Monday, 9 April 2012


I am the servant of the Qur'an as long as I have life.
I am the dust on the path of Muhammad, the Chosen one.
If anyone quotes anything except this from my sayings,
I am quit of him and outraged by these words. 

Mevlana Rumi's Quatrain No. 1173, translated by Ibrahim Gamard and Ravan Farhadi)

There is a lot of fake Rumi out on the internet, quotations, often attached to pretty pictures. But is it authentic Rumi? A lot of it comes from the works of Coleman Barks, and how accurate this is to the spirit of Rumi is debatable:

The current fascination with Rumi is due to free-verse translations of his poetry which makes it easier for the reader to approach this poet. A pioneer of this venture is Coleman Barks, a retired professor of poetry and creative writing from University of Georgia, who started his work on Rumi in late 1970s and has, since then, produced over a dozen volumes of Rumi's poetry. Barks does not read Persian himself but works from literal translations made by other scholars and tries to offer a flavor of Rumi's poems in modern English. Over the past two decades, several other poets and translators (partly motivated by Barks' success) have popularized Rumi's poetry (1)

The title of one of Rumi's books is "The Essential Rumi", but what you don't find in Bark's translations is the essential Rumi. The corpus of Rumi consists of both discourses and poetry, and to take only the poetry is to have a very misleading picture of Rumi, much as taking Shakespeare by his poetry alone, and ignoring the plays.

Some of the discourses about the importance of Hell vanish from sight. Here are are extracts from the discourses on hell. Further ones could easily be cited:

If a blind man should say, 'I was created blind like this, it is not my fault, ' it will do him no good to say 'I am blind' and 'It is not my fault.' That will not relieve him of his suffering. Those infidels who are fixed in unbelief-after all, they suffer because of their unbelief. Yet when we look at the matter again, that suffering too is itself a Divine grace. When the unbeliever is left at ease he forgets the Creator; so God reminds him by means of suffering. Therefore Hell is a place of worship, and is the mosque of the infidels, for there the unbeliever remembers God; just as in prison and suffering and toothache-when the pain comes, it tears away the veil of forgetfulness. The sufferer acknowledges God and makes lamentation, saying, 'O Lord, O Compassionate One, O God!' He is healed; then the veils of forgetfulness descend again and he says, 'Where is God? I cannot find him. I cannot see Him. What should I look for?'

The inhabitants of Hell will be happier in Hell than in the world, for in Hell they will be aware of God whereas in the world they are not aware; and nothing can be sweeter than the awareness of God. So their desire to return to the world is in order that they may do something whereby they may become aware of the manifestation of Divine grace, not because the world is a happier place than Hell.

How is it that when you were suffering you saw and found, and now you do not see? Since therefore you see when you suffer, suffering is made to prevail over you to the end that you may recollect God. The inmate of Hell was forgetful of God in the time of his ease and did not remember God; in Hell he recollects God night and day. God created the world, heaven and earth, moon and sun and stars, good and evil, that they might remember Him and serve Him and proclaim His praise. Inasmuch as the unbelievers in the time of their ease do not do this, and since their purpose in being created was to recollect God, therefore they go to Hell in order that they may remember Him, Believers however have no need to suffer; in their time of ease they are not unmindful of that suffering and see that suffering constantly present. In the same way once an intelligent child has had its feet put in the stocks that is enough, he never forgets the stocks. The stupid child however forgets, and must therefore be put in the stocks every moment. So too the clever horse, once it has felt the spur, does not require the spur again; he carries the rider for many leagues and does not forget the sting of the spur. The stupid horse however requires the spur every moment; he is not fit to carry a man, so they load him with dung.

Hypocrites are consigned to the lowest reach of Hell because faith came to the hypocrite, but his unbelief was strong and so he did nothing; his punishment will be more severe so that he may become aware of God. To the unbeliever faith did not come; his unbelief is weak, and so he will become aware through a less punishment. So as between the breeches with dust upon them and the carpet with dust upon it, in the case of the trousers it is sufficient for one person to shake them a little for them to become clean, whereas it takes four persons shaking the carpet violently for the dust to leave it. (2)

For Rumi, a good Muslim, hell (jahannam) does exists for the infidel, the hypocrite etc, but he takes this and gives it a characteristic Sufi interpretation. Yes, hell exists, but its not a place of torment, but a place where we see the true compassion of Allah, because like toothache, it strips the infidel free of the pretensions with which he can cloak himself, and makes him see himself as he truly is, and brings him to awareness of God. It is not a place of sadistic torture, it is a place where the unbeliever becomes aware of God. But as Rumi says, once he is healed of his illusions, the same cycle may start again, because he is once more behind the "veils of forgetfullness".

Here is another story from the discourses. This one is, I think, marginally, and unintentionally anti-Semitic. We must not judge Rumi, living in his society because of a failure to transcend the mores of that society; it does, I think, show that whatever his wisdom, Rumi was very much a man of his time:

It is related that a certain Jew lived next door to one of the Companions of God's Messenger. This Jew lived in an upper room, whence descended into the Muslim's apartment all kinds of dirt and filth, the piddle of his children, the water his clothes were washed in. Yet the Muslim always thanked the Jew, and bade his family do the same. So things continued for eight years, until the Muslim died. Then the Jew entered his apartment, to condole with the family, and saw all the filth there, and how it issued from his upper room. So he realised what had happened during the past years, and was exceedingly sorry, and said to the Muslim's household, 'Why on earth didn't you tell me? Why did you always thank me?' They replied, 'Our father used to bid us be grateful, and chided us against ceasing to be grateful.' So the Jew became a believer.(2)

Where is this essential Rumi to be found in Barks? Apparently this is how his "translations" operate:

Barks who does not know Persian, first rewrites some of the old translations in English. Then, by using an unpublished John Moyne's translation on one hand, and with the blessing of a Sri Lankan Sufi saint living in the US, Bowa Muhaiyaddeen on the other hand, Barks publishes a new English version of rumi in free verse. No doubt that Coleman Barks's version of Rumi has released these poems from the confines of Departments of Near Eastern Studies but unfortunately, as we will see, he has tied them in the cage of his personal taste.

The essential problem of Coleman Barks lies in the fact that in his version he intentionally changes Rumi, perhaps for the better, but at the expense of distortion and misrepresentation. He approaches Rumi's poetry as sacred texts, which need to be dusted from the passage of times by a touched devotee and prepared for the Post Modern, New Age market in the West. The New Age movement finds a remedy for modern alienation in old recipes, such as horoscope, Extra-Sensory Perception and divination (3)

As I mentioned with Shakespeare, by taking away those aspects of Rumi which show his prejudices, what we are not getting is the "essential Rumi", but the sanitised Rumi, much as the Victorians took great pains to remove anything that might upset their sensibilities. The initiator of this project was Thomas Bowlder (1754 - 1825) and his project - taken up by others who "retold" tales was called Bowdlerism.  His rationale was straightforward

"My first idea of the Family Shakespeare arose from the recollection of my father's custom of reading in this manner to his family. Shakespeare (with whom no person was better acquainted) was a frequent subject of the evening's entertainment. In the perfection of reading few men were equal to my father; and such was his good taste, his delicacy, and his prompt discretion, that his family listened with delight to Lear? Hamlet, and Othello, without knowing that those matchless tragedies contained words and expressions improper to be pronounced; and without having reason to suspect that any parts of the plays had been omitted by the circumspect and judicious reader."(3)

An example of how bad it could be  - Lady Macbeth's famous cry "Out, damned spot!" was changed to "Out, crimson spot!".  Mercutio's "the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon"  is changed to "the hand of the dial is now upon the point of noon". Juliet's "Spread thy close curtain, love performing night" is changed to ". . . and come civil night". Just before his death, he had also completed a "Family" edition of the Old Testament!

What we find in books like "The Essential Rumi" is the Bowlderised Rumi. Of course, we are not Victorians, and the kind of subject matter that might distress them is not something we would necessarily find uncongenial. And yet it is in matters of sexuality that Coleman Barks most misrepresents Rumi:

Sex is not a natural source of joy in life but a necessary evil and women are only the means of its satisfaction. Mathnavi is the product of a patriarchal society and reflects all of its misogynistic prejudices. Of course this dark side does not diminish the importance of Masnavi as a masterpiece in Persian literature. the contemporary reader usually attributes this antiwoman philosophy to the limitations of Rumi's time. The same argument can be made about the literary masterpieces of other nations. For example criticizing anti-Semitism in Shakespeare, such as his money-lending character Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice" who asks for "a pound of flesh" as a bond for his loan and eventually has to renounce Judaism and convert to Christianity, does not lower the role of William Shakespeare in English literature. A translator who wants to render Shakespeare's play into Persian would disservice this author by purifying of obliterating the character of Shylock. (4)

 THE GUEST HOUSE                                                  

This being human is a guest                                         
Every morning a new arrival.                                     

A joy, a depression, a meanness,                                 
some momentary awareness comes                                   
as an unexpected visitor.                                        

Welcome and entertain them all!                                  
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,                              
who violently sweep your house                                   
empty of its furniture,                                          
still, treat each guest honorably.                               
He may be clearing you out                                       
for some new delight.                                            

The dark thought, the shame, the                                 
meet them at the door laughing;                                  
and invite them in.                                              

Be grateful for whoever comes,                                   
because each has been sent                                       
as a guide from beyond.   

This is a very popular Coleman Bark's rending of Rumi (in "The Essential Rumi"). Some of this is quote close to the original, but some of it is extremely far from that. Somehow the notion of God is smoothed away, so that:

Whenever the thought of sorrow comes into thy breast anew,
go to meet it with smiles and laughter,
Saying, "O my Creator, preserve me from its evil:
do not deprive me, but let me partake of its good! '
O my Lord prompt me to give thanks for that which I receive:
do not let me feel any subsequent regret, if it shall pass away.'"


The dark thought, the shame, the                                 
meet them at the door laughing;                                  
and invite them in.                                              

Be grateful for whoever comes,                                   
because each has been sent                                       
as a guide from beyond.   

And there is a good deal like this, where the translator is basically putting his own words into the mouth of Rumi. As one translator comments:

His version of the third section actually contradicts Mevlana's teaching. Mevlana here prays to God that he be protected from the evil of sorrow--not that he be guided by evil thoughts! If Barks had interpreted more faithfully he could have written instead,". . .because each has been sent as a guest with some hidden good." As said before, he had an accurate translation of Mevlana's teaching on this subject right in front of his eyes--yet he chose to interpret it through a kind of Jungian-Buddhist attitude of, "Welcome the thoughts coming from your dark side." Is this being a vehicle for Mevlana's message in the West?(5)

Why should this matter? For a start, it means that when people say "I love Rumi", they mean they love a version of Rumi that has conveys more of Coleman Park's philosophy than Mevlana Rumi. They are getting something which is attuned to the sensibilities of Western ears. What they are getting, in part at any rate, is a fake representation that distorts "the essential Rumi" into something congenial and inspiring to Western ears. Isn't there a fundamental dishonesty about that?

I'd sooner have a passage of Rumi like the following than a hundred very sweet, confirm you in your own goodness style passages that are not and never have been the real Rumi.

Man is the astrolabe of God; but it requires an astronomer to know the astrolabe. If a vegetable-seller or a greengrocer should possess the astrolabe, what benefit would he derive from it? With that astrolabe what would he know of the movements of the circling heavens and the stations of the planets, their influences, transits and so forth? But in the hands of the astronomer the astrolabe is of great benefit, for 'He who knows himself knows his Lord. (2)

Here, Rumi is saying that knowledge is needed to understand God; it is not something that can just be picked up. Like an understanding of the stars, one needs to become an astronomer, or one is just seeing white spots in the night sky. It is an argument that learning is difficult, that it requires efforts and study, and not everyone may be able to do this - perhaps they will need an astronomer to interpret for them? But it is a million miles from the shrink-wrapped "find your inner self because it is there, and all you have to do is know it" kind of philosophy, and if I was a Muslim, I'd be rather angry at Rumi being distorted in this way.

As someone who values truth highly, although I am not a Muslim, I want the real Rumi, with all the prejudices of his day; even if I don't agree with him always, that too can be a challenge to make me think more clearly, not be content and complacent.  There is much that is inspiring in Rumi, but I'd hate to accept a near fake version for the authentic Rumi, and discover that I have been deceived.

And there is much in Rumi that is worth noting. The apolitical Rumi of the internet doesn't have interesting passages like this - change kings to politicians or financiers, and you have the subtle way in which it is easy to be drawn into those circles, snared, and corrupted. That's certainly a message worth taking to heart:

The danger of associating with kings consists not in the fact that you may lose your life: one must lose one's life in the end, whether it be today or tomorrow matters not. The danger arises from the fact that when kings enter upon the scene and the spell of their influence gains strength, converting so to speak into a dragon, the man who keeps company with them and lays claim to their friendship and accepts money from them will inevitably speak in accordance with their wishes. He will receive their evil views with the utmost attention and will not be able to gainsay them. (2)

(1) Poetry of Universal Love: The Journey of the Poet Rumi. Rasoul Sorkhabi,  World and I. Volume: 24. Issue: 4. 2009
(2)  Discourses of Rumi. Arthur. J. Arberry, 1993

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