Review: Rumi Comes to America: How the Poet of Mystical Love Arrived on Our Shores, Bruce Miller.
By Iljas Baker
Jalaluddin Rumi, America’s best-selling poet, is a New Age icon to the majority who buy English language collections of his poems. But to a minority of Americans, Rumi is recognised as an Islamic mystic and inspiration of the Mevlevi Order of Dervishes, famous for its whirling or turning ceremony (sema) and his poems are viewed as texts to be studied intensely for their spiritual insights under the guidance of a shaykh or spiritual master. In his new book Rumi Comes to America, Bruce Miller attempts to tell the story of Rumi’s rise to prominence in America’s cultural life. It primarily tells the story of Reshad Feild and Suleyman Dede, with some sections devoted to Coleman Barks, who was challenged by American poet Robert Bly to work on Arberry’s and Nicholson’s translations of Rumi and free them from their “scholarly cages” (p.190).
Most of the book is taken up with memories and impressions of Reshad Feild, a charismatic English aristocrat, spiritual teacher, author and New Age healer, and Suleyman Dede, an elderly self-effacing Mevlevi Sufi from Konya who saw the invitation to visit the United States in 1976 as an opportunity to establish the Mevlevi Order there. He must have felt he was succeeding when he returned in 1978 for the consecration of a Mevlevi tekke or lodge in Boulder. But it was short-lived. Feild left the tekke in the following year to return to England and the Colorado Sufi group that had allowed the Mevlevis to use their large house as a tekke repossessed it.
Although there were some Mevlevi-oriented American Sufis before Suleyman Dede visited in 1976, there were no representatives or shaykhs of the Mevlevi Order (or other Islamic Sufi Orders). Inayat Khan, an Indian classical musician associated with the Chishti Sufi Order, had however introduced a non-Islamic form of so-called “Universal Sufism” into America in the 1920s and this later became the Sufi Order led by his son Pir Vilayat Khan and Samuel Lewis. This Order has remained non-Islamic. Moreover, althoughReshad Feild had taught some of his followers in his teaching centre in Mexico the Mevlevi whirling practice he had observed in Europe and they performed it regularly when they moved to Los Angeles, according to Ibrahim Gamard, they had been unaware of its deep connection with Mevelevi Sufism until Dede’s visit.
Suleyman Dede appears as a gentle and loving soul who effused about the spiritual qualities of his American audiences but failed to appreciate how deeply alienated many of them were from religious forms or how hungry they were for “spiritual experiences”. The author gives no hint of the fact that the Mevlevi tradition as a path of spiritual transformation has been in serious decline in Konya as it has been elsewhere in Turkey and Dede’s strategy of appointing Western non-Muslim shaykhs can perhaps only really be understood in that light. However, hastily bestowing the title of Mevlevi shaykh on his host, Reshad Feild and expecting Mr Feild and his followers to seriously focus their energies on disseminating Mevlevi Sufism in America seems like an enormous miscalculation on Dede’s part. After all, a typical day of spiritual endeavors for Feild and his followers might involve “whirling like dervishes, then Vipassana Buddhist meditation, then Arica exercises, followed by brain burning Ibn Arabi studies, maybe a fling with Scientology, a little map-dowsing, singing vowel sounds with movements, vortex meditations, walking meditation, a green meditation (p. 16 ).”
Bestowing the title of Mevlevi shaykh, according to the rules of the Mevlevi Order cannot be done by anyone but the Maqam-i-Chelebi or Chief Chelebi (who is always a direct descendant of Rumi), which Dede was not. But setting that aside, bestowing the title of Shayk on Mr Feild without requiring the traditional training period ultimately proved to be self-defeating. The title of shaykh was withdrawn a couple of years later after Suleyman Dede received an abundance of letters complaining about Mr Feild’s heavy drinking and other intemperate behaviours. David Bellak, who visited Dede frequently in Konya is quoted in the book as stating, “Everything Dede heard through these letters created the impression of Reshad being all about himself” (P. 149). According to Ibrahim Gamard, also quoted in the book, Reshad Feild’s invitation to Suleyman Dede to come to America was essentially about raising his own status as a teacher rather than a sincere desire to establish Mevlevi Sufism in America. In this light, the author’s thinking of Mr Feild’s erratic and self-indulgent behavior as some sort of “crazy wisdom” or an example of malāmati-type spirituality, seems either wishful thinking or self-delusion.
Subsequently, Suleyman Dede sent his own son, Jelaleddin Loras, from Konya to restart the process of familiarizing Americans with Mevlevi Sufism. The descriptions of Mr Feild’s response to Dede’s son taking over from him are embarrassing to say the least: singing a Christian hymn during a dhikr (remembrance of God) session and criticizing Jelaleddin for taking religion too seriously. Jalaleddin went on to form the Mevlevi Order of America, a non-Islamic Sufi Order that he still leads and which has teaching centres in a small number of states.
Towards the end of the book the author asks whether the Americanization of Rumi’s teachings, with the help of a living teacher such as Reshad Feild, enables them to reach a new audience while retaining or even concentrating their transformative potential. This is a pertinent, perhaps even crucial, question for contemporary seekers and the author answers it positively, but he doesn’t back it up in a convincing manner. Questions about the validity of shaykhs and certain varieties of Sufism have occupied Muslim thinkers, including Sufis, for centuries. In the eleventh century, Hujwirī in his Kashf al-Mahjūb noted that “In the time of the Companions of the Prophet and their immediate successors the name [Sufism] didn’t exist, but its reality was in everyone. Now the name exists without the reality” (Quoted by Martin Lings in What is Sufism? 1981, p.45). And in the thirteenth century, Shems-i-Tabriz also saw the ideal shaykh as someone devoted to Islam and taking as his exemplars the Companions of the Prophet. In the Maqalat he describes most shaykhs as making exaggerated claims and accuses them of obstructing people’s ways to the Truth. Rumi’s view was similar.
It is perhaps no surprise that those Americans (for example, Kabir Helminski and Ibrahim Gamard) who most fully adopted the Mevlevi path as opposed to just the sema ceremony and the poetry did so by getting to know the tradition largely in Konya and receiving their respective titles of shaykh either there or in Istanbul. Spending time in Turkey led them to appreciate the importance of Islam to Mevlevi Sufism, something that was rejected by Reshad Feild and others, including the author of this book.
Rumi Comes to America does not have a huge amount to say about Coleman Barks. The tremendous popularity of Rumi in America, the author claims, is largely a result of the versions of Rumi’s poetry produced by Coleman Barks (his versions are based on the work of a number of translators, including Arberry and Nicholson) and the initial efforts to introduceMevlevi Sufism to the States, but, the exact relationship between these two is not spelled out. Mr Barks was never a student of Reshad Feild or Suleyman Dede, so the author, unconvincingly I think, explains that it was cosmic forces, in particular the esoteric Law of Seven (as explicated by Gurdjieff), that were behind both the coming of Dede and the emergence of Barks as a rewriter of scholarly translations of Rumi’s poetry into free verse (minus most of the references to Islam). Barks doesn’t see his role in any way connected to Mevlevi Sufism. In fact, according to Barks, it was Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, his Sri Lankan spiritual teacher, who was reputedly associated with the Qadiri Sufi Order, who strongly encouraged Barks to continue producing free verse renditions of Rumi’s poems. At one point he says that Bawa “is the main strand that connects me with Rumi. When I am working on these poems. I am strengthening the friendship with my teacher” (p. 189).
Those who are primarily interested in this particular episode in the history of Sufism in America are likely to find the book fascinating and rewarding. But those hoping to learn something about Mevlevi Sufism will be disappointed.
Biographical note: Iljas Baker was born in Scotland and studied at the universities of Strathclyde, Aberdeen and Edinburgh. He currently lives in Nonthaburi, Thailand and teaches at Mahidol University International College in the Division of Social Science. He writes poems, essays and book reviews usually on Islamic themes and is also an editorial consultant for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
You can find Rumi Comes to America here.