Jalal ad-Din Mohammed Rumi was born in Balkh, Afghanistan in 1207. There’s some unpacking to be done here: I think Mohammed would have been his father’s personal name, and Jalal his own. Ad-Din, of course, was a chosen or consensus-given nickname meaning The Righteous. What about Rumi? That’s part of the story.
Balkh was one of the cities in Genghis Khan’s early sweep of eastern Islam. When Jalal was born, the Mongols were mopping up the eastern Silk Road cities of the Xia dynasty. When he was about four, the Mongols conquered the Kara Khitan and in 1218 (he was 11) they sent their ill-fated trade embassy to the Shah of Khwarizmia. By 1220, they were steamrolling across the cities of eastern Islam, including Balkh. Some time in 1219 or 1220, Jalal’s family packed up and left. They stood high enough in the city’s social class structure that they had no chance of surviving the Mongols, who executed the ruling class.
The family moved west to Baghdad and Mecca, and then west again into Turkey. They settled in the town of Konya, again as part of the elite social class due to their Persian education. Jalal grew up to be a wealthy, well-respected teacher. His family’s regional tag was Balkhi, the folks from Balkh.
Jalal took the big step toward becoming a poet when he took in a wandering, destitute, wild, dirty holy man in 1244. The man’s name was Shams. He was a mystic of no particular school of thought; we think of Muslim mysticism as Sufism, but apparently that’s not accurate. Shams fascinated Jalal, who had been pretty conventional until then. They sat up late talking, with Jalal mostly listening. Shams disgusted the family by cursing angrily and generally being vulgar, and the other citizens of Konya couldn’t stand him either. Shams finally had to leave when he got death threats. But without Shams, Jalal was miserable.
Jalal had to get Shams back, and permanently. So he had an idea: he offered Shams to marry his 12 year old step-daughter Keemia (“Chemistry”). Shams was at least 60. Naturally he said yes, and Keemia had no choice. Now Shams was family! Jalal and his “son in law” could sit up late talking about God, the heavens, love, time, and the soul. But his life with Shams was limited to about two years, because Keemia died and her older brother blamed Shams. He killed the old mystic. Jalal plunged into deep grief.
Jalal began writing poetry in Persian that channeled his conversations with Shams. He wrote about God, the heavens, love, time, and the soul; he had always been an orthodox Sunni, but now he dared to write that God was within his soul, not in a remote heaven. He wrote love poems to God, as well as to women. It’s hard to tell who he’s talking to, sometimes, and where we might assume a woman, he’s actually talking to God. His works were published in two books; the first was called “Poems of Shams of Tabriz” and the second “Masnavi,” or “couplets.” He also wrote a Rubaiyat, that is, a series of quatrains.
When his poetry became known internationally, he was called Rumi, the guy from Rome. Rum is what Turks called the region formerly ruled by Constantinople; it was their westernmost settlement. Since Rumi wrote in Persian, his works were most read to the east, so he was re-tagged the Westerner: Rumi.
Rumi’s work has become very popular in English translation in the last 50 years. But it was popular enough in his lifetime that when he died in 1273, his son Sultan Walad wanted to create a memorial for him. Instead of a building, his son founded a new form of mystical dance worship: whirling. Rumi himself was no whirling dervish, and apparently Shams didn’t whirl either (or perhaps only a bit). Rumi translator (and dervish) Shahram Shiva explains, “In his design he placed a figure to represent Rumi in the center of the room and had the whirling students turn around him, like planets orbiting a sun.” Here’s CNN showing us some dervishes in Rumi’s hometown, Konya. (Although CNN calls them Sufis, Shahram Shiva is insistent that Sufism is about signing on as the disciple to a master, but other forms are just mysticism.)
You can enjoy Shahram Shiva’s translations of Rumi’s mystical spiritual poems at rumi.net. I found another cool site with Rumi translation at khamush.com. Some translations look and feel like modern free verse (here and here), while others feel more traditional (here). One page even offers you Persian originals written in Latin letters, with vocabulary key! If that appeals to you, well, you know who you are.