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If You Read Rumi in English, Read This New Yorker Article

Writ­ten by Roz­i­na Ali, the arti­cle is called “The Era­sure of Islam from the Poet­ry of Rumi,” and it says some­thing that Ira­ni­ans I know have been say­ing for a very long time—something that I learned from them, in fact. It just hasn’t ever been said, at least not to my knowl­edge, in a main­stream pub­li­ca­tion with the kind of intel­lec­tu­al, cul­tur­al, and lit­er­ary weight of The New York­er. Basi­cal­ly, the idea is this: if you’re read­ing Rumi in Eng­lish, which almost cer­tain­ly means you are read­ing the ver­sions pro­duced by Cole­man Barks, then the Rumi you know has been denud­ed of his 13th cen­tu­ry Per­sian cul­ture and trans­formed from a tra­di­tion­al­ly obser­vant, well-respect­ed Mus­lim schol­ar and cler­ic into a gener­ic, eas­i­ly digestible, and at times plat­i­tudi­nous New Age mys­tic. To be fair, nei­ther Ali nor the peo­ple she inter­viewed for her arti­cle say it quite as strong­ly as I just did, so I will admit that some of the bite in my descrip­tion comes from my own dis­like for Barks’ verse. The larg­er point, how­ev­er, still stands: If you’re read­ing Rumi in Eng­lish, and you’re read­ing the ver­sions pro­duced by Cole­man Barks, or Daniel Ladin­sky, or (for good­ness’ sake) Deep­ak Chopra, then the Rumi you know is not the devout Mus­lim Rumi in fact was. Fur­ther, and per­haps more to the point, the Islam in which Rumi’s wis­dom is ineluctably and inescapably root­ed has been com­plete­ly hid­den from your view. This era­sure, Ali argues, espe­cial­ly now, has some very seri­ous impli­ca­tions.

Ali begins her arti­cle by talk­ing about the famous people—Coldplay’s Chris Mar­tin, Madon­na, Til­da Swinton—who claim their lives have been trans­formed by Rumi’s work. Mul­ti­ply their num­ber by the many tens, if not hun­dreds of thou­sands for whom Rumi has come to rep­re­sent an, if not the essence of spir­i­tu­al enlightenment—a mys­tic whose teach­ings wel­come all peo­ple, of whichev­er per­sua­sion, onto the path towards God, or what­ev­er it is they call the ulti­mate Truth they are try­ing to reach—and you end up with an inor­di­nate­ly large num­ber of peo­ple who do not under­stand that the open­ness they so val­ue in Rumi was made pos­si­ble for him by, would not have exist­ed for him with­out, Islam. More to the point, and adding insult to injury, giv­en the demo­niza­tion of Islam that is so per­va­sive in our soci­ety right now, peo­ple could be for­giv­en for think­ing that the teach­ings of this Eng­lish-lan­guage Rumi are dia­met­ri­cal­ly opposed to the teach­ings of Islam, rather than being a sig­nif­i­cant thread with­in them.

The demo­niza­tion of Islam, it’s impor­tant to rec­og­nize, did not begin in response to the ter­ror­ist attacks of Sep­tem­ber 11; nor is it mere­ly an unfor­tu­nate but unsur­pris­ing response to the bar­barous excess­es of ISIS or oth­er sim­i­lar groups. For her arti­cle, Ali inter­viewed Omid Safi, pro­fes­sor of Mid­dle East­ern and Islam­ic Stud­ies at Duke Uni­ver­si­ty, who points out that West­ern read­ers began to sep­a­rate the mys­ti­cal poet­ry of Islam from Islam itself dur­ing the Vic­to­ri­an peri­od. “Trans­la­tors and the­olo­gians of the time,” Ali is para­phras­ing Safi here, “could not rec­on­cile their ideas about a ‘desert reli­gion,’ wth its unusu­al moral and legal codes, and the work of poets like Rumi and Hafez.” The only expla­na­tion these West­ern “experts” could come up with was that the poets, and these are Safi’s words, were “mys­ti­cal not because of Islam but in spite of it”—which is essen­tial­ly what Cole­man Barks has to say about Rumi. “Reli­gion,” Ali quotes Barks as say­ing, “is such a point of con­tention for the world. 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.”

Accord­ing to Barks, in oth­er words, Rumi’s truths, his wis­dom, his open­ness, do not emerge from Islam, are not the prod­uct of the life Rumi lived through Islam. Rather, they exist, or—in the hands of some­one like Barks—can be made to exist, in a realm out­side of reli­gion. This extrac­tion, for me at least, is where what I think of as “plat­i­tudi­nous Rumi” comes from. Ali gives a good exam­ple of this when she quotes one of Barks’ most famous cou­plets:

Out beyond ideas of right­do­ing and wrong­do­ing, there is a field.
I will meet you there.

As an idea, “ideas of right­do­ing and wrong­do­ing” is so vague as to be mean­ing­less, so all-inclu­sive as to be use­less as a guide to any­thing. One might argue that this is pre­cise­ly the point, that any­one can find them­selves any­where in that phrase, but so what? To fol­low the metaphor to its log­i­cal con­clu­sion, if any­one can find them­selves any­where among “ideas of right­do­ing and wrong­do­ing,” who’s to say that the field beyond them is the same for each of us? Barks’ Rumi may assert that there is one field where we all can meet, if we get there, but if, as Barks’ says, we each have our own truth, why wouldn’t we each also have our own field?

Look at Rumi’s orig­i­nal lan­guage, even in trans­la­tion, and you can see very clear­ly what Barks leaves out and how that omis­sion impov­er­ish­es the verse. As Ali indi­cates in her arti­cle, Rumi says noth­ing about “right­do­ing” and “wrong­do­ing.” Instead he talks about iman (reli­gion) and kufr (infi­deli­ty), a very dif­fer­ent and far more com­plex (and, to me at least, more inter­est­ing) oppo­si­tion than right and wrong, one that would require a good deal of dis­ci­plined reli­gious learn­ing, as well as deeply expe­ri­enced religious/spiritual feel­ing, ful­ly to under­stand and grow beyond. This doesn’t mean, of course, that you have to be a Mus­lim, or a reli­gious per­son of any sort, to study, appre­ci­ate, learn from, grow from, or be com­plete­ly trans­formed by Rumi’s work. Rather, it is to sug­gest that tak­ing Rumi’s work seri­ous­ly, per­haps espe­cial­ly ifyou’re going to pre­sume to make trans­la­tions of it, means being respon­si­ble and account­able enough to take seri­ous­ly both who Rumi actu­al­ly was and the his­tor­i­cal and cul­tur­al con­text with­in which he lived.

For me, one of the more telling ironies in Ali’s arti­cle comes when she asks Cole­man Barks why, after remov­ing Islam­ic ref­er­ences from his ver­sions of Rumi, and despite his feel­ings about how the absur­di­ty of reli­gion gets in the way of Rumi’s mes­sage, he nonethe­less chose to keep Chris­t­ian and bib­li­cal ref­er­ences, such as those to Jesus and Joseph. In response, Barks tells her that he “can’t recall” if he made a delib­er­ate choice not to men­tion Islam in his trans­la­tions. Yet that delib­er­ate choice is pre­cise­ly what he made. He said so him­self in his intro­duc­tion to The Essen­tial Rumi: “I obvi­ous­ly am not try­ing to place Rumi in his thir­teenth cen­tu­ry locus. That is fine work, and I am grate­ful for those who do it. My more grandiose project is to free his text into its essence.” Since plac­ing Rumi in that “13th cen­tu­ry locus” would by def­i­n­i­tion have required Barks to include the Islam that was part of Rumi’s dai­ly life, choos­ing to ignore the his­tor­i­cal Rumi was pre­cise­ly “a delib­er­ate choice to remove Islam­ic ref­er­ences.”

Omid Safi char­ac­ter­izes quite nice­ly the irony of both this deci­sion and the for­get­ful­ness Barks claims. “I see,” Ali quotes Safi as say­ing, “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.” Safi is absolute­ly spot on. Still, I’m not sug­gest­ing that peo­ple who like Barks’ ver­sions of Rumi, who have been trans­formed by them, should now reject them. What I do think is that they, that we, have a respon­si­bil­i­ty not to indulge and per­pet­u­ate the spir­i­tu­al colo­nial­ism Safi describes. As I sug­gest­ed above and as Ali argues in her arti­cle, it’s not just lit­er­ary cul­ture that’s at stake here, but also how we as a soci­ety under­stand and val­ue Islam and the many Mus­lims who live among us. One way of tak­ing this respon­si­bil­i­ty is to go beyond Barks and seek out translations—not only of Rumi, but Rumi is who we’re talk­ing about now—that com­mit them­selves to the orig­i­nal work and to a his­tor­i­cal­ly accu­rate under­stand­ing of the per­son who wrote it and the times in which he lived. Here are a cou­ple of sug­ges­tions:

Final­ly, I would again urge you to read Roz­i­na Ali’s arti­cle.

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