Abusing Rumi, Scholarly Criticism of Rumi

Abusing Rumi [Scholarly Criticism of Rumi]

For God's sake, he is a poet, and one of the greatest.
By Suri Dalir

Rumi's famous lines from the overture to Mathnavi [1], '"In every company I uttered my wailful notes, I consorted with the unhappy and with them rejoice. / With unhappy and with that rejoice. / Everyone became my friend from his opinion; / none sought out my secrets from within me." are so laden with meaning-to use Rumi's own designation of a poem's content-that only pointing out some topical references are feasible in this short article. Embodying the universal desire and need of mankind to be understood and commiserated with, they denote the extremely difficult, nay, near-impossible task of fully understanding the mysteries of human nature. They reveal the lamentable fact that language, even as magical as Rumi's, is an inadequate vehicle for communicating the heart pangs, the 'pleasure/pain of love', the agonies of a tormented soul, and the eventual loneliness of man, "Be thou with or without a hundred thousand people" (Rudaki). Furthermore, they exemplify the challenge a Rumi student or scholar faces in analyzing, interpreting and explicating his unique poetry, his complex and sometimes conflicting (if not contradictory) views, each prompted by a different occasion and mood. They also foreshadow the attempts to force into the frame of pre-conceived perceptions.

One of the traditional approaches to Rumi's poetry, or rather only to his Mathnavi, is interpreting his poems (and I should add often in isolation) from philosophical viewpoint. True, Rumi, despite his conscious denial of philosophy and his contempt of philosophers, employs philosophical methods and premises to prove his theological and teleological outlooks. But this doesn't mean that Rumi is a bona fide philosopher who happens to choose the medium of poetry for philosophical discourses. M. T. Ja'fari typifies prominently of those interpreters who have donned Rumi with a philosopher's garb. Yet, claiming, perhaps correctly, to have identified twenty philosophical theories in the Mathnavi, he is unable, alas, to pinpoint Rumi's own philosophy, let alone define it. Another group-presumably taking Rumi's own view of Mathnavi as 'the Qoran in Pahlavi'-as the point of departure and a testimonial to their claims, portray Rumi as a great teacher of morality, piety and religious conduct. Others consider him the greatest mystic ever, without telling us in which definition of mysticism he fits. In one word, Rumi is measured by any scale, except his poetic genius.

No doubt, any researcher of Rumi is entitled to approach his poetry from any particular angle, or put his work in any perspective deemed appropriate, provided one takes Rumi's poetry is taken into consideration in its entirety. Portraying him as a representative of this or that trend of thought, or as an epitome of mystic devotion is but 'befriending' him for what we 'fancy' him to be.

However, eclecticism, though unscholarly, and at times, an indication of narrow-mindedness, is nothing compared to exploiting or abusing Rumi. A mulla exploits him to rebuke the 'slaves of matter and lust', who 'don't see what the food transforms to in the body', and that 'carnal soul is a dragon' (M.) However, he fails to see that sometimes Rumi, casting off the cloak of a preacher, also says 'food, burning in the body, turns into mental faculties', and that the 'wooden sword' and carnal desire are the means of training and preparing the soul for a transcendental love (D.) Our belletrists haven't fare much better than the traditional interpreters. For instance, the only comment Reza Baraheni comes up with by a brief reference to Rumi's poetry is that Rumi is a homosexual, Talaa dar Mes (gold in copper). However, the ghazal Mr. Baraheni chooses to prove his point has the least bearing, if any, to Rumi's homosexual tendencies, if, indeed, he had such tendencies. The late Shamloo, in order to prove the superiority of free verse to classical prosodic poems, and resorting to a line from the Divan, "Mofta'elan, mofta'lan kosht maraa", declares that that rhyme and meter hindered Rumi from fully expressing himself, and that "a great poet has been wasted in Rumi" (Jall-al-khaleq). If Shamloo had read Rumi's Fih Ma Fih, a booklet in prose which, supposedly contains the essence of his devotional and mystical views, he would have realized that Rumi couldn't express himself except in a rhythm and rhyme. Or if he had read the Divan with a little more patience, he would have come across a line, where Rumi says, (Haqam na-daad ghami, joz keh qafiye-talabi", 'The only worry God granted me was the quest for rhyme' D [2].) This is not to discredit the efforts of serious Rumi researchers, who have greatly contributed to our understanding of Rumi. But, what is disturbing, and even offensive, is abusing Rumi as a profitable marketing prospect-a rather dismal trend that has begun to trespass into the field of serious Rumi criticism. Some sales agents, who, shamelessly, appropriate even the title of Schimmel's excellent work on Rumi, are introducing him to the market as a teacher of love (as if love could be taught), and strange enough, as a great humanitarian. Massome Price, in her scholarly and original article " Is Rumi what we think he is", commenting on the misleading portrayal of Rumi by these 'spiritual' businessmen, points out Rumi's fanatic views and his contempt for man's trivial concerns or valuing his 'despicable' humanity. To add a note to Dr. Price's insightful observations, Rumi, as though to contradict himself, also stresses the deterministic view of man's nature and destiny, as many times as he reprimands man for his loathsome being, and asserts that "man is "what God has determined him to be." However, as in the case of anything else in his world of binary and polar oppositions, Rumi draws a clear-cut line between the elite, the God-chosen (pir, sheikh, morshed, o'liya) on the one hand, and common people on the other. The ignorant "un-chosen" are cows, donkeys, dogs, the slaves of lust (often depicted in obscene images, analogies and parables), deserving fodder and bone. While composing hundreds of lines on the sufferings of the lover-be it for the love of God or man-com-Shams-e Tabrizi, and dedicating numerous lines to the so-called miracles and extra-human feats of the Sufi masters, Rumi doesn't spare, in seven volumes of the Divan and six books of the Mathnavi, more than a few lines to the plight of the lowly and the so-called plebeians (avam). His astonishingly piercing sight which surveys the whole world down to the minutest detail, and his amazing insight that penetrates the heart of phenomena and existing realities is, undoubtedly, more than capable of seeing and feeling the sufferings of the poor, the tyranny of rulers and the havoc played by ruthless invaders. But, as if to spare himself the agonizing acknowledgement of harsh realities, he warns himself, quite unabashedly, 'Heed not the weeping [victims] of cruelty, nor those suffering in nakedness. / Thou are not the people's guardian./ Sit down and engage in your own affairs' (D.) Why don't the indignant, he wonders, create an imaginary, ideal and woe-free world in the face of painful realities, like 'A sleeping man who dreams consorting with the moon in heavens; / Why sorrowful then, even in fodder barn the sleeping maybe? (D.) This doesn't mean that Rumi's art should be evaluated in terms of his sympathy for the destitute and the wronged. But some of our Rumi lovers overlook his not so humane expressions, lest they mar the image of a perfect humanitarian Rumi they feature in their showcases.

As it was said, Rumi does see the poor and the naked, and does hear their laments and supplications, as the above-mentioned line indicates. And if he cared, he could have expressed his humanitarian feelings a in hundred times more artistic way than some of our modern socialistic and engagé poets. To be sure, he is keenly aware of the crushing power of tyranny, of robbing and "confiscating" of the subjects' property by the greedy rulers, of the piercing swords of the invaders, the chocked cries for justice, and even the tactics used by the resistance groups to evade the head hunters (D.) Rumi, like any other great poet and artist, is the intersecting point of the individual and the society. Therefore, there is no wonder that the unpleasant social realities creep into his poetry in a round about way, and disguised in mystic garb and esoteric viewpoints. He is trapped (to use his own expression) in the real world, yet, constantly modifying and re-shaping it as his poetic mind and imagination conceives, or, rather, desires it to be. In this process, the tangible realities of everyday life not only melt and evaporate in the ethereal and fiery world of love-mystical or the so-called Platonic-but they become just a parable, a metaphor, a symbol and a vehicle for sublime expressions of transcendental love and lofty aspirations. That is why the mystic hero turns out to be also the more passive, and often, masochistically submissive. In other words, the epic hero, blending in the miserable, helpless, defeated and subjugated common man, evolves into the mystic hero who fights with shadows. And that is why he creates beauty smeared in blood. He shocks and mesmerizes the reader by the 'spectacular dance of blood waves' (D.) His beloved pursues and tracks him down as a constable would pursue a wounded fugitive by traces of his blood (D.) Someone 'with a torch-like face' alights at his door, in the heart of darkness, and pools of blood surge everywhere (D.) He builds his utopia, 'full of gold and silver mines, / Everyone on the throne, and ailment unknown' (D.), on the ruins of cities and towns plundered, ravaged and burned by hordes of invaders and robbed by shahnehs to fill the rulers' 'ever-open bag' (D.) Surely, Rumi is the first and the only poet who introduces the image of a blood-smeared love ("eshq-e khoon-aalood") to the field of imaginative creation.

Obviously, these poems could be interpreted in the light of mystical theories, or even as a phantasmagoric products of a disturbed mind. And, no doubt, the mystical utopia is the symbolic depiction of the state of the soul, which, seemingly, has reached the "simple" world; that is a world stripped of colors, images and appearances, or, in one word, the very opposite of the real world. The description of this immaterial or rather, anti-material world, in three breath-taking lines in Divan (2353, 24898-900), is not only the most poetic depiction of the soul's state of union with the source of being, but it breaks the boundaries of any known monistic outlook.

However, the hair-raising images of bloody scenes, mound of skulls, a severed head circling the body it belonged to, and hundreds of similar images have been taken, undoubtedly, from the horrifying scenes of real life-of torch-carrying secret servicemen (to use the familiar terminology) appearing at the door of the victims in the heart of the night, and the ensuing 'pools of blood'; of Tatar (Mongol) invaders making heaps of victims' heads; of insolvency, cruelty and injustice. Rumi's sadistic God, who, "tortures and squashes the innocent" (D.), is not the God of any religion. Certainly, not the God of mysticism who was originally supposed to reciprocate man's love for Him. It is the tyrannical ruler-god-the king, the kahn and the beig-that, by the way, happens to be Rumi's favorite symbols of magnificently crushing power. The authoritarian and terror-inspiring voice, heard in "Har keh ze ghoghaa, v-az sar-e sodaa, sar keshad injaa, sar be-boridesh" (Cut off the head discordant, or by dark thoughts goaded that wrongly is turned') does not echo the decree of God Almighty, not even God, the Oppressor (qahhar), but the command of an invincible and autocratic earthly god.

One might argue that, Rumi's fascination with blood and his clearly power-worshiping tendencies, could be interpreted as a psychological reaction to bloodshed, cruelty and passive submission to rulers and invaders, as some Nietzsche critics have attributed his basically fascistic views as a reaction to Germany's weak and abject position in 19th century. We might also agree with A. M. Schimmel that Shams's alleged murder, apparently by Rumi's own son, has left a deep and disturbing impression on his mind (The Triumphant Sun). However, these theories, even if true, don't make either Rumi or Nietzsche a great humanitarian.

Although poetic genius knows no boundaries, and at times, a great poet like Sa'di could be a great humanitarian as well, the main criterion for evaluating and judging the merits of a poet's work is, has been and will always be the power of his artistic expression and the beauty of his creation. That is why the critics have devoted volumes to Milton's artistic excellence, in spite of his extreme egocentrism; or to Yates overwhelmingly powerful poetry in spite of his terrible male-chauvinism and his reactionary stance against modernism. And surely, no one would throw Ezra Pound's poems in the garbage because of his fascistic views. However, some of us Iranians either brush the disturbing poems away as exceptions, overlook them if they don't fit in the pre-fabricated frame, bowdlerize their divans, or, simply "purge' them from impurities. Cherishing the Mathnavi, as either a book of advice (andarz-naameh), or as a philosophical treatise, the Rumi interpreters have almost totally overlooked Divan. Besides A. M. Schimmel's monumental work, The Triumphant Sun, there are very few serious and scholarly researches of the Divan. However, despite her astonishing mastery of Persian, Arabic and Turkish languages, and her vast knowledge of the Middle Eastern literature, especially mystic literature, Dr. Schimmel only concentrates on Rumi's symbolism, and doesn't pay enough attention to the poetic significance of the Divan and to such crucial characteristics as the intertwining genres of epic and ghazal, which so brilliantly correspond to Rumi's complex worldviews and his particular mysticism. Perhaps, the reason why many Rumi scholars and researchers prefer studying and commenting on the Mthnavi is that it is, besides suiting better for preaching purposes, relatively less complex, at least, as far as moral and theological matters are concerned. The Divan, on the other hand, is not only perplexingly complex, and at times, it embodies certain notions and concepts that are disturbing and unsettling from religious and devotional viewpoints. It would appall a moralist to see the preacher Rumi singing, in a real or imaginary sama', "Chonaan mi-zan do dastak taa sahargaah,/Keh dar raqs ast aan deldaar-e delkhaa; / Hami-goo aancheh mi-daanam man o to, / Vali penhaan konesh dar zekr-e Allah." ('Keep clapping on, / For the heart-desired beloved is dancing; / And chant what you and I know, / But in incantation on Allah hidden (D.) It would horrify a pious mind to hear Rumi challenging, like an epic hero in the battle field, not only natural elements, human limitations and cosmic forces, but God himself, "Maa zarre-im sarkesh, / Az chaar o panj o az shesh"; / "Khod panj o shesh keh baashad, Z-Allah khashm kardam." (D.) Looked from this angle, it wouldn't be too far from the truth if one regarded the Mathnavi as the recantation of the Divan-a penance of some sort. Interesting enough, the staunch defenders of Rumi, while portraying him as a master 'moralist/preacher', have totally ignored the extremely obscene verses and parables in the Mathnavi (and occasionally in the Divan), which could put anti-scholastic and satirists like Zaakaani and Rabelais to shame. To be sure, these obscenities, which become more and more conspicuous after the 3rd book, and reach the apex in the 6th, have often little relevance to Rumi's mystic, pietistic or apocalyptic views. However, it seems that facts don't matter to some. They prefer to portray our poets, among other things, as the epitomes of morality and purity, not to mention abusing him as a west-pleasing marketing commodity.

Here, I should emphasize that, I am not advocating "art for art's sake". But it would be far from objective and all-inclusive scholarly approach (and, meanwhile, extremely unfair to a genius poet), if we lost sight of Rumi's amazing poetic excellence. To be sure, Rumi never claims that his purpose of composing poetry is to express this or that outlook or even mystic views or theories. Even if that were his original intent of composing certain poems, he knows, better than anyone else, that whatever the motive for composing a poem, the finished work might not turn out what the poet had in mind, "Ma'ni andar she'r joz baa khabt nist; / Chon falaasang ast, andar zabt nist ('A poem's content is but error-bound; / Like a sling, it may not obey the hand thereon' (M.) And probably, in order to exonerate himself in the eyes of those who objected to some of his not so mystic or pious utterances, he confesses that, "Like a lyre, he is not conscious of his own murmur; / he divulges secrets, without knowing secrets' "Chon changam o az zemzeme-ye khod khabaram nist; / Asraar hami-gooyam o asraar na-daanam." Moreover, he doesn't hesitate to boast, very rightly too, of the sublimity and grandeur of his poems both in the Divan and the Mathnavi. (Interesting enough, some of his poems embody theories on poetic creation, as well as literary appreciation, that Western poets and critics began to formulize several hundred years after Rumi.) It is true, Rumi often considers the words (sokhan) as a veil (hijab) between the poet and God, and confesses that 'the dust stirred by words won't let me see the bestower of words! (D.), and censures himself for 'being in love with words, not with the love (God, as pure love'), (D.) But he also confesses that the god of poetry (ilah), constantly competing with Allah, stands on his way to repent from composing poetry (D.) Furthermore, he keeps on promising himself that, 'one day, released from good and evil, he would come to himself like rose (blossoming fully), and recount the Lord's attributes, in his pearl-filled songs' (D.) It is almost comically ironic, all these claims and denials are also expressed in verses.

I have to add here that, contrary to didactic outlooks, the main purpose of art and literature is giving delight. That is why we say, "I enjoyed it", when, for instance, we watch a heart-rending tragedy. Then, why to put a poem, as some object, on a dissecting table and examine it part by part? The answer is that, first, some curious souls want to know why they enjoys reading a poem. Second, the level of delight depends on the level of understanding a poem. Surely, Rumi knows very well that, some of his poems will never reveal their mystery-even it be partially-without 'dissection', 'Tear off the skin of words, in order to reach the kernel of poetry, "Baraay-e maghz-e sokhan qeshr-e post raa be-shekaaf" (D.) Of course, there are many poems that could be enjoyed without needing analysis or explication. But take, for instance, this line by Rumi, "Vojood-e man azab-khaana-st o aan mastaan dar oo jam'and; Delam heyraan k-az ishaanam, ajab yaa khod man ishaanam" ('My being (or existence) is a brothel house, and the drunkards are gathering there. I wonder if I am one of them, or I am them' D.) The strange imagery, though hitting us on the head, as it were, and bugling our minds maybe for days, seems to lie beyond any comprehension, without 'dissection'.

As for Rumi's mysticism, there is nothing new or oringinal in Rumi's mystical poems, as far as mysticism proper is concerned. For instance, his famous line, "Be-meerid, be-meerid, dar in eshq be-meerid; / Dar in eshq cho mordid, hameh rooh pazirid" (Die in this love, die; When you die in this love, you all will receive souls), simply echoes Hallaj's "Uqtuluni ya theqati; / Inna fi qatli hatati, Va hatati fi mamati" (Slay me O friends! / my life is indeed in my slaying, and my life is in death.) However, when Rumi plays backgammon with God, and tries to cheat too, when he opens a scene of a spiritual orgy before our eyes, or a pandemonium as vast as the universe itself (D.), we wonder in which definition of mysticism his views might fit. And, when he yells that, 'You are asking what I want beyond [reaching the realm of] light. How could I know?' or when he deems even 'love', as deceptive ('Ablah-konandeh eshq ast", D.), we can't help but to believe that the ecstasy of 'receiving soul' and finding immortality through symbolic death, is nothing but transient fanciful thoughts, captured and immortalized in the lines of a poem. Nor could he be categorized in terms of his theological or teleological views, not even in terms of generic designation of his ghazals and his poetic creation. He is unique in everything, including in pedantry and fanaticism. Rumi is a category by himself.

In order to demonstrate that Rumi's views-whatever they maybe-are secondary to his poetic excellence, I will try to give a very brief analysis of one of his ghazals. Even in this purely mystical poem, he neither formulates mystic quest like Sana'i, nor does he give an allegorical account of the seven stages of spiritual journey, as Attar does. Instead, he dramatizes the stages, from amazement (heyrat) to annihilation (fana) and beyond, through dialogue, and concrete, yet, highly symbolic images. In ghazal 1095, the shockingly un-poetic image of 'broom', evolving from a common household feature into a symbol of purification, male sexuality, carnal love, prophetic mission and power of poetry, expands, as it were, into an axis of cosmic scope, connecting the earth with heaven, man with God and beyond. Then, burning everything that the broom stands for, the novice enters another stage of mystic experience, i.e., submission to the will of God, and offers his neck to the beloved's sword. The proliferation of heads, 'till a hundred thousand heads grew on my neck', under the sword's strokes, signifies the central paradox of mysticism-death in life, and life in death. After complete annihilation, the past tenses in the poem (gave, said, hit, grew) are dissolved in timelessness, the earthly notions of east and west lose their significance, and the door to eternity (la-makan) opens. When, at the final stage, the two voices of the first stage become one, it is not clear whether man has become God, or God has become man-the perfect union. [3]

Finally, in order to exonerate myself from an extremely erroneous approach to Rumi's poetry, I will quote one more line by the Master himself. In this single line, Rumi, besides commenting on the nature of poetry and the relationship between the form and the content, divulges the secret of a poem's universal appeal and the immortality of the Word, "Agarcheh baad-e sokhan bogzarad, sokhan baaghist; / Agarcheh baad-e sabaa bogzarad, chaman shaad ast." ('The air in the Word may pass, immortal the Word is; / The western wind may die down, the meadow happily lives', D.) In other words, the motive behind the composition of a poem fades away and is forgotten, but the beauty born out of it lives on, as each individual and each generation approaches it afresh. Or to quote Forough, another abused Iranian poet:

It is only the voice that remains.
1. Mathnavi-ye Manavi, ed. R.A. Nicholson, abbr. M.

2. Kolliyyat-e Shams, Divan- Kabir, ed. B. Foruzanfar, abbr. D.

3. A detailed analysis and explication of this ghazal is given in "The Epic Characteristics of Divan-e Shams", by the present author, Jong, 1992.)

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