasionally jump up and grow agitated at these visions. A few of the students gathered around his father, Baha Valad, then held the boy to their chests to try to calm him. "These are angels from the unseen world," his father reassured him. "They are showing themselves to you to offer you their favors and they have brought visible and invisible gifts for you." He emphasized that these unsettling episodes were nothing to fear but a sign of being blessed.
Baha Valad also recalled neighborhood children once visiting his son, when he was about five or six years old, on their rooftop on a Friday morning. "Let's jump from this roof to the other roof!" a friend shouted. They made a wager on the daring feat, just as his son, scoffing at their game, somehow vanished, causing a clamor. When he reappeared, a few minutes later, he announced, "While I was talking to you, I saw some people in green robes. They took me away and helped me to fly and showed me the sky and the planets. When I heard your shouts and screams, they brought me back." This report of a mystical adventure cinched his status among his amazed group of playmates.
In several such stories about Rumi's early childhood passed down from his father and his father's pupils, a coherent picture emerges that is consistent with the boy who saw angels yet managed often enough to stay a step ahead of his peers. The young Rumi was sensitive, nervous, and excitable, but he was also clever, warm, and engaging. The warmth emanated from a family life that he experienced as positive and loving. As he later wrote, "Love is your father and your family." He was eagerly absorbed in childhood fantasy and imagination, yet, given his family and community, this invisible world was mostly religiously tinged. Descended from a line of eminent preachers, his father assumed that his precocious son would follow in his footsteps to the mosque minbar, or pulpit.
While aspiring later in life to the ecstatic condition of having "no name," Rumi was truly a boy, and man, wrapped in layers of names and titles. His given name was Mohammad, like his father, and like so many of the boys in his neighborhood. Because the name was so common — if glorified — nicknames were useful, such as "Khodavandgar," a title usually reserved for adult spiritual leaders or seers, as the term was Persian for "Lord" or "Master," which his father conferred on him soon after he began seeing angels. Another of Rumi's honorifics, likewise given by his father, "Jalaloddin," means "Splendor of the Faith." In an account in one of his notebooks, Baha Valad tenderly referred to his son as "My Jalaloddin Mohammad." Later in life he tended to be addressed with the title "Mowlana," for "Our Master" or "Our Teacher." Indeed "Rumi," the single name by which he is now known — derived from "Rum," or "Rome," referring to Byzantium, the eastern half of the Roman Empire, including present-day Turkey, where he spent most of his adult life — was used for identifying him by few, if any, during his lifetime.
Like most young children, until puberty Rumi spent his earliest childhood years behind the protective walls of the harem, a more intimate and separate domain in a traditional Muslim household, where the women lived and walked about unveiled. He stayed not only with his mother, Momene, about whom little is known, though she was later credited with the honor of descent from the house of the Prophet Mohammad, but also with his father's other wives, his difficult paternal grandmother, "Mami," whom Baha Valad complained about in his diaries, for her "mean temper ... always screaming, yelling, and fighting," and a nanny, Nosob, with whom he was especially close. Given the intricate dynamics of multiple wives, Rumi had both siblings and half-siblings. His older brother, Alaoddin, was born to Rumi's mother two years before him. He also had an older married sister, Fateme, and at least one half-brother, Hosayn. Rumi was the youngest, as his father was already in his early fifties when he was born.
According to Baha Valad's diaries, he was living with his family in Vakhsh, on the banks of the Vakhsh River, in present-day Tajikistan, when Rumi was born on September 30, 1207. Both vital water source and geographical marker for this somewhat obscure town, the Vakhsh River flowed down from the Pamir Mountains — dubbed the "Roof of the World" by the Persians — replenished by glaciers, then cut its way nearly five hundred miles southward to disappear into the broader river whose name it vaguely echoed, the Oxus. The Oxus served as a vast natural divide in Central Asia, now the border between Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan, or, in Rumi's time, between Transoxania, "the lands beyond the Oxus," and Greater Khorasan, the eastern half of the old Persian Empire.
Vakhsh was a modest one-mosque town, memorable for its stone bridge spanning a deep gorge of the river. The entire valley remained true to its description by one Muslim geographer as "very fertile, and famous for its fine horses and sumpter beasts; having many great towns on the banks of its numerous streams, where corn lands and fruit orchards gave abundant crops." Its soft green fields were filled with willow and mulberry trees, and irises and crocuses in spring. Beyond Vakhsh to the mountainous north and east, in the direction of China, were trade routes, where caravans descended bringing slaves to market, as well as musk, the aroma of male deer, a coveted ingredient in perfume, synonymous in Rumi's poetry with spiritual awakening — "your sweet scent."
When asked in future travels about their origins, Rumi's family tended to say they were "from Balkh," the capital of the Balkh region — of which Vakhsh was an outpost — on the southern shore of the Oxus River, in modern-day Afghanistan — and so the phrase "al-Balkhi" became yet another tag attached to Rumi. This better-known city helped fix them on the map, as Balkh, known by the Arabs as "Mother of Cities," was one of four capitals of Khorasan, its round central town with over two dozen mosques fortified by triple-gated walls, its markets stocked with oranges, lilies, and sugarcane. Living in Vakhsh between 1204 and 1210, Baha Valad still claimed ties to this metropolis, as Rumi's great-grandfather led Friday prayers and gave the official sermon in one of its largest mosques.
Rumi matured into the boldest of believers in the oneness of the "religion of lovers," and few areas could have offered as nurturing (if regularly violent) an experience of religious diversity as Central Asia in these early years of the thirteenth century. Fittingly, he came of age on the edge of several cultures, several languages, and many living faiths. As he insisted, "If he is Turk or Tajik, I am close to him." In the vicinity of Balkh, for instance, were the ruins of a Zoroastrian fire temple, its priests known as Magi, which had itself been converted from a Buddhist monastery. (Zoroastrianism was the imperial religion of the Persians before the Arab Muslim invasions of the seventh century.) Rumi noticed, a bit subversively, in a later poem, the quality of divinity to transcend divisions, when he wrote, "Why is divine light glowing in this Magi Temple?"
The adult Rumi liked to tell his students of a mystic Sufi of Balkh so used to bolting upright at the call to prayer that on his deathbed, when he heard the chant wailed from the minaret, he stood. Recurring in his poems, too, was Ebrahim ebn Adham, the so-called "Buddha of Balkh," an eighth-century Muslim prince who earned his epithet by giving up his kingdom for a life of poverty, and traveling off toward Mecca and Syria:
Joyful Prince ebn Adham rode his horse away Turning that day into a great king of justice
The rising smoke of Zoroastrian holy fires, Buddhist renunciation, and the colorful mystics of Balkh all show up faintly in Rumi's later poetry, like a palimpsest of his childhood in Central Asia, registering the different influences he assimilated naturally.
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Rumi looked to his father with the admiring and idealizing eyes of a young boy, and strikingly continued to exhibit that attitude well into adulthood. Baha Valad was the single most important influence on his son during the first half of his life, not only emotionally, but spiritually and intellectually, as well. As a little boy, Rumi would watch as his father stood and repeated over and over, "Allah, Allah, Allah," as he himself would pray as a grown man, in a loud voice, during the long nights, his head resting against a wall. He so devotedly studied and recopied his father's personal meditations — written during their time in Vakhsh — that he was able to recite large prose swathes by heart.
"Chapter 1 from RUMI'S SECRET by Brad Gooch. Copyright © 2017 by Brad Gooch. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers."
Excerpted from Rumi's Secret by Brad Gooch. Copyright © 2017 Brad Gooch. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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