America’s Best-Selling Poet was a Muslim: And His Name Was Muhammad

11/13/2017 12:37 pm ET

This piece was written by Bahar Davary, an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of San Diego.

Jalaluddin Muhammad Balkhī (1207-1273), better known as Rumi, is the best-selling poet in America and arguably the most universally respected poet of all time. Today, Rumi’s poems are recited by Madonna and Demi Moore among others, and presented to the market in selections by Deepak Chopra. He is commonly quoted on Reddit , as well as on t-shirts, mugs, and calendars. Among the signs of his popularity with celebrities is that Beyoncé and Jay-Z named one of their twin daughters Rumi! In spite of all of this publicity, few people know or acknowledge that he was a Muslim, let alone a Muslim theologian and jurist. Why is that? What do we know about Rumi? Was he a Muslim? And if so, why does it matter?

A few things are unequivocally clear in his biographies: First and foremost, that he was a Muslim, he was named Muhammad, and he was given the title “Jalaluddin,” meaning “glory of the faith,” at a young age by his father (who was a great scholar himself), due to his aptitude in theology. Rumi is by no means the only Muslim poet whose poetry has been depleted of its religious content, nor is this a new phenomenon. Other poets like Hafez and Omar Khayyam have suffered the same fate. If Rumi is to be understood more completely, he has to be known not simply by the vague epithet of mystic, but as an important commentator of the Qur’an. At a time when shari’a is increasingly casted as a boogeyman, it should be made known that he not only abided by the shari’a, but was himself a jurist. And that neither “Islam” nor “shari’a” are monolithic.

We also know that he was an immigrant; a refugee who had to flee not only his birth city of Wakhsh but northeastern Iran as a whole, along with his entire family and community. He was only a preteen during this mass exodus brought about by the unjust rule in Khorasan and eventually the massacre and destruction brought about by the Mongol invasion. Jalaluddin’s family and the other refugees moved westwards, making the 3000-mile journey to Konya (in modern-day Turkey). With the arrival of the best and brightest into Konya (which was, at the time, a newly Islamized polity), it became the new center of Islamic culture and learning. It was there that Jalaluddin started his teaching career as a theologian at age 24, and became known as Rumi.

We know that a little more than a decade later, at age 37, Rumi, the theologian-turned poet and mystic, produced 27,000 verses of the Masnavi and about 35,000 verses contained within his Divan-e Shams. These are the undeniable historical facts of his life. It is also undeniable that his work has universal appeal, and that his influence transcends ethnic, national, and religious boundaries. Rumi belongs to the world; to all people, all places, and all times. He wrote:

What is to be done, O Muslims? for I do not recognize myself. I am neither Christian, nor Jew, nor Zoroastrian, nor Muslim.

The question arises: why should we emphasize his religion, while he did not see himself within such narrow categories? To answer the question, we should observe the rest of this poem.

"I am not of the East, nor of the West, nor of the land, nor of the sea; I am not of nature’s mint, nor of the circling heavens. I am not of earth, nor of water, nor of air, nor of fire; I am not of the empyrean, nor of the dust, nor of existence, nor of entity. I am not of India, nor of China, nor of Bulgaria, … nor of Khorasan. I am not of this world, nor of the next, nor of paradise, nor of Hell; I am not of Adam, nor of Eve, nor of Eden and Rizwan. My place is the placeless, my trace is the Traceless; ‘Tis neither body nor soul, for I belong to the soul of the Beloved.” (Divan-i Shamsi Tabriz 125)

If we ruminate on the rest of the poem, it becomes quite clear that Rumi does not deny his rootedness within Islamic tradition but that he aimed to transcend all categories of identity. When he declares that he is “not of earth,” we certainly do not assume that he was declaring himself to be from Mars, or that he was not a human being living on earth. One of the central elements of Rumi’s work is to bring our attention to the trappings of superficial readings of the world and all therein, at the expense of the deeper understanding. He warns us not to mistake the foam for the ocean, or the shell for the pearl, not to remain focused on the form or the exterior, but to dig deep for the inner meanings of all things. He saw his own use of language as trappings on the path to meaning. But at the same time, it was these very words that inspired so many people through the ages. These words have been translated from their original Persian to various languages; both unveiling Rumi to the world, and veiling him to the point of unrecognizability.

In some English iterations, his poetry has been stripped of its Islamic substance. In certain translations, every reference to Islam has been removed, transforming Rumi from a Muslim sage into a New Age spiritual guru. Removing the faith-based lexicon and content from his poems has real consequences, and not just within literary circles.

Consider this verse: “Out beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field. I will meet you there.” (Coleman Barks) The original text has no reference to “rightdoing” or “wrongdoing.” The words Rumi used were Islam and kufr (infidelity/disbelief). Ladinsky’s translation of the well-known poem “I died as mineral and became a plant” take such liberty as to add a line stating “I became a beautiful woman; I became a beautiful man.” It deleted direct quotations from the Qur’an included in the poem.

Why are the terms and idioms that clearly show his connection and the deep rootedness of his work in the Islamic tradition removed?

Rumi’s stories in the Masnavi are often metaphors for the variety of means by which the Divine reality is understood. He points to the limitations of any one perception of reality, a limitation that is inescapable due to our fallible faculties and our being bound to a particular historical horizon. This limited horizon can be (partially) transcended only when one engages with those inhabiting other horizons. He shatters the idea that one language and expression, or even one religion, is closer to the reality of the Divine than any other. Do Americans admire Rumi’s work because of his ecumenical views toward religiosity?

While Rumi submits that the universal message of the various religions is from the shared source, he does not imply that the particulars should be neglected, be they doctrinal or ritual.

What Rumi managed to do - and what so few can - was to express the Qur’an in a language of tales and parables that are comprehensible to everyone despite amazing depth. His Masnavi is known to many Muslims as the “Qur’an in the Persian tongue.”

Transforming Rumi into an oriental mystic, or using him as a means of capital venture does not reduce Rumi’s status but it robs us of the knowledge of a vibrant history of interpretation of the Qur’an and of Islam and what it means to be a Muslim. It erases the rich and inclusive interpretations that have long existed within the Islamic tradition and which we are in a dire need of understanding today more than ever. Rumi was a Muslim, an immigrant. His poetry reflects that. Let us free Rumi by acknowledging all aspects of his identity, unless we wish to ask him: How does it feel to be a problem Mr. Rumi?

Bahar Davary, PhD is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of San Diego. She has published on the relationship between women and commentaries of the Quran and Islam and ecology. Her book, Women and the Qur’an: A Study in Islamic Hermeneutics, was published in 2009 by Mellen Press. 

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