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Tales from Masnavi - Introduction


From Tales from Masnavi, Jalal al-Din Rumi 

translated by A.J. Arberry


THE Masnavi of Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207-12073), a massive poem of some 25, 000 rhyming couplets divided by its author into six books, and called by the poet Jami 'the Koran in eh Persian tongue,' by common consent ranks among the world's greatest masterpieces of religious literature. It must be however greatest masterpieces of religious literature. It must however be admitted that as it stands the huge work makes very difficult reading. 'The poem resembles a trackless ocean,' wrote Professor R. A. Nicholson who devoted many years to meticulous study and fastidious interpretation. 'There are no boundaries; no lines of demarcation between the literal "husk" and the "kernel" of doctrine in which its inner sense is conveyed and copiously expounded.' Written down sporadically over a long period of time, without any firm framework to keep the discourse on orderly lines, it is at first, and even at repeated reading a disconcertingly diffuse and confused composition; nevertheless a pattern of a sort may be seen to knit together the seemingly random topics and multitudinous digressions, as was shown by G. Richter is his illuminating monograph Persiens Mystiker Dschelal-eddin Rumi (Breslau, 1933)


The material which makes up the Masnavi is divisible into two different though by no means distinct categories: theoretical discussion of the principal themes of Sufi mystical life and doctrine, and stories or fables intended to illustrate those themes as they arise. In presenting the poem for popular reading, by a public unable to peruse it in the original Persian, it is of course possible to translate the giant epic word by word right through from beginning to end. This was done, for the fist and so far the only time, by R. A. Nicholson, whose eight-volume text-edition, translation and commentary constitutes the greatest single contribution to Islamic studies of the fist half of the twentieth century. Nicholson himself however would have been the first to concede that the rich fruits of his single-minded and unremitting labours were digestible with extreme difficulty, and even then only by scholars having the same kind of specialist equipment as himself. Yet the poem obviously deserves a far wider circle of readers than that. How can that larger circle be reaches and satisfied?


Nicholson made two attempts, in the little leisure left to him by his absorbing preoccupation with the major task. Tales of Mystic Meaning, published in 1931, offered in its 170 pages a small but representative selection from the Masnavi consisting for the most part of stories scattered through the whole poem. In Rumi, Poet and Mystic, which came out posthumously in 1950, an even smaller selection was presented. These two books, meritorious as they are, obviously falls short by a long way of meeting the larger need; yet they point the way to how that need might be met. Their example, and the success which they achieved, have encouraged the present writer to isolate from the Masnavi all the illustrative anecdotes as they occur, and the translate them into reasonably idiomatic English. The volume here published, which it is hoped to follow up with another, covers exactly one-half of the original.



The use of the parable in religious teaching has of course a very long history, and Rumi broke no new ground when he decided to lighten the weight of his doctrinal exposition by introducing tales and fables to which he gave an allegorical twist. He was especially indebted, as he freely acknowledges in the course of his poem, to two earlier Persian poets, Sana'i of Ghazna and Farid al-Din 'Attar of Nishapur. More will be said presently of these authors, Rumi's immediate models; but he themselves, though original writers within the boundaries of Persian poetical literature, were not original in an absolute sense. Persian authors, may of whom wrote also or exclusively in Arabic particularly during he earlier history of Islam, leaned heavily upon the traditions established in Arabic writing which preceded the origins of classical Persian literature by some three centuries.


First and foremost, there was the Koran itself to serve as a perfect, because a divinely inspired exemplar. As I have endeavoured to demonstrate in my Koran Interpreted, that 'incoherency' for which the Suras, making up the corpus of Muhammad's revelations, have been frequently criticised is apparent rather than real; the criticism arises from a misconception, a failure to notice the unusual but perfectly valid and sound structural pattern of the composition. In the Koran, incidents from the lives of earlier prophets, told with great artistry, are introduced at intervals and episodically as proofs of the eternal verities being enunciated.


In must the same way, anecdotes from the life of Muhammad himself were recited by lawyers, theologians and pastoral preachers to give chapter and verse for their theoretical exposition of Muslim life and doctrine. In the field of statecraft the 'Mirrors for Princes' tradition, taken over from the Sassanian writings of pre-Islamic Persia, was early on supplemented by Indian animal fables to which veiled political meanings were attached. The Kalila and Dimna, translated by the Persian Ibn al-Muqaffa' our of the Pahlavi, itself a version from the original Sanskrit, achieved an immediate and lasting popularity though its unlucky author ended his days young in a furnace.


The first mystics in Islam, or rather those of them who were disposed to propagate Sufi teachings in writing as well as by example, followed the lead set by the preachers. Ibn al-Mubarak, al-Muhasibi and al-Kharraz were competent Traditionalists and therefore sprinkled acts and sayings of the Prophet, and of his immediate disciples, through the pages of their times, furnished the next generation of Sufi writers with supplementary evidence, their own acts and words, to support the rapidly developing doctrine. Abu Talib al-Makki, al-Kalabadhi, al-Sarraj, al-Qushairi and Hujviri (who was the fist to write on Sufism in Persian), leading up to the great Muhammad al-Ghazali, all used the same scheme in their methodical statements: first topic, then citation from the Koran, a Tradition or two of the Prophet, followed by appropriate instances from the lives and works of earlier saints and mystics. Biographies of the Sufi masters, such as were compiled by al-Sulami, Abu Nu'aim al-Isbahani and al-Ansari (the last in Persian), provided rich and varied materials enabling later theorists to enlarge the range of their illustrations.


Meanwhile the allegory, reminiscent of the 'myths' of Plato and the fables of Aesop, established itself as a dramatic alternative method of demonstration. It seems that here the philosophers were first in the field, notably Avicenna who himself has mystical interests; he would have been preceded by the Christian Hunain ibn Ishaq, translator of Greek philosophical texts, if we may accept as authentic the ascription to him of a version 'made from the Greek' of the romance of Salaman and Absal. Among Avicenna's compositions in this genre was the famous legend of Haiy ibn Yaqzan, afterwards elaborated by the Andalusian Ibn Tufail and thought by some, through the medium of Simon Ockley's English translations, to have influenced Daniel Defoe in his Robinson Crusoe. Shibab al-Din al-Suhrawardi al-Maqtul, executed for heresy at Aleppo in 1191- only sixteen years before Rumi was born in distant Balkh-combining philosophy with mysticism wrote Sufi allegories in Persian prose, and was apparently the first author to do so; unless indeed we may apply the word allegory to describe the subtle meditations on mystical love composed by Ahmad al-Ghazali, who died in 1126.


Such in brief are the antecedents to Rumi's antecedents. When Sana'i began writing religious and mystical poetry in the early years of the twelfth century, he found the Persian language prepared for his task by Hujviri and Ansari. His greatest and most famous work, the Garden of Mystical Truth, completed in 1131 and dedicated to the Ghaznavid rule Bahram Shah, is best understood as an adaptation in verse of the by now traditional prose manual of Sufism. The first mystical epic in Persian, it is divided into ten chapters, each chapter being subdivided into sections with illustrative stories. It thus gives the superficial impression of a learned treatise in epic is shown by the lengthy exordia devoted to praising Allah, blessing his prophet, and flattering the reigning Sultan. Rumi in his Masnavi quotes or imitates the Garden of Sana'i on no fewer than nine occasions. It should be added that Sana'i, like Rumi after him, composed many odes and lyrics of a mystical character; unlike Rumi, he also wrote a number of shorter mystical epics including one, the Way of Worshippers, which opens as an allegory and only in its concluding passages, far too extended, turns into a panegyric.


Farid al-Din 'Attar, whom Rumi met as a boy and whose long life ended in about 1230, improved and expanded greatly on the foundations, laid by Sana'i. Judged solely as a poet he was easily his superior; he also possessed a far more penetrating and creative mind, and few more exciting tasks await the student of Persian literature than the methodical exploration, as yet hardly begun, of his voluminous and highly original writings. His best known poem, paraphrased by Edward FizGerald as The Bird-Parliament, has been summarised by Professor H. Ritter, the leading western authority on 'Attar and a scholar of massive and most varied erudition, as a 'grandiose poetic elaboration of the Risalat al-Tyar of Muhammad or Ahmad Ghazali. The birds, led by the hoopoe, set out to seek Simurgh, whom they had elected as their king. All but thirty perish on the path on which they have to traverse seven dangerous valleys. The surviving thirty eventually recognise themselves as being the deity (si murgh - Simurgh), and then merge in the divine Simurgh.' It is not difficult to apprehend in this elaborate and beautiful allegory, surely among the greatest works of religious literature, the influence of the animal fables of Ibn al-Muqaffa'.


In his Divine Poem, which has been edited by Professor Ritter and of which French and English translations are understood to be in preparation, 'Attar takes as the framework of his allegory a legend which might have been lifted bodily out of the Thousand and One Nights. 'A king asks his six sons what, of all things in the world, they wish for. They wish in turn for the daughter of the fairy king, the art of witchcraft, the magic cup of Djam, the water of life, Solomon's ring, and the elixir. The royal farther tries to draw them away from their worldly desires and to inspire them with higher aims.' The supporting narratives are, like those of the The Bird-Parliament, told with masterly skill and a great dramatic sense.


For his Poem of Suffering Farid al-Din 'Attar drew upon yet another type of folk legend. The story of Muhammad's 'ascension', that miraculous night-journey 'from the Holy Mosque to the Further Mosque' which is hinted at in Sura XVIII of the Koran and was afterwards picturesquely elaborated in the Traditions, had long fascinated Sufi mystics who liked to describe their spiritual raptures in terms of an ascent into heaven. The Book of Ascensionof al-Qushairi, as yet unprinted, collects together a number of versions of the celestial adventure. In 'Attar's narrative 'a Sufi disciple, in his helplessness and despair, is advised by a pir to visit successively all mystical and cosmic beings; angel, throne, writing tablet, stilus, heaven and hell, sun moon, the four elements, mountain, sea, the three realms of nature, Iblis, the spirits, the prophets, senses, phantasy, mind heart and soul (the self). In the sea of the soul, in his own self, he eventually find the godhead.' It may be remarked in parenthesis that the modern Indian poet Iqbal employed the same allegory in his last great Persian epic, the Song Immortal.


Though Rumi was certainly familiar with the first two of these three poems, and probably had recourses to other epics of 'Attar-and his debt to 'Attar's prose Biographies of the Saints, a copy of which 'Attar is said to have presented to him. This poem, unlike most of 'Attar's epics, 'has no framework-story, and repeatedly mentions the gnostic motif of the entanglement of the pre-existing soul in the base material world.' Somewhat similar in design to the Garden of Sana'i, the Book of Secrets is more methodically planned than the Masnavi but falls far short of it in size and scope. Professor Nicholson traced seven borrowings from this poem.


The foregoing are but a few of the very many sources on which Rumi drew for his illustrative stories. Professor Nicholson's very learned annotations on the Masnavi trace the lineage of most of the anecdotes, and Professor Furuzanfar of theeran, the leading persian authority on Rumi, has published a valuable monograph on this subject. In my Classical Persian Literature I have set out the antecedents to the 'Miracle of the Pearls' (Tale 62 in this volume). That story is a good example of how Rumi expanded on his basic materials; 'The Elephant in the Dark' (tale 71) is a rarer instance of compression. The anecdote is told at considerable length by al-Ghazali in his Revival of Religious Sciences, and Sana'i gives an elaborate version of it in his Garden. Readers may like to look at E. G. Browne's translation and to compare it with Rumi's brief summary.


Not far from Ghur once stood a city tall
Whose denizens were sightless one and all.
A certain Sultan once, when passing nigh,
Had pitched his camp upon the plain hard by,
Wherein, to prove his splendour, rank, and state,
Was kept an elephant most huge and great.
Then in the townsmen's minds arose desire
To know the nature of this creature dire.
Blind delegates by blind electorate
Where therefore chosen to investigate
The beast, and each, by feeling trunk or limb,
Strove to acquire an image clear of him.
Thus each conceived a visionary whole,
And to the phantom clung with heart and soul.

When to the city they were come again,
The eager townsmen flocked to them amain.
Each one of them-wrong and misguided all-
Was eager his impressions to recall.
Asked to describe the creature's size and shape,
They spoke, while round about them, all agape,
Stamping impatiently, their comrades swarm
To hear about the monster's shape and form.
Now, for his knowledge each inquiring wight
Must trust to touch, being devoid of sight,
So he who'd only felt the creature's ear,
On being asked: 'How doth its heart appear?'
'Mighty and terrible,' at once replied,
'Like to a carpet, hard and flat and wide!'
Then he who on its trunk had laid his hand
Broke in: 'Nay, nay! I better understand!
'Tis like a water-pipe, I tell you true,
Hollow, yet deadly and destructive too';
While he who'd had but leisure to explore
The sturdy limbs which the great beat upbore,
Exclaimed: 'No, no! To all men be it known
'Tis like a column tapered to a cone!'
Each had but known one part, and no man all;
Hence into deadly error each did fall.
No way to know the Al man's heart can find:
Can knowledge e'er accompany the blind?


Further information on the sources of the tales, and the many passages from the Koran to which reference is made in Masnavi, will be found in the notes appended to this volume.

As it is my hope some day to publish a full study of the life, writings and teachings of Rumi, I propose to postpone to that occasion a more extended analysis of the contents, pattern and doctrine of the Masnavi. To conclude this short introduction I propose to touch briefly on the prosody and poetic style of this great work, and to explain summarily the method followed in making this translation.

First then as to the prosody: the Masnavi is composed throughout - apart from the prose prefaces and heading-in rhyming couplets (which is what its title means) in the metre called ramal, the pattern of which consists of three feet, the first two made up of one long syllable, one short, and two longs, the third foot being of one long, on short, one long.

Bishnav az nay chun shikayat mikunad
v-az juda'iha hikayat mikunad
k-an nayistan ta mara bibrida and
az nafiram mard u zan nalida and

This deliberate and somewhat solemn measure, used already by 'Attar in his Bird-Parliament, is peculiarly suited to leisurely narrative and lengthy didactic; and Rumi, who in his odes and lyrics proved himself a virtuoso in handling the rarest and most intricate rhythms, controls the more pedestrian metre of the Masnavi like the master of melody that he was.

The rhyming couplet had never commended itself as a vehicle of serious poetry to the Arabs, who consequently failed to discover the epic. For the Persians, from Firdausi onwards, the easy flow of poetic discourse essential to epopee was fully secured once the impediment of the Arab monorhyme had been removed. Rhyme then acquired a different function; or perhaps it may rather be said to have resumed its original function as a characteristic feature of elevated or emphatic prose utterance. 'A stitch in time-saves nine'; 'jedes Tierchen-hat sein Plaisirchen': in folk wisdom the rhyme is not meant as an aesthetic embellishment, even less (as in the formal ode of the Arabs and Persians) as a means of displaying linguistic virtuosity. It invest the statement with a kind of magical authority; but being readily contrived in Arabic and Persian, which abound in rhyme, in those languages in carries very little rhetorical weight. It is not a consciously 'poetical' device.

Poets of the 'new style' like Nizami and Khaqani, when they came to employ the rhyming couplet, sought to compensate for its simplicity and informality by loading it with a formidable charge of tropes and figures, and by introducing references so obscure that only the most erudite could fully penetrate their meaning. Rumi for his part, writing not for princes but for the love of God and of his fellow man, was content to eschew artificial ornament almost entirely. The times highly idiomatic; this latter feature, which must have appealed immediately to the ordinary folk who heard his verses recited at the nightly 'concerts' of the Mevlevi dervish circle in Konia, presents, the modern reader with problems of understanding due not to any original obscurity but the changes in popular usage which seven centuries have inevitably brought about.

But the major difficulty of interpreting Rumi springs not (as with Nizami and his like) from obscurity of reference, usually to be cleared up by consulting the relevant specialist textbooks, but from obscurity of a doctrine based largely on Professor Nicholson put this point very well. 'Oriental interpreters expound the Masnavi in terms of the pantheistic system associated with Ibn al-'Arabi. Being convinced that the poem was deeply influenced from that quarter, they hold that it cannot be made intelligible without reference to those ideas. So far I agree, though such a mode of explanation is apt to mislead us unless we remember that Rumi is a poet and mystic, not a philosopher and logician. He has no system, he creates and aesthetic atmosphere which defies analysis. As a rule, we apprehend the main drift and broad sense of this words: the precise and definite meanings assigned to them are a makeshift: we can really do not more than indicate parallel lines of thought, call attention to affinities, and suggest clues. Commentators inevitably turn mystical poetry into intellectual prose. Viewed through this medium, what was a fish swimming in its native element becomes a dry dissected specimen on the laboratory table.'

The task confronting interpreters of Rumi who come after Professor Nicholson has been immensely eased by the flood of illumination which his deep study and varied erudition enable him to throw on the all too frequent shadowy passages of theMasnavi. I cannot adequately express my gratitude for his splendid guidance, not only in the printed record available to all, but also during many years of close personal contact. A comparison of the present version with his will disclose very many contexts where I have been unable to suggest any variation of his wording apart from a certain readjustment made for the sake of greater readability. In pure interpretation I have found myself in disagreement with him very rarely indeed. The main differences between my version and his are, fist, that I have separated out the stories from the didactic discourses in which they are embedded (and it is in these latter parts of the poem that the major obscurities occur); and secondly, that I have liberated the translation from the somewhat pedantic encumbrances, the brackets signifying a word or a phrase supplied by the translator, the unintelligible literalness mitigated by a sprinkle of footnotes, which are still thought by many scholars to be necessary as proof of their academic integrity, when translating oriental texts.

My version, lie Professor Nicholson's, is in prose. There is in my view no case whatsoever for torturing the fluent verse of the Masnavi into formal English metre, much less froze English rhyme. However, to indicate that the original work was not in prose, I have phrased my version in loose rhythms corresponding very roughly with the rhythmical periods of the Persian. I have sometimes introduced slang expressions where the original seemed to me to compel this termagant; but I have not yielded to the besetting temptation to exaggerate this feature, being conscious that Rumi's style, though simple and at times downright colloquial, is market by a sustained seriousness and dignity which demand of the translator a corresponding sobriety and self-control.


Last updated: May 9, 2004