Rumi's World

narrated by Chris Gratien

featuring Joshua White, Neelam Khoja, Aslıhan Gürbüzel, and Maryam Patton

The political expansion of the Umayyad and Abbasid periods brought a wide range of territories into the Islamic fold. By the end of the 9th century, the Abbasid Empire could no longer exert central authority over its vast caliphate. Semi-autonomous governors throughout the Islamic world would gradually form their own dynasties. In the eastern portion of the Islamic world, this resulted in the rise of a number of Persian and Turkic dynasties that rather than displacing the Arabo-Islamic culture of early Islam, fused it with a Persianate tradition of statecraft, literature, and scholarship. 

In this episode, we're exploring the Turco-Persian dynasties of the 9th-13th centuries. We'll discuss the works of scholars like Ibn Sina, Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, and Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi and their far-reaching impacts in the Islamic world and beyond. In addition to examining the evolution of Islamic polities, we'll shed light on the rise of Sufism and how it tied the new regions of the Islamic world together. We'll call that world "Rumi's world" after the 13th century mystic, scholar, and poet who was born in Khorasan but rose to fame in the newly conquered lands of the Seljuk Empire in Anatolia.

"The Making of the Islamic World" is an ongoing series aimed at providing resources for the undergraduate classroom. The episodes in this series are subject to updates and modification.

Joshua M. White is Associate Professor of History at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Piracy and Law in the Ottoman Mediterranean (Stanford University Press, 2017).
Neelam Khoja is a transregional and transdisciplinary historian; she focuses on historically marginalized communities whose networks cross imperial boundaries and national borders from the fifteenth to twentieth centuries. Khoja received her doctorate degree from Harvard and is currently a Postdoctoral Associate for the Inter-Asia Connections Initiative at the MacMillan Center, Yale University.
Aslıhan Gürbüzel is assistant professor of Ottoman History at McGill University. Her research focuses on Ottoman Sufi orders in the early modern period, with an emphasis on Sufi contributions to the production of medical and philological knowledge in Ottoman manuscript culture.
Maryam Patton is a PhD candidate at Harvard University in the joint History and Middle Eastern Studies program. She is interested in early modern cultural exchanges, and her dissertation studies cultures of time and temporal consciousness in the Eastern Mediterranean during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.


Interviews by Chris Gratien
Sound production by Chris Gratien
Music (by order of appearance): Aitua - Andante; A.A. Aalto - Traverse; Chad Crouch - Lollygag; Chad Crouch - Ruby; Aitua - The Trap; A.A. Aalto - The Canyon; Aitua - Kanon in D; Doctor Turtle - Always the Teasemade, Never the Tease; A.A. Aalto - Red Wing; Chad Crouch - Taut; Soft and Furious - So What?; Aitua - Volcano; Chad Crouch - Skatepark   


The more I search myself the more I see
That longing for your love has ruined me;
I gaze into the mirror of my heart,
And though it's me who looks, it's you I see.

by unnamed 13th-century poet "Bint Esfahanieh," daughter of Hesamaddin Salar
translated by Dick Davis in The Mirror of My Heart, p. 17

Within the Islamicate canon, Persian language is often associated with love poetry like the lines above, and it is true that Persian language brought a wealth of expressive images to the Islamic literary tradition. But the impact of Persian language and culture on Islamic history should not be reduced to the realm of literature. It was much more than this. The medieval Persianate world witnessed the rise of new institutions, ideas, and ways of being that left a large imprint on Muslim societies to this day.

The end of the 9th century was a period of crisis and fragmentation within the Abbasid Caliphate. Although the Abbasids weathered these crises, their political power waned. Former governors and upstart dynasties carved out their own centers of power throughout the Islamic world, especially in the former Sassanian lands of Persia and Khorasan. During the "Iranian Intermezzo" of the 9th and 10th centuries, these dynasties included the Tahirids, Safarids, Samanids, and Buyids. While none of these dynasties deposed the Abbasid Caliphs outright, each operated independent of Abbasid authority in political matters and presided over a court culture in which Persian language became central.

By the end of the 10th century, Turkic soldiers enslaved to serve in the armies of these dynasties increasingly sought power in their own rights. Under Turkic dynasties such as the Ghaznavids, Persianate court culture continued to flourish and spread into South Asia. The Ghaznavids sponsored the Persian epic Shahnameh or Book of Kings, as well as the scholarship of important Persian polymaths like Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, whose work on the natural sciences was renowned and whose study of India represented an early form of anthropological writing. Persianate courts also supported Ibn Sina, whose interpretations of Aristotle and writings on medicine had centuries-long relevance not only in the Islamic world but also in early modern Europe, where his Canon of Medicine was taught at medical schools in translation. 

Despite political fragmentation, scholarship and literature thrived in the capitals of Persianate dynasties. Similarly, commerce between East and West grew and linked the numerous polities of the Islamic world. One of the features of trade during this period was the network of caravanserais, inns along major commercial routes where traders could stop to sleep and rest on long overland journeys. These caravanserais were sponsored by Muslim rulers, governors, and members of prominent families, reflecting the way in which facilitating trade was intertwined with ideas about public good.

Pazar Han near the city of Tokat (modern-day Turkey) was one of three buildings known to have been sponsored by Mahperi Hatun, the wife of Seljuk Sultan Alaeddin Keykubad I. While the image above is from 1960 and the caravanserai has since been renovated, many sites like this one can be found through Anatolia, the Caucasus, and Iran. Photo by Walter B. Denny. Source: Archnet 

Enameled ceramics or "mina'i" ware like the bowl above from 13th century Iran stand as iconic examples of the Turco-Persian material culture of the medieval Islamic world. Source: The Met 

The most consequential Turco-Persian dynasty of the period was the Seljuks, who at one point controlled most of the former Abbasid territory as well as much of Asia Minor, which emerged as a frontier of settlement in the Islamic world. The Seljuk Sultans, whose origins could be found in the nomadic Turkic communities of the Eurasian Steppe, represented a new form of sovereign power that superseded the political authority of the Abbasid Caliphate, which in turn retained its religious legitimacy. Even after Seljuk decline in the Iranian heartlands, the dynasty lived on in the former Byzantine lands of Rum, which explains the epithet of the Bactria-born Sufi mystic known Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, who resided in the Seljuk capital of Konya.

Rumi's oeuvre was representative of major developments in Islamic scholarship during his time. While he was a respected scholar in many fields of the Islamic sciences, Rumi was most remembered for his Sufi mysticism on one hand and his Persian poetry on the other. Sufism would become a major vehicle for the spread of Islam, creating networks of practitioners and Sufi lodges that straddled political boundaries. Through Sufism, mysticism and religious practices accessible to a wider populace developed within the Islamic tradition. 

The inward-facing, ecumenical, and love-focused poetry of Sufi authors like Rumi is much celebrated today, circulating in bestselling translations and adaptations into many languages. While the version of Rumi's thought marketed to modern readers is often distorted into a secular image stripped of much of its Islamic content, Rumi's poetry captures the increasingly capacious culture of the Islamic world that emerged out of the Turco-Persian dynasties between modern-day Turkey in the West and modern-day India in the East. The following poem of Rumi, translated by Annemarie Schimmel in the book Rumi's World (pp. 158-60) on the themes of journey, separation, union, and exploration of the self is one of many iconic literary artifacts of that period.

Oh, if a tree could wander
and move with foot and wings!

It would not suffer the ax blows
nor feel the pain of saws!

For if the sun did not wander
away in every night

How could at ev'ry morning
the world be lighted up?

And if the ocean's water
did not rise to the sky,

How would the plants be quickened
by streams and gentle rain?

The drop that left its homeland,
the sea, and then returned

It found an oyster waiting
and grew into a pearl,

Did Yusuf not leave his father,
in grief and tears and despair?

Did he not, by such a journey,
gain kingdom and fortune wide?

Did not the Prophet travel
to far Medina, friend?

And there he found a new kingdom
and ruled a hundred lands.

You lack a foot to travel?
Then. journey into yourself,

And like a mine of rubies
receive the sunbeams' print!

Out of yourself--such a journey
will lead you to your self,

It leads to transformation
of dust into pure gold!

Leave bitterness and acid, 
go forth to sweetness now!

For even brine produces
a thousand kinds of fruits.

It is the Sun of Tabriz
that does such wondrous work,

For every tree gains beauty
when touched by the sun.

To learn more about the Turco-Persian world, consult the reading list below.

Translated Works

ʻAṭṭār, Farīd al-Dīn . Conference of the Birds, trans. Peter Sís. Penguin Books, 2013.

Ferdowsi, Abolqasem, Dick Davis, and Azar Nafisi. Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings. 2016.

al-Ghazālī, Abū Ḥāmid.  “Deliverance from Error.” Translated by R. J. McCarthy. In Freedom and Fulfillment: An Annotated Translation of Al-Ghazālī’s al-munqidh min al-ḍalāl and Other Relevant Works of Al-Ghazālī. Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 2004.

al-Ghazālī, Abū Ḥāmid. Ghazālī’s Book of Counsel for Kings (Naṣīḥat al-Mulūk). Translated by F. R. C. Bagley. London, 1964.

al-Hallaj, al-Ḥusain Ibn-Manṣūr. Hallaj: Poems of a Sufi Martyr, trans. Carl W. Ernst. 2018.

al-Qushayrī, Abū al-Qāsim. al-Risāla al-Qushayriyya. Translation, introduction, and notes by Alexander D. Knysh. London: Garnet Publishing, 2007.

Ibn Sina (Avicenna). The Canon of Medicine of Avicenna: Volume 1, trans. Cameron Gruner. 1929.

Published Scholarship

Ahmed, Shahab. What Is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017.

Bosworth, C.E. The New Islamic Dynasties: A Chronological and Genealogical Manual. New York: Columbia University, 1996.

Eaton, Richard Maxwell. India in the Persianate Age 1000-1765. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2019. 

Karamustafa, Ahmet T.  Sufism : The Formative Period. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.

Kia, Mana. Persianate Selves: Memories of Place and Origin before Nationalism. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2020. 

Knysh, Alexander. Islamic Mysticism: A Short History. Leiden, Boston, Koln: Brill, 2000.

Lambton, Ann. “The Internal Structure of the Seljuq Empire,” in Cambridge History of Iran. Cambridge University Press, 1968, vol 5, pp. 203–83.

Lange, Christian, and Songül Mecit. The Seljuqs: Politics, Society and Culture. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011.

Lewis, Franklin. Rumi : Past and Present, East and West : The Life, Teaching and Poetry of Jalâl Al-Din Rumi. Oxford: Oneworld, 2000.

Schimmel, Annemarie. Rumi's World: The Life and Works of the Greatest Sufi Poet. Boston, Mass: Shambhala, 2001. 

Sharma, Sunil. Mughal Arcadia Persian Literature in an Indian Court. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2017. 

Chris Gratien is Assistant Professor of History at University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on global environmental history and the Middle East. He is currently preparing a monograph about the environmental history of the Cilicia region of the former Ottoman Empire from the 1850s until the 1950s.


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