Rumi, Nations and Ruminations: Poetry from Religion to Culture

“The West has taken Islam out of Rumi”, so read the headlines of recent blog posts that emerge in an age where the famed Sufi poet Jalal al-Din Rumi’s poetry continues to find a wide readership among Western readers and absence in Islamic institutions in the West.

This latter fact has led others, myself included, to respond to the above slogan with the inverse, that the “Muslims have taken Rumi out of Islam.” It is indeed suprising that the interest in Rumi’s poetry among Muslims in the West, including initiatives to provide ‘accurate’ translations of the Mathnavi that align with shari’a — at least as Muslims understand it — is a rather new project that has arisen only over the past few years.

For it is Coleman Barks, and others like him, who have been at the forefront of translating Rumi’s poetry over the past few decades, albeit not from the original Persian tongue, but to render older English translations, such as Reynold Nicholson’s, in a new register that can appeal to a wider modern audience.

This effort by Barks has delivered the verses of the Mathnavi to the hands of countless Westerners, including celebrities such as Oprah, Brad Pitt, Madonna, Will Smith and others. Meanwhile, for much of the past few decades, the mainstream American Muslim community’s focus has been to establish schools that exclusively teach the exoteric religious disciplines, such as law, dialectical theology, Arabic grammar and linguistic scriptural hermeneutics.

It is not much of an exaggeration to say that Rumi’s poetry was not really important in Muslim circles in the West, that is until the advent of ‘cancel culture’ and the age of ‘cultural appropriation’ and its dangers. From this perspective, the vehement disapproval that mainstream Muslims have of Barks’ universalization of the Mathnavi might be construed as more so sociopolitically and culturally rooted than religiously.

This all came to fruition when it was rumored that Hollywood screenplay writer David Franzoni and producer Joel Brown wanted Leonardo Di Caprio and Robert Downey Jr. to play the roles of Rumi and Shams Tabrizi, respectively, in a movie about the 13th century poet. Although the project never came to fruition, the opposition from within the mainstream Muslim community against the prospect of a white actor embodying the persona of a 13th century Afghan poet was vivid and widespread.

There is much that can be said and written about the historical, religious and political causes for this rather odd relationship that American Muslims have with Rumi’s heritage, on the one hand claiming custodianship over his writings and disparaging all forms of foreign appropriation of his works while on the other hand marginalizing from their discourse his words, and larger mystical worldview which extends further back and forward in Islamic history than his own time.

However, for the remaining paragraphs in this essay, I would like to focus on an intellectual subtlety that I believe is absent from this ongoing conversation on Rumi, Islam and the West: how ideas and lore travel from more private and specialized social groups wherein they emerge to the larger society whereby they undergo a process of culturalization, or becoming part and parcel of everyday human interactions. There, they find themselves in our movies, music, video games and literature.

We may even take Mevlana Rumi himself as an example. Born in 13th century Balkh — present day Afghanistan — and later migrating to Konya, in present day Turkey, the son of Bahauddin Walad gave the world a heritage of Sufi poetry encompassing universal themes of love, peace, harmony and the journey of life that continues to be the most widely translated compendium in world literature.

In the original language of Persian, and in Rumi’s own circle of students, this poetry was inseparable from the experience of Islam, its prayers, rituals and collective social experience. Indeed, this is not exclusive to Rumi, but also other Muslim mystics like Ibn Arabi, both of whom were polymaths and masters of the religious sciences. Rather, this is the case with every religious — and non-religious — thinker who’s ever put his heart into words: they express themselves using a language that had always mediated their understanding of truth and reality.

If it is destined that a writer’s words reach an audience larger than that immediate group of devotees, especially if in a different time and place, then it usually finds itself in the hands of academics and historians, who study the lore of the past and translate it from its original language to the tongue of the land and day. In this way, the Mathnavi was rendered in English by Reynold Nicholson, an academic specialist in Islamic thought.

Thenceforth, translated works that emerge in this intermediate circle of academics — and which are ultimately at best interpretations of an original monograph — find their way into the larger society and culture through further interpretations and translations, such as Barks’ own rendering of Rumi’s poetry. Without a doubt, this now twice translated expression of the original ‘Qur’an in Persian’, as the Mathnavi was known, is linguistically and technically a distant relative, at best, of the original work, but not necessarily spiritually.

It is a characteristic of the greatest works that human beings have produced that they speak and give themselves to a universal spirit. This palpability to the human heart, across time and space, is an inherent and living movement in the Mathnavi. It is a wave of meaning that is not meant to undo the religious spirit that underlies the work and which reminds of its origins, but rather complements it at an altogether different frequency.

I reminisce here about Dr. Hossein Nasr’s brilliant response to a question I asked him, regarding the importance of Ibn Arabi’s writings for the masses — that larger circle of society and culture — to which he replied: “When people see a mountain, they are first attracted to the summit. Only if the peak draws them will they undertake the arduous struggle to climb from the base.” Ultimately, all mountain peaks are awe-inspiring, they overwhelm us into a state during which we can only express our feelings in the simplest terms of being human: they return us to innocent childhood.

Since meeting Dr. Nasr some 7 years ago, I have never stopped thinking about the fecundity of this imagery he painted, and more recently it occurred to me that even in the arts, one is not drawn to the craft of music simply by hearing a musician demonstrate the shari’a of music, of practicing scales endlessly and monotonously. Rather, it is Bach’s Minuet, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah or Adele’s Easy On Me that pushes us over the abyss of uncertainty to want to tread the path of saints of this craft. In other words, it is haqiqa (spiritual reality at the summit) that encourages us to learn the shari’a of a craft or discipline, not vice versa.

And so, the accusation that the West has taken “Islam out of Rumi” misses the mark completely regarding the hierarchy of knowledge production and meaning, how it travels from its origins to larger and different audiences, all the while wearing different garbs that reminisce of the past, but also pay attention to the present moment. After all, as Sufi mystics tell us: “The Sufi is the son of the moment.”

And here, we end with a note on a deep crisis that presents itself to us, alongside the absence of Rumi in mainstream American Muslim discourse: the lack of understanding of intellectual genealogies, hermeneutics and the unawareness of the differences between a strictly religious discourse and how that translates — and transmutes — into the larger culture. Our collective marvel at Marvel’s universe of superheroes is an ode to Greek Mythology, through the lens of Joseph Campbell’s Power of Myth and the Hero’s Journey. Similarly, Rumi’s poetry finds its way to American cinema, music and literature at the hands of Coleman Barks.

How Mevlana himself feels about such a translation and journey of his words can perhaps be best described by this well-known excerpt from his Mathnavi:

Come, come, whoever you are.

Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving.

It does not matter.

Ours is not a caravan of despair

Creative writer, aspiring musician and educator on the sacred dimensions of the creative process