Millions of readers in America and around the world know the name Rumi is synonymous with love poetry, but they don’t know much about the life of the beloved 13th-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic. The new biography Rumi’s Secret, by Brad Gooch – the bestselling author of biographies about Flannery O’Conner and Frank O’Hara – provides important insights yet also raises questions.
As Gooch explains in the prologue, which flows with the ease of good fiction, the idea of Rumi’s secret came from a conversation Gooch had with a merchant named Sebastian in Aleppo, Syria, in 2011. Sebastian compared Rumi to the American Walt Whitman – another poet revered for the universality of his writing – who “never tells his secret!”
Gooch follows that fascinating statement with one of his own: “Rumi did have secrets – personal, poetic, and theological – that he was always both revealing and concealing.”
Some of the poet’s smaller secrets are revealed in the book’s first section, which opens with Rumi, at five years old, seeing angels. His father, an esteemed Muslim preacher and teacher, explained that the beings had come to bring him favor and invisible gifts.
When Rumi – whose given name was Mohammad – was six, his family began a 2,500-mile trek from their home in Vakhsh (in present-day Tajikistan) that would take years to complete. Along the way, they followed the Silk Road to Bagdad and to Mecca – which all Muslims are required to visit at least once in their lifetime. They also spent time in several cities as Rumi’s father sought opportunities to teach and safety from ongoing political upheavals and invading Mongols.
In every locale, the precocious Rumi – whose father sometimes called him Jalaloddin, meaning splendor of the faith – absorbed the sights and sounds, which would one day color his poetry, as in these lines: “Speak Persian, though Arabic is more beautiful/ Love speaks a hundred different languages.” He also developed a deep understanding of the longings and losses people experience during tumultuous times.
The family finally settled in Konya, where Rumi, now married and a father,would spend most of his adult life, after furthering his studies in Aleppo and Damascus. In Konya, he became renowned for his teaching and preaching and was called Mowlana – “our master” – and, eventually, Rumi, which is derived from “Rum” or “Rome” – meaning Byzantium.
Yet as subsequent sections show, the Rumi we know today might never have emerged if not for three profound friendships. The first and most impactful was with Shams of Tabriz, a mystic who came to Konya after decades of traveling and spiritual seeking.
Shortly after the two met, they went into seclusion, where Shams urged Rumi to stop reading other writers (including his father), to be honest and heartfelt, rather than refined, and to reject the trappings of his prestigious career and demanding religious life. Instead, Shams encouraged Rumi to use music, sung poetry, and whirling to “literally spin loose of language and logic, while opening and warming his heart.”
Rumi viewed Shams as a teacher who could help him overcome his pride, as evidenced in these lines:
You speak for God, you see the Truth,
You save the world from drowning in an ocean of fire
A king beyond compare, your majesty is eternal
You lead the soul away from harmful desires
Shams, always a controversial figure, also taught Rumi about the pain of separation by abruptly leaving the city, in part to test Rumi’s loyalty. The first time Shams left – for Aleppo, 400 miles away – Rumi responded by writing poetry ghazals (which would become his favorite poetic form) to channel his feelings and demonstrate the creativity Shams had nurtured. The second time Shams disappeared, Rumi spent months searching for his friend, who was presumed dead.
The acceptance of that loss forever changed Rumi, who became known for his quiet acts of kindness, humility, and willingness to speak with anyone. His writing deepened and flourished.
Rumi had two other cherished friends: a goldsmith named Salah, who had studied with Rumi’s tutor from childhood, and Hosam, one of Rumi’s loyal followers. Both served as muse and spiritual axis, but with different functions. Where Salah was like a calm mirror, helping Rumi find peace, Hosan was a conduit and scribe for Rumi’s long poem "Masnavi," which is quoted throughout the book.
According to Gooch, there is no evidence that these relationships were romantic. Yet because of the way he portrays them – with movie-like intensity and drama – he creates enough ambiguity to leave readers wondering, especially about Shams. Some may also question the validity of conversations and details shared hundreds of years after the fact, despite Gooch’s thorough references.
The book is important, however, because it illustrates how each man helped the poet learn about love (both human and divine), the process of giving up the self to make room for something purer and higher, and transcendence. The work also shows how the poet came to realize the logic and importance of a religion of the heart, which is described in these lines: “The mosque inside the hearts of holy men/ Is a place of worship for everyone. God is there."
That idea resonates with contemporary audiences. Yet as Gooch explains in the afterword, it, like many of Rumi’s practices – such as whirling and elevating a human being to the level of God or the Prophet Mohammad – were controversial in his day. Rumi’s “veil of secrecy was a virtue and an artistic style in the broader culture of the time.”
That veil is equally effective in our tell-tale age because Rumi’s “aesthetic of secrets” as Gooch calls it, broadens and deepens his writing. For example, Rumi saw both Shams and God as the light of the sun, “and in speaking of the beloved he was also speaking of the unspeakable, or approaching the unspeakable, as the essence of God is love.”