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NON-FICTION: THE AESTHETIC MYSTIC

Updated August 04, 2019
A photo by Joseph Hoyt and calligraphy by Ziaur Rehman Khan and Ali Alam | Images from the book
A photo by Joseph Hoyt and calligraphy by Ziaur Rehman Khan and Ali Alam | Images from the book

Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib and Allama Muhammad Iqbal in a more regional context, and William Shakespeare in a more global one, would be turning in their graves in this era of social media. So many of the couplets and verses attributed to them were never written by them. But more than any of these greats, it is the words of Rumi — or not, actually, the words of Rumi — that are shared callously and confidently. Translations of alleged excerpts from the Masnavi-i-Masnavi of the 13th century poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian and Sufi mystic Jalaluddin Muhammad Rumi — often called Maulana when mentioned with a term of endearment — have been popularised to the point that, today, it is difficult to decipher which of the quotes in social media artworks and in coffee table books actually originated from Rumi’s pen and heart, and which are mere ambitious and fictitious attributions to him. However, when Coleman Barks, one of the most famous Western interpreters of Rumi, says that a couplet is Rumi’s, it probably is.

The works of Barks, complimenting some of the choicest images taken by photographer Joseph Hoyt, constitute The Mystery of Things: Interpretations of Rumi. Hardbound, visually delightful, and an easy and satisfying skim-through on a day when one is looking for nuggets of spiritual wisdom to answer deeper existential questions, the book touches just the right chords with today’s lover of Rumi’s works.

Hoyt’s earlier book, Afghanistan 1970-1975: Images from an Era of Peace, published in 2008, was when his photographs — based on the time he spent in Afghanistan — transitioned from being in exhibitions to taking form as a book. The Mystery of Things also started from being photographs on exhibit and are complemented by Barks’s writings based on Rumi’s verses.

Khalid Hosseini, author of the famed The Kite Runner, and Hoyt have had a long connection. Half of the proceeds from Hoyt’s first book went toward supporting The Khaled Hosseini Foundation to help with providing humanitarian assistance to communities in Afghanistan that needed it. It is thus befitting that the foreword of this book is written by Hosseini. In the foreword, he explains why photographs taken in Afghanistan are a suitable backdrop for Rumi’s verses: “Rumi’s soul was in the Afghan wind. It was in the air, in the water. You could hear it in the blind crooner’s song at a crowded street corner, in the extra beat he held the sorrowful notes, in the elegiac tremble of his voice. Rumi was everywhere. It is hardly surprising. Afghanistan is, after all, the birthplace of the great poet.” Hosseini goes on to call this book the perfect marriage between words and images.

The 44 images from Afghanistan in this book are simultaneously timeless in their human quality and nostalgic in the fact that they were captured by Hoyt’s lens in the 1970s, and thus remind one of an Afghanistan that has changed and evolved in many ways, owing to the many storms the country and the nation has weathered.

Perhaps that is something Rumi’s poetry also highlights in the human race. There is so much that is intransient in humans, owing to their inherent connection with the Divine. Yet the identity of humans keeps evolving. In this, there is much that is lasting and much that is fleeting and ever changing in humanity.

The selections of poetry are careful, and stirring, which is a quality archetypical to Rumi’s poems. Such as this quatrain:

Burning with longing fire
Wanting to sleep with my head on your doorsill
My living is composed only of this trying
To be in your presence

Another one, juxtaposed against a spectacular photograph of an amber-hued sunset — or sunrise — sky reflecting in still waters, is this classic piece of mystic poetry:

I keep asking, Who gives my soul
This increasing delight in what it does?
Who gave me life in the first place?
Sometimes I feel covered
Like a falcon mewed
Waiting inside its hood
Other times I can see
Then I get released into the sky

The art in the book is not limited to Hoyt’s photography. The sections are divided by selected verses from Rumi’s Persian poetry, calligraphed with a flow that is almost poetic, merging seamlessly into the philosophy that Maulana’s poetry offers. For this, calligraphers Ziaur Rehman Khan and Ali Alam deserve a special mention.

In Pakistan, the book has been published by the Bookgroup and the editors are Rakhshee Niazi and Sami Mustafa. The paper quality, layout and the touch and feel of the book, as well as the careful selection of the colour palette of black-and-white with greys, does justice to the content. It is a sensitively designed and printed book, with a gentle and aesthetic feel to it and not once does it overstep the boundaries of being in the periphery of Rumi’s mystic ideology. It is then safe to say that this is a layered book, in that it uses various media such as mystic poetry, calligraphy and impactful photography.

Yet another layer that may interest the Rumi aficionado is the fact that it is none other than Coleman Barks whose translations have been used as the main textual content of the book. To many, Barks’s work on Rumi has been the means to get introduced to the great sage’s poetry. To others, Barks’s work remains a debatable means for this introduction. For starters, Barks — according to some experts — is not known for his prowess of Persian, but rather as one who interprets existing translations of Rumi’s work, thus being the interpreter rather than the translator. But even if he is established as the translator as well as the interpreter, who is the target audience of Barks’s interpretations of Rumi’s work? The way Barks interprets Rumi’s poetry makes Rumi sound simply a mystic, and the image he paints of Rumi is what many have critically called a ‘non-Islamic Rumi’, whereas history has it clearly that Rumi — in addition to being a spiritual master and mystic poet — was a theologian, a scholar and a jurist of Islamic law as well. It is almost as if the mention of Rumi as a Muslim scholar has been erasedfrom his works. Perhaps today’s human craves answers to the bigger questions in poems that are connecting him or her with the Divine as the Beloved, but does not wish to alter his or her lifestyle in accordance with Islamic jurisprudence. Thus, the Rumi described in Barks’s interpretation of him is one whose only creed is love. While this is very enticing to today’s audience, how close to reality it is remains debatable.

Nevertheless, Barks’s contribution to popularising and propagating the works of Rumi cannot be taken away. This book, thus, remains an important and refreshing addition to aesthetic printed renditions of the works of Rumi.

The reviewer is a Karachi-based journalist, editor and media trainer; human-centric feature stories and long form write-ups are her niche

The Mystery of Things:
Interpretations of Rumi
Translations by Coleman
Barks
Photography by Joseph Hoyt
Bookgroup, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9695503683
120pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 4th, 2019

https://www.dawn.com/news/1497975?fbclid=IwAR3mgJnawPNEbV5jCUc3dnMdbjDxZUx4pJUulypP6Y7UGzlVcv_Tl5XFTxU

CULTURE: REUNIFYING RUMI

September 17, 2017
Photos by the writer
Photos by the writer

There are many versions of the legendary first encounter between Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi and his spiritual mentor Shams of Tabriz. Most describe the moment as Rumi, the religious scholar, sitting by a pond, immersed in his scholarly reading, when Shams, a stranger to him, comes by and asks him what he is doing. “You will not understand,” Rumi is reported to have replied, upon which Shams throws all of Rumi’s books in the pond. But the books spring back up dry, defying the laws of physics. At this point, Shams is reported to have said, “But you do not understand.”

This was the moment, then, when Rumi began fathoming Allah not just with the mind but also with the heart. In a world of sharp binaries, Rumi’s admirers seem bent upon separating Rumi the man of knowledge, from Rumi the mystic poet. In reality, the two are not mutually exclusive; in reality, both are the same person.

As I recently travelled by bus in Turkey from Antalya to Konya, the city of the 13th-century Sufi scholar, its unusual and diverse landscape reminded me of his message that is so universally appealing — to the rich and the poor, the pious and the sinner, the scholar and the unlettered. While the pluralism in his message is prominent, one thing becomes clearer than ever when you visit Konya — that Rumi was not just a Sufi, he was also a Muslim scholar, and taking that away from Rumi is telling half the truth.

Maulana Jalaludin Rumi’s Islamic scholarship is often forgotten by those extolling the universality of his message although it is an essential part of his work

Konya has distinct old-world charm. The people are kind and the roses are abundant. But the highlight of a visit to Konya is the Mevlevi Sema, a mystic religious rite practiced by dervishes, who emulate the whirling of Rumi, lost in ecstasy. It is an enchanting experience, the kind that leaves you with goose bumps. In the courtyard of the Mevlâna Museum that houses Rumi’s shrine, a common sight is a teacher with a flowing beard, a rosary in hand and a smile on his lips, sitting under the shade of a tree, surrounded by students learning about Islam. Calligraphy from Quranic verses are put up alongside verses from his extensive, famous poem, Masnavi. The sound of the azaan is loud and clear in Konya. Imprints of traditional Islam in the district where Rumi rests do not seem to disagree with imprints of Sufism.

The exterior view of the Mevlana Museum
The exterior view of the Mevlana Museum

There is an honorary grave of the Poet of the East, Allama Iqbal, near Rumi’s grave. Iqbal is often called a spiritual protégé of Rumi, and is reported to have had a metaphysical experience when he felt Rumi’s presence.

In his book Stray Reflections: The Private Notebook of Muhammad Iqbal, Allama Iqbal observes that “To explain the deepest truths of life in the form of homely parables requires extraordinary genius. Shakespeare, Maulana Rum (Jalaluddin) and Jesus Christ are probably the only illustrations of this rare type of genius.”

The popular interpretation of Rumi does not do justice to where he came from. Rumi is a mystic all right, but he is more than just mystic pulp fiction, and the Masnavi is more than just couplets that can be used to soothe the after-effects of a lovers’ brawl. Yet, few of those smitten by the universality of Rumi’s poetry recognise the visible imprints of verses of the Quran. The popular reductionist approach towards Rumi has reduced his poetry to memes, and selected couplets with aphorisms that are easy to quote.

The Mevlevis greet each other as the Sema begins
The Mevlevis greet each other as the Sema begins

“Modernity has an allergy to religion. They have pushed religion into a private space, saying ‘religion is just between man and God’ and not collective,” says Abbas Husain, educationist and Islamic scholar known for teaching the nuances of Tasawwuf and Ishq. In Husain’s opinion, a fine parallel can be drawn between Rumi and the likes of Socrates and Plato. “The latter two were religious but have been reduced to being just philosophers. Rumi and his poetry have been exoticised, and there has been an erasure of the religious in him.”

There is religion and there is religion, he says, and to Husain, the distinction is clear. “Religion puts before us deeper questions like ‘why are you here’, whereas religion also is focused more on rituals and minor details. We can’t see the wood for the trees,” he says.

The pull of Rumi is that his words are relatable. “He strikes a resonance with the inward level of man in any era,” says Husain. Scholars have pondered on the various meanings of his work since long. “Rumi is not new; he has been around. The first translation of Rumi’s Masnavi came from R.A. Nicholson, between 1925 and 1940.”

A teacher imparts spiritual wisdom to youth, under a tree near Mevlana Rumi’s sarcophagus
A teacher imparts spiritual wisdom to youth, under a tree near Mevlana Rumi’s sarcophagus

But there is no denying that Rumi has been re-popularised. And his fandom is not limited to Muslims, because his message was and is universal. “I love that Rumi sees Divine beauty in all aspects of creation and speaks to people of all cultural tastes and perspectives. I love that he uses bawdy tales in his poetry,” says Laury Silvers, a lecturer at the University of Toronto’s Department for the Study of Religion.

According to Silvers, Rumi explains the most difficult of concepts by translating them into easily understood simpler concepts that help everyone own him. “Early on when Rumi was translated into English, these parts were translated into Latin so that only the most elite, scholarly fellows could enjoy them — exactly the opposite of Rumi’s intention in composing these verses,” she says.

Silvers further explains how these bawdy tales not only bring Divine truths to those who are best reached with rough and tumble talk. “They teach all of us that God is fully present and calling to us in every moment and through all things, not just that which we deem socially acceptable or ‘pretty’.”

A depiction of the members of the Mevlevi order inside the Mevlana Museum
A depiction of the members of the Mevlevi order inside the Mevlana Museum

For some today, their first exposure to Rumi has been through the Turkish writer Elif Shafak’s book Forty Rules of Love. In a sense, Shafak did a service by producing an easy version of the often complex themes of Tasawwuf for her readers. Although Husain sees this as positive, he recommends graduating to books such as Me and Rumi: The Autobiography of Shams-i-Tabrizi by William C. Chittick for those interested in understanding Rumi better.

Whether represented in a complex or an easy manner, Rumi remains the bridge we need today — he bridges the gaps polarisation has created. Those who cling to the more comfortable and less demanding interpretation of the spiritual path of love for God and those who hold on to the path of adherence to Islamic jurisprudence or Sharia as the road to Paradise — both can find something to guide them. In a world torn apart by extremes, Rumi’s message of love of God can be a meeting-point.

“Rumi invites us to become whole,” says Husain. “But to become whole, we would first have to accept that we are incomplete.”

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 17th, 2017

https://www.dawn.com/news/1358182

Talking Taboo with Women of Khyber – On Women’s Day 2012

Multi-Media Feature published in dawn.com: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EqWTV09iQ90&feature=share http://www.dawn.com/2012/03/08/talking-taboo-with-khyber-pakhtunkhwas-women.html Mushtari, aged 40, looked tired. It was 10 in the morning but it seemed as though she had just completed a day’s load of chores. As we walked towards a small room, where I wanted to sit down with her and record an interview in relative silence, she […]