Body Impolitic

Tag Archives: Orientalism

“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).


Post-Olympics Link Roundup


Debbie says:

Coverage of the Rio Olympics led me to a substantial number of fascinating articles. Now that the event is over, I’d like to share some of them with you:

This really well-designed New York Times quiz has you match Olympic and Paralympic athletes with their sports. I confess I only got five out of 16 right, but the point — that all different kinds of bodies can be athletes’ bodies — is made, and made well.


The quiz pairs well with Ragen Chastain (often quoted in this blog), writing about fat Olympians at her blog, Dances with Fat. Ragen breaks down five unreasonable assumptions which people sometimes draw from the existence of fat athletic competitors. Here’s her list, plus her full comment on one I thought she did particularly well.

This proves there’s no excuse not to be fit at any size

This proves that anyone of any size can be an Olympian

This proves that everyone of every size can be healthy

First, don’t confuse athletically successful with healthy.  Many athletes push far beyond what would most support their bodies’ health – risking  and getting expensive sports-related injuries that they wouldn’t otherwise be at risk for – in order to be successful at their sport.  They are absolutely allowed to do that – their bodies, their choice (though that doesn’t meant that we shouldn’t be asking questions about the way that sports are managed/judged and what is really “required.”)  Moreover, health is difficult to define, multi-faceted, not an obligation, not a barometer of worthiness, and not entirely within our control or guaranteed under any circumstances.

This proves that anyone of any size can be an athlete


Female Olympians face their own set of challenges. As menstruation becomes more talked about around the world, Zheping Huang at Quartz discusses Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui’s radical acknowledgment.

When China’s favorite swimmer Fu Yuanhui openly mentioned her menstrual cycle on Sunday (Aug. 14) at the Rio Olympics, it was the first time many Chinese people realized it is possible to swim while being on your period. …

“I feel I didn’t swim well today. I let my teammates down,” Fu said, between gasps of breath. When asked if she was having a stomachache, Fu said: “Because my period came yesterday, I’m feeling a bit weak, but this is not an excuse.”

Just like that, Fu broke a great sporting taboo by talking about menstruation in public. During the 2015 Australian Open, British tennis player Heather Watson blamed her poor performance on her period after losing in the first round. At the time Watson’s remarks shocked the sports world and later sparked initiatives to break the silence on the issue.

The article goes on to discuss Chinese attitudes towards menstruation, tampons, and virginity. I learned a lot.

It’s no secret that people of fluid, indeterminate, or challenged gender have a daunting set of Olympic challenges. We’ve written here about Castor Semenya and Dutee Chand. Dana Moskowitz, writing at Deadspin, makes the question very personal.

What is it, exactly, that makes me a woman? Is it my breasts? If so, is it because they are a certain size? Is it that I have a womb? Does it matter that I have no idea if my womb works because I’ve never tried to get pregnant? Is it my two X chromosomes or my level of testosterone? I have no idea the status of either my chromosomes or testosterone for the simple reason there’s never been a good medical reason to test them. Asked to prove that I am a woman, I’d probably come up with this—everyone says I’m one.

I find myself returning to that thought exercise as Caster Semenya competes in the 800 meters this week. Semenya was told her entire life that she was a woman. Until she wasn’t….

Sports reporters have found ways of dancing around what this is. That’s why you’ll see the word “fair” in so many headlines about Semenya….

See, ladies, this is just about fairness! About leveling the playing field! About following the rules! Geez, women, calm down. We’re trying to make your races more fair for you!

One tactic, used by SI among others, is warning that this could be the end of women’s sports, as if this and not underfunding, sexual violence, and harassment were what kept women out of sports. Reporters will harp that this is about maintaining women as a protected class, ignoring that the legal term protected class means a group you cannot discriminate against—making this the bizarre act of asking if Semenya is too manly to be a woman, in which case she would receive the bizarro right to be discriminated against.


But if your body size and shape is culturally acceptable for the Olympics, and you aren’t menstruating (or don’t care to talk about it) and no one has challenged your gender, the media still gives itself complete license to analyze and criticize your religious attire. At Al-Jazeera, Rachel Shabi has a biting response:

Witness the countless headlines breathlessly hailing the first United States Olympian to compete in a hijab: the fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad.

To help us get to grips with this dazzling achievement – the hijab, obviously, and not the fact that she’s ranked eight in the world – we had BBC World tweeting about the incredible phenomenon as: “Hijab and a sword” – which, we hope, is the start of a series, continuing with, say: jodhpurs and a riding crop; athlete pants and a javelin; leotard and a chalk bowl.

And then there was the viral image of Egyptian and German women playing against each other at Olympic volleyball, one in a bikini, the other in a hijab.

As the Libyan-American writer Hend Amry tweeted in response [to comments about “cultural clash”], the actual caption to this picture could have been: “Athlete vs athlete”. …

[W]hat has crept into so much of the commentary is a sense of – what shall we call it? – Orientalist awe, as with this Washington Post headline: “Muslim female athletes find sport so essential they compete while covered” as in, wow, these women love sport so much that they’ve even managed to overcome this uniquely disadvantageous Muslim religion thing.

If you’re celebrating the fact that official sporting bodies have stopped being so restrictive over uniforms, maybe spotlighting the hijab each time you see an athlete wearing one isn’t the way to do it.

In the end, so many of these links, and so many other Olympic stories, come down to what should be a very simple thing: what would it take for us to simply appreciate the athletic ability of these amazing people, without making assumptions about them, shoving them into categories, or generalizing from them as individual competitors to everyone else, competitors or not?

I’m about ready for Olympic competition for journalists; and most of them are a very long way from the finish line or the perfect 10.

Lisa Hirsch sent us the New York Times quiz, others are from our general reading.