My Love shall be bestowed upon those who love one another for My Sake.
—God (Muwatta, Musnad)
You cannot enter Paradise unless you have faith, and you cannot have faith unless you love one another.
—The Prophet (Muslim)
Sufism and Illicit Lust are two sets do not overlap, that is, they are disjoint. A clearer way to put this is: Sufism excludes Illicit Sex. By the latter, we mean that extramarital relations are prohibited, while Licit Sex refers to marital sexual relations with a spouse of the opposite sex. Here, however, we will be focusing on a subset of Unclean Lust: namely, homosexuality.
First, please read this.
Sufism is the path of the Pure, and such purity cannot coexist alongside defilement. In Kolakowski’s famous phrase, you cannot have “fried snowballs.” (For those who have been involved but want to make a fresh start, the door of quitting and repentance is always open.)
How, then, to explain certain Sufic verses which seem to refer to sodomy, pederasty, or pedophilia?
Our image of the human being has today become concentrated exclusively on the physical. Especially in modern science, we do not even acknowledge that s/he also has a spiritual side. Our worldview has reduced spirit to the mind, then the mind to the brain, and finally the brain to electrochemical impulses traversing the synapses. Under such conditions, it is a minor miracle that we can still think of brotherly love, or the love a mother has for her child, as referring to anything other than physical/sexual love. And when God tells us: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18, Mark 12:31), He obviously intends something entirely different. In the course of a few decades, the term “making love” itself has been reduced from its original meaning of kissing and embracing to sexual intercourse (see this).
So naturally, we understand poetry written not decades but hundreds of years ago (and in a different—Persian—culture) as referring, not to spiritual, but explicitly physical love. The Sufi poets who wrote those verses, however, were using those expressions symbolically. Sufi poetry is suffused with symbolism. The Beloved is God, the tresses of the Beloved are the many paths that lead to God (a different strand of hair for each human being), wine refers to the intoxicating love of God, and so on.
In some cases, such verses refer to the Perfect Human Being, who acts as a teacher (shaykh or murshid) for disciples. The relationship conceived in Sufi literature between Mahmud the Sultan of Ghazna and Ayaz, his servant, for instance, is a metaphor for the spiritual (not physical!) love between a Sufi Master and his disciples, this love being the main engine for progress along the spiritual path, for it is this love that enables one to overcome and transcend one’s nutshell of a self. Poets such as Hafez, Rumi, or Attar exercise poetic license in employing such metaphors.
In other cases, love for a child of unearthly beauty is involved. This is the Child of the Heart, which is one of the most deeply esoteric (and hard-to-understand) concepts in Sufism. It has its roots in the Prophet’s Saying, “I saw my Lord in the form of a beardless youth (shabb al-amrad).” It has been recognized in other mystical traditions: among its counterparts are the Chinese Embryo of the Tao, the Latin puer aeternus (eternal youth/child) and the Hindu hiranyagarbha (golden embryo/child).
This concept has been terribly misunderstood and mutilated in some quarters, however, resulting in the abominable practice called bacha bazi. Another Prophetic Saying, “God is Beautiful, He loves beauty,” has led to the related practice of adoration of the beautiful called shahed bazi. There can be no doubt that these are distortions and perversions of the worst kind. As George Bernard Shaw observed, the lower mind, unable to comprehend the religion of the high mind, drags it down to its own level by degrading it. Certainly the original conception is free of any blame for this sorry outcome.
As Master Ahmet Kayhan explained, the Child of the Heart is the spirit-child. The spirit, the very existence of which we deny today, is capable of bearing a child. Like Jesus, this child has no human father. (In fact, Jesus himself has been adopted as a symbol for the Child of the Heart in Sufi literature.) It represents an advanced stage along the path that leads to the Perfect Human Being (for more details, see this).
The case of Rumi and Shams
By way of introduction, let me recap what this website has been saying for some time now. We’re mostly hung up on the miracles of prophets and the extraordinary feats of saints, but these are merely secondary effects. We need to move beyond them, for they prove little by themselves. Remember: the devil himself is a miracle-worker.
Rather, the importance of the prophets is that they are primarily ethical role models for the rest of us. And the saints, as the successors of the prophets, are inheritors of that station. But just as there is a tendency to distort the prophets (see this), there is also a predilection to belittle the saints, to divest them of their stature as ethical role models.
Now, gays and lesbians cannot serve as role models for society at large. The reason is simple: otherwise, the human race would become extinct. And this extinction is the top project of the devil, who is the sworn enemy of humankind. He would make everyone gay if he could. (If evil exists in this world, then so must its instigator, the devil.) In all three monotheistic religions, namely Judaism, Christianity and Islam, God has forbidden homosexuality.
Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi and Shams of Tabriz are two Sufi saints of wide renown. They were kindred spirits, perhaps even twin souls, who rejoiced in the fact that they had found each other. Rumi was happy that he had found the perfect master, and Shams was glad he had found the perfect disciple. Unfortunately, they have also become the brunt of slanders in an age when the meaning of spiritual love and the intellectual love of God have been forgotten. Simply put, we are almost incapable any longer of conceiving a kind of love that is not physical.
Some have claimed that it is impossible to determine whether the love between Rumi and Shams was physical or not. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is now time to explode this myth.
Rumi says: “The love of mortals is not eternal” (Mathnawi, 1:216). As for Shams, he says in his Maqalat: “The intended aim of the world’s existence is the encounter of two friends of God, when they face each other only for the sake of God, far distant from lust and craving.” These quotes alone ought to prove how lofty their aspirations were, and how far removed these two saints are from the modern-day pestilential projections they are subjected to.
During meditation (tafakkur), Rumi and Shams would sit facing each other in a cell, separated by about a yard (1 m). The cell had a paneless window to the outside, from which they were always clearly visible to any passerby.
Let us see what Professor Franklin Lewis, one of our best go-to authorities on all things Rumi, has to say. In a section titled “Rumi’s Sexuality” in his mammoth study, Rumi: Past and Present, East and West (London: Oneworld Publications, 2000, 2008), Franklin tells us that Rumi was a happily married family man. When his first wife died, he married again, and had children from both marriages. He was 37 when he met Shams, who was over 60 at the time and also got married, so that their relationship would have been more like that of a father and son.
Shams al-Din counseled the young Sultan Valad [Rumi’s son] to avoid hashish and sodomy (Af 633), and condemned Owhad al-Din Kermani for his practice of shahed-bazi, in this case his attention to beautiful boys, in the Hellenistic tradition of the ephebe. Shams and Rumi both condemned the excesses of Sufi behavior, as did other Sufis, and were opposed to libertinism. (pp. 320-21.)
After an in-depth discussion, Franklin concludes:
The suggestion that the relationship between Shams and Rumi was a physical and homosexual one entirely misunderstands the context. Rumi, as a forty-year-old man engaged in ascetic practices and teaching Islamic law, to say nothing of his obsession with following the example of the Prophet, would not have submitted to [advances] of the sixty-year-old Shams, who was, in any case, like Rumi, committed to following the Prophet and opposed to the worship of God through human beauty. Rumi did employ the symbolism of homoerotic, or more properly, androgynous love, in his poems addressed to Shams as the divine beloved, but this merely adopts an already 300-year-old convention of the poetry of praise in Persian literature. (p. 324.)
As Omid Safi notes:
In numerous places in his writings, Mawlānā [Rumi] condemns homosexuality in the strongest possible language, equating it with the worst kind of heresy, disease, and moral impropriety. … Mawlānā and his companions called [homosexual practices] “the disease of old men.” (p. 67, emphasis added.)
Finally, another Rumi expert, Dr. Ibrahim Gamard, explains:
… accounts indicate that Mawlānā was already an advanced Sufi, as well as a religious scholar. And they suggest that Shams-é Tabrīzī found Mawlānā to be the hidden saint he had long searched for, one who was advanced on the Sufi path who continued to follow the Prophet Muḥammad, and who acknowledged that the Prophet journeyed far beyond any of the Muslim Sufi masters who came after him in the mystical worship of God.
A contemporary claim has been promulgated that Mawlānā and Shams-é Tabrīzī were “lovers” on the physical level as well as the spiritual. However, this view is ill-informed about significant features of medieval Persian culture: such a relationship would have been incompatible with the homoeroticism of the time. And to believe that such was the case misunderstands the nature of lover-beloved themes in Persian Sufi poetry that had been an established convention for three hundred years (Lewis, pp. 320-24). An example of one such theme relates to the Sufi practice of cultivating intense love of the spiritual master until there is “annihilation in the presence of the master” [fanā fī ‘l-shaykh] as a stage on the path to “annihilation in the Presence of God” [fanā fī ’llāh]. Furthermore, such a claim ignores the basic master-disciple roles in numerous fields of knowledge, professions, and crafts throughout Muslim history—in particular, the training of a disciple by a Sufi master based on traditional Islamic ethics. Mawlānā condemned sodomy and effeminate behavior in numerous places in his poetry (such as Mathnawī 5:363-64, 2487-2500; 6:1727-32, 3843-68). And Shams-é Tabrīzī condemned homosexual acts as unmanly and blameworthy in the presence of God (p. 773) [emphasis added].
Some examples from Rumi in his own words
So, let us look at what Rumi himself has to say (following mainly, though not only, Nicholson’s literal translation):
The (true) Sufi is he who has become a seeker of purity: this does not come from wearing a woolen garment and patching it, and from committing sodomy.
With these base scoundrels, Sufism has become patching and sodomy, that is all. (M5:363-4.)
Rumi uses the following expression with reference to a passive homosexual: “they appear human on the outside, the accursed Devil is within” (M2:3159). He also calls an active homosexual an “accursed wretch” (M5:2498).
In the following verses, a man comes upon a group of beautiful women. He addresses one of them, using the expression “you vile creatures.”
The woman turned towards him and replied, “O man of trust, do not think it dreadful that there are so many of us.
Consider that even our multitude on earth is not enough for you men to find your enjoyment.
Because there are so few women, you fall into active and passive sodomy, and become disgraced in the world!” (M6:1730-32.)
In this last, note the veiled reference to the Koran: “What, do you approach males, leaving your wives that your Lord created for you? You are indeed a transgressing people.” (26:165-6). And if you switch genders, the same still holds.
In the following verse, a youth castigates an active homosexual:
Some foul, Godless villain like you springs up before me like a wild beast. (M6:3855).
Such language is highly untypical of Rumi, who continues to be known for his legendary tolerance. Example: Rumi once came upon some prostitutes, who showed him great respect. He told them: “If you didn’t bear these burdens and hardships, who would subdue so much lust and so many carnal souls? And how would the chastity and purity of chaste and pure women ever be known?” (Aflaki, Manâqeb al-Ârifîn, #542.) Yet he has not a single good word to spare for homosexuality. This shows us that Rumi regarded gay sex as even worse than prostitution, lacking in any redeeming qualities whatsoever. It appears he viewed it as an unmitigated evil. (In the Koran, God calls fornication and adultery (i.e. zina) fahisha, an Abomination (17:32). But He calls the homosexual act al-fahisha (7:80), The Abomination—an act worse than zina.)
As for Shams, the following is from his “Discourses” (Maqalat): “I don’t belong to the prophet Lot’s community of immoral sexual perverts… They call the prophet Lot ‘Lot’ because he was not a sexual pervert. He was a prophet.” (Maq. p. 255/250, Gencosman translation.)
From all this, it is clear that both Rumi and Shams considered same-sex relations abhorrent and reprehensible. This ought to lay to rest any slanderous claims about two of the greatest Sufi saints of their (or perhaps any) age.