Book Review: Rumi – Selected Poems by Coleman Barks

by britishmisk

Mawlana Rumi is a name that conjures up a lot of different images in peoples’ minds. Unfortunately most of them are wrong.

Mawlana Rumi was born into a family of Hanafi jurists in modern day Afghanistan. His family fled from the Mongol invasion to Konya in modern day Turkey. Rumi followed in his father’s footsteps as an orthodox jurist and became the Imam of the people of Konya. Then one day a wandering dervish known as Shams-i-Tabriz walked into his life and Rumi was changed forever. Much like Imam al-Ghazali wandering in the desert, the numerous seclusions Rumi shared with Shams ignited a flame inside of him that showed the raw spiritual aspects of Islam. He came to realise like Imam al-Ghazali that there is more to Islam than just books and scholarship, and that as slaves of God you have to experience true emotional devotion to your divine Creator in order to worship Him fully.

What resulted in Rumi’s revelation were pages upon pages of some of the greatest poetry ever written by men.

Unfortunately since the 60s hippies era, certain modern day orientalists have hijacked traditional Sufi teachings to perpetuate ideas of ‘Divine Unity’ and ‘Universalism’. Although there were some people who attached the label of ‘Sufi’ to themself and subscribed to ideas of ‘Wahdat-ul-Wujuud’ and pantheism (All creation are manifestations of God and one with Him), they were rejected by Orthodox Sufis. On top of that, when many Sufi writers would talk about passion and love with regards to the Divine, they would use imagery of human compassion as a symbolic way of understanding how one may feel when coming close to God. As a result many westerners have taken these lines of poetry, and carefully left out talk of God and have used it dress up their own carnal desires.

Rumi’s work has been at the forefront of this barrage of misunderstanding. Although Coleman Barks’s collection does retain many Islamic subject material, a lot of the work does seem to contain many of the fabricated works that have been wrongly attributed to Rumi.

One example is the famous passage:

Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu Buddhist, sufi, or zen. Not any religion or cultural system. I am not from the East or the West, not out of the ocean or up from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not composed of elements at…

It makes absolutely no sense Rumi would have written this, especially when the main plethora of his works are to do with how to become a better Muslim, not an atheist! Another counter example is the fact that in the Mathnawi he has a very long tale of a Jewish king’s vizier who planned to kill the Christians of a city. The only Christians who were saved were the ones who accepted that Muhammad (SAWS) was mentioned in the Gospel!

Another case where the work does not seem to be Rumi’s is the story of a king who sends an army to steal the beautiful concubine of the king of Mosul. The imagery in that story is tantamount to pornography, I am highly doubtful a Muslim jurist in the Middle Ages would have written such a work. (Although to be fair the moral of the story is quite good!)

Saying all this, Coleman Barks’s collection isn’t all bad. I still appreciated Rumi’s poetry through Barks’s writing, albeit he didn’t translate it from the Persian but reworked AJ Arberry’s works, which to be honest I think is the wrong way to go about it. It’s a good general introduction to Rumi, but I wouldn’t recommend it to others.

If you are looking for the real Rumi (“The Muslim one”), I have started reading Volume One of the Masnavi translated by Jawid Mojaddedi. Almost half way through, it has blown me away. The Masnavi(/Mathnawi) is the REAL Rumi. Mojaddedi is a Muslim who speaks Persian and has translated the work with an understanding of Islamic culture and Persian language. What adds to it as well is that he has made most of the work into rhyming couplets in an attempt to mirror the beauty the poetry carries in its original Persian. I will write a full review insha’Allah once I have finished reading it.