Rumi, Adab, and the Beauty of Boundaries

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

The author with Esin Çelebi Bayru, Rumi’s granddaughter (22nd generation) in Konya

I was so excited to meet Azra Bayru Kumcuoğlu, Rumi’s granddaughter (23rd generation) for breakfast on my latest visit to Istanbul— that I wore my pearls early in the morning and popped into a salon across from Boğaziçi University campus where I had been staying. Halfway through the blowout, it began to rain and by the time I stepped out, there was a proper downpour. I was irked, as was the hairstylist, but somewhere in my Pakistani heart, rain remains a thrill, a secret, contradictory gift that comes to awaken our dormant spark. Waiting outside the museum where we had planned to meet, I saw Azra Hanim rushing towards me; her spirit was instantly apparent. With the smile and embrace befitting a descendant of Maulana Rūm himself, she held her umbrella over me as we walked down slippery stairs; a stranger a millisecond ago suddenly felt like a sister. As we negotiated the traffic, the whipping wind and wet streets, Azra Hanim kept one arm firmly hooked into my mine to prevent me from slipping. This moment inspires a reflection on courtesy but its sweeping grace defies language; words slip like “a donkey in mud” when it comes to love— to offer that unforgettable metaphor of Rumi’s making. Azra Hanim’s was no ordinary social courtesy but a courtesy shaped by love, a value rigorously honed in the Sufi cultures as Adab.

Earlier on my visit, I had met Azra Hanim’s mother, the honorable Esin Çelebi Bayru in Konya and had interviewed her regarding her new book Love is Something Beautiful. The book is part family memoir, part history of the Mevlevi school of Sufism, and reveals, amidst the ebbs and flows of circumstance and socio-political demands, how the Mevlevi culture has survived in recent centuries. The theme that prevails throughout the book is the centrality of Adab. When I met her, I immediately felt her warmth. She carries herself with the ease of a satiated spirit, happy to pass on to others the peace she feels. We had multiple conversations in the days I spent in Konya, each was memorable. The two things that interested me most in the context of my own work of original poems and translations of Iqbal, was Mevlana Rumi’s early life and influences, and the practice of Adab in the Mevlevi culture and beyond.

Adab, originally an Arabic word, refers to the Islamic code of conduct, emphasized in the Quran and the Prophetic tradition. Its place in Islamic practice is so important that the Prophet (PBUH) said: “I have been sent only to perfect your manners.” Everything from his gentleness in speech and respect in manner, even towards people who were sworn enemies, to conduct as guest or host, to maintaining personal hygiene, care for animals, to fairness in trade, honoring the spouse, funerary rites— has been recorded as Sunnah, a corollary to faith and considered its living proof. If the Prophetic tradition is the sacred book in practice, then the message of the Quran is clear: excellence in manners are a testament to the nobility of character a Muslim must attain to be fully Muslim. Prophetic Adab is certainly acknowledged as important among mainstream believers but the commitment to manners isn’t as strong in practice, at least in my observation. In Tassawuf or Sufism, Islam’s mystical dimension, Adab is practiced a value of primary importance as it is the outward proof of God-consciousness within, otherwise known as love.

We understand manners to be refined versions of social behavior, reflecting, on a basic level, decency towards others. As cultural customs, manners are quite universal and apparent in how we develop a courteous body language, how we share a meal with others, how we select words appropriate for specific situations, how we greet or dress or reciprocate etc. The spectrum of what are generally considered manners covers everything from the often-caricatured raised pinky while holding a teacup and seven “farshi salams” – the royal greeting that necessitates walking backwards while saluting with the arm at a wide angle— to the more useful gestures of offering one’s seat to another or holding the door open. Some acts of or demands for etiquette belie ostentation, a motivation to gain a good opinion from others rather than to show sincere consideration, a display of ego rooted in wealth, social standing or even intellectual and spiritual status; the last two being especially problematic. In a ghazal verse, Rumi says:
Sheikh, ne um, paesh ne um, amr tura bandeh shodem” or “I am not a Shaykh, nor a celebrity: I’m just a servant of Your command.” (tr: Kabir Helminsky)

The concept of Adab is closely tied to “heech,” or “nothing,” Rumi’s embrace of ultimate humility. “Heech” stands for the exquisite nothingness that is a result of excavating the self and carving out space to fully appreciate the Divine. The core ethos of Sufi spirituality is to conquer and break free of the ego by practicing a deep humility, a habit that centers the heart in constant awe of the Divine. Rumi and other Sufi poets revel in being “heech,” “broken open” to loving all of Divine creation, to hold no enmities or fears, to covet no superiority over others, completely in service of the beloved through inward and outward harmony. This nothingness is a lifelong cultivation and manifests in tandem with Adab.

In Urdu, as in other languages that share the Islamic heritage, the word Adab is used for “honor,” “courtesy” or “manners” as well as for “Literature:” This is due, perhaps because both connote an appreciation of form. The act of walking in somber lockstep while carrying a floral wreath in a state funeral, for example, is not too different from the measured beats of a poem as it synthesizes music and meaning in the realm of symbols. A sense of order is inherently part of form, as is a sense of beauty. But neither are truly meaningful without spirit. Not all (so-called) literature combines aspects of form worthy of spirit, and not all so-called manners are considered Adab.

As a witness to different expressions of Adab, on and off the page, in various cultural settings and human interactions, I’ve been moved by Adab’s ennobling effects in all kinds of communities, but the one place where I saw the cultivation of Adab manifest simultaneously with the practice of fine arts spurred on by literature, is the Mevlevi culture. Here, I came to see Adab as not merely a flourish of decorum but the deepest current of human character made transparent in words composed, spoken, sung, calligraphed, an ethos of expressing the soul’s quiet beauty. The Mevlevi village in Konya has workshops where the dervishes practice their fine arts and crafts— bookbinding, crafting leather, fabric, glass, wood, and other materials. I was fascinated to see Adab manifest as the discipline coupled with intention that it is meant to be, in aesthetic forms that have developed in the Islamic world for centuries, and kept alive in traditions such as the Mevlevi tradition..

A quality of Adab that Esin Hanim explains in her book is that Adab cannot be taught as a set of rules; it is necessarily taught by example. Adab manners are backed with purity of intention and a high moral character. She describes how young children emulate the fine manners of their elders in a Mevlevi household, responding to the language of love, and paying close attention to cultivating the habits generated from it. 

Childhood was very much on my mind during my stay in Konya. The supple and surprising metaphors with which Rumi leads us to the door of our inner cosmos has a way of returning as a sense of affirmation, a joy peculiar to childhood. It was the eve of my birthday and I reminisced the days of Rumi being read to me as a child. On the flight to Konya I took photos of the clouds, seeing in them shapes conjured from the Mathnavi: halva, mules and saddlebags, bottles of almond oil, a king’s quiver, burnt kababs, giants, chickpea and ladle, laughing goats, reed flute. The world of Rumi’s poetry has all the riches of the imagination. It propels one to freedom, but not without honoring form: a beautifully liberating, loving practice of Adab. “Your boundaries are your quest,” he says. I am reminded of the generosity that holds an umbrella over one while sharing the ecstatic delights of summer rain.