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The Synoptic View of Book Two of Rumi’s Mathnawi

3 October 2011 No Comment


Mahvash Alavi

London Academy of Iranian Studies



Mathnawi is the masterpiece of Jalal-al-din Rumi, the great Iranian Sufi and poet who composed Mathnawi approximately seven centuries ago. Although Mathnawi has been in existence since then, no-one has realised that it is based on a very precise and detailed structure. In fact, the most important criticism in regards with Mathnawi is its apparent lack of structure and plan.

However, Safavi, as part of his doctorate thesis, in 2002, illustrated the presence of a very complex and sophisticated structure in Book One of Mathnawi. In this paper, the author aims to illustrate the structure and present a synoptic view and interpretation of Book Two of Mathnawi, which has never been attempted before and thus this paper is totally original.


The Mathnawi of Jalal al Din Rumi, dating from the thirteenth century, was written in the form of Persian poetry. The study of Mathnawi raises issues of methodology, and important general matters both in the form and content of texts.


Jalal-al-din Rumi was a Muslim jurist, preacher and a spiritual teacher with a circle of pupils. Then his life was transformed spiritually by two years of close contact with a wandering saint called Shams al-din Tabrizi.  From being a worthy, sober, pious and ascetic ‘ālim (Muslim divine), he became an ecstatic mystic and lover of God (‘ārif and ‘āshiq), one of the world’s finest mystical poets and a whirling dervish.  From him there poured forth a stream of powerful mystical lyrics which were later collected into eight volumes under the title of Divan-e Shams-e Tabriz.  English translations and re-creations from poems extracted from the Divan have recently become a bestseller in America and Madonna has even made a Rumi CD.  But leaving aside the current Rumi-mania in America, in the last quarter of his life, probably from about 1260, Rumi began to write the long work that concerns us here, the Mathnawi.  He probably produced a book of the Mathnawi about every two years, and finished it before his death in 1274.  The Mathnawi consists of six books, each of about four thousand lines of verse. Unlike the mystical raptures and ecstasies of the mystical lyrics in the Divan, the Mathnawi is a more sober work, concerned with the transformation of the spiritual seeker and giving guidance about how to live spiritually in the world.


After Rumi’s death, his son Sultan Walad established the group of disciples into a formal Sufi order called the Mevlevi order in Turkish and the Mawlawiyya order in Arabic and Persian.  This Sufi order became very strong and influential and this had one great advantage for our present purposes because the writings of Rumi were properly and reverentially preserved so that the critical text of the Mathnawi we have today is almost certainly as Rumi wrote it.  Because of the widespread development of the order and the considerable literary and spiritual fame of Rumi, the Mathnawi quickly became widely known and appreciated and was called by one Persian poet, “The Qur’ān in Persian.” It has also become the subject of many commentaries over the seven centuries since it was written.  These commentaries are concerned with three issues. The first is the meanings of individual words and lines; the second is the origins of the many references and stories and anecdotes in the text; the third is the symbolic Sufi interpretation of various passages.  Since, then, we have a safe and reliable text, there are no longer many problems concerning the meanings of words and verses, the sources of the many references and anecdotes have been identified, and the Sufi symbolism of passages have been explored.


Although Mathnawi itself, as a whole, has a title, none of the six books have.  Each book has a short introduction in either Arabic or Persian, followed by a verse preface, and then comes the book itself, some four thousand lines of verse interrupted periodically by headings.  In Book Two which I have studied, there are 111 such headings, dividing the text of the book into 111 marked sections. The length of each section varies, the shortest being three verses and the longest over a hundred verses.  The verses within a section move logically, smoothly and effortlessly from one theme to another.  It is the ordering of the sections which causes a problem.  Often there is no apparent reason why one section should come where it does; the sections at times appear to be almost random in their order.  A story will start in one section; then come two sections of teaching; then a second story begins; then a return to the first story; then more teaching sections; then the second story is continued and so on.  This apparent lack of any rationale for the way sections follow one another has led to accusations of a lack of structure.  The scholarship on the Mathnawi, both from western and eastern scholars, is unanimous that the Mathnawi has no structure. Professor Arberry from Cambridge, for example, writes: “Written sporadically over a long period of time, without any firm framework to keep the discourse on orderly lines, it is at first, and even repeated readings, a disconcertingly diffuse and confused composition.”  This is almost a classic case of Orientalism, since the Orientalist fallacy can be stated that the contemporary western reader is infinitely more sophisticated than the medieval oriental writer.  It never occurs to Arberry to question whether the reason for him considering that the book is badly composed is because he is not reading it correctly.  At least Iranian scholars make a virtue out of the apparent lack of organisation by attributing it to the spontaneous extempore outpouring of a truly inspired and creative poet.


Dr Safavi’s thesis demonstrated that Book One needs to be read synoptically and not sequentially.  He found that the sections were in fact organised into twelve larger units which he called discourses.  It was common for works to be so constructed and each discourse given a title indicating its purport, such as Discourse on the Danger of Pride, for example.  But Rumi did not formally mark the discourses, nor did he give them explanatory titles, but he left it to the reader to do so for himself out of a sense of dissatisfaction and a belief that a poet of the calibre of Rumi would not write a ‘bad’ book.  When the discourses were identified it became apparent that the sections within each discourse were not organised linearly but synoptically using the literary principles of parallelism and chiasmus.



These first nine sections form the first discourse, which is a narrative unity since, apart from Section 3, the other sections all advance the same story.  When, however, the sections are mapped thematically, it becomes clear that, in addition to the sequential narrative order, there is a thematic organisation which is not linear and sequential. In the thematic organisation Section 1 is in parallel with Section 9, Section 2 with Section 8, Section 3 with Section 7 and Section 4 with Section 6, leaving Section 5, by far the longest, which sums up what has gone before, anticipates what is to come, and contains the central message of the discourse, which is of Love, both human and divine.


Parallelism is not a literary doctrine, simply the literary exploitation of correspondence, and since linguistic literary and thematic elements can correspond in many ways, there are many forms of parallelism.  When two sections are in parallel in the Mathnawi the second one can complete, match, contrast with or be analogous to the first one or contain the same theme or even make mention of the same name.  Often the second section will be at a higher level than the first.


The second literary principle Rumi uses is Chiasmus, named after the Greek letter Kai (Chi) because it resembles a cross like a capital X in the English alphabet.  Take the nine-section discourse just described.  We could represent it as A, B, C, D,  E  D*, C*, B*, A*, where the last four section reflect the first four but in reverse order.  Chiasmus is a mirror image.  Rumi does not use the chiasmus scheme exclusively to organise his parallel sections, sometimes for example he might use A, B, C, A*, B*, C* or some other format, but it does predominate.  Rumi frequently exploits the convention that the central message or inner crisis of the discourse should occurs in the very centre of the discourse while the outer resolution occurs at the end.  There are many examples of this usage in the Mathnawi, of which the above discourse is one.


The structuring of a work using parallelism and chiasmus is often called ‘ring-composition’ but I do not use this term myself because in Rumi’s structures there is great variety and the ring does not predominate.  In the Qur’ān it is said:  From God we come and to God we shall return.  This would be an ideal motif for a ring composition, the journey out and the journey back, but, in fact, Rumi spends only the first eighteen verses of the Mathnawi on the journey out from God and the rest of the Mathnawi is devoted to how we can get back.


In Book One, the discourses are easy to identify because they are all, except in one case, narrative unities. In Book two, narrative unity is much less emphatic and thematic unity much more pronounced.  Safavi identified twelve discourses in Book One and I have similarly found there to be twelve discourse in Book Two.  This may not be the case, however in later books.  We can give a synoptic view of the two books below: the number of sections in square brackets.

It is interesting to notice the way Rumi has used the number of sections in each discourse to produce a significant series and symmetry.  The symmetry derives from an important distinction in Islamic culture between odd and even numbers.  In Book One the symmetry is Odd, Even, Odd, Even, Even, Even (centre) Even, Even, Even, Odd, Even, Odd.  In Book Two the symmetry is Even, Odd, Odd, Odd, Even, Even, (centre) Even, Even, Odd, Odd, Odd, Even.  The numerologically significant series is derived from adding together the number of sections in discourses which are in parallel.  This gives for Book One 18, 30, 18, 40, 40, 24. For Book Two the series is 24, 12, 16, 14, 16, 28.  In Book One, the most spiritually significant number for the Mevlevis is 18, but twelve and six are also important; 40 is also spiritually significant in Islamic culture as in other Middle Eastern cultures.  Thus the series in Book One gives three times six, five times six, three times six, forty, forty, four times six.  In Book Two the series is different and requires the two halves to be seen in contrast and similarity: both contain 16, and a number, 24 and 28, and half of that number, 12 and 14.  The numerology requires that the discourses be read in parallel and chiasmically, and that is the significance of the numerological precision, to confirm that the discourses are in fact in parallel and chiasmic.  The numbers may have spiritual resonances but their purpose here is to authenticate for the reader the correctness of taking the synoptic reading.  The verse preface to Book Two has 111 verses.  The purpose of a preface is to foreshadow what is to come.  What is to come is 111 headings and sections.  The number 111 in the preface has no significance other than the authentication of the number of sections, in case a scribe left one out perhaps, but it is, like the rest of the numerology, clear evidence that Rumi planned the Mathnawi very precisely, probably before he composed a single verse, because such precision and symmetry could never have arisen by accident.


Returning to the synoptic views of Book One and Book Two, the diagrams show how the discourses are arranged in parallel and in a chiasmus, thereby focussing on the central two discourses as the major turning point in each book.  Dr Safavi has identified the parallel features between the discourses in parallel for Book One, but Rumi has made it quite clear that this was what he required by putting a Lion story in parallel with another Lion story, and a Caliph story in parallel with another Caliph story.  I have identified the correspondences and parallelisms between the twelve discourses in Book Two and will shortly give you an example, but first I wish to return to the overall organisation of the books.  Each book has twelve discourses that are in parallel and chiasmic, but what is the rationale of each book, what is the sequential story each book tells?  In the first discourse of the Mathnawi, which was discussed before, there was the story of the king and the handmaiden which provided the narrative sequence.  Is there a similar sequentiality at the level of the book?  The answer is yes, but to explain it we need to look at a feature of Islamic spirituality.  In Islam, the spirit within a human being is called the ¦, which is sent down at God’s command.  The spirit, the ¦ finds itself in a human body with its appetites and sensuality and in a selfhood with its egoism and ambitions, all of which, the body and the selfhood; Rumi refers to as the nafs. The spirit comes from God and seeks to return, but it is in the prison of the nafs, the body and the selfhood, which is the human spiritual dilemma the Sufi spiritual path seeks to solve.  One major part of the spiritual path is to discipline and transform the nafs through all kinds of ascetic discipline.  Book One has the nafs as its subject and treats the spiritual path through the three different stages of the nafs’ development.  The first stage is the nafs-e ammārah, the selfhood which commands to evil.  This is the selfhood which is in love with the world, which is moved by anger, jealousy, envy, pride, bigotry and hatred, and which seeks to satisfy its appetites and desires.  It is the unreformed selfhood which if indulged will destroy the individual concerned, if not in this life, certainly in the next.  The first four discourses in Book One deal with this kind of selfhood.  The second kind of selfhood is the nafs-e lawwāmah, the selfhood which blames itself.  Discourses 5-8 are concerned with this stage in the development of the nafs, although Discourse 5 itself is about the first meeting of the spiritual traveller (the sālik) with his spiritual teacher (the shaykh).  The last four discourses, 9-12, deal with the final stage of the selfhood’s development, the nafs-e mu§ma’innah, the selfhood at peace with God.  This threefold division of the development of the selfhood has Qurānic authority and provides the rationale of Book One.  That is why the synoptic view above has a space between Discourses 4 and 5 and between 8 and 9.  This rationale provides the context in which each discourse is to be read and understood.


If Book One has the nafs, the selfhood and the body, as its overall subject, Book Two has Iblīs, Satan or the Devil, as its overall subject.  We need to say something about Iblīs.  He was originally an angel.  When God selected Adam as the spirit to go to earth and enter human form, he required the angels to bow down to Adam.  This they all did except for Iblīs who was disobedient.  God cursed him and sent him down in exile to the earth where he makes things as difficult for humans as possible mainly working in and through the nafs, the selfhood.  In fact in Rumi’s usage Iblīs and the nafs are almost indistinguishable.  One of the nafs and Iblīs’ most predominant effects is to prevent us from seeing reality and to hinder the seeker’s spiritual progress at every stage of development.  In order to mitigate the effects of Iblīs, we need to find a Friend of God, a true spiritual teacher or a saint, who will act as a mirror of our own state and as a mirror that will reflect to us the beauty and unity of the spiritual world and of Almighty God, as Rumi was able to do when he was with Shams al-din Tabrizi.  I have found that the sequentiality of Book Two is the same as in Book One; in fact, the two books are intimately connected, although each from its own point of view.  Thus the first four discourses all deal with the different ways Iblīs and the nafs distort our reality and how we live in a topsy-turvy world in which those who know reality are in the mental asylum put there by the real lunatics who live from the nafs.  Discourse 5 in Book One is where the disciple meets the spiritual teacher for the first time and everything goes excellently.  In Book Two Discourse 5 is about a potential disciple who has become extremely attached to a bear and offers to help him spiritually.  The man says no because he thinks the man is jealous of his bear.  Eventually the teacher gives up and goes away.  The man is tired and goes to sleep under a tree.  The bear is very devoted to the man and seeing that flies are buzzing round his head, he picks up a large rock to finish off the flies and brings it down on them as they are settled on the man’s head.  That is the end of the man.


Now we come to the example of the parallelism between sections.  Section 6 and Section 7 are both about the nafs-e lawwāmah, the selfhood which blames itself.  This is the selfhood of a person whose conscience has awakened and who is aware of the sins he has committed and of his spiritual failure.  He is full of remorse and laments, turning to God for forgiveness and for help.  Section 6 is about a Companion of the Prophet Muhammad who had become very ill and helpless.  The Prophet goes to visit him and becomes aware that his illness has to do with his prayer.  The man explains that he had become so aware of all his sins and the dreadful punishments that he would have to suffer in the next world, that he prayed to God that he might suffer the punishment of the next world here in this world, after which he became gravely ill.  The Prophet told him he had been stupid and acted from arrogance because he could never survive such a burden.  He gives the man a more appropriate prayer to say so that he recovers.  The companion was doing well on the spiritual path, full of remorse and lamentation which is required at that stage, when the nafs in the form of arrogance and presumptuousness leads him into asking for something quite beyond his capacity which makes him so ill he no longer can do anything.  Section 7 is about another companion of the Prophet, Mu’āwiya, who at one time was both a companion and a brother-in-law of the Prophet.  He is alone sleeping in his palace – usually symbolic of going into seclusion for self-examination – when he is woken up by Iblīs who tells him it is time for prayer so he must hurry.  He cannot believe that Iblīs would do anything for his good so he is suspicious and there is a dialogue between them in which Iblīs is prevailing over Mu’āwiya until the midpoint of the discourse when Mu’āwiya calls for God’s help against Iblīs.  Thereafter he prevails and finally forces Iblīs to admit that he did it to prevent Mu’āwiya from missing the prayers because then he would have been so full of remorse and lament it would have spiritually been worth a hundred prayers.  Iblīs acted to urge the lesser good but only to prevent an even better outcome.


The parallelism between these two discourses is that they are both concerned with a companion of the Prophet, the other participants being respectively the Prophet and Iblīs.  Both are at the stage of the nafs-e lawwāmah which requires them to experience remorse and to lament.  Both are attacked by the nafs and Iblīs to prevent them from being able to do this: the first by urging the companion to seek something far beyond his capacity, the second to get him to do something far below his capacity to avoid it happening.


The second half of Book Two deal with the gradual awakening of the spiritual senses until the disciple is able to see reality with his own eye of certainty.  But we must move on, fascinating as it is, because Dr Safawi found there was an even higher level of organisation than the levels of the discourse and the book. A preliminary study revealed that Book Six was in parallel with Book One in some significant regards but chiasmically, which strongly suggests that there is a third level of organisation at the level of the work, with the six books as the segments.  This is confirmed by Rumi starting a story in Book Three and finishing it in Book Four, thus providing a hinge at the very centre of the work.  It is like a hinged mirror with Book One in parallel with Book Six, Book Two with Book Five and Book Three with Book Four.  We know, but not from Rumi who never indicates this, that the overall subject of each of the books of the Mathnawī corresponds precisely with one of the six sons in the Ilāhī-nāmeh of Farīd al-Dīn ‘A§§ār. The Mathnawī and the Ilāhī-nāmeh share the same overall plan, presumably as an inter-textual act of homage by Rumi. Book One of the Mathnawī deals with the nafs, the self-hood; Book Two deals with Iblīs, the Devil; Book Three deals with ‘aql, intelligence, intellect; Book Four with ‘ilm, knowledge; Book Five with faqr, poverty, and Book Six with taw¦īd, unity or unicity.  This is the rationale of the work as a whole which provides the general subject and context for each of the books.  My own studies show a similar parallelism between Book Two and Book Five, at least at both the beginning and the end of each book.


This must seem all very complicated, so let’s stand back from the details. Why did Rumi write his work in this way?  He knew that spiritual matters cannot be spoken of openly but must be hidden in some way, so for him the choice of this unexpected genre was inspired.  It permitted him to express in the very design of the work his experience of reality:  that beyond the mundane world of form and appearances there is the real spiritual world which is beautiful, a unity in which all oppositions and contradictions are resolved, and which contains the meaning, purpose and causation of all that exists in the mundane world which is its shadow.   Between these two worlds there is the aspiring Sufi, the spiritual traveller, drawn by the senses and selfhood to the world of appearances, and by the intellect and spirit to the world of the spirit.  To Rumi, God is Lord of Both Worlds, rabb al-‘ālamayn, and both worlds are given their respective structures in the poem:  to the mundane world of appearances and form is given the verbal sequential order with its appearance of planlessness; to the spiritual world is given the rhetorical organization, hidden but over-arching, which informs and connects every part of the first world but which gives the assurance of unity and beauty.  Reality is, in one sense, in the spiritual world, but, in another sense, the mundane world is God’s unveiling, God’s Self-Disclosure, so that too has a claim to reality.  The Mathnawi has then a two-fold structure, the sequential verbal structure and the synoptic rhetorical structure.  It was Rumi’s design that as one read or heard the text of the poem, which cannot help but be sequentially, one would at the same time be aware of the unseen layers of organization which gave it unity and meaning and purpose, which was how he himself experienced living in this world.  This is both how to read synoptically and how to live consciously.


I have followed Dr Seyed G. Safavi’s methodology, applying it to a different book.  Nobody has even attempted to present a synoptic view and interpretation of Book Two before, therefore it is totally original.  It is, moreover, an important contribution to our understanding of the Mathnawi, although we shall only arrive at the full picture when all the books have been analysed in this way


In conclusion, never assume that the organisation of any work is sequential.  What has the author hidden in making the work as it is?   Read it synoptically, treat it as a whole, map it thematically and see if there are patterns emerging.  Always look at what is happening in the middle and whether the beginning is reflected in the ending.  If so, like the Mathnawi, it may be structured by parallelism and chiasmus.  Such works never announce themselves, they need to be interrogated.  Remember that in the seven hundred years that the Mathnawi has been in existence and studied, it is only now we are recognising how it is much richer than we had ever realised.  As Rumi says in Book Two:


How many times shall we say, when the veil is lifted

Things are not as we thought they were.





Nicholson, R A, The Mathnawi of Jalalu’ ddin Rumi, Cambridge, 1990.



Safavi, Seyed,G, RUMI’S THOUGHTS, Tehran, 2003.

Alavi, M, Transcendent Philosophy Journal, Volume 4, Number 3, September 2003, , London.


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