Muhammad Ali Mojaradi was born to Iranian immigrant parents in Michigan and raised there. At age fifteen, despite the protests of his family, he moved to Tehran where he lived with his grandparents and attended high school. In 2015 he moved back to the United States and studied Economics and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Michigan while working as a researcher and Persian translator.
While studying, he learned Persian poetry formally for the first time and founded @persianpoetics as a part-time hobby, hoping to expose his friends to the world of Persian poetry. He also chose the pen name ‘sharghzadeh’ meaning ‘struck by the east’ in Persian, a play on words with the famous term ‘gharbzadeh.’
Saʿdi’s grave in Shiraz, Iran.
After completing his studies at the University of Michigan, he traveled to Jordan where he studied Arabic at Qasid Arabic Institute and Jordan University. The Covid 19 pandemic forced him to cut his studies short and return to America after initially planning to remain in Jordan to continue his study of Arabic and Islam. Upon returning to America, he began to work on @persianpoetics full-time, eventually launching the viral #rumiwasmuslim campaign, attracting international media attention. Following popular demand, Muhammad began working on his first book, a translation of Rumi’s poetry, which is now forthcoming.
We talk to Muhammad about the intention behind Persian Poetics, how poetry is embedded in Muslim culture, spiritual colonialism and the problematics of translations.
Have you always had an interest in the written word and poetry?
In elementary school, I started to learn the guitar and attempted to write my own songs. Though I was mostly imitating others, the practice made me think about the process of writing poetry. Later in elementary school, I read Shel Silverstein books, and in middle school, I developed a taste for Hip Hop, which is a kind of poetry, though it is often not recognized as such. My introduction to traditional poetry was in high school. The works we read were boring and I did not relate to them. They were classics, but not my classics.
At age fifteen I left the United States and moved to Tehran where I lived with my grandparents. I had visited Iran before, but I was young and lacked the awareness to absorb the culture fully. As a tennager, I began to notice that the streets of Tehran are full of Persian poetry. Perhaps the streets of Tehran are an unlikely introduction to Persian poetry. Like any Persian-speaking family, we had copies of Hafiz, Rumi, and other famous poets in our bookshelf. We would read them on special occasions, but my Persian was never good enough to fully understand. My newfound interest motivated me to slowly work through them. It was a struggle, but every bit of progress motivated me.
When did you create Persian Poetics, what was the concept and intention behind it?
Upon returning to America and starting university studies, I began to read Persian poetry more seriously. I began translating some couplets and poems for my friend, hoping they could appreciate the poems I love so much. In early 2018 I put the translations on Instagram to serve as a public archive. There was no larger goal or vision at the time, it was just a passion project.
The page began to grow, first to thousands, then tens of thousands of followers. I was once under the impression that Persian poetry was mostly interesting for Iranians or Afghans, but as my page grew, I began to learn that Persian poetry was a shared heritage of Muslims from the Balkans to the Bengal. Persian was my native language, but I was totally unaware of its history in the Muslim world. Like all artists should, I tried to improve my craft by seeing the work of those that came before. I learned about the field of Persian translation and was dismayed to find that it was intimately tied to the colonial project in British India. Learning this history ignited a passion and direction for the project.
Why is poetry such a powerful art form and how can people connect to it?
Poetry invokes emotions. If a mosque Imam tells his community: ‘Racism is not allowed in Islam, all Muslims are related by something greater than race, which is faith.’ The attendees agree, but no heart is moved. Now imagine if he recites Allāma Iqbāl:
Not Afghan, nor Turk or Tatār,
no, the bloom of one branch we are.
Diving colors, scents is sin,
we bloomed in one spring, we are kin.
The same sentiment is expressed, but the rhyme and meter invoke emotions. Poetry is also different than all the other art forms because it is a two-way process. When we listen to music, appreciate paintings, or stand in awe of a building, we are very much an observer, there is not much room for interaction. When we read poetry, we are engaged in conversation with the poet. It is up to us to decipher and interpret the text, then we can share it with others. It’s more personal in that way. This is especially true of Mawlana Rumi’s work, you often feel he is speaking directly to you.
In the world of poetry, why is Rumi and Sufism so popular?
Like other Sufis, Mawlana Rumi thought of poetry as a means to an end. He wrote poetry to record and spread his teachings and mystical states, the art of poetry was not his primary interest. Therefore, he was not a poet in the proper sense. Mawlana even expresses annoyance at the strict rules and constrictions of classical poetry. Sufis often said that rhyme and meter were adornments for speech and the speech of Sufis requires no adornment. Shams-i Tabrīzī was of this opinion, his writings are almost entirely prose. In accordance to that, Rumi often ignores metrical and rhyme constrictions in favor of expressing himself, which professional, non-Sufi poets like Hafiz or Saʿdi would never do.
Before Rumi’s time, there were only two major Persian Sufi poets, ʿAttār of Nayshāpūr (‘Conference of the Birds’ author) and the lesser-known Sanāʾī of Ghazna. Most Persian poetry was about worldly matters and physical pleasures, much like the pre-Islamic Arabic poetry before it. As one can imagine, Mawlana and other Sufis were not particularly interested in this sort of poetry, just like the Prophet (PBUH) and companions disliked much of the pre-Islamic poetry.
Given that, it should come as a surprise that Rumi and his fellow Sufis became the most popular of the Persian poets. I believe that Sufism is the best of humanity, and the (true) Sufis represent the best of humanity, therefore it’s no surprise that the poetry of Sufis would be the most popular. When given a choice between matters of the world and deeper, more meaningful things, people are naturally drawn to that which has more meaning, and can nourish their soul.
Given that, it is no surprise that Mawlana Rumi and other Sufi poets are even more popular today, in an age where the spiritual is replaced by the worldy, and pleasures of the soul are replaced by pleasures of the body. Everyone, from Muslim to non-Muslim, senses that our modern, materialist, had failed to spiritually fullfill, so they take refuge in the words of sages like Mawlana.
How is poetry embedded into Muslim culture?
Poetry is a universal phenomenon, but Muslims give it a special importance. The Arabian peninsula was a very inhospitable place for traditional arts like music or architecture, so the Arabs perfected language instead. This culture of eloquence spread wherever the early Muslims went. The Qur’ān, which is the primary source of our religion, boasts eloquence and clarity as one of its miracles. Although it does not adhere to a rhyme or meter scheme, it is poetic and melodious. This is another reason eloquence (balāgha) and the spoken word is important to Muslims.
As Islam spread, Arabic poetry began to influence local languages, eventually leading to the formation of Persian poetry, which in turn inspired Turkish and Urdu poetry. Like all traditional sciences poetry has declined considerably but Muslims are still attached to their poetry tradition, if only as a reminder of a more glorious past, when we had the leisure time to contemplate the finer details of life and refine our speech.
I have also written an opinion-editorial piece on this same topic: https://newlinesmag.com/essays/the-key-to-understanding-iran-is-poetry/
Why is it important to accurately translate poetry and what is the impact of a failure to do so?
Italians say ‘traduttore, traditore’ (translator, traitor). The phrase is a recognition that it is impossible to ever fully convey what is said in one language in another. Even the most simple sentences, or even a single word, can be impossible to translate. Iranians famously have a social etiquette known as taʿāruf (often spelled: taarof), how can such a concept be translated? The same can be said for words that have equivalents. Is ‘adab’ manners? Is ‘ʿishq’ love? Are ‘home’ and ‘khāna’ (or ‘bayt’) really the same word? They refer to the same building, but these places are different in every way imaginable. Even on the most basic level, ostensible synonyms can carry very different meanings and connotations.
This is just a small taste of the considerations a translator must make. As a translator of Muslim poetry I face a dual challenege: the gaps that I navigate aren’t only linguistic, but also cultural. A translator must not only be bi-lingual but also bi-cultural. They have to understand the language and culture of both civilizations equally well.
We have to be careful when translating anything, let alone our sacred texts, such as the Qur’ān or Masnawi-i Maʿnawi. A mistranslation in the secular realm can be amended with little harm done, but mistranslations of religious texts can have dangerous consequences. Sincere seekers can be led astray. The original Masnawi text is already difficult for those born and raised in Rumi’s linguistic, religious, and cultural context. Imagine how difficult it can be for a Western-raised person to make sense of even the best English translation, let alone a translation that has errors or lacks context.
Has Rumi’s Poetry Fallen Prey To ‘Spiritual Colonialism’?
Unfortunately, most of what passes off as ‘Rumi poetry’ in the modern world is a product of this spiritual colonization, whether it is done with malicious or innocent intent. Realizing how poorly Rumi’s poetry has been translated was one of the main factors that made me take my project seriously. Although I had spoken about this issue online before, it was a Twitter thread-exposé of this topic that made my project go viral: https://twitter.com/PersianPoetics/status/1261745279860080641
Have other Muslim poets also been subjected to this?
Every Muslim poet that has been translated into English has been subjected to some pseudo-spiritual new-age botched translation. None have been affected as much as Rumi, but a close second is Hafiz. American poet Daniel Ladinsky has written several fabricated ‘translations’ of Hafiz’s work. These are worse than the Coleman Barks renderings of Rumi. At the very least, the work of Mr. Barks is connected to Rumi in a real way, while Ladinksy’s work is a pure fabrication and forgery of the highest order.
You also teach courses on Rumi and Sufi poetry, what can people gain from this experience?
Poetry, like any traditional field of study, is best learned with a guide. This is especially true for Sufi poetry. Even native speakers of Persian can struggle to make sense of Mawlana Rumi’s poetry, imagine how much harder it is to read from a translation, or worse, a poorly-done translation.
In my classes, I strive to present the material in a way that is authentic, immersive, and easy to digest for students of all backgrounds. We have Muslims, non-Muslims, native Persian speakers, people who have never studied Persian, and more. Many interested readers are totally unsure how to approach the Persian literary tradition. It’s so vast, one can struggle knowing where to begin. I design my classes as an approachable entry point into the tradition.
You can find our courses on our website https://www.persianpoetics.com/
Who are your favorite poets?
I can’t call him a poet, so I will say Mawlana Rumi is my favorite Sufi who transmitted his teachings with poetry. In terms of professional poets, Hafiz is my favorite. He always leaves the reader wondering, and no one can claim to understand Hafiz entirely. There are too many layers and secrets in his body of work. Though he is not as awe-inspiring or mysterious, Saʿdi is an excellent poet as well.
Do you write poetry too?
I did once try my hand at verse,
my work’s not bad - it is much worse!
Translation’s where I feel at home,
perhaps one day I’ll write a poem.
What has the public reaction been to your work?
Alhamdullilah, the Muslim community has always been receptive and encouraging. Even two years after my project went viral, I am still shocked by the number of kind messages and remarks I get. I am also very grateful to the non-Muslim audience who have taken it upon themselves to set aside the colonized translations and try to read Mawlana Rumi’s work in an authentic way. It’s very touching when someone appreciates your culture and traditions.
What are your future hopes and aspirations for Persian Poetics?
Expanding my work beyond social media is the goal. The first step was hosting classes where I take an in-depth look at various texts and poets. I am in the process of turning my website into an online learning platform where students can access the courses anytime. I am also working on a forthcoming book of Mawlana Rumi’s poetry in translation.
What does the future of Islamic art and culture look like for you?
I am not hopeful about the future of our art. It seems that we are losing our touch. The modern poetry written by Muslims can hardly compete with what has come before. We are lucky if we can build a convincing copy of our older mosques, and almost every modern mosque fails to produce a new style that doesn’t totally depart from what came before. Our new cities are poorly-planned copies of American car-centric cities, and we are slowly abandoning the dense markets and walkable alleyways that made our cities great.
If it were up to me, Islamic art would continue to tread the path it always has. That is, developing and changing slowly with attention paid to what has come before us. I am not hopeful such a thing will come to pass, we lack the imagination and self-confidence. Our arts were developed with the patronage system, where a Sultan or Prince would fund poets, craftsmen, architects, and other artisans to produce the heritage we love so much. Nowadays, not only is there no patronage, our governments are destroying our heritage, whether unintentionally due to an inability to maintain what has been built, or via malicious destruction to build inferior replacements.
Our hope lies in projects and outlets like Bayt al-Fann that showcase the gems of our traditional art, hopefully inspiring modern Muslims to produce something as beautiful.
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