How to Understand Mawlana Rumi
The best way to understand the great Muslim poet of the 13th century C. E., Mawlânâ Jalâluddîn Muhammad Balkhî-ye Rûmî (qaddasa 'llâhu sirra-hu), is to know that the inward meaning of all of his verses and poems is faithful to the revelation of the Qur'ân and to the Traditions [Ahâdîth] of the Prophet Muhammad (Sallà 'llâhu `alayhi wa sallam). He stated this clearly in a quatrain:
I am the servant of the Qur'ân [man banda-yé qur'ân-am] as long as
I have life.
I am the dust on the path of Muhammad, the Chosen one
If anyone quotes anything except this from my sayings,
I am quit of him and outraged by these words.
--Mawlânâ Rumi's Quatrain No. 1173, translated by Ibrahim Gamard and Ravan Farhadi (in "The Quatrains of Rumi," 2008, p. 2)
Here, the Persian word "bêzâr" translated as "quit of" and "outraged" also means disgusted, fed-up, repelled, and estranged.
The meaning is that no one should interpret Mawlânâ Rumi's speech and poetry as having meanings that do not conform to the revelation and practice of Islam.
And he described his great masterpiece of Islamic mystical teachings, the "Masnavi" as "the roots of the roots of the roots of the (Islamic) Religion [uSûlu uSûlu uSûlu 'd-dîn]... and the explainer of the Qur'ân" [wa kashshâfu 'l-qur'ân] (Masnavi, Book I, Preface).
In an article written by Seyyed Hossein Nasr entitled "Rumi and the Sufi Tradition," he stated: "One of the greatest living authorities on Rûmî in Persia today, Hâdî Hâ'irî, has shown in an unpublished work that some 6,000 verses of the Dîwân and the Mathnawî are practically direct translations of Qur'ânic verses into Persian poetry." (From Chelkowski, editor, "The Scholar and the Saint," 1975, p. 183)
Here is one example of many, that beautifully combines the meanings of two famous verses of the Qur'ân ["And do not despair of the Mercy of God" (12:87); "I respond (with) an answer to the prayer of the supplicant when he calls (on Me)" (2:186)]: "Don't say, 'There isn't (any) entrance to the King for us.' Matters (of concern) are not difficult with generous ones [karîm-ân]!" (Mathnawi, Book I: 221). A major focus of my own translations of Mawlânâ's poetry (see below in the section, "Recommended Translations") has been to point out and explain his references to, and quotes and paraphrases from, the Qur'ân and Traditions.
It is ironic that, although Mawlânâ's poetry has been highly revered by Muslims for so many centuries in a variety of Muslim cultures, today many Muslims are skeptical and distrustful, as well as poorly uninformed, about his works--works that are a treasury of profound Islamic wisdom.
There are a number of reasons for this:
(1) Today there is a lack of knowledge among Muslims about the mystical dimension of Islam called "sufism" [taSawwuf]. This is largely due to many decades of anti-sufi propaganda spread largely by the externalist Wahhabi and Salafi movements. Although some kinds of popularized sufism have involved misguided and corrupted beliefs and practices, the extreme reaction during the last century that has tried to eradicate sufism completely has been excessive. After all, many of the most learned Muslim scholars of the past centuries, such as Mawlânâ Rumi, have been pious sufis and most sufis have been pious followers of the four Sunni Sunni traditional schools of Islamic law [madhâhib]. It is because sufis follow both Islamic Law [sharî`at] and a spiritual path [Tarîqat] that specializes in moral and spiritual purification as well as the practice of the remembrance of God [dhikru 'llâh]--all of which are repeatedly emphasized in the Holy Qur'ân--that sufism has often been called the "heart of Islam." Do we Muslims want to see Islam reduced to an externalist religion with little emphasis on purifying one's character, ethics, and morals, as well as on remembering and loving Allâh Most High more often?
Just as the Protestant reform movement in Christianity led to excessive "purification" that led to the eradication of the traditional respect and love for Christian saints and mystics of the past (as models to emulate for Protestant Christians) in regard to cultivating moral and spiritual virtues, the Wahhabi and Salafi reform movements have led to a false purification that seeks to eradicate essential features of Islamic piety that are actually much more traditional and orthodox: the Islamic path of moderation called as-sunnah wa 'l-ijmâ` that has always included well- respected scholars who were practitioners of sufism.
Mawlânâ Rumi followed the Hanafî school [madhab] of Islamic Law, in which he was raised by his father, who was a highly respected jurist and sufi from the Balkh region of present-day Afghanistan. His first sufi teacher was his father's successor, Sayyid Burhânu 'ddîn Muhaqqiq Tirmizî. After Mawlânâ's father died in the city of Konya (in present-day Turkey), Sayyid Burhânu 'ddîn came and spent nine years training Mawlânâ rigorously in sufi purification practices and disciplines and also sent him to Aleppo and Damascus to study and master traditional Islamic knowledge in the Arabic language. Due to the Sayyid's love of the poetry of Sanâ'î, Mawlânâ also came to love Persian sufi poetry. Afterwards, the Sayyid declared Mawlânâ to be complete in both Islamic learning and the sufi spiritual path. By this time, Mawlânâ became worthy of succeeding his father as one of the most esteemed scholars and sufi teachers in Konya, and he worked in Islamic schools as a teacher of traditional Islamic knowledge as well as a jurist who wrote legal decisions.
Just before the Sayyid died, Mawlânâ's Rumi's second sufi teacher came to Konya, Shamsu 'ddîn Muhammad Tabrîzî, who was said to be 63 years old (when Mawlânâ was 37). He was very learned in Islamic Law [fiqh], taught boys to memorize Qur'ân (so he must have been a Hâfiz himself), and followed the Shâfi`î school of Islamic Law. This is known because he was quoted as saying so by his disciples in "Maqâlât-e Shams-e Tabrîzî" (p. 182), a book in Persian (with some parts in Arabic) that proves the falseness of numerous legends that wrongly depict Shamsu 'ddîn as an illiterate unorthodox sufi. This book (sections of which are now available in English translated by Professor Franklin Lewis--his book is listed below--and by Professor William Chittick--"Me and Rumi: The Autobiography of Shams-i Tabrizi," 2004) shows clearly how seriously Shamsu 'ddîn was about the importance of following [mutâba`at] the example of the Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.). He rejected a number of well-known sufi teachers based on this criterion. For example, he said about Abu Yazîd al-Bistâmî (9th century C. E.), "Why should I call (him) the 'Sultan of the (Mystic) Knowers'? He's not even a prince (of mystical knowledge)! Where is the following [mutâba`at] of Muhammad, peace be upon him? Where is the following (of the Prophet) in (outward) form and in (inward) spiritual meaning? In other words, the same light and illumination that (was in) the eyes of Muhammad should be (in) the light of his eyes" (Maqâlât, p. 738). It was only when he met Mawlânâ and tested him that he became satisfied (as Shams said in his own words): "And the first words I spoke with him were these, 'But (in the case of) Abu Yazîd, why did he not stick close to the following [kayfa mâ lazama 'l-mutâba`at]?" (Maqâlât, p. 685).
Shamsu 'ddîn was Mawlânâ's sufi teacher for a period of three years. Recently, another book of selections from the Maqâlât has been published based on a Turkish translation (by Gencosman) by translator Refik Algan (with Camille A. Helminski): "Rumi's Sun: The Teachings of Shams of Tabriz, 2008.
(2) Another factor is the lack of availability of either Mawlânâ Rumi's Arabic poetry or translations into Arabic from Persian of his "Mathnawi." He composed 90 ghazals and 19 quatrains entirely in Arabic. In addition, there are ghazals which are all Arabic except for the final verse; others are a mixture of Arabic and Persian verses. For more information, please see my article, "About Rumi's Arabic Poetry". These Arabic poems from his "Dîwân-e Kabîr" deserve to be published together and made available in Arabic-speaking countries. There are a number of full translations into Arabic of his Mathnawi that are not well-known to Arabic-speakers, for example, an old one ("Manhaju 'l-qawî" by Yûsuf b. Ahmad al-Mawlawî), an interlinear one with the Persian text ("Jawâhiru 'l-athâr fî tarjamat Mathnawî Mawlânâ Khwudâwandgâr," University of Tehran, 1957), one in two volumes ("Al-Mathnawi" by Ahmad Kifafi, Lebanon, 1967), and a recent one (by Ibrâhîm al-Dasûqî Shitâ, Cairo, 1992-99).
(3) A major problem is the misleading books that popularize Mawlânâ Rumi's poetry in English written by authors who do not know Persian; these books mislead the public by claiming to be "translations." These are, more correctly, "poetic interpretive versions." The most popular of these authors, an American, admits that he deliberately omits the word "God" as much as he can and eliminates or minimizes the Islamic contents of Mawlânâ's verses in his versions--as other version-makers also do); he is faithful to the literal translations he uses only when it suits him and does not hesitate to alter the meanings when it suits him--or sometimes to make up his own "Rumi verses" in order to make his versions sound more pleasing. Other popularized books are by authors whose native language is Persian but who are deficient in knowledge of classical/medieval Persian, seem ignorant of the Islamic contexts, and who deliberately minimize the Islamic contents of Mawlânâ's poetry; these authors translate only some of the verses in a given poem and sometimes make up their own "Rumi verses" in order to make the final verse in a poem more appealing and entertaining. For examples of these distortions the reader may wish to read my article, "Corrections of Popular Versions of Poems from Rumi's Divan". For Americans, these popularized books have the benefit of making Mawlânâ Rumi's name so well-known in America that more people may be motivated to find accurate and reliable translations that reveal Mawlânâ's Islamic spirituality than there would be if his name as a spiritual poet was not so familiar.
But, unfortunately, for Muslims who look at or read such versions, the result is likely to be that they will view both Mawlânâ and his spiritual teacher Shamsu 'ddîn incorrectly as "indulgent romantics," "womanizers," "gay men," "sensualists," "free-thinkers," "heretics", "unbelievers," advocates of alcoholic intoxication, and not true Muslims. In other words, for many Muslims, such pseudo-translations or versions are likely to result in negative attitudes toward Mawlânâ and toward sufism. Examples of such distortions can be found in the article, cited above ("Corrections of Popular Versions"). For a refutation of the wrongful claim (based on ignorance and rumor) that Mawlânâ and his spiritual teacher had an illicit relationship [na`awdhu bi-llâh], please see my article, "A Reply to Misunderstandings about Rumi and Shams"
(4) The other major reason is the lack of information about reliable translations--especially because there are so many popularized books of versions that falsely claim to be "translations." The only reliable and authentic translations of the works of Mawlânâ Rumi are those done by scholars. Readers who are serious about learning and appreciating Mawlânâ's spiritual teachings should accept that the popularized interpretive poetic versions are superficial and unreliable--although certainly easy to read and often pleasant. There is simply no way to avoid disciplined study of Mawlânâ's works (and commentaries are very helpful-- hopefully, more will be available in English in the future). After a period of time, the superiority of genuine translations over interpretive versions will become apparent: As the reader becomes familiar with Mawlânâ's authentic poetic metaphors and images, these will become increasingly attractive as they recur; soon it will become clear that, despite the unpoetic qualities of scholarly translations, they succeed in expressing a quality of spiritual wisdom that is far more profound, inspiring, and sincerely religious than the popularized versions are able to provide.
Recommended Translations into English:
(A) Translations of Mawlânâ Rumi's "Masnavi": Whinfield, E. H., trans., Masnavi i Ma'navi: Teachings of Rumi, The Spiritual Couplets of Maulána Jalálu-'d-dín Muhammad i Rúmí, 1887, reprinted (an abridged translation, sometimes paraphrased, done by a British university scholar); Nicholson, Reynold A., trans., The Mathnawí of Jalálu'ddín Rúmí, 1926-34, reprinted (the only complete translation, in academic British English); Arberry, Arthur J., trans., Tales from the Masnavi, 1961, & More Tales from the Masnavi, 1963 (accurate translations done by a British university scholar of the major stories, omitting material that "interrupts" the stories); Türkmen, Erkan, trans., The Essence of Rumi's Masnevi: Including His Life and Works, 1992, published in Turkey (contains selected translated passages done by a Pakistani scholar at a Turkish university, with Persian text and succinct commentaries); Mojaddedi, Jawid, trans., Rumi: The Masnavi, Book One, 2004, Rumi: The Masnavi, Book Two, 2007 (nicely rendered into rhyming iambic pentameters by an Afghan scholar at an American university); Alan Williams, trans, Rumi: Spiritual Verses, The First Book of the Masnavi-ye Manavi, 2006 (excellent translation by a British university scholar, nicely rendered into iambic pentameters).
(B) Versions of Mawlânâ Rumi's "Masnavi" done by popularizers: none recommended except Helminski, Camille and Kabir, Rumi: Daylight, 1994, & Jewels of Remembrance, 1996 (mostly faithful re-Englishing of selected passages from Nicholson's translation, with modernized wording and paraphrasing, and with the parentheses removed from Nicholson's explanatory words within the verses).
(C) Commentaries on Mawlânâ Rumi's "Masnavi": Nicholson, Reynold A., The Mathnawí of Jalálu'ddín Rúmí: Volume VII Containing the Commentary on the First and Second Books, 1937, & The Mathnawí of Jalálu'ddín Rúmí: Volume VIII Containing the Commentary on the Third, Fourth, Fifth & Sixth Books, 1940, reprinted (the only complete commentary in English).
(D) Translations from Mawlânâ Rumi's "Dîwân-e Kabîr" (ghazal poems and quatrains): Arberry, Arthur J., trans., Mystical Poems of Rumi, 1968, Mystical Poems of Rumi: Second Selection, 1979, & the combined and corrected edition: Mystical Poems of Rumi with a new foreword by Franklin Lewis, University of Chicago Press, 2009 (translations of 400 ghazals by a British university scholar, including improved translations of 40 of the 47 ghazals translated in 1898 by Nicholson, "Selected Poems from the Dîvâni Shamsi Tabrîz"--a book not recommended since it is outdated). Gamard, Ibrahim, trans. and Farhadi, Rawan, trans., The Quatrains of Rumi, 2008 (translations of the nearly 2,000 quatrains attributed to Mawlânâ, with complete Persian text and explanatory footnotes, literal translations done by an American Rumi scholar and and Afghan scholar and former professor of Persian literature, whose native language is Persian and who received training in translating classical/medieval Persian sufi texts).
(E) Versions from Mawlânâ Rumi's "Dîwân" (ghazal poems and quatrains) done by popularizers: none recommended for the serious student of Mawlânâ's works and of sufism in general. This is because these books are too unreliable. Those who cannot compare such versions to the original Persian texts are unable to discern which verses are faithfully rendered and which ones are distorted or omitted. One of the benefits of books of versions is that they can be very effective in attracting a greater proportion than would otherwise occur of "Rumi enthusiasts" who go on to seek more accurate translations.
(F) Translations of Mawlânâ Rumi's "Discourses" (a prose work): Arberry, Arthur J., trans., Discourses of Rumi, 1961 (a complete translation done by a British university scholar); Thackston, W. M., Jr., trans., Signs of the Unseen: The Discourses of Rumi, 1994 (a complete translation done by an American university scholar that has some advantages and disadvantages compared to Arberry's translation).
(G) Translations of selections from all of Mawlânâ Rumi's works: Schimmel, Annemarie, trans., The Triumphal Sun: A Study of the Works of Jalaloddin Rumi, 1978, & I Am Wind You Are Fire: The Life and Work of Rumi, 1992 (prose works by a German scholar at an American university, with many accurately translated selections illustrating a variety of themes); Chittick, William C., trans., The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi, 1983 (translations into American English by a university scholar, with selected passages nicely arranged into major themes, including 75 complete ghazals, by a university scholar); O'Kane, John, trans., Shams al-Din Ahmad-e Aflâkî: The Feats of the Knowers of God, 2002 (a complete translation done by an independent American scholar of the earliest stories about Mawlânâ, his teachers, and successors sprinkled with verses from Mawlânâ' s works); Lewis, Franklin D. Rumi: Past and Present, East and West--The Life, Teachings and Poetry of Jalâl al-Din Rumi, 2003 revised paperback edition (contains translations into American English done by a university scholar, with 40 complete ghazals and a few quatrains, most of which are in a single chapter; Gamard, Ibrahim, trans., Rumi and Islam: Selections from His Stories, Poems, and Discourses, Annotated & Explained, 2004 (translations into American English by an independent scholar,with selections of stories, quoted sayings, and praises of the Prophet Muhammad), Lewis, Franklin, trans., Rumi: Swallowing the Sun, 2008 (complete translations of 73 ghazals, some quatrains, plus selected passages from other ghazals and from the "Masnavi"--all arranged into themes); Rezwani, Ahmad, trans., with final Englishing by Kabir Helminski, Love's Ripening: Rumi On the Heart's Journey, 2008 (complete translations of 54 ghazals, together with selections from the "Masnavi", with titles added to all selections in the popularist style).
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