Jalâl al-Din Rumi, who has long been one of the most admired Persian poets and now has a remarkably wide following in the US, was born on September 30, 1207, in Balkh, a small town west of Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan. He was descended from several generations of Muslim scholars and preachers adhering to a relatively liberal interpretation of their doctrine. His father, Bahâ al-Din, a Sufi known in his lifetime as “The King of the Clerics,” was one of the principal influences on Rumi’s development and subsequent teachings.

When Rumi was an infant, Bahâ al-Din moved the family to Vakhsh in present-day Tajikistan and, when Rumi was five, to Samarkand, finally settling in Konya, in present-day Turkey, where Rumi grew to adulthood. There his father, a mystic preoccupied, in the words of the scholar Franklin Lewis in Rumi—Past and Present, East and West, with “the presence of God and with divine intimations and promptings,” who left a spiritual memoir and diary treasured by his son Rumi, lived until Rumi was twenty-seven. Rumi had married at the age of seventeen and had studied law, and apparently had attended his father’s lectures and had been taught by him. He became a scholar and ascetic, and at his father’s death he took over his place, at the bidding of his father’s disciples, and besides religious teaching he wrote legal opinions.

Rumi’s father had provided him with another teacher, a disciple of his named Borhân al-Din, a Sufi mystic who lived for years as a hermit, and who, Bernard Lewis writes in Music of a Distant Drum, seemed “wholly unconcerned with systematic expositions of the path or with spiritual genealogies.” His early teaching must have had a deep effect on Rumi.

But the most powerful influence of all upon Rumi’s insights and teaching was Shams al-Din Tabrizi, an intensely impressive wandering dervish some thirty years older than Rumi. Their meeting transformed Rumi’s outlook and his expression of it. Their first encounter, like almost everything about the relationship between them, became a subject of myth almost at once. Shams contributed to the legend in his own accounts, saying that he had been observing Rumi for fifteen or sixteen years until he thought the younger man was “ready for this secret.”

The actual meeting, when Shams felt the time had come, was in 1244, when Rumi was thirty-seven. The relationship, whatever it may have been, clearly went beyond that of ordinary teacher and disciple. Shams recognized Rumi not only as the most gifted student he had ever had but as his spiritual reflection. He wrote at length about the bond between them, speaking of exclusivity and jealousy as well as of the stages of his own teaching of Rumi. The name Shams means “sun” in Arabic, and in Rumi’s poems the meaning is continually evoked as a reference to light and, of course, love, which has encouraged a literal erotic interpretation. In his poems Rumi extols Shams in every possible way, as “Lord of the lord of the lords of truth” and as the revelation, beyond the careful obedience of religious observances, of a further immensity of love, an opening into unity with the divine. Shams finally turned him from a monkish observant into a mystic and an ecstatic celebrant who has forgotten himself. At the heart of Rumi’s teaching is a surrender to a divine presence, which is finally without external attributes. This is the ecstasy of which Rumi tells, and he ascribes his realization of it to Shams.

According to the accounts and the legend, the transformation included a fundamental change in Rumi’s attitude toward poetry, and prompted his use of what had often been a secular form of expression, denounced in the Koran as immoral, for mystical and visionary expression. Rumi went on to become a prodigiously prolific poet, composing, writing, or dictating thousands of lines of verse.

Some of Rumi’s followers were jealous of the influence of Shams on Rumi, and Shams was driven away. Rumi is said to have gone to Syria twice looking for him. There is an often-repeated story that Shams was murdered by disciples of Rumi and his body hidden. In his book on Rumi Franklin Lewis devotes extensive attention to the various forms of this dramatic legend and he concludes that the rumor on which it is based “arises late, circulates in oral context, and is almost certainly groundless.”

Another legend attributes the origin of the whirling dance of the dervishes to Rumi’s grief at the loss of Shams, and his dazed circling in his garden, around a pillar. He certainly founded the Mevlevi order of dervishes, whose history Franklin Lewis traces into the present, and his influence—or the influence of some image derived from him—continues to spread in European languages and in the Western world in spite of the distances in time and culture and the provisional nature of translation.


Franklin Lewis notes at the beginning of his exhaustive study of Rumi that on November 25, 1997, in the Christian Science Monitor, Alexandra Marks pronounced Rumi the best-selling poet in the United States. Professor Lewis’s book, with its careful attention to Rumi’s life and teachings, and to his reputation from his own time until the end of the late millennium, includes in the introduction a marveling survey of the fervor surrounding Rumi’s name in recent decades. In a section entitled “Rumi-Mania” he writes of large, enthusiastic audiences at readings of versions of Rumi’s poems by the contemporary American translator Coleman Barks, “who, more than any other single individual, is responsible for Rumi’s current fame.” By the late 1990s that fame, in a variety of forms, had become established in contemporary popular culture, in which Rumi was claimed as a forerunner of New Age aspirations, of heterosexual and homosexual eroticism, and of current manifestations of a quest for ecstasy. (The subtitle of Barks’s most recent volume, The Soul of Rumi, is A New Collection of Ecstatic Poems.)

In case this phenomenon has escaped anyone it is worth repeating a few among Franklin Lewis’s collection of highlights. According to William Davis in The Boston Globe of March 30, 1998, “spiritually driven commuters now unwind to audiobooks of Rumi’s poetry as they sit in traffic jams….” And in New York, in that year, some four hundred people a day (celebrities among them) at the Jivamukti Yoga Center were doing “spiritual aerobics to a background beat that sometimes mixes rock music and readings of Rumi….” He enumerates concert recitations with live music on stage, and CD recordings. This was all in place by the year 2001, when the books listed here were published. (A.J. Arberry’s Sufism is a reprint from an original 1950 edition.) The books were in print or on their way to it before September 11.

If Franklin Lewis has continued his survey since the event of that day I have not seen it, but I have heard that the shock of its horrors turned a larger number of people than usual—temporarily at least—to poetry of all kinds, and I think the available versions of Rumi are probably even more popular now than they were when his book was being written. From that date on we were reminded regularly that nothing would be the same, and one of the obvious things urgently demanding reassessment was the relation of the Western world to Islam. One unexpected form of that reassessment was reported in the Honolulu Advertiser on November 11, 2001, two months after the attacks. The article described the ceremony of induction into Islam of a woman convert, in a mosque in Manoa, Honolulu, which the author, Mary Kaye Ritz, said was an example of a recent national trend. Muslim clerics across the country, she wrote, had stated that since September 11 they were experiencing four times as many conversions to Islam as they were used to, with women converts outnumbering men by as many as four to one. The woman convert whose testimony of faith began the article was a petty officer in the US Navy, stationed at Pearl Harbor.

The new interest in all aspects of Islam inevitably forms part of the context of the enthusiasm for Rumi, and for Sufism, which we can understand as a term encompassing a variety of ascetic and mystical movements that originated within Islam and incorporated elements of Indian mysticism, among other sources. A.J. Arberry’s 1950 study Sufism: An Account of the Mystics of Islam, recently reissued, suggests how dramatically the context has changed in half a century. Arberry’s writings on Rumi, which in the course of his life included translations of many of Rumi’s poems and teachings (he published Mystical Poems of Rumi in 1968, and Discourses of Rumi in 1961) continued the work of his close friend Ronald A. Nicholson. When Nicholson died in 1945 his introduction to his translations from Rumi was unfinished. Arberry “saw his work through the press.”

Nicholson’s passion for Persian poetry and for the insights and exhortations of Sufi mysticism was the heir of his Victorian predecessor with similar interests, Edward FitzGerald, the author of the famous translation of the Rubaiyat (the word means “quatrains”) of Omar Khayyam. The late W.G. Sebald, in The Rings of Saturn, has left a haunting portrait of the eccentric Victorian, shut up for fifteen years in a cottage at the edge of the family estate of Boulge Hall near Bradfield, reading, writing letters, assembling a collection of commonplaces, and devoting tracts of time to his translation of Omar Khayyam, with whom, Sebald wrote, “he felt a curiously close affinity across a distance of eight centuries.”


FitzGerald obviously read with roving curiosity whatever he could find of the Persian (and perhaps Turkish and Urdu) poetry of the great centuries of Sufism in the late Middle Ages, and he left an unfinished version of a classic of Persian poetry which Rumi certainly would have known, Farid al-Din Attar’s Mantiq al-tair (Speech of Birds), an allegory of the soul’s progress to God. The Persian poem is in couplets (mathnawi) and FitzGerald, many centuries later, painstakingly transported its sense into Victorian couplets and diction, like this:

Once on a time from all the Circles seven
Between the stedfast [sic
] Earth and rolling Heaven
The Birds, of all Note, Plumage, and Degree,
That float in Air, and roost upon the Tree…

Whatever the relation of this to the original, it falls far short of the refracted rhetorical splendors of FitzGerald’s version of Omar Khayyam. That work would have been inimitable in any case, but when Nicholson came to translate Rumi, many of the poems he worked from were in couplets, and FitzGerald’s example in that form consisted of lines like the ones above.

There may have been other temperamental affinities between FitzGerald and Nicholson and perhaps Arberry, with their shared predilection for ancient Persian poetry and mysticism in Victorian and Edwardian England—a strain of eccentricity perhaps went along with their learned exoticism. FitzGerald’s Omar Khayyam translation (or imitation, or paraphrase) was the only one of his many literary enterprises which he actually saw through to completion and which was published in his lifetime.

Arberry’s small book on Sufism was written to introduce his subject to the general public, in the wake of World War II, as part of a series published in the hope of providing “a deeper understanding of other peoples and their civilizations.” From this distance his primer seems like a summary of something finished and far away. He has an impassioned admiration for the teachings of Sufism. His assurance that the great traditions of religion share the same basic insights and that “mankind is hungry, but the feast is there” leads to a historical synopsis of the sources of Sufi mysticism and practice, a survey of the teachings of its great period—Rumi’s supreme among them—and its survival into the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and subsequent decline into superstition. He concludes that “Sufism, in its original as in its derived forms, may now be said to have come to an end as a movement dominating the minds and hearts of learned and earnest men.”

Yet the evocation of something that Sufism represented did not end with the decay of its early forms. Franklin Lewis’s Rumi lists discussions and adaptations of Sufi teachings in the latter part of the twentieth century by theologians, religious teachers of many faiths, psychiatrists: familiar names such as Martin Buber, Mircea Eliade, Aldous Huxley, Erich Fromm, Gurdjieff, Idries Shah. In the 1970s there was a growing wave of revivals of aspirant Sufi practice. “Dervish dancing” became a fad on both coasts of the United States and in England, and Idries Shah, who had been disseminating Sufi teachings in England, complained about how superficially some of the young enthusiasts understood their new turn-on. By the last years of the century several Sufi orders existed in Europe and the United States. In Rumi’s own order, the Mevlevis, and in rival orders throughout the International Association of Sufism founded in 1983, the central figure, teacher, and poet of the movement, the one whose works have become all but synonymous with the spirit of Sufism, is Rumi.

The somewhat valedictory tone in the latter pages of Arberry’s summary may have come from a realization of the end of something in his own tradition: Victorian poetic rhetoric and whatever literary and social assumptions still hovered around it in the world he knew. Arberry’s predecessor Nicholson, whether he was translating couplets of Rumi’s into English verse or prose, resorted to an antiqued fustian style:

I swear by thy soul that save the sight of thy countenance,
All, tho’ ’twere the kingdom of the earth, is fantasy and fable….

And Arberry could become entangled in similar hand-me-down trappings:

Crop-sickness afflicted me when I was desirous; I did not know that God himself desires us.
Now I have fallen asleep and stretched out my feet, since I have realized that good fortune has drawn me on.

Since I do not know the lines in the original, or the conventions shared by Rumi’s audience, I cannot be certain, but I find it hard to imagine that what they listened to—we are told—with such passion, and treasured and passed on, sounded to them like this. Yet other generations speaking English—the Victorians—apparently expected and relished something of the kind, and I do not want to misrepresent or belittle Nicholson’s and Arberry’s achievements. They are seldom as infelicitous as the lines I have quoted (though it is true that when they venture into formal verse they can be even worse).

For the most part the besetting drawback of their translations is an old-fashioned stilted stuffiness, a mode like a dusty cobweb between us and the original. But both of them (and E.H. Whinfield, whose translation of Rumi’s principal work, The Masnavi, in a similar style, was published in 1963) clearly intended to transmit the literal meaning of Rumi’s words into English as accurately as they could, falling back on what they thought of as “poetic diction” to convey the poetry. We are indebted to all of them for making available to us in English the first extensive renderings of Rumi’s opus, whether their versions convey the nature and excitement of his poetry or not.

Bernard Lewis may well have been aware of the shortcomings of the English conventions they had made use of when he came to work on translations from classical Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Hebrew poems. In Music of a Distant Drum, he mentions only one earlier translator, Arthur Waley, but in so doing he evokes a different lineage in modern English, one aspiring to plainness, simplicity, and contemporary speech. Bernard Lewis’s translations suggest differences of tone and temperament in the wide range of traditions from which he has compiled his anthology, among them classical Arabic, Turkish, and Hebrew poetry, as well as Persian. The collection includes three poems of Rumi’s, including his famous poem about “the man of God,” of which there is also a version by Nicholson. The difference is not dramatic and indeed some lines are identical, but in others Bernard Lewis’s version is clearer and more accessible. Nicholson’s

The man of God is beyond fidelity and religion.
To the man of God right and wrong are alike.
The man of God has ridden away from Not-Being

becomes, in Lewis’s rendition

the man of God is beyond belief and unbelief
the man of God is beyond evil and good
the man of God comes riding from nothingness….

Lewis’s decorous translations are intended to be accurate literal representations of the meaning of the originals, and most of them appear in this collection for the first time in English. He translates another poem of Rumi’s which suggests the undogmatic openness of the poet:

If the image of our Beloved is in the heathen temple
then it is flagrant error to walk round the Ka’ba
if in the Ka’ba His fragrance is not present
then it is but a synagogue
and if in the synagogue we sense the fragrance of union with Him
than that synagogue is our Ka’ba

It was a copy of A.J. Arberry’s translations of Rumi that Robert Bly handed to Coleman Barks in 1976, with the words, “These poems need to be released from their cages.” As far as I know Bly was not able to read the poems in the original, but such a judgment would have been consistent with the essays he had been publishing for most of two decades in his outspoken, impassioned, exploratory poetry magazines The Sixties and then The Seventies. The latter 1950s and early 1960s were a time of widespread change in American poetry, and translation was part of the breakout of the new writing. The Beats had begun to publish, and some of them—Gary Snyder most notably, and his mentor Kenneth Rexroth—were most influenced by ancient classical Chinese and Japanese poetry. Rexroth made several books of translations from both languages. The theory as well as the practice of translation was reexamined. In Robert Lowell’s work the free renditions in Imitations were related to the writing of Life Studies. The Black Mountain poets led on to the Deep Image group, and Jerome Rothenberg, George Economou, and Armand Schwerner produced new kinds of translations or paraphrases or versions, working from ancient languages and oral traditions.

The single seminal figure, somewhere in the minds of most of the poets who were moved to find a new mode of poetry at that time, was Ezra Pound, however controversial he remained. Robert Bly was a vigorous contemporary advocate of Pound’s revolution of sensibilities. His influence on the brilliant gift of James Wright, between the formal beauties of Wright’s first book, The Green Wall (1957), and The Branch Will Not Break (1963), has been described by Wright and others, and Bly’s generous, unhesitating, insistent encouragement and advice had an effect on the talents of many aspiring younger poets in those years. In his essays it was apparent that he liked to see himself as a new broom sweeping clean, and his comments on his elders and on contemporaries who did not exemplify his current predilections betrayed the zealous intolerance of a sectarian reformer, and were often harsh and dogmatic. The enduring value of his influence was not born of this self-commissioned exercise of judgment and excommunication, but of the ardent love of poetry which led him to discover poets and aspects of poetry in other languages, and to present them with fresh enthusiasm. His dislike of conventional verse forms remained consistent even though some of the poets whose work he recommended as models may have been formalists in their own traditions.

Rumi was one of those. A great part of his writings was in couplets, in a convention of prosody, tone, vocabulary, and diction well established in Rumi’s age, and taken for granted by his audience. Much of Rumi’s verse is said to have been composed extemporaneously, in a mode of teaching and preaching that used formal verse as one of its vehicles. This was one of the circumstances in which his poems came to be, even though he, too, expressed impatience with poetic forms, on occasion.

His poems, besides, assume a set of conventions of another kind: an elaborate vocabulary of theological symbolic allusions. A Persian Sufi author of the seventeenth century, Mishin Faid Kashani, writing of his mystical forebears, compiled a list of these terms which would have been assumed by Rumi and his followers. Reference to face or cheek, for example, symbolizes Divine Beauty in attributes of Grace, e.g., The Gracious, The Clement, Life-Giving, Light. A tress of hair symbolizes Divine Majesty in Attributes of Omnipotence, e.g., The Withholder, The Seizer, the Death-Giver, Darkness. The Eye equals God’s beholding of his servants. Wine equals ecstatic experience due to the revelation of the True Beloved, destroying the foundations of reality. The list is long and, as can be seen, complicated. The terms would have had the same meanings in Rumi’s prose as in his verse.

The “cages” that Bly had in mind in his words to Coleman Barks were almost certainly not the conventions integral to Rumi’s verses in the original but those that had been used in Arberry’s translations. It is possible to think of the classical prosody of Persian verse in Rumi’s poems as a property of the original language, but the complex system of esoteric references is embedded in the meaning of the words and imagery of the poems, and the need to convey some sense of it into another language, time, and culture (or the decision to ignore it) confronts any aspiring translator of Rumi’s poems.

Franklin Lewis’s admirably thorough and comprehensive volume, Rumi, includes a judicious overview of the subject of translation, considering its theory and history in English from Dryden to the present. He displays a sympathetic acquaintance with modern American poetry and translation from Pound to the end of the twentieth century, and with respect to contemporary versions of Rumi he provides a careful assessment of the contributions of Bly and his friend Coleman Barks. He notes that Bly, after adapting a selection of poems by the fifteenth-century Indian religious thinker and Hindi poet Kabir from translations made by Rabindranath Tagore and Evelyn Underhill, had gone on to collaborate with Coleman Barks on a small volume of versions of Rumi in 1981, and had followed it two years later with a pamphlet of other versions of Rumi poems which he had done by himself.

Lewis refers to both Bly’s and Barks’s adaptations of Rumi’s poems as “translations,” in quotes, and points out that Bly “knows the content of the poems he himself translates either through Nicholson or Arberry.” (As Lewis knows, twentieth-century poetry in English since Pound has produced versions of a number of poets who have worked without knowledge of the originals, from intermediary literal versions, or with the help of scholars or native speakers. It is a debatable practice—like any kind of translation.)

Barks, in the preface to The Soul of Rumi, writes that after Bly had shown him the Arberry translations he “felt drawn immediately to the spaciousness and longing in Rumi’s poetry. I began to explore this new world, rephrasing Arberry’s English.” Barks was drawn to continue by what he felt were other affinities. Two years after he had begun his rephrasing of Arberry, when he walked “into the room where the Sri Lankan saint Bawa Muhaiyaddeen sat on his bed talking to a small group, I realized that I had met this man in a dream the year before.” He recounts the dream “from May 2, 1977, my holy day” of having the figure of this man appear to him out of a ball of light and say, “I love you.” “I love you too, I answer.” At the waking meeting in Philadelphia, he says Bawa had told him to continue the Rumi work, but he said, “If you work on the words of a gnani [a master] you must become a gnani.” Barks admits, “I did not become one of those, but for nine years, for four or five intervals during each year, I was in the presence of one…. I would have little notion what Rumi’s poetry is or where it comes from if I were not connected to this Sufi teacher.” “These versions or translations or renditions or imitations,” he writes, “are homage to a teacher.”

Something of this approach to Rumi may be part of what attracts large audiences to Coleman Barks’s readings, and gives them a sense that they share his relation to Rumi’s poetry and teachings. Barks, Franklin Lewis says, “has a disciple’s devotional attitude toward Rumi and some awareness of the theological traditions….” He expresses some reservations about Barks’s grasp of Rumi’s meaning in every instance, but says that Barks’s “deep voice and genial presence make his Rumi readings an engaging experience.”

In recent years Barks has moved on from rephrasing Arberry and Nicholson to working almost daily, he says, from literal texts supplied by John Abel Moyne, a native Persian speaker and professor of linguistics, and he has also worked from Nevit Ergin’s translations of Rumi’s Divan. His translations, Franklin Lewis writes, “assume the language and feel of a certain idiom of contemporary American poetry—free verse aiming for the rhythms and virtues of simple speech and breathing (a technical term in the vocabulary of Charles Olson)….” Barks’s versions of Rumi “do not rearrange the order of the lines or create ‘impressions’ or emotional summaries….” Barks himself does not claim to provide a scholarly paraphrase of Rumi’s originals. “Whatever you call what I do with his poetry: collaborative translation, interpretation, the making of versions, or imitations,” Barks writes, “I hope the work is faithful to the spirit of the original impulse in Rumi and that they bring across some of his power and fragrance.” For an example, here is one called “Auction,” chosen as a poem rather than as a teaching:

As elephants remember India
perfectly, as mind dissolves,
as song begins, as the glass
fills, wind rising, a roomful
of conversation, a sanctuary
of prostration, a bird lights
on my hand in this day born of
friends, this ocean covering
everything, all roads opening,
a person changing to kindness,
no one reasonable, religious
jargon forgotten, and Saladin
there raising his hand to bid
on the bedraggled boy Joseph!

Franklin Lewis set out to compile an encyclopedic survey compendium about Rumi. He goes into detail concerning Rumi’s background, historical, intellectual, and religious, the details of his biography, the texts of his teachings and poems, the growth of legends about him, the order he founded, and his subsequent reputation in the Muslim world and beyond, including the scholarship devoted to Rumi in Eastern and European languages. Despite his modest prefatory disclaimers about its incompleteness, his work surely will be a standard reference for Rumi devotees for some time to come.

This Issue

June 13, 2002