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What was Rumi talking about?

Sufi poetry has been largely misunderstood by modern pop culture.

Last updated: 19 Apr 2014 12:33
Mohamed Ghilan

Mohamed Ghilan is a neuroscience PhD candidate at the University of Victoria, Canada, and a student of Islamic jurisprudence.
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Rumi's poetry has been understood too literally, says Ghilan [Reuters]

Sorry to ruin this, but when you read poetry by Jalal al-Din Rumi or any other Sufi figure's poems, the wine is not literal, and Layla is not actually a woman. It is quite a depressing realisation to witness great Sufis such as Rumi become reduced to drunkards raving about their current love partners or unable to get over losing their past ones. This is precisely what modern pop culture's misappropriation of Sufi poetry about love has done.

The reason we love poetry so much is because it is a venue where we let our imaginations soar. The best poets are ones that most people can identify with in some way. Poems that speak to universal meanings can be flexible in their applications to different contexts, thus becoming a place of solace for the readers. However, this activity becomes disingenuous when the poet and the context in which he or she wrote are manipulated to suit one's own projections. For example, Rumi's poetry can be summarised in one line that was recorded in pre-Islamic poetry: "Verily, everything other than God is a falsehood." But it seems that today, Rumi quotes are cited in the context of, "Verily, everything other than my girlfriend or boyfriend, including God, is a falsehood."

The misuse of Sufi poetry is symptomatic of modern culture's combination of materialism with self-spirituality. The theme that runs through the New Age movement is about experiencing the "Self" because it is the way to experience the "God" or "Goddess" within. As noted by Peter Pels in his 1998 article "Religion, Consumerism and the Modernity of the New Age", the New Age emphasis on self-spirituality is rooted in late 19th or early 20th century occultism.

It is a detraditionalised form of faith that internalises religiosity, turning an individual's reliance to be on "inner voices", and in turn rejecting any outside authority. The Self reigns supreme in place of anything external to it. It is therefore ironic that religious Sufi symbolism, which was used to express annihilation of the Self in the presence of the Divine, is now being used to express the elation of the Self in the presence of another's.

[A]s many Sufi poets and saints have warned, their poetry begins at the metaphoric level to indicate literal meanings other than what first comes to mind, all of which revolve around the Divine.

By worshipping the Self, the New Age movement gave rise to a form of neo-paganism, which survives through appropriation and consumption of religious symbolism. Given the individual nature of the consumption process, ultimate meanings intended from religious symbols are exchanged for relative experiences of Self-worship, which ironically render the symbols ultimately meaningless.

Moreover, given the tandem development of the New Age movement in popular culture alongside popular religion, it can be expected that popular misuse of religious symbolism will have an impact upon the religious. As religious symbols are presented outside of contexts they were created to serve within, they begin to lose their significance for the religious in an insidious way that desacralises the Sacred and grants sanctity to the secular.

The misappropriation of Sufi poetry can be seen as resulting of unfamiliarity with how Sufis made their indications. For example, the intoxication of wine refers to the loss of one's sense of rational self in the sea of Divine Love. The tavern is the experience of being overwhelmed from being surrounded by Divine Presence. Layla is an Arabic female name that linguistically refers to the darkest night of the month, and in Sufi poetry refers to the hidden realm that lies behind outward appearances of this world.

A Sufi line of poetry that talks about becoming intoxicated from a single sip of wine served in the tavern before Layla appearing naked, is not talking about getting drunk and losing one's mind out of love for a woman before proceeding to fulfil lustful desires after her.

The abundant use of metaphors and various rhetorical devices in Sufi poetry has polarised Muslim theologians ever since they began. Some of their statements taken literally are in direct contradiction with basic foundational beliefs and practises in Islam. This polarisation was exacerbated with Sufi symbolism that would invariably lead to misinterpretations if one were not familiar with it.

Wine, tavern, and Layla are among the recurring symbols that in popular culture are understood at the literal level first before they are taken as metaphors. However, as many Sufi poets and saints have warned, their poetry begins at the metaphoric level to indicate literal meanings other than what first comes to mind, all of which revolve around the Divine. It is interesting to note that out of fear of misappropriating their symbols, various Sufi figures have warned against reading their works without the guidance of a teacher.

It is not uncommon to find within the Sufi tradition phrases like: "We are a people of metaphors, not of literalism," and "Metaphors for us are what literalism is for others." For this reason Al-Ghazali (c. 1056-1111 AD) said that no one has attempted to explain the essence of what Sufis talk about except that they fall into explicit error. He also said, "Know that the wonders of the heart are outside of sensory experience."

Hence, if one seeks to gain a closer understanding about what Rumi and other Sufi poets were talking about, they must suspend their own material and worldly projections and put such poetry in its proper metaphysical context.

In a culture of materialism and illusory appearances, Rumi and other Sufi poets' works are meant to serve as indications that there is something more than what we experience with our senses. Their poetry was not about escapism through intoxication or loss of self-awareness for the sake of another material being. Rather, their message was to serve as reminders about the Formless Being by which all forms come into existence.

When Rumi speaks about the love of lovers, he refers not only to the love they share between each other, but about the love they both share towards the Being that transcends their beings. In this, the lovers become united as they share a common desire to transcend beyond each other's sense of Self and Self-worship. Unless this is appreciated, the depths of Rumi's words will not be realised, as they should, and we risk the complete loss of their significance.

Mohamed Ghilan is a neuroscience PhD candidate at the University of Victoria, Canada, and a student of Islamic jurisprudence.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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