Rumi and the Five Philosophers

by Farah Abel for Professor Vail's Humanities course

Abduljalal al-Din Rumi, a thirteenth century mystic poet, whirled like a Sufi dervish on the sandy beach of a foreign land. As he whirled, he softly sung the lyrics to his poem titled Only Breath.

“Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu
Buddhist, sufi, or zen. Not any religion

or cultural system. I am not from the East
or the West, not out of the ocean or up

from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not
composed of elements at all. I do not exist,

am not an entity in this world or in the next,
did not descend from Adam and Eve or any

origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless. Neither body or soul.

I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one and that one call to and know,

first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human being.”

Five outsiders observed, but dared not to impede on his spiritual practice. To them, it was clear that he was mentally disconnected from the physical world. So they patiently waited as he continued to dance and hum for hours. Finally, he stopped only to lean down and take a sip from an urn of wine. As he licked the drop of wine from his lips, he looked directly into the faces of five western men.

Rumi. What is the occasion that brings such great minds of the West to meet a humble soul of the East? Have you, like I, come to lose yourselves in the comfort of this exotic land? This land of foreign tongues that speak in a language we cannot fathom—are you here like me, to escape the burdens of words and their demands? Here, to redirect yourself inward? What is the occasion that brings our two worlds together in this paradise, dear friends?

Lord Henry Wotton. I apologize if we have startled you, Rumi. Truly, it is I who is startled. I was transfixed on your artistic movements, which seemed even lovelier in the setting of this beautiful land. The waves gently unfolding on the shore, the fragrant flowers covering the trees, and your soothing voice humming such a beautiful tune! Oh, nothing can cure the soul but the senses! I had lost my self in the aesthetics of my surroundings, but when you looked directly into my eyes, you reminded me of the reason of us being here.

Rumi. A reason, you say. So you are not here, as I am, to simply free your souls in this paradise! How can I be of assistance in your mission?

John Stuart Mills. We are not on a mission, Rumi. We are merely fulfilling the role of the messenger. We are delivering a message to you on behalf of the Sultan of the East, who has frantically called us in for a meeting, countless days ago. He begged us to embark on a journey to find you and persuade you to return to your motherland. He is an honorable man and progressive leader. In fact, he spent a good portion of our time together informing me about his reforms that seek to maximize individual freedom from control of the state. Although we disagreed on some points, particularly the current social conditions of women, I could not help but admire his enthusiasm of amplifying individual sovereignty and his openness to utilitarian ideas. Frankly, his enlightened political philosophies put my country’s governing system to shame, with all its insincere preaching of democracy, equality and freedom!

Rumi. Indeed, the Sultan is an honorable man. But I am afraid that I do not understand as to why he is so desperate to bring me back? My soul is blissful in the comfort of this paradise, why would I burden myself with the noise and hustle of the busy town. Here I can achieve my goal of finding the undivided union between myself and the Beloved, Allah. In this natural landscape, free of familiar faces and distractions, I can practice my faith and explore divine love in ways I cannot in the crowded streets of the villages.

Lord Henry Wotton. The Sultan has informed us that you have abandoned your moral obligation to the youth. You have abandoned your profession, as a teacher and socio-political advisor. He wants you to return. Time and time again, he repeated the twin words: moral obligation.

Rumi. The only moral obligation I have, is the one to myself and my Beloved.

Nietzsche. Allow me to ask you Rumi, does morality exist in refuge? It seems to me that you are seeking refugee in a perfect world of ideas, a world that we do not physically experience. You are a religious mystic. Because of this, you are damned with an unhealthy mentality. This philosophy you live by, is engulfed by disease. You cannot embrace the imperfections of this life and thus console yourself by creating an imaginary world. Although this is our first meeting, your name is not unfamiliar to me. In fact, I have always been curious to meet you, Rumi, as you are a symbol of Sufism and Sufism is considered to be Islam’s spiritual muse. The disease you carry is not exclusive to your religion. Especially, since Islam could be considered a relatively new religion in comparison to other monotheistic faiths such as Christianity and Judaisim, which existed years before it. But the disease’s origin dates even farther back than organized religion. The roots of the illness reside in the philosophies by the Ancient Greeks, specifically Socrates. In the West we worship the corrupt teachings of the Ancients, canonize it and cement it in our children’s minds through education. When our children reproduce, their children will inherit the disease as well. Socrates, not so un-similar to you Rumi, lived a life for life after death; he lived for the world of ideas. He fled the realities of the world he inhabited. Christianity then, repeated Socrates’s error, and now you are energizing the disease too. Rumi, you have the potential of a man of excellence. To become a man of excellence you must adapt yourself to the real world. Boldly confront yourself with the facts of life, even if you interacted with the ugliest forms of truth. This will shape you to become a healthy individual. A healthy culture is a culture that trains itself to unconditionally love life, despite its imperfections. Why would anyone commit themselves to an ideology that is based off of slave morality – how disgraceful for humans to undermine themselves by accepting such inferior values as salvation!

Rumi. Poor Nietzsche! You unfortunate soul! What cruel injustices have you endured that have resulted in your bitter attitude towards faith? From what I understand, it seems that your critique of religion (whatever religion it may be), is beyond the ideas the religion preaches. I cannot help but acknowledge that you are hinting at an association between religion and institutionalized thinking and order. This demonstrates to me your lack of understanding of Sufism. You see, Sufism is not a conventional way of practicing traditional Islam. We practitioners believe that an undivided union between God and Humanity exists, where God is an objective of collective human love. Essentially, the practice of Sufism is very personal and thus individuals have their own unique way of seeking his or her own God. The flaw in your argument is that you are painting all religions with a stroke of the same brush. Such spineless generalizations! Sufism completely diverges from conventional sects of Islam like Sunni and Shi’ai in various ways. For instance, my fellow Muslim brothers and sisters, who do not practice Sufism, may consider that me drinking wine is blasphemous! Consuming substances that intoxicate your consciousness is perceived as beyond dangerous; it is perceived as a sin to many! If any of you are acquainted with my poetic works, it would not surprise you that Sufis consider the consumption of wine to be spiritual practice. The wine, in my eyes, is a symbol of divine love. The more one drinks the more they submit to divine love that allows their souls to soar beyond worldly limitations. The drunkenness, opens our eyes to a new breezy consciousness. Essentially, what wine symbolizes is the ability for man to not put restraint on thoughts and thus is not is not bound by any obstructing rationalities. I warn against the dangers of being too rational. Any person who is too dependent on the use of the mind permits rationality and soberness to impede on their purification of love. It may seem ironic for a poet to speak the words I am about to speak, but words are restricted by rationality. Emotions are too potent to be confined to the limitations of language, words, and perfect sentences. Sometimes emotions are unexplainable. Emotions are just experienced and this is what bridges all humans together, no matter what lives they lead! Communication is based on shared feeling and not language. So enlighten me, Nietzsche, how is this the morality of un-rationalized love a morality of the slaves?

John Stuart Mills. I cannot agree with you more Rumi. Often philosophers, particularly believers of my own utilitarian philosophy, are quick to cast aside their emotional lives. In fact, from the day that I had turned to three years of age I had been forced to become a rational adult by my own father. Intellectual cruelty is how I would describe my childhood! I was never allowed to simply be a boy! I never played with other children. My father isolated me, as he possessed severe contempt for any sort of passions (he regarded them as varieties of madness) and subjected me to life based off of the principles of Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarian ethics. Yes, I consider myself a utilitarian, yet my version of utilitarianism contrasts profoundly from that of Bentham. Bentham equated happiness with pleasure. His ideas on ethics were centered on the sole basis of total quantity of happiness in the world; a mere net gain in happiness for all those affected by a moral act. A net gain! He even believed that happiness could be mathematically determined when studied under Felicific Calculus, a supposed objective formula that determines moral worth of an act. Absurd! I feel no sense of nostalgia when I recall my early years, no longing to relive the innocent days of youth. I only feel overwhelmed by pity towards a child who was forced to recite Plato’s dialogues at the age of seven, who by the age of 8 was considered an expert in the fields of Latin, Algebra and geometry! At only thirteen, I was a participant of economic debates with men twice my age. At the age of 20, I imploded.

Rumi. What a sad story. And how did you rescue yourself?

John Stuart Mills. Oddly enough I saved myself from despair by indulging in Romantic poetry. I had spent countless hours reading the works of poets such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This is why I identify profoundly with the words you just spoke about the power of emotion. I revived my soul by consuming poems that have some parallel to your literary masterpeices, Rumi. This is what led me to reject the teaching of my utilitarian forefathers. Indeed, logic and reason are very crucial. But they should not come at the expense of emotions. Human emotional lives are equally as important. My abusive upbringing forced me to always find pleasure in intellect. Consequently, I believe that quality and not quantity of pleasures will lead to a spread of happiness that is useful and will limit suffering and pain. Contrary to Bentham, who believed all pleasures that yield happiness are equal in worth, I firmly believe that intellectual pleasure is more valuable than purely physical or sensual ones. The human ability to experience such a sophisticated form of mental pleasure positions us apart from other species, like pigs that have a life that consists only of physical pleasures. My reformed definition of utilitarian philosophy is one of general morality that follows the guidelines which promote happiness but makes exceptions when following the rule becomes counterproductive.

Rumi. Based off of the last sentence you just spoke, I suspect you believe that I am morally obligated to return home and fulfill my duty as teacher and socio-political advisor to the Sultan. There is no risk of counter-productivity in this deed at all. It is clear that I can benefit more individuals, perhaps make them happier and there is no drawback. No drawback other then the fact that I will not condition my morals to satisfy the majority over the needs of the minority. Therefore, I must reject your modified utilitarian ethics, Mills, as it does not satisfy my spiritual pleasures.

Nietzsche. You are a hard headed man, Rumi. Yet, you posses the potential to become such an extraordinary human being—if only you would abandon your religious philosophies. Do not throw away such an opportunity for the sake of comfort. If you seep to far into comfort that isolation on this island provides for you, you will shape yourself into a superficial human who is ignorant of the beauty of suffering. People who have endured pain and overcome struggle develop deeper personalities. The more you isolate yourself in this remote exotic land, the more you refrain from being an active participant of the world, the more you are depriving yourself of warrior virtues! It is healthy to see life as a struggle! Don’t turn a blind eye to your Will to Power! Embrace your Will to Power, control it, and channel it toward a superior ambition of advancing the human race as as a species! You must return back to your motherland Rumi, not because you have a calling to make people happy as Mills proclaims, but because you have the power to enlighten people and better the human race as a whole, not just for one society. This is my greatest criticism of Utilitarianism; it is a philosophy that aims too low! Utilitarianism stresses every human’s equal importance, but this is a naïve principle that preaches the same slave-morality that Christianity preaches. The truth is that lives of excellent people, people like artists, thinkers, leaders—people like you Rumi if you abandoned your religious beliefs—these lives matter more than that of the common herd.

Lord Henry Wotton. I am afraid my ears will begin to bleed with all this preaching! Is there anything more unappealing than an individual with socially constructed morals? People with principles are living a life of misery. I have no interest in defining what it means to be virtuously moral or immoral. What a boring task to inflect on oneself. The only motive behind me coming to meet you is so that I can take it as an excuse to indulge my self into the pleasure of this beautiful, exotic land. Mills speaks of pleasure, but rationalizes it too much. Today, everything has been reduced to reason, time and science: “Humanity takes itself too seriously. It is the world’s original sin. If the cave-man had known how to laugh, History would have been different.” Beauty, youth and pleasures are what should be celebrated, if not worshipped! How I loathe anything practical! Rumi, it seems to me that you are prioritizing your soul over your moral obligations. I praise you for that. I will not attempt to educate you on principles, because I don’t believe I have any myself—but I will teach you an important lesson: people who do not act selfishly will end up soulless. However, I do have one grave issue with your practice, Rumi. Why are you so devoted to your God? Constantly referring to him as your Beloved? As a Decadent, I discard the pretense of religion. I agree with Nietzsche’s anti-religion philosophy; so-called “believers” obey rules of religion out of fear of God, not for personal conviction. We must live beyond good and evil. Good and evil are figments that religion shamelessly forces upon us; they do not exist in the real world. My only faith is associated with the desire to return to the ancient past and revive the spirit of the ancient pagans!

Sartre. I am not a decadent, as Lord Henry Wotton claims to be, but I am an atheist. Besides you, Rumi, none of us here believes in the existence of God. You on the other hand, not only believe in his existence but believe that you share a divine union with him! Let me ask you, would your connection with your Beloved be as strong if you did not create meaning of the unification? In other words, you are a believer of this divine union because YOU defined it to be meaningful. If you withdrew your meaning from the union, would the union between you and your God still persist? If not, then doesn’t it prove that it’s not real? You see, I am not interested in describing reality from a reasonable and objective view. Instead I am concerned solely with describing what it is like to be a human—what it’s like to be you, Rumi! They key principle of my philosophy is that existence precedes essence. Your name, Rumi, bears a heavy weight in the intellectual world stage. This is not because you were born with such a legacy. In fact, you were born from nothingness. A person has no essence, and begins to shape their identity based on the actions committed and the real-life choices that are subjectively make. There is no God to guide us, consequently Man is condemned to be free! I say condemned because we did not create ourselves but were thrown into the world and thus we total responsibility of our own life.

Rumi. I wholeheartedly disagree, Sartre. Humanity is interconnected through divine love. I am not a lone wolf in this world. On the contrary, every action I commit is shared with my Beloved and other humans whom I love (both on a spiritual and personal level). There are forces and energies that are beyond human control and sometimes we must accept what is maktoob, or written in our fates. The world conspires to help us as humans, but we cannot govern every part of our existence.

Sartre. There is nothing written out for us. It is foolish to believe that a Creator developed a plan for each person’s place in the world! This type of thinking is just a senseless excuse utilized by those who blame their actions on external circumstances. You want to take the weight of responsibility off your shoulders, so you recognize it as being maktoob, as you say. One can always make something better out of what circumstance they have; we all have the freedom to fight against the advantages. By choosing not to fight, we are freely making the choice to live inauthentically. There is no virtuous or evil path that is determined by ethical systems because everything is meaningless! Even emotions and feelings are meaningless until a decision is made. Therefore, do not live an inauthentic life by pretending that you are not free. A person of bad faith denies personal freedom in shaping own life and allows other forces or people to shape it on their behalf. A person of good faith embraces that their completely responsible of their own freedom. Yes, this seems scary and difficult but by accepting this notion we start to draw our own portrait and write the stories of our own lives. All in all Rumi, you you must own up to whatever decision you make, be it staying in this foreign paradise forever or returning to your home.

Camus. Sartre, the rhetoric used when explaining your existentialist philosophy is toxic. Your ideas are too relative and you fail to label evil actions for what they truly are: evil. Do not term evil actions as inauthentic way of living or even as bad faith! You are dodging the premise of human capability to choose the wrong kind of freedom. One cannot be free at the expense of others; it is cruel to use others as means of an end (the end being own freedom). Rumi, I would like to consider myself very familiar with your work, particularly due to my Algerian background that has tasted eastern ideas. Growing up, I have constantly heard your name echoed in the artistic and literary spheres of my region. You preach community and compassion in your works and I urge you to never stop spreading notions of empathy in your work. Unlike Sartre, I believe that there is a concretely right or wrong way to live life. The right way to live if is to lead a compassionate one. Therefore, I would advise you to return home and fulfill this compassion by sharing your wisdom with the youth and your leaders. Bridge people together! Do not be cruel and rob them of this chance of interconnectedness that will provide meaning in life during a time of nihilism or despair! If I could advise you to completely neglect everything you have heard from one of the philosophers, it would be Nietzsche. It is poisonous to believe in a superior-inferior human relationship. Rumi, you are not more superior to the children who seek your knowledge back home or less superior to the Sultan who leads the East—everyone is equal. Can we admit to life’s absurdity and meaningless but still love life and be compassionate with others as equals? I conclude by saying that whatever choice you make, Rumi, your ethical position is based on emotional conviction than logic, which can transform man to a monster.

All five men were silenced as Rumi unexpectedly started to recite the lyrics to his poem. This time he did not whirl like a dervish or sing the words in a melodic tune. He intended for the philosophers to hear every word,clearly.

Rumi. Western scholars and intellectuals are always blinded by cultural thought that plagues their mind. It is the categorization of separate entities, it is the act of labeling and identifying, it is the arguing and debating. Listen the phonetic appeal of the words I speak, allow the meaning of the words to sink in. Loosen your firm grasp of you philosophies for a moment and open up your mind. Forget my mystic and religious background and understand that through back-and-forth debating (of which I, myself, am guilty) you are stressing the cracks that are breaking our interconnectedness. As of this very moment, we are all humans and civilians of the world we live in. Do not allow our different philosophies and geographical origins to undermine our relatedness. I will pass around the urn of wine, please take a sip. Can we sit together in silence and just breathe like we humans ought to for survival. Be proud of your philosophies but don’t let it blind you. Let us get drunk so our consciousness is unrestrained.

Sartre. But what about the Sultan of the East? Will you go home, Rumi? What have you decided?

Rumi. I have decided that I would like to drink and dance, and whatever happens after that is maktoob.

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