Beauty Behind the Veil

Understanding a Deeper Meaning of Rumi’s Writings

By Doug Marman

Farzad Khalvati gave a talk at the University of Toronto, based on a topic that he, Mitra Shafaei and I have been working on together. It offers new insights into how to understand the hidden meaning in Rumi’s poetry and discourses. You can watch the talk below:

Farzad, Mitra and I have been translating Rumi’s poems using the same approach that I learned when translating Rumi’s discourses, combined with Farzad and Mitra’s deep understanding of the Farsi language.

In each poem, our approach has revealed a hidden meaning that was not seen through a traditional interpretation. Each time it has surprised us to see the meaning that emerges. After finishing more than 20 poems from Rumi’s famous Divan-i-Shams-i-Tabriz, we found three insights that have helped us with understanding Rumi’s poetry.

The most important key in understanding Rumi’s poetry is related to what I have written about in my book, Lenses of Perception. While most academic translations have focused on using a third-person lens to interpret Rumi’s poetry, the end result is that they have found it difficult to see any clear evidence of a teaching in Rumi’s writings. What we have found, on the other hand, is that the picture changes as soon as we use second-person lenses instead.

After seeing how much better second-person lenses reveal the deeper meaning in Rumi’s poetry, we’ve come to the conclusion that this is perhaps the most important element that Rumi is trying to teach: How to use second-person lenses to understand the spiritual path and spiritual experiences.

Second-person perception is what we use when we are deeply involved in personal relationships. This is how we learn to relate to another person, by seeing the YOU in them. The shared experience of a relationship is not something that belongs to us as individuals; it always exists between us and those we care about. A shared personal space opens up between us and others when we form a relationship, and this relational space between us seems to be alive with ever-changing possibilities.

From the use of this simple lens, we found three principles that have guided us in helping to reveal the hidden meaning in Rumi’s poems. These three principles keep showing up again and again in the poems we have worked on. Farzad explains these principles in the video, along with a number of examples from the poems we have recently translated.

Rumi’s teaching has often been called “the Sufi Path of Love.” This makes sense if he is teaching the importance of second-person perception, because love is the key to relationships, especially when it comes to our relationship with life itself. Love is the invisible element that draws us together with others and fills the space between us and others with meaning.

How appropriate that Rumi would use this same lens to fill his poetry with meaning. This meaning is hidden to outsiders, but it reveals itself to any who see the YOU in life.

4 thoughts on “Beauty Behind the Veil

  1. Doug, thank you for sharing.
    I watched the talk, I am an Iranian who is interested in mysticism and in particular Rumi and his works and I have been studying his works meticulously in order to get to the core of his teachings. Applying different lenses of perception is a good tool however, first one needs to have a first hand and exact translation of what Rumi has said, and based on my experience the best way to do this is to have a holestic grip on all Rumi and Shams teachings. for example by searching a keyword trough all their works in order to understand what they want to say about that particular topic, for this purpose in addition to having a good command in Persian language and mystical literature one should also have a very good command in prose works like “It is what it Is” and “Maghalat” from Shams Tabrizi.
    another very important point is that these mystics have tried to leave a mystical legacy and easier inner interpretation of Quran for future generations, so studying Thier works without including Quran as their main source of inspiration will not be fruitful. I suggest using an approach which does not includes all their works may lead to a bias in understanding and interpretation of what they have to say. Watching the video I noticed that translation and interpretation of used poetries was not very deep and accurate and it was very biased by including the public ideas of Rumi poetry probably from the internet search or other sources including the conversations between Shams and Rumi was totally imaginary considering the real meaning of poetry. I suggest the best way for understanding Rumi’s poetry is a data mining approach using his own resources plus Quran and teachings of Shams Tabrizi. for example if we want to know what he means by “unseen” we can search this keyword trough all his works in Persian and also in Quran in order to complete the puzzle and get a very accurate image of what he means and also to know his ideas on different matters. I have been trying this approach and it has been very fulfilling.

    • Behrouz,

      Thank you for writing. And thank you for your suggestions.

      I have also been carefully studying Rumi’s writings for a long time. For me, it is now more than 40 years. And I agree that it is important to know all of his works, as well as the words of Shams. It is also important to know the Sufi teachers who Rumi studied and often refers to.

      It has also been important to me to have help with translating what Rumi wrote in Farsi (and in some cases in Arabic) to English. Fortunately, I had someone who was a direct descendant of Rumi to help me with “It Is What It Is.” And I’ve been fortunate to work with Farzad and Mitra, who grew up with Farsi as their native language, and who have long studied Rumi as well. Farzad has also been trained in “old Farsi,” as it was used in Rumi’s time.

      We are also interested in translations that are accurate and deep. However, by “deep” we do not mean that is repeating what the traditional interpretations have been saying. By “deep,” we mean that it goes as deep as possible into the spiritual meaning that Rumi was hinting at with his poetry. This is what we feel has been missing and what we hope to restore in our new book that will be coming out later this year. In it, you will see lots of quotes from all of Rumi’s writings, as well as from the Maghalat of Shams, and historical accounts by Aflaki.

      As to our bias. The only way to eliminate bias, as Rumi says, is to lose ourselves in love with the Beloved so that our only bias is to do as the Beloved wishes. This is the approach we have taken.

      Thank you for taking the time to write.

      Doug.

      • Dear Doug, thank you for your replay.

        I read the sample chapter of your English translation of “It Is What It Is” it was great and I enjoyed it a lot because it helped me to understand the original text even better, that’s what I call a great translation. However, regarding the Farzad’s talk, I believe It is very important to use accurate resources when translating Rumi poetry because Rumi repeats frequently in his poetry and he wants us to consider his poetry as a sacred art harboring many mysteries, coded to lie beyond the reach of unworthy eyes. What he says is mainly secrets hidden in the context of poetry and his poetry is elevated to that sacred status in its very nature which is opposed to worldliness and earth-creeping concern.

        I give you an example: there is a ghazal (No:2039) from Rumi in Farzed’s talk.
        which he interprets as Rumi’s last piece of poetry in his death bed speaking to his elder son Sultan Valad. It is a common mistake accepted by the majority of laypeople interested in Rumi’s poetry. This tale originates from a book translated in English as “The Hundred Tales of Wisdom” by Shams Al-Din Ahmad Aflaki. This book is absolutely mythical and erroneous, unfortunately, some scholars have used it to study Rumi and his poetry, this is the only source which points to that piece being related to Rumi in death bed and talking to his elder son. This tale has found its way into folk’s beliefs. But for someone familiar with Rumi and his thoughts it easy to recognize that it is impossible for him to speak in that context and talk to his son like that. It is broadly known among the majority of scholars that Aflaki writings are not reliable. Unfortunately, other poetries (ghazals) used by Farzad harbor similar errors that need to be addressed.
        In my experience, Rumi is like a teacher who has curricula for his teachings, these headlines are mostly inspired by secret teachings of Shams Tabrizi. And Rumi has tried to simplify those as much as possible in poetry form in his Masnavi and prose form in his “It Is What It Is”. I recently found a book called “Robab Naame”, (Robab being the favorite instrument for Rumi) from his elder son Sultan Valad with the mission to make Rumi’s teachings even simpler. He has other books with the same mission. It would be great if you could apply lenses of perception to dissect and simplify those teachings for English readers.
        I would be glad to send you Persian documents supporting my claims if you provide me with an email, and I would also be happy to assist you with translation and interpretation in your Rumi projects.

        Bests,
        Behrouz

        • Behrouz,

          Thank you for your comments. If you like my English translation of “It Is What It Is,” then I think you will also like our new book that will be coming out later this year. It will include new English translations of 26 poems from Divan-e-Shams, along with commentary to explain the poems.

          I agree with you that his poetry is hiding many mysteries and it has been written in a way to hide the deeper meaning from those who are not yet ready to understand.

          As for Aflaki’s book, both Farzad and I agree that his stories can’t be trusted. In fact, in our new book that is coming out, there are a number of poems that relate to stories from Aflaki’s book. In every case, we started off by ignoring what Aflaki wrote so that it would not influence us in doing the translation. It was only after we finished our translation that we took a closer look at what Aflaki wrote. We were surprised to find that his stories were surprisingly close to what we found through our translation. We explain this in the book. I think you will find it interesting.

          As you will see in our new book, we have used lenses of perception, as you said, to show how to see what is hidden between the words of Rumi’s deepest poems.

          I will also send you my email so that you can send me the information you have.

          Thanks.

          Doug.

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