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Dissertation Dive: Restoring Islamic Context to Rumi’s Poetry

Emerson faculty’s expertise and interests are as varied as the students they teach. This is one article in a series about faculty and staff dissertations.

The cover for the Arabic edition of the dissertation.
The cover of the Arabic edition of the dissertation.

Name: Amer Latif

Emerson role: Associate Professor of Religion, Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies

Dissertation title: Qur’anic Narrative and Sufi Hermeneutics: Rūmī’s Interpretations of Pharaoh’s Character

Degree and university: Islamic Studies and Comparative Religion; State University of New York, Stony Brook, 2009

Why did you want to write about this topic for your dissertation?

This is a very personal topic for me. This dissertation marks the end of a long chapter in a quest for answers to existential questions that forced themselves upon me in college.

I started higher education as a science student at Bard College, and came to the study of religion and to Rumi’s poetry late, with a particular understanding of poetry’s purpose. Studying physics in a liberal arts context allowed me to slowly discover my vocation.

As I progressed in the study of physics and mathematics, I became aware of the limitations of science. I was particularly struck by the disjunct between the study of the world outside (cosmology) from the study of the world inside (psychology). I had a lot of insight into the way the physical world works, but felt at a loss to name and work with the forces within myself. I realized that the questions of meaning that had arisen within me were, by definition, beyond the scope of the physical sciences. Rumi’s poetry gave words to what I was feeling and demonstrated a style of thought that had a space for both the head and the heart. The precision of his poetry, in which he describes the realities of the human heart, felt as precise to me as had the writings of great physicists.

Amer Latif gave a series of lectures on YouTube titled Reading the Qur’an with Rumi.

I learned Persian and Arabic in order to read and understand Rumi in the original, and did graduate work in literature, philosophy, and religion. As I started to read Rumi in the original languages, I saw that the translations of Rumi that had made him such a beloved poet in the English-speaking world were, largely, leaving out a lot of his Islamic context. Rumi’s message is truly universal, but the path Rumi took in arriving at this place was an Islamic one. As a Muslim immigrant to the United States, I frequently encountered negative stereotypes about Islam. This shearing of Islam from Rumi felt especially painful after 9/11, when misinformation about Islam, the Qur’an, and Muslims spread like a wild fire. The dissertation was a way for me to ground Rumi within his Islamic context.

The dissertation points out that Rumi takes the Qur’an on its own terms as a book of compassionate advice and guidance, which is a healing for what is in the breasts (Q 10:57). Rumi asks his readers to give primacy to the qualities of God’s mercy and forgiveness. The Qur’an, says Rumi, has “come to quicken us and to hold the hands of those who have lost hope.” To read the Qur’an with Rumi is to keep hearing the echo of his exhortation: “Don’t enter the street of despair, there is lots of hope//Don’t go towards the dark, there are many suns.”

I’m in the process of rewriting the dissertation into a book for a general audience. As a part of this effort I gave a series of lectures a couple of years ago titled Reading the Qur’an with Rumi available on YouTube. An Arabic translation of the dissertation was just published this year in Beirut, and has affirmed the need for a book length study of Rumi and the Qur’an.

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