Q. The Unveiling of Secrets is an unusual title. What does it
A. Ruzbihan gave this title to his diary. "Unveiling" is a term used
by Sufis to refer to the mystical experience in which God tears away the veil
that separates ordinary human consciousness from the divine reality. Unveiling
often takes the form of visions in which God, the angels, and the Sufi saints
appear in visible forms. "Secret" is the innermost consciousness that is hidden
within the soul; that secret forms part of the divine reality which is
unveiled. From his childhood to his death at the age of eighty-one, Ruzbihan's
life was filled with a continual stream of visions and ecstasies.
Q. How was Ruzbihan viewed in his own time?
A. As a youth, Ruzbihan (1128-1209) briefly sold vegetables in his
hometown of Pasa in southern Persia; his surname, Baqli, "the grocer,"
distinguishes him from several other people named Ruzbihan. At the age of
fifteen, however, he threw his goods and cash box into the street, and ran away
into the desert to seek God. He joined the Sufis shortly afterward. Sometime in
his late thirties he arrived in the city of Shiraz, and for many years he
preached weekly in the great mosque of the city. He attracted many disciples
among the people, particularly the artisan classes, and he was greatly
respected by the Turkish princes who ruled the region. His tomb became an
internationally known place of pilgrimage visited by travelers from as far away
as North Africa.
Q. If he was so respected during his lifetime, and for several
centuries after his death, how was it that his work finally became more or less
A. Ruzbihan's descendants and followers revered him greatly, but they
were not on the same spiritual or literary level, and they were satisfied with
being caretakers of his tomb. In addition, a major religious revolution took
place in Persian about 1500 when Shi`i Islam became the state religion; at that
time, many Sufi tombs were destroyed and thousands of Sufi dervishes were
killed. So it is not totally surprising that, by 1900, his tomb had become a
ruin. More importantly, his writings on mysticism in Arabic and Persian were
sophisticated and daring in expression; the average student of Sufism could not
understand them. Nevertheless, a select handful of Sufis in India, Central
Asia, Persia, the Balkans, and North Africa treasured his writings. The
manuscripts have been rediscovered in the past few decades by scholars in
Europe, Iran, Turkey, and India. These works are only now beginning to be
translated into Western languages.
Q. How is Ruzbihan connected to more well-known Sufi figures, such as
Rumi and Hafiz?
A. A. Rumi (d. 1273) was a child when Ruzbihan died in 1209, and does
not seem to have been in direct contact with his teaching, but the two Sufis
shared much in terms of their mystical approach to love and beauty. The great
Persian poet Hafiz (d. 1391) was also a native of Shiraz, and evidence
indicates that he may have been initiated in the order founded by Ruzbihan. The
distinctive Persian approach to nature as the manifestation of divine beauty
forms a strong link between the visions of Ruzbihan and the poems of Hafiz.
Ruzbihan is also one of the most important commentators on the early Sufi
martyr Hallaj (executed in 922), famous for saying "I am the Truth."
Q. How is the imagery in Sufi poetry related to The Unveiling of
A. Ruzbihan's "unveilings" are expressed in powerfully visual
imagery, in which falcons fly up to the garden of paradise, God scatters roses
over his lovers, and solitary pilgrims cross infinite deserts and swim through
turbulent oceans. When a poem by Rumi says, "May this garden bloom until the
resurrection!", Ruzbihan's visions of the celestial garden make it clear that
this is not a mere figure of speech, but a visionary experience as well. The
figure of the beautiful and cruel beloved so common in Sufi poetry is matched
by Ruzbihan's visions of angels with long hair like women, who bear the weapons
of Turkish soldiers. These poetic images are therefore closely linked to the
mystical experience of ascension to the divine presence, which is the
fundamental theme of The Unveiling of Secrets.
Q. How does The Unveiling of Secrets compare to other mystical
texts from other traditions, and how does Ruzbihan compare to other mystical
A. In terms of sheer power of expression and passionate intensity, it
is hard to think of another mystic who comes close to Ruzbihan. He uses a
highly developed vocabulary of mystical experience in a poetic style that
recreates the intimate mood of his encounters with God. Among Christian
mystics, he resembles Augustine (another powerful preacher) in the way that he
uses scripture in unexpected and startling spiritual interpretations. Like
Hildegard of Bingen or Julian of Norwich, he describes detailed visionary
encounters with God and with the divine qualities of nature.
Q. Would you characterize Ruzbihan's writing as Islamic?
A. Ruzbihan is the author of a major Sufi commentary on the Qur'an,
and his writings are saturated with the vocabulary of Islamic theology and law.
He was intensely devoted to the Prophet Muhammad, who appears in many of the
most important "unveilings" that he describes. While this kind of intensive
mysticism is not popular with fundamentalist Muslims, it represents what has
been one of the major aspects of the Islamic tradition for over a thousand
Q. Modern notions of Islam in the West do not really correspond with
the rising popularity of Sufism. Could you comment on that?
A. The news media focus almost exclusively on sensational political
versions of Islam, such as the Iranian revolution. Islamic fundamentalists are,
however, a small though vocal minority among Muslims. Even today, probably at
least half of the world's one billion Muslims have a Sufi orientation. Many
Americans and Europeans have been drawn to the ecstatic and lyrical tone of
Sufi poetry, which also has a strongly universalist tone. Although today Iran
is branded a "pariah" nation by the U.S. State Department, Iran's favorite
poet, Rumi, has become the best-selling poet in America.
Q. Are there other works of Ruzbihan's waiting to be translated?
A. Of the more than forty works by Ruzbihan in Arabic and Persian,
less than half are preserved. The most important of these include the
Commentary on Ecstatic Sayings, which explains the significance of two
hundred mystical expressions of the early Sufis. The Explanation of Veils
and Coverings discusses the 70,000 veils of light that separate God from
humanity. Ruzbihan has described 1001 spiritual stations in a large Arabic work
called The Spirits' Font. Prof. Alan Godlas of the University of Georgia
will soon publish excerpts from Ruzbihan's massive Qur'an commentary, under the
title Brides of the Qur'an. Portions of Ruzbihan's other writings, such
as The Jasmine of the Lovers (on mystical love), and Errors of the
Wayfarers (a work on mysticism for beginners), will be published by me in a
forthcoming anthology of Sufi texts.