So Much Beauty – The Persian Verses of Rumi

Have we taken Allah out of Rumi’s poems?

New Age “translations of  jalaluddin Rumi’s works have become a type of ‘spiritual colonialism.’ We in the West have been 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”  by people today and we are loathed to think that the  greatness of Sufi Poems are based on the Islamic faith.

In the 1800s, colonialist-minded translators found it difficult to reconcile Rumi’s poetry with their preconceptions of Islam as a “desert religion,” whose followers were forsaken with “unusual moral and legal codes.” In the twentieth century, prominent translators, such as R. A. Nicholson, A. J. Arberry, and Annemarie Schimmel, made limited headway into producing versions that stayed more true to the original Persian prose, but these translations have not been the most widely circulated among Western readers.

earlier translations of Rumi’s works – possibly

by R.A. Nicholson

That title is held by Coleman Barks, the American poet and interpreter responsible for re-introducing Rumi’s poetry for English-speaking audiences in recent decades. Barks, who does not speak Persian and is not trained in Islamic literature, has recast earlier translations of Rumi’s works into “fluid, casual American free verse,” according to Christain Science Monitor.

For his part, Coleman Barks sees religion as secondary to the essence of Rumi. “Religion is such a point of contention for the world,” he told me. “I got my truth and you got your truth—this is just absurd. We’re all in this together and I’m trying to open my heart, and Rumi’s poetry helps with that.” One might detect in this philosophy something of Rumi’s own approach to poetry: Rumi often amended texts from the Koran so that they would fit the lyrical rhyme and meter of the Persian verse. But while Rumi’s Persian readers would recognize the tactic, most American readers are unaware of the Islamic blueprint. Some have said, compare reading Rumi without the Koran to reading Milton without the Bible: even if Rumi was heterodox, it’s important to recognize that he was heterodox in a Muslim context—and that Islamic culture, centuries ago, had room for such heterodoxy. Rumi’s works are not just layered with religion; they represent the historical dynamism within Islamic scholarship.

Rumi used the Koran, Hadiths, and religion in an explorative way, often challenging conventional readings. One of Barks’s popular renditions goes like this: “Out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing, there is a field. / I will meet you there.” The original version makes no mention of “rightdoing” or “wrongdoing.” The words Rumi wrote were iman (“religion”) and kufr (“infidelity”). Imagine, then, a Muslim scholar saying that the basis of faith lies not in religious code but in an elevated space of compassion and love. What we, and perhaps many Muslim clerics, might consider radical today is an interpretation that Rumi put forward more than seven hundred years ago.

Such readings were not entirely unique back then. Rumi’s works reflected a broader push and pull between religious spirituality and institutionalized faith—though with a wit that was unmatched. “Historically speaking, no text has shaped the imagination of Muslims—other than the Koran—as the poetry of Rumi and Hafez,” it is said. This is why Rumi’s voluminous writings, produced at a time when scribes had to copy works by hand, have survived.

“Language isn’t just a means of communication,” the writer and translator Sinan Antoon has said. “It’s a reservoir of memory, tradition, and heritage.” As conduits between two cultures, translators take on an inherently political project. They must figure out how to make, for instance, a thirteenth-century Persian poet comprehensible to a contemporary American audience. But they have a responsibility to remain true to the original work—an act that, in the case of Rumi, would help readers to recognize that a professor of Sharia could also write some of the world’s mostly widely read love poetry.

Jawid Mojaddedi is now in the midst of a years-long project to translate all six books of the “Masnavi.” Three of them” have been published; the fourth is due out this spring. His translations acknowledge the Islamic and Koranic texts in the original by using italics to denote whenever Rumi switches to Arabic. His books are also riddled with footnotes. Reading them requires some effort, and perhaps a desire to see beyond one’s preconceptions. That, after all, is the point of translation: to understand the foreign. As Keshavarz put it, translation is a reminder that “everything has a form, everything has culture and history. A Muslim can be like that, too.”

earlier translation

Have we hi-jacked Rumi and moulded him to our own understanding – Yes indeed,  is that a bad thing? No! Indeed no. We have not destroyed the original Rumi and who would want to? We have  expanded on his wonderful poetry and by so doing, opened him and his works to an international audience and an entirely new generation. I think we have done good! 

Excerpted from Rozina Ali’s recent article The Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi

Link to article

http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-erasure-of-islam-from-the-poetry-of-rumi

8 thoughts on “So Much Beauty – The Persian Verses of Rumi

  1. Like in Coleman Barks Rumi’s poem: “Out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing, there is a field. / I will meet you there.” Iman or Kufr it’s an accusation commonly used between different way of interpretations within Islam itself, no different between the many sects of Christianity, who themselves claim to own the ‘True, and only way to interpret the Bible.’

    Of course, there is a big issue trying to disassociate Rumi from it’s Religious roots, and the many Western ‘translations’ of Rumi, some, they are so watered down to be reduced to a hodgepodge of pretty poetry, with little else to offer, most of them, they even have no knowledge of Persian, to do their own translation, and interpretation.

    I posses a few real translations, but not complete, since the Masnavi it’s such a challenge to translate.

    Currently I am reading: ‘Listen’ By Kenan Rifai translated by Victoria Holbrook, a wonderful work, with great insights, and commentaries by Kenan Rifai. 🙂

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    1. but in the end it is not about the words and translations, although they remain important to some, it is what the message conveys. I think Rumi has the wisdom to transcend all relgions and provide us with true insights to help guide us on our way. eh? thanks Eve

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      1. Yes, I agree, and have no argument as to what you say, when the poetry, conveys what Rumi’s was saying, and not only from Rumi, but other Persian poets as well, like Hafez, Kayham, or others, but without saying names, I had gone through a collection of books, by many daring individuals who have taken the subject of translating Persian poets, with different results, I have been a vegetarian for decades, but some make me exclaim: ‘Where’s the beef’?’
        Some, the ones who know the language, and scholarly, lack on their skill as poets, and the poets lack in the depth of meaning intended by the authors, I am afraid a common thing when translating poetry.
        I have Persian friends who smiling when talking about the subject of translations, shaking their heads tell me: ‘Learn Farsi, and then you will understand the difference!’
        Still, I can tell a reasonable good translation, when poetry, and depth of meaning are conveyed, and the many when there is neither depth, or poetry.
        Love. 🙂

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        1. there is always arrogance when it comes to religion and philosophy don’t you think? – Language is changable and moves with the times. I am sure if I had been scholarly I would have been upset with changes to old tranditional texts but since I am not scholarly, I am glad to find someone like Coleman Barks who has done quite a good service to bring Rumi to our attn. I would rather have A Rumi I understand than a Rumi I had to understand with my head and lose the meaning in translation.. Even the bible goes through times of change and translation which to my mind is a good thing. fondly eve x

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    1. Coleman Barks is largely responsible – He had a deep mystical experience, where a teacher appeared to him in a dream and told him “I love you” – he later met the teacher in real life – from then on, Rumi was to become Coleman Bark’s forte. This is told in the link provided on the post. I found it interesting. I am sure Coleman Barks had a calling. It is unusual for someone from deep Tenn. USA to have interest in a Persian Poet and dedicate his life to that cause. I love Rumi – but only the simply stuff that speaks to my heart. Why do we need words, when we can have a heart to heart? but then I am no scholar.. hah. thanks for comment. eve

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