I am sure many of you must have come across Coleman Barks’ collection of books on Rumi’s poetry. Many people like, Chris Martin from Coldplay, have quoted these books and the poetic verses within as monumental parts of their spiritual journeys. However, many are blind to the fact that Barks’ version of Rumi’s work bears little resemblance to the poet’s writing, in fact, it is stripped of the religious (Islamic) context to fit the imaginations of the contemporary American audience and their verse. (shocked, right?) It is a perfect example of language being used as a tool to tarnish and alter the memory of certain cultures.
I came across the problematic nature of the current, popular texts on Rumi’s work through an Instagram account named @persianpoetics. They have taken upon themselves to ‘reclaim Rumi’ from a western notions of spirituality and mysticism. There is even an article in the New Yorker about this very topic (link: https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-erasure-of-islam-from-the-poetry-of-rumi). In this article, the author quotes scholars like Omid Safi who have pointed out the problems with such popular renditions as his work is an important part of Islamic history and scholarship. Rumi’s Persian readers recognize that his poetry often takes amended texts from Quran to fit the meter of Persian verse. Unfortunately, western audience is oblivious of that. They accept the secular mystic notions of Rumi similar to what Coleman Barks has created in his work owing to the dominant Islamophobic narratives that restrict them to see beyond that.
I think it is important for our generation to critically examine the information that we’re fed on a daily basis, to assess the history of the authors, whose content we consume. There won’t be anything wrong with Coleman Barks’s books if you read them as his own interpretations of Rumi’s poetry, but to claim that they are literal translations of his work is misleading. They are popular within the new age spirituality interests that are not burdened with the concept of ‘religion’ Consider this:
“I belong to no religion. My religion is love. Every heart is my temple.”
There is an obvious erasure of Rumi’s Muslim identity! Why? Here is a correct quote from Rumi that explicitly incorporates religion to his work, not abandonment of the fundamentals of the faith.
“I am the servant of the Quran as long as I have life. I am the dust on the path of Muhammad, the Chosen one. If anyone quotes anything except this from my sayings, I am quit of him and outraged by these words.” (Quatrain 1330)
I hope this post raises awareness about Rumi who was not just a Sufi, a poet but also a scholar of Islam and Quran. His writings were never devoid of the context of Islam and it is important to remember that. I am only sharing what I recently learned myself, and in my opinion it relates to our class content and it is enlightening!