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Mawlana Rumi Review

The Centre for Persian and Iranian Studies, University of Exeter, in collaboration with The Rumi Institute, Nicosia, Cyprus, have published their first volume of the Mawlana Rumi Review (London: Archetype 2010) featuring seven essays on various aspects of Rumi’s thought. The following is a shortened version of the Mawlana Rumi Review’s Editor’s Note by Dr Leonard Lewisohn. In the multi-media report he explains the academic purpose behind the publication.


Leonard Lewisohn


The Sufi saint and spiritual master Jalal al-Din Rumi (d. 1273), known to millions as Mawlana (‘our Master’), is widely considered to be Islam’s greatest mystical poet. He is also one of the most prolific poets in any language in the world: his mystical epic, the Mathnawi, contains more than 25,000 verses, while his lyrical output amounts to some 35,000 verses (3230 ghazals) composed in the widest variety of metrical patterns ever used by any Persian poet.

Although all his works are almost entirely in Persian, Rumi is much venerated in the nominally secular Republic of Turkey. In fact, every year on his death-day (17 December) a religious celebration, attended by tens of thousands, is celebrated in his adopted hometown of Konya, where the President, the Prime Minister and other dignitaries all gather to deliver speeches about his poetry and its importance and influence. Rumi’s poetry is also a source of national pride in Iran, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan, where his cultural stature is akin that of Shakespeare in Great Britain. Finally, in the United States, he has been (in translation) the best-selling poet for the last two decades.

Rumi’s genius has been recognized in Iran and other Persianate lands for centuries, and the study, appreciation and interpretation of his literary oeuvre and spiritual legacy is flourishing today in academic, artistic and literary circles in Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, India, Pakistan and even beyond. In the West, on the other hand, his popularity has only recently reached a stage where the establishment of a journal devoted to his legacy and thought will be appreciated by lovers of his poems.

That it has taken so many centuries for Rumi to become famous in English translation in the West – with a dedicated review – is largely due to the ethnocentric orientation of Western literary consciousness. Aside from a few poets (Goethe, Emerson, a coterie of English Romantic poets, the fin de siècle cult of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat inspired by Fitzgerald in the nineteenth century; followed by Garcia Lorca, Louis Aragon, René Daumal, Gunnar Ekelöf, Pound, Yeats, and Bly in the twentieth century), Western literati have been circumscribed and uncosmopolitan in their tastes. In particular, by not granting the recognition due to poets from the Persianate world, the Euro-American poetic palate has been, until recently, narrowly parochial. Indeed, why else should it have taken this long for Westerners to publicly acknowledge the genius of Rumi, arguably the greatest mystical and metaphysical poet in any of the world’s literatures?

Only at the beginning of the twentieth century did the study of Rumi’s writings and thought find a solid literary footing, despite the fact of having been introduced by Sir William Jones to the Western reading public in the eighteenth century. For this, we all stand in the debt of the monumental critical edition, commentary, and translation of the Mathnawi (1925–40) by R. A. Nicholson – a study of whose work by Marta Simidchieva graces this volume – followed by A. J. Arberry’s translation of selected poems from Rumi’s Divan-i Shams and the Discourses. Clément Huart had published a two-volume translation of Aflaki’s hagiographical account of Rumi’s life, family and associates in French in the 1920s, followed by seminal studies of Rumi’s thought by Fritz Meier and Hellmut Ritter that appeared in German during ensuing decades. Then Eva de Vitray-Meyerovitch published a complete translation of the Mathnawi into French in the 1970s.

However, it was only in the 1980s that a new generation of scholars and poet-translators of Rumi’s works – Annemarie Schimmel, William Chittick, Alexandre Popovic, Natalie Clayer, Robert Bly, Coleman Barks, and finally, during the last two decades (1990–2010): Leili Anvar, Fatemeh Keshavarz, Javid Mojaddedi, John Renard, and Alan Williams – appeared, completely reshaping our understanding of Rumi’s poetry.

Describing how ‘Rumi Moves into Western Consciousness’, Franklin Lewis chronicles these developments in great detail in his comprehensive Rumi, Past and Present, East and West.

Today, while journals devoted to all the major English poets (such as Milton, Keats, Shelley, Blake...) and most of the minor English ones (Thomas Merton, John Masefield...) abound, not a single journal devoted to any major or minor Muslim poet can be found in a European language. Although a number of major Islamic poets easily rival the likes of Dante, Shakespeare and Milton in importance and output, they still enjoy only a marginal literary fame in the West because the works of Arabic and Persian thinkers, writers and poets are considered as negligible, frivolous, tawdry sideshows beside the grand narrative of the ‘Western Canon’.

It is the aim of the Mawlana Rumi Review to redress this carelessly inattentive approach to world literature, which is something far more serious than a minor faux pas committed by the Western literary imagination.



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