Translating Rumi in Iran

We were sipping hot tea on our friends' Persian carpets when a friend from Tehran came through the door. He joined us, drinking his tea with a chunk of sugar, and began to joke and laugh. Between sips, Professor Pazouki, a scholar of the poet Rumi, reached into his satchel, withdrew two huge books, and gave them to us. These two volumes contained the six books of the Masnaviof Rumi in Persian script and an accompanying English translation by R.A. Nicholson.

We had been in Iran for about a year, struggling to learn the Persian language with Mr. Nateq, our non-English speaking Farsi teacher. We met with him five days per week over two years, and during that time developed a friendship with him and his family. The Mennonite Central Committee sponsored a student exchange program with the Institute for Education and Research in Qom, in which two North American students studied and lived in Iran, and two Iranian students studied in North America. From 2001–2004, my wife Evie and I were the American students.

One day Professor Tofighi, our teacher of the Qu'ran, told us that thus far we had learned the externals of Islam, and now we must learn the heart of Islam. With that he opened a book of the Ghazals of Hafez, and with Hafez and Rumi we began our journey into mystical Persian poetry. Once we could read these poems and then read them with an Iranian, our hearts seemed to resonate, and we felt a sense of peace that is hard to explain. It was the peace spoken about in Philippians 4:7: "The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds . . ." This positive experience with Persian mystical poetry drew us further and further in.

While living in Iran, I began to develop a practice of poetic engagement. I would read through a Persian mystical poem, stick a copy of it into my pocket, and then after dinner in an Iranian home we would read this poem with our Iranian friends, conversing for an hour about its meaning. We considered it from an Islamic angle, the Persian context, a Christian perspective, and always as human beings.

Once we were meeting with a group of Iranian students at the University of Esfahan. One student, who was impressed by my statements of affinity for Islam, said, "We hope to interview you again after you have become Muslim." How does a Mennonite Christian respond to a statement like this in a way that maintains the dialogue and preserves the tension of two different faiths? I said, "While you are waiting for me to change, I am in the meantime, because of Islam, becoming a better Christian."

Rumi's Masnavi

The Masnavi of Rumi is composed of six books of poetry containing about 25,000 verses with a didactic flavor, some of the poems being short and some very long. William Chittick, a contemporary scholar of Persian and Arabic literature, writes: "[T]he Masnavi is relatively sober. It represents a reasoned and measured attempt to explain the various dimensions of spiritual life and practice to disciples intent upon following the Way. More generally, it is aimed at anyone who has time to sit down and ponder the meaning of life and existence."[1] Reynold A. Nicholson (1868–1945) writes in the introduction to his translation of the Masnavi: "Where else shall we find such a panorama of universal existence unrolling itself through Time into Eternity? And apart from the supreme mystical quality of the poem, what a wealth of satire, humor and pathos!"[2]

Our own method of reading and translating segments from the Masnavi was to read the poem in Nicholson's translation, read it in Persian, if possible read it with an Iranian, and then arrive at our own meaning, which, not surprising, was much like Nicholson's.

This process of becoming intimately acquainted with a Persian mystical poem and then translating it into English is something like mining for gold. At first the poem has no meaning—we don't even understand some of the words. From a dictionary we can learn most words, and with the help of an Iranian, commentaries, and maybe another translation, we begin to link the words into a unit of thought. Gradually we can now read the poem, but it sounds awkward and disjointed. We begin to know it so well we can read it fast and with the right rhythm. Then as we join our experience of God with the experience of the poet, we see a glimmer of its beauty. We then read it again with an Iranian, and after many hours, the poem, its coherence and beauty, begin to coalesce, and we are consistently enveloped by a sense of peace and calm.

Then our translation can begin. In my translation of Persian poetry, I attempt to stay with the words and images of the poet rather than creating a 21st century poetic rendition of the ideas and thoughts of the poem.

On Non-Dual Thinking

One aspect of Rumi's mystical poetry is his attention to non-duality. Non-dual thinking has a history of more than 2,000 years, and is found in Jewish mysticism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Neo-Platonism and, more recently, in Perennial philosophy. The non-dual way of perceiving places an emphasis on seeing things as a unified whole, rather than as numbers, distinctions, and separation. Even the "I" of individual distinction begins to fade. Perhaps non-dualism sees more with the eye of the heart than with the intellect.

One evening in Iran we had just concluded an evening meal with fruit, tea, and hospitable conversation. As I stood to leave, our learned host told me in Persian: "You are in my heart." Then as I was putting on my coat, he repeated, "You are in my heart." And finally, as we shook hands at his doorway, he said again, "You are in my heart." And to make certain I understood, with an effort he repeated in his Iranian-English, "You are in my heart."

Why did he not say, "I enjoyed our conversation" or even "I love you"? What is the difference in saying "You" in place of "I"—"You are in my heart" rather than "I love you"? Is it possible that in a genuine expression of respect and devotion, the focus is no longer on "me" or "I" but on "you," the one with whom I experienced joy?

We find a similar sentiment in the poem "First Apostle" by Robert Pynn, where Mary Magdalene is speaking:

[Jesus is] no longer the object
of my affections,
he has become the
subject of my truth.[3]

"You are in my heart"—an example of embodied non-duality.

Rumi's Masnavi

Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207–1273), commonly known as Rumi, was a 13th century Persian poet, mystic, preacher, and theologian. He was born in the former Khorasan province of greater Iran, which at that time was part of the Khwarazmid Empire, including the present-day areas of Iran, part of Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and part of Tajikistan. When he was a preteen, he and his family left to spend some time in Syria, then lived several years in eastern Turkey. They finally settled in Konya of central Turkey when he was 22 years old. His name, Rumi, means a person from Rum, which was the 13th century Muslim world used for what now is the western part of Turkey. Sometimes he is referred to as Mawlana or Mawlavi, both of which are honorary titles meaning "my master."

Rumi's father was a mystic and teacher of Islamic sciences, and after his death Rumi eventually continued to teach the same subjects. Rumi studied Islamic sciences at Damascus, returning to Konya to teach at the age of 34. Rumi was a popular preacher and teacher until the age of 37, when he met Shams al-Din Tabrizi, a wandering Sufi mystic. Rumi and Shams became almost constant companions for the next two years, a period described by A.J. Arberry, a 20th century Rumi scholar, as follows: "The intense excitement of these adventures transformed Jaalal al-Din from the sober divine into an ecstatic wholly incapable of controlling the torrent of poetry which now poured forth from him."[4]

Shams eventually disappeared. According to Franklin D. Lewis, a contemporary Rumi scholar:

With the final disappearance of Shams, the frenetic quest to recover the vision of this spiritual guide turned inward. Eventually, Rumi reached some kind of catharsis for his fervent longing and began to discover Shams within himself. He continued to compose poems in the persona of the seeker longing for guidance, but also began to assume the voice of Shams in his own poetry. Rumi appears in many of these poems as the survivor of spiritual crisis and a guide to the shores of inner enlightenment, which can be reached only through great suffering and burning away of self.[5]

A common theme in Rumi's poetry is longing love and the burning caused by the grief of separation from the Beloved which, according to Persian mystics, cooks one's raw spiritual state into well done, ready to join the Beloved (a common Persian mystical term for the Divine).

Rumi calls out non-duality and names it using the Persian words "twoness" and "oneness." Jesus implies a kind of non-duality in his teaching. In John 17:22–23 Jesus, in referring to his disciples, prays these words: ". . . so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one . . ." Jesus lives, teaches, and prays a non-dual understanding of his relationship to his disciples and to God. But Rumi names it!

Translations of Rumi's Poetry

The following poems are taken from Rumi's six-volume Masnavi.[6] The first section below is my translation taken from lines 2979–3147 of Book 1. Fifty of the 168 lines are presented here. They carry the thought forward but shorten the whole to make it more manageable. This section develops the consistent theme of the portrait of a friend of the Divine. It is divided into six different poems, all of which are stories with commentary. All give some insight into dual and non-dual thinking. In my translations I used the Persian form of the poems and consulted Nicholson's English translation.

Following is my translation with an introductory statement at the beginning of each different poem. In the first section, as one moves toward unity—to become the lion—self must fade, and the harsh and the beautiful become one.

A man from Qazvin approached a barber:
"Please tattoo me well with blue dye."

"OK, brave one, what image shall I prick in?"
"The form of a fierce lion.

My sign is Leo.
Make the tattoo so it stands out."

The barber began but the man cried out,
"Stop! The pain is too much!"

O Friend, endure the pain of the needle
so you may escape the prick of self-service.

The heavens, the sun and the moon bow
to those who diminish self.

For the finite moving toward unity,
the thorn is as fine as the rose.

What is it to bow and worship God?
That one consider self as lowly dust.

What can be learned from God's unity?
That we, ourselves, burn in the presence of the One.

Clinging to "I" and "We" has bound us tightly;
these two entities have ruined all.

In the following lines, a focus on good health and prosperity can lead to distinction and separation (the justice of kings)—in other words, to dual thinking. The earth's bounty is a test.

The majestic lion, a wolf and a fox
one day went out hunting.

All went well and they killed
an ox, a goat and a rabbit.

The wolf and the fox hoped the spoil
would be divided by the justice of kings.

A lion is a prince and knows secrets:
he knew what they were thinking.

Knowing this, he kept on smiling.
Don't trust the smile of the lion.

Earth's bounty is the smile of God;
it has made us proud and drunken.

O friend, poverty and suffering are good
for they dull the lure of the smile.

If one is to become the king--find unity--the distinction of "I" and "mine" must fade, thus finding a "new justice," i.e., non-duality:

"O old wolf, divide the spoil for us,
make justice new."

"O king, the ox is yours, the goat mine
and the fox gets the rabbit."

The lion was angry: "Why in my presence
do you speak of "mine" and "yours"?

Whoever, at my door, says "I" and "We"
is refused entry. They become nothing.

In the next section, the burning grief of separation from one's beloved is necessary to burn away self-distinction. As I write this on the day after Easter Sunday, I remember that grief, particularly the grief of Mary Magdalene following the death of Jesus, helped to burn away the attachment of "I and You" into the promise of Jesus that "I will be in you and you in me"—moving from duality to non-duality. Or as in the Song of Songs 8:6:

Love is strong as death
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
the very flame of Yah.[7]

Rumi ends the following section with one of his characteristic phrases about words failing to carry an intended meaning:

A person comes and knocks at a friend's door,
who calls out: "Who are you, O trusted one?"

"It is I." He says, "Leave! This is neither time
nor place for someone still raw."

He left, burned by grief of separation,
cooked well done in its flame.

A year later he returned
and with fearful honor knocked at the door.

The friend called out, "Who is there?"
The answer this time: "It is you, O charming friend."

"Since you are me, come in, O myself,
for two 'I's' do not fit in this house."

Two ends of a thread do not fit a needle's eye:
when you become one, enter the needle.

His friend said, "Come in, you who are all me,
not like the thorn and the rose."

Look at these two laundry men.
They appear to be against each other.

The first puts clothes in the water,
the other takes them out to dry.

Then the first puts the dry ones back in the water,
like they oppose one another.

Though they appear in conflict,
really they work in cooperation.

Each prophet, each leader is a way.
Each leads to God. All are one.

Earthly life of sense and color
brings a narrowness – a narrow prison

caused by variation and numbers.
Sense wants to see variation.

Beyond the way of earthly sense is unity.
If you want oneness, move in that way.

These words have no ending.
Let's return to the lion and the wolf.

Next we see that the wolf, a symbol of duality, is removed, and that the fox represents non-duality.

The lion tore off the wolf's head
that two-headedness and distinction would not remain.

The lion spoke to the fox:
"Please divide the spoil."

He bowed low, "O king, the ox is yours for breakfast,
the goat is yours for lunch and the rabbit yours for supper."

"O fox, you have made justice shine.
Where did you learn this?"

"O king of the world, you ask 'Where did you learn this?'
I learned from the plight of the wolf."

The wise person learns caution
from the death of his friends.

The wise one will put off this type of self existence
when he hears what happened to the Pharaohs.

In the concluding section, as one participates in non-duality—union with the Divine—one's heart becomes a clean mirror of divine attributes.

Noah[8] was a thousand lions.
He was fire, and the world dry leaves.

"Since I am not I,
my breath is from God.

God has become my hearing,
my understanding and my sight."

Place all of "We" and "I" before God.
The kingdom is God's. Give God, God's kingdom.

When you become poor in this way
the lion and the lion's prey are yours.

The one whose heart is simple, free of images,
becomes a mirror of images from Beyond.

From within our individualistic socio-cultural setting and within our Judeo-Christian framework of distinction and dominion (as described in Genesis 1:26), our thought clashes with Rumi's and some of Jesus' non-dual thinking.

There is a long poem, lines 1547–1847 of Book 1 of Rumi's Masnavi, which carries another exploration of dual and non-dual thought. This poem begins with a parrot suffering the separation from his friends in India and then moves to anger toward them, as if they caused his pain. The parrot then moves from dual to non-dual thinking by experiencing that his longing love for them is the same as his suffering separation from them, or that their harshness is a kindness. Gradually the poet assumes the role of the parrot in declaring that divine harshness is to him the same as God's kindness, and that the lover's longing love is not somehow separate but encompasses the whole. Finally there is the divine affirmation that, from God's perspective, the complaining and the all-embracing love constitute superior faith.

The last line of this poem reads:

Stop trying to explain, leave descriptions,
don't breathe, God knows best.

Notice the struggle of dual thinking trying to describe something non-dual. Rumi addresses this elsewhere, as in the following verse from the middle of a long poem, line 2096 of Book 3:

This I say to the extent of your comprehension.
Alas, I regret you understand correctly.

In the poem about the parrot, love's longing moves from dual imaging to the non-dual assertion that love encompasses all. This is echoed in other poems, including the following lines from another long poem. This segment affirms that love for another human is of the same stuff as love for the Divine. Below are lines 109-111 in Book 1:

Being in love is shown by a suffering heart;
there is no sickness like heart sickness.

The longing of the lover is different from all others;
love is the astrolabe to the mysteries of God.

Whether love is from here or from beyond,
in the end our longing leads us beyond.

In other words, love for a human being and love for God are different sides of the same coin.

I will close with lines from the end of a long poem about the conflict between Moses, who is the Qu'ran'sgreat example of submission to God, and Pharaoh, who is the Qu'ran's example of resistance to God. Below are lines 1249–1256 from Book 3:

The mention of Moses blocks one's mind,
Saying, "These are only ancient stories."

The story of Moses is a mask, but the light of Moses,
O my friend, this is for you a golden nugget.

Moses and Pharaoh are within you;
You must seek out these two opposites.

A Moses will appear again and again;
The light is the same, the lamps become different.

The lanterns and the wicks are different,
But the light is the same; it's from Beyond.

If you focus on the glass, you will become lost.
From the glass comes numbers and twoness.

If you focus on the light, you are freed
from duality and finite numbers.

O Kernel of Existence, it is from a point of view
that difference arises between believer, Zoroastrian and Jew.

Jalal al-Din Rumi, the Persian mystic, has left us a great gift of poetry that is helpful in speaking about non-duality. May we honor him, recognizing that with our intellect we see from a point of view, but with the eye of the heart we may see the whole.

[1] William C. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi, (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1983), 6.

[2] Jalal al-Din Rumi and R.A. Nicholson, Masnavi-i-Ma`navi, (Tehran: Booteh Publication Co., 2002), 57.

[3] Qtd. in Cynthia Bourgeault, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2010), 163.

[4] A. J.Arberry, Mystical Poems of Rumi, (Tehran: Booteh Publication Co., 2002), x.

[5] Franklin D. Lewis, Rumi, Past and Present, East and West, (London: Oneworld Publications, 2000), 275.

[6] R.A. Nicholson, The Mathnavi of Jalal ud-din Rumi, (Tehran: Booteh Publication Co., 2002).

[7] Translation by Kristy Shellenberger Yordy, from A Mare Among Stallions: The Shulammite and Her Song, forthcoming from Wipf & Stock.

[8] In the Qu'ran and Islamic tradition, Noah is a model of submission to God.

About the Author

Wally Shellenberger

Wally Shellenberger and his wife Evie worked in Nigeria and Biafra during the late 1960s through the joint efforts of the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities, the Mennonite Central Committee, and the American Friends Service Committee. They retired from their medical work in Southern Indiana in 2001 to work with the MCC student exchange program in Iran through mid 2004. They now live in Paoli, Indiana.