Rumi, the 13th-century Muslim poet, has become a household name in recent decades, even becoming North America’s best-selling poet thanks to English translations of his work. Verses of his poetry are used to start yoga sessions, religious ceremonies and weddings, and are ubiquitous on social media, in addition to actual sales of his books. His universalist outlook means that his poetry is quoted by practitioners from a variety of traditions, but with little Persian Sufi poetry readily available to compare it to, Rumi’s approach as a poet is completely unknown to most readers. It’s a shame because he was a subversive innovator.
Two things distinguish Rumi’s lyric poetry. The first is the deliberately childish language used in many of his poems, including “Yar mara” – meaning “I have a beloved” – a highly interpreted poem in which “thou art” is repeated 29 times in only eight verses. And second, the breaking of genre boundaries: among his lyric poems are mystical exegeses of the Quran and a famous homily on the Hajj pilgrimage with the refrain “O Hajj pilgrims, where have you been? The Beloved is here, come back! The rebellion in the message should come as no surprise to a poet who subversively innovates with the form of his poems in a tradition of writing where one expected to strictly follow the refined conventions of love poetry.
Rumi’s subversive Masnavi
Rumi’s magnum opus is The Masnavi (literally, “The rhyming couplets”). This poem is so revered in the Muslim world that it is commonly referred to as “The Quran in Persian”. The Masnavi is also probably the longest mystical poem by a single author ever written in a civilization with approximately 26,000 verses spread over its six volumes. It contains by far the highest frequency of quotations from the Quran among the poems of the masnavi form, but its sources are vast, including religious scriptures, folklore, and works on astronomy and medicine.
Similar to his lyric poetry, Rumi Masnavi is predictably subversive. It does not begin with the standard religious phrase used to begin all other Muslim books (“In the name of God…”), and instead features 18 verses that begin and end with the same letters that phrase begins and ends with. par, the Arabic alphabetical equivalent of “b” and “m”. The poem also contains many lyrical passages traditionally excluded from didactic masnavi form in which the poet does not normally refer directly to himself. Rumi interrupts his stories and homilies at will in this poem, explaining that he demands the immediate attention of his readers and does not want them to anticipate the end of the plots.
“Of all the Persian poets, it should come as no surprise that Rumi is the one who tries something new and controversial.”
The most notorious of all of Rumi’s poetic innovations is his inclusion of sexually explicit stories alongside exegesis of scripture and stories of prophets. These stories are extraordinary in their own way because, while others masnavi the poems have stories about sexual encounters, Rumi provides all the raw details about genitalia and bodily fluids. book five of The Masnavi includes most of these passages. Probably the most talked about story is that of the hostess who finds out that her maid has secretly had sex with her donkey. Her reaction is to send the maid on an errand so she can secretly try out the donkey herself. Not having learned from the latter of the need to use a device to prevent full penetration, the encounter ends up killing her. Other simpler sexually explicit stories tend to be about fornication, with a comical example depicting a religious sheikh rising and performing the Muslim ritual prayer when interrupted by his own wife after having sex with her servant.
Most commentators on Rumi’s sexually explicit stories shyly avoided discussing them. As part of Book Five of The Masnavi, it’s not too hard to see that they warn of hidden corruption, similar to many stories in this volume that don’t have sexual content. But the real mystery for most people is why Rumi should have used this type of content. Of all the Persian poets, it should come as no surprise that Rumi is the one who tries something new and controversial. Moreover, when one closely observes his poetic innovations, one comes to the conclusion that they constantly serve to amplify the effect of his words.
Not satisfied with the refinement of expression, Rumi was a poet who sought to shake his audience into action, hence his interactive involvement in his poems against all convention, the often childish level of language and heavy repetition. There is nothing more shocking than sexually explicit content – and also nothing more memorable. Moreover, the degree of shame involved in having one’s sexual activity exposed in stark detail is the most powerful warning of all against harboring hidden corruptions rather than undergoing the full purification process on the Sufi path. . Rumi was a master at keeping his audience engaged and receptive to the transformation his teachings could bring to them. For him, the end justified the means, whatever rules, conventions and taboos they might break.
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