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Newsletter for October 2011


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On the Identity of Shams-i Tabrizi

by Nasir Shamsi

Shamsi Tabriz was held in great esteem by Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi; he loved his teacher. Then why did the people around him not like him ? Rumi had discarded his role as cleric and teacher; he spent all his time almost exclusively with his new found friend and master, Shams-i Tabrizi. He had stopped going to madresa (school) which was deeply resented by his students. I think they also suspected the stranger as Shia. This is supported by a careful study of Maqalat, an authentic record of his conversations with Rumi and others present. in spite of his willful and conscious effort to keep his antecedents and beliefs to himself, he does betray his Shiite beliefs, perhaps in his unguarded moments. Shias had been oppressed for almost six hundred years. The thirteenth century was even a more difficult time for them. Shams-i Tabriz coming from the Syed family (descendants of the Prophet Muhammad) of Sabzwar had received most of his education in Tabriz, a center of learning at that time. He had learned to keep his beliefs from others. Over the years, Shias, particularly those hailing from the family of the Prophet had managed to survive through practicing what is called ‘ taqiya ‘, a shi'ite practice to conceal their faith and heritage, in the event of an imminent risk to life. Corban has defined taqiya as d'iscipline of the arcane', or dissimulation to escape persecution or threat to one’s life. Shams Tabriz’s taqiya, originating from instinct to survive is best expressed by the following lines from Rumi’s beautiful poem:


Derakht agar moteharek budi: be-pa- o- be-par
nah ranj-e areh keshidi nah zakhmha-ye tabar
(If a tree could run or fly, it would not suffer from the teeth of a saw or the blows of an axe).


I am reminded of the Prophet’s sudden departure for Madina to escape injury (ranje arah/zakhma-e tabar). Shams Tabriz escaped from Konya, “ without leaving a trace behind “, obviously to avoid “ ranj-e areh keshidi “ and “zakhmha-ye tabar". He was neither be-pa nor be-par. On the contrary, he was so mobile (moteharrek) that he was known as Shams parinda (flying Shams). So he flew to Tabriz. He then left for Baghdad, continuing his travel to India via the most difficult mountainous terraine of Skardu,Gilgit and Siachin, converting many people on the way to Islam, finally reaching Multan, where he spent the remaining few years of his life. (Kanzul Ansab page 179 and Tarikh Gulistan-i Shams pages 174-175). The second couplet of the Ode 1140 applies so precisely and succinctly to Shams Tabriz:

If the Sun ( Shams) did not run across the sky,world would not seethe colors of morning. Shams, true to his name, went across the horizon. No matter where he went, the east or the west, he brought with him the color of morning, the light of faith. Rumi is amazingly prophetic about his Murshed (spiritual master) and Mentor. Although he was devastated at the beginning on his sudden departure, yet finally he was able to understand and accept his teacher’s decision to leave Konya. This is best described by Rumi himself in the following poem in Divan-i Shams (Ode 1140), from which we also borrowed the lines quoted above:


If a tree could run or fly
it would not suffer from the teeth of a saw
or the blows of an axe.
If the Sun did not run across the sky
the world would not see
the colors of morning.

If water did not rise from the sea
plants would not be quickened
by rivers or rain.
It’s only when a drop leaves the ocean – and returns
that it can find an oyster
and become a pearl.

When Joseph left his father
both were weeping.
Didn’t he gain a kingdom and a fortune
in the end?
Didn’t the Prophet
gain the world and a hundred empires
by traveling to Medina?

But you have no need to go anywhere –
journey within yourself.
Enter a mine of rubies
and bathe in the splendor of your own light.
O great one,
Journey from self to self

and find the mine of gold.
Leave behind what is sour and bitter
move toward what is sweet.
Be like the thousand different fruits
that grow from briny soil.
This is the miracle
Every tree becomes beautiful
when touched by sunlight;
Every soul becomes God
when touched by the Sun of Tabriz.


Najmuddin Kobra, the great saint who had inspired Shams’s teacher, Baba Kamal uddin Jundi, puts it in this way;


“ Know that the lower soul, the Devil, and the Angel are realities that are
not external to you. You are they. So, too Heaven, Earth and the Divine
Throne are not located outside of you; nor are Paradise, Hell, Life or
Death. All of these exist within you, as you will realize once you have
accomplished the initiatic journey and become pure.”
(Fawa’ih, par 67:32, translation by Waley).


Thus the esoteric and limitless potential of human soul connects it directly with God, whatever you call Him- Haqq, Hu, Allah, Jehovah, the Ultimate, Total Soul, Khaliq (Creator), or Rabb (Provider). 







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