To this day, poems by Muhammad Jalal ad-Din Rumi have sold millions of copies. This makes him one of the most famous poets in the world. His poems were often compared to Shakespeare’s for their resonance. Rumi lived in the close of the Golden Age of Islam. His writings on tolerance give us further value in offering a glimpse of the beliefs and tradition in which Rumi experienced in his lifetime.
Traditionally, the Golden Age of Islam is dated from the seventh to the 13th century. It was during this period that artists, scholars, poets and traders in the Islamic world made their biggest contribution to a wide range of disciplines both by preserving earlier traditions and by adding innovations of their own.
Through trading, the Islamic empires significantly contributed to globalization when the knowledge, trade and economies from many formerly isolated regions and civilizations began integrating through their contacts with explorers and traders. As the empire’s trade networks extended from the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Indian Ocean and China Sea in the east, it helps to establish the Islamic empires as the world’s leading economic power. As a result, Islamic civilization is unique in that it grew and expanded based on its merchant economy, in contrast to their Christian, Indian and Chinese peers who generally expanded their societies from agricultural landholding nobility.
In the middle of all these exchanges, the first stage of a mystic movement known as Sufism appeared in the early Umayyad period (661–749 CE). Islamic mysticism is called tasawwuf which literally means “to dress in wool” in Arabic. However, since the early 19th century, the movement has been called “Sufism” in western languages. Sufism derives from a somewhat looser Arabic term for a mystic, sufi, which is in turn derived from ṣuf, (“wool”). This may be a reference to the woolen garment of early Islamic ascetics.
One of the Sufi orders’ contribution to the rise and expansion of the Islamic civilization was their missionary activities. This extensive networking allowed the Bayt al-Hikma (“House of Wisdom”) to be established in Baghdad, where scholars from different cultures and faiths gathered and translated the world’s knowledge into Arabic. Knowledge was synthesized from works originating in all the ancient civilizations, and many classic works of antiquity were translated into Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Hebrew and Latin.
This inclusiveness extended to the labor force. Both men and women were involved in diverse occupations and economic activities. Women were employed in medicines, scholarships, as well as a wide range of commercial activities and diverse occupations such as farming and construction work.
A number of distinct features of the modern library were introduced in the Islamic world, where libraries expanded the primary function of ancient libraries as center of collection of manuscripts. A library became a public and lending library, a center for the instruction of sciences and ideas, a place for meetings, discussions, and sometimes lodging for scholars or boarding school for pupils. The concept of the library catalogue was also introduced in medieval Islamic libraries, where books were organized into specific genres and categories.
These developments would have demanded a great degree of knowledge and flexibility from workers and scholars alike to be able to compete with their countrymen and the rest of the world. This gave birth to the large number of Muslim polymath scholars, who were known as Hakeems, each of whom contributed to a variety of different fields of learning comparable to the later European renaissance men such as Leonardo da Vinci. Due to the demands in this period, polymath scholars with a wide breadth of knowledge in different fields were more common than scholars who specialized in any single field of learning.
Apart from the demand at the time for people to have a wide variety of knowledge and interests, an extensive range of Islamic writings on love, poetry, history and theology show the thought at the time as being open to a broad spectrum of philosophical ideas. Although society was controlled under Islamic values, a certain degree of religious freedom helped create multi-faith, cross-cultural networks by attracting those of the Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths.
Another example of how inclusive the Islamic world at the time comes from the most well-known work of fiction from the era – The Book of One Thousand and One Nights. The book was a compilation of many earlier folk tales from different cultures such as China and Africa translated or retold to Persian.
Arabian Nights was translated in the 18th century by Antoine Galland and since then became an influential work of literature in the west. Various characters from this epic, such as Aladdin, Sinbad and Ali Baba, have become cultural icons in western culture. A number of elements such as genies, magic lamps and magic carpets from ancient Arabian and Persian mythology retold in the epic are now common fixtures in modern fantasy.
Another literary genre benefitted from the development of the Golden Age of Islam is Science Fiction. Theologus Autodidactus (“Self-taught Theologian”), written by polymath Ibn al-Nafis (1213–1288), is an early example of this. It uses various elements such as spontaneous generation, futurology and doomsday, all of which would not be out of place in the science fiction works today. However, rather than giving the supernatural or mythological explanations for these events which were common then, Ibn al-Nafis attempted to explain these plot elements using the scientific knowledge of biology, astronomy, cosmology and geology known in his time.
A number of musical instruments utilized in classical music today are believed to have been derived from Arabic musical instruments. Later, Ottoman military bands, known by the Persian-derived word Mehter, are thought to be the oldest variety of military marching band in the world. Some standard instruments employed by a Mehter are the bass drum, the kettledrum, the cymbals, oboes, flutes and triangles. These military bands inspired many marching bands and orchestras in the west, which then heavily inspired the works of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.
Rumi would have experienced this early in his childhood. His father, Baha al-Din, was a teacher of Islamic law, with Sufi inclinations, in Khorasan. By 1215, Baha al-Din chose to move his family to Konya, where Rumi stayed for the rest of his life. Baha al-Din became the principle teacher of one of Konya’s religious colleges. He died in 1231, and the then 24-years-old Rumi inherited his father’s teaching position. Rumi, at this time, was already well-versed in both Islamic law and Islamic mysticism. Following the inclusive nature of society and education at the time, the college where Rumi taught had over ten thousand students from every class of society, including grocers, weavers, tailors, and bookbinders. Also recognized as an Islamic Jurist, Rumi often involved himself in the lives of his community members, solving disputes and facilitating loans between nobles and students.
In 1244, Rumi met Shams al-Din Tabrizi, who introduced Rumi to the Rejoicing Sufism, which inspired Rumi’s subsequent works though its music and spiritual dances. Their meeting is considered a central event in Rumi’s life. They were close friends for about three years. In fact, their relationship was close enough to spark theories of homoeroticism by modern historians, which would have again fitted the level of tolerance and inclusiveness of the time. Over the course of that time, Shams was repeatedly driven away by Rumi’s jealous disciples, including one of Rumi’s sons, Ala al-Din, until Sham’s sudden disappearance in 1247. Rumi left the college to travel in search of his friend. He eventually made peace with his loss and returned home.
Rumi’s mourning for the loss of his friend led to the outpouring of more than 40,000 lyric verses, including odes, eulogies, quatrains, and other styles of poetry. The resulting collection, Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi (“The Works of Shams Tabriz”), is considered one of the greatest works of Persian literature.
Rumi died in Konya in 1273 CE and his remains were interred adjacent to his father’s. The Yesil Turbe (“Green Tomb”) was erected above their final resting place. Now known as the Mevlana museum, the site includes a mosque, dance hall, and dervish living quarters. Thousands of visitors of all faiths visit his tomb each month, a testament to not only Rumi and his relatable works, but also the inclusiveness of society at the time.