Tag Archives: Islamophobia

“Spiritual Colonialism”: The Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi

Debbie says:

I have Rumi The Big Red Book: The Great Masterpiece Celebrating Mystical Love and Friendship on my shelf of poetry books. And I feel remiss, because I never thought much about who Coleman Barks, named on the cover of the book in letters almost as big and visible as Rumi’s name, was, and why I should trust him to interpret Rumi, the great 13th century Persian poet, for me. The title page says: “The collected translations of Coleman Barks, Based on the work of John Moyne, Nevit Ergin, A. J. Arberry, and Reynold Nicholson.” Now that I am thinking about this, I notice that only one of those is a non-Anglo name. I also notice the acknowledgments, where Barks says, “I should also acknowledge that, as I put this collection together, I felt drawn to relineate and revise, slightly, almost every poem.”

If these were in fact his translations, that acknowledgment might be okay. But according to the @PersianPoetics Twitter account, Barks speaks no Persian (!). In a long and thoughtful Twitter thread, whoever writes for PersianPoetics tells a very different story.

The first thing I notice is that PersianPoetics calls the poet Moulana Rumi, while Barks calls him Jellaludin Rumi. A little research reveals that Jellaludin is a transliteration of his first name, while Moulana is a transliteration of his title, apparently roughly equivalent to “Master.” The next thing is that Rumi didn’t write exclusively in Persian: he also wrote in Turkish, Arabic, Greek, and Konya (a language named for its city on the Central Anatolian Plateau). So one wonders if Barks speaks any of those languages, and just how much he relied on the four names his translations are “based on the work of.”

The Twitter thread leans in some part on a 2017 New Yorker article, “The Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi” by Rozina Ali. Ali, drawing on interviews with several scholars,  says:

Translators and theologians of the time could not reconcile their ideas about a “desert religion,” with its unusual moral and legal codes, and the work of poets like Rumi and Hafez. The explanation they settled on, Safi told me, was “that these people are mystical not because of Islam but in spite of it.” This was a time when Muslims were singled out for legal discrimination—a law from 1790 curtailed the number of Muslims who could come into the United States, and a century later the U.S. Supreme Court described the “intense hostility of the people of Moslem faith to all other sects, and particularly to Christians.”

The exceedling apt phrase “spiritual colonialism” comes from Rumi Scholar Omid Safi, as does the analysis just above.

Here’s a telling example from @PersianPoetics:

The one on the right is the stuff of celebrity tattoos, inappropriate quotes from public figures, and inspirational posters. The one on the left is described as “mostly literal,” which as a non-Persian speaker,  I am inclined to believe. If it is mostly literal, the point is made.

Barks has profited greatly from his Rumi work, all the way to TED Talks and best-selling titles. It seems extremely unlikely that any of the money has gone back to Iran, or Turkey, or Islamic charities.

Stories like these (Islamophobia, erasure, cultural appropriation, Orientalism) are endless and endlessly shaming: this one caught my eye because I know some of the work. @PersianPoetics finishes the thread with an appeal for supporting their Patreon and supporting honest translations. Me, I’m just looking at my Coleman Barks book and thinking maybe recycling it is better politics than putting it in a free box for someone else to misinterpret.

Follow me on Twitter (you never know where it might take you).


LGBT and Muslim: Doubly Suppressed Intersectionality


Debbie says:

Hannah Allam’s BuzzFeed article titled “It’s Pride. It’s Ramadan. And It Still Isn’t Easy To Be An LGBT Muslim” seems to me to have an extra word in the title. “Still.” Except in some bubbles, and special places, it isn’t easy to be LGBT (and of course it depends which of those initials apply to you, and how you live out that portion of your life). And today in America, it certainly isn’t easy to be Islamic.

Nothing we know about intersectionality tells us that having two challenged identities makes having either one of them easier. And if you have two (or more) challenged identities which actively disrespect or disdain another of your identities, that’s going to make everything harder still.

Here’s Allam:

When organizers of the Minneapolis [LGBT] iftar [the meal when Muslims break their daily fast during Ramadan] hit up clubs and cafés to pass out flyers for the event, they met resistance from both Muslim and LGBT invitees. One volunteer tried to give a flyer to a Pakistani man who was a regular at his favorite café; he said the man rejected the event and warned that no one would come. Other volunteers said they’d been similarly rebuffed at gay bars.

A Mexican-American activist from Caravan of Love, who asked that his name not be included, said he realized what Muslims were up against when he was passing out iftar flyers at a club, telling LGBT patrons that “right now, given the political climate, we have to unite.” A non-Muslim guy snapped at him.

“He’s like, ‘They just want to kill us all. Why would you ever want to volunteer for Muslim people when they want you dead?’” the activist said.

Earlier this month, seven protesters were arrested at the Minnesota State Capitol during so-called anti-Sharia marches. Gay critics of Islam were among the top organizers of the nationwide marches, which largely fizzled due to poor attendance.

I certainly knew that many Islamic people (but by no means all) are opposed to gay rights. I did not know until I read this article that a significant number of prominent gay Americans have allied themselves with anti-Muslim causes. Along with her Twin Cities examples, Allam also cites a gay organizer in Atlanta, Arch Kennedy, who has allied himself with “by far the leading anti-Muslim grassroots organization in America.”

So many people seem to gravitate to finding a group they can hate, or oppose, or try to shut down. Any gay activist should know that a statement as simple as “They want to kill us all,” is automatically and obviously wrong, because it simplifies all Muslims into one opinion, just as “they want to destroy heterosexual marriage” or “they want to convert our children into homosexuals” does.

While it’s chilling to see the opposition that LGBT Muslims face, I am also inspired by the work they are doing:

The groups have seen results when activists are on the same page. In May, for example, Trump’s pick for Army secretary, a Republican state senator from Tennessee named Mark Green, withdrew from consideration amid criticism of his anti-Muslim and anti-LGBT comments. News reports said that Green opposes same-sex marriage and has described being transgender as a disease. Green also has urged public schools to fight “the indoctrination of Islam” and has made reference to a “Muslim horde.”

I salute the bravery of these people who claim two identities both of which are targets of hate. And I hope more people notice that haters like Mark Green are, unintentionally, pushing all of us with such identities to draw together; when people work together, we learn how much individual differences there are in groups seen from the outside as one simple thing, and we also learn to keep our eyes on who the real enemies are.