--from Mawlana Rumi Review, Volume 1, 2010, Archetype, UK, pp. 142-147


The Quatrains of Rumi: Ruba`iyat-é Jalaluddin Muhammad Balkhi-Rumi: Complete Translation with Persian Text, Islamic Mystical Commentary, Manual of Terms, and Concordance, trans. Ibrahim Gamard and Rawan Farhadi. San Rafael, CA: Sophia Perennis 2008. Paperback, 764 pp.

Reviewed by Robert Darr

The Quatrains of Rumi is a large, heavy book even in paperback. Like a Bactrian camel laden with precious fabrics and spices, it has made the long journey from across the Silk Road and has newly arrived amidst the hustle and bustle of the Western marketplace. Its precious cargo is sure to draw the attention of knowledgeable customers, and cause some anxiety to the purveyors of shabbier goods, and there is good reason to take notice: this is the first complete translation into English of the authentic quatrains of Jalalud-din Rumi.

Rumi scholar Dr Ibrahim Gamard and Afghan statesman and Dari-Persian literature specialist Dr Rawan Farhadi have spent the last twenty-two years in what can only be described, because of the scope and depth of their work, as one of the most serious labors undertaken in the translation of Persian literature.

The collaboration has been a fortuitous match. Dr Farhadi is one of the most capable living authorities on the Central Asian Persian language of Rumi's time. Literary Persian, though more static than any European language, has undergone its share of changes over the seven-plus centuries since Rumi's death. Dr Farhadi, having spent a lifetime immersed in the religious and spiritual culture of Islam, is well acquainted with the idiomatic and nuanced language of classical Sufism.

Dr Gamard has always been a careful scholar and translator, rigorous in his fidelity to the original poetry, and unwilling to cut corners on a project of this importance. He is an American convert to Islam who has been a follower of the Mevlevi Way for more than three decades. He was recently given the title of shaikh. His temperament and religious convictions have made him one of the most active critics of the less-careful translators of Rumi. Dr Gamard is the creator of www.dar-al-masnavi, a popular website that offers accurate translations of Rumi's poetry. The site has, for many years, attempted to dispel misconceptions about the poet's life and work, misconceptions that have proliferated among the more Dionysian revelers of the great Rumi love-fest.

Farhadi and Gamard approached their task using the most reliable critical edition of the Rumi quatrains in their original Persian. Over the centuries, many unrelated and invented quatrains, and parts of quatrains, have found their way into the various collections of these poems, and therefore many quatrains have for centuries been incorrectly attributed to Rumi. The most accurate critical edition of Rumi's original quatrains was published in 1963 by Badi` al-Zaman Furuzanfar, a celebrated Iranian scholar of Persian literature. They were published in Volume 8 of his Divan-i kabir. However, just a few years earlier, Furuzanfar's publishing house had pressured him to prepare a book of Rumi's collected works, the Kulliyat, which was released in 1957. Unfortunately, the material this book was gathered from the flawed Isfahan collection of Rumi's poetry, but because of timing and the publisher's promotional efforts, the Kulliyat became so successful that most translators of the quatrains have unwittingly used it over Furuzanfar's more accurate Volume 8 of the Divan-i kabir. Some of the more sensational poems attributed to Rumi in a number of altered manuscripts, and included in the former book, are not authentic; this is not so surprising, since counterfeiters usually polish their coins.

Even Furuzanfar's more careful volume contains a number of lovely but borrowed quatrains, poems that had been composed by earlier Sufis. Drs Gamard and Farhadi have painstakingly sorted these out after many hours of careful research, and have appended them to their translation. Considering Rumi's unparalleled stature as an authority on Islamic spirituality, The Quatrains of Rumi makes a very significant contribution to the field by providing us for the first time with access to the authentic poems in a bilingual Persian/English edition.

The translations filling The Quatrains of Rumi are not remarkably eloquent or lyrical, but they are far from lifeless. Dr Gamard writes,

The present translators believe that Mawlana speaks most clearly through a literal translation but not so literal that idiomatic meanings are distorted. Partly in reaction to distorted translations and interpretive versions that were intended to sound 'poetic', our aim has been to make a readable American English translation that allows the reader to know, as much as is possible, what Mawlana actually said and meant.

As a translator myself, I'm uneasily aware of the difficulty of the task. Persian mystical poetry is about as complex as literature can get: its implicit purpose is to provide a doorway, an access to those mystical states which the Sufi poet can only allude to through metaphorical language. Mystical awareness is the ecstatic consciousness of divine Beauty and Majesty as reflected in the mystic's soul. By the reflected light of his own soul, the Sufi poet quite naturally breathes a subtle incandescence into his mystical outpourings. The divine Beloved is supremely beautiful, and the poet does not simply describe Him with beautiful adjectives. His spiritual witnessing becomes a poetic testimony as he measures the ravishing movements and gestures of an unseen Beauty and clothes them in verse. This is not a mere expression of literary genius, however beautiful, but is the irrepressible disclosure of an enlightened heart and mind of a love that cannot be suppressed. A true poem thus emerges as the literary vehicle and the fuel that propels it, giving it the power to transport us, the reader and hearer, into the bright realm of spiritual realization. It is rare enough for such literature to succeed in the original language, let alone in translation. As translators we strive in earnest but are unable to recreate the full capacity of the original in its formal structure, spiritual meaning, and aesthetic magic, interwoven to produce a lyrical flying carpet upon which our own yearnings soar. Despite this dire assessment of our métier, there remains some hope for making helpful translations as long as we hold fast to the talisman of sincerity.

The Quatrains of Rumi presents each quatrain in the original Persian first. Next is an accurate literal translation supported by copious contextual notes to help us absorb and understand each poem. A 'Manual of Islamic and Islamic Sufi Terms' appended to the collection further aids us in grasping the special language of Sufism. If that were not enough, there is also a concordance of the popular translations of Rumi's quatrains in English, in case we should want to compare any of them against the originals. Piled with all of this material, the book might seem a bit scholarly and its straightforward translations perhaps lack the eloquence of some of the more popular renditions. But let us keep in mind that many of the latter have supplanted Rumi's message by catering too eagerly to modern Western sensibilities. In the worst cases, surprisingly egregious misrepresentations have been enthusiastically welcomed by Western readers. If Shakespeare's works had suffered a similar fate in translation, English-speakers would more easily understand the annoyance that many Persian-speakers feel about Rumi's unwelcome role as a prophet of the New Age. Most of the 'free' translations and renditions of Rumi's poetry are colored by sentimentality and a secular, humanistic ethos unknown to Rumi.

Dr Gamard is especially dismissive of 'renderings' or 'versions' where Rumi's message has been deliberately altered by the translator's personal views. These are blithely offered as translations and they dominate the marketplace. Coleman Barks has been the most successful author of this genre, and Gamard spares him little criticism. Let's take a closer look at one of the most celebrated Rumi quatrains rendered by Coleman Barks, made from a literal translation by John Moyne:

Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing
There is a field. I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase, each other
Doesn't make any sense.

In itself, this is quite a beautiful poem, one that allows the reader to sense the unspoken mystery that lies beyond the structures of ideas and words. The poem invites us to feel an underlying unity that is obscured by concepts and language. It suggests a communion that becomes apparent upon abandoning notions of right and wrong, notions enshrined in the religious and ethical traditions that have served as much to divide as to bring humanity together. The poem has much to recommend it, but fails to convey Rumi's more radically deconstructionist message.

The Gamard/Farhadi translation of this poem is not as endearing as Barks' version, but it helpfully elucidates a recurring theme of Rumi's, concerning self-effacement. For Rumi, self-effacement means experientially undergoing the demise of the separatist self in order to regain the unified awareness of the 'non-temporal' primordial state (nisti). According to the Sufis, we humans became unconscious of our primordial awareness as we entered time and space, and adapted to worldly existence with our sensual perceptions. In the primordial state of Oneness, neither is 'unbelief' possible, nor is the religion of Islam necessary, to correct it. Thus Rumi writes,

az kufr u zi islam birun sahra'a'ist
ma ra be miyan-i an fada sawda'a'ist
'arif chu bidan rasid sar ra binihad
nay kufr va na islam na anjaa ja'i'ist

Gamard/Farhadi (No. 1314) correctly translate the poem (where they've italicized words added for clarity):

Beyond Islam and unbelief there is a 'desert plain'.
For us, there is a 'yearning' in the midst of that expanse.
The knower of God who reaches that plain will prostrate in prayer,
For there is neither Islam nor unbelief, nor any 'where' in that place.

Thanks to Dr Farhadi's arrangement of the quatrains according to theme, two related poems that help to clarify this quatrain's meaning, are to be found just nearby (Nos. 1315 and 1311). We can see that the quatrain is not so much a statement about Sufi doctrine as an invitation to a mystical experience of the greatest importance. We find precisely the same imagery of the 'expanse' and the 'head in surrender' in the Mathnawi (Book I, vv. 3092-5):

Show us, O God, that spiritual station
Where the Divine Word sprouts with no letters,
And the purified soul makes its head to run
Into the boundless expanse of non-being.

The latter is from a section titled 'The Description of Unification' which is specifically about self-negation as a pre-requisite for true Love and Unification. In another example (Book VI, v. 233) Rumi writes, 'What is the Ascension to heaven? This nonbeing. For lovers is the faith and sect of non-being.'

Each of the hundreds of poems in Gamard/Farhadi's The Quatrains of Rumi share with us some aspect of Rumi's amazing, transformative experiences as a mystic on the 'path of spiritual intimacy'. We can gain from these poems a tangible sense of Rumi's deepest feelings, his inspirations and their power to uplift us.