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The Whitewashing of Rumi

Updated: Mar 12, 2021

By Palwasha A.

“I see a type of spiritual colonialism here: bypassing, erasing and occupying a spiritual landscape that has been lived…by Muslims from Bosnia and Istanbul to Konya and Iran to Central and South Asia” - Omid Safi

A few weeks ago, I came across a thread about Rumi by Persian Poetics on Twitter that confirmed something I’d long suspected; that the translation of his works had largely been sanitised in their distribution and consumption in the West. The post was being shared to reveal how much everything we know and admire has been twisted to fit the narrative of the world today, where we operate globally under colonial structures and make do with being the inferior non-white other. When reading the translations of Rumi for the first time, I noticed the omission of mentions of God and Islamic religious terminology, and categorised him in my head as subscribing to the vague notion of a religion of “love”, rather than Islam. But it was confusing, given his context, how a 13th century Persian Muslim poet could write such seemingly vague and untethered sentences. Recently I found out that what we know today as his most popular “translations” here in the West are actually paraphases of other people’s previous English translations, with careful and purposeful ommissions of Muslim terminology. 

The person mostly responsible for Rumi’s celebrity-status in the West is a guy named Coleman Barks, who has produced over a dozen books of Rumi translations, the ones everyone has on their coffee table today. Here’s the insane catch. This guy doesn’t speak Farsi, has never studied Rumi or Islam and has actively removed Rumi from his very thirteenth century Muslim context on purpose, despite claiming to Rozina Ali, the writer of an excellent New Yorker article about Rumi’s whitewashing (linked here if you’d like to read) that he has no memory of whether or not he did it on purpose, even though he left in references to Jesus and Joseph because he was “raised Presbyterian”. 

Interestingly, Barks is not solely responsible for this. This kind of separation of mystical poetry from it’s Islamic roots dates back to the Victorian period, writes Rozina, by (white) academics wanting to create the illusion “that these people are mystical not because of Islam but in spite of it” she quotes from esteemed professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies and Rumi enthusiast, Omid Safi. They refused to acknowledge or promote the fact that the works they so admired were created by devout “Moslems” (I always thought this spelling was to mock the way Americans pronounced Muslim, but in fact it was the predominant spelling of the time). 

It was from the translations of these folks (already incredibly inaccurate and problematic) that our bumbling, non-Farsi speaking boy Coleman spun his interpretations. His purpose in doing so, was not just to get filthy rich off his clumsy whitewashing of Rumi, but to “make him palatable to an American audience”. Hmm. 

Taken from @persianpoetics to demonstrate the error in translation.

What is the Point of erasing Rumi's Muslim-ness?

Rumi’s wisdom is incredible and many people in the West can and have benefited from it, but a version of it that he would, as a devout Muslim and scholar, have rebelled against. One can easily see how Coleman could reach the conclusion that all the Islam needed to be removed from Rumi’s poetry, because the West’s demonising of the religion, its followers and any association with it has been so thorough and complete. This also pushes the enforced idea, as Omid points out, that non-white people have not contributed to civilisation, either in academia, invention or philosophical thought.

There is alarmingly little outcry or criticism of Barks’s interpretations, and even less widespread awareness of what has been done to Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi. As an Afghan for whom Rumi is one of essentially only two Afghan thinkers given any credit in the West it is genuinely upsetting that he has been removed from us and our history. His acclaim is by having torn his work from the context that would allow him to be in any way associated with us, rather than a figure who transcended the pitiful backwardness of a religion that Afghans (and much of the Muslim world) today are imagined to be held back by. 

Why does it matter?

The misrepresentation of Rumi opens up the wider discussion of; if they did it to him, who else in our history has been whitewashed, sanitised and removed from a rich, non-Euro context. Which others of our heroes have been purposefully twisted to uphold a colonial narrative that takes the benefit of their work without paying homage to the religious and historical context within which they were writing. 

This whitewashing of non-white historical figures is necessary in upholding a white supremacist and Islamophobic narrative. Even further, by removing Rumi from his context, readers are deprived from learning about the beautiful spirituality of Islam. It also deprives the person thinking they are reading Rumi from feeling the strength any text gets from its context, from being written about what the writer knows, has experienced, and has love for. His evolution from devoted worshipper of the God and religion he believed in and devoted his life to, into vague and wholesome affirmations in English translations, means that the reader is not exposed to his actual work and only experiences Rumi through a game of Chinese Whispers with an agenda. 

Rozina writes: 

“Even if Rumi was heterodox, it’s important to recognize that he was heterodox in a Muslim context—and that Islamic culture, centuries ago, had room for such heterodoxy. Rumi’s works are not just layered with religion; they represent the historical dynamism within Islamic scholarship.”

Final Thoughts

Frustratingly, in researching this piece and Rumi’s whitewashing, I found that even among those who have been most vocal in their writing about this topic have failed to engage with why. When we don’t engage with the why, we’re left “fixing” one problem without addressing the root of the problem - which is the whitewashing and islamophobia that permeates Western academic traditions and the retelling of Muslim history. The sanitisation of Rumi, along with the erasure of countless other revolutionary, non-white scholars and inventors and leaders comes from the need to uphold the Eurocentric narrative that white is supreme which has been systematically spread throughout the Muslim world through the processes of colonisation. 

For those of you who are seeking a genuine translation, free of all the euro-shapeshifting, check out Jawid Mojaddedi (an Afghan researcher) whose works translating the ‘Masnavi’, are out in several volumes already. Also, check out the powerful ‘Rumi Was Muslim’ platform, created by the people who inspired the writing of this piece with their attempts to give Rumi back his true legacy. 

Edited by Tahmina R.

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