"The Literature of Islamic Mysticism"

1999 NEH SUMMER SEMINAR FOR COLLEGE TEACHERS

Seminar Description



Scope and Approach of the Seminar. The stimulus for this seminar is a cultural conundrum: at a time when the Islamic religion is associated primarily with stereotypes of terrorism and fanaticism, a Muslim has become the best-selling poet in America. How is one to reconcile the gap between public hostility to Islam and the warm and intimate reception of the 13th-century Persian Sufi poet, Jalal al-Din Rumi? This seminar is designed to make a significant feature of Islamic religion and culture available to American humanists, by a critical study of Islamic mysticism and the way its poetic tradition has been mediated in the West through translation.

Islam and fundamentalism. What is usually called Islamic fundamentalism dominates media representations of Islam, and a good deal of American scholarship on Islam focuses exclusively on the anti-Western features of this recent and highly vocal minority movement. Within Muslim societies, however, the main goal of Islamic fundamentalism is to control the symbolic capital of the Islamic tradition. In this respect, its best-established rival is Sufism, the mystical tendency in Islam. Despite the attempt of fundamentalists to claim the mantle of orthodoxy, most scholars would agree that more than half of the world's one billion Muslims have a religious outlook in which Sufism plays an appreciable part.

Sufism and modernity. At the same time that a revision of Islamic norms was being attempted by fundamentalists, Sufism was also being created as a category in the modern European discourse on religion. Two hundred years ago, Orientalists like Sir William Jones were greatly attracted to Persian poets like Hafiz and Rumi, but they believed that this mysticism must be entirely separate from the religion of Muhammad, against which they had an enduring bias. Thus from its inception as a member of the catalog of "isms," Sufism was defined in European Romantic literature as something entirely separate from Islam; it must be derived from Indian yoga, Neoplatonism, Christianity, or anything at all except Islam. In the twentieth century, in the aftermath of the colonization of Muslim countries by European nations, the situation has been complicated by the emergence for the first time of a new Sufism adapted to non-Muslims. Thus arises the essentially modern dilemma of the relation between Sufism and Islam, which remains a contested issue. In addition, the modern category of mysticism focuses on the personal expression of religious experience through texts. From this point of view, Sufi poetry was something that could be separated from its social and historical context, so that it could be remolded for appropriate use by modern readers.

Sufi literature in the West. In terms of popular Middle Eastern writers, today's Rumi phenomenon was prefigured a century ago by the Omar Khayyam craze, and later on by the celebrity of modern Lebanese writer Khalil Gibran. While Khayyam and Gibran are somewhat marginal figures, Rumi is an authentic Middle Eastern classic. From Bangladesh and India to Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey, among those who read Persian there is probably no other poet who is so frequently read today, and so dearly loved, as Rumi. The current popularity of Rumi in America is extraordinary as well. In an age when a Nobel prize-winning poet might expect to sell 10,000 copies of collection of poems, one translator of Rumi (Coleman Barks) has sold well over 250,000 volumes of verse. Dozens of imitators have attempted to follow this lead. What is especially striking is that many of these translators do not know Persian, the language in which Rumi wrote. They are instead working with existing English translations, including the painfully literal products of Orientalists of the last century, producing from them new versions of their own. And some of these have received wide acceptance. Coleman Barks' versions of Rumi (informed by consultation with a Persian specialist, John Moyne) have been included in the Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces.

Target audience of the seminar. This seminar will address Sufi poetry as literature, taking seriously the engagement that Americans evidently feel with translations of Rumi. This is not intended for the small number of specialists in Islamic studies who are already aware of the issues surrounding Sufi poetry; I have in mind instead the much larger number of academics who have encountered this literature and who could benefit from a critical engagement with the problems of religious studies and literary criticism that are implicit in such texts. While it is always popular in some circles to call mysticism timeless, any particular mystic lives in a particular society and historical period, affected by religious tradition and literary convention. It is precisely that historical and cultural dimension of mystical poetry that I would like to illuminate in the context of this seminar. The program for the seminar therefore begins with the issue of Orientalist study of Sufism and category of mysticism, and it proceeds to examine the characteristic symbolism and vocabulary of Sufi texts, and the conventions of Sufi poetry, which should be understood by anyone interested in a deeper acquaintance with this literature.

The issue of translation. Beyond these historical aspects there are theoretical problems attached to translation, including versions based on existing English translations. This century has seen a series of distinguished literary productions that were not based on acquaintance with original language materials, but are responses to existing translations, in which poets like Tagore, Ezra Pound, and more recently Robert Bly have made important contributions; in an earlier day, Goethe and Emerson followed in the same practice. But there are also "versions" being produced that give no sense of any distance from the original text, which required translation in the first place. What is more, some writers state their own relation to the text so delicately that readers never guess that the translator does not know the original language. On the other extreme, many translators feel the obligation to remain true to the original text, but sometimes the translations they produce are only intelligible to someone who knows the original work; paradoxically, the creation of an independent literary work in a second language requires one to a certain extent to forget the original, in order to produce a faithful representation. This issue of translation accordingly has also been addressed in the syllabus.

Music and performance. Another important context for Sufi poetry is its performative aspect, especially as accompanied by music. While poetry in English is typically regarded as something to be spoken aloud or read silently, Sufi poetry (in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and other languages) finds its appropriate place in musical rituals performed by the dervish orders and in ceremonies at the tombs of saints. The question of orality and the lack of fixity of poetic texts will be discussed in terms of the best-studied Sufi musical tradition, the qawwali music of India and Pakistan. We will also consider the poetic texts imbedded in the well-known rituals of the Whirling Dervishes, the Sufi order founded by Rumi's son, plus recordings of Sufi music from different regions.

Seminar Setting and Project. Meetings will be held Monday and Thursday mornings (from 9:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. with a one-half hour break) at a congenial location, the Institute for Arts and Humanities (West House) at the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill. The three translation workshops will be held Friday mornings in the same place. There will also be showings of films on Sufism on the first two Fridays of the seminar, from UNC's extensive collection of films on the Middle East and Islam. Each participant will be expected to use the seminar to develop or advance a specific project, typically a research paper. While writing projects, using either translated documents or foreign language material, are welcome, one may also propose to use the seminar to conceive and incubate larger research programs, to develop or modify syllabi for undergraduate courses, or to produce critical bibliographies or translations. The seminar schedule of readings will initially focus on discussion of selected readings, giving way to participant presentations during the last two weeks of the seminar in the form of progress reports. The director's role will be that of facilitator in a collegial discussion of work-in-progress. The director will meet with each participant individually during the first week, and again later on in the seminar.

Translators' workshops. The last structured parts of the seminar will focus on two different authors: the Arabic poet Ibn al-Farid (d. 1235) and the Persian poet Rumi (d. 1273). Two scholars who specialize in the writings of these poets have agreed to come as guest lecturers in the seminar:Th. Emil Homerin(Rochester University) andFatemeh Keshavarz(Washington University at St. Louis). They will be able to illuminate both the reading of individual texts and the interpretive tradition in which the poetry has been preserved. Their presence will be especially helpful because in each case, Homerin and Keshavarz have proposed the revolutionary strategy of detaching their authors from hagiography and actually treating their writings as literature. What will be especially valuable about these sessions will be the personal accounts of how they have made their decisions as translators, and how they have moved away from the dominant Orientalist voices (Arberry, Nicholson) who up to now have had a specialist monopoly over these Sufi poets.
        A third guest lecturer has also been invited to give a workshop on translation.Coleman Barks (University of Georgia) has agreed to speak about his approach to translation, specifically contrasting his poetic versions with Nicholson's painfully literal version of the Masnavi (which was explicitly designed for students of the Persian text rather than general readers). Barks is a recognized poet in his own right, and he has brought new insights to the interpretation of Rumi.

Logistics. Seminar members will be immediately designated "Visiting Scholars" in the Department of Religious Studies, which will entitle them to the use of the extended library facilities of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Duke University, and North Carolina State University (collectively more than 10,000,000 volumes, including Duke's 200,000-volume South Asia/Middle East vernacular collection). The "UNC One Card" also provides access to extensive athletic facilities (for a nominal fee) and the use of pre-paid photocopy machines. A special library tour will be scheduled with Duke's South Asia/Middle East bibliographer, Avinash Maheshwary. The Carolina Seminar for Comparative Islamic Studies, a local academic group, will also host a reception for the seminar participants at the beginning of the summer to introduce them to local Islamic studies and religious studies faculty and graduate students.

Computer facilities at UNC include extensive computer labs and Internet facilities at the Davis Library, which are publicly available in the daytime and evening with most software packages.  Participants can establish UNC email accounts, which can be accessed on computers at the Student Union and in the Department of Religious Studies. While participants will find it most convenient to bring their own computers, two departmental computers with scanners, graphics programs, and Corel and Microsoft software (for both Macintosh and PC) can be used on a sign-up basis.

Housing. The UNC-CH housing office and the National Humanities Center will make available their lists of houses and apartments available for summer sublet. Prices normally range from $250-$300 per month for a single room to $500-$600 for larger apartments, and furnished house rentals are also available at comparable and higher rates for those who bring family members. Off-campus housing may require the use of a car, although extensive bus routes service the city of Chapel Hill and the entire Triangle area. A graduate student administrative assistant, Philip Hassett, will help track down appropriate housing and other necessities for participants. If you anticipate special needs such as childcare, please indicate that in your application. The stipend for attending this seminar is $3250; the first stipend checks (half the full amount) will be available when participants arrive at the seminar.

Amenities. Within walking distance of the UNC-CH campus, or within a short drive from Chapel Hill, participants will find a plethora of quality dining choices and daily extracurricular activities, from the American Dance Festival's summer program and the N.C. Symphony to art film, rock extravaganzas, and local beach music line-dancing. The coast of North Carolina is a couple of hours to the east by car, and the Blue Ridge Mountains a similar distance to the west. There are a number of local lakes, with full rental facilities for boating, and state and national parks that are easily accessible for picnicking, hiking and camping. Chapel Hill also offers access to a local Sufi group of Turkish origin, a Rifa`i order that has weekly musical sessions in a nearby teahouse. In short, the amenities to relax outside of the library and seminar are manifold and easily accessible.
 

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