Poetry News

The New Yorker Looks at Rejoining Rumi & Islam

By Harriet Staff

Rumi-the-Muslim-Saint

The New Yorker's Page Turner has Rozina Ali writing about the erasure of Islam from the poetry of Rumi. Ali remarks, first off, that celebrities like Coldplay's Chris Martin have been aided in their "spiritual journeys" by Rumi, and that he's "often described as the best-selling poet in the United States." "He is typically referred to as a mystic, a saint, a Sufi, an enlightened man," writes Ali. "Curiously, however, although he was a lifelong scholar of the Koran and Islam, he is less frequently described as a Muslim." Ali talks to several scholars about it:

The erasure of Islam from Rumi’s poetry started long before Coldplay got involved. Omid Safi, a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at Duke University, says that it was in the Victorian period that readers in the West began to uncouple mystical poetry from its Islamic roots. Translators and theologians of the time could not reconcile their ideas about a “desert religion,” with its unusual moral and legal codes, and the work of poets like Rumi and Hafez. The explanation they settled on, Safi told me, was “that these people are mystical not because of Islam but in spite of it.” This was a time when Muslims were singled out for legal discrimination—a law from 1790 curtailed the number of Muslims who could come into the United States, and a century later the U.S. Supreme Court described the “intense hostility of the people of Moslem faith to all other sects, and particularly to Christians.” In 1898, in the introduction to his translation of the “Masnavi,” Sir James Redhouse wrote, “The Masnavi addresses those who leave the world, try to know and be with God, efface their selves and devote themselves to spiritual contemplation.” For those in the West, Rumi and Islam were separated.

In the twentieth century, a succession of prominent translators—among them R. A. Nicholson, A. J. Arberry, and Annemarie Schimmel—strengthened Rumi’s presence in the English-language canon. But it’s Barks who vastly expanded Rumi’s readership. He is not a translator so much as an interpreter: he does not read or write Persian. Instead, he transforms nineteenth-century translations into American verse.

[...]

Like many others, Omid Safi credits Barks with introducing Rumi to millions of readers in the United States; in morphing Rumi into American verse, Barks has dedicated considerable time and love to the poet’s works and life. And there are other versions of Rumi that are even further removed from the original—such as the New Age books by Deepak Chopra and Daniel Ladinsky which are marketed and sold as Rumi but bear little resemblance to the poet’s writing. Chopra, an author of spiritual works and an alternative-medicine enthusiast, admits that his poems are not Rumi’s words. Rather, as he writes in the introduction to “The Love Poems of Rumi,” they are “ ‘moods’ we have captured as certain phrases radiated from the original Farsi, giving life to a new creation but retaining the essence of its source.”

Discussing these New Age “translations,” Safi said, “I see a type of ‘spiritual colonialism’ at work here: bypassing, erasing, and occupying a spiritual landscape that has been lived and breathed and internalized by Muslims from Bosnia and Istanbul to Konya and Iran to Central and South Asia.” Extracting the spiritual from the religious context has deep reverberations. Islam is regularly diagnosed as a “cancer,” including by General Michael Flynn, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for national-security adviser, and, even today, policymakers suggest that non-Western and nonwhite groups have not contributed to civilization.

Read the full piece at the New Yorker.

Originally Published: January 9th, 2017