Everyone Who Reads Rumi in English Should 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 literaryweight 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, whether for personal reasons or because you’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.

Cross-posted.

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5 Responses to Everyone Who Reads Rumi in English Should Read This New Yorker Article

  1. 1
    Seriously? says:

    Have you considered that his poetry may not have been as popular as it is, had every country (US is far from the outlier here) not edited Rumi to fit its population? Some poems I’ve read in English seem like an ode to individualism and self-centeredness, more hedonistic than Sufist. There weren’t even any annotations to point out that wine, intoxication, taverns, naked girlfriends and male lovers are traditional stand-ins for loss of individual self in the Divine presence, denial of rationality, love for God, the unknowable realms beyond the observable, and what not…

    I first read Rumi in Russian, then in Turkish, then in French, and finally in English. Not being fluent in Old Persian, I do not know which one was the most accurate, but I suspect the Russian one, because it was the most heavily annotated, and the one that best exhibited the place of honor of Islam, if only to attack it. The Turkish collection I read together with notes on how to attack the hypocrisy of the translation (removing any homosexual undertones, while at the same time bringing the poems more in line with the then secular Turkish party line) The French translation was concerned with making him a prophet of a “Religion of Love” surpassing Islam, and the American ones seem to turn him into a wise, exotic mystic with a taste for the pleasures of life.

    As far as I am concerned, every translator twisted the original to fit his audience. I am sure that there is an audience that will cherish his poetry as a man’s longing for his assassinated lover, another as a declaration for his love of Allah, just as there is one that can read him as celebration of a hedonistic lifestyle, no matter how ridiculous that sounds when you know his history.

    By the way, there is very little of Rumi published in my native language. There is an effort by an US resident to make some of his most ‘relevant’ work available in Bulgarian, if only on the Internet. The emphasis is on introspection and self-knowledge, and very heavily on putting Islam and Allah in the foreground, even when that requires spelling out, in the text as opposed to an annotation, the symbolism and the metaphors.

    It is true that everyone pushes an agenda, but it is also true that everyone sees the same reality through the lens of his upbringing. Rumi’s sensitivity (sensuality? emotions? philosophy?) was expressed through Islam. That’s a fact. But would it be best conveyed and understood by a non Muslim through Islam? Does a translator have a moral obligation to stay true to the letter of the original, or to the spirit as he (mis)understands it, or to his reader’s expectations?

    Beyond my pay grade.

  2. 2
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    Rather, it is to suggest that taking Rumi’s work seriously, whether for personal reasons or because you’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.

    This is a really frustrating post (I’d say “frightening” because I think that’s the usual lingo, but I’m not really frightened). The fact that you appear to feel comfortable telling someone what they need to do in order to read a text is really bizarre.

    Seriously, look at your language: in this short quote alone you see “presume,” “responsible,” “accountable.” (Yes, I see the “suggest” there; it has the same nonexistent effect as distinguishing between “Trump is an asshole” and “I suggest Trump may be an asshole.”)

    I read what I like–sorry, I mean to say I presume to read what I like. I take it in as seriously as I choose, in whatever form as I choose–whether translations, originals, Cliff Notes, graphic novels, or summaries by third parties.* I don’t like Rumi much, and don’t care much about him, but who the heck is anyone to order people about (not “suggest” by any means, that is not the language you chose) what to read and how to interpret it, or what viewpoint they must apply to what they choose to read?

    Ignoring the controlling aspect**, this seems like an infinite regression: “In order to consider the underpinning links to Islam seriously (which is a requirement for considering Rumi seriously) you must also read the Koran, but in order to consider that seriously you must also fully understand Sufism of the 1600s, and…”

    It is also a view which would greatly restrict people’s encounter with different views. Like many non-christians I would not have chosen to read the christian bible as a child, nor books on Jesus, but I greatly enjoyed the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. My enjoyment was not lessened a bit by the lack of understanding of the intentional link between Aslan and Jesus–in fact, I’d have avoided the book if it was openly Christian. Similarly, anyone who wishes to encounter more islam, or to consider the islamic perspective, can easily do so w/r/t Rumi…. but there’s no need for it.

    * Which is pretty common. Some people read shit solely because they think it sounds nice–I loved Lycidas when I heard it as a youngster. Some people read for content, others for allegory. And many folks develop their own interpretations and uses which may not match the authorial intent–but so what? That is how language works and how it has always worked. Your view here is really restrictive.

    **Not to mention the obvious issue that the perspective you’re defending is of someone who is long dead, who is being represented by a variety of self-interested historians, and who is not speaking for himself. Rumi himself certainly doesn’t care what people are saying; he’s dead. So this is really a political/historical argument, raised by people who have strong vested interests in certain outcomes. For the purposes of this response I’ll temporarily grant you the assumption that various folks are correctly assessing and relating Rumi’s perspective. But I don’t agree that “what would Rumi think about this issue?” answers are much less guesswork than “what would Jesus do?” And those answers, generally, tend to match the perspective of the person relating them.

  3. Seriously?,

    As far as I am concerned, every translator twisted the original to fit his audience.

    This is certainly true, and every translator has the right to do this. That fact, however, doesn’t mean that their choices are somehow therefore apolitical or beyond critique.

  4. 4
    Ebit says:

    Richard Jeffrey Newman,

    I see that you are listed as a translator or co-translator, and I’m curious as to how you were able to learn enough 13th Century Persian to carry out a competent translation into English.

    I lived in a country for several years before I felt I understood the nuances enough to use that source language as a basis for translations. Looking back after ten further years in that country, I saw a lot that I missed in the early translations. A lot. Like a super-duper lot.

    I assume that you lived in Iran for many years, immersed in the language, or maybe grew up there for a time, but that still doesn’t get to the nuances of the vastly different 13th Century version of the language.

    I have to compliment you on your language ability, but how were you able to bridge that last gap from present day to the older version of the language? Did you study the latter somewhere?

  5. Ebit,

    I am a co-translator, which means—in the case, for example, of the Rumi book I did with John Moyne—that my role in the translation process was to take his literal/prosaic English versions and turn them into American English poetry. But always with his oversight, so that I did not stray too far, since all translations, after all, stray at least a little bit from their source. I do speak and understand some Persian, but I am not literate in the language, and even if I were, my Persian is nowhere near good enough to attempt a translation on my own. If you want to know how I have come to speak and understand the language: it is rooted in family.

    Having said that, I want also to say this (And Ebit, this is not addressed to you personally. Your question was a fair one.): We have been around and around a couple of times on this blog about the nature of the translation work that I do. While I am happy to engage that debate again, it is decidedly not the focus of this post and so I would appreciate it if the conversation didn’t go there.

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