Weaver, Poet, Philosopher | spiritual instructor of Mewlānā Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhi,
Shams al-Din Tabrizi (1185 - 1245)
Shams al-Din Mohammad bin Ali bin Malik-e Dad or Shams al-Din Tabrizi (meaning “the Sun of Faith from Tabriz”) was a Persian Sufi saint who is best known for his intense spiritual relationship with Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi. He is credited for wholly transforming Mawlana Rumi’s life and thought after arriving in Konya in 642/1244.
Hazrat Shams left a single work in prose known as Maqalat (Discourses) which reveal him to be highly proficient in philosophy, theology and spirituality. He was an engaging speaker whose words were both simple and profoundly moving. Tradition holds that Shams taught Rumi in seclusion in Konya for a period of forty days, before fleeing for Damascus. The tomb of Shams-i Tabrīzī was recently nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
According to Sipah Salar, a devotee and intimate friend of Rumi who spent forty days with him, Shams was the son of the Imam Ala al-Din. In a work entitled Manāqib al-‘arifīn (Eulogies of the Gnostics), Aflaki names a certain ‘Ali as the father of Shams-i Tabrīzī and his grandfather as Malikdad. Apparently basing his calculations on Haji Bektash Veli’s Maqālāt (Conversations), Aflaki suggests that Shams arrived in Konya at the age of sixty years. However, various scholars have questioned Aflaki’s reliability.
Shams received his education in Tabriz and was a disciple of Baba Kamal al-Din Jumdi. Before meeting Rumi, he apparently traveled from place to place weaving baskets and selling girdles for a living. Despite his occupation as a weaver, Shams received the epithet of “the embroiderer” (zarduz) in various biographical accounts including that of the Persian historian Dawlatshah. This however, is not the occupation listed by Haji Bektash Veli in the Maqālat and was rather the epithet given to the Ismaili Imam Shams al-din Muhammad, who worked as an embroiderer while living in anonymity in Tabriz. The transference of the epithet to the biography of Rumi’s mentor suggests that this Imam’s biography must have been known to Shams-i Tabrīzī’s biographers. The specificities of how this transference occurred, however, are not yet known.
Hazrat Shams was a Shafi’i and he studied fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) extensively. One of the five major Shafi’i legal texts he specifically mentions he studied was al-Tanbih fil fiqh al-Shafi’i, written by Hazrat Abu Ishaq al-Shirazi (d. 1083), one of the leading Shafi’i jurisprudents of the eleventh century and one of the first teachers of the famous Baghdad Nizamiya College. He always supported the scholarly study of religion and he did not like the pretense of those who prided themselves solely on the spiritual path:
“ At first I wouldn’t mix with jurists, only with the dervishes. I’d say that the jurists are ignorant of dervish-hood. Now that I have realized what dervish-hood is and where they are, I find myself more eager for the company of jurists than dervishes, because the jurists have struggled to attain something. These others boast that we are dervishes. But where is the true dervish? (Maqalat 249) ”
He was thus very educated, although he hid this fact from religious scholars to an extent that his peers were confused about whether he considered himself to be a faqih (scholar of the law) or a faqir (Sufi ascetic). He says:
“ Someone asked my friend about me, “Is he a faqih or a faqir?”
“Both faqih and faqir,” he replied.
He asked, “Then why do all speak of his fiqh?”
He answered, “For his poverty is of such a nature that it cannot be spoken about with that group… he speaks beyond the boundaries of knowledge and speaks of mysteries in a knowledgeable way in the cloak of knowledge.” (Maqalat 326)”
Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi described Hazrat Shams as being unrivaled in his knowledge of alchemy, astronomy, astrology, logic, theology and philosophy, although he kept this fact hidden in the company of religious people. Hazrat Sultan Walad, Mawlana Jalauddin Rumi’s son, describes him as “a man of learning and wisdom and eloquence and composition
Spiritual Teacher and Order
During his childhood, Hazrat Shams had a passionate spiritual master, Hazrat Sheikh Abu Bakr Sallebaf (Sallebaf lterally means “Wicker-Worker”) of Tabriz also known as Pir-e Sallebaf, who would often twirl him around in meditative dance (sama). Hazrat Sheikh Sallebaf had his own Sufi lodge in the Charandab district of Tabriz, to the west of the shrine of Imam Hafade (d. 1175). Unlike the customs of most Sufi Tariqas, Hazrat Sallebaf did not bestow the honorary cloak (khirqa) on his disciples to symbolise initiation into a Sufi order. Instead, Hazrat Shams was bestowed the cloak not through a teacher but by the Holy Prophet ﷺ himself:
“ Everyone talks of his own sheikh. In a dream the Prophet, peace upon him, gave me a ceremonial cloak (khirqa), not the kind that will wear out and rip after a few days and fall in the bath house and be washed of dirt, but a cloak of converse (sohbat), not a converse that can be comprehended, but a converse that is not of yesterday, today or tomorrow. (Maqalat 326) ”
He could therefore be described as an Uwaisi Sufi, named after the great saint Hazrat Uwais al-Qarni, who despite never meeting the Holy Prophet Muhammad ﷺ physically was fully aware of his spiritual presence at all times during his life. After training with Hazrat Sallebaf for some time, he quickly excelled and wanted to gain greater perfection and so went on a journey to seek out saints and holy men (abdal wa aqtab).
After leaving Tabriz, Hazrat Shams traveled through various places including Baghdad, Damascus, Aleppo, Kayseri, Aksaray, Sivas, Erzurum and Erzincan.
He travelled hidden from the people, constantly striving to guard his miracles and mysteries. Rather than boarding in Sufi lodges, which would provide free hospitality, Hazrat Shams acted and dressed like merchants and would thus stay in inns, which he would have to pay for. In every inn that he stayed, he would put a huge lock on his door, although within the room itself there was nothing but a straw mat.
Even though he ate very little and often went without food for several days, he still needed a source of income to cover his expenses during his travels. Therefore, he would teach children how to read the Quran and even developed a method for teaching the whole Quran in a mere three months.
When he did not stay very long in one place, he would earn money by weaving trouser ties. Whilst in Erzincan, he tried to construction work, like he had done in his youth, but due to his simple eating habits and perceived frailty, nobody would hire him. Hazrat Shams, like many Sufis, thus seemed very opposed to the practice of begging.
Quest, Thirst, Hunger, Yearning, Longing
Hazrat Shams spent much of his life traveling from place to place and listening to lectures of famous teachers, most of whom he found disappointing in one respect or another. Regarding the Sufis he had met during his journey, he says:
“ I’ve seen many special dervishes and spent time in their company; through what they say and through their behavior, the true ones are distinguishable from the impostors. My meek heart will not incline to them unless they are extremely praiseworthy and special, nor will this bird peck at every seed. ”
He longed to find that saintly and spiritual companion that he was looking for during his journey. He writes:
“ I implored God to allow me to mix with and be a companion of His friends (awliya-ye khwod). I had a dream and was told, “We will make you a companion of a saint.” I asked, “Where is this saint?” The next night I was told in a dream, “He is in Anatolia (Rum).” After a while, I had another dream and was told, “It’s not yet time. All things come in the fullness of time. (Maqalat 759-60) ”
Elsewhere, he states:
“ I can talk to myself. I can talk with anyone in whom I see myself… (Maqalat 99)
I wanted someone of my own type to make into my qibla [the direction one faces in prayer] and turn to, for I had grown tired of myself. Do you understand what I mean by having grown tired of myself? Then, having turned into a qeble, he would understand and comprehend what I am saying. (Maqalat 219-20)
On November 29 1244, Hazrat Shams arrived in Konya. According to Mevlevi tradition, he was over sixty years old when he arrived in the town. Upon arriving, he stayed at an inn and it was outside the inn, at a little shop or pavilion, where he met Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi. This area was often a meeting point for the notables of the city at the time.
Accounts differ as to exactly what happened at this first meeting between the two, but it was a life-changing experience for Mawlana Rumi. The most frequently repeated account of what happened is related by Ahmed Aflaki in Manaqib al-‘Arifin:
“ One day, as he [Shams] was seated at the gate of an inn, Rumi came by, riding on a mule, in the midst of a crowd of students and disciples on foot. Shams arose, advanced and took hold of the mule’s bridle, addressing Rumi in these words, ‘Exchanger of the current coins of deep meaning, who knows the Names of God! Tell me, was Muhammad ﷺ the greater servant of God, or Bayazid Bistami?’
Rumi answered him, ‘Muhammad ﷺ was incomparably the greater – the greatest of all prophets and saints.’
‘Then,’ rejoined Shams, ‘how is it that Muhammad ﷺ said, “We have not known Thee, O God, as Thou ought to be
known,” whereas Bayazid said, “Glory unto me! How great is my glory.”?’
On hearing this question, Rumi fainted. On regaining his senses, he took the questioner to his home.
An exchange ensued between the two men, with Mawlana Rumi finally saying that Hazrat Bayazid’s spiritual thirst was quenched after one drink, he spoke of being full and so he stopped seeking. However, the Prophet’s ﷺ thirst was never quenched and he went on seeking, aspiring to be drawn closer to the Divine. It was for this reason that he said, ‘We have not known Thee as Thou ought to be known.’ Hearing this, it was Hazrat Shams that fainted.
This account is supported by Hazrat Shams in his own writings who says:
“ The first thing I spoke about with him was this: How is it that Abayazid did not need to follow [the example of the Prophet], and did not say “Glory be to Thee” or “We worship Thee?”
And Rumi completely understood the full implications of the problem and where it came from and where it was leading to. It made him ecstatic on account of his purity of spirit, for his spirit was pure and cleansed and it shone within him. I realised the sweetness of this question from his ecstasy, though I had been previously unaware of its sweetness. (Maqalat 685)
This account is the most reliable of the meeting between the two although other perhaps less accurate accounts are given.
Hazrat Muhiyuddin Abdul Qadir Ibn Abi al-Wafa al-Qurayshi (d.1373) gives one account of the meeting:
“ Rumi was sitting in his library with some books and his pupils gathered around him. Shams came along, greeted them, sat down and gesturing toward the books, asked: “What are these?”
Rumi replied, “You wouldn’t know.” Before Rumi finished speaking, the books and the library caught on fire.
“What’s this?” cried Rumi. Shams retorted, “You wouldn’t know either,” and got up and left.
Rumi got up, leaving his position and family behind, and followed after him, captivated and extemporizing poems, from city to city, but never caught up with him again.
Others such as the great Sufi Hazrat Abdur Rehman Jami tell a slightly different version of this encounter, where water is substituted for fire:
Rumi was sitting near a garden pool with a few books when Shams arrived and asked, “What’s this?”
Rumi replied, “These are called debates, but you needn’t bother with them.”
Shams touched them and threw them in the water. Rumi got upset at the ruin of these rare and precious books. Shams reached in the water and retrieved them one by one. Rumi saw that there was no trace of water damage on them.
“What secret is this?” he asked. Shams replied, “This is spiritual inclination and entrancement, what would you know of it?”
In his discourses, Hazrat Shams alludes to the fact that he had briefly encountered Mawlana Rumi 16 years prior to their meeting in Konya, perhaps during a lecture or debate:
“ I don’t mix much with anyone. Even with one so great (sadr) that though you sift the whole world you won’t find another like him, sixteen years passed during which I said only “hello” and he left. (Maqalat 290)
The outward aspects vary, but the reality is one. I remember about Mawlana from sixteen years ago – he would say that creatures are just like clusters of grapes. The individual numbers are the outward aspect. When you squeeze them in a bowl, are there individual grapes? (Maqalat 690)”
He indicates that although he perceived a special quality in Mawlana Rumi at their first encounter, he felt he had not yet reached a level of spiritual maturity which would allow him to receive Hazrat Shams favourably. After waiting for 16 years, he felt it was his mission to release Mawlana Rumi in order to unlock his spiritual greatness. He tells Mawlana:
“ I was strongly inclined to you from the beginning, but I saw in the opening of your speech that at that time you were not ready for this secret. Even if I had told you, it would not have been destined at that time, and we would never have attained this present moment together, for at that time you didn’t have this spiritual state. (Maqalat 618-619)
They have sent me because that precious servant is caught in the company of crude people; it’s a pity that they should squander him. (Maqalat 622)”
Ahmed Aflaki in Manaqib al-‘Arifin mentions that the brief encounter between the two took place in the square of Damascus, whilst Mawlana Rumi was a student there.
Relationship with Mawlana
Hazrat Shams’ relationship with Mawlana was unique in a sense it wasn’t the traditional master-disciple kind of relationship. Mawlana was already an accomplished scholar and teacher in his own right, with a following of his own. Hazrat Shams talks about his apparent unwillingness or dilemma to behave in the manner of a shaykh in his writings:
You know I have never acted shaykh-like, unmindful of your station, and said “I’m going here whether you like it or not and if you are mine, you’ll come with me.” No, I do not demand whatever is difficult for you. (Maqalat 761)
I need it to be apparent how our life together is going to be. Is it brotherhood and friendship or shaykh-hood and discipleship? I don’t like this. Teacher to pupil? (Maqalat 686)
I first came to Mawlana with the understanding that I would not be his shaykh. God has not yet brought into being on this earth one who could be Mawlana’s shaykh; he would not be a mortal. But nor am I one to be a disciple. It’s no longer in me. Now I come for friendship, relief. It must be such that I do not need to dissimulate (nefaq). Most of the prophets have dissimulated. Dissimulation is expressing something contrary to what is in your heart. (Maqalat 777)”
Despite his reluctance to act in the manner of shaykh, Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi reserved great respect for him, as a student would show a teacher:
“In my presence, as he listens to me, he considers himself – I am ashamed to even say it – like a two-year-old child or like a new convert to Islam who knows nothing about it. Amazing submissiveness! (Maqalat 730)”
At times Mawlana would read the works of others for guidance and inspiration. However, Hazrat Shams told Mawlana that tasawwuf (Sufism) must be practised rather than merely being studied – “You want to discover through learning; but it requires going and doing” (Maqalat 128).
Therefore, he saw extensive knowledge as perhaps an impediment on the spiritual path:
“ This multi-talented scholar, well-versed in fiqh and the principles and details of the law! These have no relationship to the path of God and the path of the Prophets. Rather, they cloak him from it. (Maqalat 361) ”
He thus initiated a spiritual transformation in Mawlana Rumi. He reports Mawlana as saying: “Since I have become acquainted with you these books have become lifeless in my eyes.” (Maqalat 186)
Hazrat Shams was himself overwhelmed in the presence of Mawlana:
Seeing your face, by God, is a blessing!…Happy the one who finds Mawlana! Who am I? One who found him. Happy am I! (Maqalat 749)
By God, I am deficient in knowing Mawlana. There is no hypocrisy or politesse or interpretation in these words; I am deficient in knowing him! Every day I realize something about his state and his deeds which I didn’t know yesterday. Discover Mawlana better, so you do not later grow confused…(Maqalat 104)
Maulana Rumi is the envy of the saints and prophets, according to Hazrat Shams:
He has two ways of talking (sokhan): one public [nafaq: cautious, dissimulation] and one heartfelt (rasti). As for the public one, the souls of all the saints and their collective spirit long to have found Mowlana and sat with him. And as for the heartfelt one, devoid of hypocrisy (nefaq), the spirit of the prophets long for it: “If only we had been in his time and been his companions and heard his words!” So don’t you miss out now. Don’t look to the first, but to this other thing, to which the spirit of the prophets looks with longing and regret. (Maqalat 104-5)
The prophets rue not attaining his presence. (Maqalat 749)
Influences on Mawlana
Hazrat Shams and Maulana Rumi were inseparable and it is said that the two spent days, even months, together in a state of mystical communion. One biographer describes Mawlana’s spiritual transformation at the hands of Hazrat Shams:
“ The encounter with Shams triggered the completion of a paradigm shift in Rumi’s approach to piety and spirituality; he discovered that beyond the safe, dry and socially approved forms of obedience (prayer, sermonizing, discovering and applying the principles of law) and renunciation (fasting, controlling the passions and the ego), there is a meta-spirituality of love, which consists in joyously and creatively celebrating our relationship with God. ”
It was under the direction of Hazrat Shams that Mawlana Rumi participated in sama, the whirling meditation, for the first time. Hazrat Shams explains that for most people, according to Shariah, sama is forbidden as it serves to increase the passion and lust for those individuals. However, for those seeking Divine Love, it is permissible since it increases their focus on God.
By following his example, Mawlana thus made sama his own custom and practice. Hazrat Sultan Walad, Mawlana’s son, describes this in his writings (in his Intiha-Nama):
Sama became his creed both true and straight
from sama a hundred flowers filled his heart
Hazrat Sultan Walad looked back on his father’s transformation through this poem:
Through love, a fatwa-writing Shaykh turned poet
though ascetic, he grew intoxicate
but not from a wine which is made of grapes –
a spirit of light drinks only wine of light. (Ebteda-Nama 53)
Hazrat Shams therefore freed Mawlana from conforming to a traditional role as an Islamic scholar.
Hazrat Shams Leaves for Syria
The sudden and total disappearance of Mawlana aroused resentment among his disciples and students, some of them becoming highly critical of Hazrat Shams, even threatening him. They believed Hazrat Shams had ruined their spiritual circle and prevented them from listening to Mawlana’s sermons.
In March of 1246 he left Konya and went to Syria without warning. After he left, Mawlana was grief stricken, secluding himself even more rather than engaging with his disciples and students. He was without a doubt furious with them. Realising the error of their ways, they repeatedly repented before Mawlana.
Some months later, news arrived that Hazrat Shams had been seen in Damascus and a letter was sent to him with apologising for the behaviour of these disciples. Hazrat Sultan Walad and a search party were sent to Damascus to invite him back and in April 1247, he made his return. During the return journey, he invited Hazrat Sultan Walad to ride on horseback although he declined, choosing instead to walk alongside him, explaining that as a servant, he could not ride in the presence of such a king.
Hazrat Shams was received back with joyous celebration with sama ceremonies being held for several days, and all those that had shown him resentment tearfully asked for his forgiveness. He reserved special praise for Hazrat Sultan Walad for his selflessness, which greatly pleased Mawlana. As he originally had no intention to return to Konya, he most likely would not have returned if Hazrat Sultan Walad had not himself gone to Damascus in search of him. After his return, he and Mawlana Rumi returned to their intense discussions.
Referring to the disciples, Hazrat Shams narrates that their new found love for him was motivated only by desperation:
“ They felt jealous because they supposed, “If he were not here, Mowlana would be happy with us.” Now [that I am back] he belongs to all. They gave it a try and things got worse, and they got no consolation from Mowlana. They lost even what they had, so that even the enmity (hava, against Shams) that had swirled in their heads disappeared. And now they are happy and they show me honor and pray for me. (Maqalat 72) ”
Referring to his absence, he explains that he left for the sake of Mawlana Rumi’s development:
“ I’d go away fifty times for your betterment. My going away is all for the sake of your development. Otherwise it makes no difference to me whether I’m in Anatolia or Syria, at the Kaaba or in Istanbul, except, of course, that separation matures and refines you. (Maqalat 164) ”
After a while, by the end of 1247, he was married to Kimia, a young woman who’d grown up in Mawlana Rumi’s household. Sadly, Kimia did not live long after the marriage and passed away upon falling ill after a stroll in the garden.
Hazrat Shams Mysteriously Disappears
In late 1247 or early 1248, returning to their jealous ways, enmity from some disciples compelled him to depart again. In a conversation with Hazrat Sultan Walad, Hazrat Shams warned him that this time he would disappear into thin air:
“This time I’ll disappear in such a way
that none will know to where I’ve gone or am
all will fail in their efforts to find me
never will they detect the slightest clue
many years will pass, me vanished in thin air
as I draw out the time, someone will claim
“Surely he was slain at some foe’s hand.”
This he repeated several times for emphasis (Ebteda-Nama 52)
Soon after, he disappeared permanently. Mawlana Rumi was for a period of time deeply saddened and he cut off his association with all those disciples that had showed hostility towards Hazrat Shams. Later, he took a group of his closest disciples to Damascus in search of Hazrat Shams but unsuccessful in their quest, they eventually returned. A few years later, he undertook a second journey which again proved unfruitful.
Although nobody knows for certain what came of Hazrat Shams, Ahmed Aflaki in Manaqib al-‘Arifin relates that he was murdered by disciples of Mawlana Rumi. However, even according to this account, there were no witnesses to his apparent death. Furthermore, neither his son Hazrat Sultan Walad, nor his disciple Hazrat Sepahsalar mentioned a murder in their works that are earlier than Aflaki’s work. In addition, Mawlana Rumi traveled to Syria twice to look for him, so he certainly could not have believed he was murdered.
Due to the fact he disappeared in mysterious circumstances, it is not known for certain where his resting place lies. According to Iranian scholar Mohammad-Ali Movahhed, he probably died in the city of Khoy (modern-day Iran) on his way to Tabriz shortly after leaving Konya. There is indeed a site in Khoy on the road from Konya to Tabriz, associated with the name of Shams-e Tabrizi that dates back to at least 1400.