Vol. 4 Num 209 Sat. December 27, 2003  

Talking books
A peep into Rumi's treasure

I claim to have fairly wide ranging even eclectic tastes in reading therefore I must include poetry in my weekly musing about books. Prose cannot soothe the soul and feed the emotions as poetry does, especially when it is great poetry which excites the intellect with passion.

One finds the power of such poetry in the works of the mystic poet Rumi. His works have become available to a wider readership with the publication of Coleman Barks' excellent translations. Barks is himself a poet and has taught both English and poetry at the University of Georgia. His books, THE ESSENTIAL RUMI, THE SOUL OF RUMI and RUMI THE BOOK OF LOVE (pub: Harper Collins 1997, 2002 and 2003 respectively) have become best sellers in recent years.

Born in Balkh in what is now Afghanistan, during an era of political conflict and war, Jalaluddin Rumi turned to theology and mysticism from a very young age. His father Bahauddin Walad, was a theologian and a jurist as well as a mystic and at his death Rumi took over the position of Sheikh in the dervish learning community. Rumi's life seems to have been the fairly normal one of a religious scholar -- teaching, meditating, helping the poor -- until he met the wandering mystic Shams of Tabriz and they became inseparable companions. This friendship led to an opening of hearts and minds, an exploration of the mystery of divine truth which celebrated both the glory and the pain of being in a human incarnation.

Barks says that Rumi became a deep and radiant adept in the science of mystical tradition. "Mystical" is a vague and imprecise word in English and the area of mystical experience may not often be empirically verifiable. It is also not exclusively physical, emotional or mental though it may partake of those three areas. Like the depths of love mystical experience can be neither proven nor denied, but it does happen and it is the region of human existence that Rumi's poems inhabit.

I enjoyed Rumi's poetry from a very early age but my Farsi was never good enough to truly appreciate the nuances of the language. In any case with any mystical writing, I find, that annotation, commentary and explanation is essential for full enjoyment and appreciation. The main source for these before the Barks translations was Professor Arberry's extremely erudite work. However Barks writes with such a passionate commitment to mysticism that the very first verse I read captivated me completely.

"No one knows what makes the soul wake up
so happy! Maybe a dawn breeze
has blown the veil from the face of God."

At this time in the history of the world when Rumi's homeland itself is embroiled in political conflict and war just as it was when he was born in the thirteenth century, consider these verses from his Diwan and how relevant they are to our times.

".................... every war
and every conflict between human beings has happened
because of some disagreement about
names. It's such an unnecessary foolishness, because just
beyond the arguing there's a long
table of companionship, set and waiting for us to sit down."
On a similar theme is the ghazal
Four Words For What We Want
"A man gives one coin to be spent among four people.
The Persian says, 'I want
angur.' The Arab says, 'Inab, you rascal.' The Turk,
'Uzum!' The Greek,
'Shut up all of you. We'll have istafil.' They begin
pushing each other, then
hitting with fists, no stopping it. If a many-languaged
master had been there,
he could have made peace and told them, I can give each of
you the grapes you want

with this one coin. Trust me. Keep quiet, and you four
enemies will agree.
I also know a silent inner meaning that makes of your
Four words one wine."

As a true adept Rumi's thoughts transcend the boundaries of creed and class to proclaim a monotheistic, multicultural and secularist thought as the following verses show

"What is praised is one, so the praise is one too,
many jugs being poured
into a huge basin. All religions, all this singing,
one song.
The differences are just illusion and vanity. Sunlight
looks slightly different
on this wall than it does on that wall and a lot different
on this other one, but
it is still one light. We have borrowed these clothes,
these time-and-space personalities,
from a light, and when we praise, we pour them back in".

Rumi feels it is a deep necessity, if our lives are to be real, that we experience the energy of essence. There is in his poetry a love of living on the verge, the delight on the brim of merging with the divine and the flirtatious touch of bewilderment in the face of divine majesty.

There is a passage in the Musnavi, the long continuous poem that he wrote for the last twelve years of his life, in which the life of the soul is felt as an apple orchard and language is a thick morning fog covering it. Gradually as the sun comes up and burns off the mist we see through to the taste and the beauty. It is this tangible, sensual quality to his imagery that captivates even those who are not persuaded of the validity of mystical experience.

There is above all the ecstasy of grief that we find in his poetry which is the most intimate record of the search for the divine -- an emblem simultaneously of discipline and the abandon of surrender. Sufis call the wanting of the soul 'nafs.' From the urgent way lovers want each other to the sannyasi's search for truth all movement comes from the mover. Rumi says that we know separation well only if we have tasted the joy of the union. Longing becomes more poignant if in the distance you can't tell whether your friend is going away or coming back and the ecstasy of grief is both human and divine.

"I saw grief drinking a cup of sorrow
and called out, "It tastes sweet, does it not?"
"You've caught me," grief answered, "and you've ruined my
business. How can I
sell sorrow, when you know it's a blessing?"

Yasmeen Murshed is a full-time bookworn and a part-time educationist. She is also the founder of Scholastica School.