What It’s About
Love, religion, hope, ecstasy, being a human in search of connection with the great divine, whatever that is.
Why I Think You’d Like It
Rumi was a Muslim poet from the 13th century. He started life as a Sunni and became a Sufi mystic and one of the best loved writers of the Arabic speaking world. In the English-speaking book lover’s world, he is at a weird position between famous and obscure. If you’ve heard of him, you’ve probably stumbled into a corner of the literary world where his presence is truly prolific; the kind where people go, “wait, you haven’t heard of Rumi?” If you haven’t… you’re in the sad boat I was in up until about a year ago and I’m so sorry. His shit is so fucking good.
The main reason I didn’t recommend Rumi up until now was that I felt I had to look carefully for the right translation. Poetry translations are, by their nature, very interpretive. Poetry isn’t straightforward. Points are alluded to with cultural associations, ideas are pretzeled around to fit a chosen structure, and simplistic points are elevated with tricks of rhythm and alliteration. And apparently, according to Arabic speaking, Muslim fans, English translators have tended to let Rumi’s faith slip through the cracks.
Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot of beauty in Rumi’s work even if you don’t get all the religious connections. He speaks to the human condition. But at the same time, his experience of the world and his art was closely entwined with his faith, and he would probably be heartbroken to know how much of that was left out. When you add the modern need for a more complex understanding of the Muslim faith, that’s especially tragic.
Farrukh Dhondy’s translation is by far my favorite. It adds in enough to make the faith explicit, without alienating readers who are less familiar with Islam. It helps the reader connect to Rumi’s faith, regardless of where they are coming from, while still engaging with the romance and devotion and raw joy that makes Rumi so captivating.
Also, there’s an introduction that specifically discusses these issues, as well as the early history of Muslim mysticism and spirituality, which is one of the rare introductions that I have found completely engrossing on it’s own. I normally skim or skip introductions, but this one was interesting enough to make me want the author to write his own book on the subject. If he ever does, I’ll be reading it.