The Ocean of Rumi


Masnavi of Jalal al-Din Rumi Gift of Alexander Smith Cochran, 1913, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Masnavi of Jalal al-Din Rumi Gift of Alexander Smith Cochran, 1913, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Scholar of Islam and Rumi lover Pouria Montazeri talks about the context that’s getting lost in translation.

Certain things in life are so precious, so divinely perfect and sacred, that they don’t need any alterations. They arise from the compassionate and boundless Existence, touch our hearts, and return to that placeless place where nothing ever repeats, leaving us in awe and wonder. Such perennial pearls of wisdom invite us to wholeness. For me, Rumi’s teachings and poetry are some of those precious gifts in life.

There is something definite, deep, and full about the unadulterated, pure teachings of the masters. They resonate with our hearts and, as a result, make us nod in agreement like bobbleheads.

When, through love and dedication, they are applied, embodied, and manifested within one’s heart and daily life, they are as relevant and applicable today as they have been for centuries.

Sadly, Rumi’s is one of the countless sacred teachings that take a whole new shape and meaning when crossed over the invisible yet tangible boundary into the West.

Several issues contribute to the tendency to alter teachings. One is the practice of cultural appropriation, where, in this context, scholars and translators get to render teachings through their fixed lenses and understandings without necessarily having any experiential knowledge of the subject, including the language itself.

Much of Eastern religion goes through the Judeo-Christian lens and filter before it is deciphered. I see this as a shadow of real interfaith and interspiritual dialogues and practices. To understand anything fully, the thing needs to be isolated and examined as it is without any interference. This requires commitment, dedication, and the kind of single-minded focus and attention yogis, Sufis, saints, mystics, and scientists used and continue to use. But instead, convenient, buffet-style spirituality often results in spiritual constipation.

The other includes spiritual objectification. Teachings exist as perennial wisdom, and understanding those teachings can be difficult. But when the teachings are interpreted by people who are most interested in gaining money or followers, they are inevitably changed to suit the fleeting culture of the moment.

As one small example, the Farsi pronoun ou may mean he as well as she. The proper meaning is contextually determined. God is never referred to as He, yet He is used in almost all translations. This is a very crucial point, for the additional filter in itself veils one from truly understanding the original work.

I have to admit how grateful I am for all that Coleman Barks has done in familiarizing the Westerner with Rumi’s poetry. This gratitude is accompanied by my core belief that individuals like Barks are mere instruments. At the end of a song at a concert, we clap for the musicians and not for the instruments.

Barks is so strongly associated with Rumi that not many know he is a distinguished poet himself. Also, many people in the West do not know that Coleman Barks neither speaks nor reads Farsi and that his renditions are more Barks than Rumi and include serious distortions.

Things lost in translation are mainly due to difficult linguistic issues, whereas things lost in interpretations and renditions can involve deliberate choices. Saying a poem is by Rumi when it’s barely recognizable is problematic at best.

One viral poem that has been making the rounds on the Internet for many years is a rendition of a ruba’i, a Farsi quatrain.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,

there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,

the world is too full to talk about.

Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense.

—Rumi as rendered by Coleman Barks

Now, compare this with what Rumi said. (I’ll explore this verse in more detail later.)

Beyond faithlessness and Islam, there is a desert plain.

For us, there is an intense yearning amid that expanse.

The Āref, upon reaching that beyondness,

Surrenders his/her head entirely in prostration,

For there is neither faithlessness nor Islam nor any ‘where’ in that place.

—Rumi (Divan of Shams of Tabriz, Quatrain 395)

It’s a disservice to all that Rumi represents to separate him from Islam. To assume that spiritualists are free from making such errors and thus contributing to Islamaphobia is an illusion.

Barks had the golden opportunity to shed light on the true essence of Islam. The beloved poet he translates owed all of his blessings and findings to the teachings of Islam and the Prophet Mohammad. Instead, Barks looked the other way.

Regarding this phenomenon, over 745 years ago Rumi uttered the following quatrain for his time and for ours:

I am the devoted servant of the Qur’an as truly as I am alive.

I am the dust on the path of Mohammad, the Chosen one of God.

If anyone quotes anything except this from my sayings,

I am disgusted by them and outraged by their words.

—Rumi (Divan of Shams of Tabriz, Quatrain 1173)

In explaining his translation, Barks said, “I avoid God-words, not altogether, but wherever I can because they seem to take away the freshness of experience and put it inside a specific system.” Barks chooses to ignore the brilliance and holiness of these systems, which gave birth to so much of the wisdom that we owe our modern lives to. Systems that yogis and Sufis without access to universities and Google discovered within their beings with utmost attention and love. They labored, and through Divine kindness, gifted us freely with all they discovered.

In Rumi’s teachings and Islamic Sufism, systems are seen as live organisms, ever-alive and ever-relevant, for they are connected to the laws of Existence and are meant to be experienced and manifested in one’s heart and life.

Now, back to the quatrain.

Persian poetry is filled with analogies and metaphors. To really understand Rumi’s original language requires both a faithful translation and plenty of context.

Beyond faithlessness and Islam, there is a desert plain.

For us, there is an intense yearning amid that expanse.

Some of the roots for the word Islam include surrender, peace, and true health. If Islam here is pointing toward awakening, then faithlessness points to the dream state we live in. If Islam is the path to wakefulness, then faithlessness here signifies the state of stagnation. The juxtaposition of opposites, which Rumi uses often, is merely an effort to invite the reader to the point beyond the opposing concepts.

The great Sufi Dhūl-Nūn al-Misrī said, “Whatever you think, God is the opposite of that.”

Rumi is inviting us toward the hidden. He is hinting at nonduality — neti neti (not this, not that), which is strikingly similar to Lā elāha ellAllāh (There is no-thing, but THAT). This is the paradoxical nature of the path.

Rumi designates this vast expanse (desert plain) as the ultimate goal by revealing his intense yearning for it. And by using us, Rumi refers to the lovers of God, including himself.

The Āref, upon reaching that beyondness,

Surrenders his/her head entirely in prostration,

Āref, the word used in Farsi to refer to a true Sufi, derives from the word ma’refat (wisdom, cognition). The Āref is one who has died to herself and has become the perfect vessel through which the divine will, wisdom, and mercy manifest. The Āref is the perfect model for the seekers of truth.

The Āref is also one who has reached the state of beyondness by having surrendered her head, once and for all, with all that it carried, upon the ground in the form of prostration. This natural act of humility, the annihilation of the finite in the presence of the Infinite, takes place once she reaches that placeless place, the expanse, where there is neither you nor I.

For there is neither faithlessness nor Islam nor any ‘where’ in that place.

Muslims around the world face the Kaaba in Mecca five times a day when they perform Salat (prayer). Rumi asks, Which direction should one face if she were inside of the Kaaba? He points to the directionless direction to the heart.

Rumi’s quatrain, like thousands of other lines of poetry and teachings in Islamic Sufism, points to the nondual essence of Existence. (Everything is perishing, but His Face, Qur’an, 28:88.) These sacred lines in the form of a quatrain are more an invitation and a map than mere poetry. They give us a glimpse of the unfolding of this pathless path. They point to the essence of Islam. They describe the state of the Āref. They show how prostration is the genuine inner posture of the Sufi’s heart. They inspire us to move from duality toward nonduality, from i toward I.

Standing at a crossroads, we can see how Bark’s rendition and what Rumi said take us each to very different destinations.

In a state of inner Silence, as instructed by Rumi, we can allow his poems to marinate inside of our hearts and trust that their inner meanings will reveal themselves to us through the Light of Grace. This requires single-minded attention. It requires us to not be there, for, in our hearts, there is no room for two.

Rumi gifted us with a map of the heart. His teachings should be treated with the same importance, respect, and urgency we give our own hearts.

Kathryn Drury Wagner, wellbeing editor for S&H, sat down with Pouria Montazeri to discuss his work: 

In your essay, you note that Rumi has been separated from Islam in America. Do you think readers of Rumi are surprised to hear about his roots in Islam?  

It depends. If someone is being introduced to Rumi via social media memes and books about love, which don’t talk about the historical Rumi or where he is from or what fed his heart and mind, we can say safely that most people aren’t aware of it. Some people convince themselves that Rumi is a secular, non-Islamic mystic. So yes, it may be surprising to them, and this may cause a confusion inside them. But we do need confusion. Becoming uncomfortable is part of a spiritual growth; it’s not outside of it. It’s an invitation to something bigger.  

You use the term spiritual constipation. What do you mean by that?  

For some, at the beginning of a spiritual journey—when they have a calling of wanting to be on a path of homecoming to their heart—it’s natural that they tap into different spiritualities.  

When that is not connected to working with a teacher or someone who is more advanced, or when we’re not doing self-assessment, that which is supposed to be a means to an end becomes our spiritual lifestyle. We stop our spiritual development because we get stuck on that level 1. All the multibillion-dollar spiritual advertising is catering to that level 1, the Spirituality 101. So, one is not developing, not digesting, only accumulating and with no movement. It’s the old saying that it’s better to have a 500-foot-deep hole for a well than 500 holes a foot deep that don’t touch the water.  

What do you say to someone who is reading a Westernized version of Rumi, and they are getting comfort and inspiration from it even if it’s not a very accurate translation?  

When the rays of the sun come through a window, you can still benefit from them.   Coleman Barks has done a decent job and he’s himself a poet and it’s so rich that he does touch people’s hearts. But it’s still a fraction of the sun. Not for everyone, but for those who are truly hungry and want to use these teachings to know who they are, there is an ocean that these books have not touched. With religion and spirituality, you do need focus, you do need discipline. It’s not fast food. Yes, the heart can still be touched, but if you are hungry for more, there is more here than is being said.


Pouria Montazeri grew up with Rumi’s poetry and teachings. He draws from his 28 years of experience with Sufism, Advaita Vedanta, and other mystical and contemplative practices and his experiences as a teacher, spiritual director/coach, speaker, poet, mindfulness instructor, sangha guide, mentor, and filmmaker to support himself and others to live more creative, peaceful, and meaningful lives. He wrote, directed, and shot Shams & Rumi: The Fragrance of Axis Mundi, which won many international film awards.  

Pouria Montazeri travels and offers his heart as a gift through conferences, workshops, retreats, and 8-week long Rumi courses. All of the proceeds are either obtained by the hosting body or donated to a charity in need. 

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