The Veracity of Rumi and Hafez in English

Several different ideas and factors intersect to inform the subject of the veracity of Rumi’s and Hafez’s presentation in English. http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-erasure-of-islam-from-the-poetry-of-rumi

Coleman Bark’s adaptations of Rumi seek to create an authentic voice of bardic spirituality, even if that voice is often dissociated from an Islamic context. It is an interpretation of Rumi that succeeds, often brilliantly, by Bark’s drinking deeply from the well of spirit, and even if he does not have a command of the Persian.

What is overlooked by critiques of his work is that although Rumi’s poetry can not be divorced from the Koran, it is only partly based on the Koran by way of reference and inspiration. The Masnavi has many Koranic references, and even includes lines of Arabic. But the important point is that Rumi was not inspired to write the Masnavi nor his ghazals because of the Koran or because of the intellectual traditions of which he was a master and teacher. Rumi became one of the world’s most prolific poets as the direct result of his relationship with his master, Shams-e-Tabrizi. Shams was an ensan-e-kamil, a Perfect Man, and it was his spiritual perfection that elevated Rumi from the most learned man of his day into a poet whose longing for the Master, from whom he had become separated, that would eventually transform himself into such a Perfect Man, as well.

The spiritual perfection embodied in Shams-e-Tabrizi and in Rumi occurs within the revelation occasioned by Islam, but is not limited to nor reducible to the outer facts of Islam. Islam, after all, means “submission” to Allah, which essentially denotes a relationship based on consciousness, not legality. And Rumi’s poetry is about love, longing and spiritual truth, not textual or religious debate.

Rumi’s poetry is not essentially about Islam per se, but about Unitive consciousness. Rumi’s voice in Persian is an existential voice of love and longing for embodied Spirit. His ghazals are in fact signed with the name of his master, Shams-e-Tabrizi, which means the (spiritual) Sun of Tabriz.

When we bring the ghazals of Hafez-e-Shirazi into the conversation, this both complicates and elucidates the problem of what is meant by authentic translation, versioning and spiritual context.

Hafez is a stylist and much more difficult than Rumi to translate or version in English. The work of Ladinsky, unlike Barks’ work with Rumi, does not attempt to follow the text of Hafez’s ghazals at all. It actually represents Ladinsky’s own poetry and has nothing to do, in any meaningful sense, with the work of Hafez.

Hafez, despite the fact that his name denotes one who has memorized the Koran, does not directly reference the Koran- or even the Prophet, in his ghazals! And, in fact, he readily abuses Islam by adversely comparing it to the wine served at the tavern run by the pir-e-mogan, the Magian (Zoroastrian) Elder. For Hafez, the “religion” of Islam is a pile of trash.

Historically, before the modern period, Hafez was widely considered to also be an ensan-e-kamil, or Perfect Man. And also, again like Rumi, because of his love and longing for his master, who is not even referred to as a Muslim!  Apart from irony, there is no textual reason in the Divan-e-Hafez to suppose that the religion of Islam had much to do with his literary and spiritual genius.

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2 Responses to The Veracity of Rumi and Hafez in English

  1. david pierce says:

    ah, well said, mr. bill.

  2. claude says:

    Personally, i prefer “completed human being” to “perfect man” re: insan e kamil, regardless of who chooses the translation. it says the same thing, either way, but perhaps shifting the association. I would also infer, with scant evidence, that even Shams, mysterious, imperious, serious,
    was aware that one’s lifestyle, philosophy, and influence could COME UNDER FIRE from an “orthodoxy” that still wielded a calcified but lethal weaponry.
    That Rumi could say of Hallaj (my emphasis): “He was GOD/HE was God/he WAS God!”
    is extraordinary; yet neither Shams or Rumi were “safe” from criticism, jealousy, and attack. The imminent deluge by Mongols may have attenuated internecine “Islamic infighting” but my point:
    Enemies were always close at hand, and even our luminary poet and his burning sun of Tabriz (not to exclude Hafiz later) faced the bitter body of “law.”

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