Published in Muslim News, London, June 30, 2000 (no. 134), p 9.
The Sun Rises in the West
RUMI: Past and Present, East and West: The Life, Teaching and Poetry of Jalal al-Din Rumi. By Franklin D. Lewis. One World Publications, Oxford. Pp. 686. £26.99. (Hardback). ISBN 185168-214-7.
Jalal al-Din Rumi, the triumphant sun of the East, the supreme lover of God and humanity, the ecstatic soul of Islamic mysticism, the intoxicated dancer and reveller in the tavern of passion, the incarnation of spiritual freedom and joy, the lord (Maulana) of the lyric, is now an ‘American icon’ and has become the best-selling poet in the United States. Devotees of Sufism, adepts of New-Age spirituality, seekers of religious meaning beyond the regime of dogma, law and ritual have all discovered in him one of the foremost spiritual geniuses of mankind whose odes to love, tolerance and joyous spirituality have great relevance for our age. Recitations of Rumi’s poetry, often to the accompaniment of live music by Coleman Barks, are now celebrated cultural happenings and media hypes. In fact, Barks, whose coffee-table art-work The Illustrated Rumi (Broadway Books, New York, 1997) was enthusiastically recommended by the most widely read American newspaper (USA Today), is, according to the author of this delightfully gossipy and serious study, responsible for the spreading of Rumi’s trans-Atlantic fame.
The Americanisation of Rumi, we are further informed, is visible in such unprecedented phenomena as:) spiritually driven commuters unwinding to audio-books of Rumi’s poetry as they sit in traffic jams on their way home;) fashion models, draped in Donna Karan’s new black, charcoal and platinum garments, flouncing down the runway to health guru Deepak Chopra’s musical versions of Rumi, ‘with Madonna and Demi Moore looking on all the while’;) the acoustic band Three Fish deriving its name from an allegory in the Rumi’s Masnavi and appropriately producing a CD organised around three songs taken from the Rumi tale;) the American minimalist composer and Buddhist activist Philip Glass, who has devoted previous operas to Einstein, Gandhi and the Hebrew Bible, offering a massive multimedia piece called Masters of Grace that features a libretto of 114 poems of Rumi in the translation of Coleman Barks;) or, Robert Brazen introducing Rumi to the American gay community in an article entitled “Homoeroticism and Spirituality: Rumi and the Sufis”!
Given this background of ‘Rumi-mania’, it is to the credit of a young American scholar Franklin D. Lewis, Assistant Professor at the Department of Middle Eastern at the Emory University in Atlanta, to have produced this massive yet lively work which is as much of a treat to the lay Rumi fan as it is a gift to the Rumi scholar. Further, for a specialist on San`ai, Lewis’ display of Rumi scholarship is formidable, just as his familiarity with the Rumi phenomenology of our times is enviable. His book is a veritable compendium; or, as the author himself likes to describe it, ‘a kind of Rumi Bible’ that is meant for anyone interested in the poetry, teaching and influence of this Sufi sage and master. Indeed, in the tradition of the whirling dervishes, who plant one foot on the floor with their toes fixed around a wooden peg and turn in Rumi’s memory, Lewis hopes that his book will help ground all the lovers of Rumi ‘as they circle, moth like, around the flame of his works.’ It is not a vain wish, for what this study offers is far more varied and comprehensive than is provided by any conventional volume of historiography, poetry or sociology.
In his bid to produce a competent historical narrative that yields a critical biography of Rumi, Lewis generously provides translations of pivotal sources, thus making the reader privy to the crux around which debates and controversies around Rumi’s life revolve. However, this ambitious project is not consumed by the historian’s vision; for the two following chapters deal with theory, with Rumi’s poetry and mysticism. Needless to say, Lewis’ presentation of the poetical and the theosophical side of Rumi’s legacy is embedded within a suggestive account of the literary, theological and ethical tradition of Islam out of which of the fountain of Rumi’s own creativity sprung. Though these exercises are not as comprehensive and original as the one dealing with the biographical reconstruction, they do bring the reader close to the cognitive and moral universe of Rumi without rendering it arcane or unfathomable. An equally economical account of the Mevlevi order, the whirling dervishes of popular parlance, that emerged after Rumi’s death, supplemented by a more elaborate survey of Rumi in the Muslim world, concludes the classical and academic section of this worthwhile compendium.
However, it is Lewis’s extremely enlightening, comprehensive and judicious account of the modern world’s romance with Rumi that makes his work so distinctive and significant. The chapters dealing with Rumi’s march into Western consciousness, history of Rumi scholarship, ‘translations, transpositions, renditions, versions and inspirations’ and Rumi ‘mirrored in multimedia’ are veritable storehouses of priceless information and critical insights. Every trace of the Rumi spirit in the West, from Hegel to Buber to Hammarskjöld, every effort of Western scholarship to present and evaluate his legacy, from Ritter to Whinfield to Schimmel, every example of Western poets, writers and artists drinking from the font of Rumi, from Rükert to Flecker to Barks, is painstakingly traced and astutely assessed. Nor need we forget that all the Muslims scholars of Rumi, Persians, Turks, Pakistanis, even Arabs, from Foruzanfur to Golpinarli to Abdul Hakim, and every one else, have been duly integrated in this comprehensive, cosmopolitan vision of the Rumi legacy. Finally, the chapter dealing with the multimedia - Rumi in music, ballet, modern dance, and opera, Rumi sites on the Web - gilds the lily of Lewis scholarship.
In sum, it is a gem of a book which, without freeing the discerning Rumi student of the duty of reading him in the original, or in the academic renderings of Nicholson, Arberry and Chittick, makes itself indispensable. As for a more synoptic judgement on Rumi’s humanism and his place in the universal scheme of things, few would disagree with Lewis when he says: ‘Indeed, any objective western reader who takes the time to compare the Divina Commedia with the Masnavi, which is twice as long as the former, will have to acknowledge that Rumi, who wrote a half century before Dante, reflects a much more ecumenical spirit and a far broader and deeper religious sensibility.’
At one place, Lewis confesses that ‘no academic enterprise will ever be able to dull the wonder we feel when reading Rumi’s poetry or to unravel the essential mystery at the core of his life. How is that a Persian boy born almost eight hundred years ago in Khorasan ... wound up in central Anatolia, Turkey … some 1500 hundred miles to the west? How is that after training as a Muslim preacher and jurist, Rumi developed into an ecumenical teacher of poetic bent, now recognized as one of the most profound mystical teachers and poets in human history, and revered as a saint by people of many faiths, such that Muslim and Westerners alike make pilgrimage to his resting place in Konya, Turkey?’ Perhaps, it is part of the same wondrous story that this Eastern sun is now shining in the West!