Last week, Tiffany Trump posted a photo of herself looking fit for an ice skating competition or Dancing With the Stars. Her blonde hair is stick straight, nude lip shining, and her eyes are positively smizing.
The caption alongside the image reads: “Raise your words, not voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.”
Trump attributed the quote to Rumi—“#rumi #rumiquotes”—a 13th century Persian poet, Islamic scholar, and mystic whose works have recently gained massive popularity in the United States. It’s funny. Not the quote, but the juxtaposition of this nugget of wisdom with a glowing photo of Trump, the prodigal daughter of a man who rode a thrumming wave of Muslim-bashing to the White House.
Where did the quote come from? Unclear! What did she mean by it? Also unclear! Is it even a real Rumi quote? No clue! But I decided to try and find out.
In the United States, Rumi’s notoriety has been growing for at least a couple of decades. Time Magazine noted his popularity back in 2002, and in 2014 the BBC reported that Rumi was the best selling poet in the United States. He even made his way into a Coldplay song after Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow consciously uncoupled. In a somewhat tepid review of Rumi’s Secret: The Life of the Sufi Poet of Love in 2017, the New York Times asked: “How Did Rumi Become One of Our Best-Selling Poets?” The short answer is that Americans enjoy easily digestible quotes about love and life, and many translations of Rumi’s poetry, particularly the translations that strip the work of most references to Islam, provide that. (“I see a type of ‘spiritual colonialism’ at work here: bypassing, erasing, and occupying a spiritual landscape that has been lived and breathed and internalized by Muslims from Bosnia and Istanbul to Konya and Iran to Central and South Asia,” Omid Safi, a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at Duke University, told the New Yorker in 2017.)
The quote Trump used is a particularly popular one: A Google search spits out about 54,500 results, an internet landfill of miscellaneous quote pages, abandoned blogs, and Pinterest accounts. The quote also popped up on Goodreads without citation (a reoccurring problem with that site), an inspirational quotes section of a saccharine public service organization website, and a New Age website dedicated to A Course in Miracles.
Beyond that, the quote is splattered across the internet over corny stock images of flowers and rain pelted windows. You can cop it on a free trade bracelet for a sale price of $29.99. You can cherish the quote in the form of ugly wall art Amazon, or less ugly nicer wall art on Etsy. More than one version of this quote has been juxtaposed aside a photo of Buddha, despite the fact that Rumi was not a Buddhist. I even found one pin that attributed the quote to Buddha himself.
Rumi has written over 60,000 lines of verse and his work has been translated into several languages. But as widely adored as this particular quote appears to be, its origins are rarely specified. One website claimed the quote is from The Love Poems of Rumi. However, it’s nowhere to be found in that book. It was also nowhere to be found in A Year with Rumi or the Masnavi. Even in The Essential Rumi, the Coleman Barks translation of Rumi that is credited for the poet’s popularity in the United States, the quote was non-existent.
Professor Fatemah Keshavarz, Rumi scholar and director of the Roshan Institute for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland, told me the quote sounded “interesting,” but she’d never heard the line. “It sounds like a universal agreement among sane human beings,” she told me, namely, that aggression isn’t the best way to achieve positive change; a measured tone can get one’s perspective across more effectively than a combative one. (A rich concept, coming from a Trump.)
But Keshavarz appeared skeptical of the quote’s veracity. “As far as it being a Rumi poem, I actually don’t know this line,” Keshavarz wrote in an email. “Of course, he wrote thousands and thousands of verses, so I cannot rule it out factually. However, if this was among the better-known verses, I would (very likely) have heard it.” Without citing a reference line and page number, Rumi lines should be viewed with reservations, according to Keshavarz: “Quotes without reference are often suspicious.”
Professor Franklin Lewis, associate professor of Persian Language & Literature at the University of Chicago and author of Rumi: Past and Present, East and West, said that while the quote is consistent with some of the themes and didactic tone of Rumi’s poetry, he cannot definitively say that it is or is not a Rumi quote without doing intensive research. He added that many Rumi quotes that circulate online are “unrecognizable translations.”
“I know nothing about the reading habits of Tiffany Trump,” Lewis wrote via email. “But a great many people will have read quotes attributed to Rumi on the internet or even in books that were either not based on a knowledge of Persian, not very accurately translated, were not even by Rumi in the first place, or [were] taken out of context.”
Lewis compared my hunt for this quote’s origins to a search for, say, the authenticity of a modernized translation of a Shakespeare quote. It’s like asking whether “I can’t decide whether to live or die” is an authentic Shakespeare quote when its ye olde equivalent is “To be or not to be, that is the question.”
“If modern English versions of Shakespeare were floating about on the internet and someone gave you a quote attributed to him that went, ‘I can’t decide whether to live or die’ and asked if it was authentic, it would be like looking for a needle in a haystack,” Lewis said via email. “Although, in this case, it happens to correspond to one of the most recognizable Shakespeare quotes.”
And so the mystery of Tiffany Trump’s citation of Rumi—or the #Rumi that exists as a weak spiritual cypher for a certain kind of white person—is left unsolved. For certain American audiences, Rumi’s most popular poetry, will continue to exist as the stuff of Pinterest boards and inspirational quotes on Instagram—stripped, of course, of the Islamic teachings that acted as a foundation to his work. For them, Rumi is merely junk food for the new age soul, barely distinguishable from a particularly sage fortune cookie.
On Monday, Trump posted again, this time an image of what was presumably her law school homework spread out before her. “When life gets blurry adjust your focus,” she captioned. Uplifting, anodyne. There was no #Rumi tag, but you can imagine it there all the same.