Sunday, March 24, 2013

Rumi and Sufism

 Comparative Essay on Gambard's Rumi and Islam and Green's Sufism

Jalalu‘d-din Muhammad al-Rumi (d.1273), or commonly known as Rumi, was born during the eleventh century in present day Tajikistan. Son of a Muslim scholar and mystic, Rumi followed his father's foot steps and eventually became one of the greatest Sufi poets ever known. The poet has become one of the top five best selling poets in America.[1] For many westerners, Rumi and Sufism has become a  mystical experience, not belonging to any particular religion. But that is far from the case according to two books. Rumi and Islam translated and annotated by Ibrahim Gamard places Rumi's poetry and his Quranic references side by side to show how the poets work are based on Muslim theology. Nile Green's Sufism: A Global History   goes through the origins of Sufism and traces it's history to present day showing how the mystic side of Islam is created from already set beliefs of the Quran and Hadith. From analyzing and examining the two books, the two authors justify their argument that the Sufi poet, Rumi, literary work is far from being absent of a faith, but based on the traditions and already set beliefs of Islam.
            Rumi and Islam contains Rumi's poetry and his commentary on different aspects of Islam, from warfare to getting closer to God. The translator and annotator of the book,  Gamard, has been studying Rumi's Mathnawi, since 1975 and became a Muslim in 1984. He then joined the  Sufi sect, the Mevlevi or commonly known as the Whirling Dervishes, that derived from Rumi's teachings.[2] In the 80's Gamard began to study Persian to better understand the writings within the Mathnawi, eventually placing translations on the Internet and getting him published. With his knowledge of the Persian language, Rumi, and Islam, the author proves himself to be a rather reliable source for his material.
            The reliability of Gamard allows  the viewer trust in the information he has added to the Sufi's literature. The way the book is written to focuses on Rumi's work, not focusing on making the translations poetic. The translator states that he is not a poet[3] and is mainly concerned with the words Rumi has written and having the reader understand the metaphor, idiom, and religious references.[4] This way the reader may understand how the Sufi was a great follower of the Prophet Muhammad and learn the Islamic citations to get deeper understanding of the text. By doing this, the book lets Western readers still enjoy the spirituality of  Rumi's work without loosing accuracy of his teachings and his Muslim identity.[5] It also allows Muslim readers that are cynical to Islam's mystics and how Rumi was one of the Prophet Muhammad's greatest followers.[6]
            Through out the works within the book, Rumi gives references to the Quran or Hadith, as well as other stories that were passed around at the time. Rumi takes these traditions and creates stories, where the Prophet Muhammad is the main character to urge the reader to follow the acts of the greatest Muslim. There is a story of a sick man Muhammad went to visit, the man sick due to praying to God to give him the punishment he will feel in the future, so he would not feel so much pain in the next life. This story was written as a commentary to what the many sayings of the Prophet about the spiritual benefits to visiting the sick but also warns about spiritual boldness.[7]  In this story there are many references to Islamic traditions and stories not mentioned in the Quran that had been spread through out the Islamic world.
            The sick man tells Muhammad about the back pain God gave him so that he may stay up through the night. This is the reference to an Islamic practice that is promoted in the Quran of waking up in the middle of the night to do extra prayers.[8] The Sick Man then goes and refers himself to the fallen angles Harut and Marut.[9] These Angels are from a story not mentioned in the Quran. Harut and Marut had been bragging that they were better than Adam. So God tempts them to earth using a beautiful woman. Seeing their mistake, the two angels beg to be punished now so they would not feel the punishment they were to receive at the Day of Judgment.[10]
            Rumi's poems also adds references that had a historical reference to his readers. In the story of the Greedy Pagan, Rumi writes about a saying of Muhammad- “The unbeliever eats the food of seven stomachs, but the true believer eats the food of a single stomach.”[11] This story tells of how Muhammad allows an obese pagan to lodge with him. The famine causing man[12] eats the house out of food, making many people of the Prophets household angry. Here, the man is referenced as being a son of a Ghuzz Turk.[13]  The readers of this text at the time it was written would have been familiar with this term. A Ghuzz Turk was a man from the a Turkish tribe that  were known to be greedy plunderers who invaded Khorasan around the twelve century.[14] 
            Neil Green's book offers the reader a more scholarly, text book approach to Sufism. Green himself is South Asian and Islamic history professor at UCLA. With his interest in the Middle East and Islam in Asia, Europe, and Africa and its effects in society, cultural, and literature, he considers himself a “global historian of Islam”.[15] His understanding of Islam gives him the support he needs to back the arguments he states in his book. According to Green, Sufism is better understood as rubric of traditions than mysticism.[16] He also writes how the Sufi mystics did not just step out of the traditions of Islam, but piggy backed on preexistent teachings of past scholars, saints, and the Prophet Muhammad's revelations.  Paper coming in from China aided Sufi's in their quest greatly.[17]
            The great increase of paper allowed more books to be created. This granted the early Sufi's to study the Quran and the Hadith intensely. Green writes the Sufi's were a rather bookish, they always having pen and paper and studying and memorizing the Islamic texts[18]. The vocabulary of the Sufi is based from Quranic verse, it used as a resource and a way to defend their faith. Their knowledge of the text and later, around the twelfth century, the ability to mix the mundane with the metaphysical allowed them to gain authority as scholars and giving them the notion of being mystics.[19] 
            This idea of juxtaposing the everyday with metaphysical can be seen in the writings of Shihab ab Din Suhrawardi (d.1191). The theme of light became a important aspect in his work. Suhrawardi uses light as a way to describe God, light shining from God illuminates light beings, or angels, and that reflects onto the plants and animals on Earth.[20]  This area of where light shines from the light beings to humans, he called the “world likeness” ('alam al-mithad). This “world likeness”  was a meeting place between angles and humans, allowing humans to have dreams and visions. These dreams and visions  was how Muhammad gained his revelations. These supernatural events then become important, even more so then the texts due to they are from God to you personally. The idea of divine light is not a new. It can be seen in the beliefs of pagan Greeks and Zoroastrians. This concept of a world likeness was a way to adapted a none Islamic practice to Islamic traditions and beliefs.
            As we can see, Sufi's adapted beliefs from other religions to fit the traditions of Islam. Another adaptation is the idea of Sufi saint. Many early Christian sites were considered places of pilgrimage to early Muslims. One can see how the creation of Sufi saints can be attributed to the contact of Christianity.[21] 
            Both of these books give good references to how the common Western belief of Rumi being a poet, absence of faith is far from true. His popularity to the West, due to his “lover-Beloved themes” and spirituality has caused many of his work to be distorted to western readers.[22] It creates an image of Rumi, as Gamard states, to be a person who started out as a Muslim scholar, but transcended that identity to this global mystic.[23] But from these two books work to fix that misconception. To fix this lover-Beloved theme is actually the act of a Muslim and God, going much deeper than the conception of physical love.  Using Green's references of the origins of Sufism and its bases on the Quran and the Hadith, the readers of Gamard's translations can understand his eagerness to prove that Rumi was a very pious and devoted Muslim and probably one of the greatest followers of Prophet Muhammad.

[1]“A Rumi of One's Own,” last modified July 17, 2007,
[2]“About the Traslator,” last accessed September 26, 2012,
[3]Maulana Jalal al-Din Rumi, Rumi and Islam: Annotated and Explained, translated and annotated by Ibrahim Gamard (Vermont: Skylight Paths, 2004), xxiv.
[4]Jalal al-Din Rumi, Rumi and Islam, xxiv.
[5]Jalal al-Din Rumi, Rumi and Islam, xiii.
[6]Jalal al-Din Rumi, Rumi and Islam, xi.
[7]Jalal al-Din Rumi, Rumi and Islam, 20.
[8]    Jalal al-Din Rumi, Rumi and Islam, 24-25.
[9]Jalal al-Din Rumi, Rumi and Islam, 31.
[10]Jalal al-Din Rumi, Rumi and Islam, 30.
[11]Jalal al-Din Rumi, Rumi and Islam, 57.
[12]Jalal al-Din Rumi, Rumi and Islam, 59.
[13]Jalal al-Din Rumi, Rumi and Islam, 59.
[14]Jalal al-Din Rumi, Rumi and Islam, 58.
[15]“UCLA Histroy Department- Neil Green,” last accessed September 27, 2012,
[16]Nile Green, Sufism: a Global History (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), xi.
[17]Green, Sufism,  26.
[18]Green, Sufism, 25.
[19]Green, Sufism, 62.
[20]Green, Sufism 75.
[21]Green, Sufism, 92.
[22]Jalal al-Din Rumi, Rumi and Islam, xiii.
[23]Jalal al-Din Rumi, Rumi and Islam, xiii.

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