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Whose Rumi is He Anyway?

Poetry, Love, Religion and Rumi

A spectre is haunting some Rumi experts, writers and scholars – the spectre of ordinary mortals who can read some of Rumi’s poems without interest in, or knowledge of, Islam and Quran. It is the spectre of an aesthetic, non-religious and postmodern approach to Rumi’s poetry. And all those popularising Rumi in the West – pop icons, New Age translators and interpreters – are allegedly engaged in a ‘spiritual colonialism’, denying Rumi’s Islamic heritage and systematically ‘erasing’ Islam from his poetry. My view is based on two articles about Rumi published earlier this year: The Erasure Of Islam From The Poetry Of Rumi, New Yorker, by Rozina Ali, Jan 5, 2017, and How Did Rumi Become One of Our Best-Selling Poets? By Azadeh Moaveni, New York Times Book Review, Jan. 20, 2017. After I read these, the amateur researcher in me got to work.

Full disclosure: I am neither an expert on Rumi nor a scholar. My father first introduced Rumi to me when I was 13 or 14 years old. I had just lost my mother to cancer. He had lost his at a very young age. We were coming to terms with our loss. One day, he recited the opening lines from Rumi’s famous song of the reed flute in Persian. He also provided a rough translation: “Listen to the flute, how it cries; cut off from its plant, in pain, it complains of separation”. I was hooked. The tragic sense of life was thus injected poetically early in my life. There were no religious overtones. I experienced Rumi’s aesthetics of loss through the medium of metaphor, language, rhythm, and sound. Later, I experienced more complex aspects of Rumi, some through music and songs of Shahram Nazeri and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I have basic familiarity with Persian language. This, supplemented with some scholarly translations, has permitted me to enjoy what Franklin Lewis calls the “thick sonorities, dizzying cadences, repeated internal rhymes and paronomasia [play on words]” in Rumi’s lyrical poems in Divan*. It almost always leads me into a quasi-ecstatic state. My Rumi remains primarily a poet of love and loss, not of Islamic piety. I can understand why Chris Martin and Madonna would love him too. Their Rumi likely resembles mine.

Early in her article, Rozina makes her overriding concern with religious identity obvious. Rumi is “typically referred to as a mystic, a saint, an enlightened man. . he is less frequently described as a Muslim”, she complains. This is amusing. Are Homer, Shakespeare, and T.S. Eliot, “frequently described” as pagan, or Christians? Are Kalidasa and Tagore referred to as Hindus?

“The Rumi that people love is very beautiful in English, and the price you pay is to cut the culture and religion”, argues Rozina. As an example of the ‘erasure of Islam’, she analyses one of Bark’s translation thus: ‘For one thing, he (Barks) has minimized references to Islam. Consider the famous poem “Like This.” Arberry translates one of its lines, rather faithfully, as “Whoever asks you about the Houris, show (your) face (and say) ‘Like this.’ ” Houris are virgins promised in Paradise in Islam. Barks avoids even the literal translation of that word; in his version, the line becomes, “If anyone asks you how the perfect satisfaction of all our sexual wanting will look, lift your face and say, Like this.” The religious context is gone. And yet, elsewhere in the same poem, Barks keeps references to Jesus and Joseph.’ (Emphasis mine)

Religious context (read Islam) is gone; Christianity retained! It would have been outrageous if it wasn’t so ridiculous. Jesus and Joseph ARE religious figures. More importantly, they are also accepted as such in Islam. Jesus (Issa, Masiha), Mary (Mariam) Moses (Musa), Joseph (Yusuf) and Elias (Khizr) are some of the commonly used symbols and literary tropes in Persian and Urdu poetry. They are, more often than not, used in a human not religious context as symbols of succour, suffering, beauty, mercy, grace and endurance. Rumi used Houris as symbols of beauty, not literally as “virgins promised in Paradise in Islam”. (ISIS and Taleban do that more effectively). Using Rozina’s logic, Barks’ replacing Houris with ‘all our sexual wanting’ is not very far off the mark! Removing such symbols in a translation may be a poetic rather than a religious and conspiratorial error of omission. The above translation by Barks appears in a collection called Rumi: The Lion of the Heart. The introduction, preface, notes and references make it amply clear who Rumi was, including his life and times. It has numerous poems where Allah, Muhammed, Quran, Zikr and other Islamic references occur. The charge of ‘erasing Islam’ and the logic supporting it are egregious.

Azadeh and Rozina argue that all of Rumi’s poetic achievements, including his vision of the ‘religion of love’ spring from Islam; He is tolerant “because” of Islam, not “despite it”. How do we know? Can Rozina and Azadeh describe the process by which we eliminate other influences on ones ideas? Did Rumi’s genius and creative imagination play no role in nurturing his outlook, poetics and aesthetics? Even as a creative artist, their Rumi never ‘transcends’ his culture. Those who suggest otherwise are engaged in ‘spiritual colonization’, adds Dr Omid Safi, an expert quoted by Rozina. He has a youtube video called ‘How to Read Rumi’ . Devoted entirely to the Masnavi, Safi makes fun of lovers of Rumi who are ‘spiritual, but not religious’. His contempt for people who feel Rumi wrote poetry “for those living in a San Francisco neighbourhood” is obvious. It is also, I feel, in poor taste. According to a tradition he cites, it takes 45 years just to understand 18 lines of Masnavi. You get the point. Scholars like Safi are needed to understand its complexities. Rumi isn’t for the commoners or pop icons looking for poems of earthly love. “Too much emphasis on earthly love makes Rumi sound like a 13th Century Pablo Neruda” laments Azadeh. Rumi would have taken it as a compliment; Neruda, as an insult.

An unbiased reading of some scholars cited in these articles gives us a Rumi who is an exquisite creative artist, accessible and earthly. Fatemeh Keshavarz’s Reading Mystical Lyrics:The Case of Jalaluddin Rumi is a case in point. In Chapter 1, she asserts precisely what Safi, Azadeh and Rozina attempt to ridicule. The expert critic, says Keshavarz, “has not come to terms with Rumi the Poet” (p. 13) and ‘ “The Master” who leads the way with certitude in the Masnavi and the preacher who feeds his audience in Fihi Ma Fih are wearing the garb of their age. They speak to us with the rhetoric of centuries passed. The poetic persona in the Divan, however, despite being rooted in the Middle Ages and despite his many faces, looks as familiar as a contemporary poet in the neighbourhood.’ (p. 3, emphasis mine).

Later, in Chapter 8, Keshavarz analyzes the ghazal ( # 1826)* used in Rozina’s ‘erasure of Islam’ theory above. Keshavarz’s verdict on Rumi is refreshingly different:

“Rumi’s brand of mysticism was a multifaceted one. It involved… a specific interest in evoking carnal and sensual experience. Instead of promoting the view that one has to transcend the human level to experience the mystical, Rumi tended to see the mystical just as an aspect of the human experience. With characteristic boldness, he crossed the borderline between the spiritual and the carnal to emphasize that the two were indeed one and the same, a view he expressed directly in his didactic Masnavi-1:111:

Love, whether of this kind or that kind / Shall ultimately guide us to the king” (p.146)

It is regrettable that Keshavarz’s voice has been used so selectively in Rozina’s article. Franklin Lewis, credited by Azadeh for writing the best biography of Rumi, has this to say about accessibility of some of Rumi’s poems in his Rumi: Past & Present, East & West. “The stories of Masnavi can, of course be enjoyed as stories, with little or no context. As for the lyric poems, the sense and imagery generally speak directly and do not need a great deal of mediation” (p. 334-335).

New research and scholarship is adding layers to our understanding of Rumi. Mostafa Vaziri’s Rumi and Shams’ Silent Rebellion – Parallels with Vedanta, Buddhism and Shaivism is one recent scholarly work that will surely add to the anxieties of traditional experts. Masnavi being the ‘Quran in Persian” is a favourite characterization that all traditional scholars and their followers use (including Safi, Rozina and Azadeh). Vaziri points out that this characterization was made by Jami, a 15th Century Sufi poet. It is much too narrow and restrictive, but has somehow stuck over the centuries. Jami overlooked the fact that the Masnavi also has more than 60 tales from Buddhist and Indian traditions. It also has stories from Kalila and Dimna, a pre-Islamic Arabic collection of tales translated and adapted from an Indian collection in Sanskrit, called the Panchatantra. Rumi also uses whatever is avaliable, including a few bawdy tales in Masnavi, in bold, almost pornographic detail, to serve his larger didactic purpose. Vaziri’s Rumi seems as much in tune with Advaita Vedanta, Shaivism and Buddhism as he is with Islam. Most controversially, Vaziry offers scholarly arguments against the familiar labels used for Rumi, such as ‘Islamic Mystic’, ‘Sufi’, ‘founder of mevlevi order of whirling dervishes’, etc. Vaziry adds richness to the complex persona of Rumi, who had declared: “Out of these two thousand ‘we’s and I’s, I wonder which me is me?” [# 1397]*

‘Rumi called Masnavi the roots of the roots of the roots of religion’—“meaning Islam”- Rozina says. “And yet little trace of the religion exists in the translations that sell so well in the United States”. That argument, in my view, is flawed. The root of all religion for Rumi, was not Islam, but Love; undifferentiated, pure, primordial Love, by no means exclusive to Islam. My Rumi had wondered, I paraphrase, that in matters of love, where is the idiom of Islam? Where are the experts who will explain its complexities? (#2207)*.

There are indeed some very questionable translations and versions of Rumi, especially online. Some adaptations do stretch Rumi’s originals beyond recognition. But there are good ones too, for example Shahram Shiva’s. Most ‘New Age’ translations, especially Barks’ do not appear to be conspiracies to erase Islam at all. I have a sense that in the face of these false allegations on his motives, Barks has chosen to be ‘khamoush’(silent), Rumi’s favourite nom de plume.

Finally, Rozina and Azadeh also suggest that in ‘divesting Rumi of his Islamicness’ we somehow lose an ally in the fight against Islamic fundamentalism and Islamophobia. That is another story and discussion.

Rumi can be colonized neither by the East nor the West. He was neither this nor that. He shall remain unchained. And his poetry will work its magic for the ascetic as much as the agnostic, for the Sufi as well as the intoxicated ecstatic, for the commoner in our neighbourhood as well as the scholar: Rumi speaks to all of us. Like Walt Whitman, he is large, contains multitudes, and often contradicts himself.

Notes: * The # followed by a number refer to the poem in Rumi’s Divan, or Kulliyāt-i Shams, ed. Badīʻ al-Zamān Furūzānfar. Those interested in details related to some references in this article may read my evolving blog on Rumi

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