Introduction to Fountain of Fire.
by Nader Khalili.Los Angeles: Burning Gate, 1996.
The primary language of Islamic civilization is Arabic, a Semitic language closely akin to Hebrew. When Muslim scholars wanted to write on Koran commentary, Hadith, jurisprudence, theology, philosophy, and theoretical Sufism, they normally chose Arabic. But Arabic remained the exclusive language of Islamic learning only in the Arabic-speaking countries, which make up a relatively small proportion of the Islamic world. In many other countries, the vernacular languages also made important contributions. This is especially true of Iran, the home of the Persian language, which belongs to the Indo-European group and is therefore related to English.
Like modern science, the Islamic sciences have always been the domain of an elite, a group who are known as the “ulama” (the “learned” or the “possessors of knowledge”). Few people become ulama. Most gained enough knowledge about their religion to practice it, but they never studied such fields of learning as Koran commentary, Hadith, theology, or philosophy.
Nevertheless, the Islamic world view became deeply rooted in all levels of society. To a large degree this occurred because of the all-pervasive influence of poetry, which expressed the learned culture in popular language to a degree unimaginable in the modern world. Practically all traditional Muslims, even the illiterate, appreciate poetry, and many of them know reams of it by heart. And the most popular poetry, especially in the Persian context, has always been the best poetry, which is to say that it was written by the greatest poets of the Persian language. All these poets embodied Islamic culture and learning, and many were not only good Muslims, but also Sufi masters of great spiritual accomplishment.
As soon as the modern Persian language took its present form in about the tenth century, it spread outside Iran and gradually became a language of religious significance. In the Indian subcontinent, Persian surpassed Arabic to become the primary language of Islamic learning, and it also played a highly significant cultural and religious role in Turkey. Probably the most important reason for Persian’s spread was the extraordinary beauty and attractiveness of its poetry. Few if any other languages of the world have produced as many great poets as Persian. If relatively few of these poets have become known in the West, this is primarily because it is extremely difficult to provide satisfactory (not to speak of good)0 translation of their works. Umar Khayyam became famous in the West not because he was a first rate poet, but because Edward Fitzgerald was able to strike a chord with the English-reading public through his verse renderings (however inaccurate these may be).
Most Persian speakers would agree that the greatest of all Persian poets is Hafez, but translators have been singularly unsuccessful in rendering his verses into English. Although a relatively large number of talented people have taken up Hafiz’s challenge, the grace, beauty, and content of his poetry is too intimately bound up with the imagery and sound of Persian
language to allow for much more than a caricature.
In the modern West, Jalaloddin Rumi has become the best known Persian poet. Some Persian speakers may consider him the greatest poet of their language, but not if they are asked to stress the verbal perfections of the verses rather than the meaning that the words convey. Rumi’s success in the West has to do with the fact that his message transcends the limitation of language. He has something important to say, and he says it in a way that is not completely bound up with the intricacies and beauty of the Persian language and the culture which that language conveys, nor even with poetry (he is also the author of prose works, including his Discourses, available in a good English translation by A.J. Arberry). One does not have to
appreciate poetry to realize that Rumi is one of the greatest spiritual teachers who ever lived.
Rumi’s greatness has to do with the fact that he brings out what he calls “the roots of the roots of the roots of the religion,” or the most essential message of Islam, which is the most essential message of traditional religion everywhere: Human beings were born for unlimited
freedom and infinite bliss, and their birthright is within their grasp. But in order to reach it, they must surrender to love. What makes Rumi’s expression of this message different from other expressions is his extraordinary directness and uncanny ability to employ images drawn from
The story of Rumi’s career has often been told.* He was born in Balkh, in present-day Afghanistan, in the year 1204. His father, Baha Walad, was a well-known scholar and Sufi and the author of a fascinating collection of meditations on the intimacy of divine love. Baha Walad took his family to Anatolia in about 1220, when the impending Mongol invasion made it
dangerous to remain in eastern Iran. He settled in Konya in present-day Turkey, where he continued his career as one of the best known ulama of the time. When he died in 1231, his son Jalaloddin became his successor. Before long Jalaloddin was recognized as a great professor and preacher. He combined studies of the legal and theological sciences with the more inward and spiritual orientation of Sufism, but he was not yet known as an authority in the Sufi sciences, nor did he compose poetry.
The great transformation in Rumi’s life began in 1244, when he was forty (in Islamic lore, forty is the age of spiritual maturity and also of prophecy; the angel Gabriel appeared to Muhammad for the first time when he was forty). In this year an enigmatic figure called Shams al-Din of Tabriz, or Shams-i Tabrizi, appeared in Konya. He and Rumi quickly became inseparable. Shams seems to have opened Rumi up to certain dimensions of the mysteries of divine love that he had not yet experienced. For Rumi Shams became the embodiment of God’s beauty and gentleness, the outward mark of His guiding mercy. Their closeness led some of Rumi’s students and disciples to become jealous, and eventually Shams disappeared. Some whispered that he had been murdered, but Rumi himself does not seem to have believed the rumors. What is clear is that Shams’s disappearance was the catalyst for Rumi’s extraordinary outpouring of poetry. Rumi makes this point explicit in many passages. He alludes to it in the first line of his great Mathnawi, where he says,
“Listen to this reed as it tells its tale,
complaining of separations.”
For Rumi, separation from Shams was the outward sign of separation from God, which is only half the story. As much as Rumi complains of separation, he celebrates the joys of union. Shams, he lets us know, never really left him, nor was Rumi ever truly separate from God.
“Shams-e Tabrizi is but a pretext-
I display the beauty of God’s gentleness, I !”
Rumi wrote about 3,000 ghazals (love poems), signing many of them with Shams’s name. This explains the title of his collected ghazals and miscellaneous verse, Diwan-e shams-e Tabrizi, which includes about 40,000 lines. His other great collection of poems, the 25,000-verse Masnavi (Mathnawi ), was composed as a single work with a didactic aim. R.A. Nicholson rendered a great service to the English-reading public by translating it in its entirety. But relatively few of the Diwan’s nuggets have been mined. Nicholson published a number of ghazals in 1898 and A.J. Arberry retranslated these and added many more, for a total of 400. I
translated seventy-five ghazals and a thousand scattered verses in my Sufi Path of Love.
More recently, a number of poets have undertaken to publish some of the gems of the Diwan while trying to preserve the poetical quality in English, usually basing themselves on literal translations done by others. For those who read Persian, most of these versions have been rather pale, and frequently inaccurate. But one has to thank all such devotees of Rumi for
recognizing that he deserves to be more widely known and for attempting to make his poetry available in readable and attractive versions.
I have looked at most of the collections of translations from Rumi’s Diwan and have been most pleased by those of my friend Nader Khalili, found in the present volume. Nader has the advantage over most translators of being a native speaker of Persian. He also has a natural artistic gift that appears in various dimensions of his work. His book Racing Alone, although
written in prose, is a profoundly poetical account of the quest for beauty and perfection that fills his life and becomes manifest visually in his architecture (see his Ceramic Houses & Earth Architecture). In contrast to most of those attracted to Rumi today, Nader has been able to bring out the fact that Rumi’s message has a practical and concrete relevance to our everyday world. Beauty, Rumi knows, is a profound need of the human soul, because God is beautiful and the source of all beauty, and God is the soul’s only real need. Nader has been performing a major human service by bringing beauty into architectural forms. In this volume he illustrates his versatility by bringing it into linguistic forms as well.
Professor William C. Chittick State University of New York, Stony Brook,
21 June 1992
* For Rumi’s life and work see Annemarie Schimmel, I Am Wind, You Are Fire: The Life and Work of Rumi (Boston: Shambhala, 1992); idem, The Triumphal Sun: A Study of the Works of Jalaloddin Rumi (London: East-West publications, 1978);
William C. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi (Albany: SUNY Press, 1983); idem, “Rumi and the Mawlawiyya,” in S.H. Nasr (ed.), Islamic Spirituality: Manifestations (New York: Crossroad, 1991), pp. 105-126