Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Jalal al-Din Rumi 1207-1273

(Also known as Mowlānā Jalāloddin Rūmī, Jalāluddin Rumi, Jelaluddin Rumi, Jalāl-ud-dīn, Mawlānā, and Mevlevi) Persian poet.

One of the most widely translated figures of Islamic literature, Rumi has been deemed by numerous commentators as the greatest mystical poet of Persia. The Mathnawi, his largest body of work, has been compared to the Koran and is regarded as one of the masterpieces of religious literature. Rumi belonged to a religious sect of Islam called Sufism, which honored love and devotion to God above all else. Many of Rumi's writings reflect the Sufi doctrine and various dimensions of spiritual life.

Biographical Information

Rumi was born in Balkh (present-day Afghanistan), a center of Islamic study, where his father, Baha Walad, was a renowned scholar and Sufi. When Rumi was twelve years old, his family fled the city fearing the impending invasion of the Mongols. After nine years of travel, they settled in Konya (present-day Turkey). After his father's death in 1231, Rumi was appointed his successor and became a prominent Islamic scholar, well versed in law and theology. He also continued to study the Sufi doctrine under the direction of a disciple of his father. It was not until Rumi met Shams al-Din of Tabriz at the age of thirty-seven, however, that he was spiritually transformed into an ecstatic Sufi who celebrated the mysteries of Divine Love with dancing, music, and poetry. Little is known about Shams except that a great spiritual love existed between the two men. Rumi's disciples were very jealous of Shams. Their abuse and threats of violence forced him to flee on two occasions, and in 1248 Shams disappeared; according to some reports, he was murdered by Rumi's jealous followers. Rumi was devastated by his loss and searched for Shams for many years. He began writing poetry in earnest after Shams's disappearance, and it was during this time that Rumi wrote much of the Diwan-i Shams-i Tabriz, a collection of odes dedicated to the memory of Shams. For the rest of his life, Rumi devoted himself to his Sufi disciples, his spiritual practice, and his writing. He was still working on his last and greatest work, the Mathnawi, when he died in 1273.

Major Works

Rumi's two major works of poetry are the Mathnawi and the Diwan-i Shams-i Tabriz. The Mathnawi is a collection of six volumes totaling over 25,000 verses which Rumi began around 1260 and continued to work on until his death. Written at the request of his favorite disciple, who was responsible for transcribing Rumi's verses, the Mathnawi is a collection of anecdotes and stories drawn from all areas of Islamic wisdom—from the Koran to common folktales—which attempts to explain the Sufi way and the various dimensions of spiritual life. The Diwan, which was written over a thirty-year time span, is thought to have been started after Shams's arrival in Konya in 1244. Comprising approximately 40,000 verses, it contains poems which focus mainly on various mystical states, such as spiritual intoxication and ecstatic love. Scholars believe that many of the poems in the Diwan were composed spontaneously by Rumi while engaged in mystical dancing. Among Rumi's other works are the Fihi ma Fihi and the Majalis-i sab'ah, both of which include transcriptions of his sermons and conversations. In addition, Rumi's letters have been compiled in the Makatib, which contains more than one hundred documents written mainly to the nobility of Konya in order to appeal for help on behalf of his friends and disciples.

Critical Reception

Critical opinion of Rumi has varied. Although many view his Mathnawi as second only to the Koran as a work of religious literature, others have found it difficult to comprehend. Western readers are often confused by his seemingly unsystematic narratives and find the loose construction of his stories hard to follow. In his own time, Rumi's detractors faulted his anecdotal style and his lack of metaphysical discussions, Generally, however, Rumi was viewed with deep veneration by his contemporaries. Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike attended Rumi's funeral, and centuries after his death he was still being honored by poets, musicians, and artists. Regarding Rumi's lasting influence, R. A. Nicholson concluded: "Familiarity does not always breed disillusion. Today the words I applied to the author of the Mathnawi thirty-five years ago, 'the greatest mystical poet of any age,' seem to me no more than just. Where else shall we find such a panorama of universal existence unrolling itself through Time into Eternity?"

Principal Works

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

*Majalis-i sab'ah (prose)

*Makatib (letters)

*Fihi ma fihi (prose)

**Diwan-i Shams-i Tabriz (poetry) c. 1244-1273 Mathnawi (6 vols.) (poetry) c. 1260-1273

*The date of composition for these works is unknown.

**This volume contains Rumi's quatrains, or Ruba'iyat.

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Principal English Translations

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

*The Mesnevi of Mevlana Jelalu'd-din Muhammed, er-Rumi…Book of the First (translated by James W. Redhouse) 1881

*Masnavi-i Ma'navi, Spiritual Couplets (translated by E. H. Whinfield) 1887

Selected Poems from the Diwan-i Shams-i Tabriz (translated by R. A. Nicholson) 1898

The Mathnawi of Jalau'ddin Rumi, 8 vols, (translated by R. A. Nicholson) 1925-1940

Tales of Mystic Meaning: Being Selections from the Mathnawi of Jalul-ud-Din Rumi (translated by R. A. Nicholson) 1931

**The Ruba'iyat of Jalal al-Din Rumi (translated by A. J. Arberry) 1949

***Discourses of Rumi...

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E. H. Whinfield (essay date 1887)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: E. H. Whinfield, in an introduction to Masnavi I Ma'Navi: The Spiritual Couplets of Maulana Jalalu-'d-din Muhammad I Rumi, edited and translated by E. H. Whinfield, Trubner & Co., 1887, pp. xiii-xxxii.

[In the excerpt that follows. Whinfield analyzes the influence of the Koran and Sufism on Rumi's Masnavi, noting that Rumi took these sources and "fused them into a system by the cardinal principal of 'Love.'"]

The Masnavi is described by the Author in his Arabic Preface as follows:—

Thus saith the feeble servant, in need of the mercy of God, whose name be extolled, Muhammad, son of Muhammad, son of Husain,...

(The entire section is 5851 words.)

Khalifa 'Abdul Hakim (essay date 1933)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Khalifa 'Abdul Hakim, "Love," in The Metaphysics of Rumi: A Critical and Historical Sketch, 1933.Reprint by The Institute of Islamic Culture, 1959, pp. 43-61.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1933, Hakim compares Rumi's "philosophy of love" to the theories of Plato.]

If there is anything in Rumi's mysticism that defies all attempts at analysis, that is his ecstatic utterances about Love. It is exactly here that theory has so very little in common with life and experience, and the words of Mephistopheles are justified: "Grau … ist alle Theorie Und grün des Lebens goldner Baum." If it were concerned only with lyrical fervours and ecstasies,...

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Reynold A. Nicholson (essay date 1945?)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Reynold A. Nicholson, in an introduction to Rumi: Poet and Mystic (1207-1275), George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1950, pp. 17-26.

[In the following excerpt, redrafted by A. J. Arberry and published five years after Nicholson's death, Nicholson discusses the pantheistic themes found in Rumi's Mathnavi and praises the poem's "exhilarating sense of largeness and freedom by its disregard for logical cohesion, defiance of conventions, bold use of the language of common life, and abundance of images drawn from homely things and incidents familiar to every one."]

Rumi's literary output, as stupendous in magnitude as it is sublime in content, consists of the very...

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Afzal Iqbal (essay date 1956)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Afzal Iqbal, "The Poet as Thinker," in The Life and Work of Muhammad Jalal-ud-Din Rumi, revised edition, Institute of Islamic Culture, 1964, pp. 157-85.

[In the essay below, originally published in 1956, Iqbal examines the message of Rumi's Mattinavi and discusses such concepts as the relation between love and intellect, the nature of the self, evolution, determinism and responsibility, knowledge of God, and the Ideal Man.]

When we talk of Rumi's thought, we should not be taken to mean that he had a systematic and coherent philosophy. His thoughts lie scattered and unconnected like broken threads but a patient effort can weave them into an almost...

(The entire section is 8419 words.)

A. J. Arberry (essay date 1961)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: A. J. Arberry, in an introduction to Tales from the Masnavi, George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1961, pp. 11-20.

[In this excerpt, Arberry examines the prosody and poetic style of the Masnavi and discusses how Rumi was influenced by his predecessors.]

The use of the parable in religious teaching has of course a very long history, and Rumi broke no new ground when he decided to lighten the weight of his doctrinal exposition by introducing tales and fables to which he gave an allegorical twist. He was especially indebted, as he freely acknowledges in the course of his poem, to two earlier Persian poets, Sana'i of Ghazna and Farid al-Din 'Attar of Nishapur. More...

(The entire section is 2978 words.)

Robert M. Rehder (essay date 1975)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Robert M. Rehder, "The Style of Jalal al-Din Rumi," in The Scholar and the Saint: Studies in Commemoration of Abu'l-Rayhan al-Biruni and Jalal al-Din al-Rumi, edited by Peter J. Chelkowski, New York University Press, 1975, pp. 275-85.

[Here, Rehder asserts that Rumi must be understood as a poet rather than a philosopher, and claims that "the structures of his poems are the structures of his unconscious phantasies."]

Any study of the style of a Persian author is a particularly difficult problem at present because the literary criticism of Persian literature is a new and unexplored subject. The old, overall notions of Persian literature can now be seen to be...

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Gholam Hosein Yousofi (essay date 1975)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Gholam Hosein Yousofi, "Mawlavi as a Storyteller," in The Scholar and the Saint: Studies in Commemoration of Abu'l-Rayhan al-Biruni and Jalal al-Din al-Rumi, edited by Peter J. Chelkowski, New York University Press, 1975, pp. 287-306.

[In the following essay, Yousofi describes Rumi's storytelling—with its use of dialogue, anecdotes, short and expressive descriptions, creation of characters, and humor—as an art, asserting that he presents "a true picture of human beings and their different characteristics in various instances."]

Stories have always been attractive to all of mankind. Most people enjoy novels, short stories, plays, scenarios, biographies,...

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James Roy King (essay date 1989)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: James Roy King, "Narrative Disjunction and Conjunction in Rumi's Mathnawi," in The Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 19, No. 3, Fall, 1989, pp. 276-86.

[In the essay below, King studies Rumi's narrative technique and asserts that "the 'meaning' of the Mathnawi cannot be separated from the narrative and the peculiar form into which it is cast."]

(The entire section is 6213 words.)

John Renard (essay date 1994)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: John Renard, in an afterword to All the King's Falcon's: Rumi on Prophets and Revelation, State University of New York Press, 1994, pp. 151-58.

[In the following excerpt. Renard discusses the prophetic imagery found in Rumi's writings and examines the function of the prophets and Muhammad as models of the spiritual guide. Please note that the parenthetical references throughout the excerpt and the unmarked references in the notes correspond to Nicholson's translation of the Mathnawi.]

Where the Qur'an employs the prophetic stories chiefly as moral exempla, Rumi the teacher uses the prophets and their stories as a convenient reservoir of familiar and attractive...

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Further Reading

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Arasteh, A. Reza. Rumi the Persian: Rebirth in Creativity and Love. Lahore, Pakistan: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf Kashmiri Bazar, 1965, 200 p.

Examines the process of rebirth and creativity in the life of Rumi and attempts to "relate his contribution to the theory of personality and the social and individual state of well being."

Chittick, William C. The Sufi Doctrine of Rumi: An Introduction. Tehran: Aryamehr University, 1974, 96 p.

Provides an introduction to Rumi's doctrine and attempts to "present plainly and briefly the main points of Sufi doctrine as expounded in Rumi's writings."


(The entire section is 264 words.)