Thursday, 4 February 2016

Rumi in Reverse

Some people seem to confuse the great Mahometan sage, Mevlana Jalalal al-Din Rumi, with Jonathon Livingston Seagull. It is an easy mistake to make. There are hundreds of best-selling volumes of paraphrases and ‘versions’ of Rumi that render his Persian quatrains into a vacuous, mushy New Age pseudo-wisdom every bit as deep as the once well-known Seagull classic. Throughout the contemporary West, and notably affluent middle America, the Soofi Master has been turned into an agent of sentimental pap, a champion of fuzzy social inclusion and an avowed enemy of every aspect of organized religion. In some versions of the contemporary Rumi you’d swear that John and Yoko were channeling him on ‘Imagine’.

It is a very strange phenomenon; an old, bearded XIIIth century poet – a Muslim divine, no less – has been completely reshaped into the most quote-worthy hero of coffee-table spirituality for literally millions of sago-brained babyboomers. The man is an industry. It is a fact that takes some explaining. In large measure it is a result of the publishing success of such ‘versionizers’ as Coleman Barks, as well as the marketing of Rumi in spiritual supermarkets by such people as Camille and Kabir Helminski who have brought the Mevlevi Soofi Order (Rumi Soofism) into an American form. A small army of other writers and Rumi enthusiasts have followed such pioneers and, over several decades, have together made the sage a household name.

First, however, he had to be thoroughly reconstructed. Much – or in some instances all – of his Mahometan identity had to be stripped away and his teachings had to be recast into the language and shapes of a pop psychology. That is the American Rumi – pop psychology in an exotic turban. His entire message – originally found in the voluminous Mathnawi, some odes and several other texts – has been remade for the modern American psyche. The ‘versions’ and the ‘paraphrases’ (often passed off to the public as ‘translations’) are carefully crafted reconstructions of Rumi’s original works into an American idiom, often very loose, where, indeed, they are not so loose as to be complete fabrications. In fact, it must be said, fabricating Rumi has itself become an art form, especially since the advent of the Internet meme. ‘Yesterday I was clever and wanted to change the world. Today I am wise so I am changing myself.’ Did Rumi really say it? (Or was it Jonathon Livingston Seagull?) ‘My religion is love. Every heart is my temple.’ Where did Rumi say that, if indeed it was not John and Oko?

Along with this reconstruction comes a certain mythology that explains who and what Rumi was and is. It usually goes roughly as follows:

Rumi was a great mystic who rose above the puritanical strictures of conventional religion. After his death, however, he was (wrongfully) reclaimed by the Mahometan tradition and an organization – a Soofi Order – was constructed around his reputation. In this way he was incorporated back into mainstream Islam. He is, though, far greater than that. There is nothing really ‘Muslim’ about him. He transcends any particular religion and belonged to none. There are no Muslim elements in the genuine Rumi – it was all added later by pious followers. We can therefore divorce Rumi and his teachings from Islam, and the traditional Mevlevi Order – an organ of the Ottoman Empire - is blameworthy for trying to keep him in a box, like a beautiful bird long kept in a cage. Only today are we discovering the true Rumi, freed at last from religious dogmatism.

It is a myth promoted as much by many new-style Mevlevis as by casual admirers. 

Against this, reading Rumi’s Mathnawi in a reliable translation, such as Nicholson’s, is truly eye-opening. The New Age Rumi of the above myth and the best-selling ‘versions’ of his wisdom is nowhere to be found. One goes looking for such gems as “Out beyond ideas of right and wrong there is a field. I’II meet you there!” and try as you may you cannot find it. Even more so you cannot find such a statement as the following which floats around the Internet bearing Rumi’s name:

“Without demolishing religious schools (madrassahs) and minarets and without abandoning the beliefs and ideas of the medieval age, restriction in thoughts and pains in conscience will not end. Without understanding that unbelief is a kind of religion, and that conservative religious belief a kind of disbelief, and without showing tolerance to opposite ideas, one cannot succeed. Those who look for the truth will accomplish the mission.”

Rumi said this? According to many, he did. But not in the Mathnawi he didn’t, nor anything remotely like it. On the contrary. The truly striking thing about the Mathnawi on any sober assessment is just how extraordinarily orthodox it is. The imagery and story-telling is vivacious but it is always in the service of a very orthodox exposition of the Koran and the hadeeth (traditions) of the Prophet Mahomet. Overall, in fact, the Mathnawi is nothing but a poetic commentary on these sources, and the poet’s viewpoint is resoundingly that of conventional Sooni Islam. Certainly, he offers a deeper interpretation of Sooni Islam than might the average jurist but on the whole it is very, very orthodox. Given Rumi’s modern reputation one comes to the Mathnawi expecting daring flights of mystic iconoclasm. But there is none of that. It is – dare it be said – ordinary. Surprisingly so. There is much that is lovely, and more than a little that is crude, but there is nothing heterodox or in the least bit deviationist. Rumi was a conventional Sooni Muslim through and through.

His biography reinforces this fact. A mystic? Perhaps. But by profession he was a respected member of the Mahometan Ulama in Konya in Seljuq Turkey, a member of the scholarly establishment, and he taught at a conservative Madrassa (theological school). Everything in this biography matches the tone and substance of the Mathnawi.

It is an extraordinary feat of selective quotation and creative misrepresentation, therefore, to reshape such a figure into the character today revered by Western New Agers. The real Rumi and the reconstructed Rumi bear very little resemblance. He has been remade into a caricature that in many ways is diametrically opposite to the actual man. 

In particular, two aspects of Rumi have been added or at least vastly exaggerated: the ecumenical and the erotic. The New Age Rumi is opposed to all religious particularism. His only religion is love. And this love, moreover, is sensual, open and permissive – all forms of “boiling passion” are approved in the ‘Religion of Love’. The real Rumi is very different. He has a standard Mahometan view of religion. Islam is God’s perfect religion, but the ‘People of the Book’ are tolerated. And the love of which he writes is a chaste Platonic love and the passions of the flesh are routinely described as diabolical spiritual hazards. ‘Tear away the cotton from the sore of lust!’ he urges his readers. His views on the subject of love are both conventional and conservative. Often, his treatment of this subject is quite shocking. Has no one read his story, in the fourth volume of Mathnawi, where a lustful woman is sodomized to death by a donkey? 

The present writer – who is known to harbor errant views on many historical subjects – has a different view of the place of Rumi in Mevlevi Soofism. His view is the reverse of the New Age mythical Rumi. In his view, it was more as follows:

Rumi was a very orthodox Sooni jurist and teacher at a Madrassa. His poetry is entirely grounded in the Koran and the Soona of the Prophet Mahomet. Although he explicates the deeper meanings of the Muslim tradition in eloquent metaphors, there is nothing remotely heterodox in his teachings. The genuine Rumi is completely Muslim and cannot be separated from the Mahometan tradition. After his death, he was adopted by a certain body of Soofi mysticism in order to lend Sooni orthodox legitimacy to it. It is not that an unorthodox Rumi was claimed by orthodoxy. It is the other way around. This revered and highly orthodox Sooni sage was claimed by a (somewhat unorthodox) strand of Soofism and by that means they were brought into the Islamic mainstream. They adopted Rumi in order to secure for themselves a place in Muslim orthodoxy.

It is remarkable that nowhere in the Mathnawi do we encounter any material concerning the central and most conspicuous feature of the Mevlevi Order, their famous whirling dance. The present writer supposes that this dance was a pre-Rumi ritual – indeed pre-Islamic – and was absorbed into Islam when the Seljuqs invaded Anatolia. Rumi’s name – the name, that is, of an eminent orthodox sage, was attached to this dance in order to give it orthodox legitimacy. We know that the Order and its rituals were formalized after Rumi’s time. The stories of Rumi inventing the whirling dance and of breaking out into spontaneous bursts of whirling ecstasy are, in this view, of the nature of foundation myths and part of the post-humus appropriation of Rumi into this mode of spiritual path. Most likely, the grafting of Shams of Tabriz to this tradition was also a form of foundation mythology as well. 

It is strange, to say the least, that one finds an elaborate sacred dance so deeply woven into orthodox Islam, since Mahometan conservatism is inherently suspicious of dance and frowns upon it. How did the whirling ecstatic dance of the Mevlevis find acceptance in Turkish Islam? The question is not, how did such a radical thinker as Rumi become attached to Islamic conservatism? Rumi is not a radical thinker. The question is the reverse: how did such a conventional theology as Rumi’s become attached to such a radical practice as the whirling dance? The present writer supposes that, in part – in the period of reorganization and adjustment following the Seljuq invasions - the advocates of the dance achieved this by attaching themselves to the good name and orthodox reputation of Rumi and by attributing the origins of the dance to him.


Harper McAlpine Black

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