Rumi and His Poetry: The Erasure of A Perspective
13th century Persian poet and Sufi mystic Rumi, by virtue of his literary and scholarly work, has pervaded the cultural mainstream in the United States to become the best-selling poet in the country. But has it all occurred at the expense of his cultural substance?
On 13th October, 2017, in a seminar aptly titled “Rumi: A Colloquium on Poetry, Religion and Culture”, Dr Bahar Davary, professor of Theology at the University of San Diego, talked about an important equation: merits of the expansion of Rumi’s work in the Western world vs detriments of losing the true essence of his work as it transcends languages. Currently, this equation appears to be leaning largely on its right. A quote from Rumi appears very relevant if this discourse concerns itself with the reader’s interpretation of his works (and it is ironic that this itself is roughly translated): “I stop here, you write the rest of it.”
But the line between comprehension and misinterpretation is often susceptible to (unintentional) traversal, and the least his reader can do out of responsibility towards the intellectual content of his work is to make educated attempts at preserving the original or intended bits of meaning that they contain, and avoid erasure of subjects that are not only essential but foundational to his work. The modern-day culture of readership, while rightly finding itself interested in seeking texts from eclectic and foreign sources, should simultaneously harbour cultural contextualization as a prime focus.
Dr Fatemeh Keshavarz, Director of the Roshan Institute for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland, produced a compelling argument as to how it is certain that Rumi used the Quran, Hadiths and Islamic texts in an analytical and explorative manner, how his writings would tread around concepts of Islamic theology and Sufism i.e. Islamic mysticism. (She also made clear that her intentions behind explaining this - which I consider relevant for my argument as well - advocate the need for acknowledgement and not any identity politics.) Yet, the Islamic significance of Rumi’s works see an erasure as they go from thirteenth century Persian writing to the English language of modern spirituality. Starting from the counterculture movement of the 1960’s, which marks the beginning of bringing Rumi to the western world’s attention, conversions of his work become more and more removed from the original as we approach the present, and as the translations, for example, of verses from his Masnavi, evolve from stiff academic language to the free-style verse that is quite unique to America. Rumi has, since his rediscovery in the States around the turbulent times of the Vietnam War, permeated both the nonmaterial (in the form of poetry, prose and art) and material (in the way Rumi has been merchandised for the spiritually curious) aspects of American culture. Deepak Chopra and many others produced translations that were pleasantly accessible to the general populace but remained a far cry from Rumi’s original poetry.
To call it intentional would be an act of gross generalization, for it is very likely that they bore the sincere intention of making beautiful spiritual poetry intelligible to English speakers, many of whose mechanized lives needed just the kind of strength and generosity that Rumi’s poetry welcomes the readers with. But the translators often fell prey to ethnocentrism in their work, and so did the readers in their interpretation. It is understandable that when one construes Rumi’s poetry in light of one’s New Age spirituality rather than in the Islamic or Sufi context, one is likely to deem it much more comprehensible and convenient, and that it is only natural to have a tendency to read the texts within one’s own framework of meaning-making. However, it comes at the expense of the originality and essence of Rumi’s teachings. It works against a prime motive of reading these spiritual texts, which is to explore the foreign, as one scholar writes.
It appears dangerously easy to loosen grip on mindfulness and relax into an ethnocentric viewpoint, especially when the subject of concern is highly symbolic, roundabout or open to interpretation. With undertaking the glorious mission of translating texts inundated with cultural heritage, or any texts that call for some level of anthropological relativism, comes a responsibility of caution and sensitivity. Otherwise, much that should be cherished is lost in translation.