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Tile from the exterior of Rumi’s tomb in Konya, housed at The Met

The Strange Speech of Sultan Valad

Michael Pifer

Sometime in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, a Sufi poet named Sultan Valad was trying his hardest to get out of delivering a public sermon. He had just spoken before a private gathering of religious scholars while on a visit to the city of Kayseri, located in central Anatolia. Apparently, these scholars had been utterly dazzled by his spiritual acumen and wanted to hear more. According to the hagiographic report that preserves this story, they consequently beseeched him to preach for the benefit of the faithful in the city.

“Our words, at present, are not for the pulpit,” Sultan Valad replied, turning these supplicants down. As he explained, his speech contained brilliant subtleties that could not be comprehended by the ordinary mind. In some ways, it was a strange claim to make: after all, Sultan Valad was the son of the towering Persian poet and mystic Jalal al-Din Rumi, who had sought to foster a religious community in the city of Konya. After Rumi’s death, Sultan Valad eventually became the leader of this community; he even dispatched representatives throughout Rum (“Rome,” or the formerly Byzantine territories) to propagate his father’s teachings far and wide. In no small way, Sultan Valad had made it his spiritual calling to preach about Islam to the diverse peoples living in medieval Anatolia.

Still, on this particular occasion, he demurred.

His peers, however, were relentless. And so, seemingly worn down by these requests, he agreed to their demands.

That Friday, Sultan Valad rose to the pulpit, tilted his turban to one side, and took his seat. There he waited quietly as the Qur’an reciters chanted sweet verses, filling the air with their rising and falling voices. Finally, when it was time, Sultan Valad parted his lips and began to preach. His words were quite simple—so simple, they appear to carry no hidden meaning of any kind. He merely proclaimed in Arabic that he had been taught by his father, Jalal al-Din Rumi, who was his refuge and master and shaykh, his imam and strength and support. His father, he stated, was the very place of the spirit in his body.

A stunned cry went out from the people at these words. The local governor rent his garments. One prominent religious scholar threw his turban from his head in abandon. The entire assembly, agitated to their core, rose to their feet as tears of blood ran from their eyes. The report here is telling. No longer was it possible to give a sermon. Instead, the sermon had become a sama‘, or a ritual of dancing and audition that involved the ecstatic contemplation of God. Although words, including poems, were often used during sama‘ ceremonies, those words were only heuristics, meant to guide initiated participants into an experiential realm somewhere beyond language. In this case, it was not until Sultan Valad fell silent and straightened his turban once more that the people gradually returned to their senses.

It is safe to say that this story, like many stories about Sultan Valad and his contemporaries, does not contain a simple message either. We are asked to imagine a scene in which the mere evocation of Rumi’s name was enough to send a crowd into a state of frenetic spiritual rapture. For modern ears, the story therefore might not seem like it has much to reveal, strange as it is. After all, it is hardly a secret that Sultan Valad was Rumi’s son, just as it is hardly a secret that Rumi imparted spiritual instruction to his followers.

And yet, Sultan Valad’s sermon does something. Most obviously, it elicits a frenzied response from the crowd, who respond vocally and physically to his words. At the same time, the sermon enables Sultan Valad to embody a spiritual genealogy, drawing upon the authority of his father and refashioning it, before an audience, as his own. His speech, in the context of the report, is therefore highly performative, attempting to bring about the very transmission of authority that it describes. Moreover, it is a performance that the members of this religious community take part in: from governor to scholar to the assembly at large, all affirm the spiritual authority of Sultan Valad, who has access to secrets about Islam through proximity to his father. In this light, what matters is not necessarily that Rumi’s name is spoken. What matters is that it is Sultan Valad who speaks it.

That is not to say that the events of this report (preserved in Aflaki’s Manaqib al-‘arifin) are historically “true.” Instead, reports like these illuminate a way of thinking about spiritual authority in medieval Anatolia—that is, about who has the right to speak on spiritual matters, how they exercise that right through carefully chosen words, and what role an audience might play in this process. Of course, Sultan Valad exercised his authority not only in his sermons but also in his multilingual poetry, which he composed in Persian, Arabic, Greek, and Anatolian Turkish. In his compositions and speech, he continues to enforce, reclaim, and reinvent his father’s legacy in many ways. The message across these performative contexts is both subtle and persistent: for audiences to discern the secrets of Rumi, they should give ear to the speech of his son.

Michael Pifer is lecturer in Armenian language and literature at the University of Michigan. His publications include the coedited volume An Armenian Mediterranean: Words and Worlds in Motion.

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