January 2, 2013 By Annemarie Schimmel

Mathnawi : The Parliament of Symbols

No mystic of Islam is as well known in the west as Jalaluddin Rumi, called his followers Maulana, “our master” (Turkish pronunciation Mevlana), or Maulawi. The order inspired by him, the Mevlevis, known in the west as the whirling Devishes, early attracted the interest of European visitors to the Ottoman Empire and the first orientalists interested in Persian literature chose his poetry for translation.

If there was ever an inspired writer among the Muslim mystics, it was certainly Jalauddin. It is said that for the most part he dictated his versus in a state of rapture or even trance. The birth in such inspired poetry- not rare among Muslim mystics- can be witnessed in Rumi’s enthusiastic lyrics as well. Their rhythms often suggest the turning and whirling movement out of which they came. It is said that the hammering of the goldsmith in the bazaar of Konya inspired him to dance and to recite verses, as did the sound of the watermills in the gardens of Meram.

There are probably many more occasions when a mere word or sound struck a responsive chord in him and set him to reciting a new poem. The rhythmical patterns of his lyrics have not yet been analyzed in detail, but even at first glance they reveal a predilection for comparatively simple patterns. The matters often chosen have a strong hiatus so that the two hemistiches are divided into four parts, sometimes with internal rhyme, thus resulting in something very similar to Turkish folk songs. In many cases one has the feeling that his poems need to be read according to word stress rather than quantitative meter. Whether they are written in short, light meters on in long, one often feels that they should be should be sung.

It is small wonder that Rumi, Expressing the inner song of his soul, should have use the imagery of music and dance more frequently than any other poet before him.  The most famous example is the introductory poem of the Mathnawi, the “Song of the Reed.”  The reed flute, complaining that it has been cut from the reed bed and longs for home, tells the secrets of divine union and eternal happiness to all who have ears to hear. This smile was not invented by Rumi. He often relied upon stories and legends handed down from time immemorial, endowing them with new spirit, as he says: “You may have read it in Kalila, But that was the husk of the story- this is the kernel of the soul”. (M  4:2203)

The reed story was taken over from Sanai (S 484). He spoke of the confidant of a king who became ill because he had been forbidden to tell his ruler’s secret to anyone; the physician sent him to a lonely lake, where he gave utterance to his heart’s secrets, but the reed growing at the shore of the lake was later made into a flute and revealed the secret to the world.  This was originally, the story of “King Midas with the donkey’s ears” (and Midas’s old residence, Gordian, is not far from Konya). A similar story is also told about Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, who revealed the divine secrets that the Prophet had entrusted to him to the lake. This example shows how, in Rumi’s poetry, age-old traditions are blended with the mystic’s personal experience.

In a country in which the sound of the Phrygian flute had been famous since Greek times, he himself, cut off from his beloved, began complaining like a flute, telling the secrets of union and longing. Touched by the breath of the friend, he is able to declare what would otherwise remain secret and hidden, just as the rabab or the harp can only tell its pain when touched by fingers of the beloved. All of Rumi’s poetry abounds with the symbol taken from music and mystical dance; for him, the dance was the life-giving movement, part of the heavenly dance in which the stars and the angels take part.

Attempts have been made to trace much of Rumi’s theology back to Neoplatonic influences, but it is almost as impossible to disentangle the colorful stands of the fabric of his feelings (and rarely, his thought) as it is to analyze one of the colorful brocades of which he sometimes speaks in his poetry. That there are Neoplatonic themes in the Mathnawi cannot be doubted. On the one hand he was acquainted with Ibn Arabi’s teaching through Sadruddin Quonawi, while on the other, Hellenistic traditions were always alive in the near East, particularly in the “country of the Romans” (Rum, hence his surname Rumi), Anatolia.

Arabic scientist and philosophers had carefully preserved the teachings of the Greeks, and even some of Plato’s parables found their way in to the Mathnawi, popular tradition in the province of Konya has it that Plato lived for many years in this region and that he was a great sorcerer; close to the lake of Beyshehir south of Konya, a Hittite monument at a fountainhead is called Eflatun Pinari, “Plato’s Spring,” for it was here that the great magician transformed the country into its present shape.

Greek and Christian traditions were very much alive in Konya in the Thirteenth century. The old centers of Cappadocian Christianity and the large monastic settlement in the caves near Goreme were only few days’ journey from the capital. Thus images alluding to Jesus and Mary occur more frequently in Jalaluddin poetry than in any other comparable poetical work, though such allusions are common in Muslim poetry. Rumi even quotes Biblical passages otherwise rarely mentioned in Islamic poetry. On the whole, however, his work can be explained without difficulty from the Koran and the prophetic tradition.

Rumi’s imagery, both in the lyrics and in the Mathnawi, reflects the complete tradition of his time. There is not a single poetical or rhetorical form that he does not use skillfully, though sometimes he tires of thinking of elegant rhyming words and fills a line with a jubilant tirilala, or with the catchwords for the metrical schemes, mufailun failatun. Jalaluddin was usually in high spirit, uplifting his listeners in order to show them the secrets of love. It would be wrong to imply that the reader wearies of the constant repetitions of high-soaring religious ideas. On the contrary, there are few poets, especially among the mystics, whose repertoire in vocabulary and imagery is as rich as his.

Abstracted from Mystical dimension of Islam, Islamic Book Trust, Kuala Lumpur

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