So I'm teaching this class about the foundations of basically all of world culture, which, as you can imagine, occasionally requires that I read way outside the habitual boundaries of my curiosity. Recently, I have been immersing myself in reading about Sufi mysticism, Sufi poetry, and the life and work of the Ur-whirling dervish, the 13th century Persian poet Jalâl al-Din Rumi. I'm working with the translations done by Franklin Lewis almost ten years ago, in a text called Rumi Past and Present, and the poems are really fascinating.
But here's the thing, and this is maybe foolish of me to own up to: I never heard of Rumi before I was told I had to teach him. Which is strange, because I'm just learning that apparently in the late 90s Rumi was the most-read poet in America. So claims Lewis, and WS Merwin confirms this in his 2002 review in the New York Review of Books:
Franklin Lewis notes at the beginning of his exhaustive study of Rumi that on November 25, 1997, in the Christian Science Monitor, Alexandra Marks pronounced Rumi the best-selling poet in the United States. Professor Lewis's book, with its careful attention to Rumi's life and teachings, and to his reputation from his own time until the end of the late millennium, includes in the introduction a marveling survey of the fervor surrounding Rumi's name in recent decades. In a section entitled "Rumi-Mania" he writes of large, enthusiastic audiences at readings of versions of Rumi's poems by the contemporary American translator Coleman Barks, "who, more than any other single individual, is responsible for Rumi's current fame." By the late 1990s that fame, in a variety of forms, had become established in contemporary popular culture, in which Rumi was claimed as a forerunner of New Age aspirations, of heterosexual and homosexual eroticism, and of current manifestations of a quest for ecstasy. (The subtitle of Barks's most recent volume, The Soul of Rumi, is A New Collection of Ecstatic Poems.)
In case this phenomenon has escaped anyone it is worth repeating a few among Franklin Lewis's collection of highlights. According to William Davis in The Boston Globe of March 30, 1998, "spiritually driven commuters now unwind to audiobooks of Rumi's poetry as they sit in traffic jams…." And in New York, in that year, some four hundred people a day (celebrities among them) at the Jivamukti Yoga Center were doing "spiritual aerobics to a background beat that sometimes mixes rock music and readings of Rumi…." He enumerates concert recitations with live music on stage, and CD recordings.
Is this true? How did I miss this? I remember the late 90s as being a particularly touchy-feely New Age-y kind of time, but I always assumed that was my own personal shame, having to do with how old I was and the crowd I hung out with. Now I'm looking back to my late adolescence in a new light: I was a victim of a phenomenon emanating from the cultural hegemony of Deepak Chopra!
I can see why Rumi would have mass appeal; the poetry could be read in a way that emphasizes its sentiment of good-will and passionate pluckiness (see here, for example); but it could also be said that such populist readings attempt to de-Islamicize Rumi. In the Times Higher Education Supplement, Shusha Guppy writes
[C]ertain writers have attempted to "excise Islam from Sufism", as Lewis puts it, and present it as a "philosophy" and "pseudo-spiritualism". Lewis cites the late Idris Shah's The Sufis , as a notable example, in which God is almost totally absent.
This approach appeals to the modern mind, which finds the idea of a deity hard to accept, while longing for some spiritual basis to human existence. Sufism seems to be spirituality without pain. Yet Masnavi is often a commentary on the Koran: a quarter of the book, about 6,000 lines, are direct parapharases of Koranic verses. In Persia Masnavi has become "the Persian Koran", and the poet's popularity has soared since the 1979 revolution, perhaps because Rumi's ecumenical, gentle mysticism, with its focus on love and the tolerant spirit of Islam, contrasts with the official insistence on the minutiae of ritual observance and the oppressive use of the sharia.
Rumi is the only required text on our syllabus this semester; the rest was pretty much up to my discretion. I wonder what my students will make of it– I hope we'll be able to read Rumi anchored within the context of Rumi (he was a preacher, after all) and to read his work as a spiritual text, steering clear of pseudo-spiritual sentimentalism.
And now, for your reading pleasure, I share with you one of my favorites in Lewis's translation:
Top of the morning, you're already smashed–
Yes you are, you tied your turban crooked!
I swear to God, all night last night til dawn
You were drinking– pure wine, undiluted:
It’s plain in your eyes, your cheeks, your color
The sort you are– wouldn’t put it past you.
Give the tipplers some of what you tasted
O Guardian of all created blessings
Today the lion prowls around for prey
The vale and mountain tremble at the thought
From him you’ll not escape by running!
Submit like head-bowed lover and you’re saved.
You will live on in blissful safety
Once you are joined to his eternal realm
Run away from all this talk, run sixty leagues,
You’re at sixes and sevens in talk’s trap