The Rumi Collection
by Robert Bly, and others; Kabir Helminski, ed.
America has lately seen considerable readerly interest in Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, a Persian mystical poet of the 13th century. It is widely reported that Rumi is now the top-selling poet in America, and a check of the Amazon.com Web site shows 110 titles.
Several phenomena intersect here. On one hand, there is a fabulously expanding American audience for poetry in general. As Ezra Pound said, poetry is news that remains news; and Rumi has remained news for seven centuries. On the other hand, Rumi's profound spirituality attracts New Age and other readers seeking verse for meditation, to aid in gaining calm and serenity, thus making it news you can use.
Jalaluddin Rumi lived from 1207 to 1273. He was born in the ancient city of Balkh, in Afghanistan, for which the Alexandrian province of Bactria was named. His family fled Central Asia during the Mongol invasions, moving to the city of Konya (Iconium), in Anatolia, today's Turkey. For that reason, he gained the nickname Rumi, meaning a man from Rome -- as Asia Minor, still part of the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire, was then known.
His most important work, the "Mathnawi" or "Spiritual Couplets," fills six volumes, and their impact on Islamic civilization was so great it gave rise to his title, Mevlana, meaning "the teacher." His biography has many elements that make him an attractive figure. His first mystical instruction came from his father, Bahauddin Walad, an eccentric visionary, and at his father's death Jalaluddin succeeded to the elder man's position as shaykh, or leader, of a contemplative community in Konya.
At age 37, while pursuing his theological career, Jalaluddin met a wandering dervish, Shams of Tabriz. They became mystical companions, remaining so through four years until Shams suddenly disappeared, apparently in reaction to the jealousy of Rumi's other students. In a literary touch that seems almost postmodern, Rumi called his own writings "The Works of Shams of Tabriz."
The present volume brings together English versions of Rumi by many hands, including his main contemporary translator, Coleman Barks, and one of his leading boosters in the West, the poet Robert Bly. Many of these translations are composed in the relaxed, informal manner of American verse today, which somewhat diminishes their impact.
Mystical poetry of this kind should not be too offhand. To the greatest extent possible, translations of it should convey the rhythm, the music, the ecstatic sensibility, the grace present in the original. This seems especially necessary given the verbal and physical power of the various forms of dhikr, or remembrance of God, practiced by the Muslim contemplative mystics called Sufis, of which Rumi is one of the greatest exemplars.
Preferable are the versions by Kabir Helminski, the editor of the volume, who is himself a dedicated member of the Mevlevi order of Sufis, founded by Rumi and known as the "whirling dervishes." This label originates with the Mevlevi practice of reciting the names of God while revolving on one foot. Rumi's sensibility is centered on the glory of the supreme being and of God's universe. This tends to be overlooked by his recent, Western fans.
Rumi comes to us from an Islamic context that is seldom adequately studied in America. In a culture that seems to prefer viewing Muslims with fear and prejudice, the beautiful, spiritual face of Islam is typically neglected. Here, for example, is Rumi on the intolerant, fundamentalist attitude that so many Westerners mistakenly identify with the whole of Islam: "A conceited person sees some sin, and the flames of Hell rise up in him. He calls that hellish pride defense of the Religion; he doesn't notice his own arrogant soul."
Western political and military leaders, both Christian and Jewish, who seek to understand and forge a response to the "Islamic challenge" might greatly benefit from reading such verses. They might gain an inner balance that would assist them in the weighty decisions they are required to make. More important, Rumi's work would show them the breadth of the Islamic intellect and, above all, the foundation of Muhammad's prophetic message in reconciliation, kindness and human understanding.
Rumi is a sensuous poet as well as a religious thinker, offering great insight into the struggle of the mystic with physical existence: . "The spiritual path wrecks the body and afterward restores it to health. It destroys the house to unearth the treasure, and with that treasure builds it better than before."
In a mode that may be seen as virtually erotic, Rumi writes: "I would love to kiss you. The price of kissing is your life. Now my loving is running toward my life shouting, What a bargain, let's buy it."
Jalaluddin Rumi's journey in search of God left its mark on other faiths, paralleling in time those of two other outstanding mystics: the Catalan kabbalistic rabbi Moshe ben Nahman or Nahmanides (1195- 1270) and the Mallorcan Catholic Franciscan and poet Raimon Llull (1235-1315). Sufi influence on the Kabbalah is well-known, and Llull himself declared that his ecstatic Christian spirituality drew much from the example of Sufis like Rumi.
Whether Nahmanides or Llull actually knew or read Rumi's works, it seems clear that all three monotheistic religions were swept in that era by the notion of intense, intimate and creative divine love. That revolution in the religious intellect had many consequences, including the emergence of a secular literature in the West that laid the basis for the Renaissance.
Modern society is filled with nostalgia for those epochs, for their religious certainty no less than their cultural achievements. Until the ideal moment arrives, when the world will again produce spiritually as well as technologically astute leaders, the sincerity, eloquence and sensuality of Rumi will have much to say, if only to mystical devotees and poets.