The writings of Rumi are unique in Persian literature because of their quality and immense richness. His works reflect nearly all earlier works from Koranic commentaries to the Sufi treatises of Sana'i, 'Attar and Ibn 'Arabi, and his writings have found their echo in countless works written from Bengal to present day Turkey.
Rumi's most extensive work is Diwan-i Shams-i Tabrizi, consisting of some thirty-six thousand verses in most ghazals1, in which Rumi uses the name of Shams al-Din at the end instead of his own, as if Shams had written them. This fact displays the special relation that existed between the two men and the role that Shams played in the composition of this vast work. Most of these verses were written in the state of ecstasy and have a musical and rhythmic quality that is unique in Persian literature. The dance and music of the Mawlawi order is in a sense crystallized in these verses of unmatched ecstatic power. The meaning dominates so much over the form that in many instances the ghazals break the laws of traditional prosody and metrics. It is a case of the spirit remolding its material form and breathing into the formal order a new life, thereby creating a new yet totally traditional artistic form.
The Diwan has been celebrated throughout the eastern lands of Islam since its composition, and several lithographed editions were printed in both India and Persia before its critical edition appeared under the care of B. Forouzanfar in ten volumes in Tehran. It is also partially known in the West thanks to the selections translated by Nicholson and Arberry. The Diwan-i Shams along with the Diwan of Hafez, is perhaps the work that lends itself least to translation from the point of view of the orchestration of words and the harmony of sounds and the effect that its very rendition creates in the soul of a Persian speaker.
Rumi's most famous work is without doubt the Mathnawi, dubbed by Jami as the "Koran of the Persian language". It was composed at the request of Husam al-Din Chalabi, who asked the master to write a work on the mysteries of gnosis2 based upon the model of the Hadiqa of Sana'i or the Mantiq al-tayr of 'Attar. The Mathnawi is so celebrated that although the term refers to any poem of rhyming couplets it has come to mean the Mathnawi of Jalal al-Din Rumi. This unmatched masterpiece of Sufism is more didactic3 than the Diwan. It consists of a prelude in Arabic or Persian for each volume, in the first of which the author calls his work the "principles of the principles of the principles of religion", followed by six volumes of poems in Persian. It was begun between 1259 and 1262-3 and its composition continued to nearly the end of Rumi's life. In fact it was never completed. Some have referred to a seventh book of the Mathnawi and have even tried to "complete" the work with a seventh volume. The original work of the master is without doubt in six volumes, which have been published many times in Persia, India and Turkey with the most critical edition to date being that established by Nicholson in his monumental eight volume text, translation and commentary upon the work.
In nearly twenty-six thousand verses of poetry, Rumi unravels in the Mathnawi the vast ocean of the world of the spirit and man's journey to and through that world. Drawing from sacred history, simple tales, earlier Sufi writings, learned discourses of predecessors, lives of saints and many other sources, Rumi discusses nearly every aspect of Islamic metaphysics, cosmology and traditional psychology. Few mystical works in any language combine such mastery of pure metaphysics with insight into the intricate structure of the human soul and the pitfalls which face the man who awakens, through initiation, to his own spiritual possibilities and who begins the journey towards the One.
The Mathnawi is also well known to the Western world thanks to the efforts of Nicholson, who made the whole text available in English and also presented selections of it in a highly readable form. Students of the Mathnawi are also indebted to A. J. Arberry for his masterly translations of the stories within that book in clear prose as well as his other studies of the text.
The Mathnawi has received continuous attention since its composition. Several special musical forms have come into being in Sindh, Persia, Turkey and other regions simply for the chanting of the Mathnawi, and numerous commentaries have been written in Persian, Turkish, Arabic and some of the languages of the Indo-Pakistani sub-continent. Commentaries continue to be written on this work to this day; more recent ones include the Persian works by J. Homa'i, B. Forouzanfar and M. T. Ja'fari.
The third poetical work of Rumi is the Ruba'iyyat. Although it possesses quatrains4 matching the powerful verses of the Diwan and the Mathnawi, altogether the Ruba'iyyat has never gained the fame of Rumi's other two poetical masterpieces. This work has again been made known to the English-speaking world thanks to the translation of a selection by A. J. Arberry.
Of the prose works of Rumi the most important is the Fihi ma fihi, a unique work reflecting Rumi's most intimate discourses on various aspects of the spiritual life assembled from his "table talks" during Sufi gatherings by his son and other disciples. This work, whose critical edition appeared first under the care of B. Forouzanfar and which is now well known in the West thanks to the selective translation of A. J. Arberry, discusses in an intimate and direct manner many of the most subtle aspects of Sufism. It is a precious companion as a practical guide for the "Way", and it reveals an aspect of Rumi's personality not reflected so directly in the poetical works.
Closely related in content to Fihi ma fihi is the Makatib, or "collection of letters" written by Rumi to his close associates such as Salah al-Din Zarkub and his own daughter-in-law. The letters, like the discourses in Fihi ma fihi, reveal the more personal and intimate aspects of the master's life, while at the same time containing doctrinal passages and instruction concerning the practical aspects of the "Way".
Finally the Majalis-i sab'ah, is another prose work, which consists of a number of Rumi's sermons and lectures delivered from the pulpit. The sermons are mostly in the form of advice and counsel and reflect in style the background in which they were delivered.
These works are the written legacy of the "master from Rum". They complement the oral transmission and the particular type of grace or barakah, which issued from the being of Rumi and resulted in the foundation of the Mawlawi order, that vastly extended Sufi order which has survived to this day. Jalal al-Din has remained alive through his works and his order to our own times. His spirit continues to resurrect those who are capable of following the spiritual life. Rumi's message which issues from the world of the Spirit is as pertinent today as when it was first spoken, for his words come from a world which is ancient while being young, and young, while being ancient, a world, which encompasses man in his journey from eternity to eternity.
1) Ghazal: A Lyric Poem
2) Gnosis: esoteric knowledge of spiritual truth held by the ancient Gnostics to be essential to salvation.
3) Didactic: designed or intended to teach; making moral observations.
4) Quatrain: a unit or group of four lines of verse.
(This article has been based on a section from the book "Jalal al Din Rumi, Supreme Persian Poet and Sage", written by Seyyed Hossein Nasr; published by the High Council of Culture and the Arts, Tehran, 1974.)
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Copyright © 2000 K. Kianush, Art Arena