“Love is the way and the path, our prophet.
Of love we are born, love is our mother.
Our mother, love, is hiding in our veil,
Hiding from our unbelieving nature.”
– Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī
The more time passes the more debate rises over the content of one's life. This is due in large part to the availability and reliability of primary sources—or lack thereof—as time passes. There is more time for nuances discussion. Further still is the claim to a legacy. The more influential a person was, the more people want to claim them. This is very much the case with thirteenth-century poet and Islamic scholar Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī.
Born September 1207 in Persia, one of the defining factors in his life was his travels. Though he was born in what is now Afghanistan and is even credited as a prominent Afghan poet, he was forced to leave his home very young. The Mogol Invasion forced his family and their disciples west. It was during their migration that they came across famed poet, Attar, who became a mentor to Rūmī, going so far as to give him his Asrārnāma, a text discussing the relationship between the soul and the material world.
The family found their way to Baghdad and met up with local scholars. They continued from Hejaz to Mecca to Damascus to Malatya to Erzincan to Sivas to Kayseri to Nigde, finally settling in Konya, Turkey. It was there in 1244 that Rūmī once again met Shams Tabrizi. Though they had met when Rūmī was eighteen, their relationship did not begin in earnest until Rūmī was in his late thirties.
Where Rūmī came from a well-respected family and inherited his father's position as a spiritual leader, Tabrizi was a homeless basket weaver and not particularly well-liked. He was quick to anger and known to swear in front of children. It was his temperament that led to their meeting. Tabrizi prayed to Allah to find a friend able to "endure" him and was drawn to Rūmī's home.
Regardless of their differences, the two grew fond of each other, moving in together and becoming practically inseparable. Both men were spiritually sought after for their wisdom and were educated in many different arenas, encouraging and engaging one another on equal footing in that standard.
It was Tabrizi that attempted to draw Rūmī’s interest to poetry and dance, describing them as spiritual pursuits as well as artistic ones. The two were seen as kindred spirits and were deeply in love. There are accounts of them spending hours staring into each other's eyes, apparently having discussions that transcended the need for speech.
Since evidence of a sexual relationship between two people is rare to find in the first place, it is near impossible to discover centuries after both have died. Translator Coleman Barks described their relationship saying:
“They spent months together without any human needs, transported into a region of pure conversation."
Whether or not there was ever a sexual aspect to their relationship is debatable; what is certain is their deep love for one another.
It was due in part to their unwavering closeness that Tabrizi was forced to leave for the first time. After months of living together, and Rūmī giving Tabrizi almost all of his attention, discontent grew. Not only were there large class and social differences between the two but as one of the most respected men in the region Rūmī’s attention was a coveted thing. Pressure began to build, and eventually, Tabrizi was driven out of Konya and went to Syria.
Heartbroken, Rūmī fell ill, and his distress was noted by those around him. His sons eventually sought out Tabrizi and brought him home. When the two men saw each other again they are said to have both fallen on their knees, embracing. In a time where most relationships were expected to have an underlying power dynamic, the equal devotion was noted, one account saying:
“No one knew who was lover and who the beloved.”
Together again, the men lived happily for some time. Again Rūmī’s disciples began to become envious, believing that they were owed more of Rūmī’s attention. What happened next is heavily debated, but it is generally agreed that whilst the men were talking in the middle of the night, there was a knock at the door. While some argue that Tabrizi returned to his life as a wandered, others say Rūmī’s sons or disciples killed him. All that we know for certain is that he disappeared, and Rūmī never saw his love again.