The western mystic

December 6, 2020

Has sufism merely been reduced to a historical Western obsession with the ‘mysterious’ East

Photo credit: Hulki Okan Tabak on Unsplash.

On the occasion of his marriage to Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt got a love poem by the Persian poet Rumi tattooed onto his bicep. The same ‘love poem’ was once shared as a tweet by Ivanka Trump in reference to the US involvement in Afghanistan. This poem, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there”, is also very popularly consumed as a quote for wall hangings and greeting cards on a regular basis. Similar quotes by Rumi, widely used as screensavers and Instagram posts, mainly source from Western texts such as Gourd seed and The Essential Rumi authored by the American poet Coleman Barks who is credited with establishing a large following for Rumi in the English-speaking world.

Barks, however, misses the point of Rumi’s poetry by a long shot margin. In his forty-four year long career, he never made any attempt at reading or speaking Persian, resulting in his poetry being a mere interpretation of what Rumi might have said.

The “ideas of wrongdoing and right doing” are actually a replacement of the words “Kufr and Islam” A literal translation of this poem goes on to say, “When the gnostic arrives there, he’ll prostrate himself”. Similar to this, the quote “fall in love in such a way that it frees you from any connection” is a direct reference to the basics of sufism which include a deep connection with and the struggle to dedicate oneself to the Creator.

In sharp contrast to this, Barks goes on to explain how the poem is actually a reference to the weather, in a series of talks titled Rumi on Love. While Barks’ poetry might be great on its own – in a Rupi Kaur sort of way – it is definitely not what Rumi intended to say. Most ‘sufi quotes’, especially those read out and written by Barks, blatantly ignore any religious references within them, resulting in sufism being reduced to a historical Western obsession with the ‘mysterious’ East.

According to an organisation dedicated to accurately translating Persian poetry, Persian Poetics, “In the same country with a Muslim ban, Moulana Rumi is a best-selling poet. But which Rumi? The Persian poetry translated into English is often hardly recognisable. The Islamic context is erased, the format changed, and many other liberties are taken with the text, yielding a translation that is hardly similar to the original – all in an effort to make it more palatable to the Western reader.”

While Rumi himself described his work to be “an explainer of the Quran”, he is almost never referred to as a Muslim by Western translators and is just cherished as a wise man, a mystic sufi and a whirling dervish. According to Omid Safi, professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies at Duke University, the detachment of the ‘desert religion’ from the mystical aspects of the East began as early as the Victorian era when concepts such as colonisation became a deep seated norm. According to Safi, an explanation for this blatant detachment at the time was “that these people are mystical not because of Islam but in spite of it”.

While Barks’ poetry might be great on its own – in a Rupi Kaur sort of way – it is definitely not what Rumi intended to say.

In a world where Islam is often reduced to a terrorist agenda, poems that are an elaboration of that very religion are bannered by those who shoulder the spread of Islamophobia. This spiritual colonisation either completely disregards Islam from the ‘mystical, peaceful’ realm of sufism or terms it as the good part of the otherwise evil religion.

The dissociation of ‘the good’ from what is often depicted to be a ‘not so good’ phenomenon can be characterised as an orientalist act. Orientalism can be described as a way the West fails to understand the East and instead resorts to distorting or exaggerating cultural contexts and often labeling them as exotic, backward, uncivilised or dangerous. This is exactly what has happened with sufism in the West. Turned into the exotic aspect of an otherwise dangerous religion, sufism has been completely dissociated from its roots.

Away from the ideas of Islamophobia, Orientalism and spiritual colonisation, however, sufism seems to have retained the basics of its original concept. Apart from Turkey, South Asia has always been considered a centre of sufi shrines and a place where Islam is associated with sufism. Ali Hujwiri, Shah Rukne Alam, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, and Bahauddin Zakariya in Pakistan are to this day considered the flag bearers of Islam in the region. Their shrines are sites of religious pilgrimage and philanthropy.

In neighbouring India, despite the rampant Islamophobia, Bollywood often makes references to sufis such as Khwaja Qutbuddin, Nizauddin Auliya, and Amir Khusro. Due to a wide range of Muslim audience, this is mostly done in a reference to Islam and the appropriate cultural context. However, the fact that despite this understanding of the context, Islam in India is divided into ‘good’ (sufism) and ‘bad’ (terrorist connotations) highlights the recurring theme of Islamophobia in the dissociation of sufism from Islam.

It is clear that Islamophobia and Orientalism are two recurring themes in the dissociation of sufism from Islam. The divorce of the mystical from the otherwise ‘terrorising’ Islam helps convert the religion into a popular folklore. As of now, the sufi shrines in Pakistan, shielded from both foreign influence and an aversion to Islam, seem to hold the best chance at preserving the Islamic essence of mysticism.

The writer is a political science and history    student at the Lahore     University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

The western mystic