Like many others, who are fascinated by poetry and mysticism, I am overwhelmed with the world of Rumi. Known to literature as Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, the Persian poet and Sufi is called Mowlana in the Eastern world – our master – while to the West, he is simply Rumi. Years of probing into his work have only made me realize how much I don’t know because each time I read him, a new layer comes to view. At this point, I am resigned to the conclusion that his exact message may forever be lost to the world, that while everyone is entitled to their own interpretation, only Rumi and Shams would know the answer to my questions.
Mowlana was born in the early thirteenth century in Tajikistan, an area of the old Persia that is now Afghanistan. His crossings in northern parts of Persia – Iran, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Syria – are estimated at 2,500 miles. His final stop was Konya, where he spent the last 50 years of his life. Still, regardless of where he lived, Persian remained his true language. The “Masnavi,” a six-book epic poem created toward the end of his life, consists of fifty thousand lines that are mostly in Persian, though here and there are sprinkles of Arabic excerpts from Quran. In his own words, “Say it in Persian although in Arabic might sound better — Love however, has its own many other dialects.”
Rumi’s life changed drastically in 1244, when he met a wandering mystic Shams of Tabriz. (Shams meaning the sun, and Tabriz a city in the northwest of today’s Iran.) At the time, Rumi was a young man of 37 and, like his father and grandfather, a Muslim preacher and scholar. The acquaintance sparked a unique love between him and the much older Shams, a love that to this day is being questioned. Were they the lover and beloved, or disciple and sheikh? The answer is immaterial because there is no doubt that the connection surpassed human standards as we know them.
Shams lured Rumi to a new path of emotional mysticism, a path that ultimately put Mowlana in a position to be viewed by some as a medium between God and humanity. For three years their electronic relationship continued and then Shams disappeared, never to be found again. Rumi mourned the parting by writing, music, and even dance. He whirled round and round, allowing his soul to soar beyond worldly connections and also to be inspired and become one with his muse. Most of the poetry we know of him was created between the ages of 37 and 67. These include 3,000 odes – mostly to Shams, but also some to God and Muhammad – plus 2,000 rubayat, and the six-volume spiritual Masnavi.
Rumi’s work is claimed to be “the most read,” and has been translated into 23 languages. The overwhelming popularity in the West seems to have stirred a new wave of interest among scholars. According to poet Anne Waldman, “Rumi is a very mysterious and provocative poet and figure for our time.” Brad Gooch, the author of a most recent biography “Rumi’s Secret” says, “He’s a poet of joy and of love,” while Lee Briccetti, executive director of Poets House states, “Across time, place and culture, Rumi’s poems articulate what it feels like to be alive.” And finally, Professor Majid M. Naini, a leading scholar of Rumi brings up perhaps the most important point. “Rumi’s life and transformation provide true testimony and proof that people of all religions and backgrounds can live together in peace and harmony.”
Mysterious as Rumi remains, and regardless of the interpretations available to us, the dreamer in me continues to search for a clearer view, one that transcends language barriers, and one that gives his beautiful Persian words their true English meaning. From Coleman Barks, whose interpretations come from yet another translation, to other masters who struggle to connect the mystique of Persian poetry with the charm of literary English, I yet have to come across a translation so precise that I will immediately recognize the verse.
I recently came across a small book titled Rumi’s Little Book of the Heart (Maryam Mafi & Azima Kolin.) Despite its limited selection, I enjoyed the pages that offered the poems in both languages. Who knows? Someday we may find a complete collection of Rumi’s work with Persian and English pages facing one another. Only then could readers like me reach the light at the end of the this tunnel.