This post is a curation of some of literature related to Mevlana Rumi, as part of my journey to discover Tasawwuf and the hidden teachings of the Sufis.
Introduction: My Complete Ignorance about Tasawwuf
When I was growing up I read a lot, including translations of Sufi autobiographies and literary works. All such books and translations led me to believe that the Sufis, including Mevlana Rumi, espoused a decadent way of life dedicated to hedonistic experiences.
The following two translation of the same Persian verse highlight how different translators can completely change Mevlana Rumi’s message.
- Translation #1 (regarded as incorrect): “If you don’t have a woman that lives with you, why aren’t you looking?”
- Translation #2 (regarded as correct): “If you have no beloved, why do you not seek one.”
With so many differing perspectives, it was easy to be confused about Tasawwuf and Sufi thought. I found many of my friends seeking solace in new-age self-help books, and I too started exploring new ideas.
Starting on My Journey to Rediscovering My Faith
In traditional households, religion is ingrained as a way of life, bringing peace and blessings when practiced correctly. The spiritual dimension is felt naturally, without question.
Only when we stray do we realize what we have lost and desperately yearn to return to that path. I’ve experienced this firsthand.
I discovered that going back is easier said than done and I started looking for quick fixes to mend my soul. I needed a teacher to guide me back to my faith.
After spending years experimenting with many spiritual practices I discovered the Sufi teachings that brought me peace. This experience also sparked in me a deep desire to learn more – and also to share what I learn about the true Sufi teachings.
Sufis Portrayed as Cultural Icons Not as Spiritual Guides
The attributes typically associated with Sufis, such as their sensual love poems, allusions to drinking, whirling dervishes, and musical innovations, have become so ingrained in popular consciousness that Sufis are now regarded more as cultural icons than as spiritual guides.
The commonly available books suggest that Sufis had a more liberal and enlightened approach to religion that make their teachings relevant to modern times. However, paradoxically, I found their popularized and diluted teachings uninspiring. The true essence of Sufi teachings is not captured in the widely disseminated information on Sufism.
The Sufi works are misrepresented due to a variety of reasons. Many translator grew up in other faiths and in their translations intentionally left out portions that contradicted their own beliefs. The awareness that books, events and products that portray the Sufis as love poets would have a chance for greater commercial success, was another reason why Sufi teachings were purposefully distorted.
It’s common for new age gurus running expensive meditation retreats to appropriate Sufi terminology that align with their personal philosophies. This convenient practice allows them to add a certain allure to their teachings without fully understanding or respecting the tradition.
The Incorrect Portrayal of Sufis Distracts Seekers
The misinterpretation of Sufi teachings has a high cost for seekers who are dedicated to finding the true path. The distortion of these teachings can lead seekers astray and hinder their spiritual growth. This is what happened to me.
What I read about Sufis led me to believe, that the Sufi teachings were unsuitable for deeper spiritual inquiry. I would spend hours in the bookshops attracted to the new-age guidebooks which promised peace, but I stayed away from the Sufi works.
When I attempted to further research the subject, I came across some contemporary Sufis who seemed to have good intentions, but whose credibility I couldn’t ascertain. After having encountered numerous false meditation masters, I became cautious and found it difficult to accept anything at face value.
I had also been spoiled by the marketing juggernaut of the trendy self-help experts. In comparison, I found that most contemporary Sufi writers fell short of the engaging writing and presentation styles of new-age gurus. This further disillusioned me for a while.
So I was at an inflection point. The magical works of the ancient Sufis had been represented as being non-religious, while the modern teachers did not seem to be inspiring enough.
Eventually I read the works of contemporary Sufis that brought me back to my faith. I have documented my journey in this post: Journeying with Sufi Writers: My Path to Rediscovering Faith.
This also set me on the path to finding the hidden teachings of the Sufis.
Critical Reviews of Translations of Mevlana Rumi’s Poetry
- This is an acknowledgement from a major publication – albeit in an ambiguous tone – that some of the most popular translations of Mevlana Rumi’s works may have misrepresented the essence of his teachings. New York Post: The Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi
- This post contains what translations to avoid and author’s recommendations on what translations he considers accurate. Zirrar: Reading Rumi – The Erasure of Islam from Rumi
- This review includes a quote from Coleman Barks on why he removed Islam from Rumi’s poetry. Zirrar: Reading Rumi in the West: The burden of Coleman Barks
- Muhammad Ali Mojaradi teaches Persian poetry. He has compared translations of Mevlana’s verses on his site. rumiwasamuslim.
The Translations of Mevlana Rumi’s Poetry That Are Considered Accurate
This post is not meant to be a commentary on what is considered inaccurate translation of Mevlana Rumi’s works. I will leave it to the experts to make that judgement.
This post is a curation of what are universally accepted as correct translations. These are the translations that I enjoy and feel inspired by.
- REYNOLD ALLEYNE NICHOLSON (1868-1945): The translations by Nicholson are universally recognized as accurate. He was a shy and retiring man, who had a profound understanding of Islam. He a professor of Persian and also Arabic at the University of Cambridge. Among Nicholson’s students there were many eminent scholars. One of his students, A. J. Arberry was a translator of Rumi and the Quran. Another student, Sir Allama Iqbal was the famous poet and has been called the “Spiritual Father of Pakistan”.
- ARTHUR JOHN ARBERRY (1905-1969): AJ Arberry was a student of Nicholson. He was a scholar of Arabic literature, Persian studies, and Islamic studies. In addition to the works of Rumi, his translation of Quran is highly regarded. Maulana Abdel Haleem, himself a translator of the Quran, has commented that,”Arberry shows great respect towards the language of the Quran.”
- IBRAHIM GAMARD: Ibrahim Gamard taught himself classical Persian for the sole purpose of reading Rumi in the original language. His website (dar-al-masnavi.org) contains his translated Masnavi selections.
- Annemarie Schimmel: Annemarie was a very learned scholar who wrote extensively on Islam, especially Sufism. She was multilingual — besides German, English, and Turkish, she spoke Arabic, Persian, Urdu, and Punjabi— and her interests ranged across the Muslim landscape. Her books on ‘Mystical Dimensions of Islam’, on Mevlana Rumi, and ‘Deciphering the Signs of God’ have contributed greatly towards understanding the heart of Islam. I have enjoyed reading her books on Sufis.
Perspectives on Translations of Mevlana Rumi’s Works
The translations of Mevlana’s poetry as done by eminent scholars may seem arcane for the modern man who is looking for fun words to tweet out to his followers. As such the modern translations of Mevlana Rumi have become more popular than the accurate translations of Nicholson or Arberry.
If you are looking for something cool then it doesn’t really matter which translation you go for and whether that translation is correct.
If you are a spiritual seeker who does want to be closer to God, then it is important to ask Him for guidance in finding the straight path. With His help we can discern the translations that can serve as useful guides.
Perhaps if you are really committed on your journey then like Ibrahim Gamard, you can invest some time in learning classical Persian and/or Arabic so you can deepen your understanding without solely relying on other people’s works.
I love Mevlan’s poetry since it is so simple, direct and full of optimism.
I close this post with the following words of Mevlana Rumi as translated by Ibrahim Gamard:
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.
I hope this post helps you to discover and learn from the inspiring works of Mevlana Rumi.