Archive for the ‘ Life Considered ’ Category



Keyvan Tabari

Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2015. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.



Table of Contents


The Platform



           The Masnavi  



          Mystical poetry


Spiritualized Religion

          Spiritualizing Islam

          Religious Conflicts

          Religious Tolerance

          Primacy of Islam



 Persian Gnosticism (`Erfan)


          Knowledge and How to attain it




                   Greek Influence



          Fundamental Questions 




                   Free will


                   Unity of Being





This is one of several chapters in my project on Rumi, the Islamic Gnostic Persian poet who was named Jalal al-Din (1207-1273). The other chapters cover the following subjects: Rumi in today’s world, Rumi’s biography, Rumi in ecstasy and Rumi’s world, the natural or material world in which he lived. The present chapter is about Rumi’s imagination. There are, inevitably, some overlaps among these chapters despite the individual subjects of their focus. The literature on Rumi is copious. If there is anything new in this project it results from reading Rumi’s words anew on the cumulative basis of the worthy works of others.

Imagination is the source of creativity. In Rumi’s case the flight of his imagination took the form of poesy, or she’r as he says in Persian, his native tongue. In this chapter the focus is on Rumi’s profound (ma’navi) didactic (masnavi) poetry. This was the product of Rumi’s prolonged contemplative musing on virtually all the knowledge available at his time, but especially in philosophy and theology.

The culture which engulfed Rumi was Islamic, but it was built upon a longstanding and highly developed Persian tradition. That distinction made it a unique civilization in the Islamic world. Other Muslim lands, including the Arab and Turkish areas, differed from the Persian environment which nourished Rumi. Rumi accentuated this differentiation by not venturing beyond his home town of Konya. The spiritual poetry that is his creative legacy is indeed singular as it was, furthermore, the product of his meditation in isolation.

That product is mainly on display in the six books of Rumi’s Masnavi. The construct of this complex platform for images and symbols of Rumi’s profound poetry is discussed here first, followed by a summary description of the content drawn from Rumi’s own prefaces to each of the six books.  The next section is an analysis of Rumi’s thoughts about Islam in comparison with other faiths, and his opinions on religious conflicts as well as ecumenism. Rumi’s spiritualization of Islam also serves as the preview to his broader ontological discourse on existence, God and His creation. That is the subject of Rumi’s distinct Gnosticism with its own roots, epistemology and core concepts, all detailed in the last part of this essay.

The Platform


Sometime past the age of 50 years, Rumi (Mawlana Jalal al-Din, 1207-1273), speaking to his circle of disciples, offered this apologia:

“I have studied the various branches of learning and taken pains in order that the learned, the seekers of truth, the clever and the profound thinkers, may come to me for an elaboration of things precious, strange, and precise. God too wanted this, for He gathered all this learning here and put me through all the agony that I should occupy myself with this labor. What am I to do? In our country and among our people there is nothing more dishonorable than being a poet. Had we remained in that land, we would have lived in harmony with their taste and would have done what they wanted, such as teaching, writing books, preaching, practicing asceticism, and doing pious works {Fih: 74; Th: 77-78}.”

This defensive explanation of why he had become a poet was prompted by criticisms from Rumi’s fellow clerics and Sufis in Konya. They considered his lyrical poetry worshipping Shams al-Din Tabrizi to be against both the Shari’at of the Islamic religion and Tariqat of the Sufis’ way [1] {F1: 15}. Contrary to what was expected of him, Rumi had not written any religious books; a group of seven very short formulaic sermons delivered at memorial occasions is all in strictly Islamic tracts that he has left behind [2].  He had aspired to be a teacher but he was better known merely as a preacher (va`ez).

Following the above-quoted “discourse,” sometime between 1258 and 1261, Rumi began composing his religious, Gnostic work, the Masnavi poem. The task preoccupied him for the next ten years which was the rest of his life. He stopped teaching altogether. Such life in virtual seclusion was the model established by two Islamic thinkers Rumi admired the most: the theologian Sufi Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali (1058-1111) and the poet Abul-Majd Majdud Sana`i (1080- 1131).  “Harken to the words of Hakim who lived in seclusion,” Rumi would say, referring to Sana`i {Mi: 3426}. Ghazali, also, had returned to his hometown of Tus in 1096 to spend several years in seclusion (‘ozlat); abstaining from teaching, he would only write.

Rumi was asked to compose the Masnavi by Hosam al-Din Ormavi who succeeded Salah al-Din Zarkub, Shams’ immediate successor as Rumi’s most important spiritual friend [3]. Hosam’s intention was to satisfy demands by Rumi’s disciples who had read the philosophical spiritual works of  Sana’i  [4] and his contemporary, the gnostic (‘aref) poet Farid al-Din ‘Attar Nishapuri (1110-1220) [5], and wanted to know their own master’s thoughts, ideas and teaching {F1: six}.

Rumi  may have already considered doing a comprehensive work on what he knew and believed;  he reportedly wrote the first 18 lines of the Masnavi  in his own hand-writing [6] before later dictating the rest for Hosam to take down {F1: 25}. The linkage of those initial lines poetic introduction to the Masnavi with the subject that caused the above apologia is telling of Rumi’s simmering motivation. Lines 6, 7, 9, 10, 14 and 18 of that poem, She’r Ney (the Flute Reed Poem), indicate that Rumi most likely had in mind the critics of his devotionary odes about Shams {F1: 14-15}: “My secret is not far from my naleh (singing complaint) {mI: 7; F1: 14}.”  “The cry of the flute reed is fire; it is not wind {mI: 9; F1: 14}.” “It is the fire of love which fell into the flute reed {mI: 10; F1:  15}.”

However, as Rumi has said, Hosam’s role was crucial in the making of the Masnavi. Hosam was not just the enabler and the scribe, he was also the muse and the audience for Rumi’s Masnavi [7].  Rumi called Hosam “the origin of the Masnavi” and the one who “caused it to increase {Miv: 5}.”  “Since you wish it so, God wishes it so….  {Miv: 6}.”  “It was through your (Hosam’s) efforts (that) (the Masnavi) came from the (world of) spirits into the trap of words and were confined (here) {Mvi: 186}.”  “When (I say) he (Hosam) returned from the Sea toward the shore, the lyre of poesy (chang-e she`r) of the Masnavi became attained (again) {Mii: 5}.” To Hosam, Rumi says: “Now write… {Miii: 2120}.”   “Make the Masnavi nimble and pleasing; abridge and shorten their controversy {Mvi: 525}.”


The Masnavi that thus came into existence was anything but short.  At about 25, 577 lines, it has “almost as many verses as the Iliad and Odyssey together and about twice as many verses as Dante’s Divina Commedia {Nic2: xiii}.” Writing enormous amounts of poetry, however, was not uncommon among famous Persian poets of the age, beginning with Abu Abdollah Rudaki (858-940). Abu al-Qasim Ferdowsi’s epic, Shahnameh (composed 997-1010), had as many as 50,000 lines.  Rumi’s own collection of Odes and quatrains in his Divan exceeds 40,000 lines.

Masnavi displays Rumi’s philosophical imagination. With only Hosam as his listener, Rumi’s stream of thoughts in the Masnavi is not interrupted by interlocutions of visitors so frequent in his other, contemporaneous work, the Discourses (Fih ma fih). There seems to have been no attempt by him at preparation, no studying other poems, no conscious reflections: Rumi introduces himself in She’r Ney as a reed flute, empty of self and letting out only the breath of the reed player {F1::2}. The real poet is ‘eshq (love) and Rumi is no more than a tool {F1:7}. In the process, the Masnavi becomes the meditation of a profound thinker on a full range of epistemological, spiritual, theological and philosophical discussions current in the medieval times. Rumi’s rare worthy contemporary, the Persian Sa’di was a better poet on many of these subjects but Rumi’s didactic approach is much more insightful. In the literature of the Persian-speaking world he is the ultimate thinker. What Rumi called simply his Masnavi (or The Book of Masnavi) is often referred to by scholars as Rumi’s Spiritual Couplets, a translation of Masnavi ma`navi.  Rumi’s treatment of the main subjects of the Masnavi indeed portrays Rumi as an Islamic Persian Gnostic thinker.

After more than 2,000 poems in the Masnavi,  Rumi foretells that “If the Masnavi were as the sky in magnitude, not half the portion of this (mystery) would find room in it {Mi: 2098}.”  That prospect did not stop Rumi.  Some 23,000 poems later, he confessed that “(Even) if (all) the forest should become pens (medad, Rumi’s word) and (all) ocean ink; (yet) there is no hope of bringing the Masnavi to an end {Mvi: 248}.”  Now he was exhausted, repeatedly complaining in many passages that “this topic is endless {Mvi: 2665, 2940, 3699 and 3760}.”  Rumi began the Sixth Book of the Masnavi intending thus “to complete” it {Mvi: 3}. Even though that book became the longest of all, Rumi left it unfinished {Nic5: XI; Sc: 35} [8].

The Masnavi

The word masnavi is a verse form: rhyming couplets with a certain rhyme scheme. Persian poets used it in epics (Ferdowsi in Shahnameh) and romances (Nezami in Layli Majnun). Sana’i adapted this form to ethical-didactic spiritual poetry. ‘Attar and Rumi followed Sana`i’s model {Le:  298}. Rumi’s Masnavi shows the deep influence of Sana`i’s Hadiqat al-haqiqat (Garden of Truth) {Le: p 19-20} and Attar’s Mantaq al-teyr (Conference of Birds) and Mosibat-nameh (Book of Affliction) {Sc: 40}. It is composed in the vazn (meter) used by Manteq al-teyr {F1: six}. Its style echoes Rumi’s preference for Sana’i’s matter of fact expression; many verses are variations of Sana’i’s {Sc: 40)}. The Masnavi has many allusions to the Sage (Hakim) of Ghazna, as Rumi called Sana’i; a favorite saying of Rumi, barg bibargi (the leaf of no leaf), referring to spiritual poverty and contentment is borrowed from him {Sc: 37-39}. The Masnavi also borrows fundamental images from `Attar, especially the cross-eyed person who sees everything double; he is the symbol of the unbelievers who are unable to recognize God’s unity {Sc: 40}. Rumi expresses the “utterances of `Attar” on some of the same subjects covered in the Masnavi, as in the story of Mahmud and Hindu Boy {Mvi: 1382}, and offers commentaries on the sayings of the “Master of Nishapur,” as `Attar is called {Mvi: 1382}.

Masnavi displays the erudition which was not unusual for an intellectual in the medieval Persian-speaking Islamic world.  The still small body of knowledge allowed a few like Rumi to be encyclopedic.  The Masnavi has many references to the Qur’an, Hadith (the narrative that is the Islamic Tradition) and other Islamic Narratives (Revayats) {Nic5: Index}. Rumi draws from the collection of animal fables in the late 8th century Kalileh va Damneh (Arabic: Kalila wa Demna, later known in the West as The Fables of Bidpai ). He refers to the heroes in the Iranian national epic, Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh,  and, far more, to the heroes in the famous Persian love stories of Fakhr al-Din Gorgani’s Vis Ramin and Khosrow Shirin, as well as Nezami’s romantic epics, Layli Majnun and  Khosrow Shirin. Numerous similarities can be found between the Masnavi and the Ma`aref (Wisdom) of Baha al-Din, Rumi’s father. The Masnavi also shows the great impact of Shams’ Maqalat (Discourses) in its words, imagery, stories and their meaning. Far more significant for Rumi’s thoughts, knowledge, style and manner of discussion was the impact of  Ehya-ol-ulum al-din ( Vivification of Religious Sciences) by Ghazali, dated 1106 {Fi: five}.  Rumi uses these sacred and profane sources more for allegorical purposes; his attention is focused on the philosophical and spiritual. The Masnavi is mostly austere and chaste language, but it also has occasional humorous [9], and crude passages [10].

In the Masnavi Rumi casts his net wide but leaves his distinct marks on what he chooses.  He presents the views of a variety of philosophers, theologians (motekallemin), mystics and even astrologers (monajjemin) without endorsing them. The examples and stories Rumi gives in the Masnavi are to explain and express the subject; Rumi does not intend them to be the moral and social models. Between what the Masnavi says with what its sources say there is a major difference. Rumi draws an appropriate lesson from every part of the story and includes many points, moral, philosophical, religious, theological or gnostic in explaining the story. As appropriate, he tells one or several stories in the middle of the principal story by drawing on its parts. Bringing in secondary stories into the principal story is a method which is seen in previous works such as Kalileh va Damneh [11]. But drawing results from the parts of a story is distinctly Rumi {F1: 43}. It is with those results that Rumi awes the reader by the depth of his thoughts.


The Masnavi is not the place to find the overt disclosure of Rumi’s feelings about Shams [12]. As he says early in the wok: “It is better that the Friend’s secret remain in veils {Mi: 135; F1: 97}.” The story of Rumi’s love for Shams was best told in Rumi’s Divan Kabir {F1: 92-93}. Nor does the Masnavi especially show the stress of turbulent political conditions of the time [13]. For that one can look in other works of Rumi such as the Discourses.  There are some references to contemporary events and places [14].  His childhood memories influenced Rumi to call Samarqand “cubed sugar (qand)” in a Masnavi poem {mI: 167; F1:103}. The nearby Bukhara’s religious status in contrast to the politically important Samarqand is noted in this comparison of symbols: “The (material) candy is in Samarqand, but his lip got it from Bukhara and that (spiritual candy) became his creed.” {Miii: 863}. Rumi gives the same sobriquet, qand, also to Damascus, joining it with Samarqand {Miv: 1889}. Damascus might have earned that position because Rumi associated it with Shams {Sc: 191}. The reference to Damascus in another poem typifies the way places are mentioned in the Masnavi: “The beauties of Damascus are not fully revealed … unless the view is from the top of (the Mountain) Rubwah overlooking it {Miii: 3753}. This expression was a current proverb [15] {Nic8: 95}. Proverbial association is similarly the reason the  Masnavi  refers to the  cities commonly  known as overwhelmingly Shiite such as Kashan [16]  and  Sabzawar [17]  where  no person named after the Sunni Caliphs  ‘Omar  and Abu Bakr can be found. In the Masnavi those cities become the metaphor for “the state of utter destitution, the state of the spiritual man in the world of matter {Sc: 184-85}. Finally, the Masnavi makes a model of the lamentations of the Shiites of Aleppo in their mourning rituals during the Ashura for their martyred fourth Imam, Hosayn. Rumi upbraids them for focusing on someone who had been dead almost 600 years: they should instead mourn for the corruption of their beliefs:  “Loudly lament over your own ruined heart and creed {Mvi: 802a, Mvi: 795; Le: 13}.”

Just as in the case of places, the Masnavi’s references to events are not description of Rumi’s contemporary time; they are for symbolic reasons. Thus the taking of the city of Sabzawar by Sultan Muhammad Khwarazmshah  (r. 1200-1220) is the subject of a Masnavi story in which the Sultan is depicted as “God Almighty who demands from this wicked folk (the Shiite inhabitants of Sabzawar) the (pure) heart {Mv: 868]  [18].” Similarly, in reference to Sultan Mahmud Ghaznavi (971-1030), the Masnavi notes: “What a hellish person Mahmud must be, since he has become proverbial for woe and anguish {Mvi: 1397},” to make a point in “The story of Mahmud and the Hindu boy (servant) {Mvi: 1383}.” There, the Hindu, by surrendering completely to his master, wins his love, the two becoming mutually interdependent {Sc: 188}: “Hark, O fellow-servant, go and, like the Hindu boy, be not afraid of the Mahmud of non-existence. Be afraid of the existence in which you are now. That fantasy of yours is nothing and you (yourself) are nothing {Mvi: 1446}.”


References to all aspects of contemporary world in the Masnavi aim to help construct a different world of imagination. Objective reality is transformed into a realm of symbols for a subjective truth. Rumi spares nothing in this process of describing his spiritual world.  He takes us to the bazaar where he tests the earthen pots: just as those that give a good sound and those with hidden cracks sound different,  he tells us, the faithful and hypocrites are discernible by the words and sound they produce  {Miii: 792; Sc:792 f}. Villagers are used as symbols for the uneducated base faculties who cause all kinds of troubles in the bazaar and are eventually stopped by the market-superintendent, “reason {Miii: 517; Sc: 54, n126}.”

Rumi spiritualizes images from various spheres of daily life, including foods:  the sweet desert paloodeh is mentioned as a symbol of spiritual sweetness. {Sc: 143}. The cupbearer of the day of alast, the Qur`anic Day of Covenant when man accepted the Divine call, pours the wine that true lovers need. A Pig, dog, ass and cow portray man as following his lusts. Bird imagery represents other human qualities: the duck for greed, the peacock eminence, and the crow worldly desire. The unhappy bird longs for the company of those who sing the same tunes: “Birds of one feather flock together {Sc: 115, n 251}.” Many of images Rumi used existed in proverbial saying {Sc: 99}:  the Prophet’s winged steed, the lion as the model of the holy man, the elephant that sees India in his dream, moth and candle depicting the approximation to and annihilation in the light of God. The Masnavi is full of personalities which folk tradition had transformed into half-mythological beings:  Ibrahim Khalil, Job, Jacob, Jonah, Harut and Marut {Sc: 176-179}. Jesus is the physician of the soul because of his life-bestowing breath; while Moses is seen as shepherd. Figures from pre-Islamic Iran are presented as archetypal: Sohrab as mighty {Mv: 466}, Rostam for manliness “who was the son of one-hundred Zals (for heroes) {Mii: 372}; Kay Khosrow for being splendid {Miii: 534}; Bahram as sovereign {Mvi: 2860}.

Mystical Poetry

In the Masnavi Rumi expresses his true feelings behind multicolored veils of images and stories. Early in the Masnavi, Rumi declares that he would conceal certain secrets and reveal them only in tales [19] {mI: 135, 136; F1:97}, a rule which he repeats several times later in the Masnavi {mII: 2494, 2495; F1:97, 198}. Some of the passages in the Masnavi will remain mysterious as the meanings of words of a spiritual teacher can become ambiguous outside the group of his intimate disciples {Nic2: xvi}. Explaining the true meaning of the Masnavi ’s allusions, the mysteries behind the veil, has been the purpose of a genre of literature in Persian called Sharh Masnavi  (explaining the Masnavi) {Le: p 394-419} [20] . Commentaries on the Masnavi reportedly began by Rumi himself: a manuscript containing an explanation of some of the poems of the Masnavi by Rumi and his son Soltan Valad has been found [21] {F1: tenth}.  

The Masnavi does not give us a systematic theology [22]. Nor was the Masnavi a philosophical system [23]. The work, indeed, lacks a “logical” system with “degrees” and “hierarchy” and different “conditions” {Ta: 320}. Its “verses lead one into the other, and the most heterogeneous thoughts are woven together by word associations and loose threads of stories {Sc: 35,236, 273}.”  Rumi “creates an aesthetic atmosphere which defies analysis. As a rule, we apprehend the main drift and broad sense of his words; the precise and definitive meaning assigned to them is a makeshift; we can really do no more than indicate parallel lines of the thought, call attention to affinities, and suggest clues {Nic7: XIII}.”

While attempting to turn the Masnavi’s mystical poetry into intellectual prose thus has confounded some commentators {Nic7: XIII}, others, to the contrary, have marveled at the work’s ability to condense “a whole thought system” into a few poetical lines {Sc: preface}. The Masnavi’s structure, actually, “is far from being so casual as it looks.” Its stories “are bound together by subtle links and transitions…; and each Book forms an artistic whole… {Nic6: xiii-ix}.” The stories are connected because at the end each implicitly introduces the reason for the next story. Thus in Book I, the second story is related to the first by the latter’s last lines, in poem 316, which talks about Eblis (Satan) who looks like humans and their deceptions. The purpose of this second story is criticizing religious prejudices which those who are after high status use to deceive simple folks for their own bad goals {F1: 152}.  Similarly, the purpose of the third story is to say that coercion cannot stop the influence of faith and the spread of ideas;   the previous, second, story showed that neither could deception and tricks. Rumi then finishes this third story in the way that provides introduction to the fourth story, of Lion and Hare, as evidence of God’s power and his control over events {F1: 292}. It is often the same in the other Books of the Masnavi. Book IV, for example, starts with “the end of the story of that lover” from the last story of Book III {Nic3: J-D}; and the stories in this Book are related each to the theme of the previous ones. Similarly, the stories in Book VI are set up by the last line of the previous stories {Mvi: 3129, 3345}.

The sequence of the stories does not indicate any systematic design to create a whole theory; rather Rumi tells them in the order compelled by what preoccupied his thoughts at the time.  Thus, for example, the First Story in the Masnavi was prompted by Rumi’s separation from Shams; the Second by the strong opposition he experienced from various Islamic religious groups, especially the faqihan (religious law experts) and ahl zaher (lovers of appearance of piety); and the Third by the coercion of the faithful by the rulers which Rumi personally observed {F1:43, 152-53, 292}.

An example that Books of the Masnavi each concentrates on a few separate subjects is Book III. In it the details of the ascetics’ practice of riyazat (avoiding worldly desires) and the justification for it are discussed in more than one hundred poems (mIII: 4109- 4211; F1:122}.  All of the Masnavi’s six books, however, must be reviewed together in order to abstract the sum of Rumi’s distinct insights and thoughts.


At the beginning of each of the six Books of the Masnavi, Rumi provides a short paragraph in prose [24]. Together these prefaces make a summary description of the whole work and its main points. The preface to Book I  says that the Masnavi is a “poem in Rhymed Couplets, which comprises strange tales and rare sayings and excellent Discourses and precious indications, and the (religious) path of the ascetics and the (spiritual) garden of the devotees – (all this being) brief in expression but manifold in meaning {Nic2: 3 }.” That description is amplified in the preface to Book V:

“This is the Fifth Book of the Poem in rhymed couplets and the spiritual Expositions, setting forth that the Religious Law is like a candle showing the way. Unless you gain possession of the candle, there is no wayfaring; and when you have come on the way, your wayfaring is the Path; and when you have reached the journey’s end, that is, the Truth. Hence it has been said, ‘If the truth (realities) were manifest, the religious laws would be naught.’ In short, the Law is like learning the theory of alchemy from a teacher or a book, and the Path is (like) making use of chemicals, and the Truth is (like) the transmission of the copper into gold. Those who know alchemy rejoice in their knowledge of it, saying, ‘We know the theory of this (science)’; and those who practice it rejoice in their practice of it, saying, ‘We perform such works’; and those who have experienced the reality rejoice in the reality, saying, ‘We have become gold and are delivered from the theory and practice of alchemy: we are God’s freedom.’ Each party is rejoicing in what they have.

“Or the Law may  be compared to learning the science of medicine, and the Path to regulating one’s diet in accordance with (the science of ) medicine and taking remedies, and the Truth to gaining health everlasting and becoming independent of them both. When a man dies to this (present) life, the Law and the Path are cut off (fall away) from him, and there remains (only) the Truth. The Law is knowledge, the Path action, the Truth attainment unto God.” {Nic6:3}

The preface to Book VI describes “The Books of the Masnavi,” which is here referred to also by the name “Books of Spiritual Evidence (shohood ma`navi)” as “a Lamp in the darkness of imagination and perplexity and phantasies and doubt and suspicion. And this Lamp cannot be perceived by the animal sense… since they (the animals) have been created to keep in good order the outward form of the lower world {Nic6:257}.”

The preface to Book II addresses the subject of love, so central in Rumi’s thinking:” Some one asked, ‘What is love?’ I answered, ‘Thou wilt know when thou becomest (lost in) me.’… “Love is uncalculated affection. For that reason it has been said to be in reality the attribute of God and unreal in relation to (man who is) His slave. He (God) loveth them (yuhibbuhum) is the entire sum. Which (of them) is (really the subject of the word yuhibbuhu) they love him?” {Nic2: 221}

The preface to Book III tells us who are favored by God: “God … purifies the initiates’ knowledge from the defilement of ignorance, their justice from the defilement of iniquity, their generosity from the defilement of ostentation, and their forbearance from the defilement of foolishness {Nic4 : 3}.” In return, they, the initiates, like Rumi, have the duty of teaching others:  “But it behooves one who hath knowledge and is seeking (God) that he should learn whatever he does not know, and teach (others) what he knows already, and deal gently with those of weak intelligence, and neither be made conceited by the stupidity of the stupid nor harshly rebuke him that is dull of understanding {Nic 4:4}.”

It is thus that the Masnavi became Rumi’s main stage for teaching his lessons on what he knew best, religion, and the fundamental questions which have always preoccupied thoughtful minds: the truth about god, creation, human being and the connection among the component elements of the universe.

Spiritualized Religion  

Spiritualizing Islam

Many passages in the Masnavi indicate that Rumi considered it as “nothing less than an inspired exposition of the esoteric content of the Qur’an {Nic 7: 1-2}.” The Masnavi contains more than 400 quoted Qur`anic verses; often several in the same, long, poem {Nic 5: Index}.  It has been estimated that 6,000 lines of the Masnavi, roughly one-fourth of all of the poems, consist of direct translations or paraphrases of the Qur’an {Le: 396} [25]. In the Flute Reed Poem which serves as the introduction to the Masnavi, Rumi’s makes clear that he had in mind the criticisms that he was not in accord with Islam and the Sufi ways {F1:14, 15}. In a poem in Book III, Rumi specifies those objections as applied to the Masnavi itself by the critics:

“(Saying) that this discourse, namely the Masnavi, is low; (that) it is the story of the Prophet and (consists of) imitations; (That) there is no mention of (theosophical) investigation and the sublime mysteries towards which the saints make their steeds gallop;  (That) from the stations of asceticism to the passing away (from self-existence), step by step up to union with God; (It contains not) the explanation and definition of every station and stage, so that by means of the wings there of a man of heart (a mystic) should soar.” {Mii: 4233}

In the next few lines, Rumi gives his specific response: “When the Book of God (the Qur’an) came (down), the unbelievers railed likewise (at it too) {Miii: 4238];” and “He (God) said, ‘If this seems easy to you say (compose) one verse (in the style that is) so ‘easy’ as this (the Qur`an) {Miii: 4242}.”  In Book VI, Rumi compares the Masnavi with Shahnameh and Kalileh va Damneh [26]. “By reason of contumacy {obstinate rebelliousness}, the Shahnameh or Kalileh seems to you just like the Qur’an {Mvi: 3463}” Referring to the reader of those books, the Masnavi says:  “His aim is to divest himself from ennui {dissatisfaction)… {Mvi: 3467}… (So) that by means of that (entertaining) discourse he may quench the fire of distress and anxiety and provide a cure (for his malady) {Mvi: 3468}.”  Now Rumi makes a comparison with the Masnavi: “For the purpose of quenching this amount of fire, pure water and urine are alike in skill (are equally serviceable) {Mvi: 3469}.” “But if you become (really) acquainted with this pure water (the Masnavi) which is the Word of God and spiritual, all distress will vanish from the soul, and the heart will find its way to the Rose-garden {Mvi: 3470}.” Rumi had already called Kalileh va Damneh merely a book of fiction “or else how has the stork a quarrel with the cow {Mii: 3621}?” In Book VI he says “You will have read it (the Story of the lake and the fishermen and the three fishes) in Kalileh va Damneh, but that is (only) the husk of the story, while this (the Masnavi) is the spiritual kernel (maghz) {Mvi: 2203}.”

Religious Conflicts

Rumi’s disagreement with rigid Islamic law experts whom he deemed to be focused on appearances  prompted him to make religious conflicts the subject of the second story of the Masnavi, and continue dealing with it throughout the work. This was the time when the Crusades had not yet ended and Christians and Muslims were shedding each other’s blood,  while Muslim groups were fighting among themselves: Shiites and Sunnis , and among the Sunnis, the Hanafi, Shafei, Hanbali and Maleki groups. Rumi’s own Hanafi Sunnis as well as the Shafeis were causing troubles and even destroying rivals’ schools and burning their books in important cities like Isfahan, Nishapur, and even Baghdad {F1: 152-53}.

The Masnavi says religious disputes arise from attachment to the appearance and if you pay close attention all prophets are one {mI: 682-683; F1: 280-281}. The principles of religions are the same, differences are due to ignorance {F1: 164}. “Many the believers, but their faith is One; One is soul, though many are their bodies {Mv: 408; Le: 416}.” Prophets were friends; Moses promised the appearance of Jesus and Jesus, in turn, affirmed Moses, and Mohammad called Moses and Jesus the messengers of God who brought the gospel of his own (Mohammad’s) coming {F1:164}. Mohammad defended Jesus against the false accusations by his enemies.

The Masnavi says clearly that Christianity and Christ’s approach are that of union and oneness {F1: 157}. Jesus invited people to unity and kindness and he who reaches the truth of his religion and its rituals will be free from the differentiating colors and conflicts and will join the world of “no color (beerangi)” and “same color (yekrangi)” {mI: 500, 501; F1: 218-219}.There is unity among the prophets and saints, and this is unity (vahdat) with God {F1:154}. There is no more than one Truth (Haqq) {F1: 216}.  God’s power is expressed in the miracles by Moses and Christ and Mohammad {F1: 157} [27].  The Masnavi goes to the extent of calling all faithful “Muslims (Mosalmanan),” the reference not being limited only to the specific followers of Islam {mI: 801; F1:314). This usage was drawn from Qur’an itself which employed the word Muslim in the same way in three of its verses {F1: 314}.

When the Masnavi is specific, however, its ecumenism does not extend beyond the three Abrahamic religions. It is expressly critical of the beliefs and rituals of both the followers of the Iranian Zoroaster and Mazdak (the Majous) and the post-Vedic Buddha idol-worshippers (botparastan) {F1:261, 292}, the two other basic systems of spiritual beliefs familiar to Rumi. The Masnavi opposes Buddhism for its “idol-worshipping,” and the Iranian (Mazdisani) religions for their principle of the duality of God and Devil (Ahriman) {Mvi: 2377; Fih: 126, 214}, both so fundamentally abhorrent to Islam.

Religious Tolerance

The Masnavi’s tolerance of the specific non-Islamic religions was based on the sacred Islamic text; it was not the “interfaith” acceptance of all “sacred traditions” [28].  Furthermore, the Masnavi’s religious tolerance was in abstract. There is no evidence of any actual interaction between Rumi and the Jews of his time. The Masnavi’s two stories about the Jewish Kings in the first book are from the old Islamic lore, as are its numerous references to Moses and other figures of the Jewish history. With the Christians, on the other hand, not only did Rumi live practically in their midst as they (ethnic Greeks and Armenians) populated the countryside around Konya {Le: 79}, but he was also conscious of the Crusades. The negative impact of the Crusade is manifest in several of Rumi’s Divan poems lamenting  that the European Farangi (the Franks), defiled and desecrated Jerusalem, the “Sacred (Qods)” city to the Muslims, by bringing pigs there {D 361/3882 & 694/7227; 1211/12885; 2517/26632; Sc: 197, n s 117, 119} . Rumi’s reference to Farangi in the Discourses, distinguishing them from the Jehoodi (Rumi’s word, Jewish) {Fih: 85} makes it clear that he does not mean the Jews but the Christian Europeans.

With the Crusades in mind, in one passage, Rumi contrasts Islam, as the religion of war and glory, with Christianity as a religion promoting the monastic life of cave and mountain {Sc: 183}. Elsewhere, the Masnavi compares the approach of Christian monks unfavorably with Islamic Sufis since “Christian (Issawi) poverty,” unlike “Mohammadan poverty,” disregards the protection of physical power and health and life {F1: 139}.

In the Discourses, Rumi tells of his encounter with a “Christian surgeon” who repeats the claim that “Jesus is God,” and  said that “but we conceal our belief and deny it publicly on purpose in order to preserve the community.”  Rumi responds “How is possible for a weak person, who fled the wiles of the Jews from one place to another and whose physical form was less than two cubits, to be the preserver of the seven heavens?… If Jesus’ spirit was God… then where did this spirit go?” The surgeon replies: “This is how we found things, and so, as a community, we adopted it.” Rumi reproaches him:

“If you found or inherited from your father tarnished, worthless, counterfeit coins, wouldn’t you exchange them for gold of sound assay, free from alloy and adulteration?  … It would be proper to say that Jesus’ Lord ennobled him and placed him among the elect and that whoever serves and obeys him serves and obeys the Lord. And if any God sent a prophet better than Jesus and manifested through Jesus, then it would be obligatory to follow that prophet for God’s sake, not for the sake of the prophet {Th:130; in Arabic}”

Shiites. Just as the case of the Christian adversary in the Crusades, in a commentary about another contemporary actual religious conflict, between his own Islamic branch of Sunnis and the Shiite branch, Rumi clearly shows a harsh attitude toward the Shiites. The Masnavi’s tone regarding various groups of Shiites is highly critical in several passages. In Book VI the Shiites of Aleppo are upbraided for their mourning rituals commemorating Ashura for their Fourth Imam, Hosayn, slain in the 7th  century in Karbala {Mvi: 775-793}. Elsewhere, the Masnavi had acknowledges the magnitude of that tragedy for the Shiites, referring to “Slain of Karbala {Mv: 1624}, and using Karbala as a symbol of “killing” {Miii: 423}, disaster {Miii: 831}, and “great suffering” {Miii: 72}. Nevertheless, the Masnavi calls on the Shiites of Aleppo to, instead, “Loudly lament over your own ruined heart and creed {Miv: 802; Mvi: 795; Le: 13}.”

In the heartland of what is today Iran, the Masnavi finds Shiites in the cities of Kashan (Kashi) {Mvi: 3220, 3233}, and Sabzawar. In a long poem entitled “Story of Sultan Muhammad Khwarazmshah’s, who took by war (force) the city of Sabzawar” {Mv: 845}, the Masnavi depicts the Rafezi (Shiite) inhabitants of Sabzawar as infidels, Moghan (Magicians) – a term also used for the infidel Zoroastrians- while it refers to Muhammad Khwarazmshah, symbolically, as God Almighty who demands from this wicked folk the (pure) heart {Mv: 868}. This is the same Muhammad Khwarazmshah which the Masnavi in another story calls “very bloodthirsty, and that perverse (tyrant) had killed many kings in that region either by craft or violence {Mvi: 2537}.”

Primacy of Islam

Masnavi reserves a special place for Mohammad, the prophet of Islam. He is singled out among “all prophets,” in the salutation of Book IV of the Masnavi {Nic 4: 271}.  Allusions to Mohammad are frequent throughout the Masnavi {Sc: 283}.  His name is mentioned by far more than anyone else, twice as many as the next person, Moses {Nic 5: Index}. He is often called by the honorific names Mostafa (chosen one) and Ahmad (praiseworthy). Mohammad is “the final of the prophets” and fulfills what his predecessors have taught {Sc: 281}.  His “name (nam)” and “features (helliyha) are heralded in the Gospel (Enjil) {mI: 727, 729; F1: 289}.” Islamic legends of several centuries about Mohammad are echoed in the Masnavi.  He is drawn as the paragon of mildness and wisdom, and the embodiment of love {Sc: 281, 284}.

The very rare reference to the Gospel in the Masnavi  was occasioned by its “mentioning” Mohammad, presumably as “another Paraclete” in John 14:16 {Sc: 287}; in other places, the Masnavi, for the same reason, refers to  Zoboor (Psalm) and Torit (The Pentateuch)  along with Enjil as bearing witness  to the truth of the Qur’an {Miii: 2593}. The Masnavi makes no other direct reference to either New Testament, Old Testament or, indeed, to the sacred texts of any other religions than Islam. On the other hand, its references to the Qur`an are ubiquitous, as has been mentioned [29].  Rumi treats the Qur`an and Hadith as incontrovertible written evidence (sanad) of the points he makes in the Masnavi {F1: 43-45}.


The heading for one of the Masnavi’s stories alludes to one Hadith which posits that there are seven layers of meaning to Qur`anic verses. In the third layer beneath the words the meaning is lost to all human reason. Further beneath, the fourth layer is impenetrable to all. In short, the Qur`an must be read with insight; the literal-minded fails to apprehend its meaning {Miii: 4247-9; Mvi: 4862; Le: 418}.

The Masnavi denounces those scholastic theologians whose pedantic and literal disputations lead only to false interpretation of the Qur`an. In the Masnavi’s view a human being himself is capable of knowing and discernment and does not need the theologians {F1: 216}. In that pursuit, however, man needs some preparation. As “(God) has said in the Qur’an ‘This Qur’an with all its hearts leads some aright and others astray {Mvi: 655, 656}.”  To begin with, a spiritual orientation is required. The Masnavi says there are spiritual senses which are different from the outward (zaheri) senses (hess). The latter are the senses of this world; they comprise the faculties of understanding (fahm and edrak).  Spiritual senses, on the other hand, consist of the “underneath (bateni)” faculties {F1:139}. A philosopher relies on his outward senses and does not hear the spiritual voice of everything created {Sc: 298}. It is through the spiritual senses, Rumi says, that man can reach the true meaning (ma’ni) of things and words. That is an experiential comprehension, beyond understanding of the outward surface or appearance. It demands self-discipline and purity {Le: 405}.

The way to get to the treasure underneath the appearance is struggle, the Masnavi says, although even “if appearance (face) is not melted by you, then God himself will melt it because His nature is dropping the veil of His face. {mI: 684,685; F1:280-281}.” Nevertheless, one may not dispense with the outward observance of religion. A good Muslims does not neglect the rituals such as praying, fasting and going to pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj). But the mere performance of such obligations does not suffice.  “Hypocrites may pray beside the pious; prompted not by abject need, but malice {Le: 394-419}.” In remembering God, just saying words like ensha’ al-Allah (God willing) is not enough; the objective is “the feeling of the heart,” the intent {F1: 44}.  The Masnavi describes the moral characteristic of an action (whether it is good and bad) as dependent on intention. When it is in accord with maslahat (good cause), the action is good; and if it is mixed with corruption it is bad. It is the same way with ascetic practices (riyazat) which the Sufi seeker (salek) may undertake {F1: 48, 49}.


All actions and external movements of man are due to his internal transactions (enfealaat) and conditions (halaat) {Mi: 108}. The Masnavi posits this view as an epistemological (marefat) principle in the didactic ethical construct of his Islamic spirituality {mIII: 4386 ff; F1: 81} . In the Masnavi, nafs (body) is the combination of all bad characteristics in man and the source of all bad that comes from him. Nafs is the opposite of ruh (spirit) which is the combination and source of all goods in man {F1: 170-171} [30]. Excessive desires (shahvat) are created in man by the order of God and acted on by the body {F1: 212-213}. Killing the nafs and emptying (takhliyeh) oneself, however, is the prerequisite to achieving pleasures (`aish) {F1: 140}. The Masnavi says “a man is he who rises above shahvat and hers (excessive and inappropriate desires) and mature is the one who is drunk with Truth, not earthly desires {mI: 3430ff; mV: 4026 ff; F1: 76}. What is required is separating oneself from being (hasti) and self-worshipping (khod parasti)” {mI: 306; F1: 140}.

The taming and killing of the nafs is not possible without the grace (‘enayat) of God {F1: 178}. The Masnavi prescribes steps, however, that are useful. They include the common Islamic (shar`iat) rituals, especially prayer and fasting, but with one’s heart being present {Sc: 290, 302-03}. Past that, on the spiritual path (tariqat), there are the familiar Sufi praxis of towbeh (repentance) and nedamat (remorse) {Sc: 301}, and maintaining the attitudes of tavakkol (trust in God), sabr (patience), shokr (gratitude) {Sc: 304} and razdari (keeping confidence) {mI: 175: F1:104-05} and being ibn al-vaqt (time-conscious) {mI: 133; F1:96}. Finally, come the ascetic practices of khalvat (seclusion) and mojahedeh (struggle) {F1: 205}. The goal, following the Masnavi, is destroying the stages of distinction and the borders of multiplicity so as to reach vahdat (unity) which is the resting place of heart and spirit {mI:497-498; F1: 217-218}.

The Masnavi calls itself “the shop for (spiritual) poverty (faqr) {Mvi: 1525}.”  This is following the Prophetic saying “Poverty is my pride.” That poverty is not the outward appearance of the dervishes:  “Don’t seek it in the coarse cloth.” It means to possess nothing and be possessed by nothing {Sc: 307}. It is the result of fana (annihilation), a concept spoken before Rumi by Sana’i and `Attar {Sc: 307}. The seeker must accede completely to God’s will; he must metaphorically die to self, before he dies physically. His ego must be extinguished before God. As Rumi puts it in the Discourses: “In His presence there is no room for two egos (do ana). …Either you die or … He will die…Yet it is impossible that He should die, either in the universe or in the mind, for ‘He is the living, who does not die.’ … you die so that He may become manifest in you and the duality be lifted {Fih: 24-5, Le: 418}.”

Rumi says that worshiping idols comes from worshiping self because it comes from hope and fear which are seeking benefit for or avoiding loss from self. Pleasures are similarly the manifestation of selfishness and so long as this attitude remains man every so often creates an idol and bows to it. Thus one must break the real idol that is the idol-maker {mI: 779; F1: 294, 311}. Even praising God is seeing him separate from yourself and the result is thus sherk (sharing with God) and duality; therefore, it is best for the seeker to die onto himself and remain in God {mI: 225; F1: 225}. The perfect man, annihilated in God is like shadow which does not have an existence of itself but is perfect because it is joined to God {F1: 195}.

Fana. Rumi says annihilation (fana) is the basis of baqa (permanent life in God) {Sc: 310-11}. The appearance of fatal sacrifice (shahadat) for God is death but its real meaning (haqiqat) is eternal life; while the appearance of sensual (hessi) living and material world are pleasure and their real meaning is ill-feeling (nakhoshi) {mI: 782, mV: 420 ff; F1: 312}. Rumi does not describe in detail the state of rapture which is the Sufi fana.  It is not a union with God so much as man becoming the interpreter of Truth or God. Rumi calls it experiencing kebriya (Divine Grandeur) {Sc: 312-13}.

Pir.  One of the main, perhaps the fundamental, principle of Sufism was that going the way of God (solook) was not possible without a guide (pir, literary elder). The advantage of  a Sufi guide (Pir Tariqat) over other Islamic religious leaders was that those clerics considered knowing religious rules (ahkaam) and fundamentals of  the  Shari`at (Law)  enough for reaching the fullness (kamal) and happiness (sa`adat); while Sufis, on the other hand, believed that he who does not ask for Pir’s help will never achieve those goals.  Accordingly, whenever the Pir disappears, of necessity another one must replace him {mI: 671; F1: 274-275}. The Pir provides answers to the questions and problems of the Sufi seeker (salek) {mI: 97-98; F1: 78-79}.  His impact on the seeker is like kimia, a completing element {mI: 716; F1: 287-288}. There are real Pirs and false and deceiving ones {F1: 288-289; mI: 718, 719}. An archetypal real Pir in the Masnavi is the Persian Bayazid Basmati (804-874) {Mii: 2183, Mvi: 2548, 3649}. God’s ordainment comes into view on Bayazid’s heart (Miv: 1924} and God speaks through him {Miv:  2123, 2124, Mv: 1683} .

Qotb. Masnavi names Bayazid as a Qotb (Pole or Pivot),  or spiritual axis mundi, in  a list that consists of such other Persian Sufis as the Jonayd (830-910) , Mansur Hallaj  (858-922) and Ibrahim Adham (718-782),  as well as the four first caliphs of Islam, and several prophets from Adam to Moses, and Jesus and Mohammad. There must always be present in the world such a deputy (vali) of God. These deputies of God are not different from God himself {F1: 159}, and the seeker (salek) must follow their orders as exactly those of God {mI: 674; F1: 277}. Without the prophets and the Qotb of the age to lead, the world would remain devoid of true life {Le: 400}.

As Rumi says about Hallaj: “I am God’ on the lips of Mansur (Hallaj), is the light (of truth or God) {Mii: 305}. Similarly, “Though the Qur’an is (dictated) from lips of the Prophet, if any one says God did not speak it, he is an infidel {Miv: 2122}.”  “Because God does not appear to our senses, we can see Him in His deputies: the prophets {mI: 1673; F1: 276-277}”.  They do not have to express themselves “by the way of speech,” but can do it, as Bayazid did, “by the way of vision (az rah-e `ayan),” that is by the way of immediate experience {Miv: 2102}. A seeker can know God only through a person who, by examples, can have God’s characteristics and the prophets are those persons {mI: 1673; F1: 276-277}.

Sohbat. The Masnavi says that man needs true companions on his spiritual journey {Sc: 293}. He should avoid mixing with those who do not have the same understanding of the realities of life {Sc: 294}. The Masnavi says that the way to reach meaning (ma`ni) is keeping company (sohbat) and association (hamneshini) with the people (ahl) of meaning {mI:1711; F1: 285}.The Masnavi considers sohbat as the essential foundation for seeking spirituality (solook), Rumi differentiates between sohbat and hamgami (walking together), on the one hand, and the learning  (`elm amouzi) that is done by teaching the Tradition (ravayat) and listening (sama` ) {F1: 286}.

Community. The Masnavi justifies the killing of an apparently innocent man if a person ordering it was appointed by the community for such rulings; this is called maslahat (good cause) {mI: 230, 263; F1:120, 127}. Elsewhere, the Masnavi  makes another observation on the importance of community: different religions are each good for their followers and obeying them is made easy and for that reason they do not follow other religions {F1: 213-214}.

The Masnavi indicates the community of Sufis which Rumi would have chosen in poems that show the type of Pir he preferred for his own sohbat as a disciple:  “Give me leave … that I may perform a rope-dance, like Mansur {Miii: 4214}.” “You make yourself a Mansur Hallaj and set fire to cotton of your friends {Miii: 693}.”  Rumi was conscious of the animosity of many Sufis in Konya toward him, as the Masnavi indicates in several places {mII: 2494; F1: 198}.  Some would criticize the Masnavi because it did not show sufficient Sufi training {Sc: 299}. Indeed, the Masnavi does not even mention the most famous Sufi teacher of the time, Ibn Arabi, or the standard books of Sufism: Qosheyri’s Resala and Abu Taleb Makki’s Qut al-Qolub.  It aimed at “immediate knowledge” which was learned not from books but from “experience” {Sc: 299}. Similarly, Rumi rejected the prominent Sufi Ahmad Ghazali and his fellow Holmanians who saw in a pretty person (shahed) the sign (gavah) and reason of the beauty of God. Instead, Rumi chose loving mard kamel (the perfect and complete man) which was the same as loving God, as the principle of his own way (tariqat) {mI: 700 ff; F1: 30-31}.

Persian Gnosticism (`Erfan)

Although the Masnavi refers to Rumi as a Sufi, he sometimes uses the word Sufi in a pejorative sense. True Sufi for Rumi was not the one who wore woolen (suf) frocks (the vernacular meaning of the word) but, rather, the one who sought purity (safvat) -another word derived from the same Arabic root (tasavvof ) {Sc: 4, 299}. Even darvish (dervish), the Persian word for the Arabic faqir derived from faqr (poverty), did not always please Rumi who so fervently espoused spiritual poverty as the goal. The Masnavi in a story ridicules the simpleton dervish who loses his donkey in a trick by other Sufis of a convent where he is a guest {Mii: 203 ff; Sc: 56-7, n. 153}.  In Rumi’s time, claiming to be a dervish (darvishi) was popular and was sometimes used as a tool for getting money and worldly status. The Masnavi warns against such “devils in the form of man”. The seeker should avoid such unsuitable companions {mI: 316; F1:145}. Indeed, he should generally “Make a practice of seeing (for yourself) without blindly following (taqlid) any authority: think in accordance with the view of your own intelligence (`aql) {Mvi: 3345}.”The term mysticism comes from the Greek μυω, meaning “to conceal”  {Ge}; Rumi’s goal was to reveal: he was a Gnostic (‘aref), seeking knowledge, not reveling in the unknowable. What his quest produced was conditioned by the limits of empirical information available at his time. His imagination filled in the gaps.


Rumi’s epistemology is fundamentally different from that of the two main currents of his times: theological (kalaami), and philosophical (falsafi). In both of those, each consisting of many branches, the dominant approach was rationalism. The Masnavi shows Rumi accepting reason and logic as useful but inadequate in the search for truth. What is further needed, he insists, is meta-rationalism.  For him the ultimate step is not learning but beyond that, experiencing the truth. To make this point he employs various metaphors. Seeing as distinguished from hearing is his favorite: “Wherever there was ear it was made by Him into an eye  (har koja goshi bood az vey cheshm gasht) {mI:515}.”   The  result is that from the level of “hearing,”  and understanding of formal disciplines, which at its height is “the knowledge of certainty (`elm al-yaqeen )” one, by the grace of  God, reaches to the level of  seeing and “certainty itself ( `ein  al-yaqeen )”{F1:224}.”


The Masnavi makes clear that it is not opposed to reason: “Blessed is the eye that is ruled by reason {Mvi: 2966},” but Rumi notes its limitations in the Discourses: “Reason is good to bring you to the king’s gate, then you divorce (talaq deh) reason  as from then on reason is to your detriment {Fih: 112, 309}.”  The  Masnavi gives examples:  “Reason can’t perceive another trap, hence the inspiration (vahy) which sees the unseen (ghayb) spied in this direction (for help) {Mvi: 2970},” and “By reason you can recognize congener (hamjens)  and non-congener, you ought not to run at once to (outward) form; Jesus, in the form of man, was (really) homogenous with the angels {Mvi: 2972}.”  The Masnavi compares reasoning with “unveiling (kashf)” by “signs (shohood)”: “Reasoning is shade and signs are like the sun: if there is no sun there won’t be any shade {mI: 117; F1: 89}.” Rumi calls his Masnavi “the book of spiritual signs (shohood ma`navi) which are a Lamp in the darkness of imagination and perplexity and phantasies and doubt and suspicion {VI: Preface}.”

For Rumi there are two types of knowledge: one, “`Elm Maktaseb (Acquired Knowledge),” is obtained by arranging the thinking process or through senses, and the other, “`Elm Ladoni (Immediate Divine Knowledge), is achieved through discovery by means of signs (shohood) and “inspiration by revelation (elham)” [31]. Those who Rumi calls `aqelan (clever ones) have learned all kinds of knowledge and got into details in discussions but nevertheless deny God and miracles because they are deprived of seeing, and this is the sign of God’s disfavor (qahr) toward them {F1:223}. The way of the philosophers who spend a life in “discussion and disputation (bahs va monazareh)” is not the right way {mI: 532; F1:231-232}. “Although by language we can clarify the meaning of love (as is the way of ‘those who engage in discussion (ahl bahs)’ but the way of ‘followers of discovery (ahl kashf)’ is clearer {mI: 113; F1:88}.”  Indeed, “knowledge based on discussions (‘elm bahsi) and exchange of views (nazar),” prevents, as a curtain, reaching the goal of “knowing (ma`refat)” {mI: 477; F1:212}.  As Rumi says in the Discourses, “knowledge is based not on words and sounds but derives from the other world; God does not speak by words and sounds {Ar: 268}.”

According to the Masnavi, however, God does communicate to man by elham which to Rumi was a form of “spiritual inspiration (kashf ma`navi).” This was different from vahy which was “unveiling by signs (kashf shohoodi), considered by the theologians to be addressed only to the prophets {F1: 117}. The Masnavi also considered sleep as an important channel for discovery {F1: 40}. In Rumi’s views dream is due to a kind of freedom of spirit from external restrictions. Some of the poems in the Masnavi in this regard resemble those of the Sufis and philosophers. They stand in contrast to the two dominant theological thinkers of the time:  the Mu`tazilites who considered dream as “nonsense (mohoom)” and the Ash`arites who said it was not “the reality of understanding (edrak) {F1:179-181}.”


The most important philosopher of Rumi’s times, Avicenna (Abu `Ali Ibn Sina, 980-1037) had done a very detailed study of dreams (ro’ya) and concluded that dream was a combination of external stimulus of senses and the work of imagination {F1:180}. Avicenna’s works as a physician -part of the expertise of a philosopher (hakim) of his time- duly impressed Rumi. The Masnavi mentions Avicenna as an iconic physician on par with Galen (Jalinous) {Sc: 156}, the Greek whose books were foundational both to the Islamic and pre-Islamic, Sassanid, medicine {FI: 230; EIrS2; Sc: 156}.  More broadly, the Masnavi represents Avicenna “as the highest flight of philosophical speculation {Nic 8:138}.” In the same place, however,   Rumi rhetorically shows the limitations of Avicenna (Bu Sina):  “And he (a person) has vision of that Light- how should the explanation of him (his state) be a task (within the capacity) of Bu Sina {Miv: 506}?”  In a few poems later, the Masnavi juxtaposes Philosophy (Hekmat) and Theosophy (Hekmat Elahi), maintaining that “Philosophy is confined to ‘the phenomenal form (surat)’ of Man, whereas Theosophy is connected with ‘the essential truth (haqiqat haqiqat)’ of his true nature {Miv: 521ff}.”

Masnavi, of course, favors Gnosticism, akin to Theosophy, or more precisely, the Persian version of it called `Erfan {mI: 860; F1:326}. The main difference between `Erfan and philosophy (Hekmat) is that the latter accepts logic and logical reasoning and is after “scientific certainty (`alm al-yaqin),” whereas ‘Erfan disfavors reasoned philosophical systems and is after certainty itself (`ain al-yaqin) {Ta: 326}. Thus “Avicenna’s philosophical system, rooted in the Aristotelian tradition, is thoroughly rationalistic and intrinsically alien to the principles of Sufism…. It is also self-consistent and unified, and therefore free of any other mystical or esoteric aspect—however these terms are understood—that would represent a different form or body of knowledge and create a dichotomy within the system {EIrG2}.”

Avicenna maintained the validity of Sufism but he interpreted it in terms of his own system {EIrG2}. Indeed, there are areas of common grounds between Avicenna’s works and Rumi’s Masnavi. It has been noted that Avicenna is probably the source of the Masnavi’s imagery of spirit as birds.  Also, the force of love working on all things and compelling them toward unification,  the subject of several Masnavi poems, appears to be the same in Avicenna ‘s  Risalah fi al-`ishq {Miv:3637, Miii: 440 sqq, Mv: 2012 sqq,  Mv: 3853 sqq; Nic8: 217}. Furthermore, in his Daneshnameh (Book of Science) [32], Avicenna denounces the scholastic theologians, whom he refers to disparagingly as “dialecticians” (jadalîan) {EIrA}, and Rumi joins him in such disparagement {Le: 401-402; Fih: 157-8}. The two men’s objections, however, are different. Avicenna “ridicules those theologians’ method of proving the existence of the invisible (qayeb) from the existence of the witness (shahed) {EIrA}.” Rumi is just the opposite. He criticizes their rationalism {Le: 400-402}, the very heritage of Avicenna [33].


Rumi is insistent that both rationalists’ reasoning and scholastic theology are inadequate where “love” is concerned. Alluding to the founders of the two dominant school of Muslim theology of the time, the Masnavi says: “In that quarter where love was increasing (my) pain, Bu Hanifa and Shafi`i gave no instruction {Mii: m 3832}.” Following Sana’i who had said those theologians did not teach love, the Masnavi says “the doctor (who taught you) was not acquainted with love {Mii: 3831}.” The school of love was one in which you would learn “immediate Divine knowledge (`Elm Ladoni)” without madrasa (religious school) {Miii: 3832; Sc: 337 n 38}.  In Rumi’s own time the towering theologian was Fakhr al-Din Razi {F1:32}.The Masnavi specifically chooses him as the example of inadequacy: “If intellect could discern the (true) way in this question, Fakhr Razi would be an adept in religious mysteries {Mv: 4144; Sc: 14}.”

          Greek Influence

The rationalists were firm followers of Aristotle.  Avicenna called him “the Chief of the Sages (Emam Hakiman)” and “the guide and master of the philosophers” {EIrA}. The Masnavi, in comparison, singles out Plato as the ultimate intellect and, by connotation, philosopher {F1: 32}.  Avicenna, on the other hand, directly criticizes and ridicules Plato and the Platonic “ideas” {EIrA}.

Much has been written about the influence of Greek thinkers on Rumi, most largely speculative and conjectural. It is said that he represents many of the concepts of Neoplatonism [34], although “the depth of his acquaintance with Greek … philosophy cannot be fixed {Ni: xxx-xxxi};” that “the belief of a pure Sufi (Rumi) is the same as that of the Platonists (`Eshrqiyoon) {Ni:  xxx1, n. 1};” and that there is parallelism in the chief doctrines of Rumi and the  Neoplatonist Plotinus, although “Plotinus’s name was unknown in the East but (yet)  his philosophy, reflected in Aristotelian commentaries had considerable influence in the East {Ni: xxx-xxxi}.”

There is no doubt about cultural interactions between ancient Greece and the Persian-speaking world before Islam as well as after Islam [35]. The Sassanid period scholars’ knowledge of Greek thoughts is clearly reflected in the 10th century Denkard (Acts of Religion), which is a collection of the dominant Mazdaen Zoroastrian beliefs and customs of their time. Its philosophical terminologies are largely Aristotelian. However, Mazdean philosophy was a syncretic system incorporating with thoughts of the Greek philosophers [36] those of Indian and native sages {EIrS}.


The difference between rationalism and Rumi’s Gnosticism leads to difference in their way of proof {Le: 401; Fih: 157-8}.  For Rumi that way is experiential and heuristic: “The sun came out as proof of the existence of the sun {mI: 116; F1:88}.”  Love (`eshq) is the proof of love. In contrast, in the Discourses, Rumi ridicules the claim of a certain man that he has proven the existence of God by logical reasoning {Ar: 260}.  Instead, Rumi explains the gnostic Hallaj’s utterance “I am God,” which critics called a blasphemy, as an actual experience, not a logical proof, of God’s existence {Ar: 252}.  Rumi tells us of the difference, more poetically: “By words you know for sure that fire exists?/Don’t alight (come down and settle) at a certain stage –seek fire!/The cooked, alone, knows Certainty itself/ If certainty you want, jump in the fire {Mii:860-61; Le: 404}.”


Rumi talks about two types of intellect.  Common men only possess “‘aql jozvi (partial intellect)” which enables them to acquire knowledge, while prophets and saints are endowed, additionally, by the grace of God, with “‘aql koll (Universal Intellect)”. The knowledge we acquired by our partial intellect is not enough to attain complete truth; indeed, it hampers us. “God’s seal upon the eye and ear of the intelligence makes him (the intelligent man) an animal, (even) if he is an Aflatoon (Plato) {Mi: 24} [37].” In contrast, Rumi offers this description of the “unlettered” Prophet Mohammad, in the Discourses:

“Mohammad is called ‘unlettered’ not because he was incapable of writing and learning; he was called ‘unlettered’ because with him writing and learning and wisdom were innate, not acquired…. And what is there in all the world he does not know seeing that all men learn from him; what then… should appertain to the partial intellect that the Universal Intellect does not possess? … Those who invent something new on their account, they are the Universal Intellect. The partial intellect is capable of learning and is in need of teaching! The Universal Intellect is the teacher, and is not in need…It is the prophets and saints who have effected union between partial and Universal Intellect so that they have become one…{Ar:151f;  Sc: 287-88; }.”

Of all subjects of study, Rumi says, the Gnostic way of learning about God teaches us the most. Its goal of the knowledge of “spiritual poverty (faqr)” goes beyond the prevalent Islamic pursuits of theology (kalaam), law (feqh) and grammar (nahv). By humbling yourself, your heart receives God’s vision and you understand the meaning of grammar, the coherence of syntax and justice of jurisprudence {Mi: 2830-34, 2874; Le: 403}. Following that dicta, Rumi developed his own distinct thoughts which many consider to be the height of `Erfan, or Persian Gnosticism in the Islamic period.

Fundamental Question

`Erfan had roots in the ancient Indian and Arab mysticism (especially in practices of riyazat or asceticism, and zohd or ferveent religious observance) and, on the other hand, in the ancient Iranian and Greek mysticism (especially, attempts to understand the essential general essence of things mostly based on the notion of love). Out of this combination there emerged two groups in `Erfan in the early Islamic period. One group observed religious appearances and “kept secrets” which meant it did not talk about man’s oneness with God as in the doctrine of Vahdat Vojood  (Unity of Being ). They were exemplified by the late 9th Century Jonayd. The second group did not observe religious appearances and openly proclaimed belief in the principle of oneness with God (that is, they “revealed secrets”). These were exemplified by Bayazid and Hallaj, both Jonayd’s contemporary.  Soon, Islamic Gnosticism, led primarily by Ibn Arabi (1165-1240) in the Arab world, found separate contemporary leaders in the Persian world, primarily Ghazali, `Attar and Sohravardi . The last one, Shahab ad-Din Yahya Sohravardi (1155-1191) gave a strong Persian color to his teaching in which he used many of the terms of the pre-Islamic ‘Erfan [38]. Rumi’s contributions to this Persian Islamic Gnosticism covered many of the fundamental ontological questions which had preoccupied philosophers and theologians alike, ranging from God and his creation to man and free will, love, unity and diversity.


The Masnavi does not speak much about God’s essence; it focuses on His attributes, many expressed in the various names by which Rumi calls God. Among them are the Persian Khoda (Lord), the Islamic Allah (the Sole, Eternal, Not Begotten nor Begetting), the Gnostics Haqq (Truth), the Romantic Spiritual Ma`shooq (Beloved), and the Cosmological Khaleq (Creator). The essence of God is hidden because He has no contrast through which man can recognize Him. He cannot be found in any place , although his signs are everywhere . The Masnavi avoids anthropomorphisizing God, but sees His personalist aspects as almighty, powerful, and merciful {Sc: 226, 238-239}.

The Masnavi is mystical Theo-monist [39]. It firmly asserts by the methods of `Erfan that there is only one God. The pure monotheism of Islam had already been defended against Persian Mazdaen-Zoroastrian dualism and Christian trinitarian thoughts by the Mu`tazilites [40], using the methods of philosophy {Sc: 4}. That was not sufficient for Rumi; in the Masnavi he also finds occasion to refute the Mu`tazilites’ positions {Sc: 187}. He defines their type unfavorably: “Ahl `Etezal (Mu`tazilites) and those who do not possess the light of immediate (noor haal) (mystical) intuition {Miii: 1027}.” The Gnostics were themselves divided between dualistic mysticism and monistic mysticism. The former were in part influenced by the Persian (Mazdisani) duality elements {Ta: 329}. Rumi, however, followed the example of `Attar in retelling his story of the squint-eyed man who saw two moons, not being able to imagine that they were in fact one. This way Rumi argued that the cause was the illness of those who could not see that God is one, and not two or three {Sc: 238}.

While Rumi would use this argument to prove the unity of all religions, he employed his own version of a broader doctrine, that of Unity of Being (Vahdat  Vojood) (discussed below) to help sweep away the dualist mysticism of   Hamed al-Ghazzali (1058-1111) {Le:26}. Rumi also finds occasions in his Discourses to specifically reject the Majous (Zoroastrian) doctrine of the duality of God and Ahriman (Devil) {Fih: 126, 214}.


The Masnavi’s God is not one that once brought the world into being to move according to a prefixed schedule. He is a living God who continues to manifest Himself. In His way of permanent creation, God brings in different creatures appropriate for the time and place.  All events are decreed by Him. Good and evil both come from God, each for a purpose as He does nothing without purpose {Sc: 233, 225, 227-228}.

God is the immediate creator; secondary causes are just veils. The Masnavi says we will never understand the way God creates. He brought the world into existence by a single word Kun (Be!) and formed it in six days, but ‘every day of His has a thousand years’.  God’s goal of perfecting the creatures is a slow process.  God may destroy a thing so that He may replace it with something better.  Rumi’s world was a place of strife. To Rumi this outward disharmony was only the manifestation of God’s creative power: God wanted to reveal Himself and, as Rumi believed, things can be known only through their opposites {Sc: 223, 226-227, 229, 230-233}.


According to the Masnavi, God created things in ranks, gradually rising from minerals towards man {Mi: 1964ff; Sc: 228}. Man is the central figure in the creation. He became so when he alone accepted God’s offer of the special trust (amanat) {Sc: 247}. When humanity was yet to be created, God addressed it “Alasto bi-rabbikom (Am I not your Lord?)” and the future generations responded “Bala, shahedna (Yes, we witness it)”. Since that Day of the Primordial Covenant man has lived and grown under the charm of that Divine address. In the 10th Century this “‘banquet of alast” in the Qur`an  became a cornerstone of Islamic mystical theology. Rumi often refers to it. For him it establishes that the first word was spoken by God; it confirmed his rule over human life: man could answer only if God had enabled him to do so.

Man’s whole being is suspended between that beginning day of history and the end of time, the Day of Judgment: yesterday of the ruz (day of) alast and tomorrow of Resurrection. That Divine address leads man into conscious and responsible life, but it also leads him into fana (annihilation).  The goal of the mystic is to become as non-existent as he was at the day of the Covenant. The “Friend’s (God’s) light” reminds Rumi of the Covenant because it is He who leads the seeker towards the final state of their union. The higher the man’s rank at the Divine banquet, the greater the amount of suffering he will have to endure; that is why the prophets are those who suffer the most. This affliction is meant as a test for man: only if his primordial answer was sincere, will he be able to take gratefully the burden of affliction {Sc: 249-250}.

Rumi says that God’s greatest gift to man was teaching him every possible field of knowledge {Sc: 227}, enabling him to rise above the angels. Man thus came so close to God as to be virtually the same as Him, “mazhar (reflection)” of God. Hallaj saw himself even closer to God than the Prophet Mohammad {Ta: 404}. His mystical experience aimed at a complete annihilation in God, even a ”deification,” in contrast to a prophetic thinker who is always conscious of being a mere servant (`abd) of God and, therefore, may reach at most “two bows’ length” from God, as the Qur`an said {Sc: xvii}. In Persian `Erfan God and man are seen as being in need of each other: God needs to be recognized and man’s role is to recognize God. The reciprocal needs make them equal. On the other hand, religions (including Islam) see man as a sinful subject of God and only deserving of God’s mercy {Ta: 401-402}.

The seeker in `Erfan will find that he and God are no longer separate after undergoing Sibghatullah– the Qur`anic coloring of God, or baptism in His dyeing vet (khom) through which the differently colored pieces of cloth become one color{Mvi: 4711; Nic8: 400}. That is a long process which ends in man’s annihilation: “What is Towhid (Islamic monotheism)? To burn one’s self before the One {Mi: 3008; Sc: 238}.”

Man forgot his primordial oath due to his transgression of stepping into sensual pleasures caused by his own pride [41].   Man’s way back to God’s grace can be found only by constant weeping {Sc: 250-51}. He can take refuge in his affliction with God (yawlahuna) who so promised him {Sc: 230}. Rumi knows that only rarely can a man reach the goal of reunion with God. Paraphrasing  the Greek Diogenes, Rumi tells the story about going around with a lamp in search of a true man,  which to Rumi is a  man who has completely surrendered himself to God’s will and acts through Him {Mii: 222; Mv:2887; Sc: 254}.

          Free will

The Masnavi says that the helping “light (noor)” of God is continuous and permanent but finding it requires that man seek it fervently {mI: 760-762; F1: 306}.  The grace of God is achieved through hard work and action {F1: 294}. In his Discourses, Rumi says that God is the creator of men’s action contrary to the arguments of the Mu`tazilites {Ar: 272}. In the Masnavi, he is not that consistent. There he brings up the subject of pre-destination (jabr) versus free will (ekhtiyar) in no fewer than 65 places; this shows how important the debate was in Rumi’s times among both theologians and philosophers. In those many places the Masnavi sometimes sides with the arguments of one side and sometimes with those of the other {F1: 264}.  Rumi held that only a saintly person with spiritual insight can comprehend the mystery of free will and divine decree {Mi: 1466; Le: 413}.

In two places where the problem is discussed in detail, the Masnavi chooses free will over pre-destination {mI: 1463, mV: 2912 ff; F1: 265}.  That is remarkable since the ancient (Persian religion) Zervani idea of jabr (compulsion),  or pre-destination, was more attractive to all other great Persian poets of  Rumi’s (classical) age, from Rudaki and Ferdowsi to Hafiz and including Khayyam and Sa`adi  {Ta:267}. This was despite the fact that the newer Persian Mazdaki-Zoroastrian religion held that “Man is created as his own lord, the guardian over his own person (i.e., endowed with free will) and of all creations with the faculty of discernment {EIrS}.” Even among the Islamic theologians the Jabriyya and subsequently Asharites, were determinists holding that no human action could occur except at God’s command.  They were opposed by the Qadriyya and later the Mu’tazilites who argued that man was a free agent and chose his course of action. The latter would thus hold man responsible for his acts. The former had to justify punishment and reward for their (compelled) man by saying that he became deserving of God’s predetermined decree (qaza) through kasb ( a process of acquisition) {Le: 411}.  Rumi, on the other hand, held that precisely because man deserved reward and punishment for his action, he had free will {Miii: 3287-8; Le: 412}. As the Masnavi says “Our shame is the evidence of our free will {mI: 618; F1:264}.”

Rumi believed that good and evil actions are bound to bring forth different fruits in this world, or the world to come. Man is responsible for his action. Hell and Paradise as are both real, but as conditions produced by man’s actions and thoughts rather than as places {Sc: 258-259, 261}. God’s judgment would be based on man’s intentions rather than his action. Rumi sees free will as the ability to endeavor to thank God for His Beneficence, which requires working hard and acting in perfect sincerity.  The more man thus strives the more will he be supported by God. {Sc: 262}. The action of a purified man through love is in conformity with God’s will; that is jabr mahmud (praiseworthy necessitarianism) –in contrast to jabr mazmum (bad) of the Jabriyya {Mv: 3187f; Sc: 263; F1: 265}.


In the Masnavi ’s narrative God created everything from “the nothingness (`adam)”  and man’s goal is to return to this `adam {Sc: 239}, but there is something even  higher than the nothingness and that is love {Sc: 243-44}. Man’s promise to God is a promise of love: love for all the manifestations of existence (vojood) {Ta: 404}. Man alone of all creatures is capable of loving truly {Sc: 248}. The Masnavi rejects the assertion of the theologians who said that “loving” God is not possible because God’s essence (zaat) is different from His creatures and hence whenever there is the word love (hobb) in the Qur`an it is deemed to mean “obedience”. Contrary to this view, the Masnavi says there is no separation (mobayenat) between God and man.  The Masnavi argues that when the Qur`an calls God karim (munificent) that adjective really means that He grants the seeker favor without needing any reason.  He himself makes it easy for the `asheq (lover) and shows him the way to reach Him.  “Don’t say we do not have audience with that Shah (God); with kariman (the munificents) working is not hard {mI: 221; F1: 116-117}.  Indeed, it was God who poured the “wine” of love in man’s mouth {mI: 219; F1: 114-115}.

The Masnavi says that love cannot be adequately described in words {mI: 112; F1: 87}. “Although by language we can try to discuss the meaning of love, the way of Gnostics makes it clearer {mI: 113; F1: 88}.”  Understanding love is beyond the ability of intellect (`aql); the only way to understand love is to attain it {mI: 115; F1: 88}.  Love is the proof of love {mI: 116; F1: 88}. In the prose of the Preface of Book II of the Masnavi, Rumi says: “Some one asked, ‘What is love?’ I answered, ‘You will know when you become (lost in) me.’” Rumi then elaborates: “Love is uncalculated affection. For that reason it has been said to be in reality the attribute of God and unreal in relation to man {Nic 2: 221}.”

Physicians of Rumi’s time treated love as a mental disease, like hallucination (malikholiya). But Rumi called love the measure of the health of mind {F1: 84-85}. The Masnavi says love is the “asterlabe (celestial navigator)” to God’s secrets {mI: 110; F1: 84-85}.”  It enables the “spirit (ruh)” to “unveil knowledge (kashf marefat)” {F1: 84-85}.  “Falling in love eventually takes us toward the goal {mI: 111; F1: 85}.”  To the Masnavi love was the negation of want, the drowning in the beloved and the fire that burns the seeker and makes him naught {F1: 116-117}.  Loving God will take man beyond conventional piety. “The knowledge learned in school is one kind of thing/ trafficking in love is quite another {D: 314 or 226; Le: 404}.”

Women. The Masnavi make is clear that the love it is heralding is the love of God {F1:  114-115}. Loving pretty face and colors is not love and ends in infamy (nangi) {mI: 205; F1: 109}.  Sexual intercourse causes man’s spirit to descend into the realm of corporal existence. For this Rumi blames seduction by women {Sc: 255-56}.  Humans who are the subject of the Masnavi’s consideration are men. The poems are not meant to be about women. Rarely does the Masnavi make references to women and even then, mostly in the context of their relationship to man.  Woman is valued as a source of comfort to man. The Masnavi exemplifies the worldly relationship of the Prophet Mohammad and his wife `Ayesheh, conversations with whom soothed him. “He (the Prophet), to whose words the (whole) world was enslaved (obedient), used to cry ‘Speak to me (kalimni), O Humayra (`Ayesheh) {Mi: 2428}.”  The wife’s controlling authority over the husband is the subject of another poem: “Though he (the husband) be Rostam son of Zal and greater than Hamza (in valor), as regards authority he is his old woman’s (wife’s) captive” {Mi: 2427}. In his Discourses, Rumi maintains that it is useless to argue with a woman {Ar: 259}. Elsewhere, Rumi portrays woman as a tool Satan often uses to lead man astray;  she is a trial for man who becomes good through forbearing her ;  he should  never follow her  advice because women are less intelligent and cannot understand what man has to learn {Sc: 255-56}.

Unity of Being    

The Masnavi divides humans and other creatures into types. It agrees with the general principle accepted at the time by both the scientists (hokama) and Sufis that Members of each type, congeners (hamjens), attract each other:  “Each one of the  atoms (zarreh) on atoms which exist in this earth and heaven is like amber (kahroba) (a magnet) for its congener (attracts it) {Mvi: 2900}.” Rumi elaborates his specific views on the subject in no fewer than 42 occasions in the Masnavi {F1: 271-272}.  The kinship that the Masnavi considers important is due to relatedness (nesbat) based not on heredity (nesab) but on spiritual race (nejhad) {mVI: 174-178; F1: 299}.  On that basis the deniers (kafaran) go to hell and the prophets to heaven “Because each bird flies towards his congener, following his spirit.” {mII: 2103; F1:271-272}.  It is not the appearance of a creature that shows his type: “By reason you can recognize congener and non-congener: you ought not to run at once to (outward) form; Jesus, in the form of man, was (really) homogenous with the angels {Mvi: 2972}.” It is the essence of a person that determines his type: “Unbelievers (monkeran) all burn in fire because in essence (be hasb fetrat) they were born of fire {F1: 296}. The Masnavi sees three situations for attraction (zoq): one congener to the other, a potential candidate as congener to a congener and a part of a congener to the whole {mI: 889-890; F1: 334}.  

 Notwithstanding apparent differences in the world which the Masnavi acknowledges, it asserts that at the core there is unity among all beings. “The conflicts among men stem from names/Trace back the meaning and achieve accord {M2:3680; Le: 405}.”That is Rumi’s version of pantheism, a doctrine called Vahdat Vojood (Unity of Being), manifested early on in the Masnavi {mI: 30; F1: 35-36}.   In `Erfan the central idea is Unity of Being which maintains that the entire universe has a single gohar (essence) and mayeh (source) {Ta: 443}. That doctrine was based on the foundations of ancient Indian, Babylonian, Iranian and Egyptian thoughts {Ta: 328}. In Rumi’s time, Ibn Arabi had argued that the Islamic doctrine of towhid (Unity) meant that the created universe was a continuation of God’s being [42].  In the Masnavi, Rumi developed the argument about towhid his own way.

The Masnavi sees the universe as “the emanation (esha`eh)” of God, in the language of Persian `Erfan which was influenced by the thoughts of Shahab ad-Din Yahya Sohravardi.  Acclaimed as the founder of Hekamt Eshraq (Philosophy of Illumination),  the Persian Sohravardi,  had revived in his work, also known as “Hekmat Nooryieh (Philosophy of Light),”  the pre-Islamic Iranian idea of noor (light) as being the single and basic “element (moddeh)” in the universe {Ta: 322}. Sohravardi considers everything to be the result of the close or distant “emanation” of God whom he calls “Noor al- anvar (Supreme Light) {Ta: 324]. It is that source of light which the Masnavi calls “Noor Sareh (Pure Light).” When it falls on a wall with a serrated- top (kongereh), that single-source of light appears as several in the shadow of the wall {mI: 687; F1: 283-284}.  This takes the Masnavi to a discussion of its own meaning of the Islamic towhid.

Rumi goes to the very source of the doctrine of towhid, the word “sibghatullah (colors of Allah)” in Qur`an’s verse 138. The Masnavi interprets that word to mean that God’s color is singular:  “on rang (that color) {mI: 766; F1:307};” and it is that of “colorlessness (beeranagi).” White and black colors appear so only because of their environment {mI: 2894 ff; F1:  308}.  Rumi emphasizes the “vahdat (oneness)” of the prophets and saints with God. He says there is no difference between the Prophet and the “Perfect (Kamel) Man” in this respect {F1: 154, 159}. The Masnavi says, further, the source of belief (eeman) and disbelief (kofr) is the same although outwardly the two differ. The seeker must avoid duality in appearance and focus on the single “source (asl)” {mI: 298; F1: 137-138}.

Opposites. Unity of Being does not preclude the creation of opposites. The Masnavi espouses the position of the theologians that God’s work is not restricted; He does what He wants. Especially, His power for constructing zeddain (contradictory opposites) is awesome: “Sometimes He constructs this and sometime zeddain/ religion cannot do but be amazed {F1: 142-43; mI: 311, 312}.” We are created with attributes that bring us into conflict and opposition. “Once colorlessness fell into color’s grasp/A Moses came in conflict with a Moses {Mi: 2467-8; Le: 415}.”

The Masnavi has numerous examples of such conflict (tazaad). Its world is the stage for wars of opposites which interact and transform into each other but ultimately reach harmonious co-existence (hamahangi), the outcome reflecting Rumi’s `Erfani belief {Ta: 411-412}. The Masnavi posits that things can be known only through their opposites. God reveals Himself in paradoxical twofolds, wrathful and merciful, majestic (jalal) and beautiful (jamal), full of anger (qahr) and grace (lotf). He raises and lowers man {Sc: 251-253}. Without these two contradictory measures nothing can come into existence. Behind everything visible is another invisible reality. Every nothingness conceals the possibility of existence {Sc: 231}.

Some of these dialectical principles in the Masnavi resemble those of the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, Heraclitus of Ephesus (535 – 475 BC) who believed in the ever-present change in the universe and the unity of opposites {Ta: 415-416}.  Rumi’s knowledge of Heraclitus’s ideas could have come from the 3rd Century Diogenes who is our main source about Heraclitus. On the other hand, Rumi’s ideas could have had roots in the Persian Mazdean philosophy which maintained that all objects come into existence from the union of unlike substances. At the heart of the Mazdean ontology is the belief that being is a synthesis of antithetic elements. This sets up the next principle: the mutual interaction of all opposites is the motive force of existence. Once set in motion, the process would not need a transcendental mover. The theological conclusion is that the world is so disposed as to move toward eternal bliss driven by its own natural impulsion {EIrS}.


In the Vahdat Vojood  (Unity of Being) of Persian `Erfan,  the ontological story of existence (hasti) is a  similar narrative of the movement of the single element (maddeh),  sometimes downward -which produces the nasooti (temporal) world and sometimes upward -which results in the evolution and rise of human and his joining the lahooti (the pre-eternal Divine) source {Ta: 443}. Belief in Unity of Being compels that the internal bonds of all its different manifestations be proved. This requirement became the inevitable principle of the Erfani dialectic: the evolving of the single element toward an ever more complete form. On this movement toward the complete (takaamol), the Masnavi has much to say.

The Masnavi says that God created the world by the continuous movement of his grace (fiyazan) {Ta: 414}.  The Masnavi portrays the world of existence in an evolving movement from inorganic to plants to animals to humans and further {Fih: 311}. Sana’i and `Attar had spoken of the slow upward development of the world, but Rumi embellishes their spiritual concept far more with his philosophical verses, especially in Masnavi’s Books III and IV {Sc: 321, 326-328}.  The lines in the Story of the Chickpeas are particularly notable: “I died a mineral and became a plant/I died as plant and rose to animal/ I died as animal and I was Man/Yet once more I shall die as Man, to soar/With angels blessed; but even from angelhood/I must pass on: all except God does perish…. {Miii: 3901.” The Masnavi follows this in some passages later: “At first you were dust/ you were inanimate and were brought into the world of plant life/ whence you traveled into the world of animality/, and thence into the world of humanity/. These are miracles… / Likewise you will be transported to a hundred various other worlds {Mv: 2734, Sc: 328}.

This movement is spiral, not circular. Nothing can return to its previous state {Sc: 324-325}.  In each stage the past stage is forgotten {Ta: 410; Sc: 289}.  Moving from one stage to the next is the negation of the previous one. Hence, negation and death are not absolute ends but are bridges for moving to a higher level. Death has a creative role {Ta: 410}. The Masnavi proclaims that death is not a severing from living but is itself a step in the evolution of life to a more complete form {F1:295}.

The notion of an evolutionary development in these verses of the Masnavi evokes comparison with Darwin’s theory of evolution which was articulated several centuries later. The spiritual Rumi, however, is not a naturalist; he is not concerned with the matter of the Darwinist.  Nor do they agree on the motive forces of their evolution.  Unlike Darwin’s doctrine of the struggle for survival, chance diversity and natural selection, in the Masnavi development is caused by the need for evolving into a higher organism and evolution has a Divinely ordered direction with God as its final destination. In the Masnavi’s `Erfani outlook, the grace of God creates love, the attraction which produces that upward movement {Sc: 330-332;   Le: 416-41}.  The Masnavi’s articulation of the movement of things to a higher level by way of negation was a dialectic idea which also recalls Hegel’s thinking. Like Rumi, furthermore, Hegel proposed the notion of the absolute as a moving force which in different phases reveals its content in ever more complete form. The Masnavi is not quite a work of Hegelian dialectic, nor a scientific study of evolution like Darwin’s, but it anticipated important parts of both.


Rumi’s religious and philosophical musing is scattered primarily in his six books of the Masnavi, comprising some 25,577 poems. Rumi divided the Masnavi into about 400 sections, the title of each designating a principle story. Rumi’s views must be culled from the maze of stories within those stories, in the form of morals he draws from them. The stories originated in a staggering number of sources in the rich Persian Islamic culture which Rumi perused. His creative genius left its mark in his retelling them.

Rumi does not create a philosophical or a theological system.  His thoughts are not neatly packaged.  He frequently returns to a topic and modifies or amplifies what he has already said:  hamjensi (cogeneity or affinity) receives 42 such treatments in the Masnavi, and jabr o ekhtiyar (free will and pre-destination) is visited even more, 65 times.

The pleasure of reading Rumi, especially his magnificent Masnavi, is in bearing witness to his transcending interpretation of conventional religion, in which he was rooted, on a triumphal journey to reach the God of his imagination. Rumi comes through not as a mystic but as a Gnostic (‘aref). He does not deny mystery, but he wants to know it and reveal it. Rumi faults the method of discussion and observation in the epistemology of the science of his time (philosophy) and also finds the dominant approach in the speculative theological quest for truth, which was rationalism, inadequate. With Rumi, truth is ultimately reached only by the grace of God, who is indeed called the Truth (Haqq). Rumi humbles himself to apprehend the true nature of things. At the end, as Rumi says, truth is not learned but experienced.


  1. Those were the odes which have been collected in Rumi’s Divan.
  2. These have been colleted in Majales Saba (Seven Sermons).
  3. “Mystical union” is the expression some scholars suggest as best to describe the nature of this relationship, adding that this was exactly that which existed at an earlier date between Rumi and Shams. Just as Rumi entitles his collection of odes Divan Shams Tabrizi, so he calls his great didactic poemHosamnameh (the Book of Hosam) {Nic6:2}. Both Shams and Hosam are “Perfect Men,” in whom Rumi sees the Divine manifest, so that, by losing himself in them, he realizes his essential unity with God {Nic7:5}.
  4. Tazkarat al-Olyia (Biographies of the Saints) and Hadiqat al-Haqiqah (The Walled Garden of Truth)
  5. Mosibatnameh and Mantaq al-teyr (Conference of Birds)
  6. Nothing is in Rumi’s own hand-writing has surfaced, despite claims to the contrary {Le: 298}.
  7. To be all of that, Hosam had to be more than Shams who was impatient, and Salah al-Din who lacked Hosam’s learning. Taking over the teaching position vacated by Rumi, Hosam would also become Rumi’s successor as the leader of his group of disciples, the first head of the nascent Mevlevi Order.
  8. The original manuscript of Rumi’s Masnavi has not been discovered. In the pre-print culture of his time, manuscripts were copied by hands. Scribal and editorial mistakes in these copies were not uncommon, caused by misreading of words, and interpolations due to misattribution or sometimes intentional “improvements.” The Konya (Historical/Archeological) Museum Manuscript, dated 677 H (Islamic year/1278)) is considered to be  “the most ancient and authentic copy of the Masnavi  in existence {Nic3: X}.”  It is traced to the original text read in the presence of Rumi {FI: Nine}. It is copied form a manuscript written probably three years after Rumi’s death which manuscript, not yet found, was itself probably a revised critical edition based on more than one volume {Nic3:XIX}.
  9. The Masnavi’s humors passages are usually about people Rumi dislikes: the market-inspector {Sc: 57, n 153, 157}; those behaving stupidly { Miv: 2222; Sc: 57, n 157}.
  10. A few passages are so crude that the Cambridge University Professor who has given us the best English translation of it in the more prudish 1920s chose Latin for those unseemly parts  {Mv: 3943, 3862} which he called “too outspoken for our taste  {Nic 2: xvii}”
  11.  Also Alf Laylah, and books which have been written on the style of Kalileh va Damneh, like Sendbadnameh, and Marzbannameh.

12   To be sure, in the First Story of the Masnavi, Rumi complains about the separation from Shams {F1: 43}. The word sun (aftab) which is shams (an Arabic loan word in Persian) recalls to Rumi his beloved, but Rumi could not talk more about him so burdened is he with resulting drunkenness and anxiety. Thus he leaves it to some other times -which in the Masnavi come only on a few more occasions- to complain, just briefly, about separation from Shams. Rumi is constrained because consideration of his love for Hosam does not let him go to his first beloved, Shams {F1: 46-47}.  In another poem Rumi declines to praise Shams because he is overcome by the sensation of drowning and thus losing the ability to speak {F1: 93; mI: 128}. Furthermore, as he says, Shams is the lover like no one else while meaning can be communicated only by comparison {F1: 93-94; mI: 130}.

13.. Goethe dismissed Rumi’s poetry as being “turned too much to strange and abstruse theories as a consequence of the confused situation in” politics, upon reviewing a specimen of their first translation into a European language by the Austrian diplomat Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall (1774-1856) {Sc: 388-89}. The political situation in Anatolia indeed seemed to grow worse every year in Rumi’s time. The ruling family of Saljuqs, who had lost their independence, becoming a tributary to the Mongols, continued to experience internal political feuds {Sc: 35}.

  1. Rumi specifically names a district in Tabriz {Mvi: 3113} and another district, Sar pol, which at the time was the best in Samarkand {mI: 170; F1: 103}. His references to some other cities are also related to contemporary times: Bukhara {Mvi: 3800}, Kashan {Mvi: 3220}, Sabzawar, Balkh and Aleppo. As he explicitly says in the Discourses, early in life Rumi lived in Samarkand for a while {Fih: 173, 333}.
  2. It should not be taken literally as describing Rumi’s own visit {q.v. Le: 112-114}.
  3. In the story entitled “No shop will sell you bread in Kashi (Kashan) if your name is `Omar (the second “Sunni” Caliph) {Mvi: 3233, 3220}.”
  4. In the Masnavi that story of a man lonely and lost as an Abu Bakr in Sabzawar  which the Masnavi  depicts as a model  of a Shiite environment where it is  impossible to  find  a man named  Abu Bakr (the first “Sunni” Caliph).
  5. Because the Sultan tells the Rafezi (Shiites) inhabitants who begged him to spare their lives that “I will grant (you) security as soon as you produce from this city a man named Abu Bakr and present him to me.
  6. Because of the bitter experience of his open love to Shams, in order to avoid further provoking the animosity the narrow minded religious clerics and Sufis who were many in Konya in those times, Rumi in the beginning of the Masnavi declares that he would conceal the secrets of his friend as it would be better to reveal them in the tales of others. “It’s better that the Friend remain in veils/Come, listen to the content of the tales! /It’s better that his mysteries be told/In other people’s stories, tales of old” {mI: 135, 136; F1: 97-98; Sc: xvii},”
  7. Even today it is the agenda of a pastime of many educated Iranians,  called Masnavi khoni (group reading and explanation of the Masnavi’s poems).
  8. Forty seven years after Rumi’s death, an author named Ahmad Rumi wrote a longer commentary of the Masnavi consisting of 80 chapters {F1: tenth}.
  9. By the 10th Century an elaborate system of theology had been created in Islam, and by the 12th Century Persian had increasingly become a rival to Arabic as medium of theological discussion. Ghazali Tusi (Abu Hamed Mohammad al-Ghazzali, 1058-1111) wrote what was considered the best in systemic theology, Ehya ‘olum al-din (The Vivification of the Religious Sciences) {Le: 395} which he later summarized in a shorter Persian language version as Kimiyay Sa’adat (The Alchemy of Happiness) {Le: 79}.
  10. For that one has to go to Avicenna (Abu `Ali Ibn Sina, 980-1037) who, two generations before Ghazali had created a thoroughly rationalistic, self-consistent and unified philosophical system for the Persian-speaking world. Avicenna’s writings, rooted in the philosophic tradition established by his teacher Abu Nasr Farabi (870-950) have been until today the basis of philosophical education in the Islamic world {EIrS}.
  11. Three of these are in Persian (to Books II, V, and VI) and three in Arabic (to Books I, III, and IV).
  12. Indeed, S.H Nasr describes an unpublished study by Hadi Ha’eri which argues that almost 6,000 lines, or about one-fourth of the Masnavi, consists of direct translation or paraphrases of the Qur`an{Le: 396}. An 1894 commentary by the (Subcontinent) Indian author Wali Muhammad quoted the 15th Century Persian poet Jami as calling Rumi’s Masnavi  “the Qur’an in Persian (hast Qur’an dar zaban-i Pahlavi),” {Nic 7: XI, n 2}. Even allowing for poetic license – the pre-Arab invasion language Pahlavi is not Persian (or Parsi, as Rumi would say {mI: 887; F1:333) -a statement with those exact words does not seem to exist in Jami’s works {Le: 467}. On the other hand, Sana’i did call his own Hadiqah “The Persian Qur`an (Qur’an-i Parsi)” {Nic7: XI, n 1}.
  13. He meant the poem version of it by Qane`i Tusi {F1:125}.
  14. Rumi puts the blame on the leaders of religions and the powerful; he holds the common people innocent {F1:218-219}. They just follow what has become customary to them {mI: 888; F1:333-334; }.
  15. On the other hand, the Masnavi is far superior in tolerance of other religions it advocates than its closest contemporary Christian epic poem, Dante Alighieri s Divine Comedy, produced some forty years later {Le: 394-419}.
  16. Parts of more than 400 Qur’anic verses are quoted in the Masnavi, often several in one long poem {Nic5: Index}. In many passages Rumi indicates his belief that the Masnavi is an inspired exposition of the esoteric content of the Qur’an {Nic7:1-2}.
  17. The Masnavi sometimes uses jon (soul) in place of ruh, interchangeably, but the Discourses differentiates the two: “In sleep the soul (jon) fares abroad… wanders and is transformed …but the spirit (ruh) remains in the body {Sc: 277; Fih: 68}.”
  18. This is Rumi’s interpretation of verse 65 of the Qur`an {F1:315}.
  19. This was Avicenna’s only treatise on philosophy in Persian. His other extant book in Persian was  Andar danesh rag (On the Science of the Pulse, also known as Resaleh Nabz).
  20. This heritage of Avicenna, as Abu Hamed Ghazali (1058-1111) soon proved, no serious Muslim thinker could ignore {EIrM}.
  21. Perhaps through the influence of the quasi-pantheistic doctrines of the Arabic thinker Ibn Arabi (1165-1240) {Le: 26}.
  22. The conquest of Lydia and Ionia and other regions of Asia Minor by the Achaemenian King Cyrus (558-529 B.C) brought the Persians into close contact with the Hellenes. Eventually, reportedly, more than one three hundred Greeks were attached to the Persian Achaemenid court. The Hyalinization of Persia which followed the conquest of Persia by the Macedonian King Alexander in 330 B.C. was deep. The influence of Greek science and culture reached its height when the Sassanid King Khosrow I Anooshiravan (531-65) opened a school of philosophy in his capital Ctesiphon. This was to replace the Academy of Athens, which Roman Emperor Justinian (527-65) had closed in 529, causing Diogenes and several other Greek philosophers to take refuge in Persia {EIrS2}.
  23. Predominantly Peripatetic and Neo-Platonic.
  24. The same man regarding whom, elsewhere Rumi says: “Hark, whatever the Plato of the age bid you do, give up thy self-will and act in accordance with that (counsel){Mvi: 144}.”
  25. From the 8th to the 12th Centuries `Erfan grew, but then declined and became a mostly conventional and establishment movement. At this point the rebellious elements separated themselves from the mainstream under the names of darvish, rend, qalandar, and khrabatgary. During the next major Iranian Gnostic poet, Hafiz, in the 14th Century there were several such popular dervish groups in various parts of Iran. Then they all disappeared, joining the mainstream or going underground, becoming secret associations {Ta: 408}.
  26. The Theo-monist form of Islamic mysticism reveals the nature of the so called coincidenta oppoisitorum (coincidence of opposites). Other scholars have highlighted the dualist mysticism in Islam in the medieval period.
  27. The Mu`tazilites, who were the dominant Islamic theologians in the 8th to 10th Centuries had been virtually banned by now the current orthodox schools {Sc: 4}, mostly because the Mu`tazilites had denied the status of the Qur’an as “uncreated”, argued that the injunctions of God were accessible to rational inquiry and that, instead of Tradition one should rely on reason.
  28. In the Masnavi, Satan (Iblis) is the very manifestation of pride. He refused to prostrate himself before Adam, the original man. The Masnavi says Iblis remained subject to God’s wrath while man is the ‘treasurer’ of God’s mercy. “(Cunning) intelligence (zerangi) is from Iblis, love from Adam.”{Sc: 254-55}.
  29. Rumi knew about Ibn Arabi whose stepson, Sadr al-Din al-Qunavi, Shaykh al-Islam of Konya (d. 1274) was a leading exponent of Ibn Arabi’s theosophical thoughts. Rumi, however, did not care for Ibn Arabiesque speculations, and in a story in his Discourses chose to commented negatively about  al-Qanavi’s companions {Fih:: 124, 314; Th: 256-257}. Remarkably, as in the Masnavi, Rumi does not even mention Ibn Arabi’s name in his Discourses.


Abbreviations for frequently cited sources

Ak                   Anna Akasoy, “Shiism and Sects,” Pathos, available at <; (accessed on 18 April 2015).

Ar                    A. J. Arberry,  Discourses of Rumi   (London, 1961).

Ch                   William C. Chattick,   Me and Rumi: The Autobiography of Shams-i Tabrizi, Translated (Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 2004).

D                     Divan Shams Tabrizi, ed.  Badi` al-Zaman Foruzanfar, Kolliat Shams ya Dian Kabir, 9 vols. (Tehran: Amir Kabir, 1997).  D followed by Rumi or T and then a number indicates the number of the roba`i or tarji`band. (Le; Sc uses the same source but the system for the numbers is not clear)

EBA                Oskar Anweiler, “Academy of Gondēshāpūr, Encyclopædia Britannica, online edition, available at < (accessed on 18 April 2015).

EBB                John Andrew Boyle, “Ferdowsi, Persian Poet,” Encyclopædia Britannica, online edition, available at < > (accessed on 18 April 2015).

EBE                The Editors, “Rudaki, Persian Poet,” Encyclopædia Britannica, online edition, available at < > (accessed on 18 April 2015).

EBE2              The Editors, Nasir al-Din Tusi, Persian Scholar,” Encyclopædia Britannica, online edition, available at < > (accessed on 18 April 2015).

EBI                 The Editors, “Iqta,” Encyclopædia Britannica, online edition, available at  <; (accessed on 18 April 2015).

EBM               The Editors, “Mazdakism,” Encyclopædia Britannica, online edition, available at <; (accessed on 18 April 2015).

EIrA                M. Achena, “AVICENNA xi. Persian Works,” Encyclopedia Iranica, online edition, 2011, available at <; (accessed on 18 April 2015).

EIrB                J.T.P. de Bruin, “SANĀ’I,” Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 2012, available at <; (accessed on 18 April 2015).

EIrD                Farhad Daftary, “Carmatians,” Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 1990, available at <; (accessed on 18 April 2015).

EIrF                 Charles-Henri de Fouchecour, “IRAN: Classical Persian Literature,” Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 2012, available at  < > (accessed on 18 April 2015).

EIrG                Dimitri Gutas, “FĀRĀBĪ i. Biography,” Encyclopedia Iranica, online edition, 2012, available at <; (accessed on 18 April 2015).

EIrM               M. Mahdi, “AVICENNA, i. Introductory Note,” Encyclopedia Iranica, online edition, 2011, available at <; (accessed on 18 April 2015).

EIrO                Mahmoud Omidsalar, “KALILA WA DEMNA, ii. The translation by Abul-Ma’ali Nasr-Allah Monši,” Encyclopedia Iranica, online edition, 2011, available at <; (accessed on 18 April 2015).

EIrP                 Andrew Peacock, “Saljuqs of Rum,” Encyclopedia Iranica, online edition, 2010,   available at <; (accessed on 18 April 2015).

EIrR                B. Reinert, “Attar, Shaikh Farid-al-Din.” Encyclopedia Iranica, online edition, 2011, available at <“; (accessed on 18 April 2015).

EIrRi               Dagmar Riedel, “KALILA WA DEMNA, i. Redactions and circulation,” Encyclopedia Iranica, online edition, 2010, available at < > (accessed on 18 April 2015).

EIrS                 Mansour Shaki, “Falsafa,” Encyclopedia Iranica, online edition, 2012, available at <; (accessed on 18 April 2015).

EIrS2               Mansour Shaki, “Greek Influence on Persian Thought,” Encyclopedia Iranica, online edition, 2012, available at <; (accessed on 18 April 2015).

F                      Badi` al-Zaman Foruzanfar, Sharh Masnavi Sharif, 3 vols.  9th printing (Tehran: Zavvar, 2000). Reference to the book’s Masnavi poems in Persian are signified by m.  [mI is book I]

Fih                   Rumi, Ketab Fih ma fih; az Goftar Mowlana Jalal al-Din Mohammad mashhur be Mowlavi, ed. Badi` al-Zaman Foruzanfar, 9th printing (Tehran: Amir Kabir, 2002)

GbF                 “Ferdowsi,” Books google, available at <; (accessed on 18 April 2015).

Ge                   Jerome Gellman, “Mysticism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,” online edition, 2014 available at < > accessed on 18 April 2015).

Ha                   Gh. A. Hadad Adel, “THE LITERARY VALUE OF RUMI’S LETTERS.” Scientific Information Database of Iran (May 2002) available at <; (accessed on 18 April 2015).

Ho                   Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (Cambridge: Harvard University Press: 1991).

Le                    Franklin D. Lewis, Rumi: Past, Present, East and West (Oneworld, Oxford Publications, 2008).

Le2                  Franklin Lewis, The Icon and the Man: in quest of Historical Rumi (Lecture: 2007) available at < >   (accessed on 18 April 2015).

M                     Rumi, Masnavi-ye ma`navi, ed. R.A. Nicholson as Mathnawi of Jalalu’ddin Rumi,  E.J.W. Gibb Memorial, new series, 8 vols. ( London:Luzac & Co., 1925, 1929, 1993)  [Mi is Masnavi book I, etc.]

Mak                 Rumi, Maktubat Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi, ed. Towfiq Sobhani (Tehran: Markaz Nashr Daneshgahi, 1992). References here are to pages used and so cited in Franklin D. Lewis, Rumi: Past, Present, East and West (Oneworld, Oxford Publications, 2008).

Mo                   Mohammad ‘Ali Movahhed, Maqalat Shams Tabrizi (Writings of Shams Tabrizi) (Tehran: Tarh Now, 1996).

Ni                    Reynolds Alleyne Nicholson, Selected Poems form the Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi (Bethesda, Md: Ibex, 2001.

Nic                  Reynolds Alleyne Nicholson,  Masnawi of Jalalu’ddin Rum,  E.J.W. Gibb Memorial, new series, 8 vols. (London:Luzac & Co., 1925, 1929, 1993)

Om                  Mahmoud Omidsalar, Iran‘s Epic and America’s Empire (Santa Monica: Afshar Publishing, 2010)

Pk                    Johannes Preiser-Kapeller, Liquid Frontiers (Draft 2013) available at <; (accessed on 18 April 2015).

Ra                    Fariborz Rahnamoon, “Zarvan, The Creator of God” Iran Zamin, 13, available at <; (accessed on 18 April 2015).

Sc                    Annemarie Schimmel, The Triumphal Sun: A Study of the Works of Jalaloddin Rumi, Bibliotheca Persica, Persian Studies Series (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1993).

Sm                   Margaret Smith, Al-Ghazali: The Mystic (London 1944).

St                     “Al-Ghazali,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, available at <; (accessed on 18 April 2015).

Sta                   S. Fredrick Starr, Lost Enlightenment, Central Asia’s Golden Age (Princeton University Press, 2013)

Ta                    Ehsan Tabari, Barkhi barresiha dar bareh jahanbiniha v jonbeshhay ejtema`i dar Iran (Some Reviews of the Worldviews and Social Movements in Iran) (Tehran: Alfa Publication, 1358/1979).

Th                    W.M. Thackston, Jr. Signs of the Unseen: The Discourses of Jalaluddin Rumi (1999)

Wa                   Warwick, “The Impact of the Middle East on the European Renaissance,” available at < > (accessed on 18 April 2015).



Keyvan Tabari


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2015. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


Table of Contents


Persian Civilization

            Preserving the Old

            New Persian



            Indians and Turks





           Love Stories





            National Epic

            Iran and Islamdom








          Soveriegn Lord






This is one of the chapters in a project on Rumi, the Islamic Gnostic Persian poet who was named Jalal al-Din (1207-1273). Four other chapters would accompany this. They cover the following subjects: Rumi in today’s world, Rumi’s biography, Rumi in ecstasy and Rumi’s imagination. The present chapter is about Rumi’s world, the natural or material world in which he lived. There are, inevitably, some overlaps among these five chapters despite the individual subjects of their focus.

In this chapter the world which shaped Rumi is the focus. It is viewed primarily as he depicted it in his writings of the mid-13th century. Rumi wrote in Persian, with occasional passages in Arabic. The audience which he aimed at was Persian-speaking. The world which he depicts is that of the Persian civilization at the height of its renaissance from the Arab conquest in the early 7th century. This was a multi-ethnic Muslim community. Its culture of the pre-Islamic times, already combining Persian, Indian and Greek thoughts, had evolved with philosophical and theological contributions of Islamic thinkers.

Rumi’s writing, while not a chronicle of his time, reflects his perception of his world.  Capturing that perception in a coherent form is the goal of this chapter as it is a key to understanding Rumi. That goal provides a distinct approach for this work which, otherwise, is based on the valuable studies others have already done on Rumi as well as on his world.

There is no dearth of speculative writings on Rumi. They have produced certain conclusions that might make him accessible to readers with basic common knowledge. He is projected variously, or together, as a Sufi, Muslim mystic, Turkish poet, oracle of love and prophet of ecumenism, to give a few examples. Often, these ascriptions are based on works of deductive reasoning in which the author starts with notions about Rumi also familiar to his reader, as they are formed by their shared cultural orientation. The potential problem with such works is, therefore, twofold: only such evidence is likely to be selected that would support pre-suppositions which are, themselves, affected by orientational preferences.

The ideal alternative would be inductive reasoning combined with mindful avoidance of restrictive orientations. That is, of course, easier aspired to than done. Furthermore, as this study’s own deficiencies show, the risk in refraining from unsubstantiated speculation is erring on the side of too descriptive an analysis. The reader may then be forced to draw his own conclusions, requiring more attention and effort from him than normal.  With that warning in place, attempting the said alternative is worthwhile. At the very least, essential issues will be exposed and fruitful fields of inquiry will be identified. Rumi was the product of an environment which we can glimpse through his writings and magnify by the use of relevant other sources. That task requires drawing a sufficiently informative picture of the complex conditions and events which influenced Rumi’s life and work. His responses are not always possible to specify; they are then outlined in his general reaction and conducts. In the process, Rumi emerges as sharing much with his notable contemporaries, but also differing in significant ways from them.

This review begins with sketching the cultural environment in which Rumi lived, pointing out  that Persian language was fundamental in bringing together many ethnic groups in a civilization that spanned from the Chinese Turkistan to the Byzantine borders.  Rumi spoke in Persian, as the next section stresses, although his work also demonstrates the strong influence of Arabic, the language of Islam which was the dominant religion of the area. Turkish as a language was insignificant, on the other hand, while Turkish rulers were, in fact, dominant. The Greeks who left a mark Rumi’s thinking were the ancient; he hardly had any contact with his Greek neighbors who lived in Anatolia’s countryside.  His contacts with the Europeans were indirect, except for a fresh memory of the Crusades.

The third section of this chapter shows how much Rumi was connected to his predecessors in Persian literature on subjects as varied as love, aesthetics, ethics and introspection. The following section, conversely, points out that religion divided Rumi from his compatriots. His Islam was different not only from the religions of the Zoroastrians and Buddhists but even from the bigger groups of Shiite Muslims. His allegiance to the community of Islamdom superseded his ties to Iran. But he shared as the common enemy the Mongol invaders. In the following section we note that, furthermore, Rumi also similarly faced political turmoil, nearly endemic in the whole region, sought favors with the powerful and in this he had to contend with rivals. The second group of Mongol rulers, the Ilkhanids, indeed, must have looked threatening to Rumi while appreciative of others, including the Shiites.

Rumi’s disciples, however, would eventually save his legacy in the Sufi Order which they established after his death. Their origin as a group is the subject for the discussion in the last section of this survey. Rumi’s writings depict them as primarily the extension of the group which migrated with his father from Central Asia. To that party were added new friends mostly from among traders and merchants, town folks below the landowners in status.  They looked to Rumi as their lord, more than simply their spiritual master. Accordingly, they demanded favor and assistance from him, even entertainment as Rumi says. Indeed, it is what Rumi says, that is what we will try to find out throughout this chapter.

Persian Civilization

Preserving the Old

In the West, when the contribution of the Moslem world to the European Renaissance is acknowledged it is usually attributed to scholars who saved the literature of the ancient world (especially in science and philosophy) by translating it from Greek into Arabic {Ho}. Missing in this facile summary are the facts that those scholars were overwhelmingly Persian and, secondly, in many case, they went far beyond mere translation of others’ works by adding transformative original ideas of their own. Both of these are fundamental in understanding the civilization, the cultural milieu, in which Rumi lived, which was transmitted to Europe from places such as Antalya.

Arabic, of course, was the Moslem world’s language of scholarly expression for much of this time. Its grip on the Persian-speaking people was established after the Arab conquest of the 7th century which resulted in making them abandon not only their Zoroastrian religion but also their Pahlavi language and script.  Additionally, largely lost was the translation of the works of the Greek philosophers, especially Aristotle, into Middle Persian and Syriac (Suryani) languages in the 6th century. This translation had been done mostly as the result of the return of the Persian Nestorian philosophers upon the closing of the School of Edessa in 489 by the Byzantine Emperor Zeno [1]. A few years later, when the Byzantine Emperor Justinian closed the Academy of Athens in 529 (for being a center of pagan and perverse learning),  seven notable Greek philosophers –namely, Diogenes, Simplicius, Damascius, Eulamius, Priscianus, Hermias and Isidorus- also took refuge in Ctesiphon, the capital of the Sassanid King Khosrow I Anooshiravan (531-579). The King welcomed them as he was himself a great admirer of the works of Plato and Aristotle {EIrS2}  and had established his own Academy of Gondeshapur (near Dezful in the present-day province of Khuzestan, southwest of Iran) {EBA}.  The Greek knowledge of Sassanid scholars is reflected in the Middle Persian books, especially in the encyclopedic Denkard (Acts of Religion), a 10th century collection of the Mazdaen Zoroastrian beliefs and customs. The philosophical terminologies of Denkard are largely Aristotelian {EIrS2}.

The Academy of Gondeshapur was the model for Bayt al-Hikma (the House of Wisdom) founded in 832 by the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma’mun in Baghdad, staffed with the graduates of Gondeshapur and emulating its learning method . After the Abbasids established their rule and shifted the capital of Islam from Damascus to Baghdad, Persian influences upon Islamic culture became palpable in all spheres of life {Sc: 3-4}.  The Abbasid period is considered to be the heyday of Islamic civilization; Baghdad attracted Persian scholars like Ghazali and Abu Nasr Muhammad Farabi (872- 950) who was from Central Asian area of Greater Khorasan (which extended beyond present-day Iran’s province of Khorasan) and is generally credited with having established the Islamic philosophic tradition {EIrM}.

The translation movement undertaken by the Abbasids through substantial contributions from a host of Persian scholars {EIrS2} soon created the Arabic version of the majority of Greek philosophical and scientific works. With Arabic being the language of scientific and scholarly works in the entire Muslim world, not only Ghazali and Farabi, but also their fellow Persian Avicenna (Abu `Ali Ibn Sina, 980-1037) wrote their major manuscripts in Arabic. The latter who considered himself a student of Farabi, is generally credited with charting the Islamic philosophical directions in the future investigation of both theoretical and practical sciences {EIrM}.

New Persian

New Persian was the first language in Muslim civilization to break through the Arabic’s monopoly on writing.  It was primarily a continuation of Middle Persian, the language of the Sassanid Persian Empire (224–654), itself a continuation of Old Persian, the language of the Achaemenid Persian Empire (550-330 BC).  However, it had borrowed and integrated much in vocabulary and grammar from Arabic. Indeed, that was also true about many of the other aspects of the new Persian culture. The Arabs brought Islam and joined the Persians with many other nations in a vast network of evolving international civilization in an unprecedented way. Trade relations became extensive and many big cities with numerous bazaars, mosques, schools and caravanserais were established.

In the common culture that emerged, with many ethnic groups, in the vast area from the borders with Byzantine east to the Chinese Turkistan, the lion’s share of contributions came from a historically rare collection of the Persian-speaking philosophers and scientists, polymaths, writers and poets [2]. Most were from Persian families of the region that is today’s Iran and the eastern part of Greater Khorasan which extended into today’s Central Asia. The Persians from the latter area are sometimes called Persionate, to distinguish them from the inhabitants of Iran. The linguistic stock of this whole area was Iranian; it consisted of the ancient Sogdian, Khwarazmian and Bactrian, as well as the language of the Zoroastrian holy books. Dari and Tajik also belong to the Iranian language group. People who communicated in these languages were Persian-speakers {Sta: 7, 17-18, 69}.”

Even those who might have had their own, separate, languages chose Persian as the dominant common language. The Turkic inhabitants of this land, in particular, who were mostly nomadic, did not develop any influential written work in Turkic until Nizam al-Din Alisher Harawi, known as Nava’i (1441-1501), long after Rumi. The 11th century works in Turkic, Wisdom of Royal Glory, by Yusuf Balasaguni from present-day Kyrgyzstan  and Compendium of the Turkic Dialects by Mahmud Kashgari from present-day Xinjiang,  China, were written in areas far to the east and had no discernible impact in the Persian-speaking world {Sta: xxi, xxv}

Rumi’s works were the products of that Persian civilization. The similarity between many of the terms used by Rumi and those in Denkard is a reflection of a renaissance of a Persian culture which had roots; this was not merely an isolated “golden age”.  A few samples of those terms should suffice here: soul (ruwan), wisdom (xrad zoor), movement (jumbishn), water (ab), unity of the universe (yak kardagihi gahan), radical dualism of being (do-buni Dtagîh), philosophers (fîlasofa) {EIrS}.  Just as in the European Renaissance, in many ways the new Persian civilization was a revival of an old one {Ni: xxvii-xxviii; Ta: 356}. It is noteworthy that Rumi lived at a crucial time when the Persian renaissance had reached a zenith from which it would not develop much further due to events taking place at Rumi’s time, principally the destructions wrought by the Mongols.



While this background is necessary for understanding Rumi, his own works are the best source for how he saw his world. He was not a chronicler, but his Masnavi’s over 25,500 poems, together with his Discourses (Fih ma fih, the collection of talks to his disciples) [3] and his Letters (Maktubat) [4] covered a wide range of revealing facets of society. Through them we learn about the people and cultural trends that influenced Rumi.

Although the Masnavi is in Persian, it also includes verses of Arabic. In one instance, after three verses in Arabic, Rumi says: “Speak Persian (Parsi goo) {Miii: 3843}!”  He repeats that directive elsewhere in the Masnavi: “Let’s say it in Persian (Parsi gooiim) {F1:333; mI: 887}.” Rumi’s usage of Arabic reflects the shifting style of Persian writers of his time. It appears akin to the artistic or ornate (fanni or masnu’) style, first introduced by Abul-Ma’ali Nasr-Allah Monsi in his 1145 Persian translation from Arabic of the originally Indian animal fable book Kalileh va Damneh (Arabic: Kalila wa Demna).  Monsi thus changed the style current from the beginning of the (new) Persian literature to the middle of the 12th  century, which was a straightforward manner of expression that avoided loan words except for those of a technical nature as well as insertion of Arabic Qur`anic verses and prophetic sayings and dicta [5].

But the impact of Monsi’s book on the Masnavi went far beyond this.  Like his (Persian) Kalileh va Damneh, Rumi’s Masnavi is based on using stories as a form of analogy (gheyas) – long employed in Persian literature as a method of proof {Ta:386-87}. Furthermore, Rumi’s bringing in secondary (far’i) stories into the principal story was a method used in Kalileh va Damneh. Although that method was then followed in other books [6], Kalileh va Damneh remained the best example and is believed to be the one Rumi considered the most {F1:43}. Of all the works in Persian and Arabic literatures that Rumi is assumed to have read, the traces of Kalileh va Damneh are most apparent in the Masnavi {Sc: 40-41}.

Kalileh va Damneh  which was first translated into Arabic in the late 8th  century, soon became an important source of inspiration for Muslim scholars, poets and mystics who used its collection of fables of animal behavior to illustrate their arguments {Sc:40-41}. The Masnavi’s employment of animal-imagery is remarkable: no fewer than 31 animals make appearances, some several times, just in the titles of its stories {Nic6: Index}. Many of these stories are taken from Kalileh va Damneh {Sc: 40-41}.  In several passages, the Masnavi specifically refers to the book as the source of the story it is re-telling {Mi: 899, ii: 3617, 3621, iii: 2738, iv: 2203, 3463}.   It assumes, as it says, that its audience “will have read” [7] the stories in Kalileh va Damneh {Miv: 2203}.  The Masnavi characterizes Kalileh va Damneh as “entirely fiction {Mii: 3621}.”  At best, the Masnavi says, it tells only “the husk of the story;” while the Masnavi claims to be “spiritual kernel (maghz) {Miv: 2203}.”  The Masnavi admonishes those to whom, Kalileh va Damneh “seems just like the Qur’an {Miv: 3463}.”

Indians and Turks

Kalileh va Damneh originated in India between 500 and 100 B.C., with two jackals, Kalileh and Damneh, as the main characters in the stories. The Sanskrit original known as the Pancatantra has not survived. The oldest extant versions of its story cycle [8], are translations of a lost Middle Persian version {EIrRi} based on a copy brought from India at the time of the Sassanid King Khosrow I. While Kalileh va Damneh may be the only concrete “written” evidence of the influence of India on the Persian civilization that nurtured Rumi, there is no doubt about extensive relations between India and the Persian world not only during the Sassanid rule but also in the periods before, going back to the Achaemenids [9].  Indian thoughts, including those from the Upanishad views about the union of the created and creator, and reaching salvation through asceticism (riyazat), influenced Iranian world-view.  The notion of reaching the truth directly by shohood (signs/evidence) in the Masnavi has a counterpart in the concept of darsana (Sanskrit: auspicious sight) which existed in the earlier Indian philosophical systems {Ta: 323}.

From the unorthodox trends in Indian thoughts which modified the Vedic principles, especially Buddhism, there were influences in the three later Persian philosophical systems of Zarvanism (Zarvangari) -built on the notion of “Zarvan Akarneh (The Eternal Time)” existing before God-, the dualistic Manichaeism (Manigari) {Ra} and Mazdakism, which sought an optimistic interpretation of the Manichaean dualism, and survived Zoroastrian pressures into the Islamic times of the 8th century {EBM}. The Mazdaens in their Denkard paid homage to the “Indian sages (danag i hindog)’’.

Hindu. The Masnavi distinguishes Sindh (Sind), populated by Sindian, west of the Indus (Sind) River, which is now a part of Pakistan, from the rest of India to its east which the Masnavi calls “Hindustan” or “Hind” (populated by “Hindu”) {Mii: 1757}. Nearly all of the references in the Masnavi to India are to Hindustan and Hindu.  Western India had been converted to Islam. In fact, by Rumi’s time many of the inhabitants had been won over by the wandering Sufis whose simple basic teaching of Islam and their mystical, warm and loving, practices appealed to those who would not be attracted by the official legalistic forms of that religion {Sc:7}.

In the Masnavi Hindustan is depicted as a faraway place {Mi: 960-68, iv: 2374; Fih: 95}.  It is the exotic land of elephants {Mii: 22233, iii: 69, 4199, iv: 1892, 3068, 3080, vi: 3561}, parrots {Mii: 154} and unique trees {Mii: 3645}. The Masnavi borrows the originally Indian story of   “The Blind and the Elephant,” which is in the Buddhist scripture, from the poet Sana’i (Abulmajd Majdud, 1080-1131) {Sc: 39}.   The Masnavi also adopts from the poet `Attar (Farid al-Din ‘Attar Nishapuri, 1110-1220) {Mvi: 1382} and Sana’i {Sc: 40; Le: 188} the story of “Mahmud and the Hindu boy (servant) {Mvi: 1383}.”

In the Masnavi’s version of that story, Mahmud becomes the model of the lover, infatuated with his slave, Ayaz {Le: 188}. Ayaz becomes the symbol of the loving soul who, by surrendering completely to his master, wins his love {Sc: 188}.   “Hark, O fellow-servant, go and, like the Hindu boy, be not afraid of the Mahmud of non-existence {Mvi: 1446}.”  The Masnavi is complementary toward Mahmud in another story, entitled: “Story of the night-thieves with whom Sultan Mahmud fell in during the night (and joined them) saying, ‘I am one of you’; and how he became acquainted with their affairs {Mi: 2816}.”   The Turkish Sultan Mahmud Ghaznavi was the stern warrior who invaded and plundered parts of Hindustan, east of the Indus River 17 times. The Masnavi mentions these exploits by Mahmud {Mii: 1384}, and says that Mahmud had gained quite a reputation: “What a hellish person Mahmud must be, since he has become proverbial for woe and anguish {Mvi: 1397}.”  Indeed, until today, Indians still see Mahmud in that description. In contrast, the Masnavi calls Mahmud by his honorific title of Ghazi (religious warrior), as a champion of Islam against the infidels {Mvi: 1383}.

Rumi’s references to those infidel Indians (Hindu) are correspondingly highly prejudicial {Sc: 194-96}.  This is evident mostly in his Divan (the collection of Rumi’s odes) where the Hindu is regarded as ugly, black, of evil omen and the personification of the nafs (the base soul) which Rumi depicts as the undesirable world compared to the desirable “inner meaning” of things. Rumi contrasts the Hindu, as the dark world of the body and matter, with the Turk as the representative of the world of spirit and love. In this comparison Rumi was following the pattern found in the earlier days of Persian poetry from the times of the Ghaznavid Empire (977–1186). Turk has been used in the Masnavi as equivalent with the beloved, manifesting strength {Mv: 3778} and victory, although sometimes also cruelty.

Turk. Rumi considers himself a Turk “insofar as he belongs to the world of spirit, beyond the world of Hindu-like dark matter; but on the outward plan he knows not what he is {Sc:196}.”  As he says in the Masnavi, love destroys the border of separation between Hindu and Turk {Mi: 1205-7, quoted in Le2}. It is important to recall Rumi’s differentiation between (old) India’s Hindu and the Sind; it is among the latter that Rumi has enjoyed great love and admiration {Sc: XVIII, 375, 379}.  Rumi’s negative views about the Hindu were not based on the color of their skin.  To him, the Zangi (Negro), black-faced like the Hindu, is a model of spiritual happiness: he is smiling and seems happy {Mv: 417, vi: 1047, Sc: 197 n.13}.

Masnavi mentions the Turks as a group (Turkan) admiringly because fighting is their business, not that of the faint-hearted {Mv: 3778-9}.  It refers to lands occupied by those fighting Turks, as far away as Turkistan {Mvi: 2375} and the Turfan capital of the Uighur Turks {Miii: 1414}.  After the Persian Samanid state was overthrown by the Turkish Qarakhanids who entered Bukhara in 999, various Turkish tribes came to rule the Samanid’s land as well as the neighboring countries where Rumi was born. After the Byzantine Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes (r. 1068-71) was defeated by Alp Arslan Saljuq, Turks also ranged over eastern Anatolia where Rumi was to live most of his life. The founder of the Saljuqs Sultanate of Rum, Solayman, came at the call of another Turkish tribe, the Turkmen of Syria, in 1074, to lead them.  The Turkmen themselves would eventually be pushed to the peripheries of Anatolia in the late 13th century.  Masnavi mentions the Turkmen {Mii: 1}. Rumi’s Divan also has images from the daily life of the Turkmen he saw around Konya, such as the ragman who walked around the town, shouting in Turkish eski babuj kimde war?  (Who has old shoes?) {D: 1125/11876 cited in Sc: 54}.Rumi even composed a few more verses with such lines in Turkish {Le2}.  Beyond these negligible utterances there is no evidence that Rumi knew Turkish or was influenced by Turkish culture or literature.


Similarly, Rumi occasionally brought a few words of current vernacular Byzantine Greek into his poetry {Le2}: in one poem he employs the word agapos (beloved) as a rhyme word {Sc: 345}. In Rumi’s time the populace in Anatolia’s countryside was primarily Armenian and Greek by ethnicity, while the town and cities consisted of Turkish tribesmen, urbanized Turks and Persians  {Le:398; Si:31-32}.  As with Turkish, Rumi’s knowledge of Greek language was limited {Sc: 193}.  In his Discourses, he is explicit: the Greek-speaking Rumis (Rumian) “would not understand our language {Fih: 97}.”  The impact of Greek literature on Rumi’s writings was thus hardly due to his contact with contemporary learned Greeks or to his reading Greek texts; it  was through perusing Persian, or possibly Arabic, translation and the general (ancient) Greek influence in the Persian culture.


Nor is there any evidence of Rumi’s extensive intercourse with the learned Arabs of his time. Despite some claims that Rumi spent years studying in two Arab-speaking centers of learning, Damascus and Aleppo {Le: 109-114}, there is no mention of such activity in Rumi’s writings. Neither the Masnavi nor the Discourses refers to his alleged teacher in Aleppo, Kamal al-Din ibn al-‘Adim {Le: 109} or to Ibn ‘Arabi who was at the time the most prominent Sufi in Damascus. Indeed, Rumi scarcely mentions either Damascus or Aleppo of his times. Rumi mentions Damascus as a part of a proverb {Nic8:95}: “The beauties of Damascus are not fully revealed … unless the view (from)… the mountain overlooking it {Miii: 3753}.”  He also mentions Damascus along with Samarqand as “sweet” {Miv: 1889}, perhaps symbolically in remembrance of his beloved friend Shams (Shams al-Din Tabrizi) {Sc: 191}.

The Masnavi mentions Aleppo as the place where “a poet” observes the Shiite mourning of the centuries-old tragedy of ‘Ashura {Mvi: 777}; in the Divan Rumi describes Aleppo as destroyed, like the heart of a person who is deserted by his friend {Sc: 191}. The contemporary destruction of the city by the Mongol Ilkhanid Hulagu took place in 1256, making it highly unlikely that Rumi himself saw it.  Once again, Rumi is engaged in symbolism; in the same vein that he associates Syria (Shom) with “unbelief and hypocrisy {Miv: 2373}.” There is no indication in Rumi’s writings that he visited the other two major centers of learning in the Arab world, Baghdad and Cairo.

There is, of course, much Arabic in Rumi’s writings in the nature of “loan” words, imported into Persian and adapted for the Persian-speaking world.  Passages from Arabic sources in Rumi’s works were to be expected. Arabic was the language of  the religious scriptures referenced by the clerics like him, Arabs had ruled his homeland for centuries (directly or through Turkish proxies) and, finally, using Arabic was a part of the dominant style of Persian literature at his time as mentioned before.  Along with several hundred verses (surah) of the Qur’an, the Masnavi quotes many Hadith which were sayings established as a part of the Islamic Tradition [10]. There was also another category with considerable importance for Rumi and his time: the sayings of eminent Muslims {Fih: Index}.  The Masnavi uses personalities in Arab history mentioned in the Qur’an and the Tradition as symbols, made into almost mythological beings -counterparts to the heroes of Greece and Rome in the future Western literature- whose tales are told in many guises. This treatment reflects Rumi’s world as it also appears in the poems of other contemporary Persian poets {Sc: 175}.

The Masnavi contains many proverbs and popular expressions, thus telling us much about the folklore of Rumi’s world {Sc: 57}.  Not a few of these, especially if parts of the Tradition, originated in Arabic [11]: “A bowl full of poison {Mv: 4238}.” The world subsists on a phantom {Mi: 170}.”  “The believer sees with the light of God {Mi: 1331}.”  “My companions are as stars {Mi: 2925}. “The unbeliever eats in seven stomachs {Mv: 64ff}.”  “Do you not know {Miii: 1490}.” “A king read a letter {Miii: 1490ff}.”  “A man said, ‘Why {Mii:  776}?’” “This is like the story {Mv: 3077ff}.” “A friend of Joseph {Mi: 3158ff}.” “You are that very thought {Mii: 277}.” “Pharaoh’s magicians {Miii: 1721}.”

Well-known stories from Arabic literature are the sources of some of Rumi’s major ideas {Sc: 160}.  The language of the Masnavi is too allusive to measure the exact depth of Rumi’s knowledge of Arabic literature and philosophy {Ni: xxxi, n. 1}. There are enough traces of Rumi’s readings of Arabic works in the Masnavi to assume that he studied the bulk of Arabic literature, theology, and mysticism {Sc:40, 42}.  Among his sources for the Hadith which Rumi discloses in his Discourses are the following: Mohammad Ghazali’s Basit (a book of jurisprudence ) as well as his Ehya ‘olum al-din, Abdolrahman Siooti’s Jam’  Saghir, ‘Abdolro`ouf’s  Masnavi’s  Konooz al-Haqayeq, and Abu Ishaq Ibrahim ibn ‘Ali Shirazi’s Tanbih {Fih:309, 377, 379}.  The authors of many of these sources in Arabic were Persian.  Rumi’s references to these sources indicate that they were well-known to the audience of the Discourses, and thus among the widely-read in Rumi’s world.

The Masnavi sometimes quotes the Kitab al-aghani, the Arabic collection of poetry and literary history written in the 10th century {Sc: 41}. It makes allusions to the famous Arabic poet of the ‘Abbasid Caliphs, Abu Nuwas (d.965). Far more, the Masnavi shows fondness for the poet al-Motanabbi (Mutanabbi) (d.965) whose panegyrics reached the height of Arabic poetry {Sc: 42; Ar: 247}. Rumi quotes seven of his poems in the Discourses, as well as nine more from other Arab poets {Fih: 352-353}.

Rumi chooses Arabic to talk about subjects which he might have considered sensitive. Thus in the Masnavi it is in Arabic that he declines to praise and worship Shams –which was motivated by his concern that Hosam al-Din (who after Shams disappeared in 1248 was Rumi’s focus of affection) might feel slighted by too much attention to Shams  {F1:93, mI:128}.  Similarly, in the Discourses Rumi uses Arabic to tell a story in which he implicitly calls the companions of the important cleric in Konya,  Shaykh  Sadr al-Din,  “the enemy of God,”  liars and intoxicated  {Fih:124}.

The far greater number of poems in Persian than Arabic used in the Discourses {Fih: Index} is indicative of how much more comfortable Rumi’s audiences were with Persian. Rumi’s contemporary, the vizier Fakhr al-Din ‘Ali’s introduction of Persian in the place of Arabic as the language of administrative records in the Rum Saljuqs’ court signaled the culmination of the Anatolia elites’ adoption of Persian language and culture {EIrP}.  The vast numbers of the illiterates were even more ignorant of Arabic {Le: 405}.

Occasionally, Rumi sounds nostalgic for Arabic: “Speak Persian though Arabic is sweeter {Miii: 3843},” but he rationalizes the change by recalling his ultimate goal: “Love indeed has a hundred other tongues {Miii: 3843; Sc: 49 n. 95}.”   To illustrate this point, the Masnavi tells the story of “How four persons quarreled about grapes….  {Mii: 413}.” This is about four fellows – an Arab, a Persian, a Turk and a Rumi- who find a coin and argue about how to spend it. Everyone wants grapes but says the name of the fruit in his own language: ‘inab, angur, uzum, estafil. A learned man comes along and solves the problem by telling them that they all want the same thing {Mii: 3681 ff, Sc: 49, n. 96; Ta: 390}.

The story, coincidentally, shows a glimpse of the polyglot nature of the population in which Rumi lived. He applies its lesson to other languages: “Often Turk and Hindu can communicate /whereas two Turks may meet and feel estranged /…/Better a common heart than common tongue! {Le2}.” Indeed, the Masnavi extends his dicta to the multiple diverse religions of Rumi’s world which, following the folklore of the time, it estimates to be seventy two. The religion of love knows no difference between the 72 sects {Miii: 4719ff, cited in Sc: 336, n. 22}. It is different from all other religions {Mii: 1770 ff, cited in Sc: 336, n. 23}.”


In his works, Rumi refers to Europeans of his time only in the context of the Crusades. Called the Farangi  (the Franks), they are remembered as the Christian crusaders who came to take the Holy Land in a war that began in 1095 and lasted until 1291. In the process, the Farangi invaded many cities, including Konya, notably, in 1190.  In four poems in the, Rumi recalls the Farangi’s defiling Jerusalem by bringing pigs to that city which the Muslims call al-Quds (The Holy) {D: 361/3882 & 694/7227; 1211/12885; 2517/26632, cited in Sc: 197, notes 117, 119}. Rumi’s comment about the Farangi in his Discourses {Fih: 85}, makes it clear that he does not mean the European Jews but the Christian ones.

The paucity of Rumi’s references to Europeans and Europe was not unique; Persian poets of his time rarely mentioned them {Sc: 197}. Furthermore, outside of the Persian-speaking world, Rumi makes references just to a few Muslim cities in the neighboring Arab lands to the east. Besides those, he refers only to China {Miv: 2375} a few times and once to Bulghar, a town on the Volga river {Miii: 1414}, merely to use them as examples of distant and different places. Nonetheless, Rumi was connected to the world beyond his Persian-speaking land, especially Europe, albeit indirectly.

St. Thomas Aquinas, the Roman Catholic theologian and philosopher (1225-1274), was Rumi’s contemporary. He was one of the many Christian writers of the time who were influenced by Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali (1058-1111).  A Muslim theologian, jurist, philosopher, and mystic who wrote more than 70 books, al-Ghazali was from Tabaran, a town in the district of Tus (in today’s Iran).  The works of Ghazali Tusi, as he is called in his native tongue Persian, more than any other author were the focus of Rumi’s attention. The style and manner of discussion, thoughts and knowledge of Ghazali in his major philosophical book, Ehya ‘olum al-din (The Vivification of Religious Sciences), greatly influenced Rumi {F1: five; Fih: 337}.  The Masnavi paraphrases many of passages from that work which had been written in 1106 {Le: 23}.  St. Thomas Aquinas studied Ghazali’s works at the University of Naples where the influence of Islamic literature and culture was predominant at the time {Sm: 220 ff}. St. Thomas was both a student and a professor at that university. Ghazali is credited with successfully introducing Aristotelianism, or rather Avicennism {St}, its interpretation by Avicenna into Muslim theology in an effort to resolve the apparent contradictions between reason and revelation, and for bringing orthodox Sunni theology and Sufi mysticism together. The Catholic Church, similarly, values St. Thomas for the highest expression of both speculative theology and natural reason .

The work of another Italian contemporary of Rumi also invites comparison with the Masnavi. Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) wrote his Divina Commedia only a few years after Rumi finished the Masnavi.  He chose the vernacular Italian over Latin which was the conventional language, just as Rumi had opted for Persian over Arabic. The Divine Comedy has been called the greatest mystical poem of the West, in comparison with the Masnavi which is considered the best poetic expression of the Persian Gnostic Islamic tradition. Like Rumi (who  often mentioned his birth province of Greater Khorasan) , Dante who also ever longed for his hometown (Florence), was on a spiritual journey as well, singing of Beatrice, Latin for the blessed one, as Rumi had done for Shams.  The similarities between these two poets end when they reach their spiritual destination. Dante’s Heaven –in a logically organized cosmic topography of inferno, purgatorio and paradise- was for his fellow Christians alone. Others were barred. For Rumi, the vision and the message of the Divine – discursive and digressive in his the Masnavi– was for all alike {Le: 2}.

Trade. No evidence has been revealed on Rumi’s direct impact on Dante, who came after him. On the other hand, there is ample evidence of profound interactions between the contemporaneous worlds of Rumi and Dante. Coastal zones were the most important places for facilitating the mutual influences of Anatolia and Europe on each other in that period of the medieval age. With the coming of the Rum Saljuq kings and the increasing presence of Italian merchants, maritime Anatolia became a zone of intensive contacts of Persians and Arabs with Franks and Latins, thus also between Christian churches and Islam. The Venetians and Genoese integrated many of those hubs of contacts into their commercial networks. Of all Anatolia’s ports for trade with the West, none was more important than Antalya.  It had become a veritable center of international trade by the end of the 11th century, attracting Byzantine, Muslim, Genoese and Venetians merchants.  After the collapse of the Byzantine Empire in 1204, the Italians took over control of Antalya.  Two years later, however, the Rum Saljuq Sultan Kay Khosrow I (1205-1211) conquered the city. The Venetians negotiated with him for a treaty that secured their trade privileges; they did the same in 1220 with the Saljuq Sultan ‘Ezz al-din Kay Kavous I (1211-1220) who had to re-conquer the city due a rebellion of the Christian population.

Antalya remained under the Saljuq rule until the 14th century and all along was a most important node in the network of international trade.  Still a third treaty between Venice and the Saljuq Sultan ‘Ala`-al-Din Kay Qobad I  (1220-1237) enumerates some of the goods exported from Anatolia:  corn, pearls, precious stones, gold, and silver {EIrP}. In return, the Venetians and other merchants from Genoa, Pisa, Florence and Southern France brought to Anatolia, among other goods, textiles from Northern France.  The use of western-style textiles in the Islamic world and of eastern-style textiles in Europe, a “cultural cross-dressing,” was just one example of the exchange of numerous artifacts which produced “networks of affinity not bounded by religious, ethnic, or linguistic identity but by possession, consumption and display {Pk}.”  Commercial interests found a meeting ground beyond ethnic or religious antagonisms; money rather than religious scruples dictated relations at this geographic and ideological edge of the spheres of Islam and Christendom. The increase in the number of contact points for commercial border-crossing encouraged contacts among even the non-commercial members of society. In cities such as Antalya, as Ibn Battuta reported, Christian merchants lived in their own quarters but interacted with various other communities of the population. The European guild-type associations of traders found a counterpart in the grouping of the Muslim merchants called futtuwa. There were also shipboard societies, consisting of individuals of different religious and ethnic backgrounds interacting as they sailed on merchant ships {Pk}.

Rumi mentions Antalya (Antaliyeh) in no fewer than three of his 71 short Discourses.  One of these clearly indicates that Antalya, some 190 miles southwest of Konya, was a destination familiar to his audience {Fih: 115}.  In another Discourse, Rumi notes Antalya’s fame as a port on par with Alexandria, Egypt {Fih: 48}. Finally, in his longest comment, Rumi points out favorably that Antalya was a place of “warm climate,” which made it especially desirable compared to the harsh winters of Konya {Fih:97).  Indeed, perhaps for that reason Antalya was a secondary residence of the Saljuq Sultans {Pk}. Rumi further notes that the inhabitants of Antalya are mostly Rumian (Greek-speaking Rumis) and “would not understand our language, though there are some even among the Rumian who understand us {Fih: 97}!”  Not only Persian-speaking people were not numerous in Antalya but they were also hard to find on the ships that called on that port. The Moslem traders were mostly from Arabic-speaking Egypt and, occasionally, Syria {Pk}.


Love Stories

Rumi’s work shows ample evidence of the impact of his peers in Persian literature. He is fully aware that “A language shared brings kinship and a bond {Le2, citing Mi: 1205-7}.” The Masnavi covers many popular love stories of the Persian literature {Sc: 41}.  From them, Rumi draws up the views of the people of his time on love.  The story of Layli o Majnun (Layla and Majnun) appears in at least ten places in the Masnavi. This was a work by the poet Nezami Ganjavi (1141-1209) who brought a colloquial style to the Persian romantic epics. Nezami based it on the popular Arab legend of two ill-starred lovers: the poet Qays falls in love with his cousin Layla, but is prevented from marrying her. He becomes obsessed so much that he sees everything in terms of Layla, hence his sobriquet majnun (The Possessed). In the Masnavi, Majnun is depicted as the symbol of the Persian culture’s idea of “grief for a long separation from the beloved {Mv: 1999},” with his “desire being that of speeding to Layli’s presence {Miv: 1534}.”  “In the eyes of lover of Layli the kingdom of the world was (worthless as) a vegetable {Mv: 2719}.”  Rumi presents himself as Majnun in the Masnavi {Mii: 1381; Nic8:145}.  “Like Majnun, I smell the soil and detect the soil (abode) of Layli without mistake {Mvi: 2829}.”

Another love story by Nezami which is also given considerable attention by the Masnavi is Khosrow o Shirin (Khosrow and Shirin). It was based on a true story of the pre-Islamic Persian King Khosrow’s courtship of Princess Shirin. He endured long journeys and killed his rival Farhad out of jealousy. “The Khosrow (King) (who is the lover) of the spiritual Shirin has beaten the drum of sovereignty {Mv: 2525}.”   Khosrow o Shirin was influenced by yet another, earlier, Persian love story mentioned in the Masnavi {Mvi: 3952}: Fakhr ad-Din Gorgani’s Vis o Ramin (Wis and Ramin). “Read Vis and Ramin and Khosrow and Shirin {Mv: 1204}.”  Ramin was in love with Vis, the wife of King Mubad of Merv. “If you are Ramin, seek none but your Vis {Miii: 228}.”   The heroes of both of these tales by Nezami, Khosrow o Shirin and  Layli o Majnun, became standard types of lovers in Rumi’s poetry, and also for other popular 13th century Persian poets {Sc:41}.

The Masnavi also quotes other Persian poets on love. The work of another Nezami, poet and writer Nezami ‘Aroozi Ganjavi Samarqandi, called Chahar Maqaleh (Four Discourses),  written around 1156, is the source of the very first story in the  Masnavi  which is about how to deal with the symptoms of  the “disease” of love. Rumi’s prescription is similar to the treatment that Avicenna used {F1:42}. In Rumi’s time, physicians considered love to be a mental disease, similar to hallucination (malikholiya).  The Masnavi, however, calls love the measure of health of mind which enables the spirit (ruh) find gnosis (kashf marefat), a guide (ostorlab) to secrets of God: “’eshq ostorlab-e asrar-e khodast {F1:84-85, mI: 110}.”

The love in all of these stories is that between men and women. The Masnavi takes note of the practice of pederasty by some Sufis, especially the Holmanians, whose leading thinker in Rumi’s time was Ahmad Ghazali (1061–1123). They considered pretty faces (shahed) of boys to be the evidence and proof (gavah) of the beauty of God. Rumi rejected that position and in many verses of the Masnavi insists that, instead, loving mard kamel (the complete man) was loving God {Mii: 700 ff; Mv: 363, cited in F1:30-31; Sc: 299, n. 88}. The Masnavi treats the “effeminate man” as a woman {Mii: 1, v: 1}.


The women mentioned in the Masnavi are types well-known in its time: “the hag who wanted a husband {Mvi: 1}” and “the jealous wife {Mv: 1}.”   The Prophet Mohammad’s wife, ‘Aisha, was special as the Masnavi stresses her value to the Prophet as a soothing, conversationalist companion. Seeking comfort, the Prophet says to her: “Speak to me (kalimni), O Humayra {Mv: 2428}.”  The name by which Mohammad called her, Humayra (the fair one), showed the Prophet’s appreciation of women’s physical beauty. The Prophet Mohammad’s sexual appetite was evident in the many wives he kept.  The Masnavi, on the other hand, avoids both sex and physical beauty when talking about its favorite women lovers. Unlike Mohammad, Rumi was monogamous and conventional. He conveniently married the woman who as a child, like Rumi, came among the small circle of friends with his father from Samarqand. After she died, Rumi married a widow from Konya. In view of his disciples, Rumi was devoted to his wives. In approval of her second wife, they would remember her “loveliness… perfection… virtue and purity {Sc: 2, n. 87}.”  These qualities might not have been all that people in Rumi’s time sought in their wives.  Yet, in Khosrow o Shirin, Farhad is presented precisely as embodying the idea of pure and selfless love {EIrF}, and in Layli o Majnun, when the two finally arrange a secret meeting, they have no physical contact; rather, they recite poetry to each other. On the  other hand, when Rumi talks about women in general, not as the beloved, he sees them as the object of man’s lust (shahvat) and his need for procreation {Fih: 85}. In the Masnavi Rumi decries lust: “The lovers of filthy dolls (lo’batan) have sought each other’s blood and life {Mv: 1203}.” The Masnavi is emphatic: “Loving pretty face and colors is not love and ends in infamy (nangi) {F1:109, mI: 205}.”  Rumi is not shy to use direct language for sexual intercourse: “When pretty prostitute (hoor) comes to the devil’s dream; from lust she and the devil discharge sexual water {F1:417, mI: 191}.”    Indeed, the Masnavi can make some readers of our times blush [12]: there are poems about women who see the fornication by asses and say that in comparison “our husbands defecate on our vagina {Mv: 3390}.”


In addition to love, Persian poets of Rumi’s time dealt with other weighty issues, reflecting other aspects of the focus of the contemporary culture. Rumi knew about them as the Masnavi has references to those poets. Two poems in Masnavi are imitations {Sc: 160} from the well-known poems of Abu Abdollah Rudaki (858-940}, who is widely regarded as the father of the New Persian literature. As in Rudaki’s poetry which was the model of a refined and delicate taste, these Masnavi poems manifest the aesthetics of the Persian culture of the time with their emphasis on the beauty of nature: “The sands of Amun (Seyhoon River) seemed to him like silk, the River Amou (Oxus or Jayhoon) seemed to him like a pond. To him that wilderness was like a rose-garden {Miii: 3860}.”  In the second  poem imitating Rudaki, the Masnavi describes the light of the sun which bestows golden dresses upon the naked as able to  transform everything;  “rocks and thorns become, thanks to  its power, soft like parniyan (shot silk) {Miii:1267 }.”


In his Divan, Rumi establishes his linkage with Rudaki through Sana’i, by imitating both of them with an elegiac couplet, lyrical and elegant in simplicity: “Someone said khwajeh (Master) Sana`i has died. The death of such a man is not a small matter {D: 1007/10634 42, cited in Sc: 38, n. 6}.”  Sana’i had composed the same elegiac couplet about himself, imitating Rudaki’s poem about another person, Abulhassan Moradi. The second line in the poem of all three poets is exactly the same.  These poems reflected the significance attached to mournful elegy for admired men in the Persian culture of Rumi’s time. That culture was also self-critical. The insightful diagnosis of its faults by still another great Persian poet, Nasir Khosrow Qubadiyani (1004-1088) gained acceptance to the level of proverbs by Rumi’s time. The Masnavi {Mvi: 604} recalls the famous poem by Nasir Khosrow “az maast keh barmaast (What hits us comes from ourselves) {Nic 8:21}.”


Allusions to the poet Ferdowsi and his Shahnameh (Book of Kings) are mixed in Rumi’s poetry {Sc: 41}.  When the Masnavi refers specifically to the Shahnameh, it is in derogatory terms. The Masnavi does not say which of many works by that name, the Shahnameh, it means – even Rumi’s contemporary, Qane`i Tusi, had composed an epic on the Rum Saljuq dynasty called the Shahnameh, modeled on Ferdowsi’s work. It is clear, however, that the Masnavi’s target was Abu al-Qasim Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, composed from 997 to 1010.  Qane`i Tusi’s work has been lost {EIrP}. Ferdowsi’s massive Shahnameh – at nearly 50,000 lines, the world’s longest epic poetry created by a poet- has continued to be popular as the national epic of Iran and the Persian- peaking world.

National Epic

The Masnavi indirectly acknowledges the Shahnameh’s huge popularity when it tells its Persian readers that: “By reason of contumacy, the Shahnameh,” like Kalileh, seems to you just like the Qur’an {Mvi: 3463}.”  The Masnavi admonishes such a reader whose aim in reading those books is “to divest himself from ennui, and neglect the Word of the Almighty {Mvi: 3463}.”  It expresses regret: “That by means of that (entertaining) discourse he may quench the fire of distress and anxiety and provide a cure (for his malady) {Mvi: 3468}.”   Finally, the Masnavi attaches a derogatory label to the Shahnameh: “For the purpose of quenching this amount of fire, pure water and urine are alike in skill (are equally serviceable) {Mvi: 3469}.”   Then, the Masnavi compares itself with the Shahnameh: “But if you become (really) acquainted with this pure water (Masnavi) which is the Word of God and spiritual, all distress will vanish from the soul, and the heart will find its way to the Rose-garden {Mvi:3470}.”

Nonetheless, the Masnavi cannot escape the popularity of the Shahnameh: it mentions many of the heroes of Ferdowsi’s epic work. The most prominent is the central figure, Rostam, who rescues people from div (the hermaphrodite).  Rumi depicts Rostam in his Divan as symbol of the “true man” {D: 895/9369; 1747/18320, cited in Sc: 41}. The Masnavi makes references to Rostam in numerous places {Nic5: Index}.   Rostam is treated as the symbol of the greatest in valor, surpassing even the Islamic icon Hamza: “Though he (the husband) be Rostam son of Zal and greater than Hamza (in valor), as regards authority he is his old woman’s (wife’s) captive {Mi: 2427}.”  Rostam is also the symbol of strength: “His weakness is like the weakness of the intoxicated, for in his weakness he is the envy of a Rostam {Mv: 975}.”  Furthermore, Rostam is the symbol of manliness: “Manliness of that Rostam who was the son of one-hundred Zals (meaning that he is the son of one-hundred heroes) {Mv: 3965}.”  Rostam is credited with having earned his worth {Mii: 372}.

Rostam’s immense popularity is noted in the Masnavi which refers to the paintings of Rostam in public bathhouses {Mv: 398, cited in Sc: 133, n. 19}. These defied all Islamic religious prohibitions against the depiction of human faces. Their endurable favor with the public was manifest when images of Rostam and other heroes of the Shahnameh came to dominate even the walls of royal palaces when Timur’s successor Sultan Shahrukh (1405-1447) launched the efforts which established the contemporary art of Persian painting {Sta: 485, 490}. In calling Zal, Rostam’s father, a hero, the Masnavi recognizes the status given to him in the Shahnameh.  The Masnavi also acknowledges the legendary speed of Rostam’s horse, Rakhsh, made famous by the Shahnameh: “Do not steal your heart away from the spirit-bestowing heart-ravisher, for he will mount you on the back of Rakhsh {Mv: 1160}.”

Iran and Islamdom

The Masnavi mentions two kings of the pre-historic Persian Kayani dynasty as though they resided in the skies, appropriate to their mythical images.  “When its self-consciousness is gone and its foot untied, the falcon flies towards Kay Qobad {Mv: 2281}.”  “For by traveling the moon becomes (splendid, like) Kay Khosrow {Miii: 534}.”   The pre-Islamic Sassanid Persian monarchs projected themselves as the heirs to the pre-Parthian Kayanid kings {EIrS2}. Ferdowsi belonged to the class of Dehqan, landowning Iranians who had flourished during the Sassanid dynasty and were intensely patriotic. Dehqan is sometimes used in the Shahnameh as a synonym for “Iranian”. The Dehqan considered it as their duty to preserve the cultural tradition of Iran and legendary tales about its kings.  The Saljuq rulers of Rum chose the heroic names of those Kayani kings mentioned in the Shahnameh, an indication of the growing importance of the Iranian tradition in the late 12th century. There were indeed several Saljuq kings, each named Kay Khosrow, Kay Qobad and Kay Kavous {EIrP}.

The other Saljuq Dynasty that governed the area west of Rum, including Iran, was founded by Turkish men who spoke Persian only imperfectly and did not read it. However, by the reign of Sultan Sanjar (1097-1153) those Saljuq kings had become well-acquainted with the Persian literature.  Their court followed the Siyasatnameh (Book of Government), a treatise in Persian on the realities affecting government and how it should be run, prepared by Nezam al-Molk, the vizier of  Sanjar’s  predecessor, Malek Shah.  The Siyasatnameh frequently cites the example of the pre-Islamic Sassanid King Khosrow I.  Its author, like Ferdowsi being from a Dehqan family near Tus, the Siyasatnameh shows the attitude of the Persian elite of the time towards the past of their civilization. The Rum Saljuqs of Anatolia strove to replicate the Sanjar court’s adaptation to the Persian culture and statecraft {Le: 397-98} [13].

Rumi does not share Ferdowsi’s passion for Iran. Indeed, the word Iran, or other versions of it, such as Iranshahr, are missing in Rumi’s works. The closest word Rumi uses for Iran is ‘Ajam. That is the term which the Muslim Arabs used for the Iranians. Accordingly, Persian kingdom was Molk ‘Ajam.  Rumi in the Discourses refers to ‘Ajam, meaning a land of some of  the Muslims coming to the Muslim holy site of Ka’aba,  as distinct from other places from which other Muslim groups may come to the same destination, such as Anatolia, Syria, China, India and the Yemen {Fih:97}.

Masnavi’s allegiance, if any, is to Islamdom, the community (ommat) of Muslims {EIrM}. In the Discourses Rumi criticizes Vizier Parvaneh  (aka Parvana)  for siding with the invading Mongols (Moghol) against the Muslim Egyptians and Syrians, and demands that instead he should support the latter in defense of Islam {Fih:5}.   Parvaneh ( Mo’in al-Din Solayman), a Persian, was for 17 years (1259-1276) the de facto ruler of Konya , treating his Turkish Saljuq kings as puppets {Sc:27-8}.  Notably, when King Qelej Arslan IV protested against Parvaneh’s securing his position through redistributing Saljuq crown lands among his own followers, the King was murdered by Parvaneh and replaced by his underage son Ghias-al-Din Kay Khosrow III {EIrP}.  Parvaneh’s accommodationist policy toward the Mongol was a necessary part of the complex task of his dealing with the “Mongol affairs”. Rumi was satisfied with the ultimate result of Parvaneh’s efforts and, in another part of the Discourses, praised him for working to promote the interest of Islamdom:“These are also works of God inasmuch as they have to do with the safety and security of Islamdom {Fih:11}.”


The Mongols were the contemporary enemy that Rumi saw against his community of Muslims. “When the Mongols first came into this land, they were bare and naked;” their property was what had been “seized” from the Muslims and it was, therefore, now lawful for the Muslims to take it back: “The Mongols seize property, but sometimes they give us property, which is strange. ‘What is (your order) on that?’ someone asked. ‘Whatever the Mongols seize,’ said the Master, ‘is as though it has come from God’s hold and storehouse.’…             Therefore, our property is unlawful for the Mongols, but their property is lawful for us {Fih: 64-65}.”  Rumi chided those who had submitted to the enemy: “What do we mean by considering ourselves Muslims when we bow and scrape to the Mongols {Fih: 77}.”

The feeling against the invading Mongols as enemy was widespread in Rumi’s world. The Mongol hordes swept from the east to the west; leaving death and destruction everywhere they went {Sc: 8-9}.    Samarqand which was a major economic center was laid in ruins by the Mongols in 1219. In 1221, the Mongol Genghiz Khan destroyed Balkh, a flourishing center of Islamic learning from the 9th century {Sc: 14}.   Other major cities in the Persian-speaking world faced the same fate: Reyy in 1220 {Sc: 191) and Nishapur in 1221 {EIrR}. Massacre of the population of the conquered land was a common practice by the Mongol.  The poet ‘Attar met his death that way in Nishapur {EIrR}.  “General terror” was the Mongols’ principle method of governance {Ta: 75}.  Under them poverty reached a new height. Persian historians have summarized the Mongol invasion in this sentence: “They came, uprooted, burned, killed, took and left {Ta:75} .” They believe that was the singular event that put an end to the renaissance of the Persian-speaking world, a blow from which it has not yet recovered {Ta: 82}. Some historians suspect that the Baghdad Caliph Al-Nasir li-Din Allah (1158-1225) was an instigator in the Mongol invasion because he was dissatisfied with the Turkish rulers, considered Baghdad’s designated subordinates, who would be thus vanquished by the Mongol invaders {Ta:75}.    Soon, however, the Caliph was alarmed by the threat of the victorious Mongols. He tried to build an organization of Muslim princes in a call to reunite against the rising power of the Mongols {Sc: 8-9}.  The Caliph’s resistance proved futile. In 1258, Genghiz Khan’s grandson, Hulagu conquered Baghdad and the last Abbasid Caliph was killed {Sc: 8-9}.

Rumi’s earliest written pronouncements about the Mongols are in his Divan: “People flee from the Mongols/ We serve the Creator of the Mongols {D: 1764/1849, cited in {Sc: 17 n. 23}.”  In another poem, Rumi says that although “fire fell into the world, the smoke of the Tatar (Mongol) army,” he saw the eternal sun rising before him. The reference here is to Rumi’s meeting Shams Tabrizi in Konya in October 1244 {D:  2670/28317, cited in Sc: 18 n. 25}.  Finding a silver lining in such catastrophe was typical of R: he would habitually see the bright side {Ch: 193-94}.  On the other hand, there is no evidence that Rumi was directly affected by the physical damages of the Mongol invasion. The Anatolian cities the Mongols pillaged, such as Arzenjan {EIrP} and Kaiseri {Sc: 171}, did not include Konya. Rumi had left his home province, at the eastern end of the Persian-speaking world, in 1216, before there was even a serious threat of the Mongol invasion. His departure was three years before the Mongols’ attack on Samarqand and five years before their sacking of Balkh  {Le:49}. The dispute of that region’s ruling Khwarazmshah with the Mongols did not start until 1218 {Le: 62}. After leaving, Rumi never returned from Konya. Nor is there any indication that he was in Nishapur, Rayy, Baghdad or any other cities damaged by the Mongols during or even after their attack.

Rumi was, of course, familiar with the fatal plight of the ‘Attar in Nishapur, and heard reports of the destructions in areas further east from his father’s old disciple Borhan al-Din Mohaqqeq who arrived in Konya 1232.  Borhan had fled from his hometown of Tormod, the closest city to Rumi’s birth town of Vaksh, some 250 kilometers from Balkh. The influx of other refugees from the invasion of the Mongols into Anatolia {EIrP} provided Rumi with additional information. The Masnavi has a story titled “The Mongol and the Egyptians {M3:p. 50, cited in Nic2}.” It is in his Discourses, however, that Rumi is more explicit with his views about the Mongols. He gives this narrative of why the Mongol invasion took place:

“When Mogholan (the Mongols) first came into this velayat (country), they were bare and naked; they rode on cows, and their weapons were made of wood… At first they were in a wilderness, remote from people, miserable, wretched, naked, and needy. The few of them who used to come as traders into the realm of the Khwarazmshah would engage in some buying and selling and buy karbas (muslin) to clothe themselves. The Khwarazmshah banned their trade and ordered their traders killed. He also levied taxes on them and barred the merchants from his lands….The Tatar (the Mongols) went complaining to their own king and said ‘We have been destroyed.’ Their king …went into a deep cave, where he fasted … humbling and abasing himself… A cry came from God, saying, ‘I have heard your plea. Come forth and be victorious wherever you go.’ Thus it was that when they came out at God’s command they were victorious and conquered the world {Fih: 64-65}.”

Although the reference to the Khwarazmshah’s mistreatment of the Mongol visitors as the triggering cause of the Mongol invasion is familiar to informed readers, Rumi’s account is different in some details from what contemporary historians reported [14]. Nonetheless, Rumi’s views were influential as he was a leader forming others’ opinions in his world. These views included his diagnosis of the reason for the Mongols’ success, and his prognosis of their future: “When they were down trodden¸ feeble and powerless, God found their need acceptable … and (helped) them. Now they have grown so in stature and might, God will destroy them… in order that they may realize that it was by God’s favor and power that they conquered the world, not by their own force and strength {Fih:65}.”  Rumi’s attitude, “God would destroy” the Mongol, was ingrained in the Persian ethical and Sufi literature {Le: 283-4}. It became the justification for a prescription of wishful passivity toward the Mongols. The Mongol invaders stayed as rulers of the Persian- speaking world for another 290 years –counting Hulagu’s Ilkhanids and the related Timurids who followed.

Active resistance to the Mongol rule was rare. Ironically, a dervish (Sufi) group in Azerbaijan, the Horoofiyeh (aka Horrifies) was the prominent example of such active opposition {Ta: 451}. The Horoofiyeh were the followers of a Sufi, Fazlallah Astarabdi known as Naimi. Born in 1339, at age 18, he had an extraordinary religious experience when he heard a nomadic dervish recite a verse by Rumi.  As a result, Naimi determined to devote his life to such religious pursuits in which, like Rumi, one aimed at experiencing the meaning of things rather than coming to know them intellectually. Gathering followers, Naimi eventually moved to Tabriz where, failing to convert the ruler Tamerlane, he was executed in 1394 by Tamerlane’s son, Miran Shah. The Horoofiyeh’s uprising was crushed but their popular movement survived for at least another decade in different guises.


Aside from the Mongols, the dervishes’ uprisings in this period were sometimes in opposition to the big landowners, aristocrats and their hired religious clerics {Ta: 449}. Rumi’s course was different. In the Discourses, Rumi recalls his experience in Samarqand when ‘Ala` al-Din Mohammad Khwarazmshah (r. 1200- 1220) laid siege: “We were in Samarqand, and the Khwarazmshah, having laid siege in that city, was waging war with his army (lashkar keshideh). In our quarter there was an extremely beautiful lady, who had no equal in that town. I kept hearing her say: ‘O Lord, how could you let me fall into the hands of the tyrants {Fih: 173}.” Rumi refers to this Khwarazmshah in Masnavi as “very bloodthirsty, and that perverse (tyrant) had killed many kings in that region either by craft or violence {Mvi: 2537}.”   Yet, in another story the Masnavi portrays him as “the God Almighty who demands from this wicked folk the (pure) heart {Mi: 868}.”

That one is the story of the Khwarazmshah taking by force of war the city of Sabzawar, further west, where all the inhabitants were Rafizis – Shiites who rejected the Sunni Caliphs Abu Bakr, ‘Omar and ‘Uthman as usurpers. When the inhabitants  begged the bloodthirsty  Khwarazmshah to spare their lives, according to the  Masnavi,  he said, ‘I will grant (you) security as soon as you produce from this city a man named Abu Bakr and present him to me {Mv:845}.”    It is not surprising which side the Sunni Rumi takes: the Masnavi refers to these inhabitants of Sabzawar as infidels (Moghan, Persian for Magicians, used to refer to Zoroastrians) {Mi: 868}. The Masnavi shows a similar attitude toward Sultan Mahmud Ghaznavi (r. 1002 – 1030). It refers to his reputation for ruthlessness: “What a hellish person Mahmud must be, since he has become proverbial for woe and anguish {Mvi: 1397}.”  This is, however, in a story Rumi tells to correct that “misapprehension {Mvi: 1382}.”    There, in “The story of Mahmud and the Hindu boy {Mvi: 1383},” the Masnavi advises “like the Hindu boy, be not afraid of the Mahmud of non-existence {Mvi: 1446}. The Masnavi calls Mahmud by his title Ghazi (the champion of Islam against the infidels) {Mvi: 1383}.  Among Mahmud’s earliest campaigns was his invasion of Multan (in the today’s Punjab province of Pakistan) in 1005. This war against the Shiite Ismaili Fatimid Kingdom that had been established there ten years earlier, was a bid by Mahmud to curry favor with the Abbasid Caliphate.  Some Ismailis were massacred in the war and some later converted to Sunni Hanafi sect of Islam.

Ismailis. The Ismaili threat continued as did the Ghaznavids campaigns to suppress them. In 1032, Mahmud’s own vizier, Hasanak, was executed on suspicions of becoming an adherent of the Ismaili Islam.   The Ismailis also posed a serious threat to subsequent Turkish rulers of the land.  Nezam al-Molk was the powerful vizier who held near absolute power for 20 years under the Saljuqs -the dynasty that followed the Ghaznavids. In his highly influential Siyasatnameh, Nezam al-Molk wrote about the ominous danger from the ascendant threat of the Ismailis.  Shortly thereafter, in 1092, Nezam al-Molk was assassinated by the Ismailis in the course of their political power struggle. Hence, the Ismailis gained the reputation as the Assassins –on the charge that they would drug the killers, hashishiun (Persian for assassins) with the narcotic hashish. Masnavi refers to the Ismailis as the symbol of fearlessness: “I am unafraid (of death) like the Ismailis {Miii: 4101}.”

The Ismailis were feared by the Sunni population of the land which described them as infidel (molhed) {Le: 12}, but they also had attracted large followings among the masses in the Persian-speaking world {Sc: 6-7}.  Both Rudaki and Amir Nasr Samani in whose court Rudaki served were Ismailis.  Nasir Khosrow Qubadiyani visited Cairo at a time when the Fatimid Ismaili ruler was waging a war against the Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad, and came back in 1052  as an Ismaili  da‘i (missionary), appointed as the Hojjat Khorasan  “Authority for Khorasan”. That mission henceforth became the main object of Nasir Khosrow’s life.  Ferdowsi is also believed to have been an Ismaili. There is little doubt that he was a Shiite, based on what he says in the introductory part of the Shahnameh, although some scholars think that he may have been a Zaydis Shiite {Om; GbF} The Zaydis were the earliest distinct major group that may be described as Shiite. Like the other two significant branches within Shiism, the Ismailis and the Twelvers (Imami), they believed that the successors to the prophet are ‘Ali and, after him, his descendants from his marriage to the Prophet’s daughter Fatima. The three differed on the succession after the fourth successor (Imam) –the Ismailis and the Twelvers sharing the same Imams until the 8th , with the Ismailis ending at their 8th while the Twelvers continued with their to the 12th Imam [15].

Attractions. In being opposed to the ruling Arab Abbasid Caliphates, the Shiite groups all shared a political appeal for the Persians who sought independence from foreign domination.  This fact was especially reflected in the case of the Carmatians (Arabic, Qarameta) {Ta: 74, 81}, a group that beginning in the 9th century, combined elements of the Ismaili Shiite Islam with Persian mysticism. It gained supporters in many parts of the Persian-speaking world. In 931, lead by a Persian, the Carmatians launched a program of forbidding Islamic law and prayer [16]. That leader did not last long, and the Carmatian movement was suppressed by the Abbasid Caliphs in the middle of the 11th century {EIrD}. Another source of appeal of Shiism to the common people in the Persian-speaking world was that it provided an outlet for their feelings in the more emotional form which they could not find in the dry forms offered by the Sunni theologians {Sc: 6-7}.  The culmination of such emotional manifestations by the Shiites was the ‘Ashura commemoration of the martyrdom of their fourth Imam, Hosayn [17]. The Masnavi comments critically on the rituals as held in Aleppo {Mvi: 7775- 805}, upbraiding the Shiites for such lamentations about some tragedy that took place so long ago. It calls on them, instead, to grieve the corruption of their beliefs: “loudly lament over your own ruined heart and creed {Le:13; Mvi:795}[18] . The death of Hosayn was in the battle of Karbala, in present day Iraq. Paradoxically, in the Masnavi Karbala becomes a symbol of disaster {Miii: 831} and killing {Miii: 423}, and Hosayn, the “slain of Karbala {Mv: 1624}” becomes, in the Divan, the model of the martyred lover {D: 2707/28715, cited in Sc: 186 n 20}. This reflects the wide-spread feelings about Hosayn and the battle of Karbala held in Rumi’s world.

The Masnavi does not engage in theological arguments with the Shiites- that was taken up by the Sunni theologians, especially Ghazali {Sc: 6-7}. Indeed,  Rumi shows high regards for spiritual purity and loyalty of a certain Shiite group of the early 10th  century,  the Ikhavan al-Safa  (Pure Brethren) whose works were read widely;  their very name Safa  (purity) indicated those with whom Rumi could speak about love {Sc:187}.  The Masnavi refers to several cities which had become symbols because of their Shiite inhabitants. Regarding Kashan (Kashi), it says: “No shop will sell you bread in Kashi if your name is ‘Omar {Mvi: 1220, 3233}.”  As in the case of Sabzawar where one could not find a man named Abu Bakr {Mv: 845}, the Masnavi’s allusion here clearly points to the political differentiation between the Shiite and Sunnis.  The Masnavi tells many positive stories about Abu Bakr, ‘Omar and ‘Uthman, the three first Sunni Caliphs. The Shiites considered the Sunnis’ fourth and last Caliph, ‘Ali, as the very first successor of the prophet, not recognizing the other three. ‘Ali’s party (Arabic, Shi`atu ‘Ali) considered Mu`awiya who usurped power from ‘Ali, as an eternal enemy.  The Masnavi, on the other hand, views Mu ‘away favorably {Mii: 2603-740; Le: 13-14}.  In the Masnavi’s words the Shiites (such as the Razi, the population of the city of Reyy) and Sunnis (such the Marvzi, the population of the city of Marv) may both perform religious duties but they aim at different results {F1:13, mI:288,289}. Rumi sighs disparagingly about the Shiites: “How can one speak of ‘Omar to Shiites? How can one play the lute before the deaf {Miii: 3200f, cf Miv: 32, cited in Sc: 49 n 103}. ”


The Mongols’ incursions into Central Asia coincided with the beginning of the reign of the Rum Saljuq’s ‘Ala` al-Din Kay Qobad I {EIrP}. ‘Ala` al-Din was proud for having received the formal recognition of his reign from the Sunni Caliph in Baghdad through a caliphalletter of confirmation granting him Anatolia. The Mongols, challenging the Caliph, would now also become ‘Ala` al-Din’s bitter enemies.  His forces proved incapable of dealing with them. After the Mongols penetrated deep into his territory in 1232, ‘Ala` al-Din formally submitted to the Mongol Great Khan Ogedei but direct Mongol rule would not be imposed for some decades.  ‘Ala`al-Din’s successor, Qias al-Din Kay Khosrow II, after his defeat in 1243, was granted a decree from the Great Khan Batu,  recognizing him as a subject ruler in return for a substantial annual tribute {Fih: 283}.  Henceforth the Saljuq sultans were allowed only a secondary political role, as virtual pawns of the officials appointed by the Mongols {EIrP}.

Rumi never lived under direct Mongol rule. He mentions that the Mongols attacked Rum “lands (mamalek)” and took them in 1242 {Fih: 283}.  The Mongols approached Konya, the last time in 1256, but did not enter that city {Sc: 27}. Around 1258 the Saljuq Sultan ‘Ezz al-Din Kay Kavous II (r. 1246 or 1248-60} solicited the help of the Mongol commander in Baghdad, Hulagu, to secure his rule in Anatolia against the challenge from his brother Rokn al-Din Qelej Arsalan IV. Failing that, ‘Ezz al-Din withdrew from Konya to Antalya {Mak: 272}. When the Mongols threw their support behind Rokn al-Din, ‘Ezz al-Din withdrew, further, to Byzantine in 1260 or 1261 {Le: 277-78}.

Rumi had a particularity close relationship with this Sultan ‘Ezz al-Din Kay Kavous II as several letters Rumi wrote to him indicate. Some of these were in response to the letters from the Sultan {Mak: 59-61, 107-9, 109-11, 133-4, 162-3, 177, 178-9, 187-8 and 189-92}. Even from Antalya he apparently sent a letter to Rumi inviting him there- which was declined {Fih 97}.  In his letters Rumi offers the prayers of all his disciples for ‘Ezz al-Din, gives advice on the unfaithful nature of the world, and suggests that the loss of political power is not an indication of the withdrawal of God’s blessing {Mak: 108, 187}. Rumi asks the Sultan’s assistance for various individuals close to him {Mak: 178}. Rumi also wrote similar letters to Qazi ‘Ezz al-Din of Konya who became ‘Ezz al-Din’s vizier about 1256, but was killed some two later for having encouraged a Saljuq attack on the Mongols {Mak:  150-52, 271-2}. That fate was symptomatic of the mortal dangers facing all Rum viziers and rulers in those turbulent years of Rumi’s world.

Rokn al-Din who was made Sultan by the Mongols after his brother ‘Ezz al-Din Kay Kavous II, lasted from 1257-1267, but all that time under the control of his own vizier Mu ‘in al-Din Parvaneh.  The latter was promoted to that position by the Mongol Khans to serve as their supreme representative at the Saljuq court {EIrP}.  To consolidate his position, Parvaneh married his daughter to the Saljuq Sultan {Le: 279-280},   and himself married the late Sultan Kay Khosrow’s widow Gorji Khatun (aka Gürcü Hatun) {Le: 282}. The title the Mongols gave him, Parvaneh, which literally meant butterfly in Persian, indicated his overseeing responsibility.  Parvaneh interpreted the assignment as becoming the Mongols’ agent in all spheres.  When his plan to redistribute Saljuq crown lands among his own followers caused Sultan Rokn al-Din’s protests, Parvaneh arranged to have him strangled in 1265. Rokn al-Din’s  minor son, Ghias al-Din Kay Khosrow III was put on the throne and henceforth Parvaneh became the undisputed ruler of the Saljuq  dominion in Anatolia,  answerable only to the Mongols {Le:279-280}, until 1277. In that year Parvaneh was, in turn, ordered killed by the Mongol Ilkhan ruler Abaqa who suspected him of instigating the Egyptian Sultan Baybars’s foray into Anatolia against the Mongols {EIrP}.


The relationship with Parvaneh was most important for Rumi. The earliest encounter between  the two was in the late 1250s or early 1260s {Le: 80-81}. Their relationship continued until the last years before Rumi’s death in 1273 {Ar: 245}.  There exist 150 Letters (Maktubat) from Rumi.  The Letters shed light on Rumi’s life and work especially in the period from the 1250s to 1270s {Le: 128}.  Some of these Letters were exchanges with close friends, and a number were written to his sons and daughter-in-law to offer advice {Sc: 25, 26; Ha}.  The majority of the Letters are addressed to the officials and grandees of Konya {Th: xiv}. The biggest group of Rumi’s Letters, about two dozen, was addressed to Parvaneh.

The Letters to Parvaneh were written on behalf of those in need of assistance {Th: xiv}. Rumi sought help in their economic, professional and personal problems {Le: 294-5}.  A prime example was his son Mozaffar al-Din Amir ‘Alem {Mak: 100-101}. Aside from addressing Parvaneh directly, Rumi also wrote a Letter to Akmal al-Din Tabib, asking him to intervene with Parvaneh to secure a better salary for Mozaffar {Mak: 214-215}.   Rumi wrote a letter to Amir al-Savahel (Governor of the Coasts) Baha al-Din asking for assistance to his son, Mozaffar {Mak: 202-203}.

Rumi wrote additional Letters on behalf of his disciple Hosam al-Din to secure for him the position of shaykh at a Sufi lodge {Mak: 158, 219}. In a Letter to the Saljuq Sultan, Rumi complains that the governor of Konya was harassing Hosam’s son-in-law and asks that the sultan intervene and prevent the governor’s actions {Mak: 162-3}.  This Sultan was probably Ezz al-Din Kay Kavous II to whom Rumi dispatched at least 9 Letters, several of which were to ask for similar kinds of assistance {Mak: 59-61, 107-9, 109-11, 133-4, 162-3, 177, 178-9, 187-8, 189-92}. Rumi wrote several Letters to Taj al-Din Mo’tazz Khorasani who was in charge of the Saljuq government’s financial concerns in Kastamonu and Ankara; most of these were on behalf of  Hosam and his children {Le:424}. An additional three Letters by Rumi were addressed to Amin al-Din Mika’il {Mak: 252-3}, a treasury official of ‘Ezz al-Din and later a viceroy (nayeb) in Konya 1259-1277 {Fih: 77; Le: 283}. A Letter from Rumi or on his behalf  that dates to the last two  years of Rumi’s life is  addressed to Parvaneh’s son-in-law, Majd al-Din Atabeg (d. 1277), who was the finance minister of Rokn al-Din, requesting financial help for a certain Nezam al-Din {Mak:75-6, 288}.

Benefits. Taj al-Din Mo’tazz Khorasani eventually secured a Sufi lodge for Hosam al-Din. He made additional contributions to the economic well being of Rumi and his disciples. The hall next to Konya’s ‘Amere school where Rumi taught was built for him by the same Taj al-Din {Le: 425}.   Rumi owed far more to Parvaneh. Even Taj al-Din’s ability to help Rumi indirectly resulted from Parvaneh’s appointing him to his high financial office in the government {Le: 424}. Parvaneh’s wife, at Rumi’s request, provided the dowry for the daughter of Salah al-Din Zarkub, whose other daughter was married to Rumi’s son {Sc:27}.   Parvaneh reportedly distributed cash among Rumi’s disciples through Hosam al-Din {Fih: 264}.  He would arrange sema’ sessions for Rumi and his disciples {Fih: 240}. As a measure of the gratitude of Rumi’s family and disciples, Rumi’s son Sultan Valad even composed a qasideh poem and two quatrains in praise of  Parvaneh’s {Le:281}.

Rumi’s dependence on the financial support of a major patron was typical of his time. The patron was commonly the king, or another de facto ruler. In Rumi’s world the ruler was commonly rich. Indeed, power brought wealth as Parvaneh’s case illustrated.  After the Saljuq king Kay Khosrow’s death, Parvaneh who supported the victorious Qelej  Arslan IV in the ensuing conflict for succession to the throne, took back from the Empire of Trebizond, the Saljuqs’ rivals, the important city of Sinop, some 700 kilometers north of Konya, and twelve surrounding castles. In the feudal system of Rumi’s world, that whole region was then accorded to Parvaneh and his family as an iqta. According to this form of land grant for a limited period in lieu of a regular wage {EBI}, the grantee took a charge (kharaj) from the farmers and gave a share of it (about 10%) to the king {Ta:77-78} [19].

With the rare exception of ‘Attar who, as his name indicated, earned his living as an independent apothecary, prominent Persian poets of Rumi’s world depended on financial support of rich patrons.   These included Rudaki who was supported by the Samanid king Nasr II ibn Ahmad,   Sana’i who looked to the Ghaznavid king Bahramshah, Ferdowsi who completed the first version of the Shahnameh under the patronage of Samanid prince Mansur and then sought support from the succeeding Ghaznavid dynasty’s Sultan Mahmud, and Nasir Khosrow who was appointed by the Egyptian Ismaili Fatimid dynasty as their da’i. Other men of letters and science in Rumi’s world followed the same rule of patronage. Mohammad Ghazali joined the entourage of Vizier Nezam al-Molk in Isfahan. The vizier eventually advanced him to the most prestigious professorship of the time, at Baghdad’s Nizamiyya Madrasa college of religion [20] .Even Avicenna was able to write his works only by employment as both a physician and an administrator in the courts of various Persian rulers, from Samanid Nuh ibn Mansur in Samarqand to ‘Ala’al-Dawleh in Isfahan {EIrG}.

Rumi‘s very presence in Konya was due to the common phenomenon of rulers’ patronage of men of talents in his world. Still barely in his teens, Rumi was brought by his father from the far-eastern part of that world to Anatolia. The father, Baha al-Din, was a minor preacher (va’ez) {Le: 52, 54} in search of employment, having last worked in Vaksh (where Rumi was born in 1207) from 1204 to 1210 and Samarqand from 1212, leaving in 1216 {Le: 46-64}.  Baha al-Din was in Karaman, 100 kilometers east of Konya {Sc:15}  when, in 1229,  the Rum Saljuq  Sultan ‘Ala` al-Din Kay Qobad I (r. 1219-37) called him to his capital and settled him and his family in Konya’s Altunpa Madreseh (Persian for religious school) {Le:71-74}.  Ala al-Din Kay Qobad was gathering around him scholars and mystics.  Well versed in Persian -he read Siyasatnameh and the Persian version of  Ghazali’s Ehya ‘olum al-din called Kimiyay sa`adat–  ‘Ala` al-Din created a Persian cultural environment in Konya. He took for role model two previous kings famous in his time as patrons of the learned, Mahmud Ghaznavi and Qabus Ibn Voshmgir, the ruler of Gurgan and Tabarestan (r. 977–981; 997–1012) {Le: 79}.  These two, however, were not exceptions. Rather, many rulers in Rumi’s world would have worn as a badge of honor a reputation as patron of arts (honar- parvar).  The Saljuq dynasty that ruled the land east of Anatolia boasted Sultan Malek Shah and his son Sultan Sanjar in that category.  The courts of the Abbasid Caliphs were famous for their resident scholars. When Caliph Naser wished to confer on `Ala’ al-Din Kay Qobad I the caliphalletter of appointment, he dispatched the prominent philosopher and Sufi scholar in his court, the Persian Shehab al-Din `Omar Sohravardi {EIrP}.

While the rulers of Anatolia supported men of learning partly out of personal interest in promoting a cultural environment, like other rulers  they expected that their patronage of clerics (such as Rumi’s father) would also help in co-opting them to cooperate with the government, create a pious image for the ruler and foster observance of law and order {Le:398}.  Under some free-thinking early Abbasid Caliphs, especially al-Ma’mun (813-833), there were opportunities to discuss diverse views, even those of other religions than Islam. But with the eventual domination of dogmatic Caliphs, scholars in Persia were forced to give a strong Islamic color to their thoughts in order to protect themselves {Ta: 333}. Baha al-Din died in 1231 and Rumi succeeded him in his position. He continued to live under the same kind of Saljuq state patronage that benefited his father {Le: 397}.  The record of how Rumi complied with the expectations of his patrons is in the Discourses. Rumi delivered the Discourses virtually in the same period that he composed the Masnavi {Ar: 6-7}.    He began the Masnavi probably between 1258 and 1261 and finished dictating it in 1267 or 1268. In that same period Parvaneh was the de facto ruler of the Saljuq Sultanate of Anatolia, the state patron whose expectations mattered the most to Rumi [21].


Parvaneh did not take orders from the Saljuq Sultan; he was responsible to the Mongol Ilkhanids.  The Mongol Commander Baiju promoted Parvaneh to chancellorship in 1256 {Ar:7-8}  but after the death of the Mongol Great Khan Batu, Genghis Khan’s grandson, in 1255,  the fate of Anatolia came to be determined not by his successors but by the new Ilkhanid dynasty created by another of  Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulagu {EIrP}.  The consequences of the change were substantial. Hulagu Khan (1215-1265) destroyed the Ismaili Nizari Hashshashins in 1256 by taking their stronghold of Alamut, and he destroyed the Abbasid Caliphate in 1258 by taking their capital of Baghdad {EIrP}.   He established his own capital in Maragheh in today’s Iranian Azerbaijan. Persian historians have argued that in finally putting an end to the foreign Arab rule after six centuries, Hulagu was encouraged by a Persian vizier, Khwajeh Nasir al-Din Tusi (1201–1274)  {Ta:75}.  Perhaps, equally important, Khwajeh Nasir al-Din certainly visited the Shiite centers near Baghdad soon afterward {EBE2}.  He had been a prominent theologian of the Ismaili Shiites [22].  Upon the fall of Alamut to Hulagu Khan, however, Nasir al-Din now changed to become a Twelver. Indeed, eventually he evolved into the most prominent Persian theologian of that school of Shiism in his generation. Nasir al-Din provided the influential voice in the center of political power that the Shiites, regardless of their numbers, heretofore lacked. A man of exceptionally wide erudition, Nasir al-Din was also a prominent astronomer {EBE2}.  This endeared him to Hulagu who was a believer in astrological predictions. Hulagu constructed for Nasir al-Din an observatory (rasad khaneh) for creating accurate astronomical tables in Maragheh. This bonding enhanced Nasir al-Din influence on Hulagu.

Nasir al-Din had corresponded with Sadr al-Din Qunavi in Konya. He did not find the mysticism of Sadr al-Din or other masters of his time appealing. Nasir al-Din wrote his own book of philosophical Sufism, Awsaf al-Ashraf (The Attributes of the Illustrious). Rumi did not engage with Nasir al-Din’s works in his own writings. His encounters with Nasir al-Din came in reaction to the actions of Hulagu in which Nasir al-Din’s influence might be seen. In the Discourses Rumi addresses Parvaneh: “You united with the Tatar and assisted them to annihilate the Syrians and Egyptians and lay waste to the realm of Islam {Fih: 5}. Tatar, plural: Tararan,   {Fih: 65} was the name Rumi used for the Mongols, in addition to Moghol, the Persian for Mongol. The events in this segment of the Discourses are dated to the last years of Rumi’s life, at least after 1268 {Fih: 241}, hence by the Tatar, Rumi here means the Ilkhanids.  Syria had become part of the Mamluk kingdom which was founded in Egypt by former Turkish slaves, mamluk (owned), in 1250 {Sc: 8-9}. The Mamluks resisted the Mongols’ advance further west. Hulagu destroyed Mamluks’ Aleppo (in Syria) in 1256; Rumi had alluded to this destruction with sorrow in his Divan {Sc: 37, 191}.

In his Discourses, Rumi accuses those who cooperated with the Ilkhanids, presumably, especially Parvaneh (and perhaps Khwajeh Nasir al-Din) as being infidels: “we are now bowing and serving the Mongols like the nonbelievers (kafaran) who did that to the idols and  call  ourselves Muslims {Fih:77}.”   In another passage in the Discourses, Rumi warns the gullible of the Mongols’ deception: “Tararan also believe in the Resurrection (hashar) and say there would be judgment (yarghavi in Mongolian) {Fih: 284}.   “They are lying and want thereby to say we have things in common with the Muslims {Fih: 65}.”    The Mamluk-Ilkhanid war soon took a different turn.  In 1260 the Mamluk under their Egyptian Sultan Baybars (1223-1277), won a decisive battle against the Ilkhanids (in `Ayn Jalut, in current day Israel) {Sc: 37}.  With the strengthened Mamluks, Parvaneh’s policy changed and became one of multiple alliances with both sides, in the hope of keeping all his options open.

Rumi was now sympathetic and encouraging to Parvaneh as the Discourses tells us: “(Parvaneh) {Fih: 246} said, ‘night and day my heart and soul have been at your service, but I have not been able to attend to you because of my preoccupation with Mongol affairs.’ (The Master responded)… You have sacrificed your all, both materially and physically (to win them over) so as a few Muslims (may) occupy themselves with acts of devotion in security {Fih: 11}.”

In another passage in the Discourses, Rumi tells Parvaneh not to lose hope in God as “He is tricky, He shows nice pictures with bad pictures inside them {Fih: 5}.” In a different passage, however, Rumi warns Parvaneh of the danger inherent in associating with rulers not just because the desire to please them “may harm the religion,” but also because “you could lose your head (die) {Fih: 9}.”  Rumi’s advice was prophetic. Four years after Rumi’s death, Parvaneh was suspected of joining a party of Turkish nobles planning to join forces with the Mamluks in Caesarea against the Ilkhanid overlords. A Turkmen tribal chief seized Konya. Soon the Ilkhanids struck back, drove the Mamluks out of the area and executed Parvaneh in 1277 {Ar: 7-8; EIrP}.


Rumi never became the most respected religious scholar in Konya. During his time, Konya’s Qazi, the Islamic judge with jurisdiction over all legal matters, was Seraj al-Din Mahmud al-Ormovi.   Parvaneh was particularly attached to a mystic rival of Rumi, Shaykh al-Islam Sadr al-Din Qunavi. He took classes in the Qur`an and Hadith from him. Parvaneh was also fond of Fakhr al-Din `Eraqi, an interpreter of the Arab mystic Ibn Arabi’s ideas in Persian poetry. Yet another mystic in Konya at this time was Najm al-Din Daya Razi and Parvaneh built a tekkiyeh (a gathering place) for his followers {Le: 123-128; Sc: 29-30}.

In the Discourses, Rumi seems to show displeasure, in a (culturally common) circuitous way, at the rivalry for Parvaneh’s attention.  Rumi says, he kept Parvaneh waiting not to teach him a lesson, but because he wanted to have the opportune moment to spend more time with Parvaneh {Fih: 37; Th: 251}.  In another passage, Rumi, with considerable displeasure, reveals his clash with Parvaneh. The Vizier wanted Rumi to concentrate on “action” –which for the clerics meant praying and fasting-   and not on making speeches:

“Parvaneh said (to me) that the main thing is action.  I said where are the people who can act and are seekers of action for me to show them action. …Not finding a buyer for action but only for words, we occupy ourselves with talks. .. Action is not prayer and fasting; those are the form of action. An act is the inner content. .. .The basis of things is all talk and speech. You know nothing of this talk and speech and belittle it. But that is the fruit of the tree of action. Speech is born of action. You say that in this age words are          not creditable, but you deny speech by the same words {Fih: 74-75}.”

In another part of the Discourses, Parvaneh asks if “the good resulting from a human action is due to action itself, or a gift of God.”  Rumi answers it is the latter. Parvaneh comments that “in that case every seeker is bound to find.” Rumi responds that, nevertheless, a guide is still needed.  Intellect is that guide for the body, and a saint is the guide for humanity {Fih: 53; Ar:253-54}.


Rumi presumably saw himself as the guide for the audience that attended his Discourses. The composition of that audience reflected the types of people in Rumi’s world who would be attracted to his speeches, influenced by his “actions.”  They were Konya’s urban folk, especially merchants and tradesmen, and some clerics and men of state {Le: 398}. Rumi did not consider the country folk (roosta’i) worthy of his attention: “Anyone who has discernment will benefit from these words we speak, while our words are wasted on any who have no discernment. It is like two rational and qualified townsmen who go out of compassion to give testimony on behalf of a roosta’i. The roosta’i, in his ignorance, says something that contradicts the two so that their testimony has no effect and their good offices are wasted. For this reason they say that the roosta’i has testimony with himself {Fih: 148; Th:154}.” In the Masnavi, Rumi says: “Intelligence and culture are characteristics of townsmen; hospitality and entertainment (of guests) are characteristics of tent-dwellers {Mvi: 2398}, and … villagers (country folk) {Mvi: 2399}.”  The country folk around Konya were attracted to other dervishes, especially Hajji Bektash {Sc: 31-32}.  His background was in Qalandari.  The Qalandars were a group of dervishes [23]. With often shaved head as a sign of withdrawal, these wandering mendicants encouraged freedom from ties and bounds of religious laws. A large enough group was formed around Bektash in Anatolia such that Rumi’s disciples came to consider him a rival {Le: 36}.

Rumi had to share the town folk as potential followers with the highly influential Shaykh al-Islam Sadr al-Din Qunavi {Fih: 124, 314; Th: 256-257}.  His concern with this rivalry was so large that in his Discourses, Rumi singles out Sadr al-Din’s companions as having been (wrongly) accused of “drinking wine” and believing that “Jesus is God,” but “deny it publicly on purpose in order to preserve the community {Fih:124; Th:130}.” Kenya’s growth during the Saljuq was owed to the booming trade relations. No other city in Anatolia had so many bazaars and caravanserais as were built in Konya before the Mongol invasion. The population of the town expanded with many traders and merchants. Rumi found such key disciples among these as Zarkub (goldsmith).  Salah al-Din Zarkub Qunavi (from Konya) would become Rumi’s most important companion for ten years after Shams disappeared {Fih: 302} in 1248 {Le: 21} .  Traders and merchants constituted the lower ranks of the town folk, because in the Persian feudal system the higher ranking landowners lived in the cities –unlike the European feudalism.  Rumi had a following among some of the landowners who were often government officials. The Discourses mentions several of these officials who were frequent visitors or disciples: Qadi `Izz al-Din Mohammad Razi, vizier to Kay Kavous II  {Fih:201, 340; Ar:273},  Amir Nayeb Amin al-Din Mikaiel, Viceroy of Konya (1258- 1277} {Fih:43,44, 77, 252,270}, Shams al-Din Yutash Beglarbegi (d. 1259}, a high ranking official {Fih:125, 314; Th:259 },   Mir Akdishan, the chief  of the akdishes (an administrative or military class) {Th:255}  and Majd al-Din Atabak,  son-in-law of Parvaneh { Fih:19, 28, 19, 28, 260; Th:252}.

Small Group. The other contemporary persons mentioned in the Discourses reveal how small was the group that preoccupied Rumi.  Some are familiar names. Shams al-Din Tabrizi is referred to specifically in five places {Fih: 83, 88, 89, 92, 176}.  In yet one more place, Shams is mentioned by implication as the special man “who had the power to annihilate himself for his friend,” meaning Rumi {Fih:25, 257}. In two places {Fih: 83, 92}, Shams’s name is followed with the prayer qods sarah (May God bless his grave), dating those Discourses to after Shams’s death.  In another passage, Rumi curses “these people” who falsely “say they have seen” Shams {Fih: 25, 88}.  The Discourses also refer to a close disciple of Shams, Shaykh (Qotb al-Din) Ibrahim {Fih: 62}, the sight of whom “reminds us of Shams {Fih: 176, 281-82}.”

Salah ad-Din Zarkub, Sham’s successor as Rumi’s beloved friend {Fih: 302, 312},   appears in two places in the Discourses {Fih: 93, 95-96}.   In one {Fih:95-96},  Rumi defends him against a disciple, Ibn Chavush, who complained that  Salah ad-Din had ulterior motive in the counsels he gave ; Rumi says Salah’s directives should be unquestionably accepted by his followers {Le:209}. After Salah ad-Din’s death, Hosam al-Din replaced him as Rumi’s object of affection {Fih: 312} and would also succeed Rumi as the head of his close circle of disciples {Le: 434; Sc: 34-35}.   In the Discourses Hosam is referred to in a story as the “great man {Fih: 25, 258},” superior to the “saqil (bore)” Shaykh Sharaf al-Din Haravi, one of the leading clerics of Konya {Fih: 25, 258; Ar: 249}.

The Discourses also mentions Rumi’s father by name, Baha al-Din Valad, in a story along with the name of one of the father’s disciples, Khajegi {Fih: 12, 257}   who accompanied him from Central Asia {Ar: 247}.  Much more, however, the Discourses refer to another of Baha al-Din’s disciple, Borhan al-Din Mohaqqeq, who became Rumi’s teacher and mentor {Le: 96-118}. In four places in the Discourses, Borhan is quoted, thus expounding on his wisdom {Fih: 16, 111, 207, 219}.  There are also disciples Rumi himself had brought into this group: Akmal al-Din who was a prominent physician {Fih:209, 341; Ar:274},   Siraj al-Din {Ar:275} who was known as a good “reciter of Masnavis  (Masnavikhwan)” {Fih:230, 344; Th:258}, Nur al-Din Jicheh {Fih:32, 260; Ar:250},   and Ibn Chavush (Najm al-Din ibn Khurram Chavush) {Fih:95; Th:254}. Several other names are mentioned in Discourses about whom we do not have adequate information. One thing they have in common is that they are associated with the part of the Persian world where Rumi and his family (father and wife) came from, the place Rumi calls “our” homeland, velayat (province) {Fih:74}.   These include Shaykh Nassaj Bukhari {Fih: 110, 308}, Saif Bukhari {Fih: 159, 330}, Shaykh al-Islam Tarmadi {Fih: 111, 309},   Sadr al-Islam Abu al-Yusr Mohammad ibn Husayn of Pazda {Fih: 180, 335-336}.   These people were presumably known to Rumi’s audience, indicating provincial bond among a closely-knit group of disciples.

Rumi wrote letters to gain favor for these disciples. Ibn Chavush was the subject in one of such Letters in which Rumi calls him “dear child (farzand)” and asks that the addressee forgive certain transgressions committed by Ibn Chavush {Fih:302}.  However, as the Discourses reveals, Chavush later joined those who challenged Salah al-Din Zarkub’s qualifications to be the successor to Rumi {Fih: 302}.   As noted before, Rumi defends Salah al-Din against Chavush. In another passage, Rumi says nothing is harder to endure than stupidity in a disciple {Fih: 129-30; Ar: 264}.  He follows up in his exasperation at difficult disciples in another part of the Discourses about a mystic experience in which Rumi sees a rebellious disciple in the form of a wild animal {Fih:135; Ar:265}.   Finally, in still passage Rumi refutes an allegation brought against a kanizak (little girl) {Fih: 140; Ar: 260}.   Here the reference is to the dispute between Shams and his wife Kimia {Fih: 140, 319} which contributed to Shams’s disappearance.. The Maqalat (Writings) attributed to Shams refers to this dispute several times {Fih: 319}. The abuse and threat of the disciples of Rumi against Shams who bitterly resented their master’s devotion to him had already once caused Shams to take refuge in Damascus in 1246 {Ar: 6; Le: 177}.

There is no indication in the Discourses that they were attended by women. It has been suggested, however, that Rumi had female disciples and, indeed, arranged sama’ dance sessions for them {Mak: 279; Le: 282-3; Sc: 32}.  A single Letter from Rumi is addressed to the “Pride of All Ladies {Mak: 118-19},” welcoming her recovery from illness. She could have been the wife of the Saljuq Sultan, Ghias al-Din Kay Khosrow II or the spouse of Rokn al-Din Qelij Arsalan IV {Le: 282-83}.

Sovereign Lord

Rumi’s disciples often called him Khodavandegar {Fih: 4, 14, 28, 35, 37, and 42}.” The Arabic Mawlana (Our Master), also used, was a title of respect given to a Sufi master without clear reference to a specific person. In addition to Rumi {Fih: 7}, his father {Fih: 7} was called Mawlana –sometimes Mowlana Bozorg (The Elder Mawlana) {Fih: 204} – as was Shams {Fih: 83}. The Persian word Khodavandegar (Sovereign Lord) indicated perceiving Rumi not just as a spiritual master but also as the leader of a group of disciples. This was not the full-fledged Sufi (Mevlevi) Order which was yet to be established after Rumi’s death; it was rather an expanded version of another institution in the Islamic world, Ahl beyt (Household),  centered  on the some 300  persons who reportedly came with Rumi’s father from Central Asia. Rumi considered his role not only to include settling disputes among his disciples but even seeing to their needs for entertainment. That is the explanation Rumi gives in the Discourses for composing poetry and participating in the sama` dances -which would later become the basis for the trademark movements of the “whirling dervishes” of the Mevlevi (Turkish pronunciation of the Persian Molavi, singular of Mawlana) Order:

“My disposition is such that I do not want anyone to suffer on my account. I am not pleased when my friends try to prevent some people from throwing themselves on me during the sama`. I have said a hundred times that no one should presume to speak for me. Only then am I content. I am loved by those who come to see me, and so I compose poetry to entertain them lest they grow weary. Otherwise, why on earth would I be spouting poetry? By God, I am vexed by poetry. I don’t think there is anything worse. It is like having to put one’s hand into tripe to wash it for one’s guest because they have an appetite for it. That is why I must do it. A man has to look at a town to see what goods the people need and for what goods there are buyers. People will buy those goods, and will sell those goods, even if they are the most inferior merchandise around ….What am I to do? In our velayat (province) and among our qoam (people) there is nothing more dishonorable than being a poet. Had we remained in that land, we would have lived in harmony with their taste and would have done what they wanted, such as teaching, writing books, preaching, practicing asceticism, and doing pious works {Fih:74-75; Th:77-78}.”

Islam discouraged music and dance, associating them with a history of  kings’ courts, slave dancing women, drinking and debauchery; but music and dance were not forbidden outright {Le:28}.   From the early times, some Sufis often indulged themselves in sama` (literally, Arabic for listening), which consisted of listening to music and dancing in whirling movement to attain ecstasy.  As a community activity in Sufi lodges, the sama` sessions were held in many areas of Persian-speaking world by the late 9th century, expanding steadily by Rumi’s time {Le: 29; Sc: 6-7}.

Sama`. Rumi never danced before Shams, but after meeting him, music and dance became a part of Rumi’s life {Mo: 172}. “His whole being was transformed into poetry and music. Music became the only expression of his feelings; music echoed in the enthusiastic words, vibrating in the rhythms of his lyrics {Sc: 21-23}.” Rumi passionately regretted Shams’s departure and “bade the musicians chant songs of love and engage, day and night, in the sama` {Ni: xxii}.”  Rumi’s poetry came to manifest various stages of the experience of  longing, yearning, searching, and hoping for union; music echoed in words, vibrating in rhythms {Sc: 21-23}.  The introductory verses of Rumi’s Masnavi express his love of music. These “She`r ney (The Flute Reed Poems)” recall the use of flute reed by Islamic musicians, and even further back by ancient Greeks {Sc: 21-211}.  Rumi’s poems, however, also show his knowledge of other instruments common in his world: the sorna, similar to trumpet, often played by the wandering musicians,  the rabab, a stringed instrument, which the musician put at his breast and touched with the bow {Sc:212},   the stringed chang, the little harp {Sc:213}  and the large qanun {Sc:214),  the percussion instruments tabl (the large drum), daf  ( the tambourine), tanbura (the drone), and barbat (the lute) {Sc:215}. Rumi refers to the various pardeh (modes) in Persian music, such as the ‘oshshaq (lovers), in appropriate places in his poetry {Sc: 216}.  He knew of the psychic effect of music {Sc: 211}.  “When the harpist who plays the (musical notes) bist o chahar (the twenty and four) finds no ear (to listen), his harp becomes a burden {Mvi: 1658}.”  The instruments and musical knowledge found in Rumi reflect what was common in his world. Long before Rumi, in the middle of the 10th century Farabi had written his Ketab al-musiqi al-kabir  (Great Book on Music) in Arabic {EIrG}; and his student, Avicenna, followed a few decades later by a chapter on music in his Persian Daneshnameh (The  Book  of  Knowledge) {EIrA}.

Rumi held regular sama` meetings. He whirled alone, or encircled by his faithful followers. His radif pakufteh (foot stamping) poems and his rhyme-words were meant for the whirling dance of sama`. Rumi poetically imagines his beloved, carrying a rabab and acting as a dancer musician {Sc: 217}.  With him sama` becomes an antidote that rests the restless soul by encouraging it to experience freedom out of its confinement in the body {Sc: 218}. This is similar to the result which the mystics in other traditions sought by choosing dance as a form of religious expression. In Rumi’s imagination the sama` reflects the tension between union and separation without which no movement or sound would be possible. He believed that all nature participated in this dance {Sc: 219}.  The command for the sama` came from heaven as a breeze.  Only the dead twigs, the scholastic theologians and philosophers, were not moved. The sama` was a branch of the spiritual dance in which the soul ought to join, Rumi said {Sc: 221-222}.

To his disciples Rumi preached fasting for spiritual salvation, but his poetry is rich with imagery that reveals much about the culinary world of his times. Like other Persian poets, he sings about kabab ( roast) and  sharab  (wine) ; like other Sufis, he is fond of the sweets halva and paloodeh (a mixture of milk, noodles, sugar and  spices). Beryani (broiled meat) is mentioned, as is the spice somaq (used with roast).  There is a catalogue of fruit in Rumi’s poems, including apples and peaches, as well as vegetables, including eggplant, spinach and onion. Rumi indicates that in his time and place people ate tuzluq (pickles), sanbusa (with meat stuffing) and totmaj (vermicelli). They used the dik (cauldron) for cooking {Sc: 139 -148}. Rumi is insistent, however, that these descriptions are all meant as images to serve feeding a higher, spiritual, hunger: “The wine became intoxicated with us, not we with the wine {Mi:1812; Sc:152 }.”


Rumi did not join any of the existing Sufi orders. The Masnavi enumerates the distinct characteristic emphasis in the practice of many of those Sufi orders: tobeh (repenting); bakhshesh (alms); service to people, such as cooking or cleaning the Sufi center ( khaneqah);  tavakkol  (trust in God);   not feeling obligated  to obey amr and nahi ( Islamic mandates and prohibitions); khodbini (understanding oneself); focusing on  own powerlessness ; looking at neither the power or powerlessness but only at God; thinking  that with  observation and discussion one reaches the truth {Mi: 475, 476, cited in F1:211}. Rumi was conscious of the animosity of many Sufis in Konya toward him, as the Masnavi indicates in several places {Mii: 2494, cited in F1:198}. Some would criticize the Masnavi for it did not show sufficient Sufi training {Sc: 299}. Indeed, the Masnavi does not even mention the most famous Sufi teacher of the time, Ibn Arabi, or the standard books of Sufism: Qosheyri’s Resala and Abu Taleb Makki’s Qut al-Qolub.  It aimed at “immediate knowledge” which was learned not from books but from “experience” {Sc: 299}. Loving the complete man (mard kamel) which was the same as loving God was the principle of Rumi’s own “way” (tariqat) {Mii: 700 ff, cited in F1:30-31}.

Although the Masnavi refers to Rumi as a Sufi, he sometimes uses the word Sufi in a pejorative sense. True Sufi for Rumi was not the one who wore woolen (suf) frocks (the vernacular meaning of the word) but, rather, the one who sought purity (safvat) -another word derived from the same Arabic root (tasavvof ) {Sc: 4, 299}. Even darvish (dervish), the Persian word for the Arabic faqir derived from faqr (poverty), did not always please Rumi who so fervently espoused spiritual poverty as the goal.  The Masnavi in a story ridicules the simpleton dervish who loses his donkey in a trick by other Sufis of a convent where he is a guest {Mii: 203 ff, cited in Sc: 56-57 n 153}. In Rumi’s time, claiming to be a dervish was popular and was sometimes used as a tool for getting money and worldly status. The Masnavi warns against such “devils in the form of man”. The spiritual seeker should avoid such unsuitable companions {Mi: 316, cited in F1:145}.  Indeed, he should generally “Make a practice of seeing (for yourself) without blindly imitating (taqlid) any authority: think in accordance with the view of your own reason (`aql) {Mvi: 3345}. Following that dicta, Rumi developed his own distinct thoughts which many consider to be the height of `Erfan, or Persian Gnosticism in the Islamic period. To the extent that this was an attempt for the direct experience of the divine it was mysticism – a concept which evolved from the original Greek word   “muo,” meaning “to conceal” {Ge}.


Rumi’s works tell us much about what he read and saw and in his time. The world they depict is the Persian-speaking region which spanned Central Asia to Anatolia, a distance of  some two thousand miles away Rumi lived only in those two extremities, traveling as a young boy from Samarqand to Konya where he spent all of his adult life. The vast scope of what he read contrasted sharply with the limits of what he could witness in person. Rumi devoted his last ten years to composing his majestic Masnavi. It was his spiritual meditation on religions and the ontological questions which also preoccupied other contemporary thinkers.  Its stories were drawn from the culture that engulfed Rumi. This was the time of the renaissance of Persian civilization. Rumi shows its face and its roots in the Masnavi. That work reflects many distinctions of life and culture of an era that was both sublime and unique; a result which is enhanced in Rumi’s other works, especially the Discourses and Letters.

Rumi does not give us history in the conventional sense; at the closest, his work is a special kind of historiography.  What he says are hints directing us to fuller accounts of events and conditions by other chroniclers and historians; they also serve as evidence verifying that such further investigation would prove more on the impact of historical facts on Rumi personally. The examples abound here. Rumi tells us about the tumultuous politics and conflicts of religious beliefs in his times, the interdependence of the writers and rulers, the rich literary endowment left by his Persian predecessors, the multi-source heritage of his culture, the bonds between a Sufi and his disciples and how he, as a Gnostic navigated the shoals of a strict religion. These are all Rumi’s personal history but told enmeshed in a narrative that is based on many stories shared widely as part of the Persian folklore of the medieval times. Both of those subjects, of course, need to be further studied. This review is hardly complete; it only shows the worthiness of seeking to elucidate what Rumi meant by illuminating what he observed in his world.



Transliteration and Names. The method of transliteration of Persian words here aims at the phonetic spelling accessible to the common reader. Persian words, including names, are spelled in the way they are pronounced by Persians today. For the most frequently used names a different version which is often used in contemporary English text is given in parenthesis.

  1. The School was closed to stop teaching the Nestorian doctrine of Christianity. Led by the prominent Persian philosopher Narse, the returning Nestorian philosophers founded the School of Nisibis in the Persian Sassanid land, where they expounded on Aristotle’s work and even wrote a few treaties in Middle Persian on logic and philosophy.
  2. Among other major Persian thinkers contributing to the unprecedented expansion of human knowledge at these times one must mention Abu al-Hassan Bahmanyar (d. 1067) , Qotb al-Din Shirazi (1236 – 1311) , Rases or Mohammad ibn Zakariya Razi 845-925), Fakhr al-Din Razi (1149-1209), and  Nasir al- Din Tusi (1201–1274) {F1:32; Ta:95),  Abu Abdollah Rudaki (858-940), Abu al-Qasim Ferdowsi  (940–1020),  Abu al-Rayhan Biruni (973-1048),  Abu al-Fazl Beyhaqi (995-1077) ,  Nasir Khosrow Qubadiyani (1004-1088), Nezam al-Molk (1018-1092) , `Omar Khayyam (1048-1113) , Nezami Ganjavi (1141-1209) , Shehab al-Din `Omar Sohravardi (1145-1234),  Baba Afzal (d. 1213), Farid al-Din `Attar (1145-1220) , Mohammad Awfi (d.1232), Fakhr al-Din `Araqi (1213 – 1289),  Muslih al-Din Saadi Shirazi (1210-1291), Rashid al-Din Fazl al-Allah ( 1247-1318),  Amir Khsorow Dehlavi (1252-1325), Allameh Helli (1250-1325), Hamd al-Alah Mostofi (1281-1349), Hendushah Nakhjavani (1323), Khajavi Kermani (1280-1352) , Ubayd Zakani (1300-1371),  Salman Savoji (1308-1376). The dates are from various sources.
  3. The most reliable manuscript of the Discourses available to us consists of a collection of 71   fasl (sections). It is a composite copy of two separate manuscripts, one being the notes from several Discourses taken down by a person who was present at the time of the delivery and the other part written during Rumi’s  lifetime {Fih:173}. The copier of the first part called it Ketab Fih ma Fih “the book which contains what it contains {Le: 43},” borrowing that title from a piece mentioned in a book by Mohy al-Din Arabi’s Fotuhat-e Makkiyeh. The copier of the second part named it al-Asrar al-Jalalliyeh (The Jalaly Secrets), alluding to Jalal al-Din, Rumi’s name {Fih: ya}.

The 71 Discourses in the collection are not ordered chronologically.   One of the earliest Discourses indicates that it was probably delivered just after Shams’s return from Damascus to Konya (1246) {Fih: 89, 301}, another seems to be from near the end of Rumi’s life {Fih: 339}, and still a third refers to a vizier who died in 1256 or 1258 {Ar: 273}. Most of the other 68 Discourses were probably delivered between 1256 and Rumi’s death in 1273.

  1. The manuscript of the collection of the Letters which is deemed to be the earliest reliable is from the early 1350s. It has been published under the name Maktubat-e Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi. {Le: 294-95}.
  2. That original style was exemplified in the 10th century works such as Mohammad Bal`ami’s history and the Persian translation of Mohammad Ibn Jarir Tabari’s commentary (tafsir) on the Qur’an. Monsi’s ornate “innovation” in that style would influence all Persian literary works for nearly four centuries {EIrO}. Rumi would be especially interested in Monsi’s Kalileh va Damneh as it was among the very first sources that contained quotations from Sana`i’ s poetry which was Rumi’s favorite {EIrB}.
  3. Such as Alf Laylah (One Thousand and One Nights), Sendbadnameh and Marzbannameh.
  4. One reason the stories of Kalileh va Damneh were well-known in Konya was perhaps because a poet at the sultans’ court, Qane`i Tusi,  had composed a versified Persian version of it for Ghias al-Din Kay Khosrow II {EIrP; F1:125}.  This was just one of the many other reiterations of the work
  5. These are in Syriac and Arabic, from the 6th and 8th centuries, respectively. Kalila wa Demna would eventually find its way to early modern Europe where it was often called Fables of Bidpai {EIrRi}, and would influence many authors, beginning famously with the French La Fontaine in the 17th century.
  6. The Sassanid King Shapur I (240-270) ordered the importation of Indian knowledge of astronomy {EIrS2}.
  7. The Hadith consisted of three categories, qodsi (Prophet Mohammad’s sayings), nabavi (related to Prophet Mohammad) and ashab (attributed to Prophet Mohammad’s disciples).
  8. These are cited in {Ar: 263, 265, 266, 268, 271, 272, 276. 277}.
  9. Some scholars translating the Masnavi into English have chosen to use Latin for these and similarly sexually profane poems {Mv: 3943, 3862}.
  10. `Ala’ al-Din Kay Qobad (r. 1219-1237) -who invited Rumi’s father to settle in Konya, and whose garden was frequented by Rumi and eventually became the site of his shrine {Le: 427} – himself read the Siyasatnameh as well as Ghazali’s Kimiyay sa`adat in Persian {Le: 79}.
  11. According to the Persian historian Minhaj al-Siraj Juzjani (1193-1265), the Mongol leader Genghiz Khan had originally sent the Khwarazmid ruler, `Ala ad-Din Muhammad, a message seeking a trade relationship and a treaty of friendship and peace. The Khwarazmshah reluctantly agreed. The war started a few months later, when a Mongol caravan and then the Mongol envoys were massacred in the Khwarazmian city of Otrar.
  12. The Zaydis considered Zayd ibn ‘Ali as the fifth and last Imam (successor) while the other two Shiite branches chose his brother Muhammad al-Baqir. The Ismailis then shared two more successors with the Twelver Shiites but then chose Ismail as the eight and last Imam while the Twelvers chose his brother, instead, and continue with his descendants for another four successors (Imams) {Ak; WiZ}.
  13. The year 931 loomed important for the Carmatians’ millenarian fervor for the emergence of the Islamic Mahdi. It coincides with the 1,500 year anniversary after the Prophet Zoroaster’s death when the reign of the Magians, Zoroastrian priests, was predicted. Consequently, in that year the leadership of the Carmatian movement was handed over to a Persian.
  14. On the 10th (‘ashura ) day of the Arabic month of Moharram, in 680 AD, Hosayn  fell in a battle together with many of his family and kinsmen. The Shiites’ ritual mourning ceremonies on that annual occasion included flagellating themselves with razors {Le: 448}.
  15. The Shiites had lived in Aleppo and other parts of the Arab Syria since the rule of the Arab Shiite Hamdanids (800- 1004) {Sc: 14; WiH}.
  16. This feudal economic system was essentially the same as the one in the pre-Islamic Sassanid period and would last until the Iranian Constitutional era of the 1900s, with its later phase being called the tiyool system {Ta:77-78}.
  17. Ghazali was there 4 years until, following a spiritual crisis, he abandoned his career for an ascetic lifestyle in Tus..
  18. Rumi had stopped teaching, although he continued to live in a madreseh (religious school) {Ar: 6-7; Le: 423-424}.  Such life in seclusion was the model established by two scholars Rumi admired the most: Sana`i and Ghazali.  “Harken to the words of Hakim who lived in seclusion,” Rumi says referring to Sana`i {Mi: 3426}.   Ghazali, too, had returned to Tus after 1096 to spend several years in seclusion (‘uzlat); abstaining from teaching, he would only write.
  19. He was writing his important Ismaili work Tasawwurat (Notions) while living in the mountain fortress of ‘Alamut, which was the capital of the Ismaili state since 1090 when it was established by Hasan Sabbah. Upon the fall of ‘Almut to Hulagu Khan, however, Khwajeh  Nasir al-Din Tusi married a Mongol and was appointed by Hulagu as his minister of religious bequests. Khwajeh Nasir al-Din Tusi’s father had been a jurist in the Twelfth Imamate school of Shiite.
  20. They originated as an opponent of the fundamentalism of the Almohad Caliphate in Andalusia and spread east to the Persian-speaking world.


Abbreviations for frequently cited sources

Ak                   Anna Akasoy, “Shiism and Sects,” Pathos, available at <; (accessed on 18 April 2015).

Ar                    A. J. Arberry Discourses of Rumi   (London, 1961).

Ch                    William C. Chattick,   Me and Rumi: The Autobiography of Shams-i Tabrizi, Translated (Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 2004).

D                     Divan Shams Tabrizi, ed.  Badi` al-Zaman Foruzanfar, Kolliat Shams ya Dian Kabir, 9 vols. (Tehran: Amir Kabir, 1997).  D followed by Rumi or T and then a number indicates the number of the roba`i or tarji`band. (Le; Sc uses the same source but the system for the numbers is not clear)

EBA                 Oskar Anweiler, “Academy of Gondēshāpūr, Encyclopædia Britannica, online edition, available at < (accessed on 18 April 2015).

EBB                 John Andrew Boyle, “Ferdowsi, Persian Poet,” Encyclopædia Britannica, online edition, available at < > (accessed on 18 April 2015).

EBE                 TheEditors, “Rudaki, Persian Poet,” Encyclopædia Britannica, online edition, available at < > (accessed on 18 April 2015).

EBE2               TheEditors, Nasir al-Din Tusi, Persian Scholar,” Encyclopædia Britannica, online edition, available at < > (accessed on 18 April 2015).

EBI                  The Editors, “Iqta,” Encyclopædia Britannica, online edition, available at  <; (accessed on 18 April 2015).

EBM                The Editors, “Mazdakism,” Encyclopædia Britannica, online edition, available at <>  (accessed on 18 April 2015).

EIrA                 M. Achena, “AVICENNA xi. Persian Works,” Encyclopedia Iranica, online edition, 2011, available at <; (accessed on 18 April 2015).

EIrB                 J.T.P. de Bruin, “SANĀ`I,” Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 2012, available at <; (accessed on 18 April 2015).

EIrD                 Farhad Daftary, “Carmatians,” Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 1990, available at <; (accessed on 18 April 2015).

EIrF                 Charles-Henri de Fouchecour, “IRAN: Classical Persian Literature,” Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 2012, available at  < > (accessed on 18 April 2015).

EIrG                 Dimitri Gutas, “FĀRĀBĪ i. Biography,” Encyclopedia Iranica, online edition, 2012, available at <; (accessed on 18 April 2015).

EIrM                M. Mahdi, “AVICENNA, i. Introductory Note,” Encyclopedia Iranica, online edition, 2011, available at <; (accessed on 18 April 2015).

EIrO                Mahmoud Omidsalar, “KALILA WA DEMNA, ii. The translation by Abul-Ma’ali Nasr-Allah Monši,” Encyclopedia Iranica, online edition, 2011, available at <; (accessed on 18 April 2015).

EIrP                 Andrew Peacock, “Saljuqs of Rum,” Encyclopedia Iranica, online edition, 2010,   available at <; (accessed on 18 April 2015).

EIrR                 B. Reinert, “Attar, Shaikh Farid-al-Din.” Encyclopedia Iranica, online edition, 2011, available at <“; (accessed on 18 April 2015).

EIrRi                Dagmar Riedel, “KALILA WA DEMNA, i. Redactions and circulation,” Encyclopedia Iranica, online edition, 2010, available at < > (accessed on 18 April 2015).

EIrS                 Mansour Shaki, “Falsafa,” Encyclopedia Iranica, online edition, 2012, available at <; (accessed on 18 April 2015).

EIrS2               Mansour Shaki, “Greek Influence on Persian Thought,” Encyclopedia Iranica, online edition, 2012, available at <; (accessed on 18 April 2015).

F                      Badi` al-Zaman Foruzanfar, Sharh Masnavi Sharif, 3 vols.  9th printing (Tehran: Zavvar, 2000). Reference to the book’s Masnavi poems in Persian are signified by m.

Fih                   Rumi, Ketab Fih ma fih; az Goftar Mowlana Jalal al-Din Mohammad mashhur be Mowlavi, ed. Badi` al-Zaman Foruzanfar, 9th printing (Tehran: Amir Kabir, 2002)

GbF                 “Ferdowsi,” Books google, available at <; (accessed on 18 April 2015).

Ge                    Jerome Gellman, “Mysticism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,” online edition, 2014 available at < > accessed on 18 April 2015).

Ha                    Gh. A. Hadad Adel, “THE LITERARY VALUE OF RUMI’S LETTERS.” Scientific Information Database of Iran (May 2002) available at <; (accessed on 18 April 2015).

Ho                   Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (Cambridge: Harvard University Press: 1991).

Le                    Franklin D. Lewis, Rumi: Past, Present, East and West (Oneworld, Oxford Publications, 2008).

Le2                  Franklin Lewis, The Icon and the Man: in quest of Historical Rumi (Lecture: 2007) available at < >   (accessed on 18 April 2015).

M                     Rumi, Masnavi-ye ma`navi, ed. R.A. Nicholson as Mathnawi of Jalalu’ddin Rumi,  E.J.W. Gibb Memorial, new series, 8 vols. ( London:Luzac & Co., 1925, 1929, 1993)

Mak                 Rumi, Maktubat Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi, ed. Towfiq Sobhani (Tehran: Markaz Nashr Daneshgahi, 1992). References here are to pages used and so cited in Franklin D. Lewis, Rumi: Past, Present, East and West (Oneworld, Oxford Publications, 2008).

Mo                   Mohammad ‘Ali Movahhed, Maqalat Shams Tabrizi (Writings of Shams Tabrizi) (Tehran: Tarh Now, 1996).

Ni                    Reynolds Alleyne Nicholson, Selected Poems form the Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi (Bethesda, Md: Ibex, 2001.

Nic                   Reynolds Alleyne Nicholson,  Masnawi of Jalalu’ddin Rum,  E.J.W. Gibb Memorial, new series, 8 vols. (London:Luzac & Co., 1925, 1929, 1993)

Om                  Mahmoud Omidsalar, Iran‘s Epic and America‘s Empire (Santa Monica: Afshar Publishing, 2010)

Pk                    Johannes Preiser-Kapeller, Liquid Frontiers (Draft 2013) available at <; (accessed on 18 April 2015).

Ra                    Fariborz Rahnamoon, “Zarvan, The Creator of God” Iran Zamin, 13, available at <; (accessed on 18 April 2015).

Sc                    Annemarie Schimmel, The Triumphal Sun: A Study of the Works of Jalaloddin Rumi, Bibliotheca Persica, Persian Studies Series (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1993).

Sm                   Margaret Smith, Al-Ghazali: The Mystic (London 1944).

St                     “Al-Ghazali,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, available at <; (accessed on 18 April 2015).

Sta                   S. Fredrick Starr, Lost Enlightenment, Central Asia’s Golden Age (Princeton University Press, 2013)

Ta                    Ehsan Tabari, Barkhi barresiha dar bareh jahanbiniha v jonbeshhay ejtema`i dar Iran (Some Reviews of the Worldviews and Social Movements in Iran) (Tehran: Alfa Publication, 1358/1979).

Th                    W.M. Thackston, Jr. Signs of the Unseen: The Discourses of Jalaluddin Rumi (1999)

Wa                   Warwick, “The Impact of the Middle East on the European Renaissance,” available at < > (accessed on 18 April 2015).

George Soros: Important and Earnest

Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2001. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


The World Affairs Council of Northern California held its 55th annual conference at Asilomar from May 4 to May 6, 2001. The topic was Globalization in the Information Age. These conferences have long been a prestigious forum for famous and thoughtful speakers, including John F. Kennedy, and Henry Kissinger. The object is to allow the participants a weekend of in-depth exploration of the driving forces shaping the world.

The conference was superbly managed. An array of exceptionally qualified experts made presentations on a comprehensive list of issues, which were then further elaborated by knowledgeable and articulate discussants. The framework and the outline of the discourse were provided by George Soros. He was the keynote speaker, and delivered this assignment with obvious relish. Enjoying a widespread reputation as a financial guru, Soros now seeks recognition for his views on political and security matters.

The world according to George Soros is described in his book, Open Society, Reforming Global Capitalism, which was published in 2000. His address at Asilomar made ample references to the large themes of the book: the free movement of financial capital as the main driver of globalism, the Amismatch@ between economics and politics in the current phase of global capitalism, the restrains of  the nation state system which endures because of the allegiance to national interests, the unilateralism of the increasingly dominant United States, the dangerous widening gap between the rich and the poor, the need for advance crisis prevention worldwide, the necessity of invigorating foreign aid, establishing a global central bank and stronger international financial institutions, and the enlightened alliance of democracies as the means to salvation in the era of globalization.

The challenge of Soros=s speech was unmistakable. The new Administration in Washington has set upon a course, mapped by Vice President Richard Cheney and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, which is based on different coordinates. In their perception, the United States has to act alone as it faces mortal threats from various quarters, peacemaking mechanisms are merely diplomatic figments, and allies are inconsequential [1].

Against this background, the Asilomar conference, given the traditional liberal or progressive predilections of its attendees, could have best heeded Soros=s call by constituting itself as the town hall of a nascent community of individuals with transnational interests. Its purpose would have been to explore ways of defying the gravity of conflicting national interests in order to replace the existing world order with a lofty democratic and peaceable global system. This was not done. But that was the model that often seemed to be followed by the discussions at the Asilomar conference.

While Soros’s speech was invoked repeatedly at the conference, he was hardly oracular. In fact, his humility was disarming. I approached him, as he descended from the podium, to deliver a press pack showing the good use made of his contributions to a nonprofit (Roots of Peace). A number of others also wanted his attention. In this meeting on the “Information Age,@ Soros carried only a quaint little paper notebook. Not wishing to burden him with my pack, I looked for an aid who might, instead, receive the pack. Soros had come alone. So I stayed and waited for my turn.

In the ensuing half hour Soros responded to many. They were diverse and had different things to discuss. My collective impression of Soros=s demeanor, however, was rather coherently unified. I was struck by his attentiveness, gentleness, and engagement in his interlocutor=s subject. The co-discoverer of the HIV virus took some time. The range of issues he wished to bring up was catholic, and, like some others, he recalled friends he had in common with Soros. A petite middle age woman, apparently from Hungary, beaming with pride but deferential, introduced herself to Soros in the language of the old country. This widened his smile. He responded in a short exchange that was distinct, and more than simply because it was not in English. Their connection was almost subterranean, almost subversive of the melting pot. The phenomenon, of course, is familiar to all new immigrants to this hospitable land of many cultures.

But Soros is unique. Here is a man who has “pushed the envelope.” He speaks as a member of @we Americans,@ while going much further than his comparable contemporaries in questioning the values and assumptions of his adopted society. To be sure, he is far better shielded than an ordinary skeptic: his financial prowess is legendary, his prudence has the seal of approval from the Wall Street Journal as well as the Council on Foreign Relations, he is an American Jew, and he is an escapee both from Nazism and Communism. Kissinger and Madeline Albright also have enjoyed much similar protection. But they became Secretary of States; Soros takes pride in being a Astateless statesman.@

The existential paradox of being George Soros is perhaps explicable by the epistemological foundation of his beliefs. His conviction about the Ainherently imperfect understanding@ of human beings which leads to his rejection of all kinds of dogmatism- including the creed that capitalism will take care of all needs, which he calls Amarket fundamentalism@– justifies the contradiction implied in his aspiring to be an American, yet asserting independence as a citizen of the world.


[1]  See, e.g., George Seib F.Seib, ANote to Allies: There is a Method to Bush Policies,@  The Wall Street Journal,May 9, 2001; Condoleezza Rice, APromoting the National Interest,@ Foreign Affairs, January 2000.



The Past: The Latest in Iranian New Wave Cinema

Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2014. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise  distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.



abstract: The New Wave Iranian Cinema is a subject of multi-dimensional interest. It has been the paramount channel of artistic expression for a people under uncommon cultural repression. Paradoxically, it has thrived in the stressful negotiations for openings as the opposition. Garnering international acclaims for its excellence it has become, ironically,  a singular positive face of the Islamic Republic of Iran in much of  the world. By that feat it has touched a significant multitude of Iranian elite who had been forced into exile with lingering affection for their land of origin. Its most recent  product,  Asghar Farhadi’s film The Past, is taking one step further, dealing directly with the existential anxiety of Iranians in diaspora. This it does tangentially as it also compels a review of all that has gone in the maturing evolution of Iran’s New Wave Cinema.



I go to movies to be entertained, like most people. There might be some exceptions. For example, one sees documentaries primarily to learn. The Past [1], the latest movie by the Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, clearly does not fall in such exceptional categories. At most he intended it to be an “art-film,” hoping to provoke thoughts beyond the passing pleasures of entertainment. Because it lacks such tools for amusing as songs and dance, The Past relies on storytelling to entertain. Its director, Farhadi, has won widespread acclaims as a master of the art of storytelling with his previous movie, A Separation (Jodai-e Nader az Simin) [2], which won the Oscar for the Best Foreign Film in 2012.


That was only one of the 100 prizes bestowed on A Separation, by Farhadi’s own count. Not surprisingly, film critics’ expectations were high for the work that followed it.  The Past did not quite meet those expectations. Farhadi believes that this was because the time of releasing between the two films was short:  the critics, having established a deep emotional contact with A Separation, were not ready to make a connection with The Past. He hopes that as the time passes critics will come to like The Past more. Farhadi hopes that you would stop and reflect a few moments after seeing the film. For him that would be a sign that you are appreciating it.  In other words, beyond entertainment, he aims at provoking thoughts about the messages of the film.


Farhadi has earned the right to make that request if being named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the world by Time magazine in 2012 is worth something. Farhadi dislikes “preachy” directors who give you “all the answers.” His role is to “create questions.” He wants you as audience to “participate.” Critics tell us that Farhadi’s storytelling is distinct because it is filled with symbols. As in the case of the Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni’s legendary film L’Avventura, we need to connect images with themes in Farhadi’s works. Critics have also maintained that, before The Past, Farhadi’s symbols were all comments on a certain culture: they could be best understood in the context of contemporary Iran. Indeed, the singular merit of A Separation to many Western observers was in its success for bringing into focus the Iranian society. Farhadi had no quarrel with that assessment. He called the occasion of the Oscar award as “a very good opportunity to think of the people of my country, the country I grew up in, the country where I learned my stories – a great people [3].” Farhadi has written the script of all the 6 movies he has made since 2003, all of which he has also directed. Like A Separation, all of his four prior films were about stories of Iranians which took place in Iran; they were about Iranians living there; they were made in Iran and exclusively with Iranian actors and crews.


 New Wave Iranian Cinema


Farhadi has emerged from a group of filmmakers whose works are called the Iranian New Wave Cinema. They have attracted considerable global attention in the last quarter of century, since the French film critics “discovered” one of them, Abbas Kiarostami, in 1990. Soon, the prestigious Parisian film journal Cahiers due cinema was devoting many pages to discussing Kiarostami’s films –by now it has published 53 articles about him! Even before Kiarostami, the works of other New Wave Iranian filmmakers had come to the attention of other European critics. Sohrab Shahid Saless and Parviz Kimiavi won the Silver Bear Award for directors at The Berlin International Film Festival, respectively for Still Life (Tabiat-e bijan) [4] in 1974 and The Garden of Stones (Bagh-e sangi)[5] in 1976. Almost a decade earlier, in 1965, Hajir Darioush’s Face 75 (Chehreh 75) was a prizewinner at the same festival.


Darioush’s 1964 film, Serpent’s Skin (Jeld-e mar), is usually credited with having started the New Wave Iranian Cinema. Three other films, The Cow (Gav) [6] directed by Darioush Mehrjui, Caesar (Qeysar) [7] by  Masoud Kimiai and Tranquility in the Presence of Others (Aramesh dar hozur-e deegaran) [8] by Nasser Taqvai, all released in 1969, consolidated the New Wave Cinema as a significant cultural and intellectual trend in Iran. The label was in imitation of the French La Nouvelle Vague, but the number of Iranian filmmakers involved clearly was a “wave” and the phenomenon was definitely “new” when compared with the previous films produced in Iran. Movies made in that country before the New Wave did not appeal to the educated classes.  They were referred to in derogatory terms, especially filmfarsi (Persian film) connoting that they were originally made in Persian language to distinguish them from the preferred Western movies which were dubbed into Persian.  (The history of filmmaking in Iran dates back to long before filmfarsi  when the court photographer made a film at the Shah’s order in 1900, only five years after the birth of cinema in the West; the first movie theater in Iran was opened in 1905 [9].)

Filmfarsi, also known by the more derogatory name abgooshti (Meat-soupy), which took form in the 1950s, has continued to be the commercially more successful genre in Iran with a larger audience. Abgooshti films are still by far the bigger group of films produced in Iran.  Of about 130 films made annually in that country only a handful fall in the New Wave group.  The rest are formulaic films, mostly consisting of family comedies and romantic melodramas with happy endings. The over-abundance of sex and violence has been replaced since the 1979 Islamic Revolution with some violence and religious motifs.


Popular stars have been vital to filmfarsi. The actor Mohammad Ali Fardin,, for example, was a major force in the commercial success of many such movies. The movies he starred in before the Islamic Revolution depicted too much scantily-dressed women and alcohol for the new regime which banned them. Fardin was able to perform only in one more film, The Imperiled (Barzakhiha) [10], in 1982.That war movie was about a group of the Islamic regime’s political prisoners who, having escaped and on the run, were caught in the ongoing war with Iraq. They ended up valiantly defending an Iranian border town.  The regime’s authorities disliked their favorable portrayal in the film and that contributed to ending Fradin’s career. Yet his enduring popularity was such that his funeral 21 years later was attended by 20,000 fans.


In stark contrast with the New Wave movies, filmfarsi’s directors were not widely known. The three who are noteworthy as transitional figures before the New Wave were Samuel Khachikian who attempted to imitate Alfred Hitchcock, Siamak Yassami who followed the style of Indian films and Ismail Kooshan who was famous more as a producer since he began making movies in his own studios, Mitra Film and later Pars Film. For years those were the only studios with a backlot in Iran


The emergence of the New Wave Iranian Cinema was commensurate with significant changes taking place in Iranian society. By the 1960s, substantially increased oil revenues resulting from the nationalization of the oil industry (in 1951) brought a new era of prosperity; the consolidation of power in the hands of the Shah (after the coup of 1953) produced a period of political stability; the return of many Iranian youth who had finished their studies in Europe and the United States increased the pool of westernized audiences for modern cultural experiences; works by new writers such as  Jamal Al-Ahmad, Forugh Farrokhzad, Ibrahim Golestan  and Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi flourished. These writers became eager participants in the development of the New Wave Cinema, in contrast to the past when literary figures, like other intellectuals, had dismissed filmfarsi as “not serious [11].” Sa’edi wrote the script for The Cow, Golestan  and Farrokhzad both made notable films, respectively, The Ghost Valley’s Treasure Mysteries (Asrar-e ganj-e darre-ye Jenni) [12] and The House is Black (Khaneh syah ast) [13].




Iranian New Wave filmmakers have acknowledged the influence of the French New Wave filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, and Italian neo-realist directors, especially Roberto Rossellini, Federico Fellini and Vitorrio De Sica. Of the Americans, Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder are sometimes included in that list. Even Mehrjui who studied at the University of California, Los Angeles’ Department of Cinema, only credits the French filmmaker Jean Renoir as the sole teacher there who taught him anything worthwhile. Mehrjui also adds the Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray as having influenced him. Other Iranian directors have paid homage to a few directors from other foreign countries, notably the Japanese Akira Kuroswa, Swedish Ingmar Bergman and Polish Krzysztof Kieslowski.


Notwithstanding those foreign influences, the Iranian New Wave has produced films that are distinct. For one thing, they are not copies of foreign films; they are different in both subject and form. To foreign observers they add something that is uniquely Iranian, “a humanistic aesthetic language,” rooted in a culture steeped in poetry, blurring the boundaries between reality and fiction. Iranian film critics, similarly, have noted “poetic realism” as well as “surrealism” in these films [14].


The early New Wave Iranian directors might have been westernized and modern but they were also kept in check by the call for authenticity by such influential writers of the time as Jamal Al-Ahmad who raged against “Westoxification (Gharbzadegi)” in his widely talked-about 1962 book by the same name.  Al-Ahmad’s quest for authenticity led him to proto-Islamism. In the critic Hamid Dabashi’s words, in Iran Islamism “has been a form of ideological resistance to the colonial extension of … Technological Modernity [15].” That Al-Ahmad borrowed the term gharbzadegi from a concept often discussed by a well-known Tehran University professor, Ahmad Fardid, indicated that his book represented a cultural force that was widespread and potent.  Indeed, when some New Wave filmmakers were suspected of seeking “financial” rewards and a “greater audience,” as in the years just before the Islamic Revolution, they would be accused of becoming like Western filmmakers, abandoning their lofty “intellectual’ goals.


In contemporary Iran being intellectual has generally required also being in political opposition.  Filmmakers both before and after the 1979 Islamic Revolution had to avoid the appearance of their films being identified as supporting the government’s line while, on the other hand, complying with its censorship requirements. These dual, conflicting restrictions severely limited the subjects the filmmakers could choose for their films and also how open their message could be.


In the years immediately after the Revolution, the strictures aimed at the Islamization of the Cinema stifled the New Wave. Detailed regulations specifically banned films that questioned, altered or negated “monotheism and submission to God and his laws, the role of Revelation in creation and in law, and the continuity of religious leadership.” An elaborate machinery of censorship was set up to implement these strictures, but the ensuing self-censorship ended up doing most of the work in this area as well in the prohibition against depicting  women in sensual or romantic relationship .  Directors have not engaged in the most fundamental political issues such as the structure of power and coercion [16]; even few clerics are seen in their films [17].


Censorship was gradually modified and relaxed. Much credit is given to Mohammad Khatami both as the Minister of Culture and later, President from 1997 for 8 years. He led the reformist segment of the Islamic regime. With his advocacy of open cultural policies, he had the active support of almost all of Iran’s New Wave cinematic community [18]. They exploited the division in the regime in what had become their continuous haggling with it for greater freedom. Their stronger position was exemplified by the joining to their ranks of the former Islamist filmmakers such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf who had evolved and matured by 1990 when he made A Time to Love (Nobat-e asheqi).  He was now a comrade-in-arms with the New Wave filmmakers of the Shah’s era whom he had been “savagely attacking” not so long ago [19].


The struggle, of course, continues. The case of Jafar Panahi is well-known as he has attracted the attention of human rights organizations as well as international filmmakers.  Panahi’s 1995 film, The White Balloon (Badkonak-e sefid) [20], was the first Iranian film to win a major award, the Camera d’Or, at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival. He followed it with three other films which garnered awards in other international film festivals, The Mirror (Ayneh) [21] in 1997 (Locarno), The Circle (Dayereh) [22] in 2000 (Venice), and Offside [23] in 2006 (Berlin). Panahi’s 2003 film Crimson Gold (Talay-e sorkh) [24] was not allowed distribution in Iran because it was deemed too “dark.”  Panahi’s problems with the Iranian government over the content of his films persisted and, after he supported the 2009 political opposition Green Movement in Iran, he was arrested and sentenced to six years in prison and a 20 year ban on directing movies or writing screenplays. Panahi has defied the ban while awaiting the result of his appeal and made a video diary, This Is Not a Film (In film nist) in 2011 [25], and a feature film, Closed Curtain (Pardeh) in 2013 [26] which won the Best Script award at the Berlin International Film Festival. Another Iranian filmmaker suffering from his association with the 2009 Green Movement, Mohsen Makhmalbaf has been in exile in London where he has not made any more films.


Even the films which Panahi has produced all have tame subjects. Their general focus has been the hardship of the impoverished, the women and the children in Iran. The subversive messages that the government may see in them are conveyed by indirect methods rather than explicitly. Indeed, the constrictions that all Iranian New Wave filmmakers face have forced upon them an oblique method which some foreign critics have taken as a “poetic” tone and language.


The world of Iranian New Wave Film is strikingly confining. In addition to the limits on subject and method as well as inadequate domestic audience, it lacks money.  Directors often finance their works themselves; they receive little if any meaningful government support. Their operation is therefore on a shoestring. Paradoxically, these conditions have become the source of virtue. Denied breadth in subjects, the Iranian New Wave filmmakers have explored the depth. Self-financing has provided the individual independence which is essential for originality. Their small circle has enabled the New Wave directors to learn from each other. Panahi worked as an assistant director for Abbas Kiarostami who would later write the script for Panahi’s The White Balloon and Crimson Gold. Kiarostami has acknowledged learning from films by Sohrab Shahid Sales, Kimiavi and Mehrjui. His own 1990 film, Close Up (Nema-ye nazdik) [27] is homage to yet another fellow filmmaker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf.


Abbas Kiarostami


Enriched as Kiarostami has been by such tentacles of connections to other Iranian New Wave directors, he deserves his reputation as second to none for his own innovations. He is known for making films with almost no budget, amateur actors and improvised script which he does not write down.  His hallmark is the exploration of the movie’s ability to reconstruct reality.  He searches for “simple reality” hidden behind “apparent” reality. By refusing to recognize distinction between “fact” and “fiction,” Kiarostami traffics in indeterminability. This meditation on ambiguities confounds some critics who have labeled Kiarostami’s work as simplistic, moralistic and verging on didactic.


In his 2008 film Shirin [28], Kiarostami stretched the limits of his experimentation. The movie consists of the close-ups of 100 actresses viewing a film based on the Persian Romance, Khosrow va Shirin by the 12th century poet Nizami Ganjavi.  Kiarostami’s goal was to investigate the relationship between the spectators’ reaction to image and sound.  All the actresses were Iranian except one, the French star Juliette Binoche. She and Kiarostami had become friends in the 1990s and they had already agreed to make a separate film featuring Binoche. That project, began in 2007, was finally released in 2010 as the movie Certified Copy [29].


In several ways this was a radically new venture for Kiarostami. Unlike all his previous films which were made in Persian, in Iran, with Iranian actors and crew and with stories about Iranians, Certified Copy was mainly in French, shot in Tuscany with non-Iranian actors. It had no Iranian character or Persian dialogue. With the exception of Kiarostami’s son, Bahman as film editor, the crew included no Iranian. At the time, Kiarostami called Certified Copy “the simplest film for me to work on… because I was working with a professional team both in front of and behind the camera.”  Iranian filmmakers had come a long way from the pioneering days when they had to be multifunctional, undertaking almost all tasks from photography to editing themselves. In the 1960s with help from the United States Information Service, the Iranian Ministry of Culture provided training for thousands of Iranians in various aspects of film production. Some of those were still active [30], but the skills available were clearly not on par with advanced foreign film making centers.


Kiarostami has also noted that for once he felt free to express whatever he wanted in Certified Copy [31]. Some critics in the West applauded it as “a universal film.”  Yetthat movie was an extended discussion of a familiar Kiarostami subject:  there is no “true reality” in life, just as in “art” where everything original is a copy of another form. Kiarostami even retained his penchant for amateur actors: the main male character in the movie is played by an opera singer in his first film role. Finally, Kiarostami continued to be circumspect in the use of his “new” freedom of expression. Remaining “apolitical,” he left it to Binoche, in her acceptance speech of the award of the Best Actress for her role in Certified Copy at the Cannes Festival, to bring to the attention of the world that Kiarostami’s friend, director Jafar Panahi who was to sit in that very Festival’s jury was held back as a political prisoner in Iran. Kiarostami himself, at the press conference in Cannes, only said that the arrest of Panahi was “an attack on art.” Even this was a rare indiscretion. Kiarostami had always taken a covert path to deal with political problems in Iran, saying that personal problems such as the dynamics of a married couple which he treated in his movies could reveal the wider social malaise.


Kiarostami followed Certified Copy with another film in 2012, Like Someone in Love [32], a Japanese movie. As in France, where Kiarostami had been lionized by Jean-Luc Godard, in Japan he had as a fan no less a personage than director Akira Kurosawa who had gone on the record to declare Kiarostami as the finest living filmmaker. Like Someone in Love which was a French-Japanese production shared the Certified Copy’s distinction of having nothing to do with Iran and Iranians. Indeed, Kiarostami has not made any film about Iran or Iranians since 2008. He has only collaborated as a “co-writer” with an Iranian director, Adel Yaraghi, in the latter’s 2012 film, Meeting Leila (Ashnaee ba Leila), made in Iran and with Iranian cast and crew. Kiarostami has largely limited himself to conducting workshops for aspiring young filmmakers in Tehran.


Kiarostami’s decision to make films outside of Iran has been interpreted as a gesture of his frustration toward the constraints he faces at home. In late May of 2013, he would tell Western journalists that the situation in Iran had “never been this dark.”  He was not eager to make films in Iran, he explained, because “at the moment art in general has been intertwined with politics … more than it is necessary.”  He continued to refuse to make overt public statement about his political views after his sole indiscretion at Cannes in 2010.  He would say that his overseas ventures were because of his desire simply to “explore new experiences.” Kiarostami would now disclose, however, that in the two foreign movies he had made he faced “more constraints.”  His major problem was having to communicate his views to the foreign casts and crews through interpreters. It was a “nightmare…like you’re in a dream and your communication with the outside world has been turned off [33].”


Ideally, Kiarostami has concedes, he would like to return to making pictures in Iran again because “I have plenty of stories particular to Tehran that really cannot be made anywhere else.”  He has added, “It is natural for me to work directly in Farsi, with an Iranian crew.” For now, “that’s not possible,” and therefore, instead, “the world is my workshop.” Kiarostami consoles himself with the story of a friend who is a doctor. “He worked in Iran and now he’s in Paris. He does x-rays. Once I told him, ‘We do the same thing. You take x-rays and I take inner photographs.’  In x-rays there is no nationality [34].”


Good as Kiarostami’s x-rays may be, the subjects they focus on seem to have lost their appeal for foreign viewers. In Certified Copy Abbas Kiarostami tells the story of a woman and a man who over a long day together are variously tourist and guide, stranger and confidante, and wife and husband.  In Like Someone in Love, he essentially repeats this theme of multiple mistaken identities, with characters each telling a version of their own story while seeing only as much as they choose about others. Kiarostami’s skill “in making the profound appear lightweight” again impresses some critics. But when Like Someone in Love premiered the audience appeared dismayed; the reviews reflected irk and exasperation. It has been noted that Kiarostami’s acclaimed earlier films were also full of elusive meanings, but his non-Iranian films were now described as different because they seemed overtly concerned with notions of fakery, with lies that become true. One critic guessed that they reflected “the director’s own experience as a stranger in strange lands.” When Kiarostami was asked about this impact of “his life in exile,” he admitted: “Well maybe…. [o]n an unconscious level [35].”


Passing of the Torch?


While Certified Copy won the 2012 Best Actress Award in Cannes for Juliette Binoche, Kiarostami has not been awarded any international film prizes since winning the Golden Palm in Cannes in 1997.  Indeed, since then he has only received “Lifelong Achievement” awards, notably the UNESCO Federico Fellini Gold Medal in 1997. In Iran, Kiarostami’s mantle has been taken up by other directors. Two of them are, indeed, his former assistant directors. One, Hassan Yektapanah, has won international prizes for his feature films, Djomeh at Cannes in 2000, and Story Undone (Dastan-e natamam) at Locarno in 2004. The other, Bahman Ghobadi, has won international prizes (variously, at Cannes, Berlin, Chicago, San Sebastian) for each one of his five feature films made between 2000 and 2009: A Time for Drunken Horses (Zamani baray-e masti  asbha) [36],  Marooned in Iraq (Gomgashtegi dar araq) [37], Turtles Can Fly (Lakposhthâ ham parvaz mikonand) [38] , Half Moon (Kurdish: Nîwe mang) [39] and No One Knows About Persian Cats (Kasi az gorbehay-e irani khabar nadareh) [40]. Two other Iranian directors also have won international prizes: Mohsen Amiryoussefi in 2004 for his film Bitter Dream (Khab-e talkh) at Cannes, and Samira Makhmalbaf for her 2000 film Blackboard (Takht-e siah)at Cannes and her 2003 film At Five in the Afternoon (Panj-e asr) [41] also at Cannes.


Samira Makhmalbaf who began making films with her father, Mohsen, owes much to the tradition of Iranian New Wave films. Her two mentioned movies, however, were not in Persian; Blackboard was in Kurdish and At Five in the Afternoon was in Dari (Afghani version of Persian). Neither was filmed in Iran. Blackboard was shot near Halabtcheh, Iraq, on the border of Iranian Kurdistan, and At Five in the Afternoon in Afghanistan. Makhmalbaf also shot her next film, the 2007 Two-Legged Horse (Asb-e dopa) [42], in Afghanistan, although its story was about Iran, because she could not get Iran’s permission to film there. That film remains her last work. Further on the fringes of the world of Iranian cinema are two other women directors who have won international prizes. The French-Iranian Marjane Satrapi won the Jury Prize at the2007 Cannes Film Festival for her animated film Persepolis [43], an autobiographical story of a young girl as she comes of age against the backdrop of the Iranian Revolution. Shirin Neshat, who lives and works in New York, won the 2009 Venice Film Festival Silver Lion for best director in her Women Without Men [44] based on a Persian novel.


Asghar Farhadi


The importance of international recognition for Iranian directors cannot be exaggerated. Selection by a jury of world experts is considered far more objective and valuable in certifying their accomplishment than winning in the local festivals, such as the annual Fajr Film Festival held in Iran. International accolade also generates the much coveted audiences beyond the borders. Among them, the significant number of the Iranians now in exile are special. They have responded enthusiastically. The acclaimed cinema has been the rare positive press about Iran in their new communities. The government in Iran could not have remained indifferent. The filmmaker’s success abroad counters the regime’s urge to control him. Finally, the promise of a market for Iranian films has encouraged foreign financing. As early as 1996, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s film Gabbeh was a beneficiary of such investment.  This kind of assistance is crucial in an industry where sales often cannot meet the costs [45].


For the last five years only one Iranian Director, Asghar Farhadi, has been winning International prizes. By that measure he is the dominant figure in the Iran’s New Wave Cinema. His awards from international film Festivals began with his first film Dancing in the Dust (Raqs dar ghobar)[46] in 2003 (Moscow and Pusan) and continued with every one of his other five films since: The Beautiful City (Shahr-e ziba) in 2004 (Warsaw, Split and India), Fireworks Wednesday (Chaharshanbe suri) [47] in 2006 (Chicago) About Elly (Darbare-ye elli) [48] in 2009 ( Berlin)  and  A Separation in 2012  (the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film,  the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film,  and nomination for the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award- the first non-English film in five years to achieve this distinction).


Farhadi’s last movie, The Past, released in 2013, has won prizes at several international film festivals (Cannes Ecumenical Jury, U..S. National Board of Review and Palm Springs International Film Festival) It was selected as the Iranian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, but it was not nominated. It was, however, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globe Awards. This was the third time that Iran had selected a film by Farhadi for entry in Hollywood’s Academy Award competition (after About Elly, and A Separation). Iran has also honored Farhadi at the Fajr Festival by awarding him the award for Best Director three times (for Fireworks Wednesday, About Elly and A Separation) and for best film for Dancing in the Dust. Finally, National Society of Iranian Film Critics in 2009 voted About Elly the 4th greatest Iranian movie of all time.


Selection for Oscar nomination has been a sign of special recognition for film directors in Iran. That country has submitted 17 films for Oscar consideration, one in 1977 before the Revolution and the rest since 1994 by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Aside from A Separation, only one other Iranian film has received an Oscar nomination, Majid Majidi’s Children of Heaven (Bachehay-e aseman) [49]. Kiarostami did not achieve that distinction. Yet he is the only one who has otherwise achieved such international recognition, as well as stature in Iran, that Farhadi needs to be measured against him.


Comparing Farhadi and Kiarostami


When Kiarostami made his first feature film, The Traveler (Mosafer) [50] in 1974, Farhadi was only 2 years old. He made his own first film thirty years later. While Kiarostami’s long career still continues, Farhadi may represent the future of Iran’s New Wave Cinema. His roots in that movement are reflected in the similarities between his works and Kiarostami’s. Both have been filmmakers of low budget movies which are often overlong and sometimes feel lethargic. They allow information to creep in rather than trying to force it all upon us.  They aim at the depth of characterization, and by deferring to actors’ role in this effort they achieve substantial contribution from subtle performances. Both have been independent of government’s financial support, but forced to be within its bounds. There is no sex, nudity or alcohol in their movies. They avoid reference to public issues and institutions that would provoke Iranian authorities.  Like Kiarostami, Farhadi declines to make public statements about his political views following his own rare misstep at an international award ceremony in 2010, when he expressed support for Iranian opposition filmmakers Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Jafar Panahi. After the government consequently banned him from making films, Farhadi apologized, maintaining that he had been misperceived, in order to have the ban lifted.


While sharing much in common, Farhadi and Kiarostami are also very different.  Kiarostami has been interested in exploring the limits of film as a work of art. In that he is on the edge of modernity in experimenting with the form. Farhadi, on the other hand, is traditional as he is a storyteller. His narratives are complex, formally dense and gripping. Kiarostami makes up the script as he films; he does not write the details in advance. Farhadi is the opposite: “When I write a script, I write it completely and with a lot of details [51].” While Kiarostami is more interested in projecting the different reality behind the stories, Farhadi concentrates on developing the intricate ways his characters relate to one another.  He makes sure to incorporate the point of view of every character. He shows genuine compassion for the individuals concerned. He remains non-judgmental.


Kiarostami’s recent films show his preoccupation with verisimilitude; how, for example, an original work of art is not the true one even though it is closer to it than the fake. Farhadi is also preoccupied with a related issue:  the subjectivity and contingency of telling the truth. In his treatment, however, Farhadi looks to psychology, sociology and, indeed, history. He goes beyond Kiarostami’s philosophical speculations. Farhadi deems the inquiry practical as it is globally relevant. Ultimately, his characters lie because they are motivated by serious fear. He posits that as a universal truth, true for the French (in The Past) as for the Persians (in A Separation and About Elly).


The Past


Yet it is probably Persian history that compels Farhadi”s attention to this subject. Justified lying under duress (taqiyyeh) has a long history in Iran where telling the truth often has not been the best option, especially under often hostile oppressive governments.  In this and also other ways, Farhadi has not abandoned his distinct Iranian coloration even in his foreign film. Unlike Kiarostami, he uses several Iranian actors in The Past. One who plays the role of the main male character has a line which could well be Farhadi’s own declaration. In Persian, the character half-jokingly admonishes his just divorced French wife, who is eating a popular Persian dish he has made with a fork rather than spoon: “You don’t eat qormeh zabzi with fork!”  With this sensibility in mind, Farhadi has said that his movies are about Iran and Iranians. Indeed, he describes The Past as “a story of a man [from Iran] who travels to another country.”  He adds: “And the distance between this man and his family is important. It is important that they are far apart.” It is for that reason mainly, Farhadi says, that he has made the movie in Paris, not in Iran [52].


In The Past Farhadi explores a subject enormously important to a select group of his Iranian audience, the existential problem of living in another country. As he sees it, the problems of diaspora are “not just geographic but a great deal more, especially if forced.” He explains the connection of the people in diaspora with their past:  “In exile a part of them … is entangled with the past and the place they have left. Some could reconcile with the new place and leave the past behind but a group cannot. This group is undecided, suspended between the past and present.” That is the pivotal dilemma of Ahmad, the main male character of the film.After having left Paris to live in Iran, he has returned on a short visit to complete his divorce with his wife. Instead, he finds himself quickly embroiled not only in her problems but also in her children’s problems. Ahmad’s Persian friend in Paris warns him, in Persian, “If you hesitate you will be drowned!” He advises him, in English: “Cut, cut!” He explains why, in Persian: “You were not a man for here.  From the first day what did I tell you? Either this side or that side. It is not possible to have one of your feet on this side of the stream and another foot on the other side of the stream. At one point the stream widens.”


Among prominent Iranian critics of their country’s New Wave Cinema – such as Hamid Dabashi in the U.S., and Mohammad Tahminejad, Jamal Omid, Masud Mehrabi, and Hamid Reza Sadr in Iran- Hamid Naficy stands out with his impressive scholarly output. His four volume A Social History of Iranian Cinema is the most exhaustive study of the subject to date. In it, he undertakes the full exploration of Iran’s “national cinema” which, based on academic film theory, he defines as a complex mixture of several “key characteristics or formations: sociopolitical, industrial, cultural, ideological, spectatorial, textual and authorial [53].” In contrast to the New Wave, which might be called the mainstream contemporary Iranian national cinema, stands what Naficy has called “an accented cinema of exile and diaspora… both a cinema of exile and a cinema in exile…. Accented films are in dialogue with the home and host societies … whose desires, aspirations, and fears they express [54].” Naficy has counted over 300 such “accented films” produced by Iranian in exile in the first two decades after the Revolution. Alas, they have been “unrecognized and unappreciated [55].” Indeed, films produced by Iranian New Wave directors in exile have not fared much better; works by Amir Naderi in Japan, Susan Taslimi in Sweden and Shahid Sales in Germany have not become widely known [56]. What Farhadi has chosen is to stay rooted at home but comment on the conditions abroad. In this different formulation (from both national and exilic cinemas), he has found a way to look sympathetically at the Iranians in exile. Heretofore, in most films produced in Iran they were seen as outsiders [57].


In Farhadi’s view “Assimilation is possible depending on your age. If your personality is formed and your memories of the past make it difficult … leads to indecision: both attached to where they came from and the attraction of the new place.” Farhadi himself finds France familiar. He picked it as the site for The Past because “it was where I traveled most often during these years. Outside of Iran, my largest audiences have been in France, and this made me close to them. .. I didn’t feel like a stranger in Paris. The rhythm of life in Paris is very close to that of Tehran [58].” Paris has attracted several other Iranian New Wave directors – far more than any other foreign city.  In 1981 Darioush Mehrjui took refuge there and spent several years before returning to Iran. His work in that period was limited to producing a documentary about the poet Arthur Rimbaud for French TV. His fellow New Wave Director Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi died in Paris in 1985 due to depression and related alcoholism. Hajir Darioush committed suicide in Paris in 1995. Farrokh Ghaffari, whose 1964 film The Night of the Hunchback (Shab-e ghuzi) was deemed by Darioush to be the first Iranian New Wave movies, died in Paris in 2006. The Paris that was home to these Iranian exiles was hardly the glamorous City of Light. More likely, their environment was similar to the drab working-class, immigrant-filled Paris suburb which Farhadi shows in The Past. The inhabitants were of the types that the characters in the film portray. They are on the margin of the main society. They make a living as clerks and small shopkeepers. Their anxiety which is under dissection by Farhadi is palpably the same. Their fear is primarily the loss of the one on whom they depend emotionally.


What Farhadi says about them is applicable to many people from diverse lands who are in diaspora. In that sense it is universal. The context for his discussion is vintage Farhadi. As in several of his previous films, The Past focuses on domestic stories that transcend nationality. Like Ingmar Bergman, whose influence he has acknowledged, Farhadi too mines family dysfunction and tension in unhappy marriages.  At his estranged wife’s request, Ahmad returns from Iran to Paris to finalize his divorce with Marie who wants to marry Samir. Marie’s daughters from a previous marriage, Lucie and Lea, and Samir’s son, Fouad, live with them. Celine, Samir’s wife has been in coma following an attempted suicide. Lucie, who does not like Samir, believes that she has triggered Celine’s action. Marie wants Ahmad to help her handle the rebellious teenager Lucie.


Filmmaker’s Mission


Farhadi says he does not want to “become a political spokesman…  But whenever possible, in my films if I can allow people to understand each other and for cultures to come together, I would do that.” He believes “We do much with nationality. There are differences but deeper, emotions of all are similar.” He illustrates: “In The Past a woman [is] dying: at first glance, Ahmad might seem not concerned, but when you see the story, you see a connection. So everything [that] happens affects us and we all have a share and responsibility.” Farhadi follows up by this statement about divisions caused by emphasis on “nationality” and national interest: “This ‘national interest’ is the first thing politicians consider. This justifies the sacrifice of the people in other places.”


Kiarostami celebrated the “freedom” he was going to enjoy in making movies abroad. Farhadi does not see greater or less freedom abroad:  “I want the stories to determine … where I work. I might have a story tomorrow that happens in Iran, and I will definitely make it in Iran.” More broadly, he has said: “Ideal freedom does not exist anywhere. Even in free countries they have a greater ‘illusion’ that they have freedom. Illusion of complete freedom is dangerous.”  On his “Oscar experience from A Separation,” Farhadi says “It caused my audience to grow around the world and… it put me in touch with my audience and I could hear their opinions… I came to believe that people… all over the world… are very … similar to one another.” He was pleased to see that his film was “relatable to a lot of people that were far from the Iranian culture [59].”


French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard has said that one of his “life’s disappointments” was his failure “to force the Oscar people to reward Kiarostami instead of Kieslowski [60].” The Polish filmmaker, Krzysztof Kieslowski awed Hollywood with his movies The Three Colors Trilogy (1993–1994); the Three Colors: Red won him the Oscar nomination for the Best Director in 1995. Farhadi mentions Kieslowski as among the handful that influenced him greatly [61].  It is striking to see how closely Farhadi sees his mission as a filmmaker to what Kieslowski said in the 1990s: “[I]f there is anything worthwhile doing for the sake of culture, then it is touching on subject matters and situations which link people, and not those that divide people…. Feelings are what link people together, because the word ‘love’ has the same meaning for everybody. Or ‘fear’, or ‘suffering’…. That’s why I tell about these things, because in all other things I immediately find division [62].”




Note: the sites are current as of April 3, 2014. Some refer only to a shorter version than the whole films.


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TWO TRAINS RUNNING: Updating an American Dilemma


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2013. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise  distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


I bought a copy of Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy in 1965 when its second edition came out. The Swedish sociologist’s 1944 study of race relations in the United States was commissioned by The Carnegie Foundation on the correct assumption that a non-American would be better positioned to offer an unbiased opinion. Myrdal was ably helped by African-American Ralph Bunche in research and writing. (Their versatile talents would later be separately recognized by Nobel Prizes in different fields.) The project that took 6 years produced a milestone, as noted in the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, and is credited with inspiring the future policies of racial integration and affirmative action.

An American Dilemma is 1,500 pages long. Much of what I know about the African-American condition first came from that exhaustive study.  The script of August Wilson’s 1992 Two Trains Running is just 110 pages. Seeing that magnificent play by the two-time Pulitzer Prize wining Wilson performed in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) this summer refreshed that knowledge and provided me with new insights about that American dilemma. The dilemma in Myrdal’s view was the clash between the commendable American ideals and the lamentable situation of blacks in this country. That view is reflected in Myrdal’s often quoted saying: “The big majority of Americans, who are comparatively well off, have developed an ability to have enclaves of people living in the greatest misery without almost noticing them.”

On this Wednesday evening in Ashland, Oregon, many did come to notice life in one of those black “enclaves” in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as depicted in Two Trains Running. Indeed, the Angus Bowmer Theatre that seats 600 was completely full. Remarkably, however, I could not find a single black face in the audience. The Playbill for this production of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival said that OSF’s Artistic Director was proud of “his passionate dedication for diversifying the company and the audience.”   He has been able to do a better job regarding the company. All seven actors in Two Trains Running were African-American members of the OSF Acting Company. The guest director, also an African-American, could not have been a better choice. Lou Bellamy is the founder and artistic director of Penumbra Theatre* in St. Paul, Minnesota, which over the last 35 years has evolved into a premier venue dedicated to exploration of the African-American experience. In particular, Bellamy takes pride in having “produced more of the Wilson oeuvre than anyone in the world.” Two Trains Running is his special favorite. He has won the off-Broadway OBIE Award for directing it at Signature Theatre Company in New York.

As Bellamy correctly summarizes it, Two Trains Running is America in the turbulent 1960s as seen and experienced by African American “everyday folks.” They were profoundly affected by the momentous events of the time. Ongoing massive projects of urban re-development undertaken in Pittsburgh had recently displaced thousands of people and shut down hundreds of businesses in their neighborhood. This was not unique in the country. Similarly, as elsewhere the killing of Malcolm X and the assassination of Martin Luther King had led to riots in Pittsburgh as well.  Two Trains Running, however, has a longer perspective than the moment. The play spans back more than three centuries to find the roots of the issues it contemplates. That was when the “community,” as a part of the Yoruba people, was uprooted from its home in West Africa. The hurt is long-standing for African-Americans, and their demand for reparation is the foundation of a righteous sense of entitlement, as August Wilson tells us.

Wilson’s characters, all contemporary African- Americans, live in an isolated world, their contact with the “white folks” limited and colored with the singular goal of retrieving little pieces of what was stolen from them and avoiding further such loss. They are stubborn in the face of all evident odds: they persist and resist. Their attitude mirrors that of a colonized people, although in their case they are members of colonies created in the homeland of the colonizers.

The playwright does not give us a hero. This is a community without an organizer. It does not even have “role models” of the type prescribed by the dominant white culture. “Successful” professionals or businessmen are absent in its conversation. Aspirations of this community are remarkable in the limitations of their modesty.  Equally remarkable is how diverse are the members of this African-American community despite all that they have in common. In August Wilson’s story there are significant differentiations in their nexus with the white folks. One is the whites’ agent, another has done some independent work for them, a third violently steals from them, and the fourth fights to get a better deal from them in a forced sale of the business that is his livelihood. The remaining two have no direct dealings with the whites.

It is in dealing and discourse with each other that each character’s personae is fully developed in Two Trains Running. As Bellamy points out this play is unusual as it is an ensemble piece: “American theatre often favors a single black character to add color to a so-called diverse palette…. Rarely do Americans have the opportunity to see the depth, breadth and complexity of black life and culture on stage.”  He credits Wilson’s writing for “the profound understanding that is at the center of the characters’ discourse.” For his vision of “how the play works,”

Bellamy looks to the “rhythm and melodies” of the playwright’s voice. Those rhythms and melodies were there alright, but before hearing Wilson’s voice we were attuned to different types of sound in this production.

As the light came up on the curtain-less stage, which contained a scene from as a diner, what we noticed the most was the loud rhythmic click-clacking of the flat shoes of Risa, the waitress, as she ever-so-slowly moved across the room. This lasted a good few minutes in a silent space, a metronome establishing the tempo of the play. That click-clack would work henceforth as the leitmotif announcing the presence of Risa in a scene. It also attracted one’s attention to the shapely legs of the attractive woman who was the only source of sexual tension in the play. On those legs the unseemly scars of some wounds were clearly distracting. The wounds, we would learn, were self-inflicted. Risa’s intent was to avert unwanted attention, but the scars did not deter the lustful surreptitious gaze of any of the other characters, as Bellamy pointedly choreographed. Risa’s particular gait reflected her resigned indifference, a reaction she showed more explicitly against persistent reminders by her boss to be more attentive to the customers and her other tasks. The dragging in the gait also implied feelings held in check, which were manifested later, including passion for the right person.

Each of the other characters in the play was also introduced to the audience with a distinct movement of the body, especially feet and hands, serving as his identifying leitmotif. The restaurant owner, Memphis, showed the frenzy of a businessman frustrated in his efforts to succeed in a white-dominated world. Sterling, whose wild scheming mind had not been tamed by the years he had just spent in the penitentiary, had a hustler’s restlessness, his fingers always in motion as if throwing dice in a game. Wolf, who was a numbers runner, walked as a city slicker dude, his weight shifting from one foot to another in exaggerated nonchalance. Hambone who was uncontrollably upset that he was cheated out of his pay by a white employer blurted this in his agitated movements. Holloway’s slow, deliberate lumbering spoke of his role as an aging wise man. West’s fastidious transport in his all black outfit reflected his enviable wealthy position as an undertaker. While these leitmotifs differentiated the characters, the very focus on movements worked as a unifying element in the play. It established a framework of cadence for August Wilson’s words.

Wilson deftly interconnected the characters into a community. They all came to Memphis’ diner which remained the sole scene for the entire play. They were all served food and, especially, coffee by Risa, as they also lusted for her. Everyone played the numbers, serviced by Wolf. They were all accepting of a convict who had just returned from prison, Sterling. Everyone was urged by Holloway to go see Aunt Ester (ancestor) and seek her help. None could resist. Significantly, this manifestation of common faith in an African “tradition” was not compromised by any mention of Christianity. Finally, these characters had no kind word for the white folks.  They expected unkind treatment from them.

“United we stand, divided we fall,” Sterling reminded this community of African-Americans. Nobody paid attention. His attempt to mobilize Hambone with that battle cry only showed the futility of such slogans as Hambone was deemed to be a fool. Risa flatly rejected Sterling’s urging to go to a rally in support of Black activism. This community did not place trust in political action. Not engaged in efforts for a common goal, they harped on the shortcomings of each other. In this Memphis was most vocal. Not only did he constantly complain about Risa, he protested that Wolf was exposing his legitimate business to police raids by using his restaurant’s telephone to run numbers. He made it clear that Hambone was not welcome in the restaurant and finally threw him out physically. He maintained that the ham promised Hambone by the white grocer for painting his fence was on the condition that the job was done well; as it was not,  the grocer was justified in offering to pay only a chicken. Memphis was equally critical of Sterling, accusing him of being up to no good.

Memphis’ harsh attitude was challenged by Risa who was the most compassionate toward Hambone. West, on the other hand, was bent on taking advantage of Memphis’ failure to obtain his price for the restaurant from the city. He offered to buy it himself far below the market price, arguing that, otherwise, the city would take it for much less by the use of eminent domain. Wolf and Sterling, on their part, almost came to blows when Wolf did not deliver the money Sterling had won on the number Wolf sold him. A gun fight was averted only after Sterling confronted Wolfe’s white employer who had refused to keep his agent’s promise, and satisfied himself that like Wolf he too was powerless in such relationship. Shortly thereafter, unopposed, Sterling chose violence in order to avenge Hambone who had just died without receiving the promised ham: he broke into the grocer’s store and came back with a ham so that Hambone could be buried with it.

Another form of assault on the common white adversary brings members of this African-American community together. Their own vernacular English is the deformed version of his language. With its deceptively simple vocabulary they engage in an astonishingly complex examination of a whole array of subjects in the penumbra of life and death as though they are cargoes in “two trains running everyday” to the station of their existence. Their freedom of expression in that sanctuary is no better exemplified than their use of the “N” word when group self-loathing is called for -that use strictly denied others as if copyrighted.

These African-Americans’ ultimate bond, however, is their imagined African tradition, projected in the unseen Aunt Ester who is defined mainly as being 349 years old.  She lives in a house on the hill to which the characters in Two Trains Running go on pilgrimage seeking strength to endure. The community survives. The play ends not only with Hambone getting his ham, but with Memphis receiving a higher price than he had hoped for his property, and Sterling succeeds in becoming Risa’s “right” man. Even the long broken juke box of the restaurant is finally repaired. The song Risa plays on it (Aretha Franklin’s Take a Look) is the leitmotif for joy, its beat an invitation to frolic, and Risa teaches Sterling to hold her and begin dancing. This music is not gospel; these people are not looking for deliverance of the type promised by the white man’s religion. August Wilson has killed the former “reverend,” turned “Prophet Samuel,” even before the play begins. He is accused of having fooled many people while amassing a personal fortune.

Two Trains Running is about specific African-Americans at a specific time and place. What it says, however, has general application. You leave the theater protesting in your mind that surely there has been progress since. Yet the black President that comes to you as the prime proof of that change is distinguished by his hybridized specificity. He is half-white and he is the offspring of a contemporary Muslim son of colonialized Kenya. In the resistance that he provokes you see that Myrdal’s American dilemma not only persists but engulfs the discourse about other minorities. On the other hand, in the rise of this product of Harvard and Columbia you find the merits of the Swede’s prescription: “Education means an assimilation of white American culture. It decreases the dissimilarity of the Negroes from other Americans.”

The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa: Transition or Transformation


CopyrightKeyvan Tabari2012. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization ofKeyvan Tabari.


In the lobby of the venerable Ashland Springs Hotel the melodic voice of Dean Martin crooning: “Dance with me, dance with me, make me sway!” greeted arriving guests.  I asked the wholesome looking twenty-something clerk at the reception desk if she could name the singer. She was baffled and blushed. “No,” she said. She then asked her colleague, only a bit older but sporting an air of worldliness. “Have no clue,” was his answer. The lobby was nearly empty but guests were present at breakfast the next morning where they were serenaded once again by “Dino” intoning “Papa loves mambo, mama loves mambo.” The guests also revealed their generation as did the quaint furniture of the spacious dining room. The chow was a modest spread at the center of which was warm oatmeal and small unappetizing muffins worthy of a mass production bakery. In the evening, however, this Larks Restaurant was the domain of a proud chef who had just wonAshland’s award for being the best in using “local organic ingredients.” Minus the organic you could imagine yourself transported almost to an era when this venue was the best accommodations the town could offer. Now awkward, but still charming old wicker garden chairs were arranged around the tables in the indoor grand eating salon.Ashlandhas changed and yet remained the same. The question was whether we were witnessing a transition, a transformation, or simply a turning cycle.

That night the playwright Alison Carey addressed the same question for us in her The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa which debuted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this season. This was her take from the Bard’s late 16th century play by (almost) the same name. Like its inspiration, Shakespeare’s only “domestic comedy,” this one is silly and yet profound. It is a farce with dialogues that force you to ponder issues near and afar which are tenuously connected. The loose connections, ironically, make you focus on their weave to see the beauty of the yarns.

Just as Verdi had taken liberties with Shakespeare’s play in his opera Falstaff, Carey does not shy away from interjecting her views. The original themes are all there: love, marriage, jealousy and above all revenge, set against a background of clashing perspectives of deceptively gullible yokel folks and self-impressed foolish city slickers. The denouement is the predicable comeuppance of the latter.

Carey’s ambition is bigger than merely updating a biting comic tale. Her Wives of Windsor, Iowa is one of a series she has undertaken to create plays about “moments of change” in American history, inspired by Shakespeare’s more serious historical plays. The moment of change in this play is now. The play is pivoted on the contemporary issue of same-sex relationship. Not long before the 52 year old Ms. Carey was at Harvard, six students at the nearby Wellesley College were expelled for lesbianism. This was not then uncommon in comparably progressive institutions.  Today, the contrast cannot be any sharper if you listen to the Wives of Windsor, Iowa. In the last scene the heroin, Ann, apologetically asks her parents to be excused from the two marriages they had arranged for her, each to a separate woman. “Mom, Dad, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I love same-sex marriage, sure. But love it more than my own heart’s calling? I am straight. I must be true to myself, as I would everyone could do. That is whatIowa’s about.”

The same-sex marriage that Carey talks about is almost exclusively limited to lesbians. Shakespeare’s love story of the Merry Wives is about competing over a woman. But unlike Carey, Shakespeare had not constructed two of her three suitors as women; they were all men. The same was true about the spouse ofAlice Ford, one the two wives pursued by the villainous Senator John Falstaff for their money. In ShakespeareAlice’s spouse is a man. Carey makes that husband a “wife,” thus creating still two more lesbians in the play. It maybe that Carey is simply more at home with women characters, while in Shakespeare’s time they had the additional problems of having to be played by men -who alone could be actors. Thus 6 of the 15 characters who are women in Carey’s play are men in Shakespeare’s. She also shows subtle preference for women as when between the parents who want to impose their separate choices on whom their daughter, Ann, should marry, it is the mother (still conventionally preferring “the doctor” between the two choices) who first concedes to a third suitor: “My daughter will I question how she loves you/ And as I find her, so I may be moved.”

Carey turns Bard’s Sir Hugh Evans into her play’s sole male homosexual. His preference is expressed only in stereotypically effeminate gestures. Indeed, he is really neither gay nor straight: rather, he, as Reverend Hugh Evans, loves “only one man, and He’s above.”  Carey creates still a fourth category of men (counting the straights Fenton, George Page and Pistol), represented by Falstaff who “will love no man as I love myself.”

Unlike in Shakespeare, Hugh here is a foreigner. He’s a Canadian who in fact, at one point in Carey’s play, sings the whole bilingual version of the Canadian national anthem. Then he andCanadaare gently mocked as such by his singing these lines given to him by Carey: “Oh, caribou stew, oh boiled fiddleheads, oh maple syrup on everything.”  Hugh’s devotion to the “Canucks” is so strong that he accepts the challenge to a duel with the only other foreigner in the play, the German Dr. Kaya, in part because of their dispute regarding which country’s hockey team is better. The Americans are clever peace-makers by attempting to lead them to separate locations and when that fails, by breaking their weapons which are their beloved hockey sticks. This disarmament works only because the two parties determine that they should be friends against those mutual enemies, the Americans. They agree to divide hockey glory, with ice hockey going to Canada and field hockey to Germany.

New-immigrant management is made simple as Carey depicts these foreigners in old-fashioned stereotypes. For her part, Dr. Kaya is a rigid German “woman of science” who refers to her intended love, Ann, as a “patient” and whose ultimate medical treatment is using leeches. Her accent is thick, her speech is sprinkled with German words and her dream is to become an American citizen.

In Carey’s farce there are other current stereotypes and beliefs. Thus, America’s history shows that “no matter how sinful the original sin –genocide, slavery, utterly shameless, lawless inhumanity to man– you can always balance it out with a few high quality, rights-based ideas of which you are the primary beneficiary.” The “fancy footwork” that makes governance possible today consists of “lying, cheating and stealing.” The same works for “a giant, multi-national corporation.” Ethanol “is incredibly inefficient and threatens the food supply… But Iowans love it, because it makes them rich.” Lobbyists and their money are eagerly welcomed by politicians. The latter are insufferably vain. Their idea of an American melting pot is where they subject all to equal opportunity exploitation. The American notion of a healthy lifestyle is defined by carbs and calories, except for professional golfers for whom golf defines life. The price of “a little temporary safety” has become giving up “essential liberty” to the likes of FBI agents. On the other hand, we should be vigilant against “anthropogenic global warming.”  The discourse about church and state might best be held in contexts that tend to unite (not divide) them, such as wedding ceremonies.

If all of this sounds familiar and good to the old-fashioned liberals, say the readers of The New Yorker, it should be no surprise. In fact, as a marriage vow, Carey’s lovers are expected “to change the New Yorker subscription to both your names!” Compatibly progressive, such marriage can now be officiated with “an Internet certificate.” That is, incidentally, the only notice that the play takes of the enormously significant impact of the Internet on American society. Carey’s characters text but she does not go beyond this on the transformative role of High Tech. The transformation she is focused on is American society’s acceptance of lesbianism and, more broadly, same- gender marriage. This receives full exposition in her play as the inclusion of the word Very in the title hints.

The chauvinistic disparagement of lesbianism is noted. The lesbians are now all over, Falstaff says, even in truck stops where you see “a couple of dewy-eyed lesbians ordering cake and milk for everyone and twirling their new wedding rings like they never wore jewelry before.” In fact, however, “the gay gals are just one good man away from straightness.” The opposite view to Falstaff’s is juxtaposed by George, whose “enthusiastic embrace of same-sex marriage” has no bounds. “Some of my best friends are lesbians and as faithful follower ofIowa’s laws and traditions, I wholly embrace, serve, devote myself to and otherwise heartily endorse all things same-sex marriage related.” Supporting the rights of gays to marry, George denies the same to his straight daughter, as her heterosexual suitor Fenton points out. George who cannot imagine his daughter being anything but lesbian says: “Of course, not being a woman, Mr. Fenton can hardly enter into same-sex marriage with one. The whole notion is foolhardy poppycock and distinctly non-Iowan.”

Between those two extremes are other stereotypical views. Carey mentions several that are deemed wrong in the play although favorable to gays, such as “happy gay talk” and the impression that “homogenized marriage” is less complicated. On the other hand, one of Carey’s characters warns the other of “violent lesbian street gang members… with guns and knives and those leather wrist strappies.” The plight of prostitutes who might walk down the street “in being the object of undesired attentions,” is sympathetically mentioned. “The objectification of women” who participate in “a swimsuit competition,” is derided, invoking the feminist pioneers “Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Susan Faludi.” In Carey’s words the resolution of all those conflicting opinions about lesbianism is simply in avoiding impingement on “anyone’s freedom to love as they will.” In truth “only same-soul marriage earns the name.”

While Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa has the architecture of the original by the Bard, the texture of its story is not the same, until toward the end when “things get really Shakespearean,” by which Carey means the plot “thickens.”  Its language too, while embellished with Elizabethan wordplay and twisting of syntax, is more direct.  The setting of the play beingIowa the jokes here are corny and earthy. They are rolled in butter and manure. The referents of the allusions are also mid-American. The hole in the golf course evokes meaning as a sexual orifice. The all-around effect is that the play is more accessible to an audience in this country.

That goal, of course, has to be achieved by competent production, particularly in the actors’ performances. InAshland, veteran actor David Kelly sets the tone as he plays at slapstick comedy. He is ably supported by Gina Daniels asAliceFord. Catherine E. Coulson, Daniel T. Parker, Judith-Marie Bergan, and Ted Teasy (respectively as Miss Quickly, Reverend Hugh Evans, Manager of the Come On Inn, and George Page) all deliver their burdens well.  Robin Goodrin Nordil tries too hard as Francie Ford and as a result comes through a bit too strident. Brooke Parks is not quit convincing as Doctor Kaya. Terri McMahon needs to project her voice more.  Miles Fletcher, Joe Wegner and DeLanne Studi perform their respective roles of Fenton, Pistol and Nym satisfactorily.

The half-open Allen Pavilion in Ashlandwhich was the venue for this production is one of America’s oldest Elizabethan theaters. It seats 1,190 but tonight it was nearly one-third empty. This was unusual in my experience of seeing plays there which dates back for three decades. When I asked for an explanation, a fellow fan smiled and said the Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa was “controversial.” She was a resident ofAshland and an ardent supporter of this Oregon Shakespeare Festival for even a longer period. Referring to her group of “locals,” she said: “We thought the play was avant-garde and good, but it went too far.” By this she meant the emphasis on lesbianism. Could it be thatAshland, experimental as it prides itself to be, was not as progressive as Carey’s imaginaryWindsor,Iowa? I asked the volunteer at the Tudor Guild Gift Shop when I bought the official script of the play. She too was an old-timer. Pleased that I had noticed her Phi Beta Kappa pin worn around her neck -“Wheaton College,Massachusetts, one ofAmerica’s oldest college for women”- she said, “it was about time for this play.”

Outside, “on the bricks,” the courtyard fronting the Festival’s two main theaters, I sat with three budding Shakespearean actors from Iraqon the stage where earlier that evening they had performed. As members of the “AmericanUniversityof Iraq-Sulaimani Shakespeare Company,” these young women, along with their seven fellow male students, had been invited to provide that night’s installment of the 45 minute Green Show. Consisting of diverse groups, the nightly Shows are free and wildly popular with locals and visitors alike. The Iraqi women did not respond to my query about the Wives of Windsor, Iowa. The object of their love was demonstrably their country.

For Michael, whom I met later, love was his country. He said that his parents were Jewish but that he also “got to learn about Catholicism” from his mother’s best friend who was Catholic. He had journeyed beyond formal religions. He was from Marin, Californiaand had been a successful businessman. He was now a sculptor disdainful of material possessions. In the shady LithiaParkdown the slope from the Festival’s courtyard, Michael had set up one of his wood sculptures in the center of a spread dedicated to objects he considered evocative of the spiritual experience that he wanted to share with passerby. He invited all to “write a note” about their response to his installation. I noticed a book about Hafez (Hafiz) displayed prominently next to his sculpture. “I love Hafez. He is my idol,” Michael said to me. He encouraged me to thumb through the book. The Gift: Poems by Hafiz the Great Sufi Master, Translations by Daniel Ladinski was published in 1999, and this well-worn volumeshowed its age. I leafed through it. Ladinski has said that he offers interpretations and renderings of the poet, rather than literal or scholarly translations. There was no indication that he knew Persian. Too bad, because the singular value of Hafez’s poetry is that he is, indeed, the master of the poetic use of the Persian language. The Gift said that Ladinski’s knowledge about Hafez came from his time spent in a spiritual community in western India. That is probably the source of the title he gives to Hafez, the Sufi Master. Michael was interested in my assessment and in response I also shared with him my opinion that calling Hafez a Sufi was constricting him. He would accept the confinement of no frock. Indeed, in a celebrated stanza, Hafez specifically rejects the Sufi garb. Michael pursued and I recited in Persian: Hafez in khergheh pashmineh biandaz (Hafez throw off this Sufi wool frock.)” Michael was especially pleased to hear that what Hafez offered transcended such Islamic mysticism and was closer to what he was seeking. Love itself was Hafez’s “religion.” I gave Michael this proof in Hafez’s own poetic declaration: Rahro manzel-e eshghim o ze sar hadd-e adam/ta eghlim-e vojood in hameh rah amedeim! (We are pilgrims to the station of love and from the frontier of nothingness/wehave traveled the long distance to the world of being.)

A still different quest for love seemed to fuel what I saw just around the corner on the main street ofAshland. This town was without any sign of homeless people, except in the little square that ironically was where the Chamber of Commerce office was also located. The handful of men and one or two women who hung out there seemed to be more hippy than homeless. Loud drumming and a faint scent of marijuana smoke were their only intrusions into the others’ world. I asked youngSofiaabout them, suggesting that they were seekers for love in their own way. A hard-working innkeeper, she scoffed: “We call them trustofarians. They are spoiled brats.”Ashlanddid not suffer a summer of love -at least on its business streets. The stores here displayed a picture of a young man who had been killed recently. A woman who saw me reading the words under the picture which offered a reward of $10,000 for leads to solving the murder volunteered that she knew the victim: “He worked in Safeway. We think it was gangs or drugs.”

A relic of the 60s lifestyle was locked up behind the fence not far fromSofia’sInn. It was a converted bus that had been used as “Moonshine Luv Shack .” This was in the Railroad District of town. A bridge dated 1907 over the tracks marked the area’s heyday. The District is being revived as the new “old town,” with chic art galleries and coffee houses which proudly show the old signs on their older brick walls, yet another urban recycling so successful across this country. Enough overgrown grass of unattended yards and dilapidated structures still remain to tell the story of the times in between. That was when this place lapsed into the stagnant decay of a provincial small town in the farmlands which the proverbial Midwestern Iowa was supposed to look like before playwrightAlison Carey arrived for her make-over.Ashlandmay prove that the speedy make-over of the physical is easier. The change in human relationships is more incrementally transitional than a dramatic transformation.

Art: The Revolutionary Shakespeare



The Revolutionary Shakespeare



                        Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2007 All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.             


            In San Francisco, where I live, the 40th anniversary of the “Summer of Love” is fondly remembered -not just by the local newspaper that has written copiously about it, but also especially by those of us old enough to have been present. Thus it was that recently on the number 45 bus to downtown, my neighbor and I talked not about work but about her college classmate at Michigan, Libby Appel. My neighbor noted that Libby, in her valedictory season as the Artistic Director at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, was promising “another Summer of Love.” Appel proffered The Tempest as the tale of “forgiveness, reconciliation and love,” The Taming of the Shrew as the story of “two spirited and stubborn individuals who discover love and respect for each other,” and Romeo and Juliet as the embodiment of “star crossed lovers.” My neighbor and I, it turned out, were both going to Ashland soon, not the least for remembrance of times past. Of course, it was Romeo and Juliet which was the most relevant and timely.

            How felicitous that Romeo and Juliet is directed by Appel’s designated successor. The esteemed company that she has helped build deserves special accolades for this magnificent production. OSF’s future looks even brighter. Pivoting the play on the juxtaposed reactions of both Juliet and Romeo to the verdict of his punishment for killing Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt, is a master stroke. “Banished!” as a refrain used by the actors in that scene resonates the full tragic feeling of the play. The exile of the living is made touchingly more painful than the death of the dead. With a heart-rending performance on the opening night, Christine Albright gave birth to a star in her Juliet.

            The eager production team could be excused for thinking that differentiating costumes -the older characters wearing the renaissance Verona’s, the younger some version of preppy contemporary- would channel Shakespeare’s presumed message of the gap of the ages. That presumption, however, is wrong.  In what matters there is no generational gap in the play. The feud between the Montague and Capulet families continues as the gang attraction of male bonding persists. The gap is between the sole young lovers and their pre-modern age.

            In the late 16th Century cultural discourse between the traditional and the Petrarchan (after the 14th Century Italian poet, nee Francesco di Petracco) ideal, Shakespeare broke grounds by offering a third alternative. The reification of desire is the message in Romeo and Juliet. That their marriage is consummated in her parents’ house trumpets Juliet’s defiance of the convention of a daughter’s obedience. That Romeo returns to her after revenging Mercutio’s death signifies his liberation from the gang mores; earlier he had also jettisoned his Petrarchan love for the never seen or heard Rosaline. 

            It is the celebration of desire, projecting individualism, which marks Romeo and Juliet. This is the revolutionary contribution of Shakespeare to the culture of his time. It is in that sense that he is modern. The message of 1967 is remarkably similar. Sexual freedom was just one manifestation of the broader culture of individualism. The desire for emancipation from the leaded values of the post war years was not limited to the youth, although they were the vanguard.



 Barzun, J. (2001) ‘Petrarch’, From Down to Decadence, pp. 48-52. New York:   HarperCollons.

Paster, G.K. (1992) in B. Mowat and P. Werstine (eds) Romeo and Juliet, pp. 253-65.    New York: Washington Square Press.

Rauch, B. (2007) in OSF, Playbill II: p. 44.

Varble, B. (2007) ‘Trio of classics plays outdoors’, Mail Tribune June 15.


The article, entitled What’s love got to do with it? The revolutionary Shakespeare, was published on the Website of on June 27, 2007.