The Masnavi, or Masnavi-I Ma'navi (Persian: مثنوی معنوی), also written Mathnawi, Ma'navi, or Mathnavi, is an extensive poem written in Persian by Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi, the celebrated PersianSufi saint and poet. It is one of the best known and most influential works of both Sufism and Persian literature. The Masnavi is a series of six books of poetry that each amount to about 25,000 verses or 50,000 lines. It is a spiritual writing that teaches Sufis how to reach their goal of being in true love with God.
The title Masnavi-I Ma'navi means "Rhyming Couplets of Profound Spiritual Meaning." The Masnavi is a poetic collection of rambling anecdotes and stories derived from the Quran, hadith sources, and everyday tales. Stories are told to illustrate a point and each moral is discussed in detail. It incorporates a variety of Islamic wisdom but primarily focuses on emphasizing inward personal Sufi interpretation. This work by Rumi is referred to as a “sober” Sufi text. It reasonably presents the various dimensions of Sufi spiritual life and advises disciples on their spiritual paths. “More generally, it is aimed at anyone who has time to sit down and ponder the meaning of life and existence.”
Masnavi, a calligraphic specimen from 1490, Mevlâna mausoleum, Konya, Turkey
Creation of the Masnavi
The Masnavi was a Sufi masterpiece started during the final years of Rumi’s life. He began dictating the first book around the age of 54 around the year 1258 and continued composing verses until his death in 1273. The sixth and final book would remain incomplete.
It is documented that Rumi began dictating the verses of the Masnavi at the request of his treasured disciple, Husam al-Din Chalabi, who observed that many of Rumi’s followers dutifully read the works of Sana’i and ‘Attar. Thus, Rumi began creating a work in the didactic style of Sana’i and ‘Attar to complement his other poetry. These men met regularly in meetings where Rumi would deliver the verses and Chalabi would record it and recite back to him. During the final years of Rumi’s life, the Masnavi was being created.
Each book consists of about 4,000 verses and contains its own prose introduction and prologue. Considering there are no epilogues, one must read the proceeding volumes to fully benefit from the wisdom presented by Rumi. Some scholars suggest that in addition to the incomplete work of Book 6, there might be a seventh volume.
Themes in the Masnavi
The six books of the Masnavi can be divided into three groups of two because each pair is linked by a common theme:
Masvani manuscript in Persian on paper, Shiraz, 1479.
Books 1 and 2: They “are principally concerned with the nafs, the lower carnal self, and its self-deception and evil tendencies.”
Books 3 and 4: These books share the principal themes of Reason and Knowledge. These two themes are personified by Rumi in the Biblical and Quranic figure of the Prophet Moses.
Books 5 and 6: These last two books are joined by the universal ideal that man must deny his physical earthly existence to understand God’s existence.
In addition to the reoccurring themes presented in each book, Rumi includes multiple points of view or voices that continually invite his readers to fall into “imaginative enchantment.” There are seven principal voices that Rumi uses in his writing:
The Authorial Voice – Each passage reflects the authority of the majestic Sufi teacher narrating the story. This voice generally appears when it addresses You, God, and you, of all humankind.
The Story-telling Voice – The primary story is occasionally interrupted by side stories that help clarify a point being made in the original statement. Rumi sometimes takes hundreds of lines to make a point because he is constantly interrupting himself.
The Analogical Voice – This voice interrupts the flow of the narration because it entertains an analogy which is used to explain a statement made in the previous verse. Rumi’s Masnavi is filled with analogies.
The Voice of Speech and Dialogue of Characters – Rumi conveys many of his stories through dialogue and speeches presented by his characters.
The Moral Reflection – Rumi supports his voice of morality by including quotations from the Quran and various hadith stories of events in the life of the Prophet Mohammed.
The Spiritual Discourse – The Spiritual Discourse resembles the Analogical Voice where Rumi always includes a moral reflection on the wisdom revealed.
Hiatus – Rumi occasionally questions the wisdom conveyed though the verses. “Sometimes Rumi says that he cannot say more because of the reader’s incapacity to understand.”
Style of Rumi's Masnavi
Book one of the Masnavi must be read in order to understand the other five volumes. It is a poetic art where Rumi layers his writing. For example, he begins a story, then moves on to a story within that story, and again moves to another within that one. Through this composition style, the poet’s personal voice comes through to his audience. The Masnavi has no framed plot. Its tone includes a variety of scenes. It includes popular stories from the local bazaar to fables and tales from Rumi’s time. It also includes quotations from the Quran and from hadith accounts from the time of Mohammed.
Although there is no constant frame, style, or plot, Rumi generally follows a certain writing pattern that flows in the following order:
A manuscript of the Masnavi from the city of Shiraz.
The Mesnevi of Mevlānā Jelālu'd-dīn er-Rūmī. Book first, together with some account of the life and acts of the Author, of his ancestors, and of his descendants, illustrated by a selection of characteristic anedocts, as collected by their historian, Mevlānā Shemsu'd-dīn Ahmed el-Eflākī el-'Arifī, translated and the poetry versified by James W. Redhouse, London: 1881. Contains the translation of the first book only.
Masnaví-i Ma'naví, the Spiritual Couplets of Mauláná Jalálu'd-din Muhammad Rúmí, translated and abridged by E. H. Whinfield, London: 1887; 1989. Abridged version from the complete poem. On-line editions at Sacred Texts and on wikisource.
The Masnavī by Jalālu'd-din Rūmī. Book II, translated for the first time from the Persian into prose, with a Commentary, by C.E. Wilson, London: 1910.
The Mathnawí of Jalálu'ddín Rúmí, edited from the oldest manuscripts available, with critical notes, translation and commentary by Reynold A. Nicholson, in 8 volumes, London: Messrs Luzac & Co., 1925-1940. Contains the text in Persian. First complete English translation of the Mathnawí.
The Masnavi: Book One, translated by Jawid Mojaddedi, Oxford World's Classics Series, Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-19-280438-3. Translated for the first time from the Persian edition prepared by Mohammad Estelami, with an introduction and explanatory notes. Awarded the 2004 Lois Roth Prize for excellence in translation of Persian literature by the American Institute of Iranian Studies.
Rumi, Spiritual Verses, The First Book of the Masnavi-ye Ma'navi, newly translated from the latest Persian edition of M. Este'lami, with an Introduction on a reader's approach to Rumi's writing, and with explanatory Notes, by Alan Williams, London and New York, Penguin Classics, Penguin, xxxv + 422 pp. 2006 ISBN 0-14-044791-1.
The Masnavi: Book Two, translated by Jawid Mojaddedi, Oxford World's Classics Series, Oxford University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-19-921259-0. The first ever verse translation of the unabridged text of Book Two, with an introduction and explanatory notes.
Mathnawi Rumi, translation by M.G. Gupta with Rajeev, in six volumes Hardbound edition, M.G. Publishers, Agra, Paperback edition, Huma Books Inc., New Delhi. Source material is the Persian text circulated by the Department of Culture, Government of India, New Delhi.
Masnavi in Urdu literature is a form of poetry. It is in the majority of cases a poetic romance. It may extend to several thousand lines, but generally is much shorter. A few masnavis deal with ordinary domestic and other occurrences. Mir and Sauda wrote some of this kind. They are always in heroic couplets, and the common metre is bacchictetrameter with an iambus for last foot.
Contemporary Persian and Classical Persian are the same language, but writers since 1900 are classified as contemporary. At one time, Persian was a common cultural language of much of the non-Arabic Islamic world. Today it is the official language of Iran, Tajikistan and one of the two official languages of Afghanistan.