The New Yorker — a safe space for elite, liberal, eurocentric, high culture — ran a piece in its online edition over the weekend about how the most popular translations of Rumi elide his devout attachment to Islam. In particular, the author, Rozina Ali, takes on the currently popular, new age-y translations of Coleman Barks, not himself a reader of Persian. Barks attempts to capture the "spirit" of Rumi’s poetry in versions that are accessible for contemporary audiences, working off of earlier "literal" translations — although Ali notes that the religious scrubbing dates back to the Victorian era.
Two paragraphs of her essay bear reprinting in full, since they offer not only a good biographical sketch, but a summary of her argument as well:
Rumi was born in the early thirteenth century, in what is now Afghanistan. He later settled in Konya, in present-day Turkey, with his family. His father was a preacher and religious scholar, and he introduced Rumi to Sufism. Rumi continued his theological education in Syria, where he studied the more traditional legal codes of Sunni Islam, and later returned to Konya as a seminary teacher. It was there that he met an elder traveller, Shams-i-Tabriz, who became his mentor. The nature of the intimate friendship between the two is much debated, but Shams, everyone agrees, had a lasting influence on Rumi’s religious practice and his poetry. In a new biography of Rumi, “Rumi’s Secret,” Brad Gooch describes how Shams pushed Rumi to question his scriptural education, debating Koranic passages with him and emphasizing the idea of devotion as finding oneness with God. Rumi would come to blend the intuitive love for God that he found in Sufism with the legal codes of Sunni Islam and the mystical thought he learned from Shams.
This unusual tapestry of influences set Rumi apart from many of his contemporaries, Keshavarz told me. Still, Rumi built a large following in cosmopolitan Konya, incorporating Sufis, Muslim literalists and theologians, Christians, and Jews, as well as the local Sunni Seljuk rulers. In “Rumi’s Secret,” Gooch helpfully chronicles the political events and religious education that influenced Rumi. “Rumi was born into a religious family and followed the proscribed rules of daily prayer and fasting throughout his entire life,” Gooch writes. Even in Gooch’s book, though, there is a tension between these facts and the desire to conclude that Rumi, in some sense, transcended his background—that, as Gooch puts it, he “made claims for a ‘religion of love’ that went beyond all organized faiths.” What can get lost in such readings is the extent to which Rumi’s Muslim teaching shaped even those ideas. As Mojadeddi notes, the Koran acknowledges Christians and Jews as “people of the book,” offering a starting point toward universalism. “The universality that many revere in Rumi today comes from his Muslim context.”
I looked back in the old data banks and was surprised I could not find an instance where we’ve read his work together, though I was sure we had. Well, if our incomplete archives are correct, today we remedy that. Here’s a short poem by Rumi, translated in what a blog calls a "literal" version, by Nevit O. Ergin. I actually liked it better than the "poetic" version printed aside it. Have a good week,
GHAZAL 1506 – NOT LIKE THIS BEFORE
I wasn’t like this before.
I wasn’t out of my mind and senses.
Once I used to be wise like you,
not crazy, insane, and broken down
like I am now.
I wasn’t the admirer of life
which has no trace, no being.
I used to ask, “Who is this?
What is that?”
and search all the time.
Since you have wisdom,
sit and think
that probably I was like this before.
I haven’t changed much.
I used to try to make
myself better than everybody.
I hadn’t been hunted
with the ever-growing Love before.
I tried to rise about the sky
with my ambition
yet I didn’t know
I was just wandering in the desert.
At the end, I have raised
a treasure from the ground.
Trans. c. 1993