Bewilderment and Ecstasy: The Narrative Structure of the Masnavi-ye Ma‛navi

The Masnavi-ye Ma‛navi of Jalal al-Din Rumi is undoubtedly one of the most loved and widely read books in the canon of Persian literature. Nevertheless, its structure has often seemed mysterious. Reading it or listening to it can easily induce a sense of confusion or bewilderment that arises from the author’s apparently wayward approach to composition and narration.

Drawing on my experience of translating the Masnavi into English, I shall argue that confusion is exactly the response that Rumi intended to provoke. In my view, the Masnavi is a polyphonic narrative whose purpose is to guide the reader towards a mystical ecstasy. I shall substantiate the claim by providing examples of the ways in the Masnavi is constructed and of the highly unusual approach to language that Rumi has adopted. The poem induces in its readers a series of transformations that are effected through confusion and complication. As a result, readers are frequently disoriented. Transported out of their usual habits of thought and indeed out of themselves, they are introduced to previously unimagined ways of thinking and ways of being.

I shall therefore argue that as one enters a closer relationship with the structure of the Masnavi one also enters into a closer relationship with the meaning that Rumi is attempting to convey. This claim is based upon the assumption that Sufism should not be treated in an intellectual manner as if it were a philosophy. I shall argue that Sufism is primarily emotional rather than intellectual. In saying this, I am referring not to a sentimental emotionalism but to the reeducation of the emotional being. As the teachings of Rumi are delivered not conceptually but mimetically, they cannot effectively be conveyed as prose. Rumi was one of the great Sufi teachers precisely because he possessed such extraordinary skill as a poet.