The aim of this article is to give the reader a glimpse into the world of the popular 13th century Persian poet, Sufi mystic and dervish (Sufi prayer dancer), Jalāl al-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, known for incorporating mysticism, music and dance into his religious practice. In order to highlight Rumi’s tenets, an Afrikaans translation of his famous poem “The Reed Flute Song” – the 18 opening lines of his monumental work, the Mathnawí, which reflects certain cardinal Sufi doctrines – is analysed and interpreted. The mystical concepts and metaphors which Rumi expresses in this poem are discussed and explained.
Rumi was a prolific writer. He created more than 60 000 lines of poetry, including two massive collections of mystical poetry. The first is the Mathnawí; the second is the Dīwān-I Shams-i Tabrīzī. A third work, Fihi ma fihi, is a collection of his sermons and discussions as noted down by his disciples.
Rumi has received high praise from both E.G. Browne (1862–1926), a former professor in Arabic at Cambridge University, and R.A. Nicholson (1868–1945), Browne’s successor, regarded as the most eminent Rumi scholar in the English language. They respectively described Rumi as the most outstanding poet Persia has ever produced, and the greatest mystical poet. He has also been called the Shakespeare of the Middle East.
The reception of Rumi’s work in the West, which has found large support during the recent past, is looked at, especially the impact it had in the South African context. Various Afrikaans writers have incorporated Rumi’s poetry and Sufism into their work in one way or another. Rumi is also activated in Shabbir Banoobhai’s poetry anthology Book of songs (2004), and on the South African music scene Mavis Vermaak, a poet and musician, set her own translations of his poetry to music.
Subsequently a few translations into English are briefly looked at. Quotes from his poetry appear abundantly in social media, but unfortunately a large percentage of these are either quoted out of context or taken from works of translators who have secularised and commercialised his poetry. This forms part of the international upswing of interest in his work and within this context has been called “social media crack cocaine”. This article is also an attempt to place Rumi within the cultural and mystical Sufi framework from which he wrote.
Who Rumi was and his historical and cultural background details are described, as well as his fascinating and profound relationship with Shams-i-Tabrīzī. Shams was a magnetic and passionate wandering Sufi who arrived in the town Konya where Rumi lived, and was to have an enormous impact on Rumi’s spiritual life. Rumi’s meeting with Shams led to his discovery that beyond the safe, dry and socially approved forms of obedience (prayer, preaching, application of legal principles) and self-renunciation (fasting, control of passions and ego) a meta-spirituality of love exists which consists of joyfully and creatively celebrating one’s relationship with God.
The rationale for choosing “The reed flute song” is given, namely that this prelude to the Mathnawí comprises the most important themes of the rest of the work. The Mathnawí itself with its underlying religious meaning, including its structure, is explicated.
A few remarks on the Afrikaans translation are added. It is said that translation is the art of inevitable loss, especially in the case of poetry. However, the fact that Rumi basically thought in images and conveyed his mystical poetry mainly by means of metaphors, means that his poetry can be accessible and understandable for non-source language-speaking readers. This translation is, as far as can be determined, the only existent Afrikaans one.
Prior to the analysis and interpretation of “The reed flute song” an explanation is given of the meaning of the reed, or ney (Persian word), as representative for the human soul separated from the reed bed, symbol of the primordial or divine presence, and the reed’s longing for union. The hollow reed symbolises the soul, empty of ego-centred desires and involvements, which becomes a flute, filled with spiritual passion to return to its original closeness to God.
The reed flute is manufactured by cutting a hollow reed to a specific length and cutting out holes. This is the preferred musical instrument of the Sufis and has been associated with the religious gatherings of the Mevlevi Order (the Sufi order founded by the followers of Rumi), also known as the whirling dervishes, associated with music and dance.
This analysis brought certain of Rumi’s most important Sufi concepts to the fore. Rumi’s driving force was his burning love for God and his belief in gnosis or ma’rifa, the Neoplatonic concept, noetic knowledge which is synonymous with divine love, or the Sufi term ’ishq. As for Christian mystics, for Rumi it was not with the intellect, but with the imagination – khayāl – that God is experienced.
Music, such an important aspect of Rumi’s mystical experience, is manifested in the reed flute’s melancholic sound. Like a refrain this can be heard throughout the poem with associations of the samā gathering where the voice of God is listened to with the inner ear.
Other Sufi beliefs which were revealed, was laying down the self or in Sufi terms, the nafs, as well as the mystical concepts, fanā’ (dying unto yourself) and baqā’ (existence in God).
The well-known characteristic of mysticism, ineffability, which is associated with apophatic or negative theology, is also demonstrated. The fact that God’s essence always remains hidden and that the divine can only be experienced in absence is underlined.
An interesting observation is the correspondence in certain cases between Sufism and the Christian mysticism. However, to paraphrase Evelyn Underhill, British author of theological and mystical publications, from her great work, Mysticism: A study in nature and development of spiritual consciousness: mystics’ aims and methods, regardless of space, period or tradition, are essentially similar, and mysticism is an overarching religious phenomenon.
An addendum listing certain Arabic and Persian terms and their Afrikaans meanings can be found at the end of the article.
Keywords: mystical poetry; mysticism; philosophy; Rumi; Sufism; theology