Wajahat Ali: Even though Coleman Barks and others try to divorce Rumi from his God consciousness, it nonetheless emanates in his poetry. Rumi is the best selling poet in America today. What is it about his work, which is thoroughly rooted in Islam and Islamic sciences, that appeals to mainstream audiences?
Seyyed Hossein Nasr:
The question I think should be put the other way around.
First of all, Jalaluddin Rumi is completely rooted in Islamic teachings of the Quran. He was a great scholar, he belonged to a madrassa, and he knew Islamic theology and jurisprudence very well. He knew Persian, Arabic and Turkish, which was coming into Anatolia at that time, very well. He was a remarkable, remarkable scholar, besides being a great saint. He was completely rooted in Islamic tradition. I’m totally opposed to those who try to pull Rumi out of his Islamic foundations by ignoring that element. I have written about this quite a bit and in fact I have a recent book of poetry which is called “Life is a pilgrimage: In conversation with Rumi” in which I translated the first part of his Mathanvi [Rumi’s most beloved work].
It complements what I said about Rumi being rooted completely in the Sufi Islamic tradition.
Now what is it that appeals universally of Rumi to the West today? Several things.
First of all, Rumi is one of the great spokesmen for the Quranic instruction teaching that all prophets come from God and God does not create one religion, but many religions. The verse of the Quran that mentions we have created for each of you, for all of you, your own path, your own Sharia [Religious law], so that you will vie for each other in goodness and mindfulness of God. And a very famous Quranic verse: “To every people we have sent a messenger.” And many of the verses of the Quran which represent a universal perspective of Islamic fiqh(jurisprudence). Abraham is called a Muslim, Christ is called Muslim. Now, there were a large number of Muslims throughout history who brought out the meanings of this especially when it was necessary; when Islam met Hinduism in India and in Anatolia for example, and when Islam met Christianity and to an extent Judaism. But Rumi is one of the great masters who brought out this universal teaching.
As of today, one of the greatest problems of humanity is how to live in a multi religious society without losing one’s religion - without relativising everything. Which is why perhaps with the greatest spiritual problem of today, Rumi is a great master who is able to provide a way. Secondly, Rumi is also perhaps the greatest mystical poet who ever lived, one of the greatest poets of the Persian language. He was able to express practically all aspects of the spiritual life and our existential situation in the world today as human beings in beautiful Persian poetry.
Now, Coleman Barks and these other translators who are very famous now, they do not know Persian. They work with a Persian speaker. The translations are not exact. They are not like the translations of Reynald A. Nicholson, who translated the whole of the Mathnavi, a remarkable feat; a few mistakes in it, but really a remarkable feat. These people have adapted the teachings of Rumi often based on the Nicholson translation often with the help of a Persian speaker to a kind of contemporary, American medium of poetry. This is quite an art, although it’s not exact from the point of scholarship, it brings out something of the taste for this combination of truth and beauty that Rumi represents: an expression of the deepest truths of spiritual life in God and beauty.
Here’s a criticism that many critics of spirituality ask: If the spiritual seeker must be like a subservient “corpse” in the hand of his “washer”, his spiritual guide, then doesn’t Islam and the spiritual path rob one of their individuality? Isn’t this proof Islam is a machine that requires assimilation and creates mindless automons? How is this a path towards individuality?
I wish someone could get rid of individuality so easily; one never gets rid of one’s individuality completely. One gets rid of one’s egotism, which is a very different matter. In your room, you can have two paintings on your wall; one that is a Persian miniature and the other which is a Dutch painting by Rembrandt. They are very distinct characters, yet they have their own individual traits, but they are inanimate, they don’t have a will of their own. When one talks about being like a dead corpse in the hands of a spiritual teacher it means being able to surrender one’s will, specially one’s nafs al ammarah, that is a part of our soul which is again a Quranic term, which commands us to evil – we must surrender that. That’s what it means. It doesn’t make you become part of a cog of a machine.
In fact, the machine doesn’t have the consciousness we have, the free will that we have, and to surrender one’s free will, not in every matter but in spiritual matters, to a spiritual teacher is in a sense a lower level of surrendering one’s will to God. Many people have criticized Islam for being just automatic, having no individuality, just surrendering your will to God, but we Muslims know very well that every moment of the day we have to practice the fact that to surrender one’s self to God is an act of free will.
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