Rumi and the Tradition of Sufi Poetry
An Interview with David Fideler
How did Rumi ever become the best-selling poet in America?
For hundreds of years Rumi has been one of the greatest poets of the Persian world. He’s sort of the Persian equivalent of Shakespeare, except that he’s more important than Shakespeare in a cultural sense. For example, in classical Persian music, you’ll find the poetry of Rumi turned into lyrics. But it doesn’t stop there; the poetry of Rumi even appears in Persian pop music that is being recorded today. And many Persians have memorized poems, or even entire pages, of Rumi. He’s still part of the living culture, even though he lived 750 years ago.
Much of Rumi’s work had been translated into English decades ago by academics, but in literal translations that stripped the life and the poetry out of them. One day Robert Bly was speaking with Coleman Barks and he suggested that Barks work on Rumi and “release these poems from their cages.” And Coleman Barks certainly did breathe some life back into Rumi’s poetry. He began publishing Rumi in small editions over twenty years ago, and started to develop a following. By the time he collected this material together in The Essential Rumi, Rumi had become the bestselling poet in America.
But what makes Rumi so popular?
Well, that’s a good question. The main answer that people usually give is “ecstasy,” and they point to the ecstatic quality of Rumi’s poetry. There’s no question that’s part of the equation, but it’s not a complete answer. The root of ecstasy in Greek means “to go outside of yourself,” and that’s important. But in addition to being intensely joyful types of ecstasy, there are also very quiet types of ecstasy where things seem to stop and even time seems to stand still. In Rumi’s work there’s a full range of human emotion expressedincluding the absence of emotion.
The other day I was busy and preoccupied, driving down a country road. Suddenly a beam of sunlight landed on a tree, and what I was seeing captured my entire attention. It was incredibly beautiful and made me stop and freeze. It took me out of myself and brought me back to reality, and acted as a reminder that I exist in a much larger reality. That kind of beauty can arrest you; it forces you to stop and get outside of yourself and the things that take over your attention.
Those are special moments, and I’m sure that most people have experienced them.
Yes. And there is a special quality about Sufi poetry that captures moments like that, or even inspires you to experience them, so you experience a connection with your deeper self and the larger reality in which we are all embedded.
Aside from ecstasy, I think that Kabir Helminski is right when he points out that Rumi’s popularity has to do with the fact that all human experience has a spiritual dimension, and can offer an opening to a sense of the divine. In much of Western thought going back hundreds of years, there has been a pretty sharp dividing line between our own day-to-day human experience and the official spheres of religion and spirituality. Rumi and the other Sufi poets remind us that the experiences of love, separation, longing, sorrow, and grief even intense forms of suffering can be ways of experiencing divine presence.
What was it that inspired you to start translating Sufi poetry?
Well, that’s a long story. Like many people, I was drawn to Rumi by the translations of Coleman Barks. That was around 25 years ago, before Rumi became popular. But back then I was also reading other Sufi poets. Several years ago, my interest in Sufism was reawakened in a very deep way, and I knew that I needed to study Persian if I was going to find out what these poets were really saying. Sabrineh was helping me to learn Persian, which is her native language. We started working on translations together, and we later decided to get married.
So the whole Sufi bit about the divine Beloved is something that you actually lived out?
Yes, you could definitely say that [laughter]. And it has been a wonderful collaboration. Sabrineh is the Persian expert and I’m the student of Sufism; together we are able to produce very good translations that neither one of us could do individually.
What is it that makes your book unique?
The main thing I wanted to show in this book is that Rumi is not alone, but part of an incredible tradition that extends over a thousand years up until the present day. So this book is not about Rumi; it’s about the tradition he is a part of. While there are some great Rumi poems in Love’s Alchemy, it’s less than 10 percent. All in all, there are about 170 poems by 80 different writers, and most of the poems have never been translated into English before. Unfortunately, a lot of people who are attracted to Rumi don’t realize that he’s part of a tradition, and that all of his work draws upon the tradition. To understand Rumi in a deeper way, you need to understand the tradition of Persian Sufi poetry, its ideas, language, and symbolism.
The other thing that is unique about our book is that the poems are not “versions” or freely edited adaptations of other people’s translations, like many of the other books that are out there; they are made directly from the original Persian text. While we focus on translating the sense of the poems in a way that will speak to people today, we also have certain rules that we follow so that we are offering faithful translations.
What is the relationship between Sufism and Islam?
That’s a somewhat complex question, but Sufism is usually described as “the mystical tradition of Islam.” At different times in history, a more mystical, Sufi-inspired form of Islam has predominated in different parts of the world. The Sufi mystics like Rumi stressed the inner experience and knowledge of the divine, and emphasized it over the outer forms of religion, but they didn’t reject the outer forms.
Islam is a religion that stresses the unity of the divine, but what is meant by “unity” is open to different interpretations. Like all Muslims, the Islamic fundamentalists who follow the school of Wahhabism, the one that inspires the militants believe in the unity of God; but for them “unity” means that God is removed and separate from the universe, which only leaves behind a body of legal rulings. That’s a very austere and puritanical way of looking at things, and nothing could be further away from the vision of the great Sufi poets.
The Sufi view is that God is one, but that the divine is also manifest in human life, human experience, and the beauty of the created world. The Sufis yearn for intimacy and nearness with the divine, and express this yearning in the language of love. This is an important topic, because when you take God and the divine entirely out of the universe and place it outside of human experience, it can lead to some very negative consequences and not only in the Islamic world, but in the Western world too. We could talk about this a lot more, but it would be a different discussion.
In the end, what kind of message do you think the Sufi poets have for us today, as modern people living in today’s world?
I think that people are incredibly hungry for a deeper vision of human nature than is offered by, or even recognized by, American culture. It’s probably safe to say that we have developed the most self-centered kind of psychological outlook ever seen in human history and the perspective of the Sufi poets is directly opposite to that. Because of that, a lot of the poems in Love’s Alchemy are powerful, and they really take you by surprise, because they point toward a very different vision of human nature.
For the Sufis, you only begin to discover who you really are when you go beyond yourself. While that may seem like a paradox, it’s a major theme in the poems we’ve collected in Love’s Alchemy. The real self is something much larger, and much different in quality, that the ego that is concerned with success, popularity, or looking good to others. The reason that love can be such a transformative force is because, in love, the ego is no longer in control, or the center of the personality. If you are really in love, someone else becomes far more important than you yourself love forces you to go beyond yourself. In the words of one of the poets, “When I went beyond myself, the pathway finally opened.”
For the Sufis, it’s really our normal sense of the self that holds us back from having a larger vision of our deeper selves and reality. When we start having experiences of depth in our lives and develop the ability to no longer identify with the socially conditioned ego that’s an opening, and an invitation to discover who and what we really are.
Another thing that people resonate strongly with is the Sufi view that there is an underlying, divine unity that binds all people together, despite the outward differences of religion and culture. That’s something that many of us instinctively realize and feel, but no one says it better than the Sufi poets and they were saying it hundreds of years ago.