What's in a Name? : Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi

What's in a Name?

by Deborah Addington on 04/09/11

Quite a lot, as it turns out--at least with 12th century Sufi poets.

 Most folks just call him Rumi, which simply means "the Roman," and is an allusion to where Mevlana lived in Anatolia.  It does not mean "available for mistranslation or misinterpretation of work by those who don't speak Farsi, Persian or Turkish."

Having just created this blog as an act of public scholarship, I set out to find some nice art to fancy it up with.  Having learned that Rumi is actually something of an insult and rarely if ever used by his adherents, I searched for Mevlana instead.  I immediately noticed a difference: when I searched for Rumi, most of the sites came back in English.  When I searched Mevlana, almost every single site was in Arabic, Farsi or Turkish.  To be fair, because I can't read them yet, I may be misidentifying the languages, but I do know for sure that they weren't English.

That says something to me.  It says "Rumi" is for people who like their wisdom bite-sized, instantly and in English.  "Rumi" fits on a bumper sticker or coffee mug, is easy to pronounce and provides an accessible referent.  It's the finger pointing at the man.  Now that I know Coleman Barks didn't translate Rumi but rather wrote his own interpretations of Mevlana's (sometimes poorly) translated works, I feel a little sad.  There's beauty in how Barks puts things, sure, but it isn't Mevlana. 

This amazing scholar and poet had titles as well as names.  "Mevlana" is one of them; it means "our master" or "our teacher."  "Hudawandigar" means "distinguished leader."  The term "mevlevi" refers not only to a follower of Mevlana, but also means "one with an awakened heart."  It seems that the man became a figure on which one might hang many beautiful names.

The term "sufi" comes from the root word for "wool," and speaks to simplicity, the beauty in simple everyday things.  The hats that dervishes wear are made of wool and are symbolic of the tombstones of the nafs, ofeten loosely translated as "ego."  "Dervish" means "one who stands on/at a threshold," and Sufis certainly dance with the liminal.  We are always at a threshold, one between the world we experience and the tawhid or oneness of Allah. 

This post is dedicated to Silas Knight, who warned me early on, when I was too foolish to listen.  I get it now.  Thank you, Silas.

Comments (5)

1. Lawrence said on 5/5/11 - 06:15PM
Thank you for this sharing!
2. Bastet George said on 5/6/11 - 11:14AM
I appreciated the sensitivity with which you wrote these essays. Your appreciation of the subject is obvious. If more Westerners were interested enough in the world around them to read essays like yours then no doubt there would be more understanding between peoples.
3. David said on 5/9/11 - 08:23AM
...AND, your Hu calligraphy is lovely!
4. Calleaghn said on 5/10/11 - 05:50AM
What a lovely bit of bloggishness! It's gorgeous, on many levels. I appreciate hearing about what you're hearing about, particularly how it comes through your particular filter. I've been a Rumi fan for years and did not know these simple, important things you've shared just in this opening piece. Mavelevi. Beautiful. Blessings~~~ C
5. Silas said on 5/15/11 - 03:43PM
I'm honored. And educated.


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Welcome to my Mevlana blog!  The purpose of this is twofold: one is to help me, as a grad student, distill the abundance of information I'm getting from Dr. Ibrahim Farajaje's doctoral-level course on Jala al-Din Mevlana Rumi's work, especially the Masnawi.  The other purpose is to see how well I can absorb this complex information, synthesize it and cough it back up accessibly.  With the terror-instilling "radicalization of Islam" rhetorc that's currently being spewed all over us, this information will, I hope, help readers to come to new and deeper understandings of Islam.  Please feel free to share this blog widely and at will.
Questions? Stuff you'd like to know? Comments?  Just drop me an email.  Thanks for visiting!
my "Hu"
Calligraphy in the shape of a Sufi nafs tombstone hat.  I can't translate--yet.
My first written word in Arabic: "Hu"
Ney, the Reed Flute