Shams ad-Dîn Tabrizi: An Esoteric Parable of the Divine

by Nasir Shamsi

Shams al-Din Tabrizi was a Persian mystic, who is credited as the spiritual instructor of Maulana Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi, also known as Rumi.  Songs of Shams are part of Pakistani folklore and sung in Farsi, Gujarati, Punjabi and Urdu.  My life-long study has traced his life and teachings to his final sojourn, which connects Sabzevar with Tabriz, Konya and Multan.  I have spent more than 50 years researching the life of Shams ad-Din Tabrizi.  There remains a deep fondness for this Persian mystic in Pakistan and, from my extensive research and study, I believe it is possible to conclude that his final resting place may in fact be in Multan.

Shams was born on 15 Shaban, 560 AD in Sabzevar, now in Iran, as Shams ad-Din Muhammad.  His father, Salahuddin, was a descendant of Jafar al-Sadiq, the 6th Imam.  The elders of this family had moved from Madinah to Ray, now in Iran, and then on to Selmiah.  Due to the wicked persecution of Alids, that is the descendants of Ali and Fatima AS, under  Umayyad and Abbasid rule, they moved to Allepo, which is now in Syria, and after some time to Sabzevar.  Simple and God-fearing, Syed (descendant of the Prophet) Salahuddin, now generally known as Salahuddin Nurbakhsh, was greatly respected for his knowledge of religious sciences while he made his living from trading in cloth.

Shams’ early education took place at home.  He learnt Quran from his father and Fiqh (jurisprudence) and theology from his uncle Abdul Hadi.  At 12 years of age, his uncle Abdul Hadi took him to Tabriz to learn other fields of knowledge.  When he returned home at the tender age of 19 he embarked on a long expedition with his father.  According to Gulzar-i Shams, “Garden of Shams”, both father and son travelled as far as Badakhshan, now known as Afghanistan and Tajikistan, and on to Kuhistan, now Baltistan and Skardu in Pakistan, and to Tibet and Kashmir.  As had been customary, the purpose of long travel by the ahle Suluk (wayfarer) is to wander like Moses in search of the mysterious Khezr, to find the hidden meaning of the Divine.

The path of the wayfarer is the search for knowledge of the inner essence, for epiphany and manifestation of Oneness through interaction with humanity.  This is an expression as well as evidence of the Oneness of God.  We have come across interesting accounts of Shams’ discourses with Buddhist monks in Sufi books.  Thousands of Muslims living in these areas admit to being descendants of the people visited by this father and son.  These people had willingly accepted Islam at the hands of Shams and his father, such was their purety of character.

Several years later when they returned home from their long travels, Shams who was now now 26, married Hafiz Jamal, a daughter of his uncle Jalal Uddin.   The couple had two sons born two years apart, named Naseer uddin Muhammad and Ala Uddin Muhammad, later known as Ahmad Shakar and Zinda Pir respectively.  After a few years Shams took leave of his family and set out for Tabriz in search of Shaykhs with whom he could interact to sharpen his understanding and unravel the mysteries of the concealed, the esoteric.  Tabriz was a centre of knowledge at that time and was known to be the home of saints.  The city of Tabriz attracted great mystics from all over the Muslim world.   Shams was, of course, already familiar with the city and became a student of Shaykh Abu Bakr Sallabaf Tabrizi, a basket weaver.  Abu bakr Tabrizi, according to Aflaki, “brought Shams Uddin Tabrizi to stations and levels which did not suffice him, for he sought yet higher station, such that association with its charisma would keep him charged, whereby he could be promoted to ever more perfected degrees”.  He was always driven by a desire to aim for what was higher, committed to the revealed message and to obedience of the Messenger, what he calls matabat-i Paighamber in “Maqalat”, and so he waited for the unveiling, Kashaf, of the hidden reality, the fulfilment of God’s promise in the Quran: “I will show them my signs on the horizons and in themselves until they know that it is the Truth.  Is this not enough for you, since I am over all things the Witness?”

Shams went on to study with Shaykh Rukn addin Muhammad Sajasi , who died in1209 and who was also the master of Auhad ad-din Kirmani, a great poet and a Sufi.  Shams had an innate gift for the metaphysical and by now had mastered the esoteric sciences, which unveiled the sparks of the Divine knowledge, Tajalliyat-i Irfan-i Ilahiyya.  Later the esteemed Sufi, Baba Kamal Jundi, confirmed him as a master in his own right.  The great teacher however cautioned him to stay away from the ordinary and the mundane and promised that one day he would meet someone who would act as his mouthpiece and speak to the world on his behalf.  He was, though, told he would have to wait until his future student was ready to receive from him the promised gift.  He was also advised by his master to stay away from Sufis as well as Faqihs (Jurists), which accordingly he did.

Although he was trained in mystic states by prominent masters, the truth is that Shams already owned his own mysterious personality, as is apparent from his statements in “Maqalat”.  It was customary to receive a mantle from the Shaykh on completion of a desired position.  But Shams says that he was given the mantle by the Prophet himself “Maqalat”.  He also says that he does not give a mantle to any-old-body, and that his words are like a “mantle of investiture” for all who listen.

Constantly travelling from place to place, he came to be known as Shams Parinda or “the flying Shams”.  He would show up at times at seminaries but without revealing his credentials.  He stayed away from mystics because they had given up the Shari’ah (practice).  He kept away from faqirs (scholars) because they indulged in useless polemics and diatribes and he avoided staying at seminaries.  Instead he stayed at the caravan, showing himself as a trader, though all he had with him was an old cup, a worn out rug and a plain brick for a pillow.  He fasted often and was seen to open his fast after 10 days with bread soaked in soup.  He virtually starved his body, always denying himself.  In return, he received the uncanny gift of constantly knowing each other person’s mind and being able to tell in advance what was about to happen.  He was capable of doing things that seemed out of the ordinary, uncanny or supernatural to an undiscerning eye.  According to Aflaki, Shams travelled extensively, even by telekinesis (Tayy-e zamini ke dashte).  He kept his talent however from the ordinary people.  This happens through the miraculous effect of the Divine presence (Huzoori) that is implanted in the heart through initiation by the spiritual master, or through personal transformation.  This is a manifestation of the word of God, “We say, be and it is”. (Quran).  According to the Hadith of Qudsi (a message revealed to the Prophet, although it is not Quran), God says, “When my faithful servant draws near to me through his or her voluntary devotions, then I love him and I become the ear with which he hears, the eye with which he sees, the tongue with which he speaks, the hand with which he grasps, the foot with which he walks”.

After parting with Baba Kamal Jundi, Shams resumed his travelling.  He spent many years wandering, meeting both mystics and saints.  He travelled to Baghdad, Damascus and the Holy Houses in Makkah and Madinah.  After returning to Tabriz he had a dream in which he was told to go to Konya where someone was waiting for his company, so he embarked on the long journey to that place. Travelling through Damascus and Aleppo, he arrived in Konya in 1244 AD. Shams had travelled throughout the Middle East searching and praying for someone who could “endure my company”.  A voice said to him, “What will you give in return?” and Shams replied, “My head!”  The voice then said, “The one you seek is Jalal ud-Din of Konya”.

There are several versions of his meeting with Rumi.  The most popular one recorded by Sepah Salar who spent 40 years with the mystic.  Rumi was absorbed in teaching students by the water.  Shams walked in with his dishevelled hair.  After greeting Rumi, he pointed to a pile of books next to him and asked, “What is this?”  Rumi replied “This is what you don’t know?”  Shams picked up the books and to Rumi’s astonishment, threw them in the water.  “What did you do, stranger, those were my precious manuscripts?”  Shams then removed the books from the water and to Rumi’s surprise they were all completely dry, with no sign of water on them.  Bewildered and perplexed, he asked, “What is this?” Shams answered him back in his own words, “This is what you don’t know” and hurried away.  Throwing away his religious clothing and his hat, Rumi went out looking for him.  He found Shams at the house of one Salah al-din Zarkub.  Both Rumi and Shams went into total seclusion in a room together for the next six months.  When Rumi came out, he was a changed person, he had been totally transformed.

“Rumi was like pure clean lamp, where the oil was poured in the holder and a wick placed therein, ready to be lit; and Shams indeed was the spark to set it afire.” (Golpinarali, introduction to “Aflaki” 1959-60, p. 648)

Shams stayed with Rumi for about 15 months.  The seminary had been closed; Rumi would not even see his students and disciples, which they blamed on Shams, calling him a wizard and a mad man.  Then Shams left for Damascus.  Rumi was greatly upset by this separation and as he danced around he began to recite poetry that was written down by his students.  It must be understood that Rumi had never before written poetry.  This precious wealth of mystic poetry – almost 50,000 verses in all – has been preserved in the form of what is known as Divan-e Shams Ad Din Tabrizi.

On learning that Shams had been seen in Damascus (Syria), Rumi sent out his son, Sultan Valad, with a letter begging him to return.  So Shams returned to Konya where he was received with great respect.  The mystic meetings resumed, Shams often sharing his profound thoughts and vision with Rumi and his disciples.  The jealousy and anger, however, resurfaced among Rumi’s disciples, the jurists of the town also joining in this time and so Shams disappeared, leaving no trace behind, according to Sultan Vald.  Shams had even warned everyone that if he disappeared again, this time nobody would find a trace of him “Maqalat”.  On the night of 5th December 1248, as Rumi and Shams were talking, Shams was called to the back door.  He went out – never to be seen again.

The sudden disappearance of Shams put Rumi in a mystic frenzy.  He danced around in the streets, the seminaries and the gardens, while circling around a pillar in his precincts, uttering spontaneous songs of love and Firaq (separation from the beloved).  In the beginning, Rumi always addresses Shams in his poems but eventually, in his spiritual quest for the lost companion, he finds Shams in himself and therefore in his later poetry it is Shams who is talking.  Rumi now had become an extension of Shams, his alter- ego.  Rumi compared Shams-I Tabrizi with the immortal Khizer, who had been given Divine knowledge (Ilm-e Ladunni) and he put a sign “Maqam –I Khizer”(station of Khizer) on the wall of the room where he used to confer with Shams.

After leaving Konya for good, Shams travelled back to Tabriz and then to Sabzevar, though he did not stay there for long.  He travelled far and wide between different countries, Baltistan, Skardu, Kargil,  Kashmir and Gujrat, with people accepting Islam from his hands in large numbers, impressed by his charismatic personality, performing acts of Divine Grace (Karamaat) and miracles.  From Gujarat he arrived in Baghdad where he is reported to have brought the ruler’s young boy back to life after he had died, which brought him into trouble with the jurists.  When they ordered that the skin be removed from his body, Shams covered his torso with a blanket and gave away his skin.  When the ruler let him go, his 13 year-old son insisted that he owed his life to the saint and so he should be allowed to go with him as his disciple.  Shams then left with the boy for Multan, where another great saint, Shaykh Baha uddin Zakariya, ruled.  The account of their arrival in Multan in 1265 has been recorded in many books, including “Gulzar-I Shams” (Garden of Shams).  Here is the fascinating account by Sir Lepel Griffin and Colonel Charles Massy in their “Memoirs”,published in 1909, of Shams’ arrival in Multan where he had come to spend his remaining years:

“While Baha uddin was in the zenith of fame and power, the saint Shams, with one disciple, a boy of some thirteen years, arrived at Multan from the west, miraculously crossing the Indus upon the small praying carpet (Musalla) used by all Muhammadans.  When Baha Uddin heard of his arrival, he sent to him a cup full of milk to signify that Multan was already as full of fakirs as it could hold, and that there was no room for one more.  Shams Tabriz returned the milk, having placed a flower on its surface, signifying that not only was there room for him, but that his fame would be above all the holy men who had honoured Multan with their presence.  On this Baha Uddin was much enraged, and ordered that no one should feed or assist in anyway the contumacious saint.  He was independent himself of food; but his young disciple soon became hungry and cried for something to eat.; and at the call of Shams Tabriz, deers from the wilderness came and allowed themselves be milked.  In return for their confidence the saint killed one, according to the orthodox Muhammadan procedure, and sent the boy into the city to beg fire with which to cook it.  But Baha Uddin was not to be disobeyed and all refused; while one sweetmeat seller threw a vessel of milk on the face of the boy who returned to his master in tears.  Then Shams Tabriz cried aloud, ‘O sun, from whom I take my name (Persian Shams, the sun), come near and grant me the heat to cook my food which these unbelievers deny me.’  The sun descended and cooked the venison.”

(Sir Lepel H. Griffin and Colonel Charles Francis Massy, Chiefs and Families of Note in The Punjab, Volume 1, The Civil and Military Gazette Press, Lahore, 1900, p 304)

It is rumoured that Shams was murdered with the connivance of Rumi’s son, ‘Ala’ ud-Din.  “Maqalat-e Shams-e Tabrizi” seems to have been written during the later years of Shams, as he speaks of himself as an old man.  Overall, it bears a mystical interpretation of Islam and contains spiritual advice.  The legend of Shams-e-Tabrizi will live forever for truly he and Rumi became one and the same.

The author is an academic and writer who has spent a lifetime researching the life of Shams ad-Din Tabrizi.  He is due to publish book on Shams ad-Din Tabrizi.