Rumi and His Poetry: The Erasure of A Perspective

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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​ ​transcend​s ​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.​