By Tom Blunt
December 15, 2016
Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī
Perhaps there really are two Americas. How else can you explain anti-Muslim sentiment reaching brazen new heights, with attacks occurring in neighbourhoods (and even libraries) all over the country, even as one of Islam’s most celebrated figures continues to seduce new readers, many centuries after his death?
Four years ago — a period we can already start looking back upon as “a more innocent time” — the BBC pondered this very phenomenon. “Why is Rumi the bestselling poet in the U.S.?” they asked, looking to the past as well as the future of the poet’s legacy. Coleman Barks, the translator who first made Rumi accessible to American readers in the 1970s, answered enthusiastically about the ecstatic poet’s remarkable ability to transcend spiritual politics. “I feel there is a strong global movement, an impulse that wants to dissolve the boundaries that religions have put up and end the sectarian violence,” said Barks. “It is said that people of all religions came to Rumi’s funeral in 1273. Because, they said, he deepens our faith wherever we are.”
Also quoted at length was Brad Gooch, still in the early throes of the Rumi biography that’s at last enjoying its release this January (Rumi’s Secret: The Life of the Sufi Poet of Love). His Twitter account Rumi Secrets has become a repository for fresh translations of verses like this one: “Everyone sleeps, except lovers, who stay awake, telling stories to God.”
Back in 2014, Gooch helped put the Sufi poet’s work in context for readers whose exposure was limited to disembodied tendrils of text, highlighting Rumi’s profound connection with the wandering mystic known as Shams of Tabriz (the exact nature of their relationship remains unclear, but the intensity of it would spark Rumi’s creativity for three decades following their last meeting). “Shams, so loved by Tabrizians, I close my lips,” Rumi once wrote. “I wait for you to come and open them.”
One doesn’t often think of words like “homoerotic” and “Muslim” belonging together. The anti-gay violence of the contemporary Middle East has been widely reported in the West — often as a way of driving anti-Muslim rhetoric — where most of us still recall Iran’s president insisting there were “no gays in Iran.” Following this summer’s Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, the American media began paying more attention to the plight of gay Muslim men, grappling for self-acceptance against their community’s backdrop of “spiritual violence,” finding cold comfort in the arms of countries like the U.S., where Christians continue campaigning for the right to deny basic services to homosexuals on the basis of their “sincerely held beliefs.” (Leave it to our well-meaning masses to fail to see parallels between Islam’s much-dreaded Sharia Law and our own burgeoning Christian theocracy.)
While it would be presumptuous to lump Rumi’s poetry into LGBTQ reading lists, the exuberance and shamelessness of his devotion — whether to god or his fellow seeker — will shine like a beacon to those defying tradition in the contemporary Muslim world:
We have a huge barrel of wine, but no cups.
That’s fine with us. Every morning
we glow and in the evening we glow again.
They say there’s no future for us. They’re right.
Which is fine with us.
You might not even find him on Muslim reading lists. Despite his phenomenal presence in American publishing, and the ubiquity of his QUOTATIONS at weddings and other spiritual events of all denominations, Rumi is scarcely appreciated as a prominent representative of his religion. Even though, as Gooch reminds us, the poet’s lifetime encompassed journeys across thousands of miles between Uzbekistan, Iran, Syria, and Turkey, the transcendent nature of his words make the author seem to belong to everybody, as in Barks’s translation:
Not Christian or Jew or
Muslim, not Hindu,
Buddhist, Sufi, or Zen.
Not any religion
or cultural system.
It’s time for American readers to look deeper, and realize that failing to consider the poet in the context of his own world — including beliefs we scarcely understand, and geography we can barely pinpoint on a map — constitutes a serious erasure of Muslim culture, one we can ill afford in times like these. Aleppo, the great city where Rumi studied in his twenties, is actively being erased by war in what’s already become one of the most gruesome humanitarian crises of the new century. Third-party candidate Gary Johnson managed to net over four million votes in the recent U.S. election, even after revealing on TV that he’d never even heard of the city. Watching our would-be political leaders having to be brought up to speed on complex issues in real time, we see the gap between truly broad general knowledge and superficial understanding. Given our election results and President-elect Trump’s proposed Cabinet appointments, these cracks may gape widely enough to swallow entire nations.
The selective quoting and understanding of Rumi was played for gratifying laughs as recently as Jesse Ball’s novel How to Set a Fire and Why, in which a school counsellor is derided by one of his students: “You small-minded bitch, you think that is poetry? Of all Rumi’s goddamned poems, you pick that one? Did you find it in some psych-nonsense anthology? That has to be his worst poem, and it isn’t even translated well. How does it feel to wade around in life so hopelessly?” The student then quotes a Rumi line of her own, which goes unrecognized by her counsellor: “Whoever’s calm and sensible is insane.”
Certain literary figures become so deified; we neglect to assign any credit to the forces they credit as their inspiration. Without Rumi’s faith in Allah, or his passionate devotion to Shams, there is nothing for him to write about. Nor does an appreciation for the poet’s particular brand of Islam constitute an awareness of the religion as it is practiced by millions of people today, anymore than Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Angels in America will offer you a sufficiently complex view of Mormonism, or the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church represent the teachings of Jesus. No single view can be considered to constitute anything resembling an education, let alone a window to the divine.
Rumi knew this, and was brave enough to admit it:
Do you think I know what I’m doing?
That for one breath or half-breath I belong to myself?
As much as a pen knows what it’s writing,
or the ball can guess where it’s going next.
Brad Gooch knows it, which is why he personally retraced Rumi’s steps through the Middle Eastern cities the poet called home at various times in his life. And while Barks’s translations of Rumi top a recent reading list for understanding the Muslim faith (soon to be joined, one imagines, by Gooch’s upcoming biography), most of these other celebrated titles will be completely unfamiliar to even the most open-minded reader.
Can those in America who strenuously oppose anti-Muslim sentiment fairly say they know that which they defend? Or are we all that counsellor in Ball’s novel, murmuring pointlessly about candles in the heart? If Rumi’s place of honour in American poetry circles is to resonate with real meaning, we need to make sure our interest in his verses transcends the kind of bland universalism or outright tokenism that was considered acceptable (or even progressive) in the past. What about honouring the heart of the poet himself, which throbbed with devotion for his chosen faith, as well as for the more general human experience of devotion itself? Or as the poet said:
You need more help than you know.
You’re trying to live your life in open scaffolding.
Say Bismillah, In the name of God,
as the priest does with a knife when he offer an animal.
Bismillah your old self
to find your real name.