The mystic writings of the Persian poet known as Rumi (1207-1273) are generally considered to be the supreme expression of Sufism, the mystical trend in Islamic thought and culture. Rumi was born in 1207 in Vakhsh in present-day Tajikistan, to a Persian-speaking family. In part, to avoid the Mongol invasions, the family moved westward through Iran, Iraq, and Syria, meeting writers and mystics. The family’s flight ended in the Anatolian city of Konya – capital of the Seljuk Turkish sultanate of Rum, from which the poet’s name derives. Rumi settled, taught, and composed here until his death in 1273. Although Konya’s sultans were forced to pay tribute to the Mongols in 1243, the city remained a safe haven for Islamic culture, gathering outstanding minds from far horizons in a tormented age.
In Konya, where he was influenced by the teachings of the Spanish-Arab metaphysical thinker Ibn Arabi and the religious mendicant (or dervish) Shams, Rumi’s son founded the Mevlevi Order of Dervishes and instituted the ecstatic dance ritual for which the ‘whirling dervishes’ are known to this day. When in Konya, the capital of the Anatolian Seljuk sultanate, he rapidly attracted a group of disciples, who formed the nucleus of this Sufi order. The order was remarkable for its peaceful attitude towards both the Christian and Jewish faiths. The prominent part played by music in Mevlevi rituals was reflected in their interest in education, in which poetry, music, and calligraphy all played an important role.
The Grand Masters of the Mevlevi Order, lineal descendants of Rumi, eventually became the most revered religious dignitaries in the Ottoman Turkish realm. In the later Ottoman empire, the order expanded considerably and many of its heads (shaykh) were prominent at court. By the 17th century, only the Grand Master was considered spiritually eminent enough to present each new Ottoman sultan with the regalia symbolising his investiture: a sumptuous jewel-encrusted ceremonial sword.
Rumi’s most famous treatise is the Masnavi, a long poem in rhymed couplets written in six books. The work became one of the most influential works of Sufism and considered by many as possibly the greatest mystical poem. Each book consists of about 4,000 verses and contains its own prose introduction and prologue. The inconclusive ending of the sixth volume has given rise to suggestions that the work was not complete at the time of Rumi’s death, as well as to claims about existence of another volume. The work achieved celebrity far beyond the bound of Anatolia and was copied in Iran and India, often in places where the Mevlevi order had little or no influence. One of the most famous quotes, from Book 5, has remained relevant throughout centuries: ‘Unchain yourself, my son, escape its hold! How long will you remain a slave of gold?’.
The exhibition at the Aga Khan museum is a journey through the life and legacy of Rumi, also named Jalal al-Din Muhammad Balkhi, to celebrate the 750th anniversary of this most famous of poet’s passing through an examination of artefacts, manuscripts, and contemporary art. Exploring the rich historical, visual, and literary environment Rumi was immersed in, the exhibition traces his journey from Central Asia to the Lands of Rum (present day Turkey) and, by using the artefacts on display, uncovers the experiences and personal relationships that shaped his worldview and his poetry and his final transformation into one of the most important mystical poets of the Persian-Islamic tradition and how the power of his words have inspired arts and culture, both past and present.
Renowned for his vivid stories and meditations on perception, Rumi often explored the relationship between seeing with the eyes, understanding with the mind, and sensing with the heart. The exhibition allows the visitor to explore works of art from the Aga Khan Museum and other collections to further explore the visual nature of his poetry.
One 16th-century manuscript, A King Sends Out His Sons, illustrates one of the last stories from the Masnavi, focusing on the nature of vision and how one should not trust or follow one’s eyes. The illustration originally accompanied a passage at the end of the poem telling the story of three princes who fall in love with the portrait of a princess. The passion stirred in the eldest two princes upon seeing the portrait leads to their ruin. But the third prince has taken a more contemplative approach to what he sees and is able to win her hand. Rumi emphasises that the youngest prince’s success is owing to his ability to appreciate not only the outer form of the princess’s beauty, but also its inner meaning.
The Aga Khan Museum has also commissioned three new major installation works by leading contemporary artists. The first is Distance Between Homes by Afghan-Canadian artist Hangama Amiri that invites you to consider how lost objects can give shape to feelings of in-betweenness and fragmentation. The textile installation references Amiri’s own experiences with displacement, which have often mirrored that of Rumi. The Dream That Must Be Interpreted by the contemporary artist Erdem Taşdelen taps into the collective experience in this immersive installation that places the visitor at the centre of an audio drama to contemplate the varied ways in which Rumi has been translated, interpreted, appropriated. Finally, The Elephant in the Dark engages your curiosity and sense of wonder with multidisciplinary artist Simin Keramati’s interactive installation.
Until 1 October, 2023, Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, agakhanmuseum.org