The wheel of love
Dervishes have not stopped copying Maulana Jalaluddin Al-Rumi since, overcome by a divine ecstasy inspired by Shamsuddin Al-Tabrizi, he took to whirling on the street. Sherif Sonbol captures the Mevlevis' cycle of worship
'The religion of love is apart from all religions;
the lovers of God have no religion but God alone'
For centuries Maulana Jalaluddin Al-Rumi has helped millions with his message of love, providing the concept of Muslim worship with a highly refined nuance and writing -- mainly in Farsi -- some of the world's most celebrated poetry: so celebrated, in fact, that UNESCO, working in collaboration with the Turkish Ministry of Culture, declared 2007, the master's 800th anniversary, the Year of Rumi.
Rumi spent his life travelling inwards as well as out, and his written work mirrors the intensity of that experience: he speaks of the grief of separation from God, a condition of material existence, and the heavenly cycles that reflect providence. He speaks, most significantly, of love, understood in all its forms, as an expression of the consciousness of the divine and the longing for reunion with it.
Born in 1207 in present-day Tajikistan, Rumi fled the Mongol invasions to Konya, Anatolia, at a time when his mystical powers were already evident. When the great Farsi poet Fariduddin Al-Attar met Rumi, the child following his father on the road, he is said to have remarked, "here comes a sea followed by an ocean". In Konya Rumi inherited his father's position as theologian at the age of 24, he made a name for himself and his halaqa -- circle (of learning) attracted thousands. On meeting a wandering mystic from what is today northern Iran, Shamsuddin of Tabriz, Rumi gave up teaching and, increasingly devoted to concepts of love, began to practise the form of worship -- involving music and a form of dance -- on which the Mevlevi (Maulawi) Sufi Order was to be founded. His love and grief over Shams, who was subsequently killed (some claim with the involvement of Rumi's younger son) found expression in Divani Shamsi Tabrizi, but his best-known work remains the grand tome of couplets entitled simply Mathnavi (Mathnawi in Arabic).
The Mevlevis later stylised Rumi's dance of ecstasy -- inspired by a closeness to God that only Shams facilitated -- into one of the world's most beautiful symbolic dances, with the whole ritual and its music both referred to as the sema -- a Turkish word implying gathering. The dervishes start whirling following prayer and/or a recitation of the Quran, wearing a black cloak over white costumes, symbolising the material world and eternity, respectively, and the long hat resembling a tombstone. At one point, as their arms gradually unfold, they let the cloak fall, turning, as it were, into heavenly bodies whose every breath invokes the divine name, now whirling in earnest.
Rumi died on 17 December 1273. He was buried in Konya next to his father; today his mausoleum is frequented by thousands of pilgrims each year. Although the anniversary of his birthday will be celebrated all over the world, only relatively few cities will be on the itinerary of Sufi dervishes on tour to honour Rumi's name. But among them is Cairo.