The Structure of Book One of the Mathnawī as a Whole

 Dr Seyed G Safavi*

 University of London, UK

London Academy of Iranian Studies (LAIS)


The two previous papers have presented the general principles of parallelism and chiasmus, and have shown how Mawlānā used these two principles to organise his great work in such a way that if you read it linearly and sequentially you form an impression of randomness, and if you read it synoptically you find it is very tightly and beautifully structured. We have suggested that it was Mawlānā’s intention that it should be like this because it reflects precisely his view of the world, of reality, in which behind the chaotic randomness and multiplicity of appearance there lies a unity of meaning and purpose that is the very evidence of the Greatness of the Creator. Mawlānā hid the unity and Organisation of the Mathnawī in two ways: first, by using the two unexpected organising principles of parallelism and chiasmus; second, by giving no indication as to which sections to take together as a maqālah, a discourse. The previous paper has shown how Mawlānā uses parallelism and chiasmus to organise and integrate the sections within a discourse, this paper will show how he uses these same principles to organise and integrate the discourses in a book, here Book I.

The first thing we did with Book I was to identify the discourses and to work out the structures, both narrative and thematic, of each discourse. This took about 18 months to do. It is easier to do this with Book I than with the later books because the narrative elements, the story lines, are much more obvious as discourse markers than in the laterMathnawīWe found that there were twelve discourses or maqālāt and three independent sections that served as link sections between certain discourses. The structure of Book I that emerged we can show as a diagram:

The Structure of Book One


Discourse I                  The King and the Handmaiden [9]

Link                               The Greengrocer and the Parrot [1]

Discourse II                 The Jewish King who for Bigotry’s sake used to Slay Christians [24]

Discourse III               Another Jewish King who tried to destroy the religion of Jesus [7]

Discourse IV               The Lion, the Beasts and the Hare [34]

Discourse V                The Caliph ‘Umar and the Ambassador of Rum [8]

Discourse VI               The Merchant and the Parrot [12]

Link                              Explanation of the tradition: “Whatever God Wills Cometh to Pass” [1]

Discourse VII             The Story of the Harper [12]

Link                               The Two Angels [1]

Discourse VIII            The Caliph, the Arab of the Desert and his Wife [32]

Discourse IX                The Lion, the wolf and the Fox [6]

Discourse X                 Joseph and the Mirror [11]

Discourse XI                The Vision of Zayd [6]

Discourse XII               ‘Ali and the Infidel Knight [9]


I must say at once that it is our belief that if anyone in this room had undertaken this task, they would have found the same structure, that is, we have added nothing but disclosure. It is now possible to examine Book I as a whole. The formal structure is set out in the table above which shows the twelve discourses are arranged chiasmically and in parallel. This I shall examine in detail shortly. The first and twelfth discourses, you can see, have both nine sections, (shown by the numeral nine after the identifying name of the discourse) and the sixth and seventh discourses, separated by a highly significant link section at the very centre of the book, both have twelve sections. There is confirmatory symmetry in the patterning of the discourses which have odd and even numbers of sections, giving Odd, Even, Odd, Even, Even, Even, (turn) Even, Even, Even, Odd, Even, Odd. Further clear evidence of the emergent structure is given by the fact that Discourse Four, a Lion story, is in parallel with Discourse Nine, another Lion story, the combined total of their sections being 40. Discourse Five, a Caliph story, similarly, is in parallel with Discourse Eight, another Caliph story, and again the combined total of their sections is 40. W hen looked at as two halves of six discourses each, both halves show a link section between the first and the second discourses.

The formal structure shown in the diagram is confirmed and further elucidated by the thematic structure, which we come to now as we look briefly at the thematic parallelism between discourses. Particularly strong is the parallelism between Discourse One and Discourse Twelve. First, both share the same internal structure ABCDEDCBA, which places a specific emphasis on E. Section E is the fifth section in each discourse and if you examine them you will find these two sections are spiritually highly significant. Second, when the King greets the Divine Physician in Discourse One, he addresses him as ‘the Chosen One, the Approved One’ using the epithet Murta¤ā, which is a title applied to ‘Alī, which he then follows with words attributed to ‘Ali. This permits a provisional identification of the Divine Physician as ‘Alī or the Perfect Man. This is confirmed in the parallel Discourse Twelve which is explicitly about ‘Alīas the Perfect Man. Third, narratively the parallelism between the two stories is that the first is about killing when it is the will of God, while the second is about not killing when it is not the will of God. Fourth, within Book One as a whole, which deals with the nafs, the first Discourse gives the beginning of the way, the sulūk, with the nafs failing in love with the world and having to be weaned off it by the Divine Physician and Love, and the last discourse is the completion of the way and perfect action illustrated in the total surrender and obedience to the Will of God exemplified by the ikhlā¥ of ‘Alī. There are many other parallelisms between these two discourses; both place emphasis on patience, ¥abr; the maiden’s love of this world in the first discourse is in contrastive parallelism with ‘Alī’s love of the next world in the final discourse; the first discourse begins with things turning out worse than was hoped for when the maiden fell ill and the doctors failed to cure her because they did not say “If God wills”, while the final discourse begins and continues with things turning out better than could be expected, especially for the Knight who spat in ‘Alī’sface, and ‘Alī’s future murderer, because of ‘Alī acting from ikhlā¥ and obedience to God’s will; both discourses end with the contrastive parallelism of the rightness of killing in the first and the rightness of not killing in the second; both have at their centre in the fifth section a major passage, in the first discourse, on Love, human and divine, the Perfect Man and mention of Shams, in the second discourse on the need for humility and a great prayer to God for help without which nothing is possible. Between these two major passages comes the link section between Discourse Six and Discourse Seven on the tradition “Whatever God wills comes to pass” which is similarly majestic and magisterial in tone and style and completes the structural and thematic symmetry. There are so many parallelisms of various kinds between these two discourses that it is difficult to chose a single phrase to encapsulate them all but perhaps ‘The Will of God and pure and impure love and action’ comes closest.

The parallelism between Discourse Two and Discourse Eleven is equally complex but could be best expressed as that of ‘vision’. The Jewish King is squint­eyed, a¦wal; he sees double and cannot see that Moses and Jesus are one. His vizier confuses the Christians by producing a multiplicity of conflicting doctrines and appointing twelve different successors so the Christians end up killing each other. This multiple vision is in contrastive parallelism with Discourse Eleven about the pure vision of Zayd. Zayd’s asceticism and self­discipline has been rewarded with a vision of people’s natures and fates as seen from the next world and he wishes to speak about it. The Prophet, Lord of both worlds, tells him not to speak since these are things that God wishes to remain hidden. It is important that it is Muhammad who instructs Zayd. In Discourse Two, Moses is the symbol of plurality and this world, Jesus of unity and the next world and Muhammad, whose name was a refuge for the Christians who survived the slaughter, the symbol of unity in diversity and diversity in unity and of both worlds. Discourse Two ends with the question: “If the name of Muhammad can save, what of the man?” Discourse Eleven answers this by showing at the beginning Muhammad as the Perfect Man. In the first discourse the Christians, as the travellers on the way, are shown as deceived and with distorted vision. In the second, the traveller is Zayd who has achieved a state worthy of pure vision but needs further instruction on what can be said from the Lord of the two worlds, Muhammad. Thus vision, Muhammad and living in both worlds constitute the main parallelism between these two discourses.

Between Discourse Three and Discourse Ten, the parallelism can be summed up as ‘reflection back and return to one’s origin’. In Discourse Three, The King sets up an idol of the nafs and if the Christians, the travellers on the way, don’t bow down to it they are thrown into the fire. The Christians, following the child, all entered the fire and obtainedfanā. The King’s wickedness was reflected back to him by their state and actions and he was shamed. Finally the fire blazed up and killed him and his fellow Jews. These Jews were born of fire and returned to fire since everything returns to its own congener. Discourse Ten also deals with these two themes, the mirror being a central image, especially the mirror of the heart which needs to be cleaned by ascetic disciplines. The return to one’s source in this discourse is the return to God with the mirror of the heart polished so that it reflects back God’s Beauty.

Discourse Four and Discourse Nine are clearly narratively parallel in that they are both Lion stories but they are also thematically parallel in that they both deal with the self, the first with egoism and selfishness and the second with selflessness. In the first discourse the nafs wants control and kills itself at the end of the story. In the second story thenafs is killed at the beginning and the Lion acts to ensure the freedom of the animals.

Discourse Five and Discourse Eight are both Caliph stories and the theme that makes them parallel is that offaqr or spiritual poverty. In the first story the ambassador, who is by definition rich and a Christian, expects the Caliph ‘Umar to have a palace and is surprised by his ‘poverty’. The ambassador can be said to represent the traveller at the very beginning of the way when he first meets his Pīr, ‘Umar. In Discourse Eight, the Arab himself is already faqīrand the story shows the various stages on the way as he obtains harmony with his nafs, his wife. In addition, then, to poverty, the stories are made parallel with the further themes of the stages on the way and the importance of the Pīr.There is one further important parallelism between these two discourses, which is the development of the role of the Caliph. In Discourse Five he is the Pīr but in Discourse Eight he is God.

Discourse Six and Discourse Seven are parallel through the theme of voice, āwāz. In the first discourse, the parrot is in the cage because of his voice and he only becomes free when he makes himself as if dead. He starts the story in the cage and ends the story free. Discourse Seven starts at the universal level with the Voice and Breathings of God and the particular story of the Harper comes in the second half. He too has been led astray by his voice throughout his life and now he repents in his old age and God grants him riches and the transformation of his nafs. The two stories show a clear development from the voice of the parrot which keeps the parrot in the cage to the voice of God which sets the spirit free.

In our research, having identified each of the twelve discourses in Book One, and worked out the formal and thematic structure of each, we examined the parallelism between the chiasmically arranged discourses and arrived at the diagram above, which we viewed with wonder because of its beauty, its symmetry and its total integration. Then, in a blinding revelation, we realised that this structure, in fact, discloses the rationale of the whole book. We realised that the discourses were organised into three blocks, each of four discourses, and that each block dealt with one of the three aspects or states of the nafs. When we looked at the discourses sequentially, we saw that the first four discourses display the negative aspects of the nafs, the nafs­i ammārah, the nafs that incites to evil; the next four discourses show the situation changing as the nafs becomes the nafs­i lawwāmah, the nafs that blames itself, and the last four discourses show the positive and developed nafs, the nafs­i mu§ma’innah, the nafs that is at peace. The diagram shows the division into three blocks by putting an extra space between Discourse Four and Discourse Five, and another extra space between Discourse Eight and Discourse Nine. Let us see briefly how each block works, beginning with the first block consisting of Discourses One to Four.

In Discourse One, the nafs falling in love with the world is the starting point of the way and the problem is resolved only by Divine Intervention. Discourse Two shows how the nafs from its envy produces double vision and multiplicity which deceives and confuses the spiritual powers as symbolised by the Christians. Discourse Three presents the choice of worshipping the nafs or taking on the fire of asceticism which leads to fanā. It is the fire of lust which destroys the nafs worshipper. In the next discourse, Discourse Four, the lion is egoism which seeks to control the nafs but which destroys itself due to the Hare, who symbolises ‘aql. In these four discourses, first the goldsmith, then the vizier, then the Jewish King and then the lion are all killed but, in fact, each has brought about his own destruction. Each of these four discourses display sequentially one or more aspects of the nafs­i ammārah: the failing in love with the world, the confusion caused by multiplicity and the double vision arising from envy, the worship of the self and anger, and, finally, egoism and pride.

Looking at the second block of four discourses, Discourse Five brings about the beginnings of a change due to the first meeting with a Pīr who explains about ¦āl and maqām and why the spirit is combined with matter. Discourse Six shows the merchant as the nafs­i lawwāmah, the nafs which blames itself, of whom it is said “God loves his agitation”. Discourses Seven and Eight give further examples of this form of the nafs in the persons of the Harper and the Wife of the Arab. These last two discourses see the nafs­i lawwāmah moving to the next stage, the nafs­i mu§ma’innah. As with the first block of four discourses, this second block similarly shows four stages in the development of the second type of selfhood, the self which blames itself. The first shows the nafs in the form of the unbelieving ambassador who in the grip of the worldly assumptions of māl o jāh, wealth and rank, being awakened to spiritual things. The second shows the nafs in the form of the merchant regretting bitterly having killed the spirit through what he said and repeated. Then comes the turning point of the book with the Voice and Breathings of God permitting the repentant nafs in the form of the Harper to transform further, but only when it gives up lamentation. Finally, the entire process of transformation is exemplified in the Arab and his wife whose eventual harmony permits the nafs to move to its final state.

The final block of four discourses all have to do with the nafs­i mu§ma’innah, the self that believes and is at peace. They deal respectively with selflessness, polishing the heart to be a mirror for God, spiritual vision and ikhlā¥,pure action from the Will of God, sincerity. None of these states would be possible until the Cars had transformed intonafs­i mu§ma’innah, each is a sequential development of this final state of the self.

In Book I the subject then is the nafs, chosen almost certainly in homage to Farīduddīn ‘A§§ār in whoseIlāhī­Nāmeh the first of the six sons symbolises the nafs. Everything in Book I is written from the point of view of thenafs. Even Love, for example, is treated in this book from the point of view of the nafs. In the opening 35 verses, before the discourses begin, Mawlānā says:


Hail, O Love that bringest us good gain ­ thou art the physician of all our ills,

The remedy of our pride and vainglory, our Plato and our Galen! [verses 23­24]


In Discourse One the physician arrives, needed to treat the nafs, symbolised by the sick handmaiden who has fallen in love with the world, symbolised by the goldsmith. You will all know the story well so we need not repeat it, but one identification of the physician must be Love itself, as well as all the other possible identifications. Mawlānāmakes clear at the very outset that this Way is the Way of Love, not the way of asceticism, zuhd. Certainly, self­ restraint, ¥abr and self­discipline, riyāzat, are necessary, but in the treatment of the sick nafs, the Divine physician does not treat the handmaiden, the nafs, but poisons the goldsmith thereby reducing the attractiveness of the world for thenafs. The poison used, the commentators suggest, is ‘irfān and Love, the sort of states that Mawlānā himself experienced with Shams of Tabriz, because there is something very autobiographical about this first discourse. In this book, whatever else he does elsewhere in the MathnawīMawlānā shows Love as both the physician and the cure for our sick nafs.

As the previous papers have suggested, in this book, as in the whole of the Mathnawī, the sharī’at, the §arīqatand ¦aqīqat are best seen as levels of meaning, as organisation in depth, rather than as ordering in sequence and extension. The sharī’at level is the literal level, and the surface of the text is full of actual quotations, as well as many echoes and resonances, from the Qur’ānto the point that in places it resembles the Qur’ānas another panel of this conference will demonstrate. But the literal level is not just the sharī’at, it is also the sequential surface of the text, designed to appear random, anecdotal, characterised by plurality and great variety, sometimes pious sometimes comical, jumping from one subject to another, coming at the reader or hearer exactly as life and the world comes at us, successively and seemingly randomly.

Within this surface level there is the bā§in, inner, level, that of the §arīqat, and here it must be remembered that much of the Mathnawī is addressed directly to the aspiring Sufis in the khānqāh to whom it was read aloud. This inner level connects with the literal level in two ways. The first way is by means of symbolism, a well known practice in Persian Sufi works, and illustrated in the first discourse where the king is the rū¦; the handmaiden, the nafs; the goldsmith, the attractiveness of the world and so on. Mawlānā often himself tells the reader what is symbolised by what in the early parts of the Mathnawī. Symbolism, however, is multivalent and applies at as many levels of interpretation as there are levels of understanding in the reader. Rarely is there a single one to one correspondence, for that would be allegory not symbolism. The Divine Physician in Discourse One is Love, the Perfect Man, the Friend of God, the walī,‘Alī, and Shams, all at the same time, not one to the exclusion of the others. That is why symbolism is so rich. The second way the inner level connects with the surface text is through the intricate and beautiful structures of meaning and significance which Mawlānā has hidden through the use of parallelism and chiasmus and which are revealed by a synoptic rather than a linear reading. We assign the structure and Organisation that our research has uncovered to thebā§in, inner, level of the §arīqat first, because it is hidden and requires much patience to uncover; second, because it is a unity and beautiful, which corresponds to Mawlānā’s descriptions of the spiritual world; and third, because Book 1, at this level, takes the aspiring Sufi stage by stage from the nafs­i ammārah in love with the world, through all the transformations of the nafs until it reaches the nafs­i mu§ma’innah which has been transformed by ikhlā¥ to be totally obedient and true to the Will of God. It is possible to show both the sequential and the synoptic orders working together to provide this total picture of the sulūk, the Sufi path, together with the themes that connect the un­transformed situations represented in the first six discourses with the transformed situations in the last six discourses:


The Sequential and the Chiasmic Structure of Book One



Un­transformed   Transformed
nafs­i ammārah   ^


Discourse I Pure and impure love and action; Will of God; ‘Alī Discourse XII
Discourse 11 Vision; two worlds; Muhammad Discourse XI
Discourse Ill Reflection back; return to one’s origin Discourse X
Discourse IV Lions; egoism and selflessness Discourse IX
nafs­ilawwāmah   nafs­i mu§ma’innah
|   ^
Discourse V Caliphs; spiritual poverty; the Pīr Discourse VIII
|   ^
Discourse VI Voice; imprisonment and freedom Discourse VII
|   ^
>>>>>>>>>>> Link: “Whatever God Wills comes to pass”    >>>>>>>>>> ^



This diagram shows that the whole of Book I at the inner level is a complete course book for the aspiring Sufi. We would argue that, in order to exemplify formal, narrative, thematic and spiritual integration so beautifully within a single unified organising structure, while at the same time giving the appearance of randomness at the literal level, the whole book must have been planned very carefully before a single line was written. While this denies the view held by some of the extemporaneous nature of the production of the Mathnawīwe can be consoled by the fact that, inMawlānā’s mind at least, creation is intelligent. Our research so far shows that in each of the first three books of theMathnawī there are twelve discourses. The number twelve is important in Islamic cosmology for being foundational to the structure of the universe.

In conclusion there remains the level of ¦aqīqat. We believe that this level is not one we can find in the text, but what we can find when the text is in us. The text, as we have shown has two levels, the literal sequential verbal level of words and their meanings, and the inner level of contexts, symbols, parallels, significances, wholes, shapes and relationships. The verbal literal level is handled by the left hemisphere of the brain, the other level of shapes, relationships parallels, contexts etc. is handled by the right hemisphere of the brain. To read the Mathnawī again when one has fully understood the inner structures of significance and relatedness is to use both hemispheres together which can produce an enhanced state of consciousness. What enters us in that state can penetrate deeply and lead to transformations of understanding and outlook, not programmatically, but in its own time. This is realisation, ta¦qīq, which in English ‘dawns’, like the sun rising, but without the same temporal regularity. ta¦qīq, realisation, is clearly what Mawlānā wishes for each of us which is why he has written the Mathnawī in the way that he has. But he does not wish us only to know about reality from him, because that would be just taqlīd, second­hand imitation; he wishes us to be real, to experience reality directly, which is why in this the first book of the Mathnawī, at the bā§in, inner, Sufi level, he takes his readers and heaters systematically through all the states and transformations of the nafs, so that they may thereby be transformed.

Our research is not complete. We believe that there is a further higher Organisation of parallelism at the level of the six books as a whole, but it will be several years before we reach that. Meanwhile we are happy to share with you what we have stumbled across and hope it will be useful in your own work on the Mathnawī. We take no credit for what has been found; all the credit is due to Mawlānā, but even as I say this, I can hear Mawlānā saying: “Fool, haven’t you understood one word I have written? In so far as I existed, I was only a secondary cause to the One Primary Cause, Almighty God, to whom be all praise and honour.”

* This article was first published in the Transcendent Philosophy Journal Volume 4 . Number 3 . September  2003.

** For Dr Safavi’s book on the Structure of Rumi’s Mathnawi see: Safavi, Seyed G, The Structure of Rumi’s Mathnawi: New Interpretation of the Mathnawi, as a Book for Love and Peace, London: London Academy of Iranian Studies Press Or Safavi, Seyed G, Weightman, Simon, Rumi’s Mystical Design, New York: SUNNY 

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