The free spirit of Islam
November 5, 2005 9:26 AM   Subscribe

The free spirit of Islam : The popularity in the US of Rumi, a 13th-century Turkish poet, is a tragic irony, as the order of Sufi dervishes he founded is banned at home, via The Guardian. Rumi's brand of Sufism represents "the free spirit of Islam ... the liberal spirit that I think needs to be recognised at a time when Islam has come to be considered almost synonymous with terrorism" Here are some additional links.
posted by adamvasco (18 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I didn't know Rumi was trendy in Hollywood. I picked up a translation of some of his poetry about ten years ago, and have been a fan ever since.

I also didn't know he was scorned by the Turkish government. Sad. His brand of Islam is the most appealing that I've ever come across.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 10:17 AM on November 5, 2005

A selection from the "arousing" Rumi translations by the poet Coleman Barks has been set to music with his verses mouthed by such spiritual luminaries as Madonna, Goldie Hawn and Demi Moore (the cover blurb of this CD describes it as all about "Passion. Music. Romance. Transcending the boundaries of ecstasy it creates a musical tribute to the Act of Love.")

Somebody shoot me.

Seriously, I always thought it ironic that as we were bombing the hell out of Afghanistan, America's most popular poet was one born in Afghanistan.

Although the first link concentrates on Turkey, Sufism is repressed in all the Islamic countries I'm familiar with (along with the less wildly mystical Baha'i sect).

(Thanks for the other links.)
posted by kozad at 10:26 AM on November 5, 2005

Rumi is awesome, the Coleman Barks translation of Rumi is awesome, and the Hollywood trendiness makes me want to crawl under a rock. For god's sake people, go back to kaballah water and scientology and don't ruin the good stuff for the rest of us.
posted by selfmedicating at 10:31 AM on November 5, 2005

There's a line in a (translated) Rumi poem, about "leaving one's body behind you, as a swimmer leaves their clothes by the water's edge."

Something intensely appealing, obviously, about Rumi's limpid clarity in discussing matters oblique and extrasensory. Thanks for the links, much to discover here.
posted by Haruspex at 10:39 AM on November 5, 2005

The being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
posted by mert at 11:37 AM on November 5, 2005

Great post, adamvasco—that Guardian story is perhaps the best thing I've seen on Islamic culture in a major newspaper. This is an important point, well presented:
Yet for all this, Rumi himself always remained an orthodox and practising Sunni Muslim. As Lewis rightly notes, "Rumi did not come to his theology of tolerance and inclusive spirituality by turning away from traditional Islam, but through immersion in it." He was not a "guru calmly dispensing words of wisdom capable of resolving, panacea-like, all our ontological ailments", as he is presented in the translations of Coleman Barks, so much as "a poet of overpowering longing, trying to grope through his shattering sense of loss". Likewise the poet and fellow of All Souls Andrew Harvey, who has produced some fine recreations of Rumi's verse, emphasises Rumi's "rigorous, even ferocious austerity". It is a far cry, he believes, from the New Age construct, "Rosebud Rumi, a Californian hippy-like figure of vague ecstatic sweetness and diffused warm-hearted brotherhood, a kind of medieval Jerry Garcia of the Sacred Heart".
Which reminds me, the Coleman Barks translation may be "awesome" but it ain't Rumi. I'm sort of glad it's so popular just because it keeps people aware of one of the greatest Persian poets and may send some of them to better translations, but it's a mixed blessing. Pseudo-Sufi hipsters aren't much more attractive than the pseudo-Tibetan or pseudo-Indian varieties. As Marshall Hodgson says in Vol. 2 of his magisterial The Venture of Islam, "The various verse translations of Rumi are afflicted with the doctrine that the poetic effect is the main thing to imitate rather than the ideas in their nuances"—and Barks doesn't even render the poetic effect.

Which made me very happy to find the Dar al-Masnavi among the Rumi links at your "additional" link; they've got chunks of Nicholson's prose translation (originally published 1925-1940) with commentary here. (I just wish my Persian were good enough to read him in the original; I can make out the occasional couplet with help, but it's a struggle.)

One quibble: the article mentions "peaceful Sufis" as if that were an inherent attribute; it's too often overlooked by Western enthusiasts that some Sufi orders, like the Naqshbandi of the Caucasus, are militant (and in fact fought the Russians to a standstill in the nineteenth century).
posted by languagehat at 11:46 AM on November 5, 2005 [1 favorite]

to empower the liberal muslims in their societies I think the US should pitch in with the ayatollahs and present demagogues like Sadr ... since whatever the US does is automatically seen as suspect, we could reverse-psych them.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 11:57 AM on November 5, 2005

While Ataturk’s methods were heavy handed and undemocratic, I ultimately agree with the secular course on which he set the country. The whirling dervishes were to him emblematic of the superstitious and regressive forces that controlled public imagination at the time, and he outlawed them along with the veil, the fez and the Arabic alphabet in an effort to “modernize” his country, for better or for worse. Some part of the traditional culture was certainly lost in the transition, but that’s inevitable. People change, civilizations and cultures change, the history of the world is about transformation. The Greeks aren’t walking around in togas and we aren’t burning witches at the stake. The Turks were originally animist nomads from Central Asia, there’s nothing necessarily Islamic about their blood. A lot of secular Turks, myself included, feel that there is something profoundly limiting and regressive about Islam. That said, I think it’s time that Turkey chill out with regard to limiting dissenting voices and freedom of speech. The staunchly secular military, who have intervened on a number of occasions in Turkey’s modern history to reset the country’s course back to Kemalist ideals, have to step back and let the meritocracy of ideas play out.
posted by mert at 12:53 PM on November 5, 2005

A couple of humble suggestions on the inaccuracies of the Guardian article. Rumi is very well read, loved and studied in Turkey. There are several translations available, and some are very well done. His poetry is a requirement in all Turkish public high school curricula. Most Turks you meet will be able to recite his poetry fondly.

The Mevlevi tekkes were indeed shut down when the Republic of Turkey was still new and trying to find a good way to remain secular. The tekkes lost their original spirit and became a meeting place for hardline Sheria supporters quickly after the Republic was founded. The tekkes no longer represented the "free spirit of Islam," and were downright dangerous to the existence of a free, democratic and secular Republic.
posted by copperbleu at 12:59 PM on November 5, 2005

Let the beauty you love
Be what you do...
There are hundreds of ways
To kneel and kiss the ground...

thanks for this!
posted by moonbird at 4:28 PM on November 5, 2005 [1 favorite]

except rumi was persian:
posted by cfarivar at 12:43 AM on November 6, 2005

Rumi was born in Balkh ; then Persia now Afganistan.
posted by adamvasco at 1:16 AM on November 6, 2005

Yeah, but both identifications are meaningless for the 13th century. Balkh (ancient Bactra) was an important center of the caravan trade and had once had its own language (Bactrian, an Iranian language like its cousin Sogdian, spoken in Bukhara and Samarkand); by this time the inhabitants spoke Persian and were considered part of the eastern Persian province of Khorasan, but the city was still closely linked with Sogdia (Sughd), and its people would have been primarily identified as Balkhi, not "Persian" (a term more applicable to language and culture than territory).

While I'm at it, Rumi literally means 'the Roman,' because his family had moved to the sultanate of Rum 'Rome,' i.e. the Anatolian heartland of the Byzantine Empire, still so identified even though it was under Seljuk rather than Byzantine control. (Nobody thought of the empire centered at Constantinople as "Byzantine" until the nineteenth century; at the time everyone thought of it as the Roman Empire, which is what it was.)
posted by languagehat at 7:51 AM on November 6, 2005

The Madonna, Demi Moore, and co. recording sounds utterly stupid. But a lot of us here in Hollywood love Rumi for other reasons. I find comfort and delight in his ruthless cutting away of empty doctrine, his stampeding right to the heart of the matter - absolute surrender and union with the Divine, right now. Rumi points at the moon fiercely and constantly - but people can't help staring at the finger. Unfortunate human nature. Luckily, Rumi doesn't mind giving a poke in the eye now and then.

But anyway, my question: Was Shams of Tabriz of a distinctly different ethnicity from Rumi? Or was the idea of "Persian" more blurry, as someone suggested earlier? Or do we even know?
posted by nromanek at 10:53 AM on November 7, 2005

Nobody knows much about Shams of Tabriz (Tabriz being a town now in northwestern Iran, the capital of Iranian Azerbaijan and as far away from Balkh as you can get and still be in Greater Persia); Hodgson calls him "a wandering Sufi pir of dubious antecedents (some said he was a son of the last Ismaili imam of Alamut)" and says "we see [him] largely by way of the wonder-tales collected about him two generations later." In other words, we know about as much about him as we do about Jesus.
posted by languagehat at 12:11 PM on November 7, 2005

What selfmedicating said, with knobs on. Thanks for the superb links.
posted by Fat Buddha at 1:09 PM on November 7, 2005

Big Rumi fan. He's popular? Weird. I gotta find someone to talk to about him.
posted by Smedleyman at 4:44 PM on November 7, 2005

Cool on the Shams info!
posted by nromanek at 12:38 PM on November 8, 2005

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