A Little Book of Mystical Secrets: Rumi, Shams of Tabriz, and the Path of Ecstasy

A Little Book of Mystical Secrets: Rumi, Shams of Tabriz, and the Path of Ecstasy


View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


At long last, an accessible little book that focuses on the teachings of Rumi's teacher and inspiration, Shams of Tabriz. Included in this slim, charming volume is a biographical sketch of the great Sufi teacher and mystic and a new translation of 500 of his core teachings that bring into fresh focus the meaning and mysteries of life and love.

There are many books on Rumi and many translations of his works and yet most readers are unaware of how Rumi became a mystic. Shams, an Arabic word that means the sun, was the catalyst that converted the rather resolute and ascetic Rumi, the cleric and teacher, into Rumi, the passionate disciple of the religion of love. He was the agent of the propulsive mystical energy that transformed Rumi the reticent into Rumi the ecstatic poet.

Rumi lovers, spiritual seekers, and devotees of the mystical path will meet this little book of wisdom and mystical secrets with enthusiasm.

I shall not place you in my heart
For you may get hurt by its wounds.
I won't keep you in my eyes
For I may belittle you and expose you to the ridicule of common men.
I will hide you inside my soul, not in my heart or in my eyes,
so that you may become one with my breath.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781571747457
Publisher: Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc.
Publication date: 04/01/2017
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 6.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Maryam Mafi was born and raised in Iran. She went to Tufts University in the U.S. in 1977 where she studied Sociology and Literature. While reading for her Master's degree in International Communications at American and Georgetown Universities she began translating Persian literature and has been doing so ever since. Reading Rumi's poetry, she says, has led her to a 're-education' in her own language and a new appreciation of her spiritual heritage.

Narguess Farzad is the Senior Tutor in the Faculty of Languages and Culture at the University of London.

Read an Excerpt

A Little Book of Mystical Secrets

Rumi, Shams of Tabriz, and the Path of Ecstasy

By Maryam Mafi

Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc.

Copyright © 2017 Maryam Mafi
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61283-357-6



* * *

When we first become familiar with Rumi, it is only natural that we also become interested in Rumi's mentor, Shams of Tabriz. Yet for most of us, Shams remains an enigma. Who was he? Why do we need to know about him? Why now? Does Shams, whom many consider to be a peripheral figure, warrant a book-length study? These are legitimate questions, and we could ask more, but the simple answer to them all is a resounding yes!

For those of us who have read, studied, and come to appreciate Rumi, learning about his foremost inspiration is the next logical step. We should understand why and how Shams transformed his most famous student into a mad, whirling samâzan and mystic poet whose work is considered almost as fundamental to Persian culture and religion as the Koran itself. Without knowing Shams, we cannot truly understand how Rumi became the ultimate Mowlânâ — master teacher and the title by which he came to be known in Iran. If Shams had not taken Rumi under his wing and exposed him to his no-nonsense brand of spirituality, we would not have the immense treasury of mystic Persian poetry that has guided many of us in our own personal spiritual quests.

Let us begin to create a profile of this seemingly mad wandering darvish, or Sufi mystic, from the limited information we have, mostly sourced from Shams's own Maghâlât or, Discourses, a collection of his talks and teachings conducted in Konya, in present-day Turkey, between 1244 and 1247. Undoubtedly, Shams of Tabriz deserves a modern-day book of his own, a book that can appeal to everyone. As we will see, the Maghâlât is the only record we have to date that gives us a close insight into Shams's personality through his own words. First, however, I will provide a general biography of Shams, as well as an overview of the socio-historical dynamics of his time, thus laying the groundwork for an examination of his cutting-edge spirituality, which we will encounter in the second part of this book through a wide selection of his most important sayings, selected from the abridged version of the Maghâlât.

After much research, however, I have concluded that the dates offered by Rumi scholars for events relating to Shams vary, and none can be trusted to be completely precise. Therefore, for the sake of accuracy, I shall mention the year and the month for each event, when possible, and omit the day. As for the transliteration of the Persian words, I have preferred to use the Persian pronunciation versus Arabic or Turkish, using the Iranian Studies transliteration scheme; and where certain words are already known and accepted in English, I have used that spelling.


Mohammad, son of Ali, son of Malekdâd, known as Shams ed-Din, was born in Tabriz, the present capital of the Iranian province of Azarbaijân, in 1184 (Sâheb-Zamâni 1990, 107). Shams, which in Arabic means "the sun" (Shams ed-Din means "the sun of faith"), was the only son of a shopkeeper father who adored him and raised him with utmost care. From very early on, Shams showed signs of being different from other boys. He preferred his own company to that of others his age and hardly ever engaged in childhood games, preferring to spend his time with his books.

Shams's father had high hopes for his son and had him study Arabic, Islamic law, mathematics, and astronomy with the most learned teachers available. It is believed that by the age of seven, Shams had already begun to memorize the Koran, and not long after, he knew it by heart, becoming a hâfez. We know a fair amount about Shams's early life, unlike most other Sufis of his time, because here and there he mentions his family in his Maghâlât. These Discourses, which we will discuss at length later, were roughly scribed by a morid, or devotee, who was privy to Shams's talks, and they are our most valid source of information on Shams.

Shams describes his father as a kind and emotional man whose tears were easily drawn. He imparts almost no information on his mother, though, her personality being immersed into his father's. In one instance, he speaks of how delicately and lovingly his parents raised him, yet at the same time, he criticizes them, as in the following instance in which he implies how exasperating his father's kindness to a cat that had tried to steal their food is. In those days, people were not generally well off, and meat was not a staple of their diets; in fact, it was a luxury and a real treat. It was common that when meat was being served in a meal, the local cats would quickly gather, waiting for their chance to pounce on it.

If a cat spilled and broke a bowl trying to steal the meat, my father, sitting next to me with his stick by his side, would never hit the animal and would jokingly say: "Look how she's done it again! This is good fortune! We've been spared from evil. Otherwise something bad could've happened to either you, me, or your mother!" (Movahed 2009, 173)

In his teens, Shams began to experience unusual mental states, which was a source of worry for his parents. These curious moods were invigorated when he began to attend and serve as a novice in samâ (whirling ceremonies), experimenting with Sufism and its various spiritual practices. These experiences would strongly affect his temperament as well as his physical constitution, especially his dietary habits: at times he would lose his appetite completely, unable to even swallow properly. His sleep also became minimal, yet he felt energized and stronger than ever. In his own words:

My appetite has been eradicated by "discourse"; three or four days pass without me feeling any hunger. And my father says: "My poor son, nothing passes through his lips!" But I tell him that I don't become any weaker, and my power is such that if you wish to see it I could fly to the sun like a bird. (Movahed 2009, Khomi az Sharab e Rabani, 222)

Shams's poor father ceaselessly worried for him, unaware of what was becoming of his beloved only child. He would ask Shams:

"What is happening to you?"

"Nothing has happened to me! Do I look mad? Have I torn someone's clothes off his back? Have I picked a fight with you?"

"Then what is this state I find you in? I know that you're not mad, but I don't understand what you're doing, my son!" (Movahed 2009, 223)

Ali ibn-e Malekdâd, Shams's father, was familiar with the common Sufi practices of the time, because Tabriz was known as the City of Seventy Bâbâs (fathers), a term referring to shaykhs (Arabic), morsheds, and pirs (Persian), or Sufi mentors and masters. Shams's condition, however, was unlike that of most Sufis and baffled his father, who would worry himself sick as he watched his son wither away.

Shams says of his father: "He was a good man ... but he wasn't a lover. A good man is one thing and a lover is another. ... Only a lover can know about the state of another lover" (Movahed 1997, 44). For Shams to be in love was to be burning in the fire of love all the time.

The relationship between father and son gradually but steadily deteriorated, and as Shams began to realize how different he was from his kin, his father's kindness began to seem intrusive and even hostile at times. He says, "My father had no notion about me. I was a stranger in my own town, and my father was becoming a stranger to me. I was more estranged every day and began to think that even when he spoke kindly and paternally to me, in fact he preferred to beat me and throw me out of his house!" (Movahed 2009, 223).

Shams's feelings of alienation, however, did not affect his self-confidence or his belief in his own spiritual powers. He tells of an exchange with his father:

I told him, let me tell you just one thing! The way you are with me is like duck eggs that have been left under a hen. The eggs eventually hatch and the ducklings instinctively walk to the stream. They slide into the water and swim away, as their mother, a domestic hen, only walks alongside them on the bank, without the prospect of ever getting into the water herself. Father, I can now see that the sea has become my carrier, my home! This is the real state of my being. If you are from me and me from you, then come into the sea; otherwise, you can bide your time with the hens in their coop. (Movahed 2009, Shams e Tabrizi, 44)

Elsewhere in the Maghâlât, Shams reiterates his feelings about his father:

If it weren't for Mowlânâ I would never have returned to Konya. ... Had they brought me the news that my father had risen from the grave and sent me a message to go and see him and come back to Damascus with him, I would never have even considered going! (Movahed 2009, 77)


Seeing no other choice, Ali ibn-e Malekdâd had to let his teenage son join Shaykh Abu Bakr Seleh-Bâf in his independent khâneghâh, a Sufi house, in the Charandâb quarter in Tabriz. Shams describes his pir as a soul who was indifferent to the "Lords of Power and Gold." Every time members of the government wished to pay their respects, the shaykh's students would exaggerate their acts of devotion to their teacher, excessively bowing and keeping their distance with their hands crossed over their hearts, intending to belittle the wealthy visitors.

Shams seems to have adopted Shaykh Abu Bakr's indifference to wealth and authority, in addition to relinquishing the popular custom of taking part in special Sufi ceremonies. In the Sufi tradition, it is common for shaykhs to initiate their morid upon the completion of their studies by giving them a khergheh, the cloak of a darvish. Shams, however, insisted that it was not Abu Bakr's practice to bestow a khergheh, thus emphasizing the fact that he did not adhere to common Sufi rituals. Many years later, Shams was asked to reveal his own khergheh and to introduce his own shaykh, to prove that he was a genuinely initiated darvish, and he cunningly replied:

The Prophet, peace be upon him, has gifted me my khergheh in my sleep! And it's not one of those that ages after two days and ends up in tatters only fit to clean toilets with; but it's a robe of "teaching," teachings that cannot be comprehended by everyone, teachings that do not belong to yesterday or tomorrow. What can love possibly have to do with yesterday and tomorrow anyway? (Movahed 1997, 62)

At the time when Shams was growing up in Tabriz, the two main Islamic schools that the people of Azarbaijân belonged to were the Hanafi and Shafi'i, which was a major source of contention and animosity between the inhabitants. Shams belonged to the Shafi'i school, but unlike most conservative Hanafis, who generally disparaged Shafi'i principles, Shams as a Shafi'i was himself open to Hanafi principles when he found them useful. Later on in life, he would refute fanaticism by teaching and practicing tolerance in his daily life and encouraging acceptance and camaraderie between the various factions in Islam, an outlook that he later transferred to Rumi, who belonged to the Hanafi school.

In his youth, Shams had studied Islamic jurisprudence and had learned the Koran by heart, studying under the religious authorities of his time. As a young man, however, when he first became attracted to Sufism and the practices of the darvishes, he shunned the mullahs, believing that they had no concept of mysticism. As time went by and he mingled with darvishes, he came to believe that perhaps spending time with the mullahs was more honest than wasting time with fraudulent, useless, and freeloading mystics, who were abundant and who showed no trace of spirituality in their lives. In Shams's own words:

At first I did not mingle with the religious scholars, only with darvishes, for I thought that they were not conscious of spirituality. Once I became intimately familiar with what true spirituality was and understood the state those darvishes were in, I instead preferred to keep company with the Islamic scholars, for they have truly experienced suffering. These darvishes lie when they claim to be genuine ascetics. Where is their asceticism? (Movahed 2012, 249)

It seems, in fact, that this to and fro between jurisprudence and spirituality continued throughout Shams's life and often created confusion for those who did not know him. They could not comprehend or discern how his adherence to Islamic laws, which was paramount to his existence, could be paired with his total devotion to Sufism. He recounts:

They asked a friend of mine about me: "Is he a theologian or a darvish?" He replied: "He's both." They asked: "Then why does he always talk about jurisprudence?" He answered: "Because spirituality is not a subject that he could speak about with this group! He speaks in terms of the law because he's hiding his meaning and revealing secrets in between the lines." (Movahed 1997, 58)

The Sufi path is a narrow one, slippery and full of fast, sharp turns. If one slips off, on one side lies the rugged terrain of zeal for asceticism, the obsession with denying oneself any pleasure and belittling one's body, and on the other side lies the cesspool of corruption, laziness, and uselessness. In the thirteenth century, the Persians were not only religious but extremely traditional, more so than the neighboring Turks, Syrians, and Mesopotamians and the more distant Egyptians, but still, corruption and the desire to climb socially was rife among many Islamic theologians and scholars.

Shams and most pure-hearted Sufis must have been painfully aware of this situation in their native Azarbaijân, and they suffered as they watched their colleagues engage in self-motivated aggrandizement. In his Maghâlât, Shams repeatedly criticizes these hypocrites and reproaches them for misleading the young who sought their guidance: "These men who speak from the pulpits and lead the prayers are the thieves of our religion!" (Movahed 2009, 212).


In the Sufi tradition of master and pupil, or shaykh/pir/morshed and morid, at one point after having served one's mentor for some years and having completed the necessary preliminary stages of solÛk, or Sufi training, a student was sent away on a trip. Often, these trips happened without prior planning but could occur as a result of the morid experiencing overexcitement or excessive periods of ecstasy.

Separation from one's mentor was intended to mature the devotee and was never allowed until one's shaykh was convinced of the need for it. To be apart from one's mentor was supposed to increase the morid's love for him, meanwhile maturing the morid out of necessity and teaching him how to stand on his own two feet, as he would no longer enjoy the protection he had been offered previously by his shaykh. Shams perhaps recollects his own experience when he tells a morid:

I worry for you at this hour because, unaware of the hardships of separation, you are happily sleeping in the cool shadow of your shaykh's compassion. With one wrong move you can lose this mercy and afterward can only dream of regaining it; neither will you ever be able to see your shaykh again without his will, whether in your sleep or while you're awake. Hope is valuable and wise when the possibility of achieving is real, otherwise what's the use? (Movahed 2009, 67)

The concept of travel was indeed meant to symbolize inner travel and the constant inner search for the divine and perfection. Shams admits: "When the morid is not yet perfected, it is not wise for him to be separated from his shaykh. But when he becomes a perfect Sufi, his mentor's absence will cause him no harm" (Movahed 2012, 144–45).

The importance of being separated from one's revered morshed or shaykh becomes apparent in Shams's relationship with Rumi many years later, when Shams tells Rumi that he himself will tolerate the hardship of travel for Rumi's sake, because he can't expect Rumi, who had many social and family responsibilities, to just pick up and leave town:


Excerpted from A Little Book of Mystical Secrets by Maryam Mafi. Copyright © 2017 Maryam Mafi. Excerpted by permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword ix

Shams of Tabriz: Rumi's Sun 1

The Sayings of Shams 75

Glossary 201

Bibliography 203

Index of Sayings from Khomi az Sharab e Rabani 207

Customer Reviews