Ibrâhîm Gamard is a licensed psychologist by profession and received his Ph.D. in 1986. A student of Sufism for over thirty-five years, he converted to Islam in 1984 and went on the Pilgrimage to Mecca in 1999. He has been affiliated with the Mevlevi [Mawlawî] tradition of Islamic Sufism (the 700 year-old tradition which originated with Mawlâna himself] since 1976. In 2007, he was made a Mevlevi Shaykh, or authorized teacher, by Fârûk Hemdem Çelebî, the 22nd generation direct descendent of Mawlânâ and the international leader of the Mevlevi tradition. Ibrâhîm’s Mevlevi spiritual teacher, ?efik Can (Shafîq Jân, 1909-2005) was very learned in the Persian of Mawlânâ and also translated the quatrains (into Turkish, 1991). Ibrâhîm began teaching himself to read classical/medieval Persian starting in 1981, for the sole purpose of studying Mawlânâ’s poetry. He began posting his literal translations (mostly selections from the Mathnawî, with commentary and transliterations) on the Internet starting in 1997. In 2001, he placed all of his translations (but only a few of quatrains), as well as many related articles, on his website: www.dar-al-masnavi.org. He is the author of Rumi and Islam: Selections from His Stories, Poems, and Discourses (2004) and The Quatrains of Rumi (with Ravan Farhadi, 2008). He lives in Northern California.
This interview was conducted via email correspondence with Ibrahim Gamard. Special thanks to Dr. Gamard for his time and for sharing his thoughts with all of our viewers at Semazen.net.
Semazen net: Could you please share a few words about yourself and how you were first introduced to Hazret-i Mevlana (k.s) and his teachings?
Ibrahim Gamard: I first read about Hazret-i Mevlana and his teachings in 1971. In 1975, when I was in a sufi group in Los Angeles, our teacher announced that he had invited a Mevlevi leader from Konya to visit our group. In preparation for this visit, I read Nicholson’s complete English translation of the Mathnawi and became convinced that it was the greatest book of religious mysticism I had ever read. The next year, in 1976, Süleyman Dede Efendi arrived from Konya. He was about 71 years old at the time. He initiated me as a whirler [semazen, in a sikke tekbir ritual] as well as some others, he taught us the Sema ritual, and we did a half Sema with him in a gymnasium in Los Angeles. We cleaned the gymnasium while listening to a tape recording of Dede singing the tekbir (“Allahu ekber, Allahu ekber...“). The year after that, in 1977, I traveled with my wife to Konya and we went to Dede’s house and visited Hz. Mevlana’s tomb for the first time. Later, about 1981, I began teaching myself Persian in order to read Mesnevi.
Semazen net: In the western world there is a growing interest in Hazret-i Mevlana and his teachings. Could you please elaborate on the difference in how he is perceived and understood in the west?
Ibrahim Gamard: Hazret-i Mevlana’s name (“Rumi”) and poetry are amazingly well-known in the America, especially for themes of spiritual joy and mystical love. Books written by scholars about Mevlana readily acknowledge the centrality of his Muslim faith in his mysticism. But in the popularized “Rumi translations in English, much of the Islamic content and references in Mevlana’s poetry have been minimized or removed--due to suspicion and a generally negative attitudes toward Islam in America. As a result, Mevlana is presented as a “universal mystic” who was tolerant of all religions and was no longer attached to the religion he was raised in. This is unfortunate, because he was one of the greatest followers of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and his Mesnevi has been called an expression of the Qur’ân in the Persian language. This way of presenting him has also been successful because it builds on the popularized (but false) idea that Sufism is a universal mysticism that can be taught and practiced separately from Islam, and that Mevlana was this kind of “Sufi”. This followed the same pattern of how Hindu and Buddhist spirituality came to the West: it was taught that people could do Yoga or Zen meditation without needing to change their religion or attend Hindu or Buddhist temples. Similarly, Westerners have been taught that they can do Sufi spiritual practices and read Sufi poetry and stories without becoming involved with the religion of Islam.
Semazen net: You recently completed and published a tremendous resource for Western readers who are interested Hazret-i Mevlana. Could you share some thoughts about the project that became “The Quatrains of Rumi”?
Ibrahim Gamard: In 1985, a friend returned from a visit to Turkey and gave me a book of Sema musical compositions edited by Seddetin Heper (“Mevlevi Ay?nleri”). I had tried to translate some of Hazret-i Mevlana’s quatrains from the book, but had difficulty understanding some of the words that were transliterated with modern Turkish letters. [For example, the word for “butcher” is spelled in Turkish as “kasap”, but you have to know that the “k” is actually the letter “qâf” (and not “kâf”), that the “s” is actually the letter “Sâd” (and not “sîn”), that the second “a” is the letter “â”, and that the “p” is the letter “b” before you can find it in a Persian dictionary (as “qaSâb”.)] A friend told me that there was a new professor of Persian Literature at the nearby university (in Berkeley, California) who was from Afghanistan. I took a short bus ride to the university and met Dr. Ravan Farhadi. He quickly wrote down the quatrains I had worked on in Persian script and dictated simple English translations, which I wrote down. Then he said, “Let’s translate all of the quatrains!” It took us 22 years, working in our spare time, to complete the translation of the nearly 2,000 quatrains, arrange all the quatrains into themes of the lover [`âshiq = sûfî disciple or murîd] and the beloved [ma`shûq = sûfî master or murshid--and ultimately God Most High as the Only Beloved], write Islamic sufi commentary, compile appendices, and so on. I typed the entire book on my computer, including the Persian text, and spent years making every improvement I could think of--because a translation of one of Hz. Mevlana’s works deserves the best efforts that one can make.
Semazen net: You’ve translated a great many of Hazret-i Mevlana’s verses over the years.
How well do you feel the message from the original Persian can be conveyed in translation? Are there any areas where the language simply can not convey and accurate representation of the meaning in Persian?
Ibrahim Gamard: My translations are mostly literal, but Persian has many idioms, and one cannot translate them too literally or the intended meaning is lost; in such cases I translate more freely and then often add the literal meanings in footnotes. That’s why I was blessed to have the help of Dr. Ravan Farhadi with the translation of “The Quatrains of Rumi”, since Persian is his native language as an Afghan. Also, he had extensive university training as a scholar of classical/medieval Persian texts. My commitment to translate as accurately and faithfully as possible led me to decide many years ago to use the method of the British scholar, Nicholson, who put additional words that clarify the meanings within parentheses in his complete translation of Mesnevi into English (1926-1934). Scholars have avoided this use of parentheses since then, because words in parentheses can be distracting. But, after I realized how seriously distorted and unreliable most of the popularized “Rumi translations“ are, I determined to distinguish for the reader which words are translations from Persian and which words are added by me to clarify the meaning and make the translations flow better. I also strongly believe that explanations and commentary are vital to understanding Hazret-i Mevlana’s poetry. Therefore, my website (www.dar-al-masnavi.org) is one of the few places where commentary on verses from Masnavi and Divan-i Kebir can be found.
Semazen net: In recent times many people of varying degrees of knowledge and skill with language have been undertaking the great responsibility of translating the works of Hazret-i Mevlana in order to spread his message. Do you have any advice for these people?
Ibrahim Gamard: A great amount of confusion has been caused by renderings of Hazret-i Mevlana’s poetry by people who cannot read the original Persian and yet whose books have written on the covers, “Translated by” or “Translations by”. This misleads the public, who assume “translated” means translated from Persian--not reworded into a simpler and more poetic way from literal translations made by scholars from Persian to English.
My advice to authors who do not know Persian is: Please be honest about the work you have done. Call it poetic versions, re-creations, adaptations, paraphrases, or interpretive poetic renderings--but do not call it ”translations” or call yourself a “translator”. Please state that you do not know Persian, and list the name of the scholar who made the literal English translations from Persian that you used as well as the title of the scholar’s book. If you are “collaborating” with a living translator, put the name of the real translator first and then put your name second. And please list the Persian sources of the verses and poems so that scholars can find them and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of your interpretive poetic versions.
My advice to authors who do know Persian who have made “popularized translations” is: Please be honest about the work you have done. If you are not a scholar, but Persian is your native language, say so. State that you have not made a literal translation and that you took liberties in your translations in order to make them more understandable to Westerners--such as by simplifying the wording, omitting more difficult verses, omitting Islamic words and references that would need explanations, and sometimes even adding your own verses that you believe help the Western reader to understand better the meaning and feeling of the poem. Please list the Persian sources so that scholars can find them and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of your translations.
Semazen net: For centuries Hazret-i Mevlana’s teachings have not only survived, but thrived and grown in popularity, spreading through the world and appealing to people of all cultures. What is it about his teachings that have made them endure and appeal to so many people of so many cultures, and what place do those teachings have in the modern world?
Ibrahim Gamard: Hazret-i Mevlana’s poetry is amazing in that it speaks to the hearts of so many people, Muslim and non-Muslim--even in translations of varying quality. The teachings, stories, and metaphors about mystical love of God through spiritual love of his Sufi master (Shems-i Tebrizi) and love of the beauty of God reflected in all creation have a powerful effect on the hearts of readers and listeners. One soon falls in love with the many images from Persian poetry that he repeats in so many masterful ways, such as: the moth’s passionate love for the candle flame, the nightingale’s yearning love for the rose, the falcon’s melancholic desire to return to the gloved hand of the king, and the reed’s flute music of yearning to return to its original home in the reed marsh. One view of why Mevlana’s poetry has such power to attract people in the world today is that many experience a spiritual emptiness from living in a modern secular and materialistic culture, and so they feel very drawn to Mevlana’s teachings about spiritual love and mystical joy.
Semazen net: As a Mevlevi Shaykh who has been authorized by the the current head of the Chelebi family and schooled in the traditions of the Mevlevi order, what are your thoughts about the all too common misconceptions about sema in which people see it as some sort of a dance performance rather then an Islamic zikr form?
Ibrahim Gamard: The practice of sema developed among the Muslim sufis of Baghdad several centuries before Hazret-i Mevlana’s time, and involved spontaneous bodily movements (including dance-like movements such as standing and waving the hands or sometimes whirling) that were inspired by mystical poetry and music. But it was not “dance” because the dervishes were not allowed to move unless they felt moved by the will of God. And to make spiritual movements from the desire to be seen and admired by observers was forbidden because this would lead to hypocrisy. There was also spontaneous shouting of the names of God. Mevlana and his son and grandsons did sema in this way. The practice of sema was long opposed by the majority of Muslim scholars as an innovation [bid’at]. However Muslim dervishes were able to get some protection from kings and governors because of their assertion that sema is a “good innovation” [bid’at-? hasane] since it involves intensive concentration on the remembrance of God [zikirullah]. After all, the Holy Koran orders worshippers to "Recollect your God often” (33:41), "Remember the name of your Lord" (73:8), and "Recollect God standing, sitting down, and (lying down) on your sides" (4:103). The Mevlevi Sema had this kind of justification for centuries as long as it continued to be a form of practicing the remembrance of God.
However, since the Mevlevi Sema ritual was taken from its traditional context in the Sema hall [semahane] of a Mevlevi center [tekke]--which was really a “hall of the remembrance of God” [zikirhane]--and made into a public performance on a stage, it has lost justification as a Muslim practice. The only justification for continuing it, in my view, is for Mevlevis to preserve it as a sacred ritual in the hope that one day it can become done correctly again as pure and undistracted concentration on the remembrance of God alone. And if even one whirler [semazen] remembers God alone within his heart during a Sema performance in a theater, this may give some justification--and God is the Knower of the truth of the matter.
It is very important that the Mevlevi Sema be preserved until it can be done in the traditional manner again because it contains important elements of the sema as it was done in the time of Hazret-i Mevlana. This includes spiritual movements (postures and bows, circular motions and whirling), mystical poetry (mainly Persian verses from Mevlana’s Divan), mystical music (in the most lofty Ottoman Turkish style), remembrance of God (since the whirlers are supposed to silently repeat the name of God, “Allah”--Mevlana’s zikir--in the heart), and the preeminence of the Sufi shaykh’s sema (when the Mevlevi postneshin turns slowly in the center at the end of the Sema).
A major help for the preservation of Mevlevi Sema occurred when UNESCO accepted the Sema Ceremony as a Masterpiece of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity, in 2006 (this is much less known than UNESCO’s proclamation, that same year, of 2007 as the “Year of Mevlana”). The Turkish government has taken some steps since then to improve the quality of Sema (such as when the Ministry of Culture and Tourism declared that each Sema group must provide documentation of adequate training in the Ceremony). However, the government should go further by fully accepting the UNESCO declaration about the Sema Ceremony; to do so would involve taking responsibility to preserve many Mevlevi traditions connected with the Sema, such as restoring Sema halls in historic Mevlevi centers.
An important step related to this would be if the government were to officially accept the right of the current head of the Chelebi family, Fâruk Hemdem Chelebi (the 22nd generation direct descendant of Hazret-i Mevlana and the great grandson of Abdul Halim Chelebi, the last “Chief Chelebi” of the Mevlevi Order during the Ottoman Empire), to appoint leaders [postneshins] of the Sema. Then, only those leaders who have a written permit [icazet] from Faruk Chelebi Efendi, or from his father before him (Jelaleddin M. Bâkir Chelebi), would be allowed to lead Sema. And by this means, independent groups without approved leaders, or groups that do Sema without a postneshin (as sometimes happens in the United States), would be banned in Turkey and discouraged from travelling to other countries.
As in the Sema Ceremony, when the semazens receive permission to whirl from the postneshin, this rule could be extended so that it would be unacceptable for semazens to whirl in other situations without receiving permission from an authorized postneshin. Hopefully, this would discourage “profesional semazens” who whirl in Mevlevi costumes for money in hotels, weddings, staged music concerts, etc. By giving more authority to leaders of the tradition, the traditional Mevlevi Sema Ceremony would be better preserved.
Semazen net: Today, many groups unfairly use the name of Hazret-i Mevlana and claim affiliation with Mevlevi order, but do not represent the true teachings of Hazret-i Mevlana and often use their self-appointed titles for their own material gains. What steps would you recommend to the lovers of Hz. Mevlana and his teachings and those who are seeking his path?
Ibrahim Gamard: This is an important question, which I have addressed in an article on my website (see the address in question #4), “The Leader of All Mevlevis”. Unlike many other sufi traditions, the Mevlevi Order remained strongly unified for centuries because of faithfulness to the authority of the leaders of the Chelebi family, the direct descendants of Hazret-i Mevlana. The Mevlevi tradition has become weakened, in part, because of weakened faithfulness to the traditional central authority. My advice is that Mevlevis should return to maintaining traditional respect and obedience toward the current leader, who is Fâruk Hemdem Chelebi Efendi. His authority has been ignored by many for too long. For leaders of independent Mevlevi groups, this must involve more than mere words affirming acceptance that he is the leader of the Mevlevi tradition. It should be a pledge of allegiance to his authority that is accepted by him, and a pledge that is proven by acts of obedience. The Internet can be used to announce which Mevlevi groups have been accepted by Chelebi Effendi, so that people may know which groups are faithfully following the tradition of Hazret-i Mevlana.
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