Popular but Perilous
On the unhealthy renditions of Mawlana Rumi by Coleman Barks
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
– Rumi of Balkh or Rumi of Barks?
Mawlana Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi, popular as Rumi in the contemporary times, was a thirteenth-century Islamic scholar, jurist, and mystic, renowned for his copious poetic works in Persian. Though he was born in Balkh in Khurasan in the year 1207, he spent most of his life in Anatolia, present-day Turkey. His father, Baha ad-Din Walad, was a man of great learning and a Sufi, who occupied a high religious office in Konya (in Anatolia) and was crowned with the title of Sultan al-ulama (king of the religious scholars). After the death of his father, Rumi succeeded him in his religious function, however, he officially assumed this role nearly after a decade of study and training. He was also a religious teacher and trained a large number of disciples.
Most famous of his works is the Masnawi-yi Ma‘nawi, translated as The Spiritual Couplets. It is a didactic epic of over twenty-five thousand rhymed couplets, which is comprised of a number of vivid stories, allegories, and anecdotes “interspersed with digressions in which Rumi usually explains the relevance of the stories” to the spiritual path. It is also referred to as “the Quran in Persian”. According to William Chittick,
[…] like the Word of God revealed to the Arabian prophet, [the Masnawi] contains within itself the essence of all knowledge and science (although it goes without saying on a lower level of inspiration). Even on the purely mundane and “academic” level it is a compendium of all of the Islamic sciences, from jurisprudence to astronomy.
Rumi himself asserted the Masnavi to be “the roots of the roots of the roots of religion […] and the explainer of the Quran.” Another major work of his poetry is entitled Diwan-i Shams-i Tabrizi, translated as The Works of Shams of Tabriz, which is a collection of over forty-thousand lines of ecstatic poetry of three different kinds, namely ghazaliyat (odes), tarji‘at (tarji-bands), and ruba‘iyat (quatrains). The Diwan is named after one of Rumi’s spiritual masters, Shams ad-Din Tabrizi, who is considered to have impacted him in the most decisive manner even though the period of their interaction is recorded to have been brief.
Though Rumi has remained one of the most eminent personalities in the Islamic tradition through centuries, interesting to note is his recent popularity around the globe and the worldwide boom in his readership. Also, spare a minute and google ‘the best selling poet in the USA’. What did you get?
Rumi? Of course, Rumi!
Rumi has now become a household name. Aphorisms attributed to him circulate in abundance on the social media; they also make good captions on Facebook and Instagram. The thirteenth-century Islamic scholar, jurist, and mystic now has Hollywood celebrities as his admirers. Jay-Z and Beyonce named their daughter after him since he is their “favourite poet”. Brad Pitt has got a few lines from Rumi tattooed on his right arm. We also have Ivanka Trump, on the release of the Joint Declaration between Afghanistan and the US back in 2020, tweeting a poem from Rumi.
Rumi is famous. Rumi is adored. Admiration for him transcends all boundaries of religion, culture, and space. (Wonderful, isn’t it?).
All thanks to Professor Coleman Barks.
Though a number of translations of Rumi’s poetry in European languages had been published during the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, it was “the publication of Coleman Barks’ English versions in the 1980s that popularized Rumi’s poetry, particularly in the USA, bringing him unprecedented fame in the West.” It would not be wrong to say that, in the contemporary times, a majority of the masses, including Muslims, who do not know Persian, have come to know Rumi via Barks’ interpretations of him.
But, here is the punch. Barks, himself, has no knowledge of the Persian language and he admits that. Yet, he claims to present to the readers the ‘essence’ of Rumi’s poetry and thought. He even named one of his books The Essential Rumi, which is the best-selling book in the USA. Professor Coleman Barks also admits that ‘the Quran is hard to read’, yet he is considered an expert on Rumi, who had the Quran memorized by heart and frequently referred to it in his works. Interesting.
Here, it is also important to recognize that, as opposed to how they are publicized and known, Barks’ works are versions or renditions of Rumi’s poetry and not translations (for he does not know Persian). Relying on the English translations by other scholars, he presents his interpretation of Rumi’s poetry in the English free-verse style.
Consider the following poem from Barks’ re-renderings of Rumi:
Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn't make any sense.
(The Essential Rumi, pg. 36)
This is a famous one. Obviously, it sounds cool, no? (But, Rumi wasn’t that cool).
The above is actually a quatrain from the Diwan and its Persian text is as follows:
az kufr-o ze-islām birūn, saḥrāyīst
mā rā beh mīān-i ān faḍā, sawdāyīst
ʿārif cho bedān rasīd sar rā benehad
na kufr-o na islām-o na ānjā jāyīst
A translation (not lyrical though) of the above quatrain could be:
Beyond unbelief and Islam, there is a desert plain
We yearn to be in the midst of that expanse
For the gnostic [has] arrived there, he prostrates [in prayer]
Neither unbelief, nor Islam, nor any place is in that domain
It is evident that Barks has presented a highly distorted version of the original quatrain and has deliberately robbed it of its Islamic content, as he has done with numerous other poems of Rumi. In a phone interview, he admits, “I took the Islam out of it,” and adds, “yeah, the fundamentalists or people who think there is one particular revelation scold me for this.” Basically, for him, religion is secondary to the essence of Rumi. And the masses might agree with him. Even a correct translation of the above quatrain could lead many to conclude that it is a rejection of Islam and that Rumi adhered to no religion.
This, however, is not true. Concerning the misunderstanding and confusion that surrounds Rumi and his poetry, Ibrahim Gamard writes,
Mystics sometimes surprise or shock listeners by statements that appear on the surface to be irreligious, heretical, blasphemous, or radically tolerant – but which are expressions of profound wisdom when understood on a deeper level […] In the case of orthodox religious mystics, radical-sounding statement are consistently harmonious with religious precepts when understood at the level intended.
Such is the case in the poetic works of Mawlana Rumi […] His references to things forbidden to Muslims such as “idols,” “wine,” and “unbelief” are not particularly provocative, in most cases, because these were commonplace images used in Persian Sufi poetry centuries before his time, understood to be spiritual metaphors by educated Persian listeners and readers.
Nevertheless, the use of such imagery has continued to be misunderstood by Muslims and non-Muslims down to the present time. Further confusion has been caused by current popularizers of his poetry, who are eager to portray Mawlana as a radical mystic who defied “fundamentalist” Muslim authorities by teaching heretical doctrines […].
The concerned quatrain, therefore, has nothing to do with the rejection of Islam. Rather, it is a product of Rumi’s mystical inspiration and direct experience of the Divine, which is very well situated within the domain of Islam. Commenting on the above quatrain, Gamard maintains,
For Mawlana, the presence of God’s reality is so evident that mental concepts about belief or unbelief about God’s existence can seem irrelevant. In this poem, Mawlana appears to discard Islam, whereas he is describing a profound state of mystical prayer that is beyond the ordinary mind, which is restricted by beliefs, concepts, and subjective images about divine realities […].
Though Barks have slightly kept the element of spiritual transcendence from ideas, concepts, and language, it doesn’t make sense since the poem has been divested of its Islamic context. This is what Professor Omid Safi has called spiritual colonialism, which means “bypassing, erasing, and occupying a spiritual landscape that has been lived and breathed and internalized by Muslims from Bosnia and Istanbul to Konya and Iran to Central and South Asia.”
Moreover, it should also be considered that Rumi’s mystical worldview allowed him to see above and beyond the narrow understanding of Islam as the mere ‘performance’ of Islamic rituals. This does not mean that Rumi was against those rituals, rather he purported the view that an outward performance of them ought to be complimented by an inward insight. Consider the following couplet from him:
zāhir-hāshān be awlīyā mānd līk
dar bātinishān bū-yi musalmānī na
Their outward appearances are saintly, however
on the inwards, they are void of the Muslim scent
Though I do not consider myself capable of providing an exegesis of the quatrain, in my view, it can also be the case that Rumi intended to urge his readers to transcend the narrow understanding of religion and witness (with the inner eye) the all-encompassing realm of the Beloved, the realm where a gnostic (the knower of God) prays and prostrates in submission. Moreover, the way to witnessing this realm, in his view, was not something different or separate from the way of Islam taught by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). He asserts, “The Light of Muhammad does not abandon a Zoroastrian or Jew in the world. May the shade of his good fortune shine upon everyone! He brings all of those who are led astray into the Way out of the desert.” He also maintains,
The Light of Muhammad has become a thousand branches (of knowledge), a thousand, so that both this world and the next have been seized from end to end. If Muhammad rips the veil open from a single such branch, thousands of monks and priests will tear the string of false belief from around their waists.
Therefore, Islam is in no way secondary to Rumi’s essence. Rather, he and, therefore, his works are in the service of Islam and the Holy Quran, as is evident from the following quatrain:
man bandeh-yi Qurʾānam agar jān dāram
man khāk-i dar-i Muhammad mukhtāram
gar naql kunad juz īn kas az guftāram
bīzāram az ʾū-o ze-īn sukhan bīzāram
Translation from @persianpoetics:
If I live, I’m the Quran’s servant evermore,
I’m the dirt of Muhammad the chosen one’s door.
If someone attributes to me anything more,
both the person and what they have said, I abhor!
I wonder what Barks will have to say in this regard as his justification for deliberately erasing Islam from Rumi’s poetry in order to reach the essence of it has no basis in Rumi’s thought. Though Barks is responsible for introducing Rumi to a much wider audience, he has not remained true to the original work.
Undoubtedly, Rumi is popular. But, at what cost?
Moreover, it is also important to note that it is because of his ‘mildly-Islamic’ portrayal in Barks’ versions that Rumi is now so popular in the West. In the words of Gamard,
Many Americans love Rumi for his ecstatic spirituality about divine love, but they prefer that he not be a Muslim, or at least no more than minimally. Therefore, most Rumi books are marketed to satisfy the wish for maximum mysticism and minimal Islam.
It would not be wrong to say that Barks has precisely profited off this tendency of dissociating the spiritual from the religious. It was only by presenting Rumi as a quick and non-limiting spiritual-fix that by the year 2014, his books had sold over two million copies worldwide and had been translated into twenty-three languages. Hassan Lahouti, an Iranian scholar of Rumi, rightly criticizes Barks and the likes of him for publishing their ill interpretations of Rumi’s words “as a tool for mass deception and as the capital of their own literary commerce and divine shop-keeping.”
Another problem with Barks is that he hyper-sexualizes the poems of Rumi, sometimes by rendering the elements of Divine love in an erotic language and sometimes by adding the sexual elements to the poems himself. Consider the following poem as an example:
aī ʿishq tarā parī-o insān dānand
maʿrūftar az mohr-i Sulaimān dānand
dar kālbūd-i jahān tarā jān dānand
bā to chinān ze-īm keh murghān dānand
O love! Fairies and humans know you,
To them, your’e more famous than the seal-ring of Sulaiman (Solomon)
In the form of the world, they know you as the soul,
I live with you in a way that [only] birds know
Now, let’s see what Barks has to offer.
They try to say what you are spiritual or sexual?
They wonder about Solomon and all his wives.
In the body of the world, they say there is a soul and you are that.
But we have ways within each other that will never be said by anyone.
(The Essential Rumi, pg. 37)
I would not go into details here as the distortion and sexualization of the original poem is evident. (Absolute non-nonsensical rendering of the first two lines, in particular).
What would have Rumi said if he were alive today to witness such unhealthy renditions of his poems? Maybe this:
ḥarf-i darwīshān beduzdad mard-i dūn
tā bekhwānad bar salīmī ze-ān fasūn
kār-i mardān rūshanī-o garmīst
kār-i dūnān ḥīleh-o bīsharmīst
Translation from @persianpoetics:
A wretch steals the words Sufis spoke
and tells tall tales to simple folk.
The work of real men shines bright,
the vile has shameless tricks – not light.
Now, since you have come this far, it would be great to end it all with a word of advice from Rumi. (This is perhaps the only ending I could imagine given the kind of loss many are suffering at the hands of the popular, but perilous renditions of the poet).
chūn basī iblīs ādam rūī hast
pas be-har dastī nashāyad dād dast
Translation from @persianpoetics:
There are many devils with a human disguise,
so giving your hand to just any hand isn’t wise.
 William Chittick, The Sufi Doctrine of Rumi, pp. 3 - 4  Ibid., p. 4  Jawid Mojaddedi, "Introduction," in Rumi: The Masnavi, Book One, p. xix  William Chittick, The Sufi Doctrine of Rumi, p. 2  Quoted from Masnavi, Book I, Preface in “About the Masnavi,” Dar al-Masnavi https://www.dar-al-masnavi.org/about_masnavi.html  “About the Divan,” Dar al-Masnavi https://www.dar-al-masnavi.org/about_divan.html  Omid Azadibougar and Simon Patton, “Coleman Barks’ Versions of Rumi in the USA,” p. 172  Zirrar, “Reading Rumi – The Erasure of Islam from Rumi” https://zirrar.com/reading-rumi-the-erasure-of-islam-from-rumi/  For more examples, refer to https://www.rumiwasmuslim.com/translations-compared  See footnote 30 in https://www.dar-al-masnavi.org/corrections_popular.html#30.  Ibrahim Gamard, “Apparently Irreligious Verses in the Works of Mawlana Rumi,” Dar al-Masnavi https://www.dar-al-masnavi.org/apparently-irreligious-verses.html  Ibid.  Quoted in Rozina Ali, “The Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi,” The New Yorker https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-erasure-of-islam-from-the-poetry-of-rumi  Ibrahim Gamard, Rumi and Islam, p. 163  Ibid., p. 177  From an Interview with Ibrahim Gamard https://www.rferl.org/a/Interview_Many_Americans_Love_RumiBut_They_Prefer_He_Not_Be_Muslim/2122973.html  Jane Ciabattari, “Why is Rumi the best-selling poet in the US?” BBC Culture https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20140414-americas-best-selling-poet  Quoted in Omid Azadibougar and Simon Patton, “Coleman Barks’ Versions of Rumi in the USA,” pp. 176-77