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Rumi: Faith, Knowledge, Reason, and Love
Mar 1, 2012

During a trip to Turkey in the summer of 2009, I had an opportunity to visit the tomb of the 13th century Sufi mystic and prolific author, Mawlana Jalal al-Din al-Rumi, known more commonly as Rumi (1207-1273). He was a contemporary of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), a well-known Christian theologian and mystic. The "pilgrimage" to Rumi's tomb turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip for me.

Prompted by that visit, it seemed useful to explore what Rumi had written about the subject of faith and reason because of the importance of the topic in the Catholic religious tradition which has always recognized a potential for tension about the role of reason in one's faith. This tension has usually been resolved in the insight that the expression of faith in God cannot diminish the importance of human reason in providing a conceptual framework by which that faith can be expressed and shared with others. However, the more one delves into Rumi's life and his mystical poetry it becomes clear that for him, the issue of faith and reason is incomplete unless one includes the central theme of love.

Rumi's poetry and parables are not a product of academic theological reflection but emerge from a deeply felt experience of God's presence and God's love in his life. I was curious to know what role human reason might play in Rumi's thought and writings and whether he thought purely rational reflection and discourse about God is valuable. I propose to show in this essay that for Rumi, human reason is valuable in the search for God. Reason cannot be ignored, but it has only an instrumental value in one's faith and relationship with God. The starting point for my argument is Rumi's view of human knowledge.

Knowledge in general: Two perspectives

A. The need for knowledge:

According to Rumi, the human person cannot reach the final goal of human existence, which is union with God, without adequate knowledge. Perfect union with God however will be fully achieved only in the afterlife when knowledge will recede in importance. According to the biographer Cihan Okuyucu, for Rumi, the mind is like a torch and knowledge is its light. But he adds that for Rumi there is an even stronger light for the mind and that is love. (Okuyucu, 2007, p. 79)

B. Autonomy:

Regarding the use of one's mind, Rumi has great respect for the autonomy of the individual's mind. Rumi urges each of us to pursue our own insights and not to depend simply on what others have said. He explains by using this metaphor: Does a mountain produce any sound on its own? The answer is no. Whatever sounds we hear in the mountains are echoes of voices made by others. So too the person who does not set out to learn and understand on his own is simply an echo chamber. But "…if your words begin to flow from a source within, only then you will fly with your own wings" (Masnawi 6: 175 quoted in Okuyucu 2007, p. 84).

Knowledge ultimately is only an instrumental value. It is one of the necessary means for attaining full human "maturity," not the sole necessary means.

Further, not all knowledge is equally valuable. It depends in great part on the character of the person who claims to have knowledge. Rumi illustrates this by recounting the story of an arrogant scholar and an uneducated sailor on board a ship. The scholar berated the sailor for what he had done with his life, for essentially wasting it because the sailor was unlettered. Later a fierce storm arose and the ship began to founder. The sailor asked the anxious scholar if he knew how to swim. The latter replied no. "Too bad" commented the sailor, "it looks like you may lose your life despite all your knowledge" (Masnawi 1:112 quoted in Okuyucu 2007, p. 79). The story illustrates that knowledge must be tempered with humility if one is to reach full maturity. This is profound advice for anyone who studies philosophy or theology or any academic discipline for that matter. Knowledge therefore can be a mixed blessing, but it can also be a fine instrument in assisting the individual to become what God wants that person to be. With this understanding of the role of knowledge in general, the next focus is the role of reason in gaining knowledge.

An important practical role for reason

Reason has an important practical or regulatory role for Rumi. One of its primary functions is to serve as master of "carnal" desires. It is disputed, but I believe that Rumi offers a dualistic vision of the human person which is not unlike that of Plato's body and soul. According to Rumi, the rational side of human nature must conquer and control the carnal. Rumi says that there is an opposition between body and spirit, a kind of warfare in which the body prevails in most people. But in Prophets and saints, reason triumphs. He urges his followers to let reason gain the upper hand. (Chittick, 1983, p. 34) The following lines express the struggle between reason and the carnal self:

The (carnal) nature desires to take revenge on its adversary: reason is an iron chain upon the flesh.
It comes and prevents it (the flesh) and restrains it: reason is like a police-inspector controlling its good and evil (actions).
Reason that is allied to Faith is like a just police-inspector; it is the guardian and magistrate of the city of the heart. (Masnawi: 2181 quoted in Can, 2005, p. 182)

Rumi's vision is that a person who uses reason wisely, that is in its regulatory role, will discover the true path to human fulfillment in God. (Can, 2005 p. 182) The words of the poem The Sunrise Ruby, illustrate this theme:

The Sunrise Ruby
In the early morning hour,
just before dawn, lover and beloved wake
and take a drink of water.
She asks, "Do you love me or yourself more?
Really, tell the absolute truth."
He says, "There's nothing left of me.
I'm like a ruby held up to the sunrise.
Is it still a stone, or a world
made of redness? It has no resistance
to sunlight."
This is how Hallaj said, I am God,
and told the truth!
The ruby and the sunrise are one.
Be courageous and discipline yourself.
Completely become hearing and ear,
and wear this sun-ruby as an earring.
Work. Keep digging your well.
Don't think about getting off from work.
Water is there somewhere.
Submit to a daily practice.
Your loyalty to that
is a ring on the door.
Keep knocking, and the joy inside
will eventually open a window
and look out to see who's there.
(Rumi, The Essential Rumi Coleman Barks retrieved from

The limits of reason and the existence of God

Rumi is sometimes puzzling in his views on the value of reason in grappling with the existence of God. He seems satisfied that human reason can know God's existence (yet reason cannot reveal the nature of God) but he doesn't engage in any rigorous defense of that position. (Okuyucu, 2007, pp. 93-94). Instead, he proposes parables as guides for his readers' own reflection, creating a convergence of probabilities, to use the happy phrase of John Henry Newman. In one such parable, he recounts the story of an atheistic philosopher (the choice of a philosopher as atheist is revealing) and a doctor. The philosopher was feeling ill and so consulted a doctor for help. The doctor asked what the philosopher wanted and the latter replied that he sought health. To that the doctor replied: "Tell me what it is and I'll get it for you." The philosopher was perplexed and admitted that he could not tell the doctor what health was (Okuyucu, 2007, p. 93).

Rumi is saying that like the philosopher, we can know that health exists, but we struggle to understand what it is. So too with God's existence. We can know that God exists, but we will never understand the nature of God. Moreover, knowing that God exists through rational proof will not sustain a lasting faith or faithful union. Reason can bring a person only so far and then that person has to move beyond the limits of reason and simply abandon themselves to God. Rumi uses the example of going to a tailor shop for new clothes. Your mind can get you to the threshold of the shop, but once there, you need to let the tailor do his work (Furuzanfar 168, quoted in Okuyucu, 2007, p. 94). There comes a time when reason is of no further use, even though it helps control the carnal self, raises us above the animals to the level of humanity, and provides a path to faith.

Rejection of reason

Having lauded reason's role in achieving human enrichment and fulfillment, Rumi startles the reader by advising us to abandon reason as a mischief maker. "Sell reason and mind and buy excitement," he says. What you call reason and intellect are a guess and an illusion but excitement is insight. Sacrifice reason in the presence of Mustafa (the Prophet of Islam) and say "God is enough for me" (Masnawi 1408 quoted in Can, 2005, pp.184-185).

In a wonderfully descriptive phrase reminiscent of how Nietzsche can startle his reader, Rumi writes in the Divan: "I grabbed reason by its ear and said: ‘O reason! Get out. Today I am saved from you. O reason, take your hand off me. Today I attained insanity, and held on to it" (Divan-i Kabir no. 1185 quoted in Can, 2005, p. 186). Ultimately, the ability to reason which we have been discussing shows itself to be only a faculty of a material mind. Rumi had indeed praised this material mind, which provides us with many benefits, and distinguishes us from the animals. But to finally attain God, we have to follow another path, the path of love. The poem Secret Places illustrates this point:

Secret Places

Lovers find secret places
inside this violent world
where they make transactions
with beauty.
Reason says, Nonsense.
I have walked and measured the walls here.
There are no places like that.
Love says, There are.
Reason sets up a market
and begins doing business.
Love has more hidden work.
Hallaj steps away from the pulpit
And climbs the stairs of the gallows.
Lovers fell a truth inside themselves
That rational people keep denying.
It is reasonable to say, Surrender
Is just an idea that keeps people
From leading their lives.
Love responds, No. This thinking
Is what is dangerous.
Using language obscures
What Shams came to give.
Every day the sun rises
Out of low word-clouds
Into burning silence.
(Rumi, 2007, p. 48)

The right path

There is another path, not the one illuminated by reason, which we must follow in order to attain union with God, who is the purpose of human existence. There is a "spiritual reason" superior to "material reason" (Ibid., p. 187). In fact, calling this faculty reason is really only a metaphor for a mystical love and understanding of God. There is an even stronger light for the mind than material reason and that is love (Okuyucu op. cit., p. 79). Elsewhere Rumi says, "May the people with reason be far from the lovers of God… If someone with reason comes to our assembly, do not let him in, but if a lover of God comes, welcome him and say, ‘Welcome'… Love shies away from the light of reason. It is a very bad thing to become old at a young age" (Divan-i Kabir 172 quoted in Can, op. cit., p. 186).

What does Rumi mean by Love?

Since my religious tradition maintains that we are truth seekers by nature, it behooved me to ask what Rumi means by "love". There are several ways to understand the term. It is something that has to be experienced to be understood (Chittick op. cit., p. 194). The experience to which Rumi refers however is that of a Sufi mystic in ecstasy, and thus love ultimately is ineffable, it proves to be beyond words. Despite this caution, we can try to frame some meaning for the term.

First, God is love but that does not exhaust who God is. God is the source of all love, just as He is the source of everything. Second, love is the divine creative force which permeates the universe (rather like the role of the Holy Spirit in Christian theology). Rumi says:

Love is an infinite ocean whose skies are a bubble of foam.
Know that it is the waves of Love which make the wheel of the
Heavens turn; without Love the world would be inanimate.
How is an inorganic thing transformed into a plant?
How are the plants sacrificed to become gifted with spirit?
How is the spirit sacrificed for the Breath, of which only a
Whiff was enough to impregnate Mary?
Each atom is intoxicated with this Perfection and hastens
Toward it … Their haste says implicitly: "Glory be to God."
(Masnawi, V 3843 quoted in de Vitray-Meyerovitch, 1987, p. 102)

Third, love also is understood as that force which is strong enough to forge the union of two individuals, whether that "one" is the union of God and a creature or the union of two human creatures. The unitive power of love between friends is illustrated in the following verse:

Your soul is so close to mine
That what you dream, I know. …
I know everything you think of: your heart is so close to mine!
(Divan–i Kabir quoted in de Vitray-Meyerovitch, 1987, p. 106)

The ultimate goal of the union of friends is to achieve union or oneness with the ultimate being, God. "Love is that flame which when it rises, burns everything, only God remains" (de Vitray-Meyerovitch 1987, p. 101). "Love is the attribute of God, who has no need of anyone. To be in love with other than Him is metaphorical love" (Can 2005, p. 150). Thus we come to understand that the love of friendship is transient and must open the way to the unitive love with God that is eternal. Union with the ultimate beloved, God, is every person's goal, their "maturity." We all share the same "spark of the divine."

In the 11th century, St. Anselm's coined the phrase fides quaerens intellectum, (faith seeking understanding) which means that it is natural for a person of faith to continue to seek understanding of that faith through reason. If we were to use a similar Latin phrase about Rumi, it would be amor donans intellectum (Love providing understanding). By that we mean that in the last analysis, only love can create and give the faithful one true understanding. For Rumi, the simple faithful love of God trumps all efforts of reason to understand God or to articulate the elements of one's faith. The final path to God is not through the mind but through the heart. It is a very challenging lesson for anyone of faith to contemplate.

Donald Casey is an associate professor at the departments of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Felician College


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