Britta Janssen: “The Lordly Wind:” Eco-Spirituality in the Poetry of Jalāl Al-Dīn Rūmī

“The Lordly Wind:” Eco-Spirituality in the Poetry of Jalāl Al-Dīn Rūmī

The role of nature in the religion of Islam can be observed in multiple ways. Those interested in the human nature relationship can look at the way governments and religious leaders talk about the environment, or alternatively, the opposing views of dissenting non-profits and activists. One could also peruse literature, film, and art of the Islamic world, or the thoughts and feelings of everyday people in their view and interactions with the environment. The Iranian academic and philosopher, and author of the book The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man, Hossein Nasr, has produced much work looking at this question exactly. He stated, in a 2014 lecture, that “Islam is not only for human beings. It is a cosmic reality; all creatures participate in Islam.” Nasr also has documented many moments of unique ecology in the Koran and in the Hadith, including specific instructions about treating animals well, not cutting trees or wasting water, and respecting the natural world as a divine creation. Barakah or grace, flows through all living things, binding the entire cosmos together in union as God’s creation, thus cementing the critical relationship between humans and nature[1].

Nasr interprets that the making of the Khalifa as the “vice-regent, representative, or role filler” on earth was based in the concept of humans as the guardians of god’s creation, the natural world that nourishes us and gives life to all. The unique Muslim role of humans as guardians, or protectors, differs greatly from western concepts of manifest destiny, or, humans divine right as ordained by God to expand across the United States and other continents to acquire land, wealth, and fortune[2]. Perhaps this is partly due to the fact that the environment and nature is mentioned much more frequently in the Koran than in any other monotheistic holy book. The role as a protector was combined with intense resource management in ancient Saudi Arabia[3]. Water was precious and scarce, and this made it necessary for expansive underground water systems, or qanat system. The scarcity and therefor preciousness of water was undoubtedly influential in the cultural significance of water as a holy and life-giving gift from God that must be cherished and respected. The importance and respect for the natural environment in the medieval period translated into and across the poetic prose of the time.

Though it would be possible and no doubt equally interesting to analyze the use of nature and the environment in any tradition of poetry from the Muslim world, I was drawn to Medieval Persian poetry, specifically that of Rumi, because of my love for his work. Rumi’s work is universally acknowledged as some of the finest philosophical and poetic work of all time, beloved in Islamic countries and beyond. Rumi was born in Afghanistan, part of the Persian Empire at the time, in 1207 AD. Among other medieval Persian poets and Sufi writers, Rumi is well known for his frequent use of nature imagery and symbolism in his poetry. He uses natural processes, landscapes, animals, and plants, as well as entire ecosystems, as symbols and allegories in many of his works[4]. However, gardens, and the creatures that live therein, are perhaps the most significant allegorical concept used by Rumi[5]. Gardens act as a reflection of paradise, both literally in the documented cultural history of Persia and in the works of its great poets[6]. As beautifully stated by A. Bartlett Giamatti, “the place of perfect repose and inner harmony is always remembered as a garden… an earthly paradise.” In fact, the world paradise comes from Persian roots[7]. Gardens are, and were, the physical and mental manifestation of the ideal state, as well as the human conceptualization of their relationship to nature. It is interesting, then, to think about the ways that other civilizations built and treated gardens. The gardens of England and France, for example, were extremely rigid and confined, with tight geometric patterns and neatly trimmed trees, perhaps mimicking a relationship to nature that did not give much respect or autonomy to the plant world.

Persian gardens, on the other hand, were traditionally walled-off and protected, with running water and reflection pools to show the beauty of the sky and garden twice[8]. Gardens were divided into four quarters with four waterways running through, representing the cosmos. Trees, either flowering or fruiting were common, with wild growing grass underneath and a plethora of pungent flowers and birds. Gardens could also have a raised center, to symbolize a mountain at the center of the universe.[9] Gardens were the physical manifestation of human’s attempt to materialize the divine paradise, full of sensual as well as spiritual elements. This Persian design was influenced by pre-Islamic and Zoroastrian beliefs about nature as well, no doubt influencing the works of poets who sought to utilize, as well as create, this symbolism. The sensuality of gardens promoted love, linking the natural world with the most sacred of human emotion[10]. While other poets have used nature and gardens, Rumi and his contemporaries were special in their allegorical depth and personification of the natural world, moving beyond mere descriptive styles of writing.

Rumi’s work shows the use of the garden as a symbol of learning, discovery, recreation, and delight. Use of the garden then, could set the mood for a poem about deep reflection and contemplation of all manner of things, but could also be used to turn reflection on one’s own conscious instead. Therefore, the garden could be said to represent the entire human existence, physical, mental, and emotional. The use of the garden allegory is clear in the following poem, “Spring”.

Again, the violet bows to the lily.

Again, the rose is tearing off her gown!

 

The green ones have come from the other world,

tipsy like the breeze up to some new foolishness.

 

Again, near the top of the mountain

The anemone’s sweet features appear.

 

The hyacinth speaks formally to the jasmine,

“Peace be with you.” “And peace to you, lad!

Come walk with me in this meadow.”

Again, there are Sufis everywhere!

 

The bud is shy, but the wind removes

her veil suddenly, “My friend!”

 

The Friend is here like water in the stream,

Like a lotus on the water.

 

The narcissus winks at the wisteria,

“Whenever you say.”

 

And the clove to the willow, “You are the one

I hope for.” The willow replies, “Consider

These chambers of mine yours. Welcome!”

 

The apple, “Orange, why the frown?”

“So that those who mean harm

Will not see my beauty.”

 

The ringdove comes asking, “Where,

Where is the Friend?”

 

With one note the nightingale

Indicates the rose.

 

Again, the season of Spring has come

And a spring-source rises under everything,

A moon sliding from the shadows.

 

Many things must be left unsaid, because it’s late,

But whatever conversation we haven’t had

Tonight, we’ll have tomorrow. (From The Essential Rumi translation by Coleman Barks)[11]

 

This poem is a significant representation of Rumi’s use of nature for multiple reasons. First, it shows the use of the garden as a place of contemplation as well as human activities. Second, it shows personification of plants. Third, it uses the allegory of Spring to show spiritual resurrection and awakening, a common metaphor throughout Rumi’s work. Let’s begin with the allegory of the garden as a place of contemplation and human activity. The actors in the poem enter with friendly interactions and greetings with to one another. The hyacinth and the jasmine flowers walk together in the meadow, the wind and bud rediscover one another, and the willow and the clove find love. The garden scene mimics human interaction, as well as contemplation, as shown in the last lines of the poem. “Many things must be left unsaid, because it’s late, but whatever conversation we haven’t had tonight, we’ll have tomorrow.” This shows the reflective and eternality of the garden, and its importance as a place of learning and contemplation.

The actors in this poem are all plants, trees, or natural beings like the wind and ringdove, but are given human qualities of speech and conversation. They converse, flirt, and share deep secrets, such as the insecure orange admitting to insecurity and harm from others. The garden is a place of love and friendship. We also see the symbolism of the Rose coming forth, as shown by the lines, “The ringdove comes asking, “Where, where is the Friend? With one note the nightingale indicates the rose.” The Rose, being called the Friend (capitalized for significance), is an inference to the frequent use of the Rose to symbolize Mohammed, a divine and perfect man. Certain plants, then, attain holy status as they remind us of the Prophet. The personification of the garden inhabitants suggests that all creatures, sentient or not, are equal worshippers of Allah, and all parts of his divine creation.[12]

The last allegory in this poem is the concept of Spring, which certainly is used to represent the spiritual resurrection and awakening. Through their friendship, love, and shared appreciation of beauty, the subjects of the garden are experiencing an emotional and mental revelation. Linking the literal season of Spring, in which plants awaken and grow, and life surfaces from the slumber of winter, to the metaphysical mental awakening not only links humans to natural cycles in a crucial way, but promotes the holiness of all living things and cycles. It is in spring then, that “the glory of God appears”[13] from the spiritual blindness, incapacity of reason, and obscuring veils of physical existence that is symbolized through Fall and Winter.[14]

In the poem, “The Grasses,” Rumi brings forth the loving tenderness with which God treats the natural world.

The same wind that uproots trees

Makes the grasses shine.

 

The lordly wind loves the weakness

And the lowness of grasses.

Never brag of being strong.

 

The axe doesn’t worry how thick the branches are.

It cuts them to pieces. But not the leaves.

It leaves the leaves alone.

 

A flame doesn’t consider the size of the woodpile.

A butcher doesn’t run from a flock of sheep.

 

What is form in the presence of reality?

Very feeble. Reality keeps the sky turned over

Like a cup above us, revolving. Who turns

The sky wheel? The universal intelligence.

 

And the motion of the body comes

From the spirit like a waterwheel

That’s held in a stream.

 

The inhaling-exhaling is from spirit.

Now angry, now peaceful.

Wind destroys, and wind protects.

 

There is no reality but God,

Says the completely surrendered sheikh,

Who is an ocean for all beings.

 

The levels of creation are straws in that ocean.

The movement of the straws comes from an agitation

In the water. When the ocean wants the straws calm,

It sends them close to shore. When it wants them

Back in the deep surge, it does with them

as the wind does with the grasses.

This never ends. (from The Essential Rumi)[15]

This piece also covers a great breadth of content. The entire poem is using nature as an analogy for God’s power and intent. God can “uproot trees” but also “caress grasses,” two very different acts; one of destruction, the other of love. Rumi also uses the analogy of water to symbolize life, stating that “the motion of the body comes from the spirit like a waterwheel that’s held in a stream.” But beyond the simple presence of nature analogies for God, there is clearly a deeper understanding of God and nature in this poem. I interpret it as Rumi suggesting that God in fact is nature, the wind, the ocean, and all things. Rumi states this pretty explicitly, stating, “The inhaling-exhaling is from the spirit. Now angry, now peaceful. Wind destroys, and wind protects.” Wind then, is a direct representation of God, perhaps more than just for the symbolism in the poem. I think this poem speaks to a closer religious ecology than before imagined. If nature is not just a creation of God’s, but God’s action and interaction in our lives, it would suggest a higher respect and reverence for nature. All weather, animals, and plants would have divine rights to exist and act as they would, as they are physical manifestations of God. This close reading of the poem suggests that Sufi Islam incorporates more nature worship than other forms of Islam.

Another wonderful example of Rumi’s reverence for the natural world and the Creator is shown in the following poem.

“Is the sweetness of the cane sweeter
Than the One who made the canefield?

Behind the beauty of the moon is the MoonMaker.
There is Intelligence inside the ocean’s intelligence
Feeding our love like an invisible waterwheel.

There is a skill to making cooking oil from animal fat.
Consider now the knack that makes eyesight
From the shining jelly of your eyes. . .” (From The Essential Rumi)[16]
This poem asks the reader to consider the mastery of the Creator in the most beautiful things in life. The “sweetness of the cane” is only possible because God created the canefield, and the “beauty of the moon” and “intelligence of the ocean” shows the greatness of the one who created them. God is then seen as a crafter, designing each object and system in life to be the most beautiful possible. Rumi’s lines show that these things are a direct descendent from God, shaped and guided by God’s hand, thus implying a great amount of reverence and holiness of the canefield, the moon, and the ocean.

A last, lovely example of Rumi’s complex and integrated environmental philosophy could not be shown better than in the following poem.

 

I died as a mineral and became a plant,

I died as a plant and rose to animal,

I died as animal and I was Man.

Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?

Yet once more I shall die as Man, to soar

With angels blest; but even from angelhood

I must pass on; all except God doth perish.

When I have sacrificed my angel-soul,

I shall become what no mind e’er conceived.

Oh, let me not exist! For Non-existence

Proclaims in organ tones, ‘To Him we shall return.”

 

This piece shows not only Rumi’s thoughts on death and the eternal, but also the significance of all lifeforms. Because he came from mineral through plant and animals to his current state as a human, Rumi is marking his connection to those beings, and their connection to God and other humans as links in the process of holy evolution. Minerals, plants, and animals are no less holy than man, just at different stages of the process to reach non-existence, or, final union with God.

Rumi’s poems show a special and significant ecology. He utilizes analogies of roses, birds, water, spring, trees, grass, wind, and stream to describe the beauty and bounty of the Creator. He suggests that God acts through the natural world, and natural cycles and gardens bring humans to the forefront of metaphysical and spiritual consciousness. All beings, whether mineral or living are connected through God’s grace, or barakah, and this encourages a deep, loving respect for all of nature and the natural world.

Sufism has long held onto Rumi’s legacy of “eco-spirituality” [17]. Sufis are active in the Muslim World’s environmental movements, following an approach to religion that emphasizes the ‘signs of the Signifier’. By studying and appreciation the beauty of creation, many Sufis believe they can truly understand God’s beauty and power.[18] According to Seyyed Hossein Nasr, much of the environmentalism being practiced today in the Muslim world is what one may call “surface environmentalism,” mostly focusing on littering and deforestation. But Muslim countries still profit greatly from industries and processes that contribute significantly to issues of climate change[19]. When considering the vast exploitation of the East by the West for hundreds of years, it is understandable that many Muslim countries are taking advantage of their vast resources of oil to increase wealth and industrialize following so many years of oppression and imperialism[20]. Surely though, the global, debilitation effects of climate change are not unknown by leaders and citizens of said countries. Environmental groups do exist, and in Saudi Arabia the movement is being led mostly by women[21]. It is clear though that with the vast significance and holiness of the natural world, as shown by the poetic legacy of Rumi and other Sufis, preserving and protecting the natural world will always be at the heart of many Muslims’ worldview, and, hopefully, this will someday translate into comprehensive energy reform and environmental protection.

 

Works Cited:

A religious nature: Philosopher seyyed hossein nasr on islam and the environment. 2015. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 71 (5).

Meisami, Julie Scott. “Allegorical Gardens in the Persian Poetic Tradition: Nezami, Rumi, Hafez.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 17, no. 2 (1985): 229-60. http://www.jstor.org/stable/163605.

Qudosi, Shireen. “Sufis Are Islam’s Eco Guardians.” Green Prophet. October 28, 2009. Accessed December 19, 2016. http://www.greenprophet.com/2009/10/sufis-are-islam%E2%80%99s-eco-guardians/.

Rūmī, Jalāl Al-Dīn, Coleman Barks, and John Moyne. The Essential Rumi. San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1995.

Smith, G. Gaddis, and Robert H. Ferrell. 1998. “Manifest Destiny”. In The New Encyclopedia of the American West, edited by Howard R. Lamar. null: Yale University Press. http://oberlin.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/americanwest/manifest_destiny/0

Endnotes:

[1] A religious nature: Philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr on Islam and the Environment. 2015. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 71 (5).

[2] Smith, G. Gaddis, and Robert H. Ferrell. 1998. “Manifest Destiny”. In The New Encyclopedia of the American West, edited by Howard R. Lamar. null: Yale University Press. http://oberlin.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/americanwest/manifest_destiny/0

[3] A religious nature: Philosopher seyyed hossein nasr on islam and the environment. 2015. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 71 (5).

[4] Meisami, Julie Scott. “Allegorical Gardens in the Persian Poetic Tradition: Nezami, Rumi, Hafez.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 17, no. 2 (1985): 230.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. 231

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Rūmī, Jalāl Al-Dīn, Coleman Barks, and John Moyne. The Essential Rumi. San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1995.

[12] Meisami 243.

[13] Ibid. 240

[14] Ibid. 243

[15]  Rūmī, Jalāl Al-Dīn, Coleman Barks, and John Moyne. The Essential Rumi. San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1995. 43-44.

[16] Rūmī, Jalāl Al-Dīn, Coleman Barks, and John Moyne. The Essential Rumi. San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1995.

[17] Qudosi, Shireen. “Sufis Are Islam’s Eco Guardians.” Green Prophet. October 28, 2009. Accessed December 19, 2016.

[18] Ibid.

[19] A religious nature: Philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr on Islam and the Environment. 2015. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 71 (5).

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.