“The Essential Rumi” translated by Coleman Barks

Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (Sept. 30, 1207 – Dec. 17, 1273), better known as Rumi, was a Persian born Sufi Muslim teacher, religious leader, poet, and Islamic scholar. Since the day that they were written, Rumi’s poems have been enjoyed by countless people in multiple languages. In recent decades, his poems have enjoyed a renaissance in America with Rumi becoming “one of the best-selling poets in the United States.”[1]

As a Sufi Muslim, Rumi was follower of “Islam’s immensely complex and infinitely diverse mystical tradition.”[2] Though rooted in the core beliefs of Islam, Sufism is a “medley of divergent philosophical and religions trends”[3] with concepts borrowed from Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions. This background allowed Rumi to become “dissolver of boundaries” with poems that speak to the heart of humanity regardless of religious affiliation. This mystical belief in the connection of all of humanity can be seen most clearly in Rumi’s statement that he saw “one altar” and not three when he went “into the Muslim mosque and the Jewish synagogue and the Christian church.”[4]

Rumi’s poems are characterized by his usage of “anything human beings do, no matter how scandalous or cruel or silly, as a lens to examine soul growth.”[5] This style, though effective at one level, also tends to drive away some readers due to the crude and unrefined nature of the poems. I, for one, fall into this latter group as I did not find Rumi’s poems to be enlightening, enriching, or beneficial. Rather I found them to confusing and unhelpful in stimulating personal spiritual formation. Part of this, I readily admit, may be due to my personal preference and enjoyment of prose over and above that of poetry of any nature.

There were two poems of Rumi’s that I did find of interest. The first being the “Chickpea to Cook” in which the chickpea learns from the cook that flavor comes through the heat of the stove.[6] Coleman Barks, the poem’s translator, elaborates on this poem stating that the chickpea is the disciple who listens to and obeys their teacher (i.e. the cook).[7] Though this may be the official scholarly interpretation of the poem, my heart understood the poem along the lines of personal hardship. Spiritual growth, wisdom, and maturity rarely come when life is at its best; rather these things are born out of a heart that allows God to refine us like gold in the melting pot (e.g. Malachi 3:3, James 1:2-4, Isaiah 48:10).

The “Elephant in the Dark” was the second Rumi poem that stood out to me.[8] This poem tells the story of three men who look at an elephant in a dark room. Each one only sees and feels a portion of the elephant and, therefore, comes to an incomplete understanding of the animal. This is most likely one of Rumi’s most famous poem, though he is not always given credit for it. Hence while I have heard multiple variations of this poem over the years, I did not know its author. As such, finding the true author of the poem was like finding a coin in a rain-soaked field, a pleasant surprise that makes the trudge through the mud bearable.

In conclusion, I found the poems of Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī as translated by Coleman Barks in the book The Essential Rumi interesting though uninspiring. However, I am sure lovers of poetry will most likely disagree with this conclusion as seen by the lasting international fame of Rumi. To each their own.

 

Endnotes

[1] Azadeh Moaveni, “How Did Rumi Become One of Our Best-Selling Poets?”, The New York Times (New York City, NY), January 20, 2017, accessed February 19, 2018, .

[2] Reza Aslan, No god But God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam (New York: Random House, 2005), 198.

[3] Reza Aslan, No god But God, 199.

[4] Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī, The Essential Rumi, trans. Coleman Barks (New York: HarperOne, 2004), 246.

[5] Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī, The Essential Rumi, 173.

[6] Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī, The Essential Rumi, 132-133.

[7] Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī, The Essential Rumi, 132.

[8] Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī, The Essential Rumi, 152.

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