The erasure of Islam from Rumi’s poetry started long before Coldplay got involved. Omid Safi, a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at Duke University, says that it was in the Victorian period that readers in the West began to uncouple mystical poetry from its Islamic roots. 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.” In 1898, in the introduction to his translation of the “Masnavi,” Sir James Redhouse wrote, “The Masnavi addresses those who leave the world, try to know and be with God, efface their selves and devote themselves to spiritual contemplation.” For those in the West, Rumi and Islam were separated.
In the twentieth century, a succession of prominent translators—among them R. A. Nicholson, A. J. Arberry, and Annemarie Schimmel—strengthened Rumi’s presence in the English-language canon. But it’s Barks who vastly expanded Rumi’s readership. He is not a translator so much as an interpreter: he does not read or write Persian. Instead, he transforms nineteenth-century translations into American verse.