Who Killed Shams-I Tabrizi?: Sufism and Turkish Identity in “The Black Book” and “The Dervish’s Gate”

Thomas Parker


They found his body, riddled with stab wounds, at the bottom of the well. The body belonged to one Shams-I Tabrizi, the beloved of the famous Sufi poet Rumi. Rumi, known in Turkey as Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi, has achieved renown through the ages and the world over. He was the bestselling poet in America in 2014. UNESCO named the year 2007, his 800th anniversary, as the International Year of Rumi. It is safe then to say that the name Rumi is familiar to even the uninitiated to Sufism. However, that of Shams-I Tabrizi, the maşuk (beloved) to Rumi’s aşik (lover), the man who inspired Rumi, is unfortunately and undeservedly less well-known. While Rumi had started to write poetry even before meeting Shams, it is only upon reaching the heights of divine love with/through him and the grief at his absence that Rumi penned thousands of couplets and the most insightful and searing of his poetry.[1] The basic outlines of the story is as such: Rumi, from a well-to-do family that fled from Balk before it was overran by the Mongols, follows his father’s footsteps and eventually become a scholar and preacher in the Anatolian city of Konya. He rises to become the city’s most prominent preacher and teacher. Shams, on the other hand, was known as a wanderer and ascetic who never stayed in one place for long. One day upon meeting in the middle of a Konyan bazaar, the both realize that in the other they had found what they had been looking for. Rumi takes him into his house, where they have a series of sohbets, intense moments of silence and discussions, helping lead each other on the path to divine love. However, Rumi’s disciples, whether seeing the wandering migrant below their hoca’s stature or jealous at having at his attention stolen from them, eventually run Shams out of town. Rumi in grief has his eldest son track down Shams, whom he finds in Damascus and brings back. Less than a year later, Shams is found dead at the bottom of a well. It is the tale of love between these two and the mystery of this murder that lies at the heart of our two novels to be compared.

Ahmet’s Ümit’s The Dervish’s Gate and Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book[2] almost beg to be compared to each other. The two are both prominent Turkish books, the former a national bestseller and the latter one of the biggest events in Turkish literature in the 20th century and the novel where Pamuk found his own unique voice as a novelist, in which Sufism plays a prominent role. The similarity between them is striking. Not only does Sufism play a role in both, not only is the relationship between Rumi and Shams-I Tabrizi a central focus for both, but both furthermore use the historical murder of Shams-I Tabrizi to incorporate elements of the mystery novel. Despite this conspicuous resemblance, other than the various mention in the footnotes of critical essays, no one has done a direct comparison of the two novels. This piece aims to fill that gap. This is a necessary exercise not just because of their striking similarity, at least on the surface level, but also because of ways they are different, and what theır convergences and dıvergences says about them as authors and about the place of Rumi in the Turkish national imagination.

Ahmet Ümit is, perhaps, Turkey’s most prominent crime novelist. However, he wrote a who-dun-it of a much different nature for his fifth novel, this time using the 500 year old murder of Shamsi-Tabrizi to explore Mevlevi Sufism (Mevlevi is the name for Rumi’s order, referring to the Mevlana in his title). The novel occupies two narratives, one in contemporary times as our protagonist Karen, a claims investigator for an insurance company in London inspects the possibility of arson in a hotel fire in Konya (the city of Rumi), and the other as she comes to literally inhabit Shamsi-Tabrizi in a series of visions.[3]  Her father was, before disappearing from her life, himself a Mevlevi Sufi and it is partially to solve this mystery that she is in Konya.  Ümit masterfully get his readers to invest in the story, which is more or less a bildungsroman of how the protagonist comes to realize the illusory nature of the “real” world, by interconnecting with the personal background of our protagonist. The purpose of this being that as Karen gains in knowledge of Mevlevi Sufism so too does the reader.

The Black Book was the book that declared the arrival of Orhan Pamuk on the stage of Turkish literature. In true Pamukian fashion, the book is complex and as postmodern as one’s heart could desire. The plot, however, is exceedingly simple. The novel opens up with the disappearance of Galip’s wife Ruya. He also learns that his uncle Celal, a famous newspaper columnist has disappeared. He comes to believe that finding Celal is the key to finding Ruya and sets out to find her in what is a parody of the detective novels his wife loves. In his search, Galip becomes obsessed with Celal (whose name in Turkish invites comparison with “Celal-eddin Rumi) and in a typical postmodern self-aware gesture Galip starts to deliberately compare his relationship with Celal to the one between Rumi and Shams. Part of the novel’s complexity lies in Celal’s newspaper columns’ interspersing the main narrative, with every other chapter being one of his columns, with the conceit being that Galip is reading that column. However, Celal is no regular newspaper columnist, but rather something like what Joyce would have been had he been a journalist with complete freedom who decided to write the story of Dublin in serial form, rather than a novel. The columns, often far more interesting than the main narrative arc, are chock-full of conspiracy theories, Sufi esoterica and contemporary tales of Istanbul. More than one of the tales in these columns are in fact a remixed version of a tale from Rumi’s Masnevi.  However, in addition to Celal’s clue-maker avocation, layer upon layer of meaning is also added to the novel by the number of binaries present, the double meanings suggested by the character’s names and the allusions to classic Sufi literature. Eventually, Galip’s need to establish a personal identity eventually expands far beyond the borders of simply being inspired by Rumi and Shams, to a reflection of the need for Turkey to establish an independent identity torn between West and East (another self-aware gesture from the author) and even larger as a reflection of the illusion of a self. Perhaps, the novel can be best explained as detective novel that in seeking to solve a metaphysical mystery becomes a sort of postmodern contemporary Masnevi.[4]

There is a question here, a question bigger than even that of who killed Shamsi-Tabrizi: Why should two of Turkey’s most prominent secular littérateurs take an interest in Sufism? The answer is that these two authors, though for very different reasons, take an interest in Sufism because of its role in Turkish national identity. Indeed, both novels are examples “of how Sufism manifests itself in secular Turkish popular culture.”[5] Much credit for constructing Mevlevi Sufism as an integral part of Turkish identity is due here to Talat Harman’s promotion of the ‘whirling dervish’ when he served as first Minister of Culture and Tourism. While some may be tempted to counter this by pointing to the long tradition of Sufism in the country, that does not in any way make Sufism’s place in Turkish national identity inevitable, nor specifically that of Mevlevi Sufism. There are other types of Sufism, some just as long-bedded in Turkey, that are not as seen as important for national identity, for example the Bektaşi, and its sub-order of Hurufism, the Akbarian tradition (Ibn Arabi),[6] and Allah forbid Alevism. It is worth mentioning that while Ümit’s novel focuses exclusively on the Mevlevi tradition, The Black Book covers all of these branches of Sufism.

The reason for why Pamuk covers a wider breadth of Sufi orders, whereas Ümit focuses on just the Mevlevi tariqa becomes clearer when we consider their different goals of using Sufism in the book. Ümit’s use is very much political, perhaps even instructive. Ümit himself has not only likened the murder of Shams and the root of intolerance he sees behind it to contemporary political crimes in Turkey, but furthermore to the most high-profile political murder in recent Turkish history, that of the assassination of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007. Sufism has long been seen as something disparate from the rest of the Islamic tradition, emerging almost in spite of “Islam.” With its language of love and peace, it is seen as being apolitical and is, therefore, often favored by secularists as a natural alternative to political Islam. That is to see Sufism’s apoliticity as a solution to recent Turkish political tensions is precisely what makes his use of it politically-oriented. This also would not be the first time that Ümit wrote a novel that aimed to instruct or educate as much as entertain, as it has been noted that this a tendency of his.[7] While Ümit’s novel in many ways centers more around popular curiosity of Rumi than it does actual Sufi teachings, Pamuk’s in some ways actually grounds itself in Sufi teachings (though the skepticism of ever knowing the truth inherent to postmodernism is an essential contradiction). The reason for this lies in that Pamuk’s primary goal in the novel, and perhaps in his entire oeuvre, is to deconstruct. And in this novel, he aims to deconstruct Turkish national identity. Seen in this context, it is understandable how Sufi teachings, in their various strands, are useful in that they allow him to simultaneously deconstruct both the role of Sufism in Turkish national identity and the latter en large. 

While I am not one to be bothered by literature that intends to edify, it came off a bit too heavy-handed in The Dervish’s Gate. At times, it felt like the only purpose of the book was to introduce readers to Mevlevi Sufism, to the point where it actually felt that the original had been written in English specifically to instruct foreigners in the ways of Mevlevi Sufism (especially considering the foreign protagonist).  The didactic nature of the novel resulted in far too much telling, as opposed to showing, and some conversations felt more like information dumps than conversations actual human beings would have. I also would have liked to seen more variety in the sentence length in Ümit ’s novel. Almost all of the sentences were of the exact same length, though I know not if this a fault that belongs to the author or the translator.  However, I may be coming off a bit too censorious. I enjoyed the book and find it to be a good read for beginners to Sufism. It also had moments where it was a page-turner that was hard to put down.

While Ümit could have used leaving some links for his readers to construct themselves, Pamuk takes the complete other approach. The Black Book is, in a word, infuriating. Not only does Pamuk have the nerve to build a web so complex that there isn’t a link that can’t be constructed in the book, but he then suggests that none of it ultimately matters. Still many a reader continues to pore over the novel like a cipher, looking behind every nook and cranny, every word, letter and symbol, for a secret. Therefore, while it is Ümit’s novel that is titled, in the Turkish original, Bab-I Esrar, or the Gate of Secrets, it is ironically fitter for the Black Book. While they are starkly similar in that they are both novels that have elements of a mystery novel; that have their main narratives interrupted; that have a relationship modeled after Rumi and Shamsi-Tabrizi, ultimately, their dissimilarity is even starker. And I would recommend my readers to read both even if only for the fun of seeing how two books cover the same subject, but do so in radically-different manners. I would advise the reader, especially if he or she is a beginner to Sufism to begin with Ümit’s book, and the use the background to better appreciate Pamuk’s novel. However, the greatest difference between the two books is in the respective answers they give to who murdered Shams-I Tabrizi and why. For both, this is the climax of the novel and the episode that demonstrates their respective purposes. While we may never truly know who killed Shams, we can all rest easy knowing that he in death, as in life, continues to influence great literature.




[1] Here it is worth mentioning that there is no evidence to suggest that they were gay lovers. Rather, all evidence points to the love between, though incredibly strong, being only Platonic love in the original sense.

[2] There are two translations of this book. I would highly suggest the Gunceli Gun translation. I found it to be vastly superior to the Mauren Freely translation.

[3] The connection between dreams and visions is so much the Turkish word for dream “ruya” actually comes from the Arabic word for a vision.

[4] Almond, Ian. "Islam, Melancholy, and Sad, Concrete Minarets: The Futility of Narratives in Orhan Pamuk's "The Black Book"" New Literary History 34, no. 1 (2003): 78. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20057766.

[5] Zeynep Tüfekçioğlu, « Sufism in Turkish Crime Fiction: the Mystery of Shams-i Tabrizi in Ahmet Ümit’s Bab-ı Esrar », European Journal of Turkish Studies [Online], 13 | 2011, Online since 17 December 2012, connection on 01 July 2017. URL : http://ejts.revues.org/4532

[6] The connection between Rumi and Ibn Arabi, perhaps the two foremost masters of Sufism in Islamic heritage, is much deeper than one would originally believe. Ibn Arabi’s foremost disciple lived in Konya at the same time and we know, even if there does not seem to be intellectual borrowings between the two, that there was interaction between the two. They were the two most alims in the city at the same time and Rumi gave him the honor of giving the khutbah sermon at his janazah, or funeral prayer.

[7] Tüfekçioğlu, Sufism in Turkish Crime Fiction.



If you want to read The Black Book you can find it here.

If you want to read The Dervish Gate you can find it here here.

Thomas Parker is a Muslim-American poet, writer and translator from Texas. He writes original poetry in English as well as translating from Turkish and Arabic. He is the co-founder and poetry editor of the Bosphorus Review of Books and is currently at work on a debut novel.