Reading the Qur’an with Rumi by Amer Latif

Reading the Qur’an with Rumi by Amer Latif
December 26, 2021 Latif Amer

Amer Latif, a native of Islamabad, Pakistan and current professor of comparative religions and Islamic Studies at Emerson College who taught also at Marlboro College for many years, wrote his dissertation on Rumi at New York University at Stony Brook. I asked him to write the following essay, which he has titled “Reading the Qur’an With Rumi”.

In succinct, lucid prose, Latif conveys the poetic gold that poured out of Rumi throughout his lifetime, culminating in a body of work that abrogates any tendentious misprision of the Qur’an with a grounded mystical genius that speaks directly to readers in general with “inner teachings” that beguile simply as great poetry.

–Chard DeNiord


Reading the Qur’an with Rumi[1]


Fall has come to Vermont. The days are colder and leaf-veils slip all around. Tilts and slants, old stonewalls, the ridge lines distant and close—everything hidden by the carefree green of summer—now stands in sharper relief. I see more clearly where my house sits; how it connects to the hills and slopes; how my neighbors’ houses are closer than in my imagination. I think how map makers must love winters. After many long years of living here, this emerging clarity is now familiar—an anticipated and welcome gift of the cold.


This expansion of vision and increase in clarity is also something I experience when I spend time with Rumi. But there’s an important difference. In reading Rumi, opposites come together—there is the wintry clear, expansive, and penetrating vision of wisdom; but it is embraced by and contained in a sustaining summery warmth of his care and concern for the reader. This is especially the case when I encounter Rumi’s interpretations of the Qur’an, whether in his sermons, poems, or discourses. When I read the Qur’an with Rumi, I see clearly the contours of the Qur’anic vision of reality. It is like seeing the world through the eyes of Zen painters like Shūbun.[2]

Here are the ordinary and familiar forms of the world in all their differences. The usual boundaries between things are apparent but there is something more at work. In Shūbun’s vision the multiple and separate things of the world are suffused with a light that binds together everything. And in the Qur’anic vision, God is the light of the heavens and the earth (Q 24:35), the unifying fabric on which are embroidered the differences within existence: And of His signs…is the variety of your tongues and colors (Q 30:22).


The Qur’an proposes that the nature of reality is paradoxical. All of creation is both real and unreal. In as much as something exists, it is real; but everything that exists also passes away, so it is also not lastingly real. And when compared with the reality of God, the Real, the Independent, the Ultimate, the Lasting, everything is unreal, dependent, contingent, relative, and ephemeral. As the Qur’an reminds its listeners: Everything is perishing except His Face (Q 28:88); Everything that is upon the earth is undergoing annihilation and there remains the Face of your Lord, the possessor of majesty and generous giving (Q 55:26-27). Rather than the logic of either-or, our world and our selves are best described by the logic of both-and. The world and our selves are both real and unreal.


While the logic of both-and feels true to our self-quarreling natures, it is not an easy truth to live by. As most of us would readily agree, to hold mutually opposing truths at the same time requires effort and involves discomfort. It is easier to resolve the tension by letting go one of the opposing truths. I see Rumi as inviting his readers into a more complex and capacious understanding of reality. This  unitive, non-dual perspective, informed by the Qur’anic vision, is in Rumi’s hands a skillful tool for containing and attending to the problems created by dualities. We can get a good sense of this approach to understanding and interpreting the Qur’an by considering how Rumi treats the relationships between text and reader, and between story and the self.




For Rumi, to read the Qur’an is to read oneself; to understand the Qur’an, then, is to understand oneself. The Sufi maxim, “Those who know their own selves know their Lord,” can be expanded to say that those who know their own selves come to know their Lord’s speech, the Qur’an. Investigating and realizing the identity and nature of the knowing subject becomes the most important quest.


Rumi’s view on the unitive relationship between self, scripture, and world arises out of the Qur’anic system of signification and meaning. According to the Qur’an, everything in existence is a sign of God. All natural phenomenon are signs: We have appointed the night and the day as two signs (Q 17:12); And a sign for them is the dead earth, which We brought to life and from which We brought forth grain that they eat (Q 36:33). The miracles and scriptures given to the prophets are also called signs: And We sent Moses with Our signs, and a manifest authority, to Pharaoh and his council (Q 11:96-97); In Joseph and his brothers are signs for those who ask questions (Q 12:7). The Qur’an also refers to its own verses as signs: These are the signs of the Manifest Book. We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur’an (Q 12:1-2).


The Qur’an ties together all domains of signs and their signification with this verse: We shall show them Our signs in the horizons and within their own selves until it becomes clear to them that it is the truth (Q 41:53). Here we have the three systems of signs called “the three books” within the Islamic intellectual tradition: the book of nature, the book of scripture, and the book of the human self. It is the signs/verses of revelation, in this case the Qur’an, that clarify the connections between outer and inner realities. Scriptural revelation relates the outer world of natural phenomenon and cultural history to the inner world of feelings, thoughts, dreams, and stories.

But two factors can get in the way of seeing the connections between scriptural stories and our selves. These stories might appear so old, distant, and foreign that we treat them as fables without any contemporary relevance. In addition, even if we take scriptural stories more seriously, our natural aversion to discomfort can get in the way of appreciating their deeper psychological truths. We effortlessly identify with heroes yet find it hard to see ourselves in the ruthless and tyrannical characters of Qur’anic stories. Who likes to think that they might be like Pharaoh, a person who orders the killing of infants?! Rumi, like many Muslim sages before him, warns his listeners to beware of the delusion that they are better than Pharaoh: “The consensus of the people of the path is  that  whoever  sees  himself  as  greater  than  Pharaoh  is  worse  than  him.”[3]

Qur’anic stories, says Rumi, depict exactly what’s going on, right now and at all times, inside our own selves. He calls Qur’anic stories “the ready cash of our state”:


The mention of Moses serves as a mask,
But the light of Moses is your ready cash.
Moses and Pharaoh are in your own being:
You must seek these two adversaries in yourself.[4]


Qur’anic stories about events that took place in the past are, at the level of the human self, the exact description of the readers’ state in this very moment: “This story is not a story…it is the description of the present.”[5] Qur’anic stories are therefore both historical and transhistorical; that which happened outside is what is always happening within the self.


In meditating on Qur’anic stories, Rumi wishes his readers to recognize the nature and results of their choices; what it might mean to make good choices, choices that lead to inner growth and a more joyous life. He also asks his readers to give primacy to the qualities of mercy and forgiveness. The Qur’an, says Rumi, has “come to quicken us and to hold the hands of those who have lost hope”.[6] When I read the Qur’an with Rumi, I keep hearing the echo of his exhortation:


Don’t enter the street of despair, there is a lot of hope;
Don’t go towards the darkness, there are many suns.[7]




It is true that Rumi interprets the Qur’an in the usual sense of the term. There is a text, the Qur’an, and Rumi is a reader who looks at the text and arrives at one or more interpretations. To simply stay at this level, though, is to be caught in the trap of appearances, to be imprisoned in our ideas about interpretation. It is to fall into the objectivist error of thinking that we are separate from the things around us; that we can keep a shield around us so that what we see and study touches us not. In this mindset, we become forceful and aggressive in our readings. At an unexamined inner level we start operating from the assumption that we can “possess” the meanings within the text. The text is a nut whose shell we must crack if we are to get the seed inside.


Spending time with Rumi is an antidote to the deep human habit in which I confuse the reality of the situation with my ideas about it. Rumi reminds me that the Qur’an is alive; that the Qur’an is a text that reads the reader.


Rumi clarifies the nature of the Qur’anic text and the effort required to achieve a deep understanding of the Qur’an by using the imagery of courtship. He depicts the Qur’an as a shy bride being courted by suitors. The suitors are the seekers after meaning whose goal is to see clearly the face of this veiled beauty. To the student of the Qur’an, Rumi says:


The Qur’an is like a bride. Although you pull aside her veil, she does not show you her
face. That you investigate it and have no pleasure or unveiling is because it rejects your
attempt to pull off its veil. It tricks you and shows itself to you as ugly, as if to say, ‘I
am not that beauty.’ It is capable of showing any face it wants.[8]


Here the meaning of the Qur’an is a living entity that responds to the inner state of its reader. Just like courting another human being, the intention and state of the reader-suitor affects the meaning disclosed or withheld by the text-beloved. The more skillful way to meaning is this:


But, if you do not pull at the veil and seek its good-pleasure, give water to its sown
field, do it service from afar and try to do what pleases it, without you pulling at its
veil, it will show you its face.[9]


Rumi reminds us that understanding is not a static operation of hammering away at a lifeless object. Understanding and interpretation is a dynamic interaction between two living entities. The desire for knowledge in this living encounter is subject to the same rules of etiquette and propriety that ought to govern desire in a respectful, and mutually satisfying relationship.  The living meaning of the Qur’an responds to the reader based on satisfaction with the reader’s actions. This idea of a relationship based on mutual satisfaction is rendered at many places in the Qur’an, for example: O self at peace, return to your Sustainer, well-pleased and well-pleasing (Q 89: 27-28).


Put another way, the reader has to make themselves appropriate and fitting for the meanings of the Qur’an. Seen in this light, to understand the Qur’an is to transform oneself in keeping with the teachings of the Qur’an, by performing the works enjoined in the scripture, by “watering the sown fields of the Qur’an.”  It is to do the bidding of the veiled beauties of Qur’anic meaning and to “seek its good pleasure” through a partnership with it. The meanings open up on their own, in such a case, without the seeker trying to force the interpretation.


Upon reaching this stage, says Rumi, it is God himself who instructs the reader: The All-Merciful has taught the Qur’an (Q 55:1). It is at this stage that it can finally be said that someone has understood the Qur’an. For Rumi, to understand the Qur’an, one has to become the Qur’an. “It takes one to know one.”


The Word of God, the Qur’an, has to become flesh.


[1] Excerpted from an ongoing book project “Reading the Qur’an with Rumi.”

[2] (Public domain image)

[3] Shihāb al-Dīn Aḥmad Sam‘ānī. Rawh  al-arwā  fī  shar  asmā’  al-malak  al-fattā . Ed. by Najīb Māyil Harawī. Tehran: Shirkat-i intashārāt-i ‘Ilmī wa farhangī, 1368/1989, p. 231.

[4] Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī, The Mathnawí of Jalálud’dín Rúmí, ed. and trans. R.A. Nicholson (London: Luzac, 1925), III: 1252

[5] The Mathnawí, III: 1149.

[6] The Mathnawí, V: 3741-44.

[7] The Mathnawí,  I: 724.

[8] Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī, Fīhī Mā Fīhī, ed. B. Furūzānfar (Tehran: Amīr kabīr, 1348), p. 229.

[9] Fīhī Mā Fīhī, p. 229.

Dr. Amer Latif is an interdisciplinary scholar specializing in comparative religion and Islamic studies. Broadly speaking, his research revolves around issues involved in the translation of cultures. Having grown up in Pakistan and with an undergraduate degree in Physics from Bard College and a PhD in Religious Studies from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, Dr. Latif thrives on studying and creating containers that are capacious enough to hold seeming contradictions such as science and religion, East and West. Dr. Latif joins Emerson after having taught for many years at Marlboro College.