Rendering Mevlânâ

The Poverty of Masnevi Translation

Is Mevlânâ Jalâl ad-Dîn Rûmî a friend of God in spite of his Islâm, or because of it?  This is the question guiding the inquiry that follows.

As his renown has spread, it would seem to be the former claim — the in spite of Islâm claim — that has flourished with it. But what if it is entirely wrong-headed to speak of Mevlânâ as anything other than the true, normative fruition of the post-prophetic ideal of human potential imparted through Islâm?  What if Mevlâna, far from being a symbol of resistance to the outward expression of Islamic devotion, instead embodies it?

It is well known that Rumi means money in America, and that words taken to be based upon his own can be a source of gratification, entertainment, and self-help.  It is also no secret that much of what passes for the work of Mevlânâ Jalâl ad-Dîn (not at all the same person as “Rumi”) has been distorted beyond any fair similarity to the original.  It is long past time for Muslims and non-Muslims alike to strive to recover Mevlânâ from the twisted figure of what some call Rumi.

i.  The Meaning of Prayer

Of the many highly remunerative translations that drive the Rumi Industry, Reynold Nicholson’s stands apart as (we are told) especially accurate.  Is this a fair appraisal?  One way to appraise Nicholson’s work is to search for nuance that is, as the phrase goes, lost in translation.  What follows is a close reading of two pages of his Book V with particular attention to Qur’anic and technical religious vocabulary.

We begin with the following verse:

Abandon, then, the dry (verbal) prayer, O fortunate one.   [Masnevi V: 1188]

Taken alone, this can be subject to many interpretations — and the taking of verses alone is, to be sure, a common conceit of the Rumi Industry.  Among the ways this version of Mevlânâ’s actual words could be read are the following:

  • Abandon religious obligations, and count yourself fortunate to have done so.
  • Being exceptional in your spiritual gifts, consider yourself exempt from religious obligations.
  • Leave aside religious practices that are exoteric (a “dry husk”) and replace them with esoteric spirituality.
  • Pray, but not with verbal formulae.

Other verses in proximity to this one seem to suggest that the problem of prayer is not necessarily inherent, but resides somehow in its verbal expression:

These words, (whilst they stay) in the breast, are an income consisting of (spiritual) kernels: in silence the spiritual kernel grows a hundredfold.  When it (the word) comes onto the tongue, the kernel is expended: refrain from expending, in order that the goodly kernel may remain (with you).   [Masnevi V: 1275-1276]

But this “keep it to yourself” notion is also a problematic way to interpret this section of the Masnevi, for at least two reasons.  First, the section immediately following the one from which these verses have been taken carries the heading “Prayer” and begins as follows:

 O Giver of (spiritual) nutriment and steadfastness and stability, give Thy creatures deliverance from this instability.  [Masnevi V: 1197]

This would seem to be a “verbal prayer”, if only because it begins with a vocative particle and continues in an imploring manner that one could readily imagine saying aloud.  Perhaps what redeems this is that it is verbal, but not dry; or else, that it is neither dry nor verbal, expressing an inner voice having no vocal counterpart.  But this is undeniably a section of a well crafted poem, structured for recitation aloud, and by no means what one expects of a spontaneous outpouring “within the soul” or such like.

A second problem arises in the heading of the previous section (i.e., preceding line V: 1171), which reads as follows in Nicholson’s rendering:

Explaining that when the evil-doer becomes settled in evil-doing, and sees the effect of the (spiritual) fortune of the doers of righteousness, he from envy becomes a devil and preventer of good, like Satan; for he whose stack is burnt desires that all (others) should have their stacks burnt: “hast thou seen him who forbids a servant (of God) when he performs the (ritual) prayer?”

Taken as given here, one faces a third conflict.  Dry prayer is to be abandoned. and this tends to have a verbal character to it; but a verbal prayer is then offered, seeming to contradict the first injunction; and finally, a verse from the Qur’ân is presented stating that to bar the worshipper from ritual prayer is plainly demonic.  Given these apparently conflicting statements, what is one to conclude about the necessity, permissibility, desirability, and nature of prayer?

In actual fact, this problem is a creation of the translator of the Masnevi, and not of the poem’s author.  What Nicholson translates as prayer is a different word in each case, and what is lost in the translation is simply the shades of meaning inherent in each word in the original language.  Thus the “dry (verbal) prayer” refers, in Mevlânâ’s own words, to ducâ, or supplication.  This is not the ritual prayer prescribed for Muslims at five particular times of each day — the word for that is salât, and it is preventing the worshipper from the fulfillment of the obligation of salât that is considered Satanic and explicitly forbidden by the Qur’ân.

In no way, therefore, is Mevlânâ to be understood as urging the abandonment of religious obligations, and in this distinction is the resolution of the first apparent contradiction in the section quoted here.  The obligation of salât is in no way contingent upon whether its performance is dry or not.  On the other hand, the supplication [ducâ] ought to have some personal significance to the one who utters it.  It is not obligatory, even if it is strongly urged that the believer offer ducâ.  Admittedly, the ducâ can be formulaic, consisting of the repetition of some words from traditional texts whose meaning does not really reach the heart of the one uttering it.  What the reader might consider is Mevlânâ’s position regarding the purpose of ducâ.  As some have written, the gift of ducâ is not in the response to it, but in the upwelling of the need for Allâh within the seeker to which the ducâ gives voice.  One who, like Satan, is in the thrall of envy and other vices is not susceptible to this gift, while remaining capable of dry recitation of a ducâ received at second hand.

As for the “prayer” that begins O Giver, the word in the original language of the poem is munâjât, which is to say, yet a third category of interaction with the divine.  Having urged us to abandon the dry supplication, what is offered next is a more authentic one.  We cannot simply repeat this as a formula, but must seek within ourselves a corresponding sincerity.  The Arabic word munâjât means something like “intimate discourse or conversation” and originates from the radical √n-j-w, a variant of which is seen in the following verse of the Qur’ân:

And we called him from the right side of the mountain, and brought him near, in confidence [najiyyan].   [Maryam 19: 52]

This refers to the prophet Mûsâ, or Moses (peace be upon him), given the privilege of approaching his Lord Most High on Mount Sinai, as the Torah also reports.  It is this communion with the divine, exemplified in a prophetic model [sunna], which may be inaccessible to us as ordinary seekers, but which is nevertheless to be sought in the sincerity of munâjât.  It is also to be considered whether every truth is expressible in words, or whether the kernel is expended through expression because the referent of the experience of munâjât is neither known through language, nor reducible to it.  These notions are to be dealt with below.

ii.  Abandoning Prayer

Once one leaves aside some of the more esoteric dimensions of munâjât — such as the nature of spiritual intuition, the limitations of language, the implications of a hierarchy of levels of existence, and so forth — what is left is actually a very uncontroversial, even trite claim:  It is preferable to mean what you say than not to.  If the sincere ducâ is the better ducâ, does it follow that more routine supplication is invalid?  Is there no point at all to such a thing, no merit, no reward?  Is it, indeed, something reprehensible?

There are manifestations of the Rumi Industry that might incline one to such a conclusion.  As others have pointed out elsewhere, it is not altogether uncommon for assertions of Islamic faith that the translator finds uncomfortable simply to disappear without mention.  Few have profited more by the Rumi Industry than Coleman Barks, an “interpreter” who knows no Persian and publishers what he admits to be creatively reconfigured versions of Nicholson’s sometimes artless renderings.  In a work that Barks calls “The Guest House” he writes this:

Every morning a new arrival.  A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.  Welcome and entertain them all!  Even if there’s a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably.  He may be clearing you out for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.  Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.

A longtime student of Mevlânâ who does read Persian, Ibrahim Gaimard, locates the source of Barks’ recasting in the following verses from Nicholson:

Every day, too, at every moment a (different) thought [fikra] comes, like an honored guest, into thy bosom.  O (dear) soul, regard thought as a person, since (every) person derives his worth from thought and spirit.  If the thought of sorrow is waylaying (spoiling) joy, (yet) it is making preparations for joy.  It violently sweeps thy house clear of (all) else, in order that new joy from the source of good may enter in.  It scatters the yellow leaves from the bough of the heart, in order that incessant green leaves may grow.  It uproots the old joy [surûr], in order that new delight [dhawq] may march in from the Beyond.  […]

(Whenever) the thought (of sorrow) comes into thy breast anew, go to meet it with smiles and laughter, saying:  “O my Creator, preserve me from its evil: do not deprive me, (but) let me partake, of its good!  O my Lord, prompt me to give thanks for that which I see (receive): do not let me feel any subsequent regret, if it (the benefit received) shall pass away.”   [Masnevi V: 3676-3681, 3693-3695]

Gaimard remarks that the brief Qur’anic quotation is simply dropped by Barks without a trace.  Nicholson italicizes a phrase to indicate its presence, but offers no citation.  He also makes no note regarding the fact that “to give thanks for that which I (receive)” is also properly part of the Qur’anic verse, modified slightly by Mevlânâ to fir his meter (i.e., from rabbi awzicnî an ashkura nicmataka in the Qur’ân to rabbi awzicnî li-shukri mâ arâ in the Masnevi). The actual verse is a ducâ of Sulaymân (the prophet Solomon, upon whom be peace) offered when a party of ants retreats in alarm that Sulaymân’s army will crush them unawares.  It reads as follows:

So [Sulaymân] smiled at her [i.e., an ant’s] words and said, “My Lord!  Give me the strength and ability to be thankful for Your Grace with which You have graced me and my parents, and to do good deeds which please You, and include me, by Your Mercy, among your righteous worshippers.”   [an-Naml 27: 19]

Perhaps more offensive still to the sensibilities of an anti-sectarian New Age spirituality is the very similar version of this supplication elsewhere in the Qur’ân, where is attributed to the generality of Muslim believers:

We have commanded the human being to treat his parents kindly.  His mother bore him with hardship and gave birth to him with hardship, and his bearing and his weaning took thirty months.  [He then grows] until he reaches maturity and reaches forty years, and he says, “My Lord, gather within me the utmost strength and ability to be grateful for Your Grace, which You have bestowed upon me [rabbi awzicnî an ashkura nicmataka’l-latî ancamta calayya] and upon my parents, and to perform good deeds that will please You, and make my offspring to be wholly righteous.  I turn to You repentant [innî tubtu ilayka] and I am from those wholly submitted [muslimûn].”  [al-Ahqâf 46: 15]

Given the complete text of the verses that Mevlânâ has invoked, but Barks has dropped, it is rather much to accept the claim that dark thoughts, shame, and malice are “each … sent as a guide from beyond”.  The ducâ of Sulaymân, or of the righteous Muslim believer generally, culminates in repentance [tawba] and the plea to be made wholly righteous.  There are resonances here of the Fâtiha, the first chapter of the Qur’ân, recited in each of the ritual prayers of the believer’s day:

Guide us to the straight path, the path of those whom You have blessed [sirâta’lladhîna ancamta calayhim].

The use by Mevlânâ of some of the technical vocabulary of tasawwuf, or Islamic spiritual psychology, also situates the meanings of the Masnevi in places that Barks has simply overlooked.  We see, for instance, the venerable terms sirr and dhawq, which the interested reader can read about in any standard work on esoteric Islam, such as the Risâla of Imâm Qushayri, available in complete English translation.  The use of this technical vocabulary in turn suggests that the joys and sorrows under discussion are really matters of qabd and bast, heavier or more constricted spiritual states versus those that are lighter and more expansive.  If sorrow belongs to constriction, then it is to be embraced as part of a normal cycle of spiritual growth and development.  If infer from this that one is to embrace dark passions and malicious fancies as signs of divine favor is far more in tune with the empty jargon of self-help than anything on Mevlânâ’s description of the path of seeking the Divine Pleasure through arduous worship and self-abnegation.

There is a context to this passage that begins some hundred lines earlier, and that incorporates important Qur’anic allusions.  It is not at all obvious that Mevlânâ intends his remarks in the section Barks has reworked to be as universal in their import as Barks supposes, validating every whim as a teacher of great truths.  The heading that precedes line V: 3591 reads as follows in Nicholson:

Commentary [tafsîr] on the [Qur’anic] verse “And lo, the After–home is the (real) life, if they but knew.”  The gates and walls and area of that World and its water and pitchers and fruits and trees, all are living and speaking and hearing; and on that account Mustafa (Mohammed), on whom be peace, has said that the present world [dunyâ] is a carcasse and those who seek it are curs.

The Qur’anic verse on which commentary is to be made is, in its entirety, as follows:

The life of this world [hayât ad-dunyâ] is but an idle pastime and a game [laciba].  And surely the Final World is the [eternal] life, if they but knew.   [al-cAnkabût 29: 64]

The nature of the life of this world as idle pastime and play is evoked a few lines below the heading, alluding back to the first part of this verse and using masterful play [1] on some of the Qur’ân’s own words:

The cup that purifies is for those intoxicated with God; this briny water is for these blind birds.  […]  A dead (lifeless) doll [lucbat] is given to (young) girls, for they are ignorant of the play (dalliance) [licb] of living (men).  A wooden sword is better suited to children (young boys), since they have not the strength and power (that comes) from manhood.   [Masnevi V: 3595, 3587-3598]

The mention in the section heading of its water and pitchers and fruits and trees (all in Persian in this passage), as well as the mention of the cup that purifies and these birds in these subsequent lines, all recall Qur’anic descriptions of the life of those who dwell in Paradise, in particular the following:

Circling around them are immortal youths with goblets and basins, and a cup from a pure spring (from which comes no headache and no madness) with fruits of their choice, and the flesh of birds as they desire.   [al-Wâqica 56: 17-21]

The Masnevi next continues with a section concerning a sort of coexistence in both the realm of dunyâ and of the Final World [âkhira] that is possible for people of particularly lofty spiritual stature.  This section is crucial to the proper understanding of the lines that Barks has appropriated:

This mouth of him is speaking on subtle points (of religion) to those sitting beside him, while the other (mouth) is (engaged) in discourse with God and intimate (with Him).  His outward ear is apprehending these (external) words, while his spiritual ear is drawing (into itself) the mysteries of (the Creative Word) Be.  His outward eye is apprehending human forms and features, while his inward eye is dazzled in (the glory of) the eye did not stray.   [Masnevi V: 3602-3604]

Mevlânâ here invokes the following verses of the Qur’ân:

All obey His Will, the Originator of the heavens and the earth.  And when He decrees a thing to be, He but says to it, “BE!”  And its is.   [al-Baqara 2: 116-117; cf. 3: 47, 59; 6: 73; 16: 40; 36: 82; and 40: 68]

His eye [basar] neither veered, nor did it stray.  Indeed, he saw the greatest among the signs of his Lord.   [an-Najm 53: 17-18]

The inward senses (here described as the eye and ear) are clearly absorbed in matters having little enough to do with the things of dunyâ.  One imagines the holy man of stereotype, in the world but not of it.  In fact, the Qur’ân being held by the doctrine of the Ashcarî theologians (to which Mevlânâ subscribed) to be uncreated, the integrally Islam conception is much the more illuminating for our understanding of the Masnevi.  The outward ear and eye apprehend things of the world, created entities.  The spiritual ear and inward eye [basar] are dazzled by Allâh’s uncreated Word, dwelling in the realm of intimate discourse with Him.

His outward feet stand evenly in the row (of worshippers) in the mosque, while his spiritual feet are (engaged) in circumambulation [tawwâf] above the sky.  Reckon up every member of him (and judge of it) in like fashion: this (bodily part) is within Time, while that (spiritual part) is beyond Time.   [Masnevi V: 3605-3606]

Note that the one gifted with intimate discourse and esoteric intuition of the uncreated realms of the divine does not cease to stand for the ritual prayer [salât] in the mosque.  The religious is not cast off for the spiritual alone, but incorporates states beyond time and other created entities.  The tawwâf of the Kacba is a fact of the hajj pilgrimage within Time, whereas there is also a tawâf above the sky and beyond Time alongside the denizens of Paradise seen above with their water and pitchers and fruits and trees and the cup that purifies and birds:

Circling [yatûfu (like tawwâf, √t-w-f)] around them are immortal youths.   [al-Wâqica 56: 17]

A number of lines later (V: 3635 ff), a discussion ensues concerning the differences between “inner” and “outer” states [ahwâl].  The outer states are to be disposed of first, cursorily, “in a word or two” — their importance to the way of the seeker being trivial, since they are transient effects perceived by the outward, bodily senses:

Even so, a hundred thousand “states” came (hither) and went back to the Unseen, O trusted one.  Each day’s “state” is not like (that of) the day before: (they are passing) as a river that hath no obstacle in its course.  Each day’s joy is of a different kind, each day’s thought makes a different impression.

This body, O youth, is a guest-house: every morning a new guest comes running (into it).  Beware, do not say, “This (guest) is a burden to me,” for presently he will fly back into non-existence.   [Masnevi V: 3641-3645]

This wording strongly suggests that the readert is to regard ahwâl as trivial and fleeting things that impose themselves on the guest-house of the physical self.  In the lexicon of Imâm Qushayri, the hâl (state) is complemented by the maqâm (station), these being distinguished as follows:

A station [maqâm] consists of certain forms of behavior actualized by the servant through his struggles.  He gains access to these through some kind of voluntary effort and makes them a reality through a sort of striving and the endurance of constraints upon his nature.  […]

[Whereas] a state [hâl] is a spiritual influence that arrives in the heart without their intending, contriving, or earning it, such as joy or sorrow or expansion or contraction or desire or agitation or awe or need.  […]  Some of the masters … recite:

Did it not change, it would not be called a state,

And everything that changes vanishes.

Thus one does not cling to the ahwâl, nor does one imagine that they announce a stopping place along the spiritual path.  It is significant that Mevlânâ considers their guest-house to be the body, and their flight imminent.

Mevlânâ’s next turn is to fikrat.  This term runs through the passage appropriated by Barks and is signaled, in the heading to it in Nicholson’s rendering, as its main theme:

Comparing the daily thoughts [fikrat] that come into the heart with the new guests who from the beginning of the day alight in the house and behave with arrogance and ill-temper towards the master of the house; and concerning the merit of treating the guest with kindness and of suffering his haughty airs patiently.

His use of the word fikrat is not uniform, referring sometimes to logical processes (e.g., V: 558 ff), sometimes to a tier of ontological reality (e.g., II: 977-978), and sometimes to nothing nearly so lofty as either of these.  Fikrat is an Arabic word that Persian has borrowed, and that the Steingass dictionary defines as meaning thought in literary Persian.  It does not occur as such in the Qur’ân, though words derived from the root √f-k-r certainly do, mostly as a verb of Form V with the sense of to reflect.  For Mevlânâ, it is likely that fikrat is close in meaning to the more technical term khawâtir, referring to the mind’s spontaneous, ego-inflected, and (as the root of the word reflects) dangerous notions.  These are the responses of the mind to ahwâl, which by their nature do not merit our dwelling upon them intellectually.

As we have advanced through the verses leading to the passage appropriated by Barks, we have observed that the heart can remain with Allâh while the body is among created entities, and that this bears some correlation to the abiding stations that coexist with transient states.  We can finally situate these fikrat that Barks so esteems within the authentic scheme of the Masnevi by starting with the following lines:

To the ass a cowrie and a pearl are alike: the ass has a (great) doubt concerning the (spiritual) pearl and the Sea.  He disbelieves in the Sea and its pearls: how should an animal be a seeker of pearls and adornments?  God has not put it into the animal’s head to be engrossed with rubies and devoted to pearls.  Have you ever seen asses with ear-rings?  The ear and mind of the ass are (set) on the meadow.

Read in (the Súra entitled) Wa’l-Tín (the words), (We created Man) in the best proportion, for the spirit, O friend, is a precious pearl.  (That spirit created) in the best proportion surpasses the empyrean: (that spirit created) in the best proportion is beyond (the range of) thought [fikrat].  If I declare the value of this inaccessible (pearl), I shall be consumed, and the hearer too will be consumed.   [Masnevi VI: 1001-1007]

We have learned about the spiritual ear and the inward eye, which of course no ass on the meadow possesses any more than it would an earring.  And we now find mention of still more, from among the glories of Paradise, added to those cited above from Sûrat al-Wâqica:

Like rubies and coral — which then of the favors of your Lord will you deny?   [ar-Rahmân 55: 58-59]

Like hidden pearls — a reward for what they did.   [al-Wâqica 56: 23-24]

The glories of which we are no more cognizant that the ass on the meadow is of rubies, coral, or pearls includes the meanings of the sûra mentioned be Mevlânâ:

By the fig and the olive [wa’t-tîni wa’z-zaytûn], and by Mount Sinai, and by this land made safe, truly We created the human being in the best form.  Then We reduced him to the lowest of the low, except for those who faithfully believe and do righteous deeds — theirs shall be a reward unfailing.   [at-Tîn 95: 1-6]

Whatever Nicholson might have meant by such an old-fashioned term as the empyrean can be recovered through reference to Mevlânâ’s own words.  This best form [ahsan at-taqwîm] is az carsh, “beyond the Throne”:

But if they turn away, say, “Sufficient for Me is Allâh; there is nothing worthy of worship but He.  On Him I rely, and He is the Lord of the Seat of Highest Authority [al-carsh, the Throne].   [at-Tawba 9: 129]

According to an authentic hadîth, narrated by Abû Hurayra and preserved in the Sahîh of Bukhari, this Throne is above the highest reaches of Paradise — well beyond the scope of the mind, in the realm where eyes do not perceive Him [al-Ancâm 6: 103], yet where the Prophet, may Allâh bless him and grant him peace, entered into intimate discourse with his Lord through his heart, as shown by the verse

There He revealed to His worshipper what He revealed.  His heart did not lie about what it saw.   [an-Najm 53: 10-11]

Is it any wonder, then that one will be consumed in trying to speak of this?  Can the claim possibly be entertained, that Mevlânâ would have proposed that the fikrat that enters in passing the guest-house of the dunyâ is truly at the level of the best form of the soul?

Such are the parameters of the belief system of the Masnevi, and the manner in which its form evokes rich and extensive associations in the mind of the reader attentive to its Qur’anic substrate.  All of this being the case, it is only possible to conclude that Barks’ rendering is plainly antonymic to Mevlânâ’s, and not a mere distortion.  Barks is plainly abusive of the original meanings of the Masnevi, and (perhaps this amounts to the same thing) dismissive of its vital Qur’anic substrate.  For his part, Nicholson — slavishly literal in some places, anti-religious in others — likewise deals with explicitly Qur’anic material in a manner that causes departure from the spirit and intent of the poem.  For instance, Nicholson translates one particularly important verse as follows:

(The command) come against your will is for him who has become a blind follower (of religion); come willingly is for him that is moulded of sincerity.   [Masnevi III: 4590]

Like other passages already quoted, this hardly leaves the reader to guess where Nicholson himself might stand on the relation of religion (in the sense of codes of outward conduct) to spirituality.  The blind follower is, by this view, necessarily brought to the altar by coercion, against all free will, and hoodwinked (or bribed) into remaining there.

If this reflects Nicholson’s own position on the matter of religion in relation to spirituality, are we to understand that it also reflects Mevlânâ’s?  It first and foremost bears mentioning that the italicized phrases (come against your will and come willingly) in this verse are Qur’anic:

Then He applied His Design to the heaven which was as yet but smoke, and said to it and to the earth, “Come, the both of you, willingly or unwillingly.”  They replied, “We come willingly!”     [Fussilat 41: 11]

The origin of these phrases is no small point, not least of all because any attribution to Mevlânâ of resistance to religious form relative to spiritual substance must account for the enormous incidence of Qur’anic quotation, allusion, and inspiration in the Masnevi.  After all, what text (according to popular misconception) could be more coercive, and less “spiritual”, than the Qur’ân?

It next bears mentioning that both phrases (in Nicholson’s wording, both come against your will and come willingly) are commands — or, more accurately, possible contingencies of the same Divine Command, i’tiyâ, Come!  There being only one command here, it is not entirely inconceivable that the blind follower and the one moulded of sincerity are more similar than one might at first suppose.

Finally, it is no small matter in itself that the expression blind follower is, in Mevlânâ’s Persian, but a single word of Arabic origin, muqallid.  Thus either blind, or follower, is an interpolation; or muqallid necessarily comprises both senses; or the translator has imposed his own view upon the text.

One who is muqallid is a person of taqlîd, which is to say, a person who does indeed follow, but in an informed and inquisitive manner.  In the present day, many Muslims take this term to refer to an imitator of a scholar, a blind follower of the wont of another who in effect deifies a human model and is accordingly mushrik, an idolator.  This is not by any means the original sense of the word.  The Muslim who falls into this error shows a tendency to imitate the polemics of modernity, according to which “think for yourself” can only mean “attend to none but your own ego.”

One who is not muqallid is, in the law and tradition of Islâm, necessarily in the position of deriving rulings in the Sacred Law independently.  To place oneself in this position does not necessitate that one be qualified to assume its responsibilities.  Thus, the one who is not muqallid is either mujtahid — fully educated, qualified, and capable of interpreting the Sacred Law to others based on original hermeneutical effort applied to the primary sources — or lost.  The foremost of those who were mujtahid without question were the Prophet’s Companions (may Allâh be pleased with them), and we are fools who through conceit and demonic deception place ourselves on this level.  In the present day it remains to be seen whether more than the merest handful of us can be considered mujtahid.  Thus, to be muqallid means to follow the safe and clear paths of the great imâms of the so-called schools of law, the madhâhib.  This is hardly a state of dishonor or misguidance, let alone of blindness.

Thus, for Mevlânâ, it is more than probable that the term muqallid did not imply anything nearly so pejorative as Nicholson proposes through his translation.  It is not necessarily the case that one who is muqallid be blind and slavish in his following, though to be sure, blind and slavish followers are far from unknown among those who are muqallid.  Neither is it necessarily the case that to be muqallid is to be moulded of something other than sincerity.  Nicholson seems to imply an either/or dichotomy between taqlîd and sincerity.  But this, too, says more about Nicholson than about the worldview of Mevlânâ.

Elsewhere Mevlânâ invokes the same Qur’anic verse again, as follows:

Come against your will is the toggle for the intelligent [câqilân]; come willingly is the spring-time of them that have lost their hearts [bi-dilân].   [Masnevi III: 4472]

This is problematic for the notion that the people of taqlîd are mere imitators, since we are now called upon to consider them people of reason [caql].  How are these to be reconciled?

What Nicholson’s own predispositions and prejudices may have inclined him to disregard is the possibility that Mevlânâ refers here to two paths to Divine Pleasure that are equally valid, both accepted of the seeker.  The way of reasoning and of opposing the ego-self [nafs] and its inclinations is the way proceeding from the art to the Divine Artisan, of making inferences about the Creator from the wonders of His creation.  This is the way of knowledge conceived as cilm, or propositional knowledge, logic, and striving.  The other way, that of losing the heart to the Divine Beloved, is the way of macrifa, of gnosis, love, and direct intuition.  Here the seeker proceeds from the Artisan to His arts, from the Creator to His creation.  In neither case is the Divine Law suspended or inapplicable.  At minimum, the exoteric way is prerequisite to the esoteric.

The verse of the Masnevi just cited (that is, the toggle for the intelligent and the spring-time of them that have lost their hearts) is proposed by the 17th century Ottoman scholar Imâm Bursevi as commentary on the following verse of the Qur’ân:

They are those who have purchased misguidance at the price of guidance, and neither has their bargain brought them any gain, not have they guidance.   [al-Baqara 2: 16]

This master of the Masnevi and its wisdom thereby makes it perfectly clear that the essential opposition is that of misguidance to guidance, of dalâla to hudâ — not of following to sincerity.  It is not correct to place the muqallid among the misguided.  Among them are those who strive long and hard to fulfill their religious obligations, and who reach the knowledge they have through their reasoning faculties.  It is hardly possible to place such people among those who have bargained their guidance away.  Thus Nicholson’s dichotomy is false.  Both paths — that of the muqallid, and that of the people of gnosis — are open to those whom Allâh guides.  Ideally they are to be followed together.

The Masnevi’s various commentaries on the Qurân are, therefore, essential to understanding the Masnevi itself.  With this principle in mind, we can propose a new reading of the Masnevi grounded in its own assumptions, independent of modernistic preconceptions and polemics.  The skeleton is Nicholson’s, but the meanings are more fully those emergent from the Qur’anic temperament of the original poem:

The command come unwillingly is for the person of intellect; come willingly is for the one who has lost his heart.  The former loves the Real [al-Haqq] on account of secondary causes, while the other’s love issues from the Source.

The former loves the Nurse on account of the milk, while the other one has given his heart for the sake of this Veiled One.  The child has no knowledge of Her beauty; he has no desire of Her in his heart except as Bringer of his milk, while the other is, truly, the lover of the Nurse.  He is disinterested, single-minded in love.

Hence he that loves al-Haqq because of hope and fear reads studiously the book of taqlîd, while he that loves al-Haqq for His Own sake — where is he?

The mention of hope and fear, of rajâ and khawf, also precludes the notion of the way of taqlîd as one of blind conformity.  To remain between the states of fear and hope is, after all, the way of people held in the highest esteem among the exponents of esoteric Islâm — and the coupling of fear with hope is a fully Qur’anic notion.  As indicated by Imâm al-Qushayri, the Qur’ân instructs us as follows, in a verse during the recitation of which the believer is to prostrate:

Only those truly believe in Our Signs who, when reminded of them, fall down in prostration and extol the Limitless Glory and Praise of their Lord, and they are not arrogant — they whose sides rise from their beds [in the deep of the night, or for the prescribed ritual prayer at dawn (fajr)] to call out to their Lord in fear and hope.  And they spend [upon others in charity] from the sustenance We have given them.   [as-Sajda 32: 15-16]

Thus the signs lead them to the Divine Signifier, and they become known as alladhîna âmanû, those who truly believe [as-Sajda 32: 19] — a designation discussed at length, through the verses of the Qur’ân and Masnevi, in the remarks that follow.  Imâm al-Qushayri also points out that the Qur’ân commands fear in the following âyât:

It is only Shaytân who instills fear of his allies, so do not fear them, but fear Me, if you are believers.   [Âl cImrân 3: 175]

Do they not see all the things that Allâh has created, how their shadows incline to the right and the left making prostrations to Alliah, and utterly submissive [to His Will]?  All things in the heavens and whatever is on the earth, from beasts to angels, prostrate to Allâh, and they are not arrogant.  They fear their Lord above them and do what they are commanded.  And Allâh says, “Do not take two objects of worship.  There is only One God.  So fear Me, and Me Alone.”   [an-Nahl 16: 48-51]

The Qur’ân also recommends — as the engines of the Rumi Industry will not mention, but Imâm al-Qushayri will — the following:

Whoever has hope of the meeting with Allâh, the appointed time is surely coming.  And He is the Hearing, the Knowing.  And whoever struggles hard [man jâhada — i.e., in the Cause of Allâh] struggles only for his own soul, for Allâh is Entirely Independent of all the worlds.  And as for those who believe [alladhîna âmanû] and perform righteous deeds, We shall cover up their misdeeds, and We will reward them for the best of what they did.   [al-cAnkabût 29: 5-7]

There can, in other words, be no question of considering the exoteric way to be inherently blameworthy, one of misguidance, and that of esoteric spirituality the sole path to deliverance.  It is false even to imagine them as esoteric or exoteric, the Goal being the same.

To continue with the reconstructed meanings of the Masnevi:

Hence he that loves al-Haqq because of hope and fear reads studiously the book of taqlîd, while he that loves al-Haqq for His Own sake — where is he?  For he does not rely upon self-awareness and means.

Whether he be like this or like that, inasmuch as he is a seeker [tâlib], Allâh’s attraction [jadhb-i Haqq] is drawing him towards Him.  Whether he love Allâh for something other than He [li-ghayrihi], that he may continually partake of His Good, or whether he love Allâh for His Very Self, for naught besides Him, in fear of separation from Him — the quests and seekings of both these lovers are from that Source.  This captivation of the heart is from that Heart-Ravisher.   [Masnevi III:4590-4600]

The fact that Nicholson or anyone else has made of the Masnevi something that it is not urges us to caution, lest we see in its various translations and creative renderings the inflections of a modernity it is in every other way most masterfully able to refute.

iii.  Worshipful Obedience

            There may be no clearer path to demonstrating Mevlânâ’s high normative stature than by examining his adherence to, and the Masnevi’s dependence upon, explicit Qur’ânic commands.  We begin with the following verse, which (like 88 others in the Qur’ân) announces its binding legal effect upon the Muslim believer through an address to alladhîna âmanû, those who truly believe, in its opening words:

Yâ ayyuhâ’lladhîna âmanû tûbû ilâ’Llâhi tawbatan nasûhan.  O you who truly believe, turn to Allâh in sincere repentance.   [at-Tahrîm 66: 8]

It would appear that the terms tawba and nasûh, though used together in the verse, should (at least at first) be explicated separately.

The legal preconditions of repentance that can be accepted are well known, and include refraining from the act of which one repents, remorse at one’s commission of it, and resolve never to repeat it.  By another account, Sayyidinâ cAlî (may Allâh be pleased with him) proposed that repentance includes six things, these being remorse, renewed commitment to the obligations of worship [farâ’id], compensation to those victimized by an act, seeking pardon from adversaries, resolve not to repeat the offense, and

Dissolving yourself in worshipful obedience to Allâh, just as you caused it to grow in sinful disobedience, and making it taste the bitterness of obedience, just as you let it taste the sweetness of sinful acts of disobedience, until it enjoys the sweetness and flavors of worshipful obedience.

It is difficult to avoid the sense, on account of such terms as taste the bitterness of obedience, that Mevlânâ had this tradition in mind in composing the heading to the section of the Masnevi that Imâm Bursevi quotes in his commentary on the verse O you who truly believe, turn to Allâh in sincere repentance:

Story explaining the repentance of Nasuh.  As milk that flows from the breast never returns to the breast, so he who has repented like Nasuh will never think of that sin in the way of desire, but his loathing will increase continually.  That loathing is a proof that he has experienced the delight of being accepted [i.e., as one whose repentance is sincere (nasûh)], and that the old lust [shahwat] has ceased to give delight [ladhdhat], and that the delight [of acceptance] has established itself in the place of the delight of lust.  As it has been said in verse:

Nothing breaks off love [cishq] like another love.

Why not then take a friend fairer than this one?

And when his heart desires to sin again, it is a sign that he has not experienced the delight of acceptance, and that the delight of acceptance has not superseded the delight of sin, and that he has not yet become  We will surely dispose him to ease  [al-Layl 92: 7], but that the delight of  We will surely dispose him to hardship  [al-Layl 92: 10] still remains in him.

As a first approach to the meaning of the âya, and to the manner in which the Masnevi serves as a commentary on the Qur’ân, we might perhaps assume that nasûh is the correlate of the heart (or, as Mevlânâ’s preface would have it, of delight and cishq) that secures the validity of tawba as sought through the outward action of the limbs.

Not readily translated, the word nasûh is of great significance, both in the Qur’ân and in the literature of hadîth.  Words constructed on the root √n-sh occur in the Qur’ân to describe the manner in which the prophets Nûh, Sâlih and Shucayb delivered their guidance to the people [al-Acrâf 7: 62, 68, 79 and 93; also Hûd 11: 34], for instance:

And [Sâlih] turned from them, saying, “O my people!  I certainly delivered the message of my Lord and gave you sincere advice, but you did not love those who give sincere advice.”   [al-Acrâf 7: 79]

The word “sincerity” (already encountered in this introduction) is often chosen to render the Arabic ikhs, and this choice is not without its problems.  For one thing, the difference between ikhs and various forms of nasûh would require comment — does English fail to capture a fine but significant distinction, or are these words effectively synonymous?  If they are different, is nasûh something particular to the prophets?  Is tawba valid or accepted only in the presence of ikhs?

Another form of the word nasûh (specifically the active participle sih) is invoked to characterize the insincere blandishments of Shaytân and the brothers of Yûsuf [see al-Acrâf 7: 21 and Yûsuf 12: 11].  And we also see the word in the following verse:

And a man came from the farthest part of the city, running.  He said, “O Mûsâ!  The chiefs are conferring against you to kill you, so get out now, for surely I wish you well [innî la-ka mina’n-nâsihîn].”   [al-Qasas 28: 20]

The Qur’ân comments on the Qur’ân, and in this spirit the nearly identical wording of the first part of the verse just given with the one cited next allows us to make a preliminary inference about the sort of “sincerity” that the word sih implies:

And there came from the farthest part of the city a man running, saying, “O my people!  Follow the messengers, those who do not ask a reward from you and are rightly guided.  And why should I not serve the One Who fashioned me, and to Whom you shall be returned?  Shall I take other gods apart from Him?  If the Merciful wills that harm should befall me, their intercession would not help me, nor could they save me.  Truly, then, I would be clearly lost in error.  Truly I have believed in your Lord, so hear me!”

He was told, “Enter the Garden!”  He said, “Would that my people knew how my Lord has forgiven me and placed me among the honored.”   [Yâ Sîn 36: 20-27]

Note that this man is one who affirms that which is brought by rightly guided messengers and through his devotion to Allâh Alone is both guided and forgiven.  His repentance, in other words, is accepted through his sincerity in worship.

In an authentic hadîth (seventh in the Arbacûn of Imâm an-Nawawî), the Prophet (may Allâh bless him and grant him peace) instructs us that ad-dîn an-nasîha.  In his commentary to this, Imâm an-Nawawî recounts that an-nasîha

is a comprehensive word whose meaning is collecting together of a portion of good for the one who is counseled.  It has been said that an-nasîha is derived from a man’s sewing (nash) his robe excellently well, so they make a comparison with the action of the one who sews, comparing that benefit which the one who is counseled intended for the one he advised through his closing up gaps and tears in the robe.  It has also been said that it is derived from the clarification (nash) of honey when one purified it of wax, so they made a comparison with the purification of speech from deception with the purification of honey from admixture.

A sense of the significance of rendering our actions (of tawba or otherwise) quit of corrupting admixtures is given in verses of the Masnevi chosen in commentary on this âya, already quoted above:

And [Sâlih] turned from them, saying, “O my people!  I certainly delivered the message of my Lord and gave you sincere advice, but you did not love those who give sincere advice.”

In commenting on this âya, Imâm Bursevi abridges and reproduces an episode from the first book of the Masnevi:

The she-camel of Sâlih was in outward form a camel.  That bitter tribe hamstrung and slaughtered her in their folly.

God’s she-camel drank water from brook and cloud.  They withheld God’s water from God.

The vengeance, which is God’s minister, demanded from them an entire town as the blood-price of a single camel.   [Masnevi I: 2509, 2511, 2514]

Clearly we are to understand the folly of the people who have rejected Allâh’s messenger and destroyed this animal as offending directly against Allâh: They withheld God’s water from God.  It is not, therefore, an offense against Sâlih.  Intervening verses (not included by Imâm Bursevi in his commentary) make it clear that the blows of the idolators can reach the body of the camel, but not its meaning, and that Sâlih can be no more harmed by them than can Allâh.  This is not an offense against property.

But we are to keep in mind that the story that Mevlânâ recounts is explicitly a commentary on the meaning of nasûh, and not just of (or even principally of) tawba.  Thus, the selection of Imâm Bursevi continues following the announcement by Sâlih of the impending destruction of Thamûd:

Sâlih went from his solitude to the town.  He beheld the town enveloped in smoke and heat.

He heard wailings from their bones.  Tears of blood poured from their spirits, like hailstones.  Sâlih heard that and set to weeping.  He began to lament for them that made no lamentation.

He said, “O people that lived in vanity, and on account of you I wept before God!  God said to me, ‘Have patience with their iniquity.  Give them counsel.  Not much remains of their allotted period.’  I said, ‘Counsel is barred by ill-treatment; the milk of counsel gushes forth from love and joy.  Much ill-treatment have they bestowed on me, so that the milk of counsel is curdled in my veins.’

“God said to me, ‘I will grant you a boon.  I will lay a plaster on those wounds.’

“God made my heart clear as the sky, He swept your oppression out of my mind.  I returned once more to admonition, I spoke parables and words sweet as sugar.  I produced fresh milk from the sugar, I mingled milk and honey with my words.

“In you those words became like poison, because you were filled with poison from the root and foundation.  How should I be grieved that grief is overthrown?  You were grief to me, O obstinate people.  Does anyone lament the death of grief?  Does anyone tear out hair when the sore on his head is removed?”   [Masnevi I: 2542, 2544-2556]

There can be no regret for the destruction of obstinate, sinful resistance to the Divine Will.  What is there to mourn?  Recall that when his heart desires to sin again, it is a sign that he has not experienced the delight of acceptance, and that the delight of acceptance has not superseded the delight of sin, whereas he who has repented … will never think of that sin in the way of desire, but his loathing will increase continually [in] proof that he has experienced the delight of being accepted.  This, it is proposed, is the meaning of you did not love those who give sincere advice, but loved instead the delight of sin.  We now have the beginnings of an outline of the state of the heart in nasûh.

But the Masnevi also offers an extensive commentary on this word and this idea directly, and is quoted at some length in reference to O you who truly believe, turn to Allâh in sincere repentance in Imâm Bursevî’s work.

There was once a man named Nasuh who earned his money shampooing women.  His face resembled a female countenance; he was disguising his manliness.  He was a shampooer in the women’s bath, and very active in fraud and deceit.  For years he went on shampooing, and no one suspected the nature and secret of his fondness for it.

In this fashion that enamored man was massaging and washing the daughters of emperors, and though he often resolved on repentance and was drawing back his foot from sin, the miscreant carnal soul would always tear his repentance to shreds.  So that evil-doer went to a gnostic [cârif] and said, “invoke God on my behalf.”  The gnostic laughed and said, “O evil-natured one, may God cause you to repent of that which you know.”   [Masnevi V: 2228-2232, 2234-2237, 2241]

At this point another heading occurs in the text, attributing to the gnostic a state of absorption in Allâh such that his ducâ is like Allâh’s own ducâ to Himself.  This invokes both the hadîth qudsî proclaiming that in this state “I am to him an ear and an eye and a tongue and a hand,” as well as the following âya:

        And when you threw it was not yourself that threw, but Allâh threw.   [Anfâl 8: 17]

Mevlânâ notes that there are many verses of the Qur’ân, as well as hadîths and other traditions, on this subject; and that the purport of the rest of his narrative concerning this shampooer in the women’s bath is as

an exposition of the way in which God devises means in order that, taking hold of the sinner’s ear, they may lead him to the repentance of Nasuh [tawba-ye nasûh].

Bearing in mind our cautious embrace of Nicholson’s translation, we ought not to overlook the multiple levels of meaning in play here.  Yes, the “historical” act or moment of repentance of a particular literary figure is depicted here — the level of the repentance of Nasuh.  But there is nothing in the language (let alone of the narrative) of the Masnevi to preclude this being read as a gloss on the wording of the relevant verse of the Qur’ân.  The personification of the Qur’ân’s words is direct and transparent.

The abridgement offered in by Imâm Bursevî continues:

That prayer [of the cârif] traversed the Seven Heavens.  The fortune of the miserable wretch Nasuh at last became good.  The action of the Almighty produced a means that delivered him from execration and woe.

What Nasuh has sought from this gnostic is resolve to remain steadfast in his return to Allâh.  He opposes his nafs, but clearly still doubts himself and his own strength to resist the undoing perpetrated by this miscreant carnal soul.  He is one of those who call out to their Lord in fear and hope.

The cârif laughs enigmatically — at what?  Perhaps at Nasuh’s naive belief that it is only apparent sins of which one repents, of that which you know.  Is the remainder — that which still lingers, unknown to the penitent — precisely that by means of which one’s tawba is rendered secure, nasûh?

While he was filling a basin in the bath, a jewel belonging to the King’s daughter was lost.  A jewel was lost from her ear-rings, with every woman in search of it.  Then they bolted the door of the bath and made it fast, in order that they might first look for the jewel in the folds of the furniture.  They searched all these articles, but it was not brought to light there, nor was any person who had stolen the jewel discovered, either.

Then they began to search incontinently with all their might in the mouths and ears of the bathers and in every cleft.  Proclamation was made:  “Strip, all of you, whoever you are, whether you are old or young!”  The lady chamberlain began to search them, one by one, that the marvelous pearl might be discovered.

Nasuh, stricken with fear, went into a private place.  His face was yellow and his lips blue on account of a great terror.  He cried, “O Lord, many a time have I turned away from evil courses, and then broken my vows of repentance and my promises.  I have done foul things, that such a black flood of calamity has arrived.  If my turn to be searched shall come, oh, what cruel sufferings must my soul endure!  May anguish like this not be the infidel’s portion!  I clutch the skirt of Your Mercy — help, help!  If You will conceal my sin this time, hence forth I repent of all that ought not to be done.  If I commit any fault in keeping my vow this time, then do not hearken again to my prayer and entreaty.”

He was deep in the entreaty of “O Lord, O Lord!” when from amidst the search came this announcement:  “We have searched them all.  Come forward, O Nasuh!”  Thereupon he lost his senses, and his spirit took wing.

After that soul-destroying fear came the good news:  “Here is the lost jewel!”  The bath-house was filled with clamor and screams and clapping of hands.  Sorrow had disappeared.  Nasuh (who had left himself) came to himself again.  His eye saw before him the splendor of a hundred shining days.

All were begging for his exoneration and giving his hand many a kiss.  They said, “We entertained evil thoughts of you, and pray for you to forgive us.  We were backbiting you in our talk.”  (The suspicion of all the women had been against him, all the more so that he was in the highest favor with the princess.)  “If any has taken the pearl, only he can have taken it.  None is more closely attached to the Lady than him.  At first she wished to search him forcibly, but from respect for his reputation she delayed, in the hope that he might drop it somewhere and thus save himself in the meantime.”

They were begging him to grant these absolutions and were rising up to excuse themselves.  He replied, “It was the grace of God, who deals justice; else I am worse than what has been said of me.  Why should absolution be begged of me?  For I am the most sinful of the people in the world.

“Praises be unto You, O God!  You did suddenly place me far removed from sorrow.  If the tip of every hair of me should gain a tongue, still the thanks due to You would remain inexpressible.”

Afterwards someone came to Nasuh, saying, “The daughter of our sovereign graciously invites you.  The King’s daughter invites you!  Come now and wash her head, O devout one.”

He answered, “Begone, begone!  My hand is not in practice, your friend Nasuh is now fallen sick.  Go seek someone else, hastily, speedily, for by God my hand has gone out of business.”

The he said to his heart, “My sin passed beyond all bounds.  How shall that terror and anguish ever be gone from my mind?  I died to self once and for all, and then I came back; I tasted the bitterness of death and non-existence.

“I have turned to God with real repentance.  I will not break that vow till my soul shall be parted from my body.  After such a tribulation, whose foot should move towards danger a second time, unless it be the foot of an ass?”   [Masnevi V: 2242, 2245-2250, 2252-2254, 2256-2258, 2260, 2265, 2267, 2272-2273, 2287, 2290-2294, 2296-2301, 2314-2315, 2317-2318, 2320-2325]

Tawba is outward form of which nasûh is the meaning.  The âya  O you who truly believe, turn to Allâh in sincere repentance  refers to both form and meaning — there is no warranting the claim that the Qur’ân privileges one over the other, any more than there is in proposing that Mevlânâ constructs a story in which the sincere ducâ for divine protection is stylistic and incidental.  Tawba is leaving sin, nasûh losing the taste for it.

How should I be grieved that grief is overthrown? Does anyone lament the death of grief?  Does anyone tear out hair when the sore on his head is removed?”

iv.  Repentance and the Commands of Love

There can be little cause for the serious reader of the Masnevi to doubt that Mevlânâ adheres strongly and with complete confidence to the dictates of the Sacred Law.  And the necessity of this adherence, according to the Masnevi, is not only true for Muslims.

Any view of Mevlânâ’s esteem for other faith traditions grounded in the text will need to account for passages such as those that follow.

Adam, (cast out) from Paradise and from above the Seven Heavens, went to the “shoe row” for the purpose of excusing himself.  If you are from the back of Adam and from his loins, be constant in seeking (forgiveness) amongst his company.   [Masnevi I: 1635-1636]

Some interpretive remarks are needed.  First, the “shoe row” (as Nicholson points out in his notes) is the place where shoes are removed and left before entering a room, be it a prayer hall or the dwelling of one’s host.  It is a threshold, neither fully within nor fully without.

Next, the expression excusing himself comes from an Arabic loan word [cudhr] that also occurs in the Qur’ân.  What Adam seeks is cudhr.  In Arabic grammar this word is one of the two verbal nouns or masdars of the verb cadhara / yacdhiru, meaning both to excuse and to absolve from guilt.

By those who confront with a Reminder, by way of absolving or warning [cudhran aw nudhran], truly what you have been promised will come to pass.   [al-Mursalât 77: 5-7]

The second form of this verbal noun [specifically, macdhira] also occurs in Qur’anic usage:

And [remember] when a community from among them said, “Why do you preach to people whom Allâh is about to destroy and punish with a terrible chastisement?”  They said, “In order to be absolved [macdhiratan] before your Lord, and [so that] perhaps they may guard themselves [for Allâh] [lacallahum yattaqûn].”   [al-Acrâf 7: 164]

Thus, to seek atonement with God is not specifically an Islamic imperative, but a transhistorical and human one, as encompassingly human as the very father of humankind.

And this leads to a third point, namely, that to be from the back of Adam and from his loins is not merely stylistic, but readily situated within the Qur’ân and related sacred texts.  Any human being, Muslim or not, is qualified by this heritage, and is thus of Banu Âdam, the Children of Adam.  Just as a large number of verses are addressed to alladhîna âmanû, to those who truly believe, so too do others in the Qur’ân announce their intended audience, albeit without restriction to Believers.  Here is one example:

Yâ ayyuha’n-nâs, O you people:  Eat from the earth what is lawful and wholesome [halâl wa tayyib], and do not follow the footsteps of Shaytân, for truly he is your manifest enemy.   [al-Baqara 2: 168]

It is a universal human imperative, then, to be observant in seeking the Divine Pleasure in the manners prescribed here.  Imâm Bursevi proposes, as commentary on this verse of the Qur’ân, a number of lines from the Masnevi following closely upon those already quoted above:

Adam, (cast out) from Paradise and from above the Seven Heavens, went to the “shoe row” for the purpose of excusing himself.  If you are from the back of Adam and from his loins, be constant in seeking (forgiveness) amongst his company.

Wean that child, your soul, from the milk of Shaytân, and after that make it consort with the Angel.  While you are dark and vexed and gloomy, know that you draw from the same breast as the Accursed.

The mouthful that gave increase of light and perfection is obtained from lawful earnings.  From the lawful morsel are born knowledge and discernment; from the lawful morsel come love and tenderness.

When from some morsel you observe that envy and guile, ignorance and heedlessness, arise, know then that it is unlawful.    [Masnevi I: 1635-1636; 1640-1642; 1644-1645]

It is, after all, lust for illicit sustenance that culminates in the atonement of Adam, and while this hardly implies a doctrine of “original sin” it can certainly commend all of humankind to a reverential and humble course in life.

The original wording of these verses is significant, bearing resonances that are truly lost in translation.  The lawful morsel is halâl — a specific and technical term in the Sacred Law (as well as in the verse enjoining O you people:  Eat from the earth what is lawful), and not a more general reference.  The lawful morsel gives rise to knowledge and discernment, to cilm and hikma, knowledge of coarse objects and relationships of predication, as well as intuition of subtle objects and relationships unknown to the merely discursive levels of existence and certainty.

To abide by the dictates that it has pleased the Most High to send down is the immutable prerequisite to the Divine Pleasure.  The law is not expendable, nor can the scope of these remarks — addressed as they are to the Children of Adam: Yâ ayyuha’n-nâs, O you people — be restricted to the law of Islâm.  The love this engenders is called cishq, a term used in the tale of Nasuh (above) and meriting lengthier commentary than is the intention for these brief remarks.

By the same token, the morsel that is unlawful is harâm, a fiqh term placed, like its opposite halâl, among the words of the Masnevi; and it leads to a number of conditions expressed through Qur’anic loan-words and having profound implications in the vernacular of Islamic culture.

Thus envy is hasad, and the Qur’ân gives voice (in its penultimate chapter) to a supplication of refuge with Allâh from the evils of those overtaken by this vice [al-Falaq 113: 5], and again as follows:

Many of the People of the Book wish that, after you have attained belief, they could cause you to be [among those who] cover up [the Truth] with an envy from within their selves after the Truth has been shown to them.  Yet forgive them and pardon them until Allâh makes clear His Command.  For truly with Allâh is power over all things.   [al-Baqara 2: 109]

Just as the believer is commanded to consume only the halâl, so to is the avoidance of ignorance [jahl] commanded explicitly:

So do not be from among the ignorant.    [al-Ancâm 6: 35]

This is an imperative sent down to all of the prophets, as exemplified through the supplication of Mûsâ [Moses], peace be upon him:

He said:  “I take refuge in Allâh [for fear] that I should be from among the ignorant.”    [al-Baqara 2: 67]

A principle of the Sacred Law holds that whatever is necessary as a prerequisite to the fulfillment of an obligation is itself obligatory.  To consume the halâl is an explicit obligation, and so too is the avoidance of jahl.  Each reinforces the other.  Mevlânâ here proposes one rationale for this: ignorance being forbidden, so too must be that which conduces to it.  In effect, even the habitual manner of thinking of the jurist pervades the logic of the Masnevi.  This being so, how could it ever be plausible to claim that Mevlânâ holds the Sacred Law in a lesser esteem than spiritual wayfaring?  How, for that matter, could these paths even bee seen as different?

Finally, the term heedlessness refers to the Qur’anic loan word ghafla.  (This, like cishq, is a term meriting far more extensive commentary than these preliminary remarks can offer, restricted as they are to usage in the Qur’ân.)  This ghafla is no benign absent-mindedness, no common forgetfulness — it is, instead, a threat to faith itself:

And warn them of the Day of Regret, when the matter will be decided.  And as yet they are heedless and they do not believe.   [Maryam 19: 39]

The time of their reckoning has drawn near for the people, [even] while they turn away, heedless.  […]  And [when] the True Promise has approached, then behold those who covered up [the Truth] — their eyes staring wide in terror:  “O woe to us!  We were heedless of this!”   [al-Anbiyâ 21: 1 and 97]

And to avoid the mindlessness called ghafla is, like jahl, subserved by the halâl, and under Divine Command:

Say:  “I only follow that which is revealed to me from my Lord.”  This [Qur’ân] is a means of insight [basâ’ir] from your Lord and guidance and mercy to a people who believe.  And when the Qur’ân is recited, then listen to it attentively and keep silent, in order that you may receive mercy.  And remember your Lord in your inner self humbly and with awe, without raising your voice unduly, in the morning and the evening.  And do not be from among the heedless.   [al-Acrâf 7: 203-205]

This, then is effectively an outline of conditions that are foundational to the law, and prerequisite to the path of seeking Divine Pleasure.  Their growth and fruition comes about through no other way than the full implementation of the Sacred Law, even if this in itself is not enough.  Yet the states of the human heart to which these allude are to be realized no other way, as though devotion to exoteric constraint leads to the loving and willing submission of the esoteric path, which in turn validates the adherence to law, which in turn nourishes the heart — and so on, reciprocally, until each of us reaches our end.

Will you sow wheat, expecting it to produce barley?  Have you seen a mare bring forth an ass’s colt?

The morsel is seed and thoughts are its fruit; the morsel is the sea, and thoughts are its pearls.  From the lawful morsel in the mouth is born the inclination to serve [Allâh] and the resolve to seek the next world.   [Masnevi I: 1646-1648]

The point needs to be emphasized, often and with force, that Mevlânâ depends upon the Qur’ân as the core of the meanings of the Masnevi, the skeleton to which the poem is anchored and through which it is animated.  He does not make recourse to the Book as an expedient to mollify some court of inquisition, nor is he under constraint to speak through a familiar vernacular common in a particular culture but conveying something entirely apart from what he intends.  Recourse to the Qur’ân is too frequent and too convincing to demonstrate anything other than the choice of a willing adherent.  Invoking its vocabulary in the Masnevi is not part of an underground effort to place heterodox ideas above the reproaches of orthodoxy through a cloak of empty blandishment.  Quite the opposite:  It is an effort — very much like we require today — to reclaim the Qur’anic message from those who would trivialize or efface it.

[1] Neither lucbat nor licb occurs in the Qur’ân, though they are known to classical Persian as loan words on the Arabic root √l-c-b.  The word lucbat is based on the stem-pattern morpheme fuclatun, which Wright [vol. I, § 285(b)] reports as signifying “a small quantity, such as can be contained in a place at once.”  Thus the doll is the microcosm of the laciba of dunyâ.  The pattern ficlun is not attested in such a distinctive manner, but according to Steingass gives (for licb) “addicted to play”.


© 2011 by Mevlânâ Studies.  All rights reserved.


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