Jalaluddin Rumi by W. Chittick
Fountain of Fire.
by Nader Khalili.Los Angeles: Burning Gate, 1996.
The primary language of Islamic civilization is
Arabic, a Semitic language closely akin to Hebrew. When Muslim scholars
wanted to write on Koran commentary, Hadith, jurisprudence, theology,
philosophy, and theoretical Sufism, they normally chose Arabic.
But Arabic remained the exclusive language of Islamic learning only
in the Arabic-speaking countries, which make up a relatively small
proportion of the Islamic world. In many other countries, the vernacular
languages also made important contributions. This is especially
true of Iran, the home of the Persian language, which belongs to
the Indo-European group and is therefore related to English.
Like modern science, the Islamic sciences have always
been the domain of an elite, a group who are known as the "ulama"
(the "learned" or the "possessors of knowledge").
Few people become ulama. Most gained enough knowledge about their
religion to practice it, but they never studied such fields of learning
as Koran commentary, Hadith, theology, or philosophy.
Nevertheless, the Islamic world view became deeply rooted in all
levels of society. To a large degree this occurred because of the
all-pervasive influence of poetry, which expressed the learned culture
in popular language to a degree unimaginable in the modern world.
Practically all traditional Muslims, even the illiterate, appreciate
poetry, and many of them know reams of it by heart. And the most
popular poetry, especially in the Persian context, has always been
the best poetry, which is to say that it was written by the greatest
poets of the Persian language. All these poets embodied Islamic
culture and learning, and many were not only good Muslims, but also
Sufi masters of great spiritual accomplishment.
As soon as the modern Persian language took its
present form in about the tenth century, it spread outside Iran
and gradually became a language of religious significance. In the
Indian subcontinent, Persian surpassed Arabic to become the primary
language of Islamic learning, and it also played a highly significant
cultural and religious role in Turkey. Probably the most important
reason for Persian's spread was the extraordinary beauty and attractiveness
of its poetry. Few if any other languages of the world have produced
as many great poets as Persian. If relatively few of these poets
have become known in the West, this is primarily because it is extremely
difficult to provide satisfactory (not to speak of good)0 translation
of their works. Umar Khayyam became famous in the West not because
he was a first rate poet, but because Edward Fitzgerald was able
to strike a chord with the English-reading public through his verse
renderings (however inaccurate these may be).
Most Persian speakers would agree that the greatest
of all Persian poets is Hafez, but translators have been singularly
unsuccessful in rendering his verses into English. Although a relatively
large number of talented people have taken up Hafiz's challenge,
the grace, beauty, and content of his poetry is too intimately bound
up with the imagery and sound of Persian
language to allow for much more than a caricature.
In the modern West, Jalaloddin Rumi has become the
best known Persian poet. Some Persian speakers may consider him
the greatest poet of their language, but not if they are asked to
stress the verbal perfections of the verses rather than the meaning
that the words convey. Rumi's success in the West has to do with
the fact that his message transcends the limitation of language.
He has something important to say, and he says it in a way that
is not completely bound up with the intricacies and beauty of the
Persian language and the culture which that language conveys, nor
even with poetry (he is also the author of prose works, including
his Discourses, available in a good English translation by A.J.
Arberry). One does not have to
appreciate poetry to realize that Rumi is one of the greatest spiritual
teachers who ever lived.
Rumi's greatness has to do with the fact that he
brings out what he calls "the roots of the roots of the roots
of the religion," or the most essential message of Islam, which
is the most essential message of traditional religion everywhere:
Human beings were born for unlimited
freedom and infinite bliss, and their birthright is within their
grasp. But in order to reach it, they must surrender to love. What
makes Rumi's expression of this message different from other expressions
is his extraordinary directness and uncanny ability to employ images
The story of Rumi's career has often been told.*
He was born in Balkh, in present-day Afghanistan, in the year 1204.
His father, Baha Walad, was a well-known scholar and Sufi and the
author of a fascinating collection of meditations on the intimacy
of divine love. Baha Walad took his family to Anatolia in about
1220, when the impending Mongol invasion made it
dangerous to remain in eastern Iran. He settled in Konya in present-day
Turkey, where he continued his career as one of the best known ulama
of the time. When he died in 1231, his son Jalaloddin became his
successor. Before long Jalaloddin was recognized as a great professor
and preacher. He combined studies of the legal and theological sciences
with the more inward and spiritual orientation of Sufism, but he
was not yet known as an authority in the Sufi sciences, nor did
he compose poetry.
The great transformation in Rumi's life began in
1244, when he was forty (in Islamic lore, forty is the age of spiritual
maturity and also of prophecy; the angel Gabriel appeared to Muhammad
for the first time when he was forty). In this year an enigmatic
figure called Shams al-Din of Tabriz, or Shams-i Tabrizi, appeared
in Konya. He and Rumi quickly became inseparable. Shams seems to
have opened Rumi up to certain dimensions of the mysteries of divine
love that he had not yet experienced. For Rumi Shams became the
embodiment of God's beauty and gentleness, the outward mark of His
guiding mercy. Their closeness led some of Rumi's students and disciples
to become jealous, and eventually Shams disappeared. Some whispered
that he had been murdered, but Rumi himself does not seem to have
believed the rumors. What is clear is that Shams's disappearance
was the catalyst for Rumi's extraordinary outpouring of poetry.
Rumi makes this point explicit in many passages. He alludes to it
in the first line of his great Mathnawi, where he says,
"Listen to this reed as it tells its tale,
complaining of separations."
For Rumi, separation from Shams was the outward
sign of separation from God, which is only half the story. As much
as Rumi complains of separation, he celebrates the joys of union.
Shams, he lets us know, never really left him, nor was Rumi ever
truly separate from God.
"Shams-e Tabrizi is but a pretext-
I display the beauty of God's gentleness, I !"
Rumi wrote about 3,000 ghazals (love poems), signing
many of them with Shams's name. This explains the title of his collected
ghazals and miscellaneous verse, Diwan-e shams-e Tabrizi, which
includes about 40,000 lines. His other great collection of poems,
the 25,000-verse Masnavi (Mathnawi ), was composed as a single work
with a didactic aim. R.A. Nicholson rendered a great service to
the English-reading public by translating it in its entirety. But
relatively few of the Diwan's nuggets have been mined. Nicholson
published a number of ghazals in 1898 and A.J. Arberry retranslated
these and added many more, for a total of 400. I
translated seventy-five ghazals and a thousand scattered verses
in my Sufi Path of Love.
More recently, a number of poets have undertaken
to publish some of the gems of the Diwan while trying to preserve
the poetical quality in English, usually basing themselves on literal
translations done by others. For those who read Persian, most of
these versions have been rather pale, and frequently inaccurate.
But one has to thank all such devotees of Rumi for
recognizing that he deserves to be more widely known and for attempting
to make his poetry available in readable and attractive versions.
I have looked at most of the collections of translations
from Rumi's Diwan and have been most pleased by those of my friend
Nader Khalili, found in the present volume. Nader has the advantage
over most translators of being a native speaker of Persian. He also
has a natural artistic gift that appears in various dimensions of
his work. His book Racing Alone, although
written in prose, is a profoundly poetical account of the quest
for beauty and perfection that fills his life and becomes manifest
visually in his architecture (see his Ceramic Houses & Earth
Architecture). In contrast to most of those attracted to Rumi today,
Nader has been able to bring out the fact that Rumi's message has
a practical and concrete relevance to our everyday world. Beauty,
Rumi knows, is a profound need of the human soul, because God is
beautiful and the source of all beauty, and God is the soul's only
real need. Nader has been performing a major human service by bringing
beauty into architectural forms. In this volume he illustrates his
versatility by bringing it into linguistic forms as well.
Professor William C. Chittick State University of
New York, Stony Brook,
21 June 1992
* For Rumi's life and work see Annemarie Schimmel,
I Am Wind, You Are Fire: The Life and Work of Rumi (Boston:
Shambhala, 1992); idem,
The Triumphal Sun: A Study of the Works of Jalaloddin Rumi (London:
East-West publications, 1978);
William C. Chittick, The
Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi (Albany:
SUNY Press, 1983); idem, "Rumi and the Mawlawiyya," in
S.H. Nasr (ed.),
Islamic Spirituality: Manifestations (New York: Crossroad, 1991),