Friday, February 24, 2006

a slavery that sets free

When I hear you sing, I become a joyful song,

Boundless, without limits, like the kindness of God.

You've bought me a hundred times over, I'm yours.

Bring me back to life again: buy me, please, once more.

#1118: From Rumi's Kolliyaat-e Shams-e Tabrizi

Key word: song

I've continued this morning with the idea of bird song, as if Rumi has become both the nightingale and its song, as if I've become myself the song that he sings, even today, through these words. He expresses such joy here at being at the service of God, being God's slave, being found worthy to be bought, as if God surveys humanity and finds this one fit for a particular task, then decides: "Yes, I will buy that one." If God represents what I love, if God encapsulates all that I hold dear, how could I not be glad to be of service? How could anyone refuse to embrace this kind of slavery?

The powerful mystery in lines such as these, as I've repeated so many times, is the juxtaposition and interplay of opposites. Here, there is the freedom of boundlessness, of a kindness and a joy without limits; and then there is the imagery of slavery, of being totally bound in service to God. They are the same thing, they are together and in harmony, here in Rumi's simple verse.

This morning, I received the latest contribution from the Sunlight group, a passage from the Mathnawi that very nicely summarizes much of what I have been saying about the opposites:

   The four elements are four strong pillars
that support the roof of this present world.
   Each pillar is a destroyer of the other:
the pillar known as water destroys the flames of fire.
   The edifice of creation is based upon opposites,
and so we are always at war.
   My states of mind and body are mutually opposed:
each one is opposite in its effect.
   Since I am incessantly struggling with myself,
how should I act in harmony with someone else?
   You cannot escape unless God saves you from this war
and brings you into the unicolored world of peace.
   That world is forever flourishing,
because it's not composed of opposites.

- Mathnawi VI: 48-52; 55-56, version by Camille and Kabir Helminski ("Rumi: Jewels of Remembrance")

There have been many ways of envisaging the union of opposites or the child that is the product or outcome of the unio mystico. Common ideas and symbols are the risen Christ, the philosophers' stone, the world soul, and various mandala patterns harmonizing elements in groups of four. As far as I know, Rumi's is a unique effort to evoke this symbol, not through a static image but through song. He seems to me to be ever conscious of this task, ever attuned to it. The song is not strictly music although I'm sure much of his poetry has been set to music very successfully. Nor is the song what one hears in a recitation of Rumi's poetry. The song is simply the voice behind the words. This voice has a universal quality that is not, I think, so strongly present in any other Sufi writer. It is certainly not present in the Quran, which appears to be untranslatable from its original ancient Arabic. By contrast, Rumi is very translatable and extraordinarily accessable to the modern mind.

If peace between the Islamic world and the West is ever to be achieved, it will be through a recognition of this mystical song and a learning, together, to sing it.


At Saturday, 25 February, 2006, Blogger Bob Hoeppner said...

Ancient Arabic is untranslatable, really? I think I've read that ancient Hebrew is problematical, due to the omission of vowels. I guess you're supposed to know what vowels go where by context, but sometimes the context provides ambiguous choices. Hard to know how much that may have been intentional.

At Saturday, 25 February, 2006, Blogger Arizona said...

Muslims generally reject the notion that the Quran can be translated. It is only the true word of God in the original Arabic and they prefer to call the translations "interpretations".

There were problems over those missing vowels in the first compilations of the Quran since Mohammad spoke in a specific dialect of the Quraysh that other local Arabs couldn't read correctly. The language of the Quran is so parochial that an Arab living 100km from Mecca just 10 years after Mohammad's death was prone to misread it. This is why I claim it to be untranslatable.

Not only that, it is essentially unreadable even to modern Arabs since the language has evolved a good deal. This yields a rich source of scholarly opportunity and keeps the academics busy at the Islamic centres of learning.

Although there continue to be quibbles here and there in the translations of the Hebrew sacred texts, the Jews do accept that the versions we read are translations and do broadly represent the original ideas and stories in an accurate manner.

This issue is very important in the cultural divide between Islam and the West.


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