Several years ago Kabir Helminski, a sheikh of the Mevlevi Order of Sufism, received a call from Madonna’s producer, who wanted to hire his troupe of whirling dervishes for a music video inspired by the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi. Helminski read the script, learned that a guy would be lying on top of Madonna while she sang “Let’s get unconscious, honey,” and wrote a polite letter declining the request. He also sent a package of books so that the singer might get a better sense of Rumi’s teachings.
Like many Persian literary scholars, Helminski, who runs the Threshold Society, a Sufi study center in California, has had little success in convincing Americans that Rumi is about more than transcendent sex. (Madonna later recited Rumi’s poems on a CD, A Gift of Love, along with Goldie Hawn and Martin Sheen.) One of the five best-selling poets in America, Rumi, who was born 800 years ago in what is now part of Afghanistan, has become famous for his ability to convey mystical passion: his lovers are frequently merging into one, forgetting who they are, and crying out in pain. Yet his religious work—one book is popularly called the “Koran in Persian”—is often ignored.
To uncover and celebrate his heritage, UNESCO has declared 2007 the Year of Rumi; conferences about his work are being held in Istanbul, Kabul, Tehran, Dushanbe, and Ann Arbor. One of the featured speakers in Ann Arbor this fall will be Coleman Barks, an American poet who is largely responsible for Rumi’s American popularity as well as his reputation as an erotic soul-healer. Born in Tennessee, Barks freely admits to not knowing Persian (scholars call his best-selling works from the translations of others “re-Englishings”). While his poems are far more elegant and accessible than any previous English renditions, they tend to turn holy scenes into moments of sexual passion. Sometimes he takes out references to God and replaces them with “love.” As he explained in the introduction to his 2001 collection of poems, The Soul of Rumi, “I avoid God-words, not altogether, but wherever I can, because they seem to take away the freshness of experience and put it inside a specific system.”
But Rumi, who spent most of his adult life in Konya, Turkey, based his life and poetry around that system. The son of an Islamic preacher, he prayed five times a day, made pilgrimages to Mecca, and memorized the Koran. Under the influence of an older dervish, Shams of Tabriz, he devoted his life to Sufism, an ancient, mystical branch of Islam. Sufis are less concerned with the codes and rituals of Islam than with making direct contact with God; as one scholar puts it, “Sufism is the core of the religion, the nut without the shell.” Still, the traditional Islamic texts are central to the faith. “I am the slave of the Qur’an and dust under the feet of Muhammad,” Rumi writes.
“Anyone who claims otherwise is no friend of mine.” Rumi put forth an alarming quantity of writing—about 70,000 verses in 25 years—which affords translators the luxury of leaving out poems that might alienate the average American reader. In the introduction to his 2003 Rumi: The Book of Love,Barks jokes that his previous book of translations “achieved the cultural status of an empty Diet Coke can.” He gives the language a Southern hominess and an almost childlike simplicity: Love comes sailing through and I scream. Love sits beside me like a private supply of itself. Love puts away the instruments and takes off the silk robes. Our nakedness together changes me completely.
Starting with 50-year-old prose translations by the British scholar A.J. Arberry, Barks takes liberties to make Rumi’s language more accessible and universal. Occasionally this results in more than subtle changes in meaning. In one mistake, documented by the independent scholar Ibrahim Gamard, Barks mistranslates the word “blind” as “blond” due to a typo in Arberry’s version—inadvertently turning a scene about the abandonment of those who don’t know God (“Bright-hearted companions, haste, despite all the blind ones, to home, to home!”) into a part about resisting sexual lures (“I know it’s tempting to stay and meet these blonde women”). In Rumi’s time, it’s hard to imagine that there were many women with yellow hair; there wasn’t even a word for it.
Barks’s wholesome soulfulness should be credited for bringing Rumi’s work to popularity, but in the process he leaves behind perhaps the most important part of the poems. “Rumi is not a great poet in spite of Islam,” says William Chittick, a Sufi literature scholar at Stony Brook University. “He’s a great poet because of Islam. It’s because he lived his religion fully that he became this great expositor on beauty and love.”
There’s a sense in Rumi’s poems that he is at his emotional limits, simultaneously ecstatic and exhausted. His faith seems desperate, and almost tangible. Such devotion is striking because it’s inspired by God, not by the promise of sex as it sometimes appears in the translations. “He was the most important religious figure of his day,” says Jawid Mojaddedi, an Afghan-born Rumi scholar at Rutgers, whose translation of Book Two of Rumi’s Masnavi came out this month. “And yet people are shocked to find out Rumi was Muslim; they assume he must have spent his life persecuted for his beliefs, hiding in some cave in Afghanistan. We talk of clash of civilizations, and yet there’s this link that needs to be spelled out.” (Rumi’s success in America has actually boosted his popularity, Mojaddedi says, in parts of the Middle East.)
But for many readers, Rumi’s Persian background has little bearing on the force of his poems. He has come to embody a kind of free-for-all American spirituality that has as much to do with Walt Whitman as Muhammad. Rumi’s work has become so universal that it can mean anything; readers use the poems for recreational self-discovery, finding in the lines whatever they wish. “It’s impossible to take Rumi out of context,” says Shahram Shiva, a Rumi translator and performance poet who regularly gives readings of Rumi’s poems, often in yoga studios.
“Great art doesn’t need context,” he says. “The best thing for Beethoven’s popularity was when they put a disco beat behind Symphony no. 5.” Shiva recites Rumi to the accompaniment of flute, piccolo, piano, conch shell, and harmonica and belts out the lines in a deep, sultry Broadway voice. “Rumi’s one of the great creative beings on this planet,” he says, “a mixture of Mozart and Francis [of] Assisi, with a little Galileo thrown in, and maybe some Shakespeare and Dante.”
In his most anthologized poems Rumi comes off as a saintly Tony Robbins, urging people to break barriers, stop worrying, touch the sky, make love, never surrender. It’s as if publishers worry that reading poetry is such a fragile enterprise that too much weight and context and not enough sex will scare everyone away. Helminski, who used to run a publishing company that put out Barks’s early books, noticed a consistent sensibility in the lines readers were requesting permission to quote: those suggesting that there’s no conventional morality, no such thing as ethical failure.
The number one requested line was “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing / there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” “Our culture is so shame-ridden that when someone comes along and says, ‘You’re OK,’ it’s a great relief,” says Helminski. “Americans still have an adolescent relationship with Rumi. It will take some maturing before we move beyond the clichés.”