Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī, The Essential Rumi;
translated by Coleman Barks
San Francisco: Harper Publishing, 1995.
By: Dale Pauls
What, one might wonder, is a poetic anthology of a 13th century Persian mystic, that is, a 13th century Persian mystic who is Muslim, doing on a preacher’s bookshelf? Especially one whose language is sometimes crude and sexually explicit; who mentions body parts most holy men don’t? Beyoncé and JAY-Z might name a child after him. Coldplay’s Chris Martin may find his way through divorce by reading his poems. But what is The Essential Rumi doing on a preacher’s bookshelf?
Rumi (pronounced “Roomie”) was born in 1207 in Afghanistan, then part of the Persian Empire. He was himself the son of an Islamic jurist, theologian and mystic. Fleeing the invading armies of Genghis Khan, his family migrated westward. Rumi was theologically trained in Syria and eventually settled in Konya, Turkey (the name “Rumi” means “from Roman Anatolia”) where he came to distinguish himself as a poet and the spiritual leader of a group of Sufi Muslim ascetics. The turning point in his life came in the late fall of 1244 when he met a wandering dervish, Shams of Tabriz, with whom Rumi struck up an intense months-long friendship. Shams, however, disappeared as suddenly as he’d appeared. And Rumi’s poetry rises out of his Friend’s absence, out of the deep pain of his separation from Shams. His loss was mitigated to some extent by later friendships, and over time Rumi came to see these passionate relationships as part of his journey back home to God. So in his poetry, “the Friend” of which he speaks is variably Shams (or another soul mate) or God. Or both.
Writing then in the style of Persian romantic poetry, Rumi becomes a voice for love: human and divine. He describes his own yet-future but partly-present union with God in surprisingly sensual ways (which will seem familiar to those well-read in 13th-century European Christian mystics who spoke of union with God as spiritual marriage). For Rumi, our own quests for love and ecstasy, however fumbling they may be, even however immature, are part of our hunger, our soul’s quest, for God. For as Rumi often writes, “There’s no reality but God; there is only God.”
There are some questions the knowing reader will likely ask. We are reading Rumi through the exquisite sensibilities of Coleman Barks who is himself a great poet, but not a translator. He does not read or write Persian. What he does do is render previously academic translations of Rumi into flowing American-style free verse. So we could wonder to what extent Barks Westernizes and perhaps de-Islamicizes Rumi. It is surprising, for instance, to find in Rumi more references to Jesus than Muhammad.
Then there’s of course the matter of whether the twice-married Rumi’s poetry is gay or perhaps homoerotic, consummated or not. But as Barks observes, correctly I think, “Rumi is way happier than sex and orgasm, his wandering more conscious and free” (from Rumi the Book of Love).
What sticks is Rumi’s honest, straightforward rendering of love in all its human frailty and vulnerability and his realization of its connectedness to the God who is love. Contemporary writers, schooled in psychology and spirituality, only mimic his insights from 750 years ago.
What else sets Rumi apart, however, is his generous appreciation of faiths other than his own Islamic faith. In a remarkable section (excerpted here), he speaks this way for God:
Did you come as a Prophet to unite,
or to sever?
I have given each being a separate and unique way
of seeing and knowing and saying that knowledge.
What seems wrong to you is right for him.
What is poison for one is honey to someone else.
Ways of worshiping are not to be ranked
as better or worse than one another.
Hindus do Hindu things.
The Dravidian Muslims in India do what they do.
It’s all praise, and it’s all right.
The love-religion has no code or doctrine.
Only God. (166-167)
Agree or disagree this is a remarkable position for anyone in the 13th century Middle East. In fact, it’s monotheism drawn to its most radically rational end. And yet Rumi writes from within his Islamic heritage. Our own prophets of hate try to keep folks from seeing this, as if Islam were intrinsically narrow and violent in spirit, but it was Rumi’s own Islamic faith and culture that tolerated his astonishing openness and toleration. His turn to universalism rises, yes, out of his love-intoxicated heart, but in a decidedly Muslim context.
My soul is from elsewhere. I’m sure of that,
and I intend to end up there. (2)
Why do you stay in prison
when the door is so wide open? (3)
Inside this new love, die.
Your way begins on the other side. (22)
In your presence [God] I don’t want
what I thought I wanted. (35)
What can I say to someone so curled up with wanting,
so constricted in his love? (63)
Sometimes when two beings come together,
Christ becomes visible. (79)
God as “the lover inside all your other lovers.” (139)
Your defects are the ways that glory gets manifested. …
Keep looking at the bandaged place.
That’s where the light enters you. (141, 142)
What nine months of attention does for an embryo
forty early mornings will do
for your gradually growing wholeness. (151)
Someone once asked a great sheikh what sufism was.
“The feeling of joy when sudden disappointment comes.”
Don’t grieve for what doesn’t come.
Some things that don’t happen
keep disasters from happening. (171)
Remember: the way you make love is the way
God will be with you. (185)
When you feel gloomed over,
it’s your failure to praise. (228)
Birds make great sky-circles
of their freedom.
How do they learn it?
They fall, and falling,
they’re given wings. (243)
Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round
in another form. (272)
Now as a great global spiritual movement seeks to end religious hatred, it’s no wonder that many are drawn to Rumi, this Islamic poet of the heart. There is, however, a caveat. Reading Rumi can be painful to those who feel separate from God.
But here’s what Rumi does best. He reassures us that if we keep trying, if we keep thinking, and above all, if we keep loving, we can attain union with God. Countless other religious leaders stress the unattainability of such union. Rumi celebrates it.
So it should not have surprised me – though it did – when the girl at the wine shop gushes on seeing my well-worn copy of Rumi. And it’s not surprising that in December of 1273 when Rumi died, religious leaders of every major faith attended his funeral. All this in the time of crusades and sectarian violence not so very far from him. As Barks observes (246), Rumi made it clear that “someone who considers religion or nation an important human category is in danger of severing the heart from its ability to act compassionately. This is a radical idea now, but Rumi held the conviction in the thirteenth century with such deep gentleness that its truth was recognized.”
Perhaps my favorite Rumi quote of all is when in addressing God he says,
“The minute I heard my first love story I started looking for you” (106).
Any writer who can so well map out the many roads that lead from human love to God decidedly reserves a place on a preacher’s bookshelf.