Aug 22 2014

Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi – Secret Language

Published by at 11:04 am under Poetry

Secret Language
by Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi

English version by Coleman Barks

Every part of you has a secret language
your hands and your feet
say what you’ve done
and every need brings in what’s needed
pain bears its cure like a child

— from Secret Language: Rumi A Celebration in Song (Music CD), by Ramananda


/ Photo by woodleywonderworks /

The continuing crackdown by police against protesters in Ferguson, Missouri has inspired me to mediate on our ideas of race…

Looking at me, most Americans would call me white, but less and less does that mean something to me. Ethnically, I’m a typical American mutt, with ancestry from numerous countries, not all of them European. I have always had a diverse group of friends, from different ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds.

My closest friend in early childhood was a Nigerian boy, the son of students who had moved to the United States to attend the local university. Though I certainly don’t claim to understand race from his perspective, our friendship alerted me to questions of race and racism early on.

More recently, my friendship with a Pawnee man has led to several fascinating conversations on race and identity. He said something that startled me: There is no such thing as race. There is culture, there is appearance, but there is no race. My initial reaction was that it’s a nice idea to espouse as a countermeasure to the ongoing problems of racism, but race itself is a simple fact, isn’t it? It took a bit of deeper thought on my part before the truth of what he was saying struck me — the actual, biological truth of the statement, not simply the ethical rightness behind it.

Let’s take a few minutes together to go beyond the question of racism and see if we can dismantle the underlying presumption of race itself…

There is no such thing as race. Yes, there are noticeable physical characteristics, and we can loosely identify some characteristics with populations from specific geographical areas, but there is no such thing as a white race, a black race, or any other race we want to name.

A white person may be someone with fair skin and blue eyes and we may be accurate in saying that he has some ancestry that goes back to northern Europe, but it is false to say he is a member of the white race, as distinct from other races.

The fact is that there is no central characteristic of a white race or black race or any race. How can that be, you ask? We could mention several details like hair or eyes, but the most obvious distinction is skin color.

But think about skin color for a moment. That northern European may have very pale skin, but if we travel south through Europe to the Mediterranean, the common skin tone is much darker. Are they still “white”? Are we still talking about the same “race”? (The 19th century was uncertain on this point, by the way.)

Let’s go further south, down the boot of Italy, through Sicily, and hop the Mediterranean to northern Africa. The average skin tone has gotten darker still, but it hasn’t changed as much as some might imagine. In many ways Mediterranean Europeans have more in common with their Mediterranean African neighbors than with their fellow Europeans further north. By crossing the Mediterranean, have we switched races yet? How much change in skin tone constitutes a change in race? What is the definitive border? Can we mark it on the color wheel?

We can keep going south, across the Sahara into central Africa. And though we keep asking the same questions, the answer keeps eluding us. Where is the clear dividing point between the races?

There is no such racial borderline. The only time that border exists is when we don’t look for it. In truth, there is no race, only a spectrum of human appearance. The idea of distinct groups of people that we divide into races is an artificial cultural notion built on assumption and sloppy observation.

A question to take with you into the day: If we are not a world of black people and white people and every other race, but simply people of varied appearance, what does that mean in our day-to-day lives? What does that mean to the tensions in Ferguson?

Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi, Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi poetry, Muslim / Sufi poetry Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi

Afghanistan & Turkey (Persia) (1207 – 1273) Timeline
Muslim / Sufi

I haven’t yet sketched out a short biography about Rumi. It always feels a bit foolish to try to distill a rich, full life into just a few paragraphs, but it’s especially difficult with Rumi since so much has been written about him and his life.

How about just a few interesting details about Rumi:

Rumi was born in Balkh, in what is today Afghanistan. While he was still a child his family moved all the way to Konya in Asia Minor (Turkey). They moved to flee from Mongol invaders who were beginning to sweep into Central Asia. Konya, far to the west of the invaded territories, became one of the major destinations for expatriates to settle, turning the city into a cosmopolitan center of culture, education, and spirituality. (These lands were part of the Persian Empire, so, while he lived most of his life in what is today called Turkey, culturally he was Persian.)

In fact, Rumi wasn’t the only famous Sufi teacher living in Konya at the time. The best known spiritual figure in Konya at the time was not Rumi, but the son-in-law of the greatly respected Sufi philosopher ibn ‘Arabi. The wonderful Sufi poet Fakhruddin Iraqi also lived in Konya at the same time as Rumi.

“Rumi” was not his proper name; it was more of a nickname. Rumi means literally “The Roman.” Why the Roman? Asia Minor (Turkey) was referred to as the land of the Rum, the Romans. The Byzantine Empire, which had only recently fallen, was still thought of as the old Eastern Roman Empire. Rumi was nicknamed the Roman because he lived in what was once the Eastern Roman Empire. …But not everyone calls him Rumi. In Afghanistan, where he was born, they call him Balkhi, “the man from Balkh,” to emphasize his birth in Afghanistan.

Rumi’s father was himself a respected religious authority and spiritual teacher. Rumi was raised and educated to follow in his father’s footsteps. And, in fact, Rumi inherited his father’s religious school. But this was all along very traditional lines. Rumi was already a man with religious position when he first started to experience transcendent states of spiritual ecstasy. This created a radical upheaval, not only in himself, but also within his rather formal spiritual community as everyone tried to adjust to their leader’s transformation.

One more note about Rumi’s father: It was only after his death that some of the father’s private writings were discovered, revealing that he himself was also a profound mystic, though he had kept this part of himself private, apparently even from his son Rumi.

Many of Rumi’s poems make reference to the sun. This always has layered meaning for Rumi since he was deeply devoted to his spiritual teacher Shams of Tabriz… as the name Shams means “the sun.” The sun for Rumi becomes the radiance of God shining through his beloved teacher.

The spiritual bond between Rumi and Shams was profound, but the two individuals were very different. Rumi was a member of the educated elite within the urban expatriate community, while Shams was a poor wandering mystic who rarely stayed in one place long. Shams would often disappear unexpectedly, then return months later. Many of Rumi’s family and students were jealous of Shams, resenting the closeness he shared with their master. Finally, Shams disappeared, never to return. Some believe that he was actually kidnapped and murdered, possibly by Rumi’s own sons! Or he may have simply followed his dervish nature and journeyed on, never to return to Konya.

You’ve heard of “whirling dervishes,” right? Not all Sufis practice that spinning meditative dance. That is specific to the Mevlana Sufis, founded by — yes, Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi. The story is told that Rumi would circle around a column, while ecstatically reciting his poetry. The spinning is a meditation on many levels. It teaches stillness and centeredness in the midst of movement. One hand is kept raised to receive from heaven, the other hand is kept lowered to the earth, thus the individual becomes a bridge joining heaven and earth.

More poetry by Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi

4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi – Secret Language”

  1. Gemma Wilsonon 22 Aug 2014 at 1:58 pm

    Dear Ivan
    How true are your words about race! your philosophy about this and so many other truths could change our world if more people lived and believed as you do… Bless you and your sharing, your health and your loved ones.
    Gemma ( the nun!)

  2. jim carlin m d radiologiston 22 Aug 2014 at 4:02 pm

    one thing I learned in viet nam with the navy, and marines and the civilians
    was that -everyone bleeds the same-
    we are all the same

  3. EBRAHIMon 23 Aug 2014 at 2:32 am

    ‘THE WOUND IS WHERE THE LIGHT ENTERS’ …RUMI

  4. Andrew Colliveron 24 Aug 2014 at 1:46 am

    Race is certainly not what we commonly and simplistically believe it to be. This is a good – and brief – article if you want some basic information on where the notion came from and what genetic evidence there may or may not be for it:

    http://theconversation.com/human-races-biological-reality-or-cultural-delusion-30419

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