Shams-e Tabrizi: Rumi’s Perfect Teacher
Translated by Farida Maleki
Publisher: New Delhi: Science of the Soul Research Centre, 2011. 344 pages.
With this book we enter into a new world of knowledge about Shams-e Tabrizi, the legendary master of the most renowned Sufi poet of all time, the late 12th to early 13th-century Persian mystic Molana Rumi [sic]. Until recently, very little of any authenticity has been known about Shams, and some even believed he never existed. Nothing he wrote was known, though Rumi attributed to him a book of his own poetry, calling it the Diwan-e Shams-e Tabrizi. But, starting in the 1940s, various manuscripts of a work entitled Maghalat-e Shams, or “the spoken words of Shams,” began to be discovered in Turkey, appearing to be notes of Shams’ words as taken down by Rumi’s students during the three years that Shams spent with Rumi. A famous Iranian author and translator, Mohammad Ali Movahed, concluding that the work is authentic, collated the available manuscripts and produced in Persian a 1000-page scholarly edition, with extensive notes and commentary. Several translations of parts of Movahed’s Maghala t into English have now appeared, of which this book is one.
With access to the Maghalat have come many surprises. For example, Shams has always been represented as an uncouth, unlettered dervish, especially in comparison to Rumi himself, who, when he met Shams, was already a highly respected scholar of Islamic religion and mysticism, with his own disciples. But the Shams of the Maghalat turns out to be himself a scholar, especially of Islamic law, and to be widely read in the literature of Sufism. We even learn the names of his own teachers and spiritual guides.
In this book the translator has freely selected from the vast offerings of the Maghalat, choosing statements by Shams that “offer insight into typical questions asked by seekers of truth, irrespective of culture and period, and reflect the universality of the teachings of the God-realized.” She avoided statements that, because they are closely tied to Islamic religious law or to Persian culture, would be impossible for the average reader to grasp without extensive explanations. Even then, some explanations of historical or cultural points are needed, and are provided in footnotes. The reader also derives much help from another mechanism: at the end of each quotation, the translator inserts a short phrase of her own, offered to point out connections or suggest interpretations that might appeal to the reader, but not constrain the reader’s own search for Shams’ meaning. The resulting book offers spiritual insights on every page. Most of Shams’ messages are simple and clear. Some offer pithy wisdom. “[A man] says, ‘O God, do this; O God, do not do that.’ It is as though he tells the king, ‘O King, take that pitcher and put it here.’ He has turned the king into his own attendant, ordering him to do this, or not to do that.” And,
Once he comes on the path, he must remain steadfast to avoid slipping every moment. For the father’s [Adam’s] tradition was to sin once – only once. Even for that one time, a man must be sorry, remaining awake and alert so that it will never happen again. Yet if it does happen, it should receive no thought or attention, for time passes, and regret and sorrow are of no use.
Other statements use unexpected imagery, shocking the reader into fresh understanding. For example, he says. “A Sufi was asked, ‘Do you want a silver coin tomorrow, or a slap in the face now?’ He answered, ‘Hit me and pass by.’ Now a fortune is passing by. Be fearful of the pain of regret and the loss of this fortune.” Others use humour and irony to make their point: “However much consideration you have for a touchstone, a scale, or a mirror, they will never feel inclined to change the truth. Someone went to a scale and said, ‘Change my hundred silver coins into two hundred, and I will give fifty of it to you.’”
You said to me, “I speak about my inner experiences so that my heart is empty.” How strange! When you empty your heart of that, then with what will you fill it? It is like the man who was selling wine. Another man said to him, “Strange! When you sell the wine, then what will you buy instead?”
Other statements by Shams are more difficult to understand, and require the reader to ponder over them. Some are densely packed with many meanings and implications. “A body without knowledge is like a town without water; a body without abstinence is like a tree without fruit; a body without modesty is like food without taste; and a body without effort is like a slave without a master.” And,
I explained clearly about the treasure of God-realization, and generously gave away the key to the treasury. Yet veils are still being created. You become your own veil. There is no dearth of thought. You yourself provoke the thought, make it your veil, and amuse yourself with it. Then you provoke another, then another in the same way. Yet all of it is nothing. It has no reality.
And, “Lift your load off others, and carry their load for them. Have no greed or expectation of gain from them, but offer them what you have. If they want prosperity, then ask for poverty [for yourself]. If they want esteem, then ask for humility.”
Some statements seem to offer evidences of spiritual truths almost beyond worldly comprehension. Yet if the reader patiently ponders over these sayings over and over again, wonderful apprehensions dawn. To give some examples: “The radiance of a Man is equal to beholding God for those endowed with the perception to behold him. Now come in, come in, so God can behold Himself. He looks at Himself. He looks through His devotee.”
The domain of words is so vast that applying meaning to them feels restricting, and there is a meaning beyond the domain of that meaning. This true meaning pulls all other meaning within, gulping the words and their sound, so that no phrase remains. Thus, a mystic’s silence is not because he is so empty of meaning, but rather because he is so full.
A fascinating aspect of the book is that it reports how Shams would, boldly and uncompromisingly, describe himself and his state of realization. One time he said, “My words … are so high that looking up at them causes your hat to fall off!” Some who heard accused him of being haughty. He remarked, “If they criticize, it is as if they are saying God is haughty, but that is true and what is the problem?”
But perhaps the most wondrous trait of the Maghalat of Shams is that it offers a glimpse into the world’s most renowned spiritual love affair, the three-year encounter between the two great masters Shams and Rumi. An introductory biography of Shams brings out a number of striking facts about that encounter that became known to us only with the discovery of the Maghalat. For example, Shams took only one disciple in his life, and spent many years preparing the ground in himself and Rumi for that event. “This was a barrel of divine wine carefully concealed, and all were unaware of it. I kept my ears open in the world, listening and waiting. This barrel opened because of Molana [Rumi]… The fact is that we [Shams] are his [Rumi’s].”
The book often quotes words Shams directed to Rumi personally. What comes across is an extraordinary relationship – profoundly respectful, tender, and affectionate, but also uncompromising and rigorous.
The “you” who expresses need is the real you, not that “you” who shows himself needless, acting like a stranger; that one was your enemy. I was hurting him because that was not you. How could I hurt you? For even if I kissed your feet, I fear that my eyelashes might prick and wound them.
Readers who are striving to follow a master of their own will gain as much from this book’s portrayal of this interaction, so monumental in the history of mysticism, as from Shams’ surprising revelations of spiritual truths.
Book reviews express the opinions of the reviewers and not of the publisher.