Oct/Nov 2010 Nonfiction

The Whisper that Echoed across the Seven Seas: Rumi in the Western Intellectual Milieu

by Talha Jalal

At a time when Madonna sings Bittersweet, love couplets of Rumi and the whirling dervishes perform in the New York City, and when obsession with mysticism is rife, both in the West and amongst the "enlightened" circles of the East, the real Rumi seems to have faded away behind a haze of commercialization and fashion.

In relishing the soulful verses of the Masnavi and Divan-e-Shams, the intellectual tradition that Rumi inspired in the Western world seems to have passed under the gaze, unattended. With this, the naivety of some has led them into holding intellectual traditions and mystical traditions as two mutually exclusive domains. Such ideas shatter helplessly in the realm of Rumi. Intellectual traditions, unwary of geographical borders, trace back to Rumi by ways previously unthought-of.

At a time when Rumi has become a celebrated poet in the West, thanks to Coleman Barks, Annemarie Schimmel, and the likes, the irony strikes me even harder.

A cold day in the winter of 1273 C.E. The streets of Konya are drained of color with an endlessly falling snow. Resting against the wall in a dimly lit room, a pale Jalaluddin, the forlorn lover of Shams, utters verses as if in a trance. The air resonates with the beat of the verses he utters. Sitting besides him, Hussamuddin writes down his words with devotion and care:

One glance at him's worth scores of lives
strike a bargain, sell your soul and go
Such a body: argent, fluid, fine!
Pay the silver, close your purse, and go!

Besides the bed of Jalaluddin, all ears, is Hegel and sitting next to him is Marx. In a corner of the room stands Rückert, besides a seated Purgstall. On the other end of the room are Tholuck, Platen, William Hastie, Constantin Brunner, and a not so interested Goethe.

What a strange sight: European intellectuals sitting in the company of Rumi.

It is however not surprising that Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi had a profound influence on the Western intellectual milieu, unless we ignore the profuse literary work which speaks of the symbols, ideas, and poetic tradition that Europe took from him.

It cannot be doubted that the symbols that originated from Sana'i and Attaar have traveled by way of Rumi and have been embraced by poets in the East, especially in the Indian subcontinent. The white hawk that Attaar describes in his Ushtarnamé, was to become the favorite symbol for Rumi. He used it to speak of the soul that longed to return to its origin, just like the falcon that longed to return to its master's fist. Rumi called it baz, as the word signifies the longing of the noble bird to return to its master. The same falcon that flew off from Rumi's forearm, centuries later found its new master in Iqbal. What is even more interesting than the adoption of these symbols in the consciousness of the East, is their influence in the West. Just like Iqbal inherited the falcon from Rumi, Joseph Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) used the image of the elephant that dreamt of India in his poem "The Captive's Dream." The elephant was one of the finest symbols of Persian poetry. It was often employed by Rumi as a symbol: an elephant that is captured and taken away to foreign lands, dreams of its home and then breaks away all the chains and runs off, like the soul of a mystic.

A number of Orientalists can be credited with introducing Rumi to Europe. The role that the German speaking orientalists played in introducing Maulana in the Western consciousness is eminent. The first name that comes to mind is that of Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall (1774-1856), who in Annemarie Schimmel's words was the "indefatigable translator of Persian, Turkish and Arabic literature." Purgstall, who was an Austrian diplomat, started publishing a journal of oriental studies in 1809 named Fundgruben des Orients, in which some translations from Rumi were published. In 1835, a Turkish commentary of the Masnavi written by Ismail Rüsuhi Ankaravi was accompanied by the first thorough review of the Masnavi done by Purgstall. The analysis of the "great poem" that Purgstall did here was outstanding in conveying the spirit of Masnavi. The study of Purgstall was well founded, as he was able to differentiate the mystical dimensions of Rumi's poetry from those of Hafez and Khayyam, which many later readers in England failed to do. One of the most important contributions of Purgstall was his classical book on the history of Persian literature, Geschichte der schonen Redekunste Persiens, published in Vienna in 1818. Purgstall dedicated many pages of his book to Rumi. This classical work presented the European audience with seventy passages from the Masnavi and Divan-e Shams. Although the translations of Purgstall were dry and lacked much needed beauty and eloquence, their importance in introducing Rumi to the West is undeniable. Purgstall's fascination with Rumi was unending. He wrote, "Rumi not only transcends the sun and the moon but also time and space, creation, the assembly of Alast, and the Judgment Day and reaches infinity, and from there he attains the Absolute Being that is Everlasting and Everpresent and represents the ultimate servant, the infinite love and lover."

Purgstall even undertook to write a Masnavi of his own. This unpublished work profoundly employed Islamic symbols, and the verses mirrored Rumi time and again. Like an over-awed disciple, Purgstall worked under the shadow of his master. He repeated sentences from the Masnavi, verbatim, while imitating Rumi in a very interesting way.

More than any other good that Purgstall's translations did was that they inspired his one time disciple Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866). This inspiration was to go a long way. The contributions of Rückert are the most eminent amongst all other nineteenth century Orientalists. In the years to follow, he was to stir up many a lover of Rumi in the West. An interesting analogy can be drawn between Sana'i and Rückert. It was Sana'i who first employed the ghazal form of poetry to express mystical thought, and Rückert on the other hand, was the first one to introduce the ghazal form in German poetry. In terms of his poetic expression, Rückert far surpassed Purgstall. His skill was most evident in the book that he produced in 1819, called Ghaselen. This was a collection of exquisite poems that reflected the true spirit of Maulana's work. These free adaptations, for which Rückert mostly used Purgstall's translations as a source, had all the sensitivities of poetry and were reminiscent of Rückert's mastery of Persian poetry and his refined aesthetic sense. Ghaselen played a crucial role in introducing Rumi to the likes of Platen and Hegel. This collection contained forty four ghazals of Maulana, translated in the most affable manner. In this work, Rückert spoke about the essence of love, longing, and unity, using the symbols of Maulana. His cadence and his elegance were such that this collection can be considered one of the best introductions to Maulana's poetic genius even today. Ghaselen was followed by a second collection of Rückert's ghazals in Maulana's style published in 1836.

When works on Sufi doctrines and translations from parts of Masnavi started appearing in the West in the nineteenth century, a view started developing amongst the Western orientalists. and philosophers that Rumi had taught a kind of pantheism. The British scholar Graham dwelt upon this issue in one of his publications in 1819. Followed by Graham, an influential nineteenth century theologian, F.A.D. Tholuck published a short introduction to Islamic mysticism in Latin in the year 1821. This work contained several quotations from the Masnavi, whereby Tholuck characterized Rumi as a proponent of pantheism. He quoted Rumi as a defender of the theory wherein the world is considered to be a prison for our souls.

Annemarie Schimmel rejected Tholuck's views. She alluded to the fact that Rumi's cosmology was way more complex than the few examples known to Tholuck. Another publication by Tholuck, containing a few translations from Rumi, came out in 1825. In this anthology of Sufi wisdom, Tholuck, who was known to be averse to pantheistic mysticism, expressed his surprise at the dangerous ideas quoted by Rumi. Tholuck mentioned this while quoting instances from the third book of Masnavi. Another critic of Rumi, at that time, was the famous philosopher-poet, Goethe (1749-1832). Goethe was also disturbed by the apparently pantheistic trend in Rumi, and in his West-ostlicher Divan, he dismissed Rumi's theology as being non-cohesive. Although Hammer-Purgstall's work had influenced Goethe to compose his Divan, he only permits Rumi a couple of verses in his West-Eastern dialogue. Such views on the pantheism of Rumi per se, that the above mentioned gentlemen held, are generally no longer considered valid.

Although historically not as important as Rückert, an Austrian Orientalist, Rosenzweig-Schwannau (1791-1865) was also very attracted to Rumi's ghazals. Schwannau published 75 poems from the Divan of Rumi, along with his notes and German translation in 1838. Rückert however, as already mentioned, was the true champion of Rumi. Amongst those inspired by his work was the poet August Graf von Platen (1796-1835). After having met Rückert in 1820, Platen published his own collection of Ghaselen. Most of his ghazals, which numbered over 150, were written between 1821 and 1823. These ghazals of Platen were published in four separate collections namely Ghaselen (1821,) Ghaselen, Zweite Sammlung (1821), Spiegel des Hafis (1822), and Neue Ghaselen (1823). The second volume, containing 36 ghazals, was dedicated to Friedrich Rückert. This collection largely focused on mystical themes and the implications of the Oriental love motifs. The mysticism portrayed by these ghazals was directly influenced by Rückert's translations of Rumi's poetry. Hence Rumi played a significant role in inspiring a new German verse-form, the German ghazal:

Der Orient ist abgetan
Nun seht die Form als unser an.

The Orient is laid aside,
Note the form as ours now.

It is interesting to note that during the late nineteenth century, the craze for Omar Khayyam was growing very fast in some English circles. The "irreligious attitude" of Khayyam disturbed the clergy so much that they had to think of ways to divert the public away from him. One such clergyman thought of using Rumi as an antidote to Khayyam. William Hastie (1842-1903) was a Scottish clergyman and Hegelian philosopher. Rückert had made such an impression on Hastie that more than 80 years after the publication of Rückert's Ghasalen, William Hastie translated it into English, in ghazal form, hoping that it would demonstrate the moral superiority of Rumi over Khayyam.

While one considers the place of Rumi in the European intellectual context, the inquest cannot be complete without mulling over his role in shaping Western thought and theology. This is where the mystical dimensions of Rumi have the most far reaching impact. The cosmology of Rumi's work is perhaps one of the most diverse in the entire literary history. It is only thus that it has appealed to the most assorted set of individuals in the East and West alike. The mystical chants of Rumi reached their zenith when they influenced the thought of two of the most prominent thinkers in modern history, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) and Karl Marx (1818-1883).

It was Rückert's translations that familiarized Hegel with Rumi. While Rumi had disturbed Tholuck on one hand, he inspired Hegel on the other. It is argued that Rumi also influenced the development of Hegel's dialectics. While according Rumi great importance in his writings, Hegel addressed him as the "excellent Jalaluddin Rumi" in his Encyclopaedie der philosophischen Wissenschaften im Grundrisse (1827). Hegel mentioned Rumi at several places in his lectures and extensively in the section on the philosophy of mind in his Encyclopaedia. While discussing divine love and oriental poetry in the section "Mohammadanische Poesie" of his lectures on fine art, Hegel mentioned Rumi and praised the beautiful translations done by Rückert. In the same set of lectures, Hegel mentioned Rumi again while discussing the aesthetics of the oriental epic, Aesthetik des orientalischen Epos.

In his Encyclopaedia, in the section on Absolute Mind, Hegel wrote about the relation between philosophy and religion. In this section, the main discussion focuses on pantheism, and Hegel talks about the Bhagawat-Gita and the Vedas, comparing the idolatry of a Hindu to the "everything is God, and God everything" of a pantheist. In the midst of this discussion, Hegel brings in Rumi and says that, "If we want to see the consciousness of the One—not as with the Hindus split between the featureless unity of abstract thought, on one hand, and on the other, the long-winded weary story of its particular detail, but—in its finest purity and sublimity, we must consult the Mohammedans. If, e.g., in the excellent Jelaleddin-Rumi in particular, we find the unity of the soul with the One set forth, and that unity described as love, this spiritual unity is an exaltation above the finite and vulgar, a transfiguration of the natural and the spiritual, in which the externalism and transitoriness of immediate nature, and of empirical secular spirit, is discarded and absorbed."

Hegel's fascination with Rumi is unmistakable. Hegel goes on to say that he cannot refrain from giving a few examples from Rumi in order to give a more lucid impression of his ideas. With words of praise for the skill of Rückert, from whom he took the translations of Rumi, Hegel mentioned 21 verses of Rumi in his Encyclopaedia. These verses began with the following two:

Ich sah empor, und sah in allen Räumen Eines,
Hinab, und sah in allen Wellenschäumen Eines.
Ich sah ins Herz, es war ein Meer, ein Raum der Welten
Voll tausend Träumen, ich sah in allen Träume Eines.

What Hegel mentioned about Rumi's poetry after these verses is worth noting. He wrote, "In this poetry, which soars over all that is external and sensuous, who would recognize the prosaic ideas current about so-called pantheism—ideas which let the divine sink to the external and the sensuous?" Hegel rightly recognized the cosmology of Rumi being higher than the mundane ideas that were floating about pantheism at that time. This remark was followed by a criticism of Tholuck, who according to Hegel, did mere philosophizing and left "matters standing at the usual indistinct conception of Pantheism."

There is another important role that Rumi played in rousing Hegel. Hegel's ideas on mysticism were shaped through his cherished acquaintance with Rumi. Before considering these, it is important to note that both the Masnavi and Divan-e Shams are embodiments of mystical expression, and Rumi himself was a paragon of mystical ideas and traditions. Hegel went on to explain mysticism in the section, "Logic further Defined and Divided" of the Encyclopaedia, and he wrote, "We first of all remark that there is mystery in the mystical, only however for the understanding which is ruled by the principle of abstract identity; whereas the mystical, as synonymous with the speculative, is the concrete unity of those propositions which understanding only accepts in their separation and opposition."

These ideas on the nature of Mysticism inspired Karl Marx, who later gave a theory to uncover the mysticism of capital and capital accumulation in the capitalist social system. Hence, the mysticism of Rumi led to the development of Marx's theory on commodity fetishism. Capital, Volume I was the first of the three volumes in Karl Marx's monumental work, Das Kapital. Section 4 of the first chapter, titled "The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret thereof," is where Marx explained what he saw as the "mystical" character of commodities. Marx wrote, "A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties."

According to Marx, the mystical character of commodities did not arise out of their use value, but he rather considered a commodity as a mysterious thing. According to Marx, he saw a commodity in such a way "simply because in it the social character of men's labor appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labor; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labor is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labor This is the reason why the products of labor become commodities."

For Marx, the fetishism of commodities originated in the peculiar social character of the labor that produced them. His conception of their nature derived itself from Hegel's definition of "mystical," and this definition, in turn, was Hegel's reflection on Rumi's poetry. It is indeed remarkable how far reaching the influence of Rumi can be, from inspiring a new genre of poetry to theories in political-economy.

Looking back at what has been said thus far, we can now say that Rumi in his most intriguing expression knows no bounds, whether of time nor space. Rumi manages to influence the ideas of philosophers half a millennium after he wrote his poems and still continues to dance amongst us to the tune of a divine flute for what seems like eternity. Jamee calls him the revealer of a Book, whose Masnavi is the Koran in Persian, and Hegel calls him the embodiment of excellence. For the mullah and the philosopher alike, Rumi is a master, yet the mullah and the philosopher are oceans apart in their own ideas and wisdom. Rumi has managed to rise above not only the differences in cast, creed, and religion, but also the difference between East and West, the Oriental and European, and the differences of schools of thought. He becomes the common factor amongst all those who recognize the kernel of human existence, love. The na in Maulana has attained such a magical aura that whoever is acquainted with him, Rumi becomes his master.


Previous Piece Next Piece