The Ocean of Rumi
Spirituality & Health|May/June 2020
SCHOLAR OF ISLAM AND RUMI LOVER POURIA MONTAZERI TALKS ABOUT THE CONTEXT THAT’S GETTING LOST IN TRANSLATION.
POURIA MONTAZERI

CERTAIN THINGS IN LIFE are so precious, so divinely perfect and sacred, that they don’t need any alterations. They arise from the compassionate and boundless Existence, touch our hearts, and return to that placeless place where nothing ever repeats, leaving us in awe and wonder. Such perennial pearls of wisdom invite us to wholeness. For me, Rumi’s teachings and poetry are some of those precious gifts in life.

There is something definite, deep, and full about the unadulterated, pure teachings of the masters. They resonate with our hearts and, as a result, make us nod in agreement like bobbleheads.

When, through love and dedication, they are applied, embodied, and manifested within one’s heart and daily life, they are as relevant and applicable today as they have been for centuries.

Sadly, Rumi’s is one of the countless sacred teachings that take a whole new shape and meaning when crossed over the invisible yet tangible boundary into the West.

Several issues contribute to the tendency to alter teachings. One is the practice of cultural appropriation, where, in this context, scholars and translators get to render teachings through their fixed lenses and understandings without necessarily having any experiential knowledge of the subject, including the language itself.

Much of Eastern religion goes through the Judeo-Christian lens and filter before it is deciphered. I see this as a shadow of real interfaith and inter-spiritual dialogues and practices. To understand anything fully, the thing needs to be isolated and examined as it is without any interference. This requires commitment, dedication, and the kind of single-minded focus and attention yogis, Sufis, saints, mystics, and scientists used and continue to use. But instead, convenient, buffet-style spirituality often results in spiritual constipation.

The other includes spiritual objectification. Teachings exist as perennial wisdom, and understanding those teachings can be difficult. But when the teachings are interpreted by people who are most interested in gaining money or followers, they are inevitably changed to suit the fleeting culture of the moment.

As one small example, the Farsi pronoun ou may mean he as well as she. The proper meaning is contextually determined. God is never referred to as He, yet He is used in almost all translations. This is a very crucial point, for the additional filter in itself veils one from truly understanding the original work.

I have to admit how grateful I am for all that Coleman Barks has done in familiarizing the Westerner with Rumi’s poetry. This gratitude is accompanied by my core belief that individuals like Barks are mere instruments. At the end of a song at a concert, we clap for the musicians and not for the instruments.

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