THE FRAGRANCE OF THE FRIEND
Interview with Iraj Anvar
"I have known Rumi all my life," Iraj Anvar says. "When I was a baby my father would sing me to sleep with the Mathnawi. It was part of my household. "Born in Iran, Anvar's first career as a theater director in Tehran brought him to America, where he soon found himself estranged from his country by the Iranian Revolution. He found another career as a professor of Persian Literature at NYU and eventually worked with Elizabeth Grey on The Green Sea of Heaven, her book of translations of Hafiz. But despite his dismay at the translations of Rumi available in English, he was reluctant to attempt his own until a friend insisted, telling him, "America wants to know what Rumi really says!" Now Iraj completes the cycle that began when he was a child, singing and reciting Rumi in the Persian language and reciting his inspiring translations, some of which have been published in a bilingual edition entitled Divan-i Shams-i Tabriz, excerpts from which are included here. He is also teaching a course in Rumi at Sufi Books, where his intimate experience of Sufism enhances the appreciation of this most inexhaustible of mystical poets. —Anne Twitty
Parabola: Rumi is now known worldwide, and it seems that the effect of his words — even in translation — awakens a deep response within his readers. According to Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the beauty of Persian poetry attracts the soul, melting "the hardness of the soul and the heart. "He also refers to an Arabic and Persian word husn that means both "virtue" and "beauty." In Western culture, we often think of virtue in terms of the soul, but not necessarily of virtue and beauty being together. In fact, we sometimes think of them as antithetical.
Iraj Anvar: No, in Islam, they are almost the same. Beauty is virtue and virtue is beautiful. Love is the highest and most beautiful virtue. There is a saying of the Prophet: "If Love had a material face, it would be the most beautiful creature."
The face of God is the most beautiful of all, and in the mystical poetry of Rumi and other poets, there are many lines about the beauty of Joseph, which is actually representative of the beauty of God. They refer to it so often!
This beauty is also represented by the saqi who appears in many Persian poems. The cupbearer is beautiful, must be beautiful.
P: He brings the wine of spiritual love.
IA: There is another story: When God created Adam, he made this body which was soulless, and he wanted to send the soul into the body, but the soul said, "No, I'm not a fool, I'm not going to get trapped in there." So God cheated it. He sent some angels into the body, with musical instruments, to play beautiful music, and that's how they lured the soul into the body.
P: Rumi speaks of two kinds of soul in his Discourses. He cautions us that you can't really know the soul unless you have some experience of the other world; otherwise you will confuse that soul with the lower self.
But it seems that there is more than one word in Arabic and Persian that is translated into English as "soul" or occasionally, "spirit." We can easily become confused by them. In one of Rumi's poems, he says that in dreams the soul travels and experiences another world. Is that the ruh, the soul, or spirit, that God originally breathes into the human being?
IA: We have the word ruh in Persian and in Arabic, and we also have a Persian word, Jan. Jan is the soul, but it means "life," as well, and jan-i jan is the soul of the soul. Sometimes jan is ruh, used in the same way.
There is another word, nafs. When we say nafs in general, we always, mean the lower self. Actually, there are five, and you have to have the adjective to distinguish them.
Once Ali was asked, "What is the nafs? Which one are you talking about?" In Arabic, the nafs al-ammara is the imperious self, the one that commands. Then you have nafs al-lawwama. That is the one that scolds you, tells you that this is not right. And then there's the nafs al-mulhima, the one that inspires you. The nafs al-mutmainna gives you certainty and peace.The highest, nafs an-natiqa, means the divine soul, the breath of God.
P: That way of distinguishing them sometimes gives the impression of a ladder that has to be climbed, rung by rung, but perhaps they can also be perceived as different states or qualities of the human being.
It sounds very much as though this description of the soul includes a warning conscience and aspects that assist, enable, help, inspire. These soul-selves show you the way. So the higher educate the lower ones ? And then all of them become unified under the command of the highest?
IA: In reality, the three higher work together under the nafs an-natiqa to tame the lowest one.
P: I have read that al-Ghazali calls that struggle jihad an-nafs, which has been translated as "Fighting the Ego." That nafs is sometimes referred to as the animal nature, but at one point you said in your Rumi class that the lowest nafs is more like what we mean by the ego, in the spiritual sense.
IA: Yes, I think it is. In the old way, you had to kill it. Even Rumi says that we should kill that nafs. Now we understand that we need it, otherwise we cannot survive. But when it goes out of balance, it causes problems. Therefore, it must be tamed and controlled. It is our vehicle to perfection.
P: One of the images of the soul that you have talked about in Rumi and in other Persian poets is the imprisoned bird in the cage, which longs to return to its home.
In your translations, for example, Rumi says: "I was a divine bird, I became an earthly one. I did not see the trap and was suddenly captured in it."
IA: And Hafiz's way of saying it is: "The dust of my body veils the face of the soul. How can I fly if I am imprisoned in the body?"
In fact, we descend and become one with this body in order to evolve, and by reaching a certain level of consciousness we can actually free ourselves from the material body in this life, even if it is only temporary. At that point, Rumi says, "The heavy soul became weightless and took flight."
P: This great poet and teacher also told his listeners that our souls are originally like fish, utterly at ease in the Ocean of Life, and when they come to earth they are like fish thrown onto dry land, yearning to return to their element.
IA: Here he emphasizes the suffering of the soul in a very harsh way. The agony of a fish out of water is quite visible. The difference is that eventually the fish dies, but the soul continues to exist in a stale of constant agony. However, the word most often used for the desire to return to the source is "longing," which is a milder way of describing it.
P: How does he speak about this longing?
IA: In the beginning of the Mathnawi he talks about the reed cut from the reed bed, which becomes a flute and sings the song of separation. It says: You have to have felt the pain that I have fell to understand what I am saying. Those who look at Rumi only from the material point of view say: "Well, he's really talking about the fact that he was cut off his homeland; he had to leave Balkh with his father before the Mongols attacked Persia, and he had to stay somewhere else, very far away, and always longed for' back there'." But from the spiritual point of view, everyone agrees that he's talking about the soul. This material body, made of matter and mud, becomes a prison for the pure soul, and the soul longs to go back to its origin, to the reed bed.
P: Rumi offers us so many ways to see the body: as dust, as a donkey, a staff, serpent, a mountain, a nutshell, a seed pod. He even describes God as a tailor, tenderly fashioning the human body as a robe for the soul. In that view, the body becomes a gift. And while it may be only an outer husk or a pod, the seed can't be planted without it. Then life becomes a matter of growing back in some way.
IA: The soul is created pure — pure and ignorant. It is sent down to be mixed in with this material world, so that it can evolve and reach perfection. The metaphor for the soul is gold, and when gold is pure, although it is very precious, you can't make things with it. It has to be mixed with some other metal as an alloy so it can be worked into something useful.
According to Nour Ali Elahi, there is evidence in the Quran that in fact the soul, when it descends to earth, has 50,000 years to perfect itself in different successive lives, but the Islamic theologians and most of the Sufis don't talk about it. In some of Rumi's ghazals, you see that he hints about it, about coming back.
In one of the ghazals I have translated, he refers to it in this way:
The one who appeared like a moon
in a crimson cloak last year,
this year he came in a brown robe.
The Turk you saw plundering that year
is the same one who appeared as an Arab
Even though the garment is changed, the
beloved is the same.
He changed the garment and reappeared.
In another poem Rumi says, "I died as mineral and became a plant," which is pretty close to the doctrine of Ahl-i Haqq which talks about the collective force of the mineral that reaches perfection and goes into plant life, and is then transferred into the animal and the human. Not the soul, not that essence, not the higher self, but the jan or life force that is formed from a group of animals. When finally the human soul is formed in a body, the divine soul joins in. It comes from the breath of God, and by descending into the body it begins the process of perfection.
P: Another image Rumi offers us is of the body as Mary, pregnant with the soul, who is Jesus. But he adds that sometimes the birth pangs never come, and the soul is never born. Presumably, then, the person dies without ever having realized the soul?
IA: Yes. That is when we do not struggle toward perfection. Without struggle, there is no improvement, so the soul remains undeveloped.
Whenever Jesus is mentioned, he is given the title of Ruh Allah after his name. Ruh Allah means the Soul of God. So when Rumi says that the body is like Mary and the soul is Jesus, it makes perfect sense because of this attribute. He is the symbol of purity. Nevertheless, Muslims believe that he is not the son of God. God doesn't give birth, but Jesus is considered the most perfect Sufi.
P: Although the body exists as an outer form, it seems that it, too, is capable of transformation. In one poem Rumi addresses his soul as Moses, in reference to the story of Moses among the Egyptian sorcerers. What does he mean when he says that for Moses, the body is a staff when held and a serpent when thrown?
IA: While the body is held by the spirit, by the soul, it is controlled. Like the staff, it is good and useful. When it is separated from the soul, it becomes wild and violent. The nafs that escapes from control is sometimes pictured as a snake.
P: Our issue is called "Body and Soul," but are these one or two? Is the body separate from the soul? It sounds in a way when you're talking about Rumi that it's one. Once it's been lured into the body and becomes entangled with matter, it becomes inseparable.
IA: Well, it's more like the shell and the fruit inside. They are one, but they are not one. The soul definitely needs the body to develop and evolve, but they are two different things that couple for the short span of earthly life.
You can compare the appearance, the outside, to a shell, that you can touch and see, but the shell without an inside is just a shell. It has no life, no reality.
P: One is perishable and one is imperishable?
IA: Exactly. When a soul leaves the body, the body is nothing, you just give it time and it becomes part of nature. "Let our fragile spirit have eternal life. / The soul lives, the body wears out like a cloak."
P: The celebration of the night of Rumi's death, in Konya, is called the Wedding Night, isn't it? And in the beautiful lines from one of your translations, he speaks of rejoicing at the moment of death: "Tripping on a stone he finds a pearl. /His soul leaves his lips to kiss lips sweeter."
IA: Yes. And there is this other line from Rumi: "When you are left behind, when you cannot walk anymore, travel anymore, your soul continues the journey."
P: Though the body is an instrument for the journey, there's a stage in the journey when it is no longer necessary. But the journey continues. ...
"The day the soul flies in the rapture of your scent / the soul and only the soul will know the fragrance of the friend."
IA: There is a temporary link between soul and body, yet there is also a division. At the beginning of the Mathnawi, we are told: "The body is not hidden from the soul, nor the soul from body. Yet no one, no body, has permission to see the soul."
P: Rumi often reminds us that the form is the outward part, and the essence or soul is the inward. "Soul" and "body" become ways of looking at the world. At one point, before retelling an old story, he declares that the traditional story is the husk and by reinventing it, he is giving his listeners the kernel, its soul. In the Discourses, he refers to the word as the body, and its meaning as the soul. And he describes the outer form of ritual prayer as its body, while its soul is absorption and unconsciousness, which are beyond the scope of the outer form and even exclude it.
IA: Yes, you're talking about surat and ma'na; surat is the appearance or the face and ma'na is the essence. There are other words that also refer to this concept: zahir, what is apparent, and batin, what is hidden.
P: So the soul is concealed from us... ?
IA: Well, in a way, when we don't develop properly and we don't have the ability to see our true nature, we can't see it. An undeveloped person is like a child. Originally, the soul is like a child, and it has to grow.
P: In that process there are "temptations," and at first they are very obvious; the blaming self identifies them right away—whether or not we choose to listen to it. But it seems that as the soul's evolution progresses, temptations become more subtle and harder to detect. That means that we have to become more and more sensitive to the inner meaning of a situation.
IA: Yes, my teacher said that sometimes the nafs may appear as a very wise man, somebody very respectable, and it gives you advice that is ultimately not very good for you, but it is so camouflaged in a cloak of religiosity and spirituality that if you are not careful, you will do what it suggests.
P: In another sense, according to Rumi, the soul is infinite. In its essential nature, it has no boundaries, no limits, and yet as we experience it, going through life, it has stages and limitations.
IA: Time, and space, and that other dimension. We say that, but we don't understand it. We don't know what we are saying when we say there is no time and space. We cannot conceive it with this mind and this rationality.
P: While Rumi sometimes speaks of the body as a sheath or support for the soul, at one point he calls the soul itself a cup. We keep moving into more and more subtle realms, where even the soul, which seems so ethereal, so immaterial, serves as a vessel for the wine of love.
IA: The soul is a cup that can hold the wine of love, which can be interpreted as the essence of God, but this cup is still immaterial.
P: This wine is often associated with the subtle heart, but sometimes Rumi seems to be using "soul" and "heart" almost interchangeably.
IA: The image is that you have to empty your heart. Your heart can be considered a cup full of other things. You throw out everything, you clean it, and then it will be filled with the wine of love. And yes, sometimes heart and soul are interchangeable.
P: One thing that has come through this talk with you is the idea of evolution, that the soul comes down and doesn't return in the same state.
IA: No, if it succeeds in doing what it is here to do, it returns fully aware.
P: Ideally. Or less aware? Is there also a downward movement, a devolution rather than an evolution? You don't go up every time?
IA: While we can regress by creating immense pain and suffering for others and ourselves and even hinder the general evolution of mankind, I think we are forced toward this evolution. All we can do is to slow it down.
P: We're drawn. That's wonderful, that we find our way through an evolution on another scale.
IA: These are the actions of God's love. It is felt in, echoed in, the human being. Rumi says: "The voice of this reed flute is fire, it is not air / and whoever does not have this fire is lost..."
P: The fire, then, is the fire of love, and that is the only thing that carries you.
... You were saying that God is love, and the soul is drawn like the moth to the flame. ...
IA: That is used very often in Persian: the moth that is drawn to the light. And it comes so close that it is burned and becomes part of the flame.
P: In that moment all of the concepts we have been alluding to are annihilated: "Why even think of heart or mind, when the soul itself has fled."
IA: Khamush, meaning Silent, is one of Rumi's pen names. It is ironic that the poet who composed such an immense quantity of poetry calls himself that. But he uses the imperative Khamush! Silence! at the end of many of his ghazals. For him, there is a point past which language cannot go. We are left in silence.
~ Excerpted from Parabola, Volume: 30.3 Body and Soul
Fall Issue, 2005