Shams Tabrizi-The sufi behind Rumi’s Golden lines

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By: Bashir Ahmad Dar

We may know very little about the great mystic Shams Tabrizi but majority of people, particularly Sufis, do very well know the significance of this great Sufi master who was the spiritual guide to Mawlana Rumi. It is also interesting that while Jalaluddin Rumi ,the talib or the learner, gained immense fame and popularity all over the world, not many have heard of his preceptor Shams who inspired Rumi to write his most immortalized lines.

Born in 1180’s in Tabriz, in present day Iran, Shams ud-Din Mohammad Bin Ali Bin Malik-e-Dad or Shams Tabrizi became the Persian Sufi poet and mystic as also the spiritual master of the famous poet Rumi. He was the son of Imam Ala al-Din and was inclined towards spiritually right from his childhood. He had a passionate Sufi mystic- Hazrat Sheikh Abu Bakr Sallebaf- as his master while he received education in other subjects as well. As he grew up, he, as per the Sufi tradition, traversed from place to place in search of spiritual companion. He would hide his erudition and pretended to be a traveling salesman, making a living by weaving baskets and teaching children. Towards the close of his life, he found Jala ud Din Rumi the companion that he had been in search of all his life.

This was a very special and exceptional union as Shams was destined to transform Rumi’s outlook on Sufism and guided him to the divine path. It is said that the leader and the follower developed such an intimate relationship that it generated animosity among Rumi’s followers towards Shams. Rumi named one of his major works ‘Diwan-e Shams-e Tabrizi’ after his spiritual master.

From an early age, he would have mystic visions which were incomprehensible to his parents. He wrote in his autobiography that his father did not understand him at all. As a young boy, he developed an aversion to food and starved for days together. When offered food by his parents, he would refuse to eat it.

Shams al-Din found his spiritual master in Hazrat Sheikh Abu Bakr Sallebaf. Harzat Sallebaf was a passionate Sufi master. Young Shams would often be twirled around by his teacher in the Sufi tradition of ‘sama’.

He also studied under Baba Kamal al-Din Jumdi. He was a highly educated man who valued the academic study of religion and not just the spiritual side of it. He was also well-versed in ‘fiqh’ or the study of Islamic jurisprudence. However, he would hide his education from his peers who would often wonder whether he was a scholar of the law ‘faqih’ or an ascetic ‘faqir’.

According to Rumi, Shams had a deep knowledge of alchemy, astronomy, theology, philosophy and logic. Rumi’s son Sultan Walad in his writings informs us that Shams was “a man of learning and wisdom and eloquence and composition”. In search of spiritual learning, Shams Tabrizi traveled all over the Middle East – Baghdad, Aleppo, Damascus, Kayseri, Aksaray, Sivas, Erzurum and Erzincan. He would stay at the inns like merchants and not in Sufi lodges.

It is said that he wove baskets and trouser girdles to eke out a living. He had been a construction worker in his youth and during his wandering days in Erzincan, he tried to get some construction work. However, he was so frail that no one would hire him.

Apart from using his manual skills, he would teach children the Quran. He even developed a method to teach the entire Quran in only three months.

Shams Tabrizi spent most of his life as a wandering dervish in search of a spiritual companion. He heard famous teachers speak and met Sufi saints, but he did not feel an affinity towards anyone. In his writings, he talks of dreams where Allah assures him that he would find the suitable companion at the right time. His wanderings lead him to Konya. He was almost sixty when he arrived at the city on November 29, 1244, where he was destined to meet Rumi.

In ‘Maqalat,’ Shams Tabrizi wrote that he had first met Rumi 16 years ago in Syria where he had heard Rumi speak possibly during a debate or a lecture. He had been favorably inclined towards Rumi since then but had felt that Rumi was not then mature enough to comprehend the spirituality of Shams.

On that day in November, he was disguised as a merchant, dressed in black from top to toe. Rumi came riding on his mule with his retinue of disciples amid a busy marketplace where Shams stopped him with a question.

Shams’ question to Rumi was ‘How is it that Abayazid did not need to follow, and did not say “Glory be to Thee” or “We worship Thee?” According to Shams, Rumi fully understood the depth of the question and its philosophical implications.

There are many popular stories about the meeting of Rumi and Tabrizi. A popular story tries to highlight the divine status of Tabrizi. He is said to have thrown a stack of Rumi’s books in water and when Rumi’s students hurriedly pulled them out they found that none of the pages had become wet. Both these anecdotes underline the fact that Tabrizi’s search for a disciple culminated with Rumi who was an accomplished scholar and a respected teacher.

Shams advised Rumi that Sufism could not be learnt through books but by “going and doing”.

Qaal ra beguzar mardi haal shou

Pesh mardi kaamil pamaal shou

In the company of Shams, the scholarly Maulana Rumi got spiritually transformed.

The two mystics became inseparable and lived together for many months. As Tabrizi turned to be epicentre of Rumi’s life, he could no longer pay attention to his students or his family. Rumi’s followers turned jealous of the intimacy between their teacher and Shams. They blamed Tabrizi for taking away their teacher from them and desired him to leave. It is said that this led Tabrizi to leave for Syria, in February 1246 without warning.

This made Rumi heart-broken. Angry with his students, he withdrew from them even more. Pain and longing flowed from his pen. He wrote thousands of couplets of his most insightful work. In his poems, Shams was the guiding light of Allah’s love for mankind.

Rumi’s disciples realized their mistake and apologized profusely. When it was learnt that Shams was in Damascus, a letter was sent to him, urging him to return. Rumi’s eldest son, Sultan Walad took a search party and went to Syria, returning with Shams to Konya in April 1247.

His return to Konya is said to have been followed by joyous celebrations. People apologized for their previous behavior regarding Sham. He himself was full of praise for Hazrat Walad and wrote that he had gone away for the sake of Rumi’s spiritual development.

The two men resumed their discussions and spiritual communion. Shams remained in Konya with Rumi till 1248, the year he is said to have disappeared again mysteriously. Rumi went looking for him to Damascus twice but did not find him.

Shams Tabrizi’s work ‘Maqalat,’ written in prose form, clarifies his reflections on spirituality, philosophy and theology. He was an eloquent speaker who could move audiences with his profound ideas expressed in a simple way. Towards the end of 1247, Shams Tabrizi got married to a young woman who had been raised in Rumi’s household. Named Kimia, she did not live long and died soon after she fell ill.

It is believed that Shams Tabrizi died in 1248. According to contemporary Sufi tradition, Shams Tabrizi mysteriously disappeared. Some say he was killed by close disciples of Mowlana Jalaluddin Rumi who were jealous of the close relationship between Rumi and Shams, but according to other major chunk of certain evidences, he left Konya and died in Khoy where he was buried. Sultan Walad, Rumi’s son, in his Walad-Nama mathnawi just mentions that Shams mysteriously disappeared from Konya with no more specific details.

Shams Tabrizi’s tomb is in Khoy, beside a tower monument in a memorial park, has been nominated as a World Cultural Heritage Center by UNESCO.

“The path to the Truth is a labour of the heart, not of the head. Make your heart your primary guide! Not your mind. Meet, challenge and ultimately prevail over your nafs (self, psyche, soul) with your heart. Knowing your ego will lead you to the knowledge of God” said great Shamas at some point in time.

(The author can be reached at email id: [email protected])

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