The Forbidden Rumi
The Suppressed Poems of Rumi on love, heresy and Intoxication
Translations & Commentary by Nevit O.
Ergin and Will Johnson
Published by Inner Traditions
167 pages, paperback
The issue of Islam, its birth and legacy for our modern world, continues to be a major bone of contention. The controversy over recent comments by the Pope and our own Prime Minister John Howard’s urge to the Muslim community to embrace “Australian” standards have raised ancient, often unconscious, prejudices that hark back to the Crusades.
Whilst many would prefer to view Islam as a somewhat austere religion embraced by the fearful, illiterate and uneducated, true scholars must acknowledge the rich and powerful legacy gifted to the West by the wise men and woman of the near east.
Our common words alchemy and chemistry come from the early Muslim mathematicians and scientists. While Europe was bogged in the mire of the dark ages, civilisation thrived in the near east under command from the Prophet Mohammed that scholarship and learning were to be encouraged.
Islam and its many sons and daughters have much to offer the world, and one such gift is personified by the famous poet Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi.
Rumi was a thirteenth century mystic, poet and originator of the dance of the whirling dervishes, yet he is full of contradictions. Despite being a devout Muslim cleric he created the dance of whirling which encourages participants to fall into ecstatic states. He wrote the deepest, most sensuous love poems dedicated to God, whom he likened to a ripe young maiden, and he expressed the deepest love for his male teacher.
The true story of Rumi’s conversion from orthodoxy to ecstasy happened seemingly by accident. This life-changing event came from a chance encounter with an older, wandering dervish named Shams of Tabriz. The two men are reported to have met on a roadway and an extraordinary energy was transmitted between them with just a glance. They both threw their lives and decorum to the four winds, and went off together into a closed-door retreat, emerging months later in a state of ecstatic illumination.
Through the prolonged power of their gaze and physical exploration, Rumi and Shams discovered their one-ness with God, the universe and everything. The Sufis call this the consciousness of union which is the healing antidote to fear and alienation that pervades the common consciousness of separation.
After this amazing encounter, Rumi entered into a life-long journey of dissolving into the larger energies of God.
This experience changed him so much that he began to speak spontaneously in the language of poetry. These poems eventually comprised some forty-four thousand verses, which subsequent compilers organised into twenty-three individual volumes called the Divan-i-Kebir. In these pages are found the most gorgeous and heart-melting expressions of the ecstatic return into the embrace of God.
Followers of Rumi may be surprised to know that the master himself never actually “wrote” poetry as we understand it, but rather simply went from town to town unable to keep his ecstasy constrained, uttering spontaneous couplets and meters extolling the beauty of the divine embrace of God. He never actually sat down, collected his thoughts and composed in the traditional sense. Nor did he ever work on the poems once they had been uttered.
Fortunately a select circle of friends and students recorded all the poems. These students became known as the 'Secretaries of the Scribe' and they collated the poems according to structure and meter. This means it is hard to know what order the poems flowed or which came first or last.
The transcendent beauty of Rumi’s work has made him one of the most popular poets in the Western world, yet, until recently, much of his work has remained untranslated.
Turkish-born surgeon, Nevit Ergin, who had himself fallen under the spell of Rumi’s poems, committed himself to this task and decided to translate the entire works into English, a prodigious task, as there are over forty-four thousand verses and twenty-three volumes.
To support him, Nevit enlisted the help of the government of Turkey, where Rumi had spent most of his life. The Turkish government was happy to agree and over a period of fifteen years, twenty two of the original twenty three volumes were printed by The Society for Understanding Mevlana. Yet with only one more volume to go, the Turkish government suddenly withdrew its support and refused to participate in the publication of this final volume.
It is this final volume, The Forbidden Rumi, where we find the most challenging poems. This collection is far more controversial than anything uttered by the Pope or Prime Minister, and had they been written recently, Rumi might well have suffered the same fate as Salman Rushdie, the author of the Satanic Verses.
It would seem that Rumi recognised that orthodoxy is what happens to a heresy that becomes institutionalised. Perhaps Rumi would have agreed with the words of Swiss psychoanalyst Carl G. Jung who said that “organised religion becomes a defence against having the religious experience.”
This final volume of poems clearly stopped the devout Islamic compilers in their tracks. For example, it refers to the Prophet Muhammad as “yesterday’s man,” and proclaims that love is the only precept of religion, suggesting that an unbeliever cannot be considered an infidel if he has been the victim of love.
Perhaps even more controversially, the ecstatic and loving relationship between Rumi and Shams is described in loving, yet graphic detail.
Just as with fundamental Christianity and Judaism, Islam abhors and shuns any idea of homosexuality, yet this beloved son of Islam extols the virtues and his love for this teacher in such phrases as, “I am your harp, You strike your plectrum on every part of my body. How can’t I cry?”
Sufi teachers tell us that to see God in another simply means you are seeing it within yourself, yet clearly these love poems to Shams may raise issues that the orthodox would prefer to ignore.
As if to rub salt in the wound, Rumi uses the metaphor of being drunk on the wine of God, fully knowing that to imbibe alcohol in any form contravenes the strict rules of Islam.
Rumi uses the vision of the “cupbearer,” a kind of Islamic Holy Ghost, who keeps pouring divine wine into the mouths of both heretics and drunkards. He exhorts the cupbearer to keep pouring more and more until he totally passes out. Drink to excess, he cries, and then the Kingdom of God may come into clear focus, no longer blurred, hazy or vague. As before, hardly an image palatable to strict Islamic fundamentalists.
Whilst Rumi remained a devout Muslim he encouraged everyone to descend into the great heresy and to experience for themselves their union with all that is. If we fully embrace that union, he tells us, we shatter and annihilate the self and then a whole new consciousness births like the mythical phoenix that often appears in Rumi’s poems.
There is so much more to Islam than the headlines or obscure websites would wish us to know. If we allow extremists on either side of this debate to inform us and to mould our thinking, we will indeed not only remain ill-educated but utterly ignorant of the eternal gifts of Islam. Even in the thirteenth century there was controversy over the rules and the interpretation of sacred scripture.
It takes a great deal of courage to read The Forbidden Rumi as it may press a lot of buttons, not only about your own pathway to God, but your views and prejudices about love, religion, heresy and Islam.
All of Rumi’s poems have enjoined us to release the rules and open our hearts to our inner treasure of love, but these most controversial poems cut to the bone.
This final book of Rumi’s poems is a must-read for any serious student of spiritual ecstasy.
They pose questions that make us wonder and re-evaluate our views about a religion that is portrayed as governed by extremists.
They reveal a hidden face of Islam that may surprise even moderate Islamists.
Most importantly, these poems reveal that Islam too has always had a mystical, transcendent element that is its purest gift.
– Reviewed by Lesley
Crossingham in New Dawn No. 101