An appreciative biography of the 13th-century Persian poet, teacher, and mystic.
In researching the life of Rumi (1207-1273), Gooch (English/William Paterson Univ.; Smash Cut: A Memoir of Howard and Art and the ’70s and the ’80s, 2015, etc.) traced the poet’s steps through the Middle East, immersed himself in scholarship, and, impressively, spent years learning Persian in order to translate Rumi’s works and contemporary accounts of a poet who came to achieve enormous international popularity for his “emphasis on ecstasy and love over religions and creeds.” Born into privilege, the son of a religious teacher, Rumi was an eager student of history, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, Arabic grammar, commentaries on the Quran, and religious law; he attended the most respected colleges, preparing to become “a religious jurist and guider of souls.” As Genghis Khan, and later his grandson, rampaged through the Middle East, Rumi was determined to rise above the “churning realpolitik of the Mongols,” confident that a higher power shaped historical events. His career as a scholar and teacher altered radically when he met Shams of Tabriz, “a singular outlier mystic in a history crowded with extreme religious seekers.” Shams was rude and uncompromising, opposite in personality from the gentle Rumi, but the two formed an intense bond, which Gooch sees as the essential secret of Rumi’s life and work. They withdrew together for many months, inciting jealousy among Rumi’s family. Shams goaded Rumi into sloughing off erudition and looking into his heart, introducing him to music, dance, extreme fasting, and ecstatic whirling. Gooch is generous in portraying 60-year-old Shams’ marriage to Rumi’s teenage stepdaughter as inspired by “late-life blossoming of desire,” despite evidence of the man’s oppressive treatment of his young wife, which ended in her suspicious death. After two and a half years, Shams disappeared, possibly murdered, and Rumi despaired. But his influence lasted for the rest of the poet’s life, emerging in an outpouring of verse, which Gooch explores with passion and insight.
A vivid depiction of the powerful religious forces that Rumi transcended to reveal “the sound of one soul speaking.”