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Rumi: A New Translation

Image of Rumi: A New Translation of Selected Poems
Book Number: 
Date Fred Read: 
June 2017
Fred's Rating: 
Farrukh Dhondy
Total Pages: 
Arcade Publishing

Farrukh Dhondy is a London-based writer, screenwriter, playwright, and activist of Indian Parsi descent. He has published novels and short stories, written screenplays for Bollywood, and been a commissioning editor at TV 4 in the UK. This was a gift book.

I was given the hardcover edition but here is the Amazon website for the Kindle edition:

Neither the hardcover nor the paperback have an online preview, but if they had I may still have chosen the Kindle preview in this review. The home page has a brief summary which says more about what Rumi is not than what he is. However, after the author first presents his selection of 153 of Rumi’s Verses in pp 3-129, he gives a history entitled ‘Rumi, Sufism, and the Modern World’ on pp 133-160. This is followed by a Q&A with Farrukh Dhondy on pp 161-165.

Amazon’s online Kindle preview includes the first 6-pp of ‘Rumi, Sufism, and the Modern World.’ I give next some quotes that I found to be important from the rest of ‘Rumi, Sufism, and the Modern World.’ Because it is important in understanding how the Sufi’s came to be, I start with the paragraph that comes just after the end of the Kindle preview. [Any comments by me appear in square brackets.]

”The origins of Sufism are disputed. Scholars such as Andrew Rippin point to the birth of Sufism as a product of a religious contradiction. By the eighth and ninth centuries, Islam had spread to cultures other than the Arab tribes of the Middle East. It had, most significantly, conquered Persia and subdued the prevalent state religion of Zoroastrianism. The split between Shia and Sunni Islam was already established, with the Shias, predominately Persian, following the Prophet’s son-in-law Ali who opposed the usurper Mu’awiyah who had named himself Caliph or successor to the Prophet. Their enmity, though springing from internecine quarrels and murder in the camps and Caliphate of early Islam, could be attributed to a rejection by Ali’s followers of the materialistic Islam of Mu’awiyah and his son Yazid, pretenders to the throne and the tradition.

“By the eighth century, according to some scholars, the spiritual traditions of the pre-Islamic Persians began to assert themselves and took the form of a spiritual quest which then sought the legitimacy of Islam. It needed this legitimacy, as otherwise it would be seen as a heresy and be eradicated. The early Sufis had to demonstrate with reference to Koranic text that, ‘Islam, as a religion contained within it a spiritual-ascetic tendency from the very beginning . . . To suggest that Islamic mysticism is, in fact, a borrowing from outside raises the spectre of denial of the intrinsically spiritual nature of Islam and thence the spiritual nature of Muslims themselves.’

“This was a real danger. As it is, the Shias of Persia had inherited the Zoroastrian structures of a priestly caste, the Dasturs, who now exist in the form of Ayatollahs as separate from the Lay Muslim, a tradition which doesn’t exist in Sunni Islam. The Shias still celebrate the Zoroastrian ‘Navroz’ or New Year on 21 March, the vernal equinox prescribed by Persian astronomers. If their mystical inclinations owed anything to the old religion, they had to find legitimacy with the current power.

“Sufis quote the Surahs of the Koran as evidence of the origin of their faith.”

Apparently, this argument worked, for Sufism is moistly accepted as a spiritual form of Islam by the Shias and tolerated, more or less, by the Sunnis, but not the Wahabis. Now jump from to today’s Sufis.

“Today, Sufism is a living religion within the Islamic tradition and the Ulema [a body of Muslim scholars recognized as having specialist knowledge of Islamic sacred law and theology]. While it diligently professes the fundamental belief of Islam that there is one God and that Muhammad is his last prophet, any scrutiny of its history will yield a wealth of allusions and influences from other religions and beliefs. [such as early Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Neoplatonism, Hinduism and “other diverse traditions”].

Sufis have long been accepted as a spiritual and mystical form of Islam – one which ignores politics and hates wars. Now, retuning to Rumi, the author says “The ‘Mathnawi’ [by Rumi] has been famously labelled the ‘Koran in Pahlavi’ [Persian]. If it is, it conveys that second hidden layer of meaning which the Sufi reads in the encrypted Divine Word. Its message is essentially that of those who went before him, the surrender to the Reality that infuses all things and is beyond them, and at the same time, identical with them.

“Revelation, an act of grace from the beloved, and the epiphany, are the only paths to the truth. The rest is ritual and duty. Logic and the intellect are shackles whose bonds must be transcended or broken, through sudden realization. The metaphors of intoxication, ecstasy, the sensual grip of love, the swoon, the madness, dissolution, are all expressions of this mystical realization of the state beyond mere reason.

“As in the teachings of the Buddha, the ‘Mathnawi’ at times enjoins us to detach ourselves from the world without the Hindu ascetic’s disdain for it. It is the path to transformation through which the elements become the servants and slaves of the spirit, pain becomes ecstasy, and the slave becomes one with the master. The ‘Mathnawi’ aims at a music of consciousness, or perhaps even a music beyond consciousness.

“The ‘love’ that Rumi speaks of is not the romantic yearning of a Keats, or the ingredient of some American pop lyric. It is the transcendence of earthly relationships. The ‘ecstasy’ is not orgasm, the ‘madness’ is not the dementia of the psychotic; ‘intoxication’ is not brought about by ethanol or marijuana. The beloved is not the man or woman who obsesses you, but the spirit of the eternal manifest in your guide to God.” [Think about that – it may enlighten you.]

Know that the ‘Mathnawi’ is six volumes of Rumi’s poetry. But this author’s book is but a small sampling of Rumi’s work. The author winds down by saying “There may be some virtue in translating poetry and seeking in the translation to convey the clumsiness and discomfort of reading a language which one doesn’t know. But I have tried, in my translations, to do the opposite. It inevitably means taking liberties with the structure of the verses and sometimes altering the metaphor to get at what I think is the intended meaning.“

Farrukh Dhondy ends his story of the renowned Rumi in his last two paragraphs: “I confess that I am neither a Sufi nor a poet and while working at these transliterations of Rumi, have used the texts of Nicholson and Arberry, the assistance and translating skills of friends who read Persian, and occasionally, the Urdu translations of Rumi by several scholars and commentators.

“The liberty I have taken in trying to combine the intent of the original with an attempt at lyrical felicity, are entirely mine and none other should beg forgiveness for them.”

As you might guess, I was surprised to read the above, having thought that the subtitle ‘A New Translation’ implied an author fluent in the language of Rumi. Then I had to laugh at this assumption I had made. Would I have read this book had I known the author didn’t read Persian? I think I would still have read it. I’m glad I did. For Rumi’s words are often spiritually stimulating and often have humor or satire as well as beauty. I rate this book at four stars, for I wanted more than merely 153 poems by Rumi.

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