Masnavi-ye ma’navi


Masnavi-ye ma’navi
(Mathnawī-i Ma’- nawī, Spiritual Couplets)
   by Rumi
(ca. 1270)
   Jalaloddin RUMI’s best-known text is his vast, sixvolume compilation of Sufi thought known as the Masnavi-ye ma’navi, or Spiritual Couplets. Composed of numerous anecdotes or parables drawn from a variety of Persian, Arabic, and other sources (somewhat in the manner of Faridoddin ATTAR), the Masnavi is revered by Sufis as second only to the KORAN itself in importance and influence. Indeed, in Persian it is sometimes popularly called the Koran.
   The Masnavi was inspired by and dedicated to Rumi’s disciple and close companion Celeb Humam al-Din Hasan, who lived with Rumi the last 10 years of the poet’s life and who succeeded Rumi as head of the Sufi order called Mawlawi that Rumi had founded. The text is made up of some 26,000 long couplets in Persian verse. The Masnavi is a learned work, the culmination of Rumi’s years of study and teaching, and so is rich in allusions to the Koran and the life of Muhammad. But it is also a creative and original text, full of deep emotion and admirable wit. The intent of Rumi’s parables and allegories is to lead his reader in the path of spiritual perfection, in the tradition of Islamic Sufi mysticism. In general, Rumi’s Sufi thought has been compared with Neoplatonism. For Rumi, ultimate reality, that is real existence, is an attribute that belongs solely to God. The image of God is fixed on all created things, since they were formed by him. The final destiny of all things is to return to God, if in fact they are not already a part of him. The mystic’s desire is to achieve unity with the Godhead—to return to him even in this world. Thus the accumulation of worldly goods is futile. Learning gleaned from books can only give one knowledge of the physical world, not of ultimate reality. To achieve this higher knowledge, one must transcend the self, the nafs. This is for Rumi the mystery of love—“to die before dying.” But the Masnavi gives no straightforward or systematic guide to mystical practice. Instead, it seems at times a rather random collection of thoughts, images, and poetry—a story will grow out of another story, which may lead to a dazzling lyrical section, followed by a digression, which may ultimately lead back to the original anecdote, from which Rumi may veer away again. Rumi’s own comments in parts of the Masnavi imply that his original readers were frustrated by this storytelling method, and by his refusal to provide any clear instruction in the Sufi path. Rumi answers these objections by asserting that the tales (sometimes apparently irrelevant, sometimes even bawdy) were not included merely for the sake of entertainment, but must be understood for their didactic significance—readers must learn, he says, to separate “the grain from the husk.” In response to the common Muslim attitude that fiction was a disreputable form of literature, Rumi responds that even the Koran itself used illustrative stories. The opening passage of the Masnavi, a poem recited in the ritual of the Mawlawi dervishes, is called “The Song of the Reed,” and illustrates some of these precepts. The reed flute (the instrument used in the dervishes’ ritual dancing) becomes in the poem a symbol of the Sufi adept: Torn from the reed bed that is its natural home, the reed flute plays music expressing its longing to return. In the same way the soul of the Sufi, knowing its place of origin is in God and feeling the love that draws it to its first home, expresses its own song of longing. Later in book II of the Masnavi, Rumi discusses the pitfalls of mistaking the transient things of this world for the highest good and loving those things rather than the ultimate reality. It is, he says, like mistaking lightning for the sun:
   A lack of knowledge cannot discern;
   it mistakes a flash of lightning for the sun.
   Lightning is transient and faithless;
   without clearness you will not know
   the transient from the permanent.
   Why is lightning said to laugh?
   It is laughing at whoever
   sets his heart upon its light.
   (Helminski 1998, 44)
   The Masnavi has always been revered by Persian readers, and many have committed it to memory. But by the mid-14th century it was translated into Turkish and eventually into Arabic, and thus became popular throughout Islam, and hundreds of commentaries on Rumi’s text in many languages are extant.His work became influential in 19th-century Germany and impressed Hegel. Rumi’s enormous recent surge of popularity in the English-speaking world rests on translations of parts of the Masnavi as well as of the short lyrics of Rumi’s other major work, his Divân-e Shams-e Tabrizi (Collected Poems of Shams Tabrizi), but translations fail to do justice to the rhythm and imagery of the verse.
   Bibliography
   ■ Keshavarz, Fatemah. Reading Mystical Lyric: The Case of Jalal Al-Din Rumi. Studies in Comparative Religion. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.
   ■ Rumi, Jalaloddin. The Essential Rumi. Translated by Coleman Barks. San Francisco: Harper, 1997.
   ■ ———.Rumi: The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy and Longing. Translated by Coleman Barks. San Francisco: Harper, 2003.
   ■ ———. The Rumi Collection. Edited by Kabir Helminski. Brattleboro, Vt.: Threshold Books, 1998.
   ■ Schimel, Annemarie. The Triumphal Sun: A Study of the Works of Jalaloddin Rumi. Persian Studies Series, 8. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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