An Analysis of Parallelism and Chiasmus of Rumi’s Masnavi based on the Synoptic structuralism of Dr Salman Safavi


Saeid Khanabadi

Beheshti University, Tehran, Iran

Key words: Masnavi, Rumi, Safavi, Persian literature, Sufism.

Since Masnavi was written in ​​the thirteenth century, this masterpiece of the Persian literature has been the subject of thousands of criticisms and analyses in various fields and from various perspectives. Literary critics and masters of philosophy and wisdom, in the East as well as the West, have always tried to reveal the innumerable dimensions of this rich work of Molana Jalâleddin Mohammad Balkhi more popularly known as Rumi (1207-1273). Especially after the multiple translations of Masnavi into European languages, this key book of the Iranian Gnostic has attracted the attention of many Western experts in literary criticism. Yet, the mysteries of Masnavi continue to fascinate art and literature lovers around the world. With regard to the thematic aspect, the semantic content and the symbolic meaning of the stories in Masnavi, we already have several works written by Iranian and foreign masters of thought. As for the structural and formalist approaches, there is still a lack of references in the studies on the poetry of Molana. In 2006, the London Academy of Iranian Studies (LAIS) [1] published a book titled The Structure of Rumi’s Mathnawi in English. This book was written by a Muslim professor, Seyed Salman Safavi, one of the internationally recognized  researcher in Iranian philosophy and gnosis [2]. The initial idea of ​​writing this book was born during Safavi PhD studies in SOAS, University of London(1997). Title of his thesis was: “Love The Whole But Not The Part’; An Investigation Of The Rhetorical Structure Of Book One Of The Mathnawi Of Jalal Al-Din Rumi”(2003).[i] This book by Salman Safavi is also a part of the comparative studies that this Iranian professor is conducting in partnership with Professor Simon Weightman head of Department of Religions and Philosophies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) [3] at the University of London. In 2008, this book by Salman Safavi was awarded the Best Book Prize in Iran. Rumi’s Mystical Design by Safavi and Weightman published by State University of New York Press(SUNY) in 2009.[ii]

The Structure of Rumi’s Mathnawi has been translated into Persian by Professor Safavi’s wife, Mahvash Alavi, and is now available in Iranian bookstores. This translation or, better to say, the Persian version of the work was published in Tehran by the Center for Written Heritage Research [4]. The book was prefaced by the philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr, an Iranian professor at George Washington University [5]. Taking into account the remarkable importance and the initiatory aspect of this key book in the structuralist researches on the poetry of Molana, the present article presents a general overview of the approach of this work and the method applied by its author. Among the six books (Daftar) that make up Masnavi, Safavi’s critique focuses on the first book of this great work by Molana. In his research, Professor Safavi provides us with a detailed outline of the succession of anecdotes in the narratological system of Molana in this first book of Masnavi. Salman Safavi highlights the significant structure of Molana’s poetry and claims that this Gnostic poet has consciously created an internal discipline throughout his work in order to reinforce his thematic lessons using a logical network of mathematically and geometrically woven elements.

Speaking of Masnavi’s overall organization, Professor Safavi also suggests that the six books in this poetic work follow a coherent and pre-drawn structure that has been intelligently created to convey a hidden message behind this systematic harmony. Salman Safavi describes the internal structure of Masnavi as the invisible universe of the Hereafter, which is beyond our material world. According to Safavi, the visible face of stories, tales and fables in Molana’s poetry represents the material world, while the true meaning of these stories lies in the invisible world behind Masnavi’s global structure. Unfortunately, the majority of Western readers of Molana have limited themselves to the superficial aspect of his work and have not been able to access the depth of his universe. Through this point of view, Salman Safavi compares the Masnavi of Molana with the Elâhi-Nâmeh of Attâr, also composed of six books. According to Safavi, the six parts of Masnavi reflect the different stages that the Gnostic man must travel in order to attain sublime perfection and divine union. For example, he states in his book that Masnavi’s first book concerns the stage of Nafs (the human mind) in the six stages of love. According to him, using the anecdotes of the first book, Molana stages the three faces of the human soul: so-called Nafs Ammārah, which orders man to act according to his animal instinct and his impulses towards the physical pleasures; Nafs Lavvâmah, which controls the transient desires of the first spirit; and Nafs Motmaennah, corresponding to the state of quietude in the purified Gnostic.

Salman Safavi formally refutes the ad nauseam tendency of some Western orientalists who consider Masnavi as a succession of anecdotes ordered without any forethought and on the basis of a disordered model created by momentary spiritual experiences of Molana. In the introduction to his book, he presents a series of Masnavi’s criticisms and the modes of interpretation which refute the idea of ​​the existence of a structure in Molana’s poetry and consider Masnavi as the result of a purely improvised and inspired literary creation. Safavi recognizes, however, that some Western experts have been able to conceive of the existence of a systematic structure in the composition of Molana’s poetry. Among the Iranian experts who have already identified the internal structure of Masnavi is Professor Hossein Nasr, who, in the first lines of his preface to the book of Salman Safavi, insists on the role of Master Hadi Hâeri [6], who believed in the structural composition of Masnavi, this “Gospel of the Gnosis”.

But what makes Salman Safavi’s method distinct from other methods used to study Molawi’s poetry? To answer this question, there is a need to clarify the three essential terms used in Professor Safavi’s critical approach: the synoptic, the parallelism and the chiasm.

The first major term in Safavi’s analysis concerns the synoptic aspect of his view of Masnavi. He even begins his work with an explanation of the term “synoptic”, highlighting the Greek origin of this word. In Safavi’s terminology, the Synoptic Critique consists of a literary criticism based on the whole literary work. In other words, it is a criticism of the overall structure of the work and not just its partial or minimal components. This approach of Professor Safavi stands out as a new theoretical trend in Masnavi structuralist critiques, although it can be applied to other literary texts as well. Seyed Salman Safavi divides the Masnavi structure into four hierarchical levels. According to him, the fundamental unit and the basic element of Masnavi is the couplet. Masnavi is composed of 25,632 verses; he works mostly on the 4003 verses that constitute its first book. According to him, the set of couplets that illustrate the same message forms a paragraph. This definition corresponds to an anecdote. Professor Safavi uses the term “Part” to refer to the paragraphs in Molana’s poetry. And according to him, the parts are considered as a speech. The speech, in the language of Safavi, corresponds to each one of the twelve main anecdotes of the first book of Masnavi:

The first speech: The king and the beautiful slave

The second speech: The king who massacres Christians

The third speech: The Jewish king and his vizier, who plans to eliminate the religion of Jesus

The fourth speech: The lion and the rabbit

The fifth speech: The Roman emissary and the caliph Omar

The sixth speech: The parrot and the trader

The seventh speech: The old musician of the time of Omar

The eighth speech: The Caliph, the Bedouin and his wife

The ninth speech: The lion, the wolf and the fox

The tenth speech: Prophet Joseph and the mirror

The eleventh speech: Zeyd, the Companion of the Prophet

The twelfth speech: Imam Ali and the Unfaithful Warrior

After Salman Safavi’s hypothesis, Molana chose the order of these twelve discourses in the first book voluntarily and consciously. Professor Safavi includes in his work several diagrams to demonstrate this intelligent classification. The system released by Safavi also includes transition parts or mini-speeches that are linked together as the main anecdotes of the first book of Masnavi. Indeed, according to Safavi, the operation leader of Molana is also the secondary stories, which fit between the twelve main anecdotes. These stories have a more important role in Molana’s book. Besides the internal structure of each of Masnavi’s six books, Professor Safavi says that, overall, these six books complement each other. These are not isolated chapters; on the contrary, they form an external and homogeneous macrostructure.

The second main axis in Safavi’s critical approach concerns parallelism. The origin of this term in literary studies dates back to the time of the Greek masters of philosophy, but academically, we must seek the theoretical basis of this scholarly word in the works of Russian leaders of formalist criticism in the early twentieth century. However, in approaching the structuralist theory, Professor Salman Safavi is rather directed towards the more recent critics and enumerates especially authors like Kristeva, Barthes, Levi-Strauss, Genette, Todorov, Starobinsky and Althusser. Safavi is not only interested in the parallel constructions of Masnavi as mini-structures generated by a literary process but speaks of a synoptic macro-parallelism. Moreover, he does not limit his interpretation of parallelism to formal and apparent aspects. It tries to highlight the existence of a semantic parallelism in the topics addressed by Molana. According to the hypothesis, he proposes, Masnavi of Molana follows a conscious structure in form and content. According to him, for seven centuries, these parallel structures have escaped literary criticism, since no synoptic analysis has been conducted until today on Masnavi of Molana.

The third notion in the structuralist hypothesis of Seyed Salman Safavi is that of chiasmus. But the chiasmus Dr. Safavi talks about goes beyond the definition of this lexeme as a figure of speech. Safavi conceives of this word as a microstructure in the composition and succession of the ideas of Molana in Masnavi. Through several diagrams, Professor Safavi attempts to show both the thematic and formal chiasm that organizes the various stories of the first book of Masnavi.

In short, Salman Safavi’s book The Structure of Rumi’s Mathnawi can be considered as a starting point for structuralist studies on the poetry of Molana. In this book, Safavi advances a new method of literary work that would be the synoptic analysis of Masnavi as he defines it. In his preface, Hossein Nasr evokes the “mathematical symbolism” of Molana’s poetry. He also highlights the emergence of new trends in literary criticism toward addressing and analyzing the mathematical structure and the game of numbers in Masnavi. Emphasizing this calculated harmony of Masnavi, Salman Safavi invites us to think about the mathematical structure of the Holy Qur’an. He also presents other examples in the world literature such as the Divine Comedy where Dante insists on number three to evoke the Catholic Trinity. As to the Iranian sources, Safavi intertextually analyzes the mathematical discipline of the Gathas of Zoroaster or the Seven Portraits of Nezami. Although the task of decoding Masnavi’s mathematical cohesion was not the order of the day for Safavi’s work, he was able to open this new horizon to young researchers eager to decipher the multidimensional mysteries of Molana’s poetry. This Iranian and Persian-speaking Gnostic, whose call to tranquility and celestial union has not ceased for seven centuries to resonate with the ears of humanity.


[1] London Academy of Iranian Studies,

[2] Seyed Salman Safavi, born in Isfahan in 1959, is an Islamic scholar and professor of philosophy. After conducting theological and ecclesiastical studies in Iran, he obtained his Ph.D. in philosophy of religion at SOAS, the University of London and his post-doctorate in philosophy of art in the same university. He is the co-founder of the Islamic Center of England and the director of the London Academy of Iranian Studies. Salman Safavi also directs Transcendent Philosophy Journal and the Islamic Perspective Journal. Professor Safavi is also the director of “London Academy of Iranian Studies”(LAIS)[iii] and “International Center for Peace Studies”(IPSC).[iv] A descendant of Sheikh Safieddin Ardebili and a distant relative of the Safavid kings, he is a specialist in Gnosis, art and Iran-Shiite culture from the time of the great Shahs of Isfahan. Perfect English speaker, he is the author and editor of:

– Rumi’s Principles – Islamic Mysticism Studies

– Mulla Sadra: Life and Philosophy

– Allah in Quran: Golden Verses on Divine Unity

– Contemporary Encyclopedia of Holy Quran

Thaqalain ‘Irfan (Mysticism): Theoretical and Practical Principles of Irfan and Safaviyya Spiritual Path

The Practice of Sufism and the Safavid Order

Sheikh Safi al-Din Ardabili in the Mirror of Sufism, Art and Politics

Music and ‘Irfan (Sufism)

[3] School of Oriental and African Studies,


[5] The philosopher and Islamologist Seyyed Hossein Nasr, born in 1933 in Tehran, grandson of Sheikh Fazlollah Nouri, is the author of several books on Iranian-Islamic spirituality. He has taught for several decades in various academic institutions in the United States and conducts research on Iranian culture and civilization. Among his students is William Chittick, the American critic of the poetry of Molana.

[6] Hâdi Hâeri is the son of Rahmat-Ali Shâh Hâeri, Gnostic Sheikh and one of the Sufi spiritual guides in contemporary Iran. Former Deputy Minister of Culture, poet and author of several books in philosophy and ethics, Hâdi Hâeri was also a specialist in the poetry of Molana. He has educated a generation of important literary scholars such as Hossein Nasr, Allâmeh Jaafari, Badiozzamân Forouzânfar and Jalâleddin Homâyi. Hâeri died in Tehran in 1980.





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