“Bring the pure wine of love and freedom. But sir, a tornado is coming. More wine, we'll teach this storm A thing or two about whirling.” RUMI
January 5, 2017
A Year’s ending always leads to reflections on beginnings, choices made, unmade in everyday confusions and fulfillments. 2016 calls upon the whole world (it seems!!) to look beyond more predictable individual resolutions to collective anxieties of embattled groups along ideological, religious, cultural, racial lines. Holiday festivities were inevitably shaded by references to the Elections. Coming into the new Year too, it seems a sense of doom does not allow for much affective, or pleasurable solidarities. Even some humanist voices see the “age of humanism ending” and a threat to “virtues such as care, compassion, and kindness,” as expressed below:
Instead of falling back into such intimations of despair, I want to evoke the image of the whirling dervishes as the TROPE of the year. I recognize that it can be both an Orientalist evocation or a cliche, and perhaps even a tourist re-enactment in contemporary Turkey and elsewhere. But we can also productively access its meanings in Elif Shafak’s fictional rendering of the dance in its originary moments — its practice, its symbolism, its mystic force in The Forty Rules of Love:
The Forty Rules of Love
The dervishes whirled and whirled for what seemed like an eternity. Then the music rose… That was when Shams of Tabriz entered the stage, like a wild desert wind. Wearing a darker robe the everyone else and looking taller, he was also spinning faster. His hands were wide open toward the sky, as was his face, like a sunflower in search of the sun… Even those who hated Shams of Tabriz seemed to have fallen under the spell of moment… While Shams spun in a frenzy and the disciples more slowly in their orbits, [Rumi] remained still… his lips constantly moving in prayer.. [After the dance slowly was over, Rumi’s] voice pierced the silence. “This, my friends, is called the sema — the dance of the whirling dervishes. From this day on, dervishes of every age will dance the sema. One hand pointed to the sky, the other hand pointing down to earth, every speck of love we receive from God, we pledge to distribute to the people” (269-70).
Stillness and whirling, Rumi and Shams, words, music, movement, engaging the senses, the mind and the heart. In this scene, it is Rumi, the Mawlana, the older man and preacher/ teacher, who articulates the symbolism of the whirling before the internal audience, as a conduit of transmission between the sky and earth. But we as readers have already witnessed Shams’ earlier rehearsal of it in front of Rumi, who is totally mesmerized by the frenzied Shams: “So captivating was his frenzy that I [Rumi] couldn’t but feel it as if the whole universe… spun with him. I watched this most unusual dance, letting the energy it radiated envelop my soul and body”(207). The enigmatic bond and desire between the two men is palpable here. The whirling — cyclical, non-linear, and without fixed boundaries — ends with Shams’ articulation of its meaning: “The universe is one being. Everything and everyone is interconnected through an invisible web of stories. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are all in silent conversation” (207).
The role of the dance – the fluid interconnections it evokes, and the way in which it affectively bonds the two men offers us one central lesson: namely, the celebration of mysterious enigmas — of the provisional places from which all relationships emanate, passing through whirling emotions and desires. Can a word or touch evoke the erotic as distinct from and far removed from from thought and discernment? How does Love in the world of Rumi and Shams give them the ability to “contribute to the music of the universe”? Can we articulate bonds and desires within a vibrant, yet shifting continuum, rather than from a place of fixity? Questions rather than answers are the currency of this story.
The story of the relationship between Rumi and Shams of Tabriz is apocryphal; wide-ranging speculations about the nature of the relationship — spiritual, blasphemous, and perhaps erotic — are found routinely on different sources and site. Typically Rumi’s poetry is often subsumed within responses that elide Islamic contexts into “New Age” renderings of “love.” Other views insist on it as a spiritual bond within the context of Muslim society of the time, while others simply reject all legacies of Rumi as “un-Islamic” and even blasphemous. Critics and detractors of Rumi and Shams in the novel, use the same religious yardstick to condemn the the two men and their bond. What is accepted repeatedly, however, is that their relationship was a transformative one, with Shams according Rumi the new role of poet: “One day you will be known as the Voice of Love” (208).
While Rumi hopes that they will continue to “walk on this path together,” Shams evokes a lonelier journey for him: “As much as I would love to join you, I am afraid you will have to do it alone.” “The thought of Shams leaving hit me [Rumi] like a sharp pain in the chest.” (308). Given varying accounts, we are never sure whether Shams is assassinated, escapes his murderers, or simply disappears. Within his lifetime, Shams, as Shafak depicts him, is also human in his frailties and changeable nature: he marries a young woman, a foster daughter of Rumi, but finds he cannot commit to the marital bond. He traverses the world, but somehow does not belong to it. Shafak views her novel also as a “building with many doors, many rooms and halls, and floors. Every reader spends time in different rooms, enters through a different door and leaves through a different exit.” All readers can exit and enter on their own terms and leaving with questions that may have no clear answers.
Finally, the story of Rumi and Shams, as articulated by Shafak and elsewhere, ends as it begins: in Love and impending Loss, but always marked by the ephemeral presence of Shams — and a constant hope of his return. One of Shams’ precepts urges: be “sure to make every journey, a journey within. If you travel within, you will travel the whole wide world and beyond”(86).
It is such a journey that can perhaps beckon us in 2017.
It is the dance of the dervishes that must unmoor us from our set beliefs and biases, freeing us toward new horizons.