Out beyond ideas
of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed begins with this epigraph: a poem by Jalaluddin Rumi. Hosseini is not unique in this respect; he is one of innumerable writers to pay homage to the poet at the commencement of their works, as if the act may bestow the story-telling wisdom of ages onto their narratives. Yet Rumi’s enduring presence extends beyond epigraphs. The Persian poet, scholar, theologian and Sufi mystic continues to dominate US bestseller lists in his own right, and his oft-quoted poetic gems can now be accessed via the Twitter account @RumiQuotes. So what is it about this poet’s simple, beautiful verses that not only speaks to modern readers, but moves them to create stories of their own?
Often described as ‘ecstatic’, the spirit of joy that emanates from Rumi’s verse almost zaps the reader with a loving energy. The poignancy and simplicity of the poet’s most quotable lines allow them to act like mantras, as if their messages might help us to unlock barriers within ourselves through repetition: ‘Respond to every call that excites your spirit.’ This may account for the popularity of Rumi’s quotations as epigraphs to books on spiritual healing, or why his words often adorn coffee mugs, fridge magnets and ‘inspirational’ wall hangings. We surround ourselves with sequences of words and sounds; infused with spiritual meaning, their poetic and melodic resonance takes on uplifting qualities.
This is where Rumi’s Sufism enters the picture. Sufism is an Islamic mystical practice, centred on the purification of the spiritual self through love, and a sense of oneness with the universe. Sufi spiritualism is the life force of Rumi’s lyrical poetry. The ecstasy that emanates from verses such as, ‘dance until you shatter yourself’, lives on in the Dance of the Whirling Dervishes, established in 1273 following Rumi’s death. Sufis channel their devotion to Allah through ecstatic dance and music ritual, in which the whirling dancer experiences a spiritual ascent through an immersion in love.
Rumi’s poetry is deeply entwined with Islamic thought. His most celebrated work, the Masnavi, is a collection of Sufi stories and parables embedded with Qur’anic teachings. Rumi himself reportedly described the Masnavi as ‘the roots of the roots of the [Islamic] Religion’. The Sufi sense of cosmic oneness permeates the collection: ‘We were one substance, like the Sun; we were knotless and pure, like Water.’ Yet despite being a profoundly Muslim poet, reference to Islam is strikingly lacking in many modern adaptations of Rumi’s poetry. This is culturally problematic. To retain Rumi’s spirituality while erasing the religious context it derives from is, to quote Professor Omid Safi, an act of ‘spiritual colonialism’: ‘the erasure and occupation of a spiritual landscape which has been lived and breathed and internalised by Muslims worldwide’.
The passage of poetry which begins this article offers a prime example of the erasure of Islamic references from modern translations. Indeed, the original Persian does not actually refer to ideas of ‘wrongdoing’ and ‘rightdoing’, but rather iman (‘religion’) and kufr (‘infidelity’). As journalist Rozina Ali remarks in The New Yorker, Rumi is putting forward a radically liberal and heterodox vision of Islam in which ‘the basis of faith lies not in religious code but in an elevated space of compassion and love’. It is, nonetheless, an Islamic vision, and should be respected as such in modern translations.
Rumi (1207-1273) is currently one of the bestselling poets in the USA. His unwavering appeal lies in the compassion of his words, which transcend faith and culture, continuing to chime profoundly with contemporary readers, even after seven hundred years. Acknowledging Rumi’s vision of love within its Islamic context, and recognising its unifying potential, is a small but meaningful step towards tackling the division which pervades today’s global religious landscape.