Remembering Franklin Lewis by Omid Safi, Muhammad Isa Waley and Paul Losensky

Maydan editors asked three leading scholars to reflect on the legacy of late Franklin Lewis for Maydan. We are grateful to Dr. Omid Safi, Dr. Muhammad Isa Waley, amnd Dr. Paul Losensky for sharing their insights. We remember Dr. Lewis and his contributions fondly.

Remembering Franklin Lewis- Omid Safi


There are people with whom one has few interactions and fewer meetings in person, but whose loss is none the less deeply felt. Only once was I ever able to spend much time with Dr Franklin Lewis, at a Rūmī conference. I have delightful memories of our talks there and on other occasions, and have kept most of our email correspondence. Like our dear mutual friend Lenny Lewisohn, Frank had a most engaging personality. Both men possessed a vast knowledge of and enthusiasm for literature, especially Persian Sufi poetry, and their penchant for quoting apposite verses from memory could never be closeted behind the veil of dervish-ly self-effacement for long.

Speaking of Frank’s modesty and easygoingness reminds me that our first discussions in writing concerned a passage in his major monograph, Rumi Past and Present, East and West. In the first edition, my arguments and position supporting the traditional version of Mawlānā’s date of birth and life chronology somehow came to be mis-stated. I felt obliged to write and clarify the point. Frank graciously rewrote the passage accordingly in the revised edition of the book (pp. 317-320). On another occasion, he suggested, rightly and very tactfully, one or two slight adjustments to a translation of mine.

Acting as editor of an academic journal calls for both jamāl and jalāl: egos must be soothed, academic rigor (and acceptable grammar and style) imposed, and delayed contributions begged for and/or demanded. After Leonard Lewisohn’s untimely death, Frank stepped in to edit the Mawlana Rumi Review. Despite his many other commitments, he succeeded, after innumerable interactions with contributors having varying degrees of competence in English, in producing Volume 9 of the Review, as admirable a compilation as any of the previous ones.

Wit and humor are two other traits which stand out in my recollections. Frank’s lectures and conversation were full of them, and his sensitive and eloquent translations convey with great skill both the sweetness of Persian mystical and didactic love poetry and the bitter sarcasm and subtle (or not so subtle) irony characteristic of many Persian authors, from ‘Ubayd-i Zākānī to Pizishkzād. Here is an example of the more serious kind, from the Masnavī, Daftar 4  (Rumi…, p. 312):


The wise men tell us that we take these tunes

From the turning of celestial spheres

These sounds are revolutions of the skies

That man composes with his lyre and throat.


We all were parts of Adam at one time

In paradise we all have heard these tunes

Though clay and water fill us up with doubts

We still remember something of these songs


And so, like food, samā‘ sustains God’s lovers

within its harmonies the mind’s composed

imagination draws its inspiration

takes its shape within this hue and cry.


The title of Rumi Past and Present, East and West is indicative of the immense breadth as well as the depth of research that went into it, from Mawlānā’s preceptors to his teachings and writings, to his legacy, and on to the Western cult associated with the concise (but, as he used to point out, not particularly apposite) name “Rumi”. Frank’s account of the manifestations of “Rumi-mania” is written with academic detachment,  but also evokes both compassionate understanding and wry amusement. In 2020, while corresponding about the prospects for Volume 10, we somehow moved on to coining some new Rumiological terms, such as his “Barksicizing” and my “Barksism”.

Frank certainly respected the sentiments of Muslims devoted to the Awliyā’, those whom God brings close to Himself, such as Shams-i Tabrīzī. In an excellent illustrated lecture on “Rumi’s Poetic Theology of Love”, which has fortunately been preserved and is accessible on YouTube, Frank speaks of one of Shams’s supposed last resting-places, in the town of Khūy in Iran. He observes that although it is almost certain that none of the three skeletons on display there is actually that of the dervish master of Tabrīz, what counts is the inspiration and “a kind of power” that visitors receive from the experience.

In modern times there are many “orientalist” and other scholars who have a genuine appreciation of whichever culture they specialize in. Fewer are those who, so to speak, “get under the skin” of that culture”. Fewer still are those who become permeated with the spirit of the culture they study, which adds to their effectiveness as teachers and can make them inspirational teachers and lecturers. Franklin Lewis belongs in this very special category, as his written legacy amply demonstrates. May he rest in peace.


این حیات خفیه در نقش ممات

وان مماتی خفیه در قشر حیات

This [true, eternal] life’s concealed within the form of death;

that deadness is concealed within the shell of [earthly] life.

(Masnavī, Daftar 5, 4135-4136)


Remembering Franklin Lewis – Paul Losensky

*Originally published on September 21, 2022 at CMES/ University of Chicago Website 

It is with profound sadness that we announce the death of our colleague and friend, Franklin D. Lewis, who passed away after a long illness on September 19, 2022. Frank began his study of Persian and Persian literature at the University of California at Berkeley (B.A., 1983) before joining the Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago. He completed his dissertation, “Reading, Writing, and Recitation: Sanā’i and the Origins of the Persian Ghazal” in 1995, still one of the most widely cited dissertations in Persian literary studies. After serving two years as a lecturer in Persian at Chicago, Frank joined the faculty of Emory University in 1997 before returning to his alma mater in 2005. He taught courses spanning the entire history of Persian literature and served as the chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago from 2015-18 and 2019-22.

Frank was a prolific and dedicated scholar. His landmark book, Rumi: Past and Present, East and West. The Life and Teachings of Jalāl al-Din Rumi (2008), reassesses all previous research on the life of Persian’s foremost Sufi poet and skillfully navigates the complex history of the poet’s later reception around the world.  The book will serve as a touchstone for any future research on Rumi and has been translated into Persian, Arabic, Turkish, and Danish. Frank’s work, however, went beyond the mystical poets, and his many journal articles and contributions to collected volumes (in both English and Persian) offer insights into other major figures of the classical tradition, such as Ferdowsi, Sa‘di, and Hāfez. Frank was also a skilled translator of both classical poetry and modern poetry and fiction. Particularly noteworthy are his remarkable translations of selected ghazals by Rumi (Swallowing the Sun, 2008) and Zoya Pirzad’s novel Things We Left Unsaid (2012). Whether as a scholar or translator, Frank’s work stands out for its philological exactitude, sensitivity to nuance, clarity of thought, and critical insight.

Frank’s dedication to Persian studies is evident not only in his publications, but in his untiring service to the field. In addition to his long service as departmental chair, Frank served as the president of the American Institute of Iranian Studies for fourteen years (2002-12, 2016-20), where he worked diligently to preserve and expand Iranian studies in the United States in wake of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. He founded and managed the list server Adabiyat, which has provided an international forum for scholars of Middle Eastern literatures for more than two decades. He has edited several collections of scholarly articles, translations, and special journal issues, most recently an issue of Iranian Studies devoted to the Shāhnāmeh as World Literature (2015). Perhaps his greatest contribution to the future of Persian literary studies has been his mentorship during his time at Chicago of a new generation of scholars. The students he nurtured with firm kindness will keep his legacy alive for decades to come.

Frank was a gentleman in every sense of the word. Unfailingly polite, he spoke with quiet, measured deliberation, yet his keen wit and ready smile quickly dispelled any suspicion of aloofness. He wore his learning lightly and radiated good will to all. We have lost not only a talented scholar but a humane and gentle soul. Our sincere condolences go out to his family and to his many friends and colleagues. Frank, you will be missed, brother.