Rumi's Mathnawi (selections)

Week 6: Middle East - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

Background Reading

So, who is Rumi? This 13th-century Persia poet is one of the most popular poets in America today, widely read, appearing in dozens of translations, the subject of video documentaries, CD music productions, and -- quite simply -- devotion. Rumi has played an incredibly important role in my own life: it was after reading the animal stories in Rumi's Mesnevi (as translated by Coleman Barks to be specific, and to be even more specific, in a book called Delicious Laughter) back in 1989 that I decided to learn some Persian, go to graduate school, study these teaching tales... and here I am now. Sharing Rumi with you this week.

And who was Rumi? He was, hundreds of years ago, the center of a mystical and devotional movement in Islam. The 13th century was a turbulent time, and Rumi's family fled from their home in Afghanistan to Turkey, where Rumi became the leader of a religious community. He died in Turkey in 1273, and the religious order that he founded - the Mevlevi Order of Whirling Dervishes - is still dancing today. Rumi is actually known by many names, and these different names reflect the circumstances of his life. He was born in Balkh (modern Afghanistan) in the year 1207, and was given the name Jelaluddin ("Glory of the Faith"), so he is often called "Jelaluddin Balkhi," Jelaluddin from Balkh. When he was a teenager, the Mongol armies were sweeping through this part of Central Asia, so his family fled south, to Konya (modern Turkey), which was then part of the Byzantine Empire, or Eastern Roman Empire. This is how Jelaluddin came to be called "Jelaluddin Rumi," Jelaluddin "the Roman." He is also commonly referred to as Mevlana, or Mowlana, "The Master."

Rumi's early life is unremarkable; he was a scholar and the leader of a religious community, but he does not yet appear to have found his voice in poetry and song. In the year 1244, however, when Rumi was in his late thirties, he met a man who changed his life forever: Shams Tabrizi, Shams of Tabriz (city in Iran). The friendship between these two men was deep and profound, but it also caused dissension in Rumi's community: Rumi's sons and students were extremely jealous of Rumi's devotion to Shams. In 1248, Shams disappeared. It appears that he was murdered, perhaps even by a conspiracy led by one of Rumi's sons. Shams seems to have provided Rumi with his first inspiration to compose verses and songs and Rumi continued to produce volume after volume of ecstatic poetry until his death in 1273.

This week we will be reading excerpts from Rumi's massive collection of verse called the mathnawi, an Arabic term referring to a rhymed verse couplet. In Persian, this Arabic word is pronounced masnavi, or mesnevi, and the work has been referred to as "the Persian Koran." Rumi dictated the verses in Persian while dancing and singing in a state of religious ecstasy. In the Mathnawi, Rumi blends traditional stories from the Koran, from folklore, from history, and then analyzes the stories in the mystical terms of Islamic devotion called "Sufism."

And what is Sufism? Sufism is a mystical, devotional current in Islam dating back to around the 8th century. It is ecstatic, esoteric, spiritual, ascetic. The term "Sufism" (Arabic, tasawwuf) is derived from the word suf, meaning "wool." This seems to have referred to the cheap woolen clothing worn by the early Sufi ascetics. Sufism is not a single movement, but there are many different schools of Sufi devotional practice. For example, Rumi's followers are called the Mevlevi Order (derived from his name, Mevlana), and they continued to practice their distinctive whirling dance and worship in Turkey until this was outlawed by Ataturk when he founded the modern secular state of Turkey in the early 20th century. In the later part of the 20th century, the Mevlevi Order was revived as a kind of cultural performing group, staging their dances for an admiring public.

In order to understand the Sufi elements of the stories that we will be reading this week, it will be helpful for you to learn some technical terms that are important in the Islamic tradition in general, and for Sufism in particular:

The business of translating Rumi into English is actually very difficult: the rhymed couplets that Rumi composes in Persian cannot be exactly imitated in English. There are many poets who have translated Rumi into English, and you will find a wide range of translations available in any bookstore. My favorite translator of Rumi is still the American poet, Coleman Barks. We will be reading translations of Rumi by four very different translators this week:

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM