The Mathnawí of Jalálu’ddin Rúmí
Translated by Reynold A. Nicholson
Publisher: London: Gibb Memorial Trust, 1990.
ISBN 0-906094-27-5 (3-volume set in English)
The Muslim scholar Jalal ad-Din Muhammad (1207-1273) was educated at the best Islamic universities of his day, and was respected in his community as a preacher, legal scholar and Sufi master in the spiritual line of his father who was also a Sufi master. Though born in what is now Tajikistan, Jalal ad-Din lived in the city Konya, capital of the Seljuk sultanate of Rum, in what today is central Turkey. In 1244, he met the Sufi dervish Shams-i-Tabriz (the “Sun of Tabriz”), whose light transformed him into the deeply venerated spiritual teacher whom history knows as Mevlana (or Mawlana) Rumi (i.e., our master from Rum).
In Shams’ form of Sufism (Islamic mysticism) one ‘annihilates’ one’s personality in the personality of the spiritual guide or teacher (pir or murshid), as a necessary step towards ‘annihilating’ one’s personality in God. Ecstatic poetry, music, and dance, all in the name of Shams, began pouring out of Rumi. (After Rumi’s death, his followers would form the Mevlevi or Mawlawi Sufi order famous as the ‘whirling dervishes’.) The poetry, among the most exquisite lyrics of Persian Sufi mysticism, comprises the Divan-i-Kabir (the Great Work or Collection), also called the Divan-i-Shams-i-Tabriz.
These lyrical ghazals (odes) only whetted the appetites of Rumi’s disciples, who were devotedly reading the long didactic masnavis (literally couplets) of Sufi mystics such as Sana’i (d. ca. 1131) and Attar (d. ca. 1221). In 1258, Rumi’s fellow disciple (of Shams) and successor-to-be Husam al-Din Chelebi requested Rumi to write such a work. Rumi responded with the famous “Song of the Reed” which begins: “Listen to the reed how it tells a tale, complaining of separations – saying, ‘Ever since I was parted from the reed-bed, my lament hath caused man and woman to moan.’ I want a bosom torn by severance, that I may unfold (to such a one) the pain of love-desire.” This poem in eighteen lines became the commencement of the Masnavi-i-Ma’navi (Couplets of True Meaning), or more simply the Mathnawi (also spelled Masnavi and Mesnevi). Over the next fifteen years, with Husam as his secretary, Rumi dictated the six books of the Mathnawi – about 25,000 couplets – now acknowledged as a Sufi, Persian and world literary classic. In honor of this iconic master’s 800th birthday, UNESCO declared 2007 to be the International Rumi Year.
Until today, the only complete English translation of the Mathnawi appears in three of the eight volumes of The Mathnawi of Jalaluddin Rumi by Reynold A. Nicholson, which was published starting in 1926. In addition to Nicholson’s translation, this eight-volume work contains Nicholson’s commentary and an edition of the Persian original. A scholar of Persian and Arabic literature at Cambridge University, Nicholson preferred to emphasize scholarly exactitude rather than literary beauty in his translation. For example, he uses parentheses to set his own interpretations off from Rumi’s literal words, and inserts many footnotes to explain obscure religious and cultural references. While many readers will be reassured by such a precise and exhaustive translation, others may find it a bit dry and cumbersome. The latter may prefer one of the many partial translations of the Mathnawi, such as the one-volume abridgement by E. H. Whinfield, Masnaví-i Ma’naví, the Spiritual Couplets of Mauláná Jalálu’d-din Muhammad i Rúmí. A list of other English translations can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Masnavi.
Even apart from issues of translation, the Mathnawi isn’t always easy going for modern readers. Certainly, our ideas of good taste or ‘political correctness’ are different from those of Rumi’s thirteenth-century Persian-Islamic culture. As a result, the poem must be approached with good-willed tolerance – the same tolerance one might accord to, say, Dante, Shakespeare, or even Mark Twain. Nevertheless, and regardless of their religious affiliations, many readers consider the Mathnawi to be the greatest work of mysticism ever written.
The Mathnawi is a spiritual love letter to Rumi’s followers, engaging them with entrancing poetry but also innumerable stories, parables, jokes, anecdotes from history, scenes from everyday life, as well as references to the Qur’an and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Yet, however, entertaining the material often is, Rumi’s obvious purpose throughout is to teach profound spirituality. As he himself explains in the short Arabic prose preface to Book One, the purpose of the Mathnawi is to reveal “the roots of the roots of the roots of the (Mohammedan) Religion in respect of (its) unveiling the mysteries of attainment (to the Truth) and of certainty; and which is the greatest science of God and the clearest (religious) way of God and the most manifest evidence of God.” In fact, scholars often declare that the significance of the Mathnawi is not only Islamic but universal. Yet it is notable that Rumi does not achieve that universality by setting aside his Islamic religion and culture, but, as he said, by going to “the roots of the roots of the roots” of that religion.
One fruitful perspective from which to read the Mathnawi is as a reflection of the needs of Rumi’s followers – answers to their many doubts, advice for the ticklish problems of their lives and encouragement to struggle onward on the path to union with their Master, and thence the Eternal. Because Rumi is responding to his disciples’ interior as well as exterior needs, he doesn’t proceed in a linear keep-to-the-point fashion, but interrupts his stories with stories, pertinent discussions, and often direct challenges to the knee-jerk interpretations that the lower self - the nafs – continually attempts to foist on unwary readers.
Rumi has much to say about this nafs, translated by Nicholson with such terms as the “ghoul-like soul”, the “fleshly soul,” or the “carnal self.” Rumi warns, “to regard the self as easy (to subdue) is folly, folly. O son, if you seek (to know) the form of the self, read the story of Hell with its seven gates. Every moment (there proceeds from the self) an act of deceit, and in every one of those deceits a hundred Pharoahs are drowned together with their followers.”
How is one to overcome this great and only obstacle, the nafs, and thus successfully traverse Rumi’s path? By seeking refuge with a saint: “Though you be rock or marble, you will become a jewel when you reach the man of heart (the saint)…. Go not to the neighborhood of despair: there are hopes. Go not in the direction of darkness: there are suns.” Rumi has the Almighty explain: “These saints are My children in exile, sundered from (My) dominion and glory; (They are) despised and orphaned for the sake of probation, but secretly I am their friend and intimate. All of them are supported by My protections: you may say they are in sooth parts of Me.”
In early December 1273, some fifteen years after beginning the Mathnawi, Rumi dictated the poem’s final verses (the last story is unfinished), and a few days later, on December 17, the mortal candle relinquished its flame to the eternal flame from which it had come. Aflaki, a fourteenth century Mevlevi, describes “Jews, Christians, Turks, Romans, and Arabians” flocking to Rumi’s funeral procession because “they had learnt from him more of the mysteries shrouded in their scriptures, than they had ever known before; and had found in him all the signs and qualities of a prophet and saint.”
The Mathnawi’s final story concerns “the injunction given by a certain person that after he died his property should be inherited by whichever of his three sons was the laziest.” Rumi describes the first two sons, and interrupts the narrative with an explanatory parable, but he never describes the third son, thus leaving the account unfinished. Yet he drops a hint: “The Gnostics are the laziest folk in the two worlds, because they get their harvest without ploughing. They have made laziness their prop (and rely on it) since God is working for them.” Perhaps this is a humorously-worded invitation to the reader to become that “laziest” son or daughter who, by relying solely on God, shall inherit the Father’s kingdom. The final encouraging words from this most sublime of poems: “for there is a window between heart and heart.”
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