Rumi, Religion, and Going Beyond Religion

Author: Ya’qub Ibn Yusuf

Word Count: 1642

Rating: G/General Audience

Summary: A small essay of the author’s appreciation of Rumi, Religion and on the multi-faceted experience of Rumi’s writings to achieve the idea of “going beyond religion.”

Whirling Dervish
Picture Credits: Created by User Schorle at Commons.Wikimedia.Org

Here we are, not just in the season of Chanukah and Christmas and various other festivals, but in the season of the “Urs” of Mevlana, Rumi’s “wedding” night on December 17, when he passed away from this world and returned to his divine Beloved. I want to share some short poems of his, and to invite us to consider what Rumi had to say in relation to religion.

Ibraham Gamard is an American Mevlevi dervish, a follower of Rumi whose path in Sufism led him to embrace Islam. In 2004, he wrote a book called ‘Rumi and Islam’ in which he explains many Islamic references that are part of Rumi’s work but were left out of most of the popular English translations. In 2008, Gamard, collaborating with a Persian scholar originally form Afghanistan, published a careful, annotated translation of The Quatrains of Rumi (there are nearly 2000!). It’s now plain to see that in Rumi’s four-line poems there are many references to Muhammad, the Quran and to Islam… and also direct references to Allah, which simply means “the Divine” or “God” with a capital G. Most of these have been interpreted away in the popular English translations by Coleman Barks and others. On the other hand, a universal-sounding phrase which often pops up in Gamard’s translations is “the religion of love”. Soon I’ll present some of Gamard’s translations, which I’ve polished slightly. Some of these point to Islamic concepts, and some point us beyond Islam, or any religion. But first let’s have a look at how “the religion of love” appears a little earlier, in this poem by an important Sufi thinker whom many consider to be “the greatest Sheikh” of Sufism, Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi:

My heart has become able to take on all forms.
It is a pasture for gazelles, for monks an abbey.
It is a temple for idols, and for whoever circumambulates it, the Kaaba.
It is the tablets of the Torah and also the leaves of the Koran.
I believe in the Religion of Love,
Whatever direction its caravans may take,
For love is my religion and my faith.

And here’s one of my favorite Rumi poems, which I’ve translated into English from the Hebrew translation by my friend Alexander Feigin, based upon the original Persian. It appears in Rumi’s ‘Diwan’, a collection of both short and longer poems by Rumi that I published in Hebrew in Israel back in 2005:

My beloved! This is our connection, yours and Mine.

Wherever you walk, there I’ll be beneath your feet.

How strange the rules of the Religion of Love!

Can it be? I see Your world, but I don’t see You!

In the English we have to choose which words to capitalize, identifying them with God, and which to leave in lower case. The Hebrew, like the Persian, is more ambiguous. But I think that, upon reflection, we can see that this poem is a dialogue between God and the human being. At first God gives us the answer… and then we discover the question! I learned many years ago, from my teacher Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, that the key to understanding all kinds of esoteric texts is often to reconstruct the question that the text proceeds to answer!

And yet, for all of his proclamation of “the religion of love”, we also find poems in which Rumi speaks explicitly of the Prophet Muhammad. Let’s proceed now with some of the poems that Gamard has made available to us. In the following poem Rumi describes how the creation, and more specifically the attributes of God that sustain the creation (like Mercy, Compassion, Wisdom, Light, Life and Truth), return to their source in the divine Essence through a Complete Human Being such as the Prophet Muhammad:

The spirit that was bound within the form of the attributes,
returned to the Essence by way of Muhammad Mustafa (the Chosen).
The moment it started to go, it said in joy,
“Blessings on that joyful spirit of the Chosen!”

In another poem, Rumi states his devotion to Muhammad and to the Quran in no uncertain terms:

I am the servant of the Quran, for as long as I live.
I am the dust on the path of Muhammad Mustafa.
If anyone derives anything but this from what I say,
I am fed up with him and outraged by these words!

That’s quite a strong statement! And yet there are other poems in which Rumi speaks out strongly against identifying with being a Muslim:

Know, truly, that the lover is not a Muslim.
In the path of love, there’s no belief or unbelief.
In love there is no body, no intellect, no heart, no soul.
Anyone who hasn’t become like this, is not such a one.

One shouldn’t get attached to believing this or that, and one shouldn’t get attached to not believing. The path to which he is pointing goes beyond all kinds of outer and inner intellectual and emotional identification. This leads us to the well-known poem. This version, based on Gamard, reflects the Persian original:

Beyond Islam and heresy, there is a field.
For us, there is a yearning within that expanse.
The Knower who reaches there will prostrate.
There, there is neither Islam nor heresy, nor any “where”.

This is a powerful poem. Beyond the concepts of “Islam” and “heresy” and attachment to them, there is an open space… of yearning. And yet the knower or gnostic, the attained mystic who reaches this wide-open space, continues to prostrate to God. Of course we are aware that prostration is an essential feature of Islamic prayer. Yet there’s nothing at all to suggest Islam in the popular version of this poem by Coleman Barks… which I also like as well:

Out beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
things are too full to talk about. Concepts, ideas…
even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense.

Coleman’s version of the poem fits a world which is not “Islamic” – or, I might add, “Jewish” – a traditional world in which religion defines not just a set of beliefs but the totality of one’s relationship with one’s environment. Islam and Judaism aren’t belief systems – they have much the same belief(s) about God. So it made sense that in Alexander Feigin’s Hebrew translation he continues to say, “Beyond Islam and heresy…” My sense is that here in Israel we can better understand the original text. In America, Islam looks like some kind of exotic religion. Here we are more familiar with Islam, and we can see it being, like Judaism, a total world-view. Now Rumi is saying that we have to go beyond becoming fixed even in such a view, so as to become true “Knowers” of the Divine. It’s not that we stop practicing our religion, as a response to the Divine. But we stop thinking of it as defining our identity and enter the broader spiritual “field”.

I like to suggest, as an alternative to the first line, “Beyond religion and secularism, there is a field.” Indeed, we live in a world in which the “secular” alternative stands opposite religion, and it too is a world-view and identity to which people may become attached. I do respect religion, especially Judaism and Islam, but I don’t really think of someone who doesn’t believe or practice a particular religion as a “heretic”. That’s a word which is only meaningful for very religious people! Like many of us these days, I am secular in some ways and in some ways I am religious. And if you want to tell me that I have to go beyond all that, beyond both sides of the equation… well, that makes sense to me.

Although he doesn’t speak of “secularism” per se, in the next poem Rumi pairs “heresy” not with Islam, but with the more general term “religion”. I’m happy to see that! This poem certainly fits the occasion when we celebrate the death of Rumi as a kind of “wedding”:

I am heresy and religion, pureness and dregs.
I am old and young, and also a small child.
If I die, don’t say about me, “he’s dead.”
Say, “He died, came alive, and the Friend took him.”

In the following poem, we continue the theme of going beyond religious concepts, as well as other kinds of archetypal distinctions:

On the path of Oneness, what is obedience or sin?
In the tavern lane, who is a beggar or king?
What if the face of the wandering dervish is bright or black?
On the highest heights of heaven, what is moon or sun?

And finally, we come to the last poem that I want to share. My feeling is that while Rumi might mean himself, he more likely meant that it is his uncompromising friend Shams who has “returned to hurl a sharp flame.” In any case, I think the “sharpness” of this poem will make more sense now that we’ve paved the way for it:

I have now returned so that I might hurl a sharp flame
at repentance and sin, wrongdoing and abstinence.
I have brought a flame that commands,
“Everything that is other than God, get off the road!”

One can be obsessed with religion in general, or in particular with sin – what we see in others, or what we see in ourselves. While striving to discipline ourselves, we can become obsessed with ascetic practices. We can get hung up about all kinds of things, and I think that Rumi is speaking against getting caught in all the kinds of obsessions and distractions that may arise on the way to opening ourselves to the Divine.

May each of us find our way to turn from darkness to the light!


Post Author: liewdavid15

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