Celaleddin Rumi, later known as the Mevlâna, was born in the central Asian city of Balkh, in 1207. At the age of twenty, having received a warning vision, the young man convinced his father to flee with him for western Asia, which they did just in time to avoid being massacred with the rest of Balkh by marauding Mongols. They settled in Konya, where the reigning sultan Alâeddin Keykubad received them cordially. The city had a cosmopolitan population, whose beliefs were not lost on the young man, and it was here that he emerged as a leading heterodox mystic or Sufi.

During the 1250s, Rumi completed a masterpiece of Persian devotional poetry, the Mathnawi. A massive work covering several volumes, it concerns the soul’s separation from God – characterized as the Friend – as a consequence of earthly existence, and the power of a mutual yearning to bring about a reunion, either before or after bodily death. The Mevlâna – as Rumi was by now widely known – himself died on December 17, 1273.

On a practical level, the Mevlâna instructed his disciples to pursue all manifestations of truth and beauty, while avoiding ostentation, and to practise infinite tolerance, love and charity. He condemned slavery, and advocated monogamy and a greater prominence for women in religious and public life. The Mevlâna did not advocate complete monastic seclusion – the Mevlevîs held jobs in normal society and could marry – but believed that the contemplative and mystical practices of the dervish would free them from worldly anxieties. Although his ideas have never been fully accepted as Islamic orthodoxy, they still attract Westerners and liberal Muslims alike.

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