If I live, I’m the Qur‘an’s servant evermore,
I’m the dirt of Muhammad ﷺ the chosen one’s door.
If someone attributes to me anything more,
both the person and what they have said, I abhor!
-Moulana Rumi, Quatrain 1330, translation by @persianpoetics
Rumi was a Muslim, after all, his name was ‘Mawlānā Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī’ and he wore the turban of Islamic knowledge like his father before him. Despite this, many modern readers - especially those from non-Muslim societies - have come to know Rumi as a sage, a poet, a wise man, but not as a Muslim. How did this come to be? The story of Rumi’s divorce from Islam is not very old, but in a short time, this phenomenon has done great damage to the perception of both Muslim and non-Muslim Rumi readers.
Imagine you had just encountered Rumi and wanted to learn more about him. You would likely search him on Google - look what you’re greeted with:
There he is, the 13th century poet Moulana, or is it?
That’s alright, it’s just a mistake by Google - but what if you wanted to read Rumi’s work? You click on the ‘books’ tab in the search bar:
Or you check Amazon:
Or you search eBay:
All three searches yield books by the same author: Coleman Barks - the ‘Rumi’ that most English-speakers know is a product of his imagination.
Barks does not know Persian or Arabic and has no qualification to translate medieval Islamic poetry. But that didn’t stop him from publishing over a dozen ‘translations’:
Despite his lack of qualifications, Barks managed to establish himself as a ‘scholar’ of Rumi’s poetry, and he’s described as the foremost ‘expert’ and ‘translator’ of Moulana’s works.
These books are largely responsible for the prevalence of quotes falsely attributed to Rumi all over social media:
Coleman’s ‘Rumi quotes’ have become part of American pop culture, take this one from ‘The Essential Rumi’ (page 36):
Ivanka Trump tweeted it after her father’s administration ailed attempt to make peace in Afghanistan (ironically, her father wouldn’t let Rumi into the United States if he were alive today):
Brad Pitt even got it tattooed (right by his pit):
After quite a bit of research, we were able to track down the source of the quote Barks ‘translated.’ Here is the original Persian and a more literal English translation by @sharghzadeh:
Now, let’s compare Barks’ ‘translation’ with ours:
Coleman Barks translation:
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.
Barks’ version has erased the Islamic context and secularized the poem, reducing it to a vague, almost meaningless new-age platitude.
Now take this second example, a quote we found online:
We traced it back to - you guessed it - Coleman Barks. It’s in his book ‘Open Secret: Versions of Rumi.’
Again, after much research, I was able to track down the source of this ‘translation,’ here is my translation:
Compare my translation with Barks’ rendering:
Coleman Barks translation:
If you don't have a woman that lives with you, why aren't you looking?
If you have one, why aren't you satisfied?