Rumi and the soul of Iran

The Unites States and the Islamic Republic of Iran are involved in historical diplomatic negotiations for the first time since 1979. How can we better understand a nation where the verses of a sufi poet are as much venerated as the verses of the Koran? We asked Franklin Lewis, an expert on Rumi – the founder of the Mevelevi Order who is loved from Tehran to Washington. (Read more…)

Picturesque mosque underneath volcano Damavand, highest peak in Iran
©Michal Knitl | Shutterstock |

Franklin Lewis teaches courses on Persian literature and language, medieval Islamic thought, Islamic mysticism, Iranian cinema, translation history, and comparative literature, and ism the current Director of Graduate Studies for the Medieval and Modern programs in NELC.

He serves as Deputy Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Chicago, as well as President of the American Institute of Iranian Studies. From 1997-2005 I taught at Emory University in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies.

Lewis is also the author of Rumi: Past and Present, East and WestThe Life Teachings and Poetry of Jalâl al-Din Rumi. (Oxford: One World Publications). This monumental book, originally published in 2000, was reprinted several times and with a revised and expanded 2007 edition.

It was the object of several awards: British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, British-Kuwaiti Friendship Society for the Best Book in Middle Eastern Studies published in the UK in 2000; Encyclopædia Iranica Foundation, 2001 and Saidi-Sirjani Award (Hon. Mention), Society of Iranian Studies, 2004.

People walking through Stars Valley. Mountain range at Qeshm Island, Iran
© SJ Travel Photo and Video | Shutterstock |

All over the world people are quoting poems or verses attributed to Rumi. Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and even agnostics or/and atheists look at this mystical figure with reverence, as a source of inspiration, almost like a divinity. Yet, nobody relates him to the Islamic Republic of Iran, to its theology of confrontation. Some don’t even relate him to Islam, as this article suggests. Why is Rumi important to understand the Persian and the Islamic soul of Iran?

Rumi is not the only poet, or even necessarily the primary one, to play a central role in shaping or expressing “Iranian identity” or Persian Islam. But he does have a special role in expressing Islamic stories and spirituality, and has quoted or translated a few thousand verses of the Qur’an in his poems (especially in the “Masnavi“), which is a difficult feat, since the Qur’an does not conform to the requirements of Persian poetic meter.

Also, Rumi’s poetry, especially the “Masnavi”, plays a major role in formulating in memorable and often beautiful verse, a certain mode of understanding the Qur’an and of Islam.  This is why commentators on Rumi’s Masnavi have called it the “Qur’an in  the Persian tongue.”

Why do Iranians, religious and non-religious, find him a source of union and not of division?

Rumi, who was brought up a Sunni Muslim, and gravitated toward a Sufi understanding of Islam, has not always been accepted by all Iranians, who are mostly Shi’ite Muslims.

In the 19th and early 20th century, there were some Iranian Shi’ite who did not have a favorable attitude toward Rumi because of his Sufi orientation and his Sunni background.

But Rumi’s approach to understanding Islam is a spiritual one, grounded less in religious law, with belief consisting in love of God and the saints more than in specific religious knowledge or dogma.  Good intention, divine grace, and those aspects of religion which the modern world thinks of as inclusive or ecumenical and not strictly defined by doctrine are inclusive and attractive.

Of course, as is the case with the Bible or the Qur’an or other religious or literary texts readers tend to focus on those passages that support this view and either ignore or marginalize passages that do not conform to the socially constructed “iconic” meaning of the poet (a meaning which can change over time and from place to place).

Do the Iranian people’s love for Rumi have correspondence at the regime’s level? Is Sufism tolerated by the centers of political and religious power in Teheran? Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for instance, used do emphasise a Messianic Islam (The return of the 12th Imam) and increased the persecution of religious minorities, as the Baha’is – a path totally different from this one:  “I am neither Christian, nor Jewish, nor Muslim I am not of the East, nor of the West… I have put duality away, I have seen the two worlds as one; One I seek, One I know, One I see, One I call.” (Divan-I Shams-I Tabriz, II)

The Mevlevi (Mawlaviyya) order, often called “whirling dervishes” – the Sufi lineage that was established around the practice and teachings of Jalal al-Din Rum, was widely established in the eastern Mediterranean, in the Ottoman Empire. It was not, however, active in Iran, so love of Rumi’s poems does not correlate with membership in a specific Sufi order in Iran (or South Asia), where Rumi’s poetry is very popular across many groups.

Devotion to Rumi is thus non-denomenational and non-organized in Iran, and relatively non-threatening to established political or religious authority.

And, it is a way of looking at the world through an Islamic lens, though not a literalist one – and for this reason, it can be very appealing to people who do not find religious literalism or fundamentalist approaches appealing, or even organized religions, but are attracted to spirituality and to the imminence of God in the world.

It is also the case that Rumi’s poetry was written for a popular audience, many of whom were new Muslims, and so it can be easily understood, and appreciated at various levels (there is often a deep study of Islam and of Sufism informing the theology expressed in his poems, but the poems can be grasped at some level without much particular or prior knowledge).

Rumi’s poetry in Iran is thus more a way of looking at the world and relating to people than it is a series of rituals and practices which people meet to perform together (though they may meet to read Rumi like one  meets for a book club, or Bible study).

On the other hand, some of the Sufi orders which are active in Iran  and do have certain shared practices and gatherings, have faced restrictions and persecutions in recent years,  just as have several religious minorities, including Sunni Muslims, Baha’is, Christians, Jews, etc., and also some ethnic minorities – Baluchis, Arabs, etc.

Rumi is so popular and enjoys such a reputation as an authoritative figure of mysticism, that poems and sayings are often ascribed to him that are not his.

The poem quoted above (I am neither Christian or Jewish…) was once thought to belong to Rumi (and was translated over a hundred years ago by Reynold Nicholson, the great scholar of Rumi), but is no longer thought to be his. It is perhaps by a later follower of the Mevlevi order.

Salt Lake on Maranjab Desert in Iran
© Fotokon | Shutterstock |

There are several translations of Rumi’s poems in English. Which ones would you recommend as the most accurate and faithful to the originals?

My publisher will be unhappy if I don’t recommend my own translations! Rumi: Swallowing the Sun (Oneworld, 2008), which presents a smaller selection of his poems organized into thirteen thematic categories or concepts (poems about faith and observance, poems from disciple to master, from master to disciple, poems of dreams and visions, poems about birthing the soul, etc.).

But there are dozens of translations, versions and interpretations of Rumi still in print – some from the 19th century, & some from the 20th and 21st.

There is a whole chapter on the various translations, versions and interpretations of Rumi and the  scholarship about him.

English translations were done by British scholars of Persian beginning in the 19th century, but the wider  interest in Rumi as poet began after the 1973 UNESCO commemoration of the 700th anniversary of Rumi’s death, as well as the visit  to San Francisco of a Sufi teacher who had been affiliated with the Mevlevi order in Ottoman Turkey before the sufi orders there were  disbanded by law in the Turkish Republic.

All this led to an interest in Rumi on the part of American poets like Robert Duncan, Robert Bly and Coleman Barks, none of whom, however, knew or learned Persian or Arabic, the languages in which Rumi wrote.

Instead, they worked with older translations which were not poetic, or they worked with individuals who either knew Persian, ortranslated for them to English from Turkish translations of Rumi’s Persian, and provided a second- or third-hand crib of the meaning, which was then worked into a modern American free verse form.

These popular versions and translations, even some by native  speakers of Persian, present a very Americanized new age Rumi which ignores the Islamic grounding of his thought and praxis. There are also good translations by scholars who are well informed both of the content of Rumi’s Persian and with modern poetic idioms of the target languages.

Of Rumi’s poems, can you select a few that better explain the character of Iranian culture and religion? Can he serve as a bridge to dissipate tensions between Iran and the West, mainly the US – after all, it seems that the great poet is now more popular in America than in Turkey, for instance.

Citizens of the modern state of Afghanistan have traditionally claimed Rumi as an “Afghan” because they thought he was from Balkh.  We now know Rumi was really from Vakhsh and lived in Samarqand as a boy, so we could perhaps think of him as Central Asian.

So, if by characteristic “Iranian” culture and religion we mean something that is particular to the citizens of the modern state of Iran, or the people who are ethnically Iranian or Tajiks, that is an anachronistic way to think about him.

Rumi himself was from a polyglot and multi-ethnic region of the world – Central Asia, where Persian was the lingua franca, but where Persians, Arabs, Turks, Mongols and various peoples from what is now China mixed.

His family then moved from Transoxiana – Samarqand and the little town of Vakhsh  – to Anatolia, where Oghuz Turks ruled, and where Muslim Turks had recently settled, but Armenians and Greeks and Georgians still mingled with immigrants of Persian and Arab background.

This is where Rumi lived most of his life, from his teenage years onward, except when he studied in Arabic-speaking Syria (he also wrote a fair number of poems in Arabic, which was not uncommon for Persian poets of the 13th century).

Certainly, speaking Persian was an important part of Rumi’s identity, as was the Islamic and Sufi tradition of Khorasan – greater Persia, encompassing parts of what are now Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Iran.

Modern Iran has the largest population of Persian speakers in the world, and in this sense, the citizens of the modern state of Iran can call him its native son, as can the Persian speakers of Tajikistan or Afghanistan (which has featured him on its postage stamps), or Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Certainly, it is a matter of pride for many Iranians, Afghans and Tajiks that Rumi is so loved and respected throughout the world, most especially in English-speaking countries.

And many of the ecumenical and inclusive passages in his writings can help create a bridge – in the U.S. some lines supposedly by Rumi were printed in “The New York Times” a dozen years ago as an argument for rapprochement between the U.S. and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Dasht-e-Lut, Lut desert, hottest desert in the world, Iran
© Marcin Szymczak | Shutterstock |

Besides Rumi, what other poets would you recommend to better appreciate Iran’s culture richness: Sa’adi, Omar Khayyam, Hafez, Ferdowsi…? What distinguishes them from Rumi?

Ferdowsi tells the mythical and legendary history of pre-Islamic Iran in modern Persian, which has remained more or less the same poetic language since the 10th century, when Ferdowsi began recording these legends, building off of the traditions saved from Sasanian Middle Persian learning and lore.

Ferdowsi also describes the thoughts and internal  conflicts of the kings, their sons, and the great warriors, telling several love stories, as well as battles against demons and super-human champions, though ultimately it is a tale suffused with tragedy.

Ferdowsi’s “Shahnameh” (Book of Kings) is an exceedingly rich and dramatic work, the episodes of which were recited in coffee houses and in the Iranian gymnasiums, the Zur-khaneh.  Some of the story takes place in Afghanistan and some in Central Asia, as well as some in the Arab lands,  so it reflects the trans-national empire of ancient Iran.

Sa’adi (13th century – a contemporary of Rumi, but living in Shiraz, still one of the central cities of modern Iran) is renowned for his “inimitable simplicity” and proverbial expressions, and humor – all of which qualities are valued highly in Iranian culture – and he was also greatly appreciated by Enlightenment Europe, including Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin.

Khayyam is the pithy philosopher, who believes in epicurean appreciation of the here and now, and not of the hereafter – his fame skyrocketed after the successful translation to English by Edward FitzGerald.

Hafez is the lyric genius of Persian – Keats and Shelley and Yeats rolled into one, and something of a rohrshach test – he is interpreted as a Sufi, as an antinomian railing against sham piety, a libertine, a political activist, a humanist.  Hafez has been repeatedly translated to English and to many many other languages, but never so successfully as Khayyam.

Rumi, however, is the epitome of the mystical spirit in Persian, for whom the universe is vibrating and overflowing with the manifest signs of divinity, if only we can figure out how to read them.

In one of your The Guardian‘s articles, you said: “He (Rumi) has won the admiration of Hegel, Martin Buber, Gurdjieff, Dag Hammarskjöld, Erich Fromm, among others. Some have called him the world’s greatest representative of mysticism and mystical poetry. And he certainly had something to say about looking beyond the linguistic, national and religious borders that divide us to the mystical realm in which separateness and distinction melt away.” Can you elaborate on the reasons for this fascination?

The poetry of Rumi is truly remarkable – he sees the universe alive and reverberating with the signs of divinity, and for him this divinity is both awesome and overwhelmingly majestic, but also is the definition of love itself. And it is love that turns the whole universe for Rumi.

God’s love emanates from the core of divine meaning into the forms of the physical word and drips like sap throughout the universe and colors and clings to and shapes everything. He also finds love of God in the love of spiritual teachers and so has a human immediacy as well as a transcendence in his theological outlooks.

He also is a keen observer of social dynamics and at times can be very humorous about human motivations and foibles.

Although Rumi stands firmly within the Islamic Sufi tradition, and assumes that Islam is the latest and most complete form of divine revelation to man, he shows himself more concerned with its spirit than with its law, and on points of doctrine, he prefers complexity and situational flexibility, even ambiguity, to dogma.

Masuleh Vilage, Gilan, Iran
© Roserunn | Shutterstock |

From the modern perspective on religion and spirituality, this is quite attractive, and If we compare what Rumi teaches in the Masnavi to, let’s say his somewhat later contemporary, Dante in his Divine Comedy, the picture that emerges is more modern and more ecumenical and more ruthful. For Rumi at his best, religion is mostly about opening windows to the wide, wide vista of the divine:

“As I enter the solitude of prayer
I put these matters to Him, for He knows
That’s my prayer-time habit, to turn and talk
That’s why it’s said “My heart delights in prayer”
Through pureness a window opens in my soul
God’s message comes immediate to me
Through my window the Book, the rain and light
all pour into my room from gleaming source
Hell’s the room in which there is no window
To open windows, that’s religion’s goal”

Masnavi 3: 2400-2404

Religion is furthermore about remembering human beings as all divinely touched, if we can only feel and remember that innate spiritual connection:

“We all were parts of Adam at one time
In paradise we all have heard these tunes
Though clay and water fill us up with doubts
We still remember something of those songs”

Rumi, Masnavi 736-7

And it is this spark of divinity in us that transcends earthly religions and creeds – and creates a kind of natural theology that trumps – in the God’s-eye view of mankind – our individual creeds and rituals and doctrines:

“Hindus praise me in the terms of India
And the Sindhis praise in terms from Sindh
Not for magnificats do I make them pure
They themselves become pure and precious
We do not look to language or to words
We look inside to find intent and rapture”

Masnavi 2: 1757-59

The ruins of what Afghan authorities say it is the house of Sufi mystic and poet Rumi in the Khowaja Gholak district of northern Balkh province. Professor Franklin Lewis says: “We now know Rumi was really from Vakhsh and lived in Samarqand as a boy, so we could perhaps think of him as Central Asian”
© AFP |


This interview was included in an article published in the Portuguese literary magazine LER, February 2014 edition

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