We know little about the life of Yunus Emre because the sources available to us are precious, scant and uncertain. Almost every significant thing about his life must be drawn from his poems.
The empire of the great Seljuk Turks, established in Khorassan by the mid-eleventh century, had already expanded its borders to the lands of Anatolia. The Byzantine empire which ruled Anatolia launched the Crusades to preserve its borders against the threat of these Seljuk Turks. The armies of the Crusades were defeated in their battles against them, and the Seljuk Turks established precedence over the Byzantines by conquering Anatolia. Yet shortly afterwards, the empire of the great Seljuk Turks collapsed as the Anatolian state of the Seljuk Turks was formed, while the Crusades still continued. And so not only did Anatolia itself fall into ruin from the ravages of war, but the Anatolian state of the Seljuk Turks was also seriously weakened in spite of their major victory over the armies of the Crusades.
The people of Anatolia, already weakened and devastated by the Crusades from the west, now fell victim to the plundering attacks of the Mongols from the east. In 1231 when the Mongols marched into the city of Sivas in central Anatolia, they embarked on the mass slaughter of the civilian population there. By the time the army of the Seljuk Turks arrived the Mongols had already withdrawn, disappearing into the rest of Anatolia. The direct consequence of these recurring Mongol raids on Anatolia was the splintering of its people, already weak and feeble, into many separate groups. Since the authority of the Anatolian Seljuk state was now so weak it had disintegrated politically, and since the army was incapable of protecting its citizens, individual communities gathered around a local ruler or beylik, a sultan.
This was the beginning of a process which strengthened a number of local rulers and sultans. On the one hand, local rulers, severely competitive, were fighting each other; at the same time they were also in revolt against the authority of the Seljuk state, while still struggling with the Mongol invasions. The picture we now see of Anatolia is sketched in by invasion, riot, the transition from nomadic to settled life for large groups of people, social disquiet and the instability of the Seljuk regime. We can say Anatolia was seething with unrest because of the Crusades, Mongol invasions, the revolt of local rulers and political quarrels for sovereignty among sultans.
This period of utmost unrest and turmoil shaped by all these difficulties which the people of Anatolia suffered, also shaped the remarkable character, the poetry and inner world of Yunus Emre. Through this terrible time, he spent his entire life trying to establish peace and unity in Anatolia, with both his ideas and his efforts. In pursuit of this, he traveled extensively among all the local rulers, explaining the significance of unity and peace to them: his great service was to give voice to and stimulate an awareness of these ideals in Anatolia.
There is consensus among historians and scholars that the Sakarya Valley is the place where Yunus Emre came into this world. Accordingly, Sariköy – now called the village of Yunus Emre in the town of Mihalliççik, Eskisehir – has been acknowledged as the village where Yunus Emre was born.
During his youth when Yunus Emre lived with his mother in this village, he found himself in a kind of ghariblik, a strangeness, a sense of otherness which occasionally plunged him into loneliness. Most of the time, Yunus Emre wandered by himself through vineyards and orchards where he found himself in deep contemplation. One day as he was wandering alone again, he encountered “the sorrowful waterwheel.” While raising and lowering the waters of a stream to water vineyards and orchards, the waterwheel resonated as if it were weeping and moaning. He was overwhelmed by the effect of the waterwheel because its groaning actually voiced his own state of otherness, his solitude in this world.
I am the sorrowing waterwheel,
My waters flow and flow,
This is what God has commanded, and
This is why I weep and moan.
I lift the waters up from deep below,
I spin around and push them up;
See the sorrows I have in the world, and
This is why I weep and moan.
In this way, Yunus Emre begun to pile up sorrow within himself for reasons which are unknown. The more his sorrow increased, the lonelier he became in a crowd. This loneliness, even among other people, was his sole friend; he was now the close friend of those who sorrow. In his village, if someone had sorrow and was in misery, Yunus would visit eagerly to share the sorrow, no matter who the person was. From that time on, everyone's sorrow, everyone's difficulty turned out to be Yunus Emre's own sorrow. He prayed to the Creator to help those who found this strange affliction in themselves: with his prayers to God Yunus sought a remedy for their sorrow.
During a famine, he traveled to the dergah, the dervish lodge, of Hajji Bektash Veli, the great sultan of ma‘na, of meaning, to ask for grain and seeds to feed his starving, hungry villagers. On the way to Hajji Bektash Veli, Yunus decided he could not arrive there with empty hands, and he picked some wild pears on the Anatolian steppes as a gift for Hajji Bektash. May God not oblige anyone to arrive with empty hands.
Hajji Bektash asked Yunus if he would accept a nefes, the secret breath of a blessing, instead of a cartful of grain sacks, but Yunus' mind was on his villagers who were starving. Then Hajji Bektash increased his offer, “We will give you ten nefes for each wild pear you brought us.” Since Yunus had never heard of a nefes before, nor could he even imagine its extraordinary bliss, he chose the grain and seeds, and Hajji Bektash gave him the food instead.
Later, on his way back to the village, Yunus thought he had probably made a mistake as he began to realize the significance of the nefes Hajji Bektash had offered him. He rushed back to him and said, “Here is your grain, take it back and give me your nefes.” But Hajji Bektash told him his share of the nefes had been turned over to Taptuk Emre who would soon become his guide on the path. And so Yunus went to Taptuk Emre.
It took only a little time for Yunus to find Taptuk Emre, delivering himself with total love to his guide. Taptuk gave Yunus the duty of carrying wood from the forest to the dergah, the dervish lodge, and Yunus was a very conscientious pupil in his service there. This means he thought bent or curving pieces of wood were not worthy of the dergah, for which only straight pieces were acceptable. Whenever he returned from the forest Yunus was seen carrying unbent branches of wood to the dergah. However, this scrupulous concern for his duty caused a series of painful injuries to his back, of which Yunus said nothing.
Gharib Yunus, strange, secret Yunus, even though his back was covered with the wounds of these injuries, he still delivered the wood. Because the wounds hurt if he tried to unload one piece at a time, carefully, he would just fling it all to the ground at once. When they saw him do this, some of the dervishes who were envious of Yunus ran to Taptuk Emre and complained, “Yunus is already bored with service to you; now he is throwing the wood around and scattering what he brings to the dergah everywhere.”
Taptuk Emre replied, “Give him a beating! He has to give up this duty and be punished.” They went back to Yunus, beat him within an inch of his life then shoved him outside the gate. Now his body was almost out of the dergah, except for his head which was still inside.
Yunus whispered, “Al-hamdu lillah, all praise to Allah, my head is still inside.”
As soon as Taptuk heard what Yunus said, he rushed to embrace him with tears in his eyes, then he turned to the dervishes who had beaten Yunus and said angrily, “You tried to kill him, but I told you to beat him. Now I have heard what I wanted to hear.” Taptuk Emre himself cleansed Yunus' wounds and healed them; he never had him fetch wood for the dergah again.
One day, when Taptuk presided over a gathering with his dervishes he turned to Yunus and said, “Recite your poems, my Yunus, recite your poems!” Yunus began to recite the words of the poems we know today. The envious dervishes, furious with this recognition, could not tolerate his presence in the dergah any longer, and they began to accuse him, to bring charges against him with never-ending intrigues. Offended by the plots against him, Yunus asked Taptuk for permission to leave, “I understand it is not easy to be a dervish; so let me go into the world with my solitude, my otherness, I will become an intimate friend of those who sorrow.”
Yunus traveled on foot, miles and miles through the steppes of Anatolia. There was a time during his travels when he realized the maturity of the state he had reached on the path. One day while he wandered the steppes of Anatolia , he encountered two traveling dervishes who invited him to accompany them. At the dusk of the first day, one of the dervishes prayed to God asking for food to eat: no sooner had he finished his prayer than a well-prepared dinner appeared. Yunus was amazed. On the second day at dinner time, the other dervish prayed and a meal just as good as the first one appeared. Yunus began to worry he might in his turn, be asked to produce a meal, and indeed, on the following day the two dervishes asked Yunus for his prayer to beg God for food. Yunus prayed silently, “O my God, I do not know such prayers, but I ask in the same name that my friends used in their prayer to You, please, may You not embarrass me.”
As soon as he finished his prayer, twice the amount of food they had eaten on the previous days appeared. The two dervishes were very surprised and asked Yunus, “In whose name did you pray to God?”
Yunus replied, “First, tell me in whose name you prayed.” They answered they had prayed in the name of a dervish called Yunus from Taptuk Emre's dergah.
After that, Yunus returned to Taptuk who gave him this explanation, “We would have delivered you to Haqq, to God, as a sealed chest, but you hurried away and opened your mouth. From this day on you will be the intimate friend of the gharibs, the strangers, the hidden beings, and those who sorrow. This is your path, go, do your duty!” And so Yunus traveled every square inch of the steppes of Anatolia on foot by day and by night. On his travels sometimes he would be a remedy for those who sorrowed, sometimes he would reconcile enemies, sometimes he would defend the rights of those who were treated unjustly, sometimes he would put local rulers and landowners to shame by asking them to act with justice.
As we observed before, the local rulers and sultans of Anatolia were fighting each other, there were mass killings, the Mongols were invading. In an age when battles, killing and destruction were rampant in Anatolia, Yunus, the volunteer for peace, traveled among the local rulers sowing the seeds of love, compassion and unity. In the same way, may God permit us to follow the same principles that Yunus did, may we have the determination and the intention to serve all without discrimination in this world today where unpleasant things are also happening. Amin .
During his lifetime Yunus did not claim to be a dervish nor did he describe himself as a sheikh or sultan. He was content with Haqq, the truth or reality which is God, losing any sense of self or varlik, individual existence, in the presence of Haqq. In this way he achieved the happiness of being yokluk, nothing, while at the same time becoming a source of hope for the gharibs, the hidden beings living in their otherness.
Yunus traveled to Syria and Azerbaijan as well as through Anatolia. Sariköy, the place of his birth, is also the place where he died. Though several towns in Anatolia claim to possess Yunus' mazar, his tomb, they are, in fact, his maqams, his spiritual stations in the world, places where he might have stopped to rest during his travels, where he might have visited people to discourse to them. The reverence for these places reveals how much the people of Anatolia valued Yunus, how they accepted and loved him. In fact, they appreciated and understood him well, aware that Yunus was truly close to them, and so they embraced him. He was, indeed, that friend who was conscious of their sorrows, their difficulties in life; he never separated himself from their reality. Furthermore, he was the only poet of his time who turned his face towards them, composing his poems in their spoken tongue. He implicitly explained the most complex, the most profound and perplexing truths to the people in their own language, making it easy for them to understand what he conveyed in his poems.
Reference: Faruk Dilaver, Yunus Emre: His Life and Selected Poems.