Jalāl ad-Dīn Rumi informs math and life.


A page from Rumi’s Mathnawi.

“It’s very perverse, what you’re doing,” Professor Vyacheslav Shokurov said, one afternoon in his office chair, with a skepticism characteristic of the mathematician. “One usually begins with examples – examples not treatable by the existing theory. One then develops new theory.”

Shokurov peered at me for an instant, and then lifted his hands from his lap. “But you’ve developed the theory first. And now you go looking for examples.”

My mathematical research had been stalled for about two weeks, for exactly this reason.

My work initially grew out of the study of very concrete examples. Shokurov, however, shook it to its foundations by pointing out (after just one glance) that its result was subsumed by facts which were already known, and even perhaps basic (to the experts).

I eventually managed to adapt, and greatly improve, my theory. But I found myself unsure whether objects to which my new theory applied existed at all. My position was a dangerous one.

Failing at mathematics can feel punishing. It was a feeling of frustration of this sort, perhaps, that drew me to the poetry of Jalāl ad-Dīn Rumi, an Afghan mystic born in 1207. Every line of Rumi’s poetry seemed to grip me, promising me a world that math could not. Three years of mathematics had left me cold. Rumi’s poems stirred me.

Rumi, at age 19, moved to Konya in the Seljuk empire, “a centre of learning more than equal to anything in the West at that time” [1], and wrote of

Moslems and Christians and Jews
raising their hands to the sky
their chanting voices in unison [1, p. 208]

He became an influential proponent of Sufism, a Muslim branch later described in detail in, for example, William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Rumi conjured images of

a melancholy tune
in the sweet-stringed lute
music from a shoreless sea
whose waves roar out of infinity. [1, p. 44]

Rumi described “the amazing earth who out of the fire of love filled with air the brain of the sky” [1, p. 66], but also urged “don’t walk away gloomy / from this garden / you’ll end up like an owl / dwelling in old ruins” [1, p. 53]. He commanded me to

Dance, when you’re broken open.
Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off.
Dance in the middle of the fighting.
Dance in your blood.
Dance, when you’re perfectly free. [1, p. 189]

and demanded

Inside this new love, die.
Your way begins on the other side.
Become the sky.
Take an axe to the prison wall.
Walk out like someone suddenly born into color.
Do it now. [1, p. 69]

“Do you pay regular visits to yourself?” Rumi finally asked me.  He added: “Don’t argue or answer rationally.” [1, p. 59]

I was taken with the urge to write about Rumi.

The question arose: What would I write about? My inspiration consisted in a certain sense according to which Rumi makes evident the incapacity of reason to make sense of life and to make it worthwhile. Rumi demonstrated that something else was needed. He knew exactly what.

Reason, leave now! You’ll not find wisdom here
Were you thin as a hair, there’d still be no room.
The Sun is risen! In its vast dazzle
Every lamp is drowned. [1, p. 62]

I began the difficult task of making this notion precise.

I weighed the prospect of delving into the philosophical literature to master the (as it turns out, many) ways in which philosophers have elucidated the distinction between thinking and feeling. Rumi, it turns out, knew better:

The philosopher kills himself with thinking. Let him run on: his back is turned to the treasure.
Most of those destined for Paradise are simpletons, so that they escape from the mischief of philosophy.
While the clever ones are pleased with the device, the simple ones rest, like babes, in the bosom of the Deviser. [1, p. 97]

I considered turning to psychology. It is the brain, after all, that orchestrates mathematics, poetry, and everything in between. Rumi knew otherwise:

What do you hope to find
In the soul’s streets
In the bloody streets of the heart
That have no news, even of yourself? [1, p. 60]

I even considered comparing Rumi to mathematics. Rumi, again, essentially beat me to it:

A grammarian once embarked in a boat. Turning to the boatman with a self-satisfied air he asked him
‘Have you ever studied grammar?’
‘No,’ replied the boatman.
‘Then half of your life has gone to waste,’ the grammarian said.
The boatman thereupon felt very depressed, but he answered him nothing for the moment. Presently the wind tossed the boat into a whirlpool. The boatman shouted to the grammarian:
‘Do you know how to swim?’
‘No,’ the grammarian replied, ‘my well-spoken, handsome fellow.’
‘In that case, grammarian,’ the boatman remarked, ‘the whole of your life has gone to waste, for the boat is sinking in these whirlpools.’

You may be the greatest scholar in the world in your time, but consider, my friend, how the world passes away – and time! [1, p. 110]

All of my attempts felt weak. They felt like clichés.

I had, once again, stumbled into the trap identified by Shokurov. Shokurov criticized me for theorizing instead of living and working with concrete examples. He was (in the Russian mathematical tradition) advocating for the elevation of experience – of concrete mathematical examples – over abstraction.

I should have listened to Rumi all along. I wanted to write about Rumi, but I had nothing to say. I was trying to extract an academic thesis from Rumi’s work, to theorize, instead of enjoying and exploring his living ideas. I had an answer, but I was searching for a question.

Rumi’s wish, indeed, was perhaps precisely to dissuade us from attempting to undertake such endeavors, and more broadly from attempting to approach life as theoreticians, as agents of reason. Rumi’s genius resides in offering an alternative.

If you tell a thirsty man – ‘Here is a cup of water: drink!’ –
Will he reply? – ‘This is mere assertion: let me alone, O liar, go away.’
Or suppose a mother cries to her babe, ‘Come, I am mother: hark my child!’ —
Will it say? – ‘Prove this to me, so that I may take comfort in thy milk.’

That wondrous voice is heard by the soul in exile – the voice of God calling, ‘Lo, I am nigh.’ [1, p. 132-133]

*    *    *

I pressed Professor Shokurov at the end of our meeting, and he grudgingly offered a concession. He looked down and shook his head slightly, and then looked back up. “I believe examples exist,” he said.

In the meantime, as I’ve enjoyed Rumi’s visions, even my academic theorizing has led to this article, which puts forth a fairly complex – dare I say academic – argument. Things have worked out.

My math, dare I say, has worked out too. Shokurov was right about one more thing: examples do exist. Indeed, I managed to prove that they do — provided, that is, that one assumes certain deep conjectures. (A preprint of my paper is available here.)

Rumi, above all others, would attest to the benefit of faith.

I have lived on the lip
of insanity, wanting to know reasons,
knocking on a door. It opens.
I’ve been knocking from the inside! [1, p. 84]


  1. Rumi Poems. Selected and edited by Peter Washington

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