Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Thoughts on Mowlana (Rumi) after reading 'Reading Mystical Lyric’ by Fatemeh Keshavarz.

“What do you know of the kind of bird that I am? And of what I am whispering under my lips in each breath? How can anyone come to own me? I am at times a treasure, and at times a ruin. The firmament is whirling for my sake. For this reason, I keep turning the firmament.”

In the west Jalal al-Din Rumi (b. 1207, d. 1273) has been swept up in the popular fascination with things exotic and eastern.

Details of Rumi’s personal history only intensify the interest. A teacher well-schooled in orthodox Islamic doctrine, his meeting in 1244 with his ‘soul-brother’, the cranky wanderer Shams-e Tabriz, changed his life. Shams’ mysterious disappearance unleashed in Rumi a torrent of love and lyricism.

Yet, the English speaking world has only third-hand knowledge of Rumi’s work: Fragments of loose interpretations rendered from translations of translations that have found their way onto greeting cards and calendars. Most are taken from the more than 35,000 verses of the Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi.

The Rumi of the popular English interpretations (most are not really translations) is a comforting New Age presence. Yet the real Rumi challenges us, rattles us, whispers and taunts. He sings to us, enveloping us in a whirlwind, then he is suddenly silent. As Keshavarz points out we are only too eager to submit to someone who speaks to us like a caring friend: “This is a charming person, at times outspoken and harsh but always informal, loving and intimate. Often, we feel we know him well.”

It’s said that Rumi first whirled in the marketplace upon hearing the rhythm of the coppersmith’s hammer. Music helps inform his poetry but unfortunately the melody and cadence are lost in translation. Even without understanding, one can sense the musicality of his verse:
“Khamushid, khamushid, khamushaneh benushid!
Bepushid! Bepushid! Shuma ganj-e nehanid.”

Beyond the music there is his message. He dares us to abandon our preconceptions: “Do not build much, for I intend to have you in ruins.”

From a distance of 8 centuries he exposes the egoism of the popular notion of self-discovery: “You said you destroyed the idol of illusions; The illusion that you destroyed the idol remains.”

The self realization he speaks of is beyond the realization of self “When I am, I am not, and when I am not, I am.”

He challenges us to find unity in paradox: “Life is the harmony of contraries/death is the fact that war arose between them.”

He tells us speech is a poor substitute for understanding: “The tightfisted sea in its willful silence says: ‘I know nothing. I have not seen any pearls.’”

Words are limiting; they only cloud the vision and intoxicate the senses: “Be silent! Remove the thorn of existence from the foot of the heart/So that you may see the gardens within.”

To Rumi, silence is the dark matter in that holds the key to understanding the universe.

Rumi never lectures or hectors. He is happy to show us wonders, but he leaves the heavy lifting of comprehension to us: “By the true men’s soul, I beseech you to complete this poem!”

Keshavarz suggests that Rumi’s unconventional writing style, which to his critics is a sign that he is ignorant of poetic rules and lacks real interest in the art, is actually an expression of freedom and, far from flaunting the rules, he is reinventing them and extending the boundaries of the traditional qhazal genre.

Rumi breaks with the Persian poetic tradition and speaks directly to the reader at turns as the beloved and the lover, the bereft and the fulfilled. He invites the reader into his embrace – at once warm and chilling:
“The world is a moth flying around my candle; Now I give it splendor, not I take away its wings.”

Keshavarz makes much of the playfulness of Rumi’s poetry. He is both profound and lighthearted, full of fun and brimming with meaning: “Creating a playful poetic ambience is one of Rumi’s major achievements…the reader enters a gamelike relationship with the poet. As the walls between fact and fiction or wakefulness and dreaming crumble, we the readers grow more eager to accept the rules of the game in order to penetrate more deeply into this world…Rumi’s view of our childlike position in the game of love is not a poetic accident….after all, what does a creature separated from his origin resemble more than a child in search of a mother?” This approach also has the consequence of leaving us feeling buoyant and hopeful about our existence.

The late British translator Reynolds Nicholson said, “Sufism has few ideas, but a wealth and variety of illustration.” And so it is with Rumi. What is his message, ultimately? He prods us to discard orthodox thinking, but in favor of what? He keeps secrets from us. He offers no rules, no charted course. He opens the door and invites us to step into the void. Is this some terrible omission on his part? It is two things, I believe:

1. The recognition of the limits of language. “The mouth is full of words, but speaking is not possible.”

2. The knowledge that each person’s understanding of God is different and, more importantly that as individuals, as cultures, and as a species our comprehension changes and develops.

Thus, the nature of God remains elusive, ever reshaped by our comprehension. Caught between the pain and the joy of existence we are propelled ever forward like a watermelon seed squeezed between the fingers.

“If anyone asks you about the huris, show your face, say: like this!
If anyone asks you about the moon, climb up on the roof, say: like this!

If anyone seeks a fairy, let them see your countenance,

If anyone talks about the aroma of musk, untie your hair [and] say: like this!
If anyone asks: “How do the clouds uncover the moon?” untie the front of your robe, knot by knot, say: like this!

If anyone asks: “How did Jesus raise the dead?” kiss me on the lips, say: like this!...”