Shams-i-Tabrizi, or Shams of Tabriz was a qalandar who visited Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-1273) in Konya, most probably in 1247, and then disappeared. Little else can be verified about him with any degree of historical authenticity. At least two cities claim to be his burial places: Khoy (Iran) and Multan (Pakistan), but how he may have arrived in either of these remains unclear, as are the circumstances of his death. Some classical biographers have also transposed events from the life of Shamsuddin Muhammad, the 28th Imam of Ismaili Shias, who died in 1310.
The layers of ambiguity surrounding the historical personality of Shams are well-matched by the treatment accorded to him by his famous disciple. Rumi not only named a collection of his own ghazals after his mentor, calling it Divan-i-Shams-i-Tabriz, but also referred to him with great admiration in the Masnavi.
The well-known anecdote about Shams Tabriz throwing the books of Rumi in water and then retrieving them, as well as the alternate version used by Iqbal in Secrets and Mysteries (see Chapter 18), may have been floated by the inner circle of Rumi’s disciples as a similitude for the true nature of the epiphany experienced by Rumi upon meeting his mentor: Rumi became aware of a source of knowledge higher than books.
The anecdote, if treated as a parable, offers yet another possible interpretation. Only eleven years after the meeting between Rumi and Shams, the sum total of the five hundred years of Muslim civilization got burnt down in the form of the libraries of Baghdad, and the ashes went down the River Tigris, just as the books catch fire and are thrown into water, respectively, in the two different versions of the parable.
In the two stories, Shams retrieves the books from the ashes, and from water, respectively. Likewise, the poetry of Rumi, inspired by Shams, retrieves the essence of the fallen Muslim civilization, and takes it to a higher plane.