Rumi lived from 1207 to 1273 in modern day Afghanistan and Turkey. He is well known in America today especially for his poetry. It is hard to describe his work without referencing a big influence on him: a fellow holy man and sufi mystic named Shams al-Dīn. The two were extremely close, each inspiring the other. Rumi was so enraptured with Shams that he sometimes neglected his followers. In 1247, Shams went missing and it was later confirmed that he was murdered. Some speculate that Rumi’s family or students had something to do with it, but either way, his influence on Rumi inspired his work for the rest of his life.
According to Britannica, Sufism is the “mystical Islamic belief and practice in which Muslims seek to find the truth of divine love and knowledge through direct personal experience of God.” In the early first century, the idea of love of Allah being above a fear of a bad afterlife or hope of a paradise afterlife. Later, the trend of fraternal groups formed in which there would be one leader and a group of followers. This is what Rumi was to his followers: a wise teaher, divinely inspired.
In modern times, Rumi’s wisdom has been popular among celebrities according to Rozina Ali in her New Yorker article entitled The Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi. With Translations of Rumi, there is controversy over liberties taken with Quranic references and religious language.
Coleman Barks is an interpreter of Rumi’s writing. He takes already translated Rumi works and interprets them into a version that is easier for an American/Western audience to digest. This requires he remove references to Muslim traditions and termonology and replace them with a generalized equivalent. He defends this by making the poems more universal in understanding, and as Ali says, “But it’s Barks who vastly expanded Rumi’s readership.” If more Americans can relate and understand his poetry, the more people that will appreciate him.
However, the westernization of Rumi detracts from its intent and origin. It dissociates Rumi’s beloved religion from the poetry in favor of an easily grasped general, ambiguous spirituality. The main theme of this is how any love poem, probably inspired by his love either Allah or his friend Shams, is now taken as a romantic love between partners and nothing more. Rumi’s passion for a divine energy beomes nothing more than a generic meaning love peom. Take, for example, his poem:
If you can’t wrap this love
around you like a cloak at midnight,
don’t put on something else,
go back to bed.
Let this love run spinning
through your brain.
It’s what holds everything together,
and it’s the everything too!
Without a little dancing,
there is no disappearing.
The love described here has more of a religious connotation to Rumi who would shudder at the idea of it being limited to that of only between lovers. “Although he was a lifelong scholar of the Koran and Islam, he is less frequently described as a Muslim” (Ali).
Being students of the poetry of Rumi means remembering that he is indeed a sufi. His readability is easy enough to be inspirational and beautiful for sure, but keeping his intentions and inspirations in mind make the poems leap from the page and into the heart of the reader as they were intended, finding a love of living energy, as love of a passion for a ceator.