Review: The Masnavi, Book One, Jalal al-Din Rumi, Translated by Jawid Mojaddedi
By Thomas Parker
Rumi is undoubtedly one of the most well-known and universally-loved poets of all time and well-deservedly so. Indeed, his popularity continues even after more than seven centuries. In 1997, Christian Science Monitor declared him the best-selling poet in America (November 25, 1997). His popularity continues even into the 2010s, even if often in the form of isolated lines in Facebook statuses and Twitter tweets. But the truth is Rumi never was the most popular poet in America. Rather, that was Coleman Barks.
In order to establish exactly why I loved Jawid Mojaddedi’s translation of the Masnavi so much, it’s necessary to establish what I disliked about many of the previous translations of Rumi. While a number of poets and translators have taken their swing at translating Mawlana, the person most responsible for popularizing Rumi in modern-day America and the wider Anglophone world is Coleman Barks. However, it isn’t very accurate to refer to him as a translator, but rather as a popularizer. He, himself, does not term what he does as translation and readily admits in almost all of his books that he doesn’t know Persian. What he does could be termed more accurately as “secondary translations,” “re-renderings” or most accurately as “mutations.” Bark takes primary translations, such as Arberry and Nicholson, which are often in verse and date back to the Victorian period in the latter’s case, and transforms them into contemporary American free verse for a modern audience. (1) Barks correctly calculated that Rumi in a figure of the “wise man of the east” written in the style of Walt Whitman would prove to be an exceedingly popular combination among Americans. While he is very upfront about all of this, I see no reason why deliberately setting low standards should shield one from criticism of those low standards.
However, what is truly objectionable is not his working process, but rather how, in order to “adapt” Rumi for a modern audience, he and other translators force their own moral and religious value system onto Rumi. Reading Bark’s “interpretations”, you’d think Rumi was John Lennon telling you through puffs of his e-hookah that he was “spiritual, but not religious.” That is to say that many contemporary translations force a value system of New Age spiritualism onto Rumi. (Indeed, Barks is not even the most egregious of violators, but rather only the most popular of them.) New Age is a moniker referring to a range of spiritual or quasi-religious beliefs that emerged during the 1970s in the Western world. It is often an eclectic mix of other belief systems such as Buddhism, Sufism, indigenous religions and paganism, with a common thread of focusing on the individual or on the self and experiencing the self in order to unleash the inner “god” or “goddess”. Barks, however, goes far beyond mere eisegesis, even expunging parts of Rumi’s oeuvre that would contradict those views. While Barks does not delete and skip most of the Masnavi, it has been demonstrated that the deleted parts do indeed form a pattern. Fatma Cihan-Artun lays out in her doctorate thesis on appropriations of Rumi in the West how these expulsions form a pattern of "Islamic references, specifically to the Quran, to Prophet Muhammad, and also in particular to the Day of Judgement, Heaven and Hell.” (2) That is to say not just specifically Islamic references, resulting in a de-Islamizing effect, but perhaps even more importantly any of those aspects of religion that might not seem so “spiritual” from a New Age perspective.
In his A Year With Rumi, Barks writes “the exclusivity of Abrahamic religious doctrines... insult the soul”. (3) However, did Rumi really believe that? Here we should keep in mind that the Masnavi is often referred to as the “Persian Quran,” (4) not just because of its status to all Persian literature after it, but also because of the way it takes direct inspiration from the Quran. It’s been calculated that there are more than two thousand direct references and allusions to the Quran in the Masnavi, and that it, furthermore, often models itself on the rhetoric and structure of the Quran (5). As Rumi says in the his Arabic prose introduction to the book: “This is the book of the Masnavi and it is the roots of the roots of the roots of the (Islamic) Religion... and it is the Illuminator of the Qur'ân.”(6) However, not only can a careful reading of Rumi show that not only did he view religion is such a manner, but Muslims for centuries also certainly did not think that he believed as such. Just one historical example of this is how during the enthronement ceremony for the new Sultans (and later Caliphs) of the Ottoman dynasty, which eventually became the last caliphate representing all Muslims worldwide, would be conducted by the head of the Melevi order in Konya who would be called to Constantinople to gird him with the Sword of Osman, a sword first given by the Sheikh Edebali to the eponymous Osman. (7)
Furthermore, I contend that while certain lines of Rumi can certainly be twisted to fit New Age values (as seen in the atomized translations floating around social media), when viewed in the context of his entire oeuvre, we can see that Rumi himself meant something very different when he pointed to the divine inside of us. While there is a myriad of traditions within Sufism, to the point that even speaking of Sufism or tasawwuf/tesevvuf as one tradition is often folly, one of the most consistent themes throughout its various strands ever since its theoritization by Bistami and systemization by Junaid is the dual concept of fanaa and baqaa, or the steps of initial annihilation and subsequent eternity/perpetuity. According to the Iranica online entry on the interrelated terms, the experience of fanāʾ and baqāʾ in its perfect form is understood in Sufism as al-fanāʾ ʿan al-nafs wa al-baqāʾ beʾllāh. (8) That is to say an annihilation of the ego (think "die before you die") in order to reach a state of abidance in the divine through those divine attributes lying dormant in the self. That is to say that those excepts of his work, as well as other Sufis, are often made to seem as if they are supporting a New Age view that the self is already inherently divine. However, Sufi thought is not arguing that all selves are already divine, but instead that all selves have the potentiality to reach divine attributes if the ego or the base self is disciplined and annihilated through a long process through the supergratory acts of worship in Islam in combination with the careful guidance of a teacher (in Rumi’s case the famous Shams-i Tabrizi who he dedicated his divan to). There is, therefore, a special irony here that Sufi symbolism which was once used to express the annihilation of the ego in the presence of the divine is now being used to express the exaltation of the ego and its elation in the presence of another ego. (9)
In one couplet from the Masnavi, Mawlana writes: "Your passions lead your reading of Quran, how base and bent you make the clear intent." (10) I contend that Bark’s (New Age) passions lead his reading of the "Persian Quran" and one of the reasons I absolutely loved the latest translation of the Masnavi by Jawid Mojaddedi for the Oxford World Classics Series is how it serves as a corrective to this tradition of translating Rumi. Mojaddedi was previously one of the foremost critics of the trends I described above before he took up the mantle of this massive undertaking of translating this six-volume masterpiece. His translation is not only accurately translated, but also does so while still flowing well and not sacrificing the literary quality of the translation in order to remain faithful to the original, which has been the main critique of Arberry's translations. However, what elevates this from simply being a good translation to being a magisterial one is in the details. Mojaddedi translates the Masnavi (which was written in metre) into iambic tetrameter and rhymed couplets like the original (in fact, Masnavi is the name of the genre of Persian epic poems written in couplets). Furthermore, the book gives the text's context through an introduction to Rumi and by giving footnotes to references the non-specialist reader may not appreciate otherwise. Though the Masnavi is written mostly in Persian, there are many parts, as mentioned earlier, where entire lines of the Quran are excerpted in the original Arabic and Mojaddedi calls the reader's attention to these line by italicizing them. Therefore readers, who may not either of those two languages, now have access to easily differntiate in translation which lines are in Arabic or Persian. The combined effect of having it written in rhymed couplets like the original, with footnotes to explain references and italics to indicate lines extrapolated from the Quran is that the reader can almost feel the original text peering at him from underneath Mojaddedi's translation. While the rhymes occasionaly feel a bit too forced at times, and I would have liked to see a bit more diversity in the rhyming beyond simple rhymes, these are small qualms considering the scope of the project and the amount of other things it manages to accomplish simultaneously.
Sayyed Hossein Nasr, a world-famous expert on Sufism and Islamic philosophy, illustrates the absurdity of Rumi’s appropriation by comparing it to “as if Dante were to be translated very approximately into Arabic and presented as a ‘universal poet,’ which he of course is, but without any reference to Christianity, without which Dante would not be Dante.” (11) Were a writer from the western canon treated in the manner described, I find hard it to believe that many modern westerners would not find it to be an affront. So, if we expect and find it entirely reasonable for Muslims, Buddhists, etc., to appreciate and take “universal” lessons from Dante or Milton without stripping them of all Christian elements, why do we not hold ourselves to the same standard? Must one annihilate our differences to appreciate beauty, to appreciate the beauty of both our similarities and our differences? I would argue that it is only through the particular that one can reach the universal. And there is no doubt that much of Rumi’s particular was Islamic and what was not was certainly Islamicate. While I wish I had further length here to use the case of Mawlana's translation to reflect on the influence of power and its importance in translation, I will suffice it to say here that literature that does not challenge its readers can never be anything more than just good. And by re-contextualizing Rumi, by once more making his intent clear, by giving his readers the tools to extrapolate the universal from Rumi’s particulars, Mojaddedi’s translation is far beyond just good.
Hopefully, Mojaddedi's translation will affect not just future Rumi translations, but also the field of Sufi literature translation in general, which also suffers from appropriation vis-a-vis New Age Spiritualism. I sincerely hope that in the years to come this translation will take its place as being seen as the most faithful (pun intended) translation of this masterpiece of world literature to date in the English language.
(1) For more on Coleman Barks and his translations, as well as a side-by-side comparison of Arberry, Franklin Lewis and Barks’s translations of the same poem, see this wonderful article on Ajam Media: https://ajammc.com/2015/03/09/rumi-for-the-new-age-soul/
(2) Cihan-Artun, Fatma B. "Rumi, The Poet of Universal Love: The Politics of Rumi's Appopriation in the West." Doctorate thesis, University of Massachusetts Amherst, 2016, 147.
(3) Barks, Coleman. A Year with Rumi. (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 7.
(4) This epithet for the Masnavi comes from these lines by the illustrious Persian poet Jami (translation my own):
What can I say to describe that excellent- one who’s not a prophet, but came with a sacred text
The Spirtual Mathnawi of Mevlevi (my lord)- Tis' the Quran in the language of Pahlavi
من چه گویم وصف آن عالیجناب — نیست پیغمبر ولی دارد کتاب
مثنوی معنوی مولوی — هست قرآن در زبان پهلوی
(5) Cihan-Artun, Rumi, Universal Love, 148
(6) "هذا كتاب المثنوي وهو أصول أصول أصول الدين... وكشاف القرآن"
(1o) translation from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2009/dec/14/rumi-sufism-philosophy-islam
(11) Nasr, Sayyed Hossein. Preface to Rumi and the Whirling Dervishes, xi. By Shems Friendlander. London: Archetype, 2003. quoted in Cihan-Artun, Rumi, Universal Love, 139.
Thomas Parker is a Muslim-American poet, writer and translator from Texas. He, in addition to translating from Turkish and Arabic, also writes, mostly, but not exclusively, poetry in his native tongue of English. He is the co-founder and poetry editor of The Bosphorus Review of Books and is currently working very slowly on a debut novel.