In recent years, many have attempted to correct the skewed Rumi that the West has been presented with. ‘Rumi: The Musical’ was meant to be one of those attempts, but it failed.
Who was Rumi? It’s a simple question, but the answer varies greatly depending on whom you ask. If you were a student of Rumi or his contemporaries in 13th-century Konya, you might have said he was a jurist, a theologian, and later a Sufi mystic. Eventually he was just Mawlana (‘our master’). For 700 years, Rumi remained Mawlana in much of the East, though was at most a footnote in Western scholarly work.
Then it all changed. At the start of the 20th century, an Englishman named RA Nicholson translated Rumi’s work into English. Then, 50 years later, American poet Coleman Barks re-imagined it. These translations threw Rumi into the spotlight, but it came at a cost.
In November 2021, Dana Al Fardan, a Qatari composer, and Nadim Naaman, a British-Lebanese singer, delivered Rumi: The Musical to British audiences. Naaman explained that, “There is a lack of Middle Eastern stories and those that do exist are fictitious or very Hollywood in their interpretation. You have shows like Aladdin, The Prince of Egypt and Joseph – stories that, to a large degree, come from Middle Eastern and North African heritage, but they have historically been played by white actors with white creative teams and they’re almost a pastiche. They have the right heart but they’re not authentic.”
Unfortunately for audiences, Rumi: The Musical isn’t very authentic — if it is at all. Based on a highly fictionalised story by Evren Sharma, the plot begins with the epic meeting and union of Shams and Rumi, two giants who form a pure teacher and student relationship in search of the Truth and Love of God. However, the second half of the musical takes a strange turn.
Rather than focus on the metamorphosis of Rumi from an orthodox jurist to a Sufi mystic that gives the world the epic Masnavi, the show focussed instead on the marriage between Rumi’s daughter and his teacher Shams, all orchestrated by Rumi himself. Blinded by his love for Shams, he forces his daughter and wife to agree to this catastrophic decision, one that leads to his daughter dying by suicide.
There is a lot to deconstruct here. The musical removes the complexity and depth of Rumi’s inner struggle. It glazes over his spiritual crisis, which is the crux of Rumi’s life story, and instead delivers a play that dramatises the domestic troubles of his inner household, a secret love between his son and daughter, and the wider jealousy in his outer circle towards Shams.
Additionally, the representation of women in the show isn’t so dissimilar to how many in the West imagine the position of women in the Muslim world: weak, passive, and obedient. Rumi’s wife, unable to challenge any of her husband’s decisions, nods along with his choices, and her daughter, who is too afraid to express her love for her stepbrother, conceals her feelings from her father till the end. Women are background props who either carry baskets or fold clothes while men dominate the story.
The plot itself, as far as Rumi is concerned, is also confusing. Though Rumi does go through some sort of transformation in his meeting with Shams, he remains arrogant and a slave to his own ego. As before, he is unaware of his surroundings. His true transformation and awakening starts when his daughter takes her life.
The play incorporates 20 feature songs inspired by the poetry of Rumi by Coleman Barks, which is inaccurate at best. This is accompanied onstage by tokenistic whirling dervishes — more reminiscent of ballerinas than mystics.
It is clear the musical was meant to be enjoyed by an audience who wouldn’t challenge the premise too much. The script makes no references whatsoever to Islam, and repeats the same recycled depiction of Rumi: a mystic who believes in no single truth, no single faith, and a universal concept of love that is bound by no single tradition.
The Rumi we see here is the same Rumi we see in the works of Barks and Elif Shafak, a Rumi who can be universalised and generalised enough to make him a commercial commodity. A Rumi that does not make any particular group uncomfortable. A Rumi that meets our modern expectations of a fluid and tolerant sage. No doubt, many in the audience walked away eager to get home and re-open their copies of Barks’ The Book of Love and enjoy the Rumi they have grown to know and love.
Interpretation and re-interpretation
While the mystical teachings of Rumi beautifully informed a rich and diverse tradition of Sufism (‘Tasawwuf’) in the Muslim world, he began to be read and recognised only at the start of the 20th century in the West - but in a very different way. RA Nicholson, considered the greatest Rumi scholar in the English language, first translated Rumi in 1925 and focussed more on accuracy and meaning than beautification. For decades, his work was used to teach Persian to non-Persian speakers in the West, but it did not speak of Rumi’s character or message.
Decades later, the brilliant German orientalist Annemarie Schimmel translated some of Rumi’s poetry into German. She wrote I am Wind, You are Fire, a book on the life and works of Rumi that gave the West its first true understanding of the message of Rumi and the importance Islam played in his works. If Rumi was a mystery that needed unravelling, Schimmel had pulled the thread. However, it was not until Barks got involved that Rumi truly became a household name.
Barks, who spoke no Persian, read Nicholson’s translations and began to interpret Rumi in a way that made sense to him. Like many Western interpreters before him, he saw Rumi as a free spirit with universal appeal. To him, Rumi didn’t belong only to the Islamic tradition.
Barks’ bet paid off, and within a few decades, Rumi became the most-read poet in the Western world. Unfortunately, Barks had removed Islam from within Rumi’s poetry and interpreted some verses incorrectly or even fabricated others.
For example, in one verse Barks credited the following to Rumi:
“If you don’t have a woman that lives with you, why aren’t you looking? If you have one, why aren’t you satisfied?”
Whereas a more accurate translation would read:
“If you have no beloved, why do you not seek one? And if you have attained the Beloved, why do you not rejoice?”
Those familiar with Sufism, or Islamic poetry in general, would know that the beloved whom Rumi writes of is God, not an earthly lover. In fact, Rumi’s Masnavi is entirely based on the Quran, and is lovingly referenced as the Persian Quran.
In recent years, attempts have been made to ‘re-claim’ or correct the skewed Rumi that the West has been presented with for too long. Rumi: The Musical was meant to be one of those attempts, but it failed.
In 2008, Jawid Mojaddedi delivered what is probably the first modern translation that is closer to the original; it attempts to keep the rhyme and metre of the original Persian. In 2020, I, along with another poet, Sharghzadeh, launched a campaign titled #RumiwasMuslim. Tired of reading false and fabricated quotes attributed to Rumi on Twitter and Instagram, we set out to inform and re-educate readers with the ‘real’ Rumi.
So, who is Rumi? In the words of the great Mawlana himself:
"I am the servant of the Quran as long as I have life. I am the dust on the path of Muhammad, the chosen one. If anyone quotes anything except this from my sayings, I am quiet and outraged by these words."
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