A Drunken Dance of Love: Rumi and Sufism
Islam is a faith practiced by nearly a quarter of the world’s population, and remains an insidious and often misunderstood shadow in the eyes of the West. As an Abrahamic monotheism, it shares with Christianity and Judaism a paradoxical mix of wisdom, history and dangerously archaic ideology. Further, the specific geo-political histories of Islamic countries have resulted in a society which remains in many ways unstable and oppressive. Perspectives towards Islam itself, especially in the post-9/11 world, have been tarnished by religious fundamentalism, not to mention the corrupt politics of Islamic states. The largest concentrations of Muslim society, found in northern Africa and the middle-east, are volatile and tumultuous regions, rife with political violence and social inequity. But history shows us that it was not always this way. While medieval Europe was struggling through the Dark Ages, the Islamic world actually experienced a period of tremendous cultural and intellectual progress, which saw pivotal advances in art, science and philosophy. During this Islamic “golden age”, a vibrant new poetry emerged, and from these roots Sufism was born, a philosophical and literary tradition of faith, knowledge, love and asceticism which has shaped the perspectives of the Muslim world for centuries.
“Sufism” itself can be a somewhat ambiguous term. In one sense, it broadly refers to the mystical and philosophical dimensions of Islam, but historically, it was an esoteric practice which arose in reaction to the rigidity and materialism of the growing Arab empire. The Sufis were scholars and poets who traveled widely, spreading their message and seeking knowledge and communion with the infinite, and they created some of the world’s most beautiful poetry in the process. Put basically, the beliefs of Sufism put emphasis on personal divinity, the idea that God, rather than simply being an external creator and judge, is an internal force of wisdom, love and happiness. This influential philosophy was a counterbalance to the rigidity of religious dogma, and continues to be a major factor in the lives of modern Muslims, offering an important contrast to the prevailing views towards Islam. Whereas fundamental Islam, like monotheism in general, is archaic and problematic, Sufism proposes a profound appreciation for peace, unity, and the sanctity of existence. An understanding of Sufi traditions and poetry can be a powerful tool for better understanding the complex Islamic world.
In the West, specifically America, the most recognized voice of Sufism is inarguably Jalal al-Din Rumi, a 13th century Persian poet and Sufi mystic, whose poetic exclamations of cosmological love, immateriality and universality have inspired writers and philosophers of all faiths, all over the world. Rumi’s poetry yearns to reconnect with a divine root, through celebrations of love and beauty and rejections of institutional religion and dogma. His sacred appreciation for the sensual saw a path to God through physical love, whirling dances and plenty of wine (a far cry from orthodox Islam). This combination of the spiritual and the earthly offers an interesting counterpoint to the many religious traditions which tend to keep the two apart, including Islam itself. In studying religious texts like the Bible or the Qur’an, an examination of Rumi gives us an important historical and social counterpoint, an insight to a side of Islamic culture which would otherwise remain invisible. In contrast to the stern doctrines of monotheism, Rumi's God can be found in a swift-flowing river or a lover's eye, and heaven itself is right now, right here and waiting for our participation.
These romantic sentiments imbue readers with a sense of omnipresent sanctity, a non-ideological embrace of life itself. Thus, Rumi's importance to world literature and Islamic culture could never be under-stated, and to read him is to glimpse the best aspects of the Muslim soul. The rapturous reveries of this whirling dervish, drunk on life and love, traverse all faiths and languages, enticing us to embrace universal beauty and sacred connectivity. His verses shed the harmful dogma and severity of the spiritual, leaving only the glowing, human core. “The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you”, Rumi exclaims to us. “Don't go back to sleep!”
Coleman Barks is the preeminent translator of Rumi for western readers. While not structurally literal to the original Persian verses, his translations most successfully capture the “ecstatic” spirit of the work.
For an English rendering of Rumi that is more faithful to the original in form and rhyme, there are the A.J. Arberry translations. These require more effort from the reader, but achieve a fair balance between style and meaning.
Rumi is but one poet of the Sufi tradition, and this slim and cheap anthology is the best introduction to some of the other important poets, like Hafiz, Attar and Ibn Arabi.