Rumi, Reason and Shi'ism

I was reading my Arabic translation of Rumi’s Mathanwi over the weekend. (Admittedly, it is originally in Farsi, which should mean that English would do quite as well as Arabic, but for me, all respect to the Reynold Nicholson translation which I cannot judge not knowing Farsi, it’s not.  Arabic is just a better language for poetry, with its multiplicity of overlapping words reflecting shadows and subtleties of meaning, even as English is a better word for law, with its clarity and straightforwardness.)  Anyway, the whole thing is a series of rhyming couplets more or less, not really tied into some sort of entirely coherent narrative, though it does have recurring themes, one of which is the place of reason and knowledge, which Rumi quite obviously thinks of as having its limitations, in a broader Islamic world at the time that was far more enamored of reason as the means to know God and God’s Will than Rumi was.  Hence, a telling passage is one that reads as follows:

Reason will say, as Gabriel has, “O Ahmad, if I take one step further, surely I will burn.”

So leave me, and advance.  This is my limit—advance, captain of my soul, without me.

(Remember this is Farsi translated to Arabic translated to English so apologies for stylistic awkwardness).  Reason to faith, as the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad (Ahmad is a reference to the Prophet Muhammad).  Once the teacher, the one who guided and led and transmitted the Revelation, now the one who can go no further, who has to leave Ahmed to advance on his own, for reason brought him so far, and the rest is not for the angels, but for men.  I always found something rather beautiful in this passage, something resembling Kierkegaard’s Leap, though not precisely the same (reason, after all, begins the inquiry which gets Muhammad far enough to advance on his own). 

Yet I thought this was worth mentioning in this morning’s post, because it is quite evident that orthodox Usuli Shi’ism as it is taught in the seminaries of Najaf and Qum alike would read a passage like this quite differently. (If they bothered to read it at all. I get no sense that anyone in Najaf thinks or cares about Rumi.  He is a figure of some pride in Iran, however, though probably not Qom.  Still, even Ahmadinijad sings his praises, so who knows. I don’t spend my time in these places asking them about Sufi saints, I figure it’s not likely to get me much by way of useful information.) In contemporary Shi’i dogmatic renditions, reason likewise has a limited role, but quite a different one, and the angel leaving the Prophet would be a metaphor to invoke a very different type of departure demanded of each believer. 

Reason for the jurists, essentially, brings one to Islam, and specifically Shi’i Islam.  If you sit down and think about it, the theory runs, if you just apply neutral reason, free of bias and uncontaminated by circumstance, you will see that there must be a God, that Islam is the religion of his Revelation, and that Shi’ism is the correct, true path within Islam.  Leave aside the politicized rhetoric about how our Sunnis are our brothers, nay, extensions of ourselves, and get clerics (not the highest jurists, hard to get them to speak with such specificity for very long) to start discussing specifically theology, and this becomes very obvious, very quickly.  Why does the West think we Muslims are all terrorists? They are equating Islam with its deviant branches, let them look to Shi’ism and they will be disabused of this.  And so forth.

Now I do find this ironic on so many levels.  This uncontaminated reason is itself contaminated, borrowed quite extensively from Aristotle, for one thing.  But I’m not a jurist, just an academic, so no reason to dwell on that.  Anyway, once you get this far as a believer, reason generally disappears under the theory.  That is to say, you accept Revelation, you accept Shi’ism, you accept the role of the jurists in expounding doctrine, and here, you really have to drop reason.  Now you more or less have to listen to what the jurist has to say.  Not because he can deploy reason better than you to expound on legal rules—reason is in theory the fourth source of law in Shi’i Islam, but it is a source more honored in the breach than the observance. 

So you don’t trust the jurist because he can reason better than you can. You trust him because he has studied where you haven’t.  He has learned the source material, and the means and methods, and he can deploy those methods even as a doctor can deploy her methods to remove a tumor from your body.  Not because of reason, but because they know things you don’t.  I don’t mean they are claiming to be nothing more than efficient automatons, obviously you have to use considerable intelligence to unearth a legal rule, even as, say, a navigator must use intelligence to find their way with a sexton across the ocean based on the positions of the stars and nobody wants an idiot removing a malignant tumor.  It takes skill and a sharp mind of course.  It doesn’t take open ended “reason.”  Your intelligence is deployed not to construct a legal rule when the material seems to offer two potential answers, your intelligence is deployed to find the one proper and correct rule based on the methods and means that are authorized.  And then you follow that rule even if it seems “unreasonable”.  Just as you consent to a dude with a white coat saying they are going to split your belly open and take something out, not because it sounds reasonable, but because you know the doctor understands things you don’t.  (The dominant metaphor I’ve heard in Najaf and Qum alike delivered to us layfolk is always the doctor.)  So even as “Gabriel” leaves “Ahmad” because to continue to insist on reason would land Gabriel in the fire, so reason must submit to the protectors of the doctrine who will tell you what’s best. 

Lots of ways to read Rumi I suppose, though I’ll stick with mine.  Makes something magnificent of Faith, I think.




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  • 3/8/2013 12:09 AM Sima wrote:
    Been following your blog for a while. I remember reading somewhere that you grew up in the US. Yet you seem to be fluent in Modern Standard Arabic (Fusha) and, I presume, Iraqi dialect. Most Iraqi Arabs I know growing up outside of Iraq don't have a very good command of Fusha or even dialect. Did you study Fusha in school or university? You must be able to read and write very well if you understand Rumi in Arabic. Just wondering, do you also write in Arabic (Fusha) to a good standard or is it just reading? I've an interest in language acquisition and was wondering as writing is often more of a skill learned through practise and education but reading in many cases easier to acquire. I know a number of people of Iraqi origin here in the UK who, for instance, have been schooled in Fusha for a number of years and can: read and write to a satisfactory standard - perhaps early high school level - but not really speak. Some even struggle to understand the news on channels like Al Jazeera.
    Reply to this
    1. 3/8/2013 7:31 AM Haider Ala Hamoudi wrote:
      Thanks for the comment and the kind words.  I never found it difficult actually to learn.  Dialect and basic grammar at home, four years in university, three in law school, two living in Iraq and working exclusively in the legal field among those who don't know anything else and at the end of all of that, Fusha was sort of second nature.  Ironically, Adil Imam and Egyptian cinema is not, I have a much harder time with that than I do with Rumi! 

      Your thoughts on speaking I share, though I don't notice it in Arabic, mainly because I spoke it from before I knew how to read in Arabic or English.  However, I see it in the other languages I know to far less proficiency--Indonesian and German in particular.  If I get an email from a friend in Germany, it's not hard to write back.  I might need a dictionary, I might not, but I can write back.  If Germans are talking I can barely follow.  I think it might depend on how one learns it, if from childhood speaking is easy.  If not, perhaps harder than reading and writing.  Thanks again for the comment. 

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      1. 3/8/2013 2:36 PM Sima wrote:
        Thank you for the reply, very interesting!

        Your having worked in the legal field means that you're perhaps more acquainted with legal documents or treatises. However, does this also mean that you have a full grasp of the literary register? Literature and poetry, of course, usually employ specialised terms and forms of writing. An English academic who, for instance, is an expert in nuclear fission would probably not fully understand Shakespeare or Chaucer had they not studied it at some detail or had some sort of previous engagement with such works This would probably be the same for a professor of jurisprudence here in London. I'm interested in this because of the diglossia in Arabic.

        By speaking i did not mean speaking in Iraqi dialect - the norm in households and around the dinner table - but more the type of speaking you will hear in debates or speeches, conducted in MSA/Fusha. For example, I have a friend who is an Iraqi Arab and another who is Iraqi-Jordanian-Palestinian. Both have grown up, more or less, in London. They've studied Arabic to different levels in Saturday school, can speak in dialect (Iraqi and Levantine, respectively) but they have trouble understanding news anchors on Arabic channels and fully comprehending segments. Moreover, I doubt very much they could hold forth on the literary merits of Rumi in Arabic, or even in English. My point is that both of these individuals are well-educated and have gone to respectable institutions here in the UK. Admittedly, they aren't as interested as you are in such matters, nor are they lawyers but engineers.

        It's funny that you mention Adil Imam and Egyptian cinema; I was speaking to a Kurdish-Iraqi gentleman recently, a former lawyer and 60s/70s graduate of Baghdad Law when it was perhaps less of a joke as an institution. He was saying how most Kurds of his generation understood Egyptian Arabic much better than they did the Iraqi variant, and this was due to the power of Egyptian cinema and, specifically, Adil Imam. It was an interesting conversation about Arabic diglossia. The gentleman had done very well in his secondary school Arabic exams and then gone off to Baghdad for university only to find that he didn't understand a word spoken on the streets. Him and his group of friends were shepherded by one of their classmates from Kurdistan who'd spent his childhood in Kubaysa. He mentioned that at the end of his first year his scores were much better than many of his Arab classmates but he still struggled with fluency in Baghdadi Arabic. It was only until he'd graduated and done his military service in an All-Arab unit that he finally caught up with fluency in Iraqi dialect. I found this fascinating.
        Reply to this
        1. 5/21/2013 9:25 AM Haider Ala Hamoudi wrote:
          Thanks and sorry for the inordinately long delay.  Newborn keeps me busy. . . .

          Arab news channels have never been a challenge. I actually don't think they should be, if the fusha classes are taught properly.  Far easier given the Anglicisms in modern Arabic (yujid hunalika awamil kathira) and given the number of people who can teach that to structure a class on that than to teach, say Ibn Taymiyya who would never have used a phrase like that above.  I won't claim to understand the nuances of Rumi, or even modern poets like Qabbani or Jawahiri in the way that I can do legal nuance.  Same is undoubtedly true for English as well.  I expect that those who are expert in poetry would throw their hands up in frustration at my translations in the same way I throw my hands up in frustration whenever I see the talaq translated as "divorce" and tafriq as "separation."  Any common law lawyer would think that means that the former is a permanent dissolution of the marital union and the latter a temporary and perhaps reversible one.  That's not close to accurate.  But that's okay, I wouldn't produce scholarship based on my poetry translations, just ruminate a little on the blog here and there in a manner that at least tangentially involves my own discipline. . . .


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