Review: The Essential Rumi by Jalaladin Rumi and Coleman Barks

Title: The Essential Rumi

Author: Jalaladdin Rumi

Genre: Poetry, Religion. Mysticism, Sufism, Spirituality

First Published in 1995

Year of Publication of this Edition: 2004

Publisher: HarperCollins

Translator: Coleman Barks

Rating: 5/5 stars

For today’s review, I’m going to write about a mystic Persian poet I came across on Amazon, whose works are still read, sung and frequently quoted. Jalaladdin Muhammad Rumi was a Persian poet and Sufi mystic born in Balkh, modern day Afghanistan. During the Mongol Invasion, he was forced to flee with his family to Konya, in central Turkey. It was a peaceful and blooming cultural city, where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together in harmony.

Besides his father’s and other Sufi poets’ theological and mystic writings, Rumi’s poems and other works were strongly influenced by Shams of Tabriz, a wandering dervish who became Rumi’s spiritual guide and through whom he achieved a deeper level of love for God. “They spent months together without any human needs, transported into a region of pure conversation” (Loc. 419). Rumi and Shams’ friendship stirred jealousy among the Persian teacher’s disciples and family, forcing Shams to disappear for a while from Konya.

During this time, Rumi started to write mystic poems or as Annemarie Schimmel puts it: “He turned into a poet, began to listen to music, and sang, whirling around, hour after hour” (Loc. 422). The second time Rumi and Shams met, the two men fell at each other’s feet that “no one knew who was lover and who the beloved” (Loc.424) – the relationship between the lover and the Beloved became a recurrent theme in Rumi’s poems. However, the reencounter didn’t last long, because Shams was called outside on a December night and never returned. His disappearance remains a mystery; he might have been murdered by a disciple with one of Rumi’s sons’ consent. Rumi’s desperate and useless search for Shams and his longing for his friend were materialised in a collection of odes (ghazals) and quatrains (rubaiyat) entitled Diwan-e Shams-e Tabriz /The Works of Shams of Tabriz.

The mystic poet was a well-known and respected spiritual leader of his time (he took the name of Mawlana or Our Master) because he founded the Mevlevi order or the Whirling Dervishes, whose unique ceremonies are called Sama. Through music and ecstatic dance, the Sufis ascend the mystic stages, which lead to their complete union with God. One of Rumi’s most important works is the Mathnawi, a vast poetic creation comprised of six books (26.000 verses), where the master teaches the disciples Sufi morals through mystic poetry and folk tales. The most remarkable thing about this lengthy work is that Rumi didn’t write it with his own hand, but he recited it continuously during the weeks or even months of ecstatic trance and it was written down by his scribe, Husam Chelebi.

The Essential Rumi is Coleman Barks’ selective translation from Rumi’s works, because “Rumi’s creativity was a continuous fountaining from beyond forms and the mind” (Loc. 444) and the twenty-eight divisions of the book are fluid and playful, as Barks himself writes. However, each section contains a Sufi symbol or poetic motif (the wine, desire-body, the sheikh, the turn etc.) and a few explanations before the series of poems begins. These literary creations contain Sufi wisdom and quotes from the Qur’an, which are interweaved with tales and fables, whose purpose is to teach the reader how harmful bodily desires and instincts (the animal-soul or the metaphor of the donkey) are and how important is the annihilation of the ego (one’s identity/personality must be dissolved) in order to become one with God.

The poems about instincts and desires are pretty graphic and their purpose is to show the ridiculous situations and wrongdoings caused by human lust, greed, envy or pride. However, my favourite part of this volume is the variety of metaphors about the relationship between soul, body and God. If the body is a donkey, God is the King or the Caliph, the Friend or Beloved to whom the lover must ascend to unite with Him, the flame through which the Sufi is cooked like a clay pot and so on.

Rumi uses biblical figures that appear in the Qur’an: Adam, Joseph, Moses and Jesus. King Solomon is also a metaphor for God, Queen of Sheba is the soul, but she doesn’t want to come to the king’s court without her impressive throne (the body). Jesus also appears in some poems, where He rides a donkey, “how the rational intellect/ should control the animal-soul./Let your spirit be strong like Jesus” (Loc. 3464). Though the relationship between the lover and the Beloved is spiritual, that doesn’t mean it is not intense or sensual. To exemplify, I’m going to recommend a video, in which many well-known people (including Madonna, Demi Moore, Deepak Chopra and Coleman Barks) read Rumi’s poems and the experience is enhanced by amazing music with Middle-Eastern inflexions.

Overall, mystic poetry wasn’t that hard to read, because Coleman Barks translated Rumi’s works into plain and colloquial English. The verses don’t have rhymes and the editorial explanations are like that well-trained guide that doesn’t let you get lost in the Persian poet’s divine wisdom. This is a book that makes you meditate about your soul and the nourishment it needs, especially in a materialistic world like ours. Also, his poems inspire you to appreciate more your family, friends and the small things that make your life beautiful.

 

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