‘You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.’
The Essential Rumi (1995)
Coleman Barks
In Summary

Rumi for beginners – a modernised, westernised paraphrase of one of Islam’s greatest poets.


At a young age, Rumi and his family fled the Mongol invasion, leaving their native Persia for Asia Minor, which many Muslims still associated with Christian Europe (leading to his later moniker, Rumi, meaning ‘Roman’). Despite this transition, Rumi never abandoned his native tongue, writing most of his poems in Persian, including his Sufi masterpiece, the Masnavi, which has often been deemed the Persian Quran. 

While Rumi has always held an esteemed position within Islamic – especially Sufi – literature and thought, his recent rise in the West is explained by the popular translation of his works by American poet, Coleman Barks. Finding the current English translations of Rumi to be dry and lifeless, Barks was challenged by a friend to release them ‘from their cages’. Working from the body of existing published translations, Barks (who, controversially, does not know Persian himself), crafted an eminently readable English version of Rumi’s works.

While some have claimed that Barks has abandoned the deeply Islamic context and connotations that form the basis of Rumi’s work by ‘overly westernising’ these texts, he insists that his approach allows Western readers the chance to encounter Rumi in a way they can relate to and understand. In other words, ‘Rumi for Beginners’ need not be synonymous with ‘Rumi for Dummies’.


While journeying through the Turkish West, an intimate friendship was forged between Rumi and his fellow Easterner, Shams of Tabriz. Their relationship (which some have deemed ‘homoerotic’) did not go unnoticed by Rumi’s children and pupils. Indeed, it may have driven them to get rid of Shams, who disappeared one night without a trace. In despair, Rumi chased after his missing companion, before eventually realising Shams was within him all along, for they were one in spirit, if not body. 

However, the divine universe and its unions are beyond words and understanding. Language limits reality to grammar, structure, and coherence – words funnel a whole ocean into our stream of consciousness. By trying to articulate these things we end up concealing them.  

Perhaps due to the inherent limitation of thought and language, Rumi believes it behooves us to be open to other perspectives and religions. Drawing on that ancient adage of blind men touching one part of an elephant, Rumi ruminates on how each of us has hold of but an ear, tail, torso, or trunk, yet mistakenly think we’ve grasped the whole beast. No praise is greater than any other, for we are all rendered equally clueless in the face of infinity.


Barks has given us a version of Rumi which pulsates with contemporary relevance. In his hands, Rumi has been reshaped into a spiritual guidebook for our age; it wrestles with meditation, existential longing, sex, and romance. Whether for pleasure, devotion, or even just a good laugh, this presentation of Rumi has much that modern men and women may find to be worth pouring over. Through Barks, Rumi has helped resculpt the spiritual landscape, with millions of Westerners reading and praying through the words of a 700-year-old Muslim Dervish.

Further Reading By This Author

While The Essential Rumi borrows from a variety of Rumi’s writings, his intact and primary texts include his famed works of poetry such as The Masnavi and Divan-Kebir, as well as his posthumously published Discourses, Sermons, and Letters.

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