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!
-Mawlana Rumi, Quatrain 1330, translation by @sharghzadeh
Rumi was a Muslim, after all, his name was ‘Mawlānā Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī.’ He wore the turban of Islamic knowledge (‘ilm) like his father and grandfather 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 public perception of Rumi.
If you had just encountered Rumi and wanted to learn more, you would search him on Google - look what you’re often greeted with:
There he is, the 13th century poet, 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.
By his own admission, Barks does not know Persian or Arabic and has no qualification to translate Persian 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 Rumi’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:
Beyond heresy and faith, there’s another place,
we yearn for what’s in the midst of that desert plain.
When the gnostic arrives there, he prostrates his face,
there’s no heresy, faith, or place in that domain.
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.
Take this second example, a quote we found online:
We traced it back to ‘Open Secret: Versions of Rumi’ by Coleman Barks.
If you don’t have a partner (yār) why not seek one?
And if you reach your partner (yār), why not have fun (ṭarab)?
And if the friend (rafīq) is not content to do so, why don’t you become him?
And if the lute (rubāb) doesn’t cry, why not discipline it?
And if an Abū Jahal becomes a veil (ḥijāb) for you,
why not mourn Abū Jahal and Abū Lahab?
Barks has transformed the gender-neutral ‘yār’ (which could be interpreted as the Beloved, a friend, a partner in mysticism or romance, and more) into ‘woman,’ thereby precluding a spiritual reading of this poem. He has also added ‘lives with you’, sexualizing the spiritual metaphor, while erasing references to Abū Jahl and Abū Lahab.
This mistranslation and de-contextualization has done immeasurable harm to the common understanding of Rumi. Anyone who reads these translations would wonder if Rumi was Muslim at all.
Perhaps they may go to Google, where find this answer:
Thousands have seen this answer, how many were mislead, and sent astray? How many Muslims will never look into Rumi again, after being presented with distorted and outright false translations of his work?
This is what Rumi had to say about his religion:
If I live, I’m the Qur'ān’s servant evermore,
I’m the dirt of Muhammad the chosen one’s door.
If someone attributes to me anything more,
both the person and what they said, I abhor!
-Quatrain #1330, translated by @sharghzadeh