Childhood & Early Life
Shams al-Din (Sun of religion) or Shams Tabrizi was born in the 1180s in Tabriz, now in Iran. He was the son of Imam Ala al-Din. From an early age, he would have mystic visions which were incomprehensible to his parents. He wrote in his autobiography that his father did not understand him at all.
As a young boy, on the verge of puberty, he developed an aversion to food and starved for thirty or forty days. When offered food by his parents, he would refuse to eat it, hiding the food in his sleeves.
Shams al-Din found his spiritual master in Hazrat Sheikh Abu Bakr Sallebaf. Harzat Sallebaf was a passionate Sufi master. Young Shams would often be twirled around by his teacher in the Sufi tradition of ‘sama’.
He also studied under Baba Kamal al-Din Jumdi. He was a highly educated man who valued the academic study of religion and not just the spiritual side of it.
He was also well-versed in ‘fiqh’ or the study of Islamic jurisprudence. However, he would hide his education from his peers who would often wonder whether he was a scholar of the law ‘faqih’ or an ascetic ‘faqir’.
According to Rumi, Shams had a deep knowledge of alchemy, astronomy, theology, philosophy and logic. Rumi’s son Sultan Walad in his writings tells us that Shams was “a man of learning and wisdom and eloquence and composition”.
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In search of spiritual learning, Shams Tabrizi traveled all over the Middle East - Baghdad, Aleppo, Damascus, Kayseri, Aksaray, Sivas, Erzurum and Erzincan. He hid his identity and disguised himself as a traveling salesman. He would stay in inns like merchants and not in Sufi lodges.
It is said that he wove baskets and trouser girdles to eke out a living. He had been a construction worker in his youth and during his wandering days in Erzincan, he tried to get some construction work. However, he was so frail that no one would hire him.
Apart from using his manual skills, he would also give lessons to children on how to read the Quran. He even developed a method to teach the entire Quran in only three months.
Association with Rumi
Shams Tabrizi spent most of his life as a wandering dervish in search of a spiritual companion. He heard famous teachers speak and met Sufi saints, but he did not feel an affinity towards anyone.
In his writings, he talked of dreams where God assures him that he would find the right companion when the time came. His wanderings lead him to Konya. He was almost sixty when he arrived at the city on November 29, 1244, where he was to have his fateful meeting with Rumi.
In ‘Maqalat,’ Shams Tabrizi wrote that he had first met Rumi 16 years ago in Syria where he had heard Rumi speak possibly during a debate or a lecture. He had been favorably inclined towards Rumi since then but had felt that Rumi lacked the maturity to comprehend the spirituality of Shams.
On that day in November, he was disguised as a merchant, dressed in black from top to toe. Rumi came riding on his mule with his retinue of disciples amid a busy marketplace where Shams stopped him with a question.
Shams’ question to Rumi was ‘How is it that Abayazid did not need to follow, and did not say “Glory be to Thee” or “We worship Thee?” According to Shams, Rumi fully understood the depth of the question and its philosophical implications.
There are many popular stories about the meeting of Rumi and Tabrizi. A popular myth tries to highlight the divine touch of Tabrizi. He is said to have thrown a stack of Rumi’s books in water and when Rumi’s students hurriedly pulled them out they found that none of the pages had become wet.
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Both myths and facts underline the fact that Tabrizi’s search for a disciple ended with Rumi. Rumi was an accomplished scholar and a respected teacher himself so the relationship was not of a typical one between a student and teacher; rather, it was a relationship of mutual respect, brotherhood and friendship.
Shams advised Rumi that Sufism could not be learnt through books but by “going and doing”. In the company of Shams, the scholarly Maulana Rumi became spiritually transformed.
The two mystics became inseparable and lived together for many months. With Tabrizi becoming the one focus of his life, Rumi could no longer pay attention to his students or his family.
Rumi’s followers grew resentful of the intimacy between their teacher and Shams. They blamed Tabrizi for taking away their teacher from them and wanted him to leave. Thus, in February 1246 Tabrizi left for Syria without warning.
Rumi was heart-broken. Angry with his students, he withdrew from them even more.Pain and longing flowed from his pen. He wrote thousands of couplets of his most insightful work. In his poems, Shams was the guiding light of God’s love for mankind.
Rumi’s disciples realized their mistake and apologized profusely. When it was learnt that Shams was in Damascus, a letter was sent to him, requesting him to return. Rumi’s eldest son, Sultan Walad took a search party and went to Syria, returning with Shams to Konya in April 1247.
Joyous celebrations took place upon Shams’ return to Konya. People apologized to him. He himself was full of praise for Hazrat Walad and wrote that he had gone away for the sake of Rumi’s spiritual development.
The two men resumed their discussions and spiritual communion. Shams remained in Konya with Rumi till 1248, the year he disappeared again mysteriously. Rumi went looking for him to Damascus twice but did not find him.
Personal Life & Death
Towards the end of 1247, Shams Tabrizi got married to a young woman who had been raised in Rumi’s household. She was named Kimia. She did not live long and died when she fell ill after being out in a garden.
It is believed that Shams Tabrizi died in 1248. Rumi’s son Sultan Walad writes in his ‘Walad-Nama mathnawi’ that Tabrizi disappeared from Konya one night and was never seen again.
Another version of his death says that he left Konya for Tabriz. On the way, he died in Khoy. There is a memorial in Khoy dating back to 1400, which is associated with his name.
It was proved in the 20th century that Shams was murdered by Rumi’s associates who had again grown jealous of him. The murder had the tacit support of Rumi’s sons. His body was thrown into a nearby well which is still present in Konya.