Thursday, January 23, 2014

Working on my Dissertation

I was going to post the first part of my analysis of "The King and the Slave Girl" about a week ago. Then I found out that I needed to get three chapters of my dissertation completed and handed into my thesis committee in the next few days and so I haven't been able to work on that post yet.  But as soon as I finish up these three chapters I will begin publishing my posts again on a more regular bi-weekly basis.  Thanks for reading and bearing with me as I finish up the last few months of my studies!  And keep reading the Masnavi!  The more you read the more it will speak with you.  See you in a few days (or a week?)!

Sunday, January 5, 2014

4: The King and the Slave Girl

Last week we discussed what the Masnavi’s poetic introduction, “The Song of the Reed”, has to say about us, its readers. I made four specific claims:

1) The reed and the Masnavi have important things to share with us, its readers, about love.

2) In order to understand the Masnavi, however, we must be lovers who are entirely focused on the beloved.

3) We are not currently such lovers but can be trained to become so through reading about love in the Masnavi.

4) Our transformation into such lovers, which is the same as gaining the ability to understand the Masnavi, is the real meaning and purpose of the Masnavi.

This week I will begin my analysis of the initial step in this transformation that occurs as a result of reading the Masnavi’s first story, “The King and the Slave Girl”. I will first discuss the manners in which this story has traditionally been interpreted and then explain my own general approach to the story.

Overall, “The King and the Slave Girl” is a rather strange story to begin the Masnavi with. Why would a book that well-known scholars have called “humankind's most important mystical epic” begin with a bizarre tale that ends with a seemingly unjust murder for the affections of a girl? Why open with a narrative that describes how a king kills an innocent goldsmith in order to free a slave girl that the king may or may not be in love with from her own love towards that goldsmith? Why begin with such a controversial narrative that would immediately raise the protest of the Masnavi’s readers? 

In order to provide a reading of “The King and the Slave Girl” that solves the dilemma of the goldsmith's murder, as well as other strange aspects of the story, many readers have interpreted it allegorically. Such interpretations view each character and narrative element in the tale as representative of various mystical elements of the spiritual path, the interactions of which signify the unfolding of a psychological and/or mystical process that leads the human soul to a higher level of awareness. Nicholson, for example, interprets the king as the spirit or reasonable soul and the slave girl as the sensible or animal soul that has passion for worldly pleasure (represented by the goldsmith). The divine physician symbolizes the physical manifestation of the Universal Intellect in the form of the perfect saint and director of souls who heals the animal soul (the slave girl) of its love for the world's pleasures (the goldsmith) so that it returns to the spiritual king and becomes united with its real love. (For those readers who are interested, a good summary of various such allegorical interpretations can be found on pages 74-77 of Rumi’s Mystical Design by Seyed Ghahreman Safavi and Simon Weightman)

The advantage of such allegorical interpretations is that they provide a simple and tidy explanation for many of the difficult issues that are found in the tale of “The King and the Slave Girl”. For example, at the point where the king meets the divine physician, the reader may be surprised by the king's sudden exclamation that the divine physician is his beloved and not the slave girl. Or, as the narrator predicts at the end of the story, the reader might still find the murder of the goldsmith to be rather unsettling. If the story is an allegory, however, such issues settle themselves as we are no longer dealing with real characters and their interactions, but with signs pointing to a mystical process. The falling in love of the king with the divine physician should not be surprising for the reader, therefore, because the king is, for example, actually the human soul realizing its real love for its higher self (or God). And this shouldn't disturb the reader because it is this very realization that the story is trying to point to through its allegory.
The goldsmith's murder as well seems to be neatly solved through this kind of interpretation. If, for example, the goldsmith represents the world and its attractions, which keep the ego (the slave girl) from realizing its true love for the soul (the king), then it is only natural that the world and its attractions must in some manner be “killed” in order to free the ego from its grip. This killing, then, is not really murder, but represents some sort of spiritual gnosis or even the effects of love that set the human ego free. 

There are, however, several problems with such a manner of interpretation:
  • First, the allegorical details of the story are very unstable. For example, at the beginning of the story the king appears to represent the human soul or the sufi aspirant but by the end he seems to represent God or the Perfect Man.  Which is it? 
  • Second, due to the fact that there is no direct evidence in the text to support one allegorical reading over another, every reader is able to come up with their own allegorical interpretation. But how can we tell which of these interpretations is the correct one?
  • Third, such allegorical readings do not actually solve such strange aspects of the story as the king's sudden love for the divine physician or the unsettling murder of the goldsmith. Instead they turn these aspects of the story into a sign for something else such as “asceticism” that can no longer threaten the reader's interpretative stance toward the tale, and worse yet, they use concepts found outside the Masnavi to make these assertions.
  • Fourth, allegorical readings are not able to answer the question as to why Rumi chose this particular tale, a love story, for his allegory rather than another, or why he chose to use these particular elements rather than others. After all, if Rumi's intention was to lay out an introductory allegory pointing to “the human condition” or aspects of “the spiritual path” why would he choose such a threatening one, with unsettling elements that cause many of his readers to so lose focus on the story's meaning that the narrator feels the need to spend the entire last section of the story defending the characters’ actions? This question is especially important considering the fact that there are several other allegorical stories in the Masnavi that could have been used to represent “the human condition” or the “Sufi path”. For example, “The Story of the Generous Caliph” of Book One, or “The Story of the Prince to Whom the True Kingdom Displayed Itself” of Book Four, could both be wonderful allegorical tales of the human state or the Sufi path but do not contain any of the unsettling elements of “The King and the Slave Girl”. Additionally, aspects of the tale could have been changed to make it less disturbing, such as making the goldsmith out to be a morally repulsive individual deserving of death – in the same manner that the old witch in “The Story of the Prince to Whom the True Kingdom Displayed Itself” was deserving of death for her actions – or having the goldsmith die as the consequence of some bad action of his own. Allegorical readings, however, are not equipped to explain why Rumi chose to include disturbing elements in his tale.
  • Fifth, if Rumi had intended the story to be read allegorically, one would expect the narrator to offer or point to some sort of allegorical explanation for the story as he does in other Masnavi narratives. This is especially true since the narrator spends an entire section defending the story against those readers who apparently did not find it very satisfying. Wouldn’t the easiest defense have been that the story is not supposed to be taken literally in the first place? Instead of using such a justification, however, what is interesting about the narrator’s discussion is that he seems to take the story literally himself. Instead of replying that the death of the goldsmith is not wrong because he only represents the attractions of the world, the narrator discusses the death as the killing of an actual human character without recourse to allegory. The fact that the narrator does not provide an allegory for the story, therefore, suggests that the narrator didn't want the main interpretation of the story to be an allegorical one. 

Rather than avoiding the disturbing and threatening elements of the tale by allegorizing them away, a more satisfying reading of the story should be able to turn these threats into essential elements of the interpretation. It should also be able to answer the question as to why this particular narrative, and these particular narrative elements, and not other seemingly less threatening ones, are used. Lastly, it should also use elements and concepts from within the story in order to make its interpretation, rather than relying on external concepts that find no direct support within the Masnavi itself.

In order to supply such a reading, therefore, in my analysis of this story I will investigate the specific function that this narrative plays in the Masnavi as a whole. In other words I will seek to discover why Rumi has placed this particular story at the opening of the Masnavi. By the end I hope to demonstrate that “The Story of the King and the Slave Girl” functions as a litmus test that Rumi performs on his readers. In this litmus test Rumi uses a complex series of narrative techniques in order demonstrate the inadequacy of the reader’s interpretive strategies and to offer love as an alternative interpretative strategy that the reader must embrace in order to properly understand the story and, consequently, the Masnavi as a whole. Meaning is created in the narrative not through the reader’s mental acceptance of the Masnavi’s concept of “love” per se, but through his or her performance of that “love” by accepting the proper interpretation that the narrator offers the reader in order to explain the events of the narrative. This performance of love represents the initial polishing of the reader’s interpretive mirror on his or her path to becoming an ideal reader and lover.


I recommend reading the story again this week and thinking about the following questions:
  • Is there evidence for an allegorical reading of this story? If so where? If not, why are allegorical readings so popular?
  • What specific parts of this story do you find surprising or disturbing?  Why?
  • How does the narrator defend this story? Why do you think he chooses such a defense?
  • Again please feel free to leave any thoughts or comments you have on this post, or the story in general, below.

Next week I will begin my analysis of the text of “The King and the Slave Girl” in order to highlight the strategies that Rumi uses in order to perform this “litmus test” on his readers.

See you next week and happy readings!

Friday, December 27, 2013

3: The Song of the Reed

In my first post I made the claim that, similar to Mr. Miyagi’s training of Daniel-san, Rumi also uses difficult teaching techniques in the Masnavi in order to (1) test whether his readers have “the right stuff” for spiritual learning, and (2) force his readers to leave behind any preconceived notions they might have, so that they will be open to Rumi’s teachings. Last week, in order to begin supporting this claim, I laid out the basic approach and ground rules I will be using in my analyses in this blog. This week I will now turn to “The Song of the Reed” in order to show that (1) the reed has a particular type of reader in mind for the Masnavi, (2) we are not such readers, and (3) it has a plan for turning us into such readers.

Most traditional interpretations of “The Song of the Reed” see it as a statement about man’s existential position in the universe so that similar to a reed cut from the river bed, man is shown to be separated from the Divine Beloved and it is this separation that causes man to cry out in lamentation. This is a wonderful metaphysical interpretation of “The Song of the Reed” but it ignores the fact that there is also another significant undertone to the reed’s lament that specifically discusses the role of the reader in relation to the Masnavi. In fact more than half of the lines in “The Song of the Reed” directly or indirectly discuss the type of reader or listener that the reed is yearning for and unable to find. It is this undertone concerning the reed’s readers and listeners that I would like to investigate this week (all line numbers enclosed in parentheses refer to Istilami’s Persian version of the Masnavi).

Thus the very first instruction of the Masnavi to its readers is to listen. The reed is singing a lament of separation and we are instructed to contemplate its sorrow (1). But even as we settle in to take on this role of a respectful audience, a strange thing happens. The reed’s sorrow, its song of unfulfilled love, turns into a complaint of us, its listeners, and of our inability to comprehend its cry. It turns from the pains of separation to a lament about the pains of misunderstanding, for no one in its audience is truly listening but only approaches its song based on their own assumptions (6). Instead of listening to the reed, we, its listeners, are listening to ourselves.  

Even so the reed knows who its real listeners are: lost souls who have been separated from their beloved (11), their hearts rent by longing (3), their reason lost in love’s intoxication (14), their chests filled with the burning fire of passion (9). The reed’s true listeners are lovers like itself.

Yet, this is exactly what leads to the dilemma underlying the reed’s complaint: we, its current listeners and readers, are not such lovers and so the reed simply has no one to share its song with (18). Communication is blocked as the reed finds itself in a strange land surrounded by strange people who do not understand its language (28). And we, its listeners, are those people, those earth bound strangers who sense beauty but understand little else in the reed’s lament.  

How is the reed to solve this dilemma? How are we, the raw, the uncooked (18), stuck in our own mindsets (6), focused on our own needs and desires (19-22), to be made to understand? How are we to become those ideal lovers that the reed desires?

According to the reed the solution is to be found in the concept of love itself, which is a powerful catalyst, healer, and cure all (23-6). Thus our inability to understand the reed’s song can only be healed by the potent administrations of love.    

This cure is possible due to the nature of love itself. While the concept of love carries millennia of philosophical, psychological, religious, and mystical baggage the reed is very specific about what it means when it refers to love. For the reed and the Masnavi’s narrator, love is an entirely beloved-centered phenomenon. The only thing that is real is the beloved, while the lover is a mere veil, a dead thing (30). In the Masnavi, the beloved is the end-all and be-all of love.

Love is therefore a perfect cure for the crisis of communication that the reed is lamenting.  According to the reed, its readers do not understand its song because as non-lovers they approach it with their own set of assumptions and prejudices (6). In other words the reed’s readers and listeners – you and I – take a reader-centered approach in our relationship with the reed and its song. The mistake that the reed’s listeners make, and which has led to this crisis, is that we do not attempt to find its secrets from within the reed itself.  

But what is within the reed? The answer is the very cure we seek: love. The reed is filled with the fires of love (9-10). In order for its listeners and readers to understand the reed’s song they must therefore seek to understand this beloved-centered love that is hidden within it. In terms of the communicative process the reed’s listeners must move from a reader-centered interpretive approach to a text-centered one so that in relation to the reed and the Masnavi, we, its listeners and readers, may become lovers. According to the reed, therefore, the only interpretive strategy of a successful reader will be one that involves a beloved-centered love focused exclusively on the reed and the Masnavi as the beloved.

Fortunately, love is not only the inner secret of the reed, but is also a large component of its outer communication (13). Therefore even if the reader does not understand the nature of love – is not a lover – at the beginning of his or her interaction and relationship with the reed and the Masnavi, he or she can still access this concept of love through reading and investigating its stories.

In the series of lessons and posts that will make up this blog, therefore, I will investigate four large love stories of the Masnavi in order to elucidate the strategies that the Masnavi uses in order to transform us from non-lovers into lovers, from naïve readers who follow a reader-centered interpretive approach to ideal text-centered readers.

By the end of these investigations I hope to show that it is our successful transformation from non-lover reader-centered listeners into text-centered lovers that is the true secret hidden within the reed such that the successful completion of the reed’s act of communication is itself the secret of its song. Thus, as we grapple with the deeper significance of the reed’s message it will become clear that the form of the Masnavi is identical with its content so that the meaning of this process of communication is the same as its performance, and the message being sent by the reed is our own successful attempt to understand it.

The key points to take away from the above discussion are as follows:

1) The reed and the Masnavi have important things to share with us, its readers, about love.
2) In order to understand the Masnavi, however, we must be lovers who are entirely focused on the beloved.
3) We are not currently such lovers but can be trained to become so through reading about love in the Masnavi.
4) Our transformation into such lovers, which is the same as gaining the ability to understand the Masnavi, is the real meaning and purpose of the Masnavi.

The initial step in this transformation takes place in the first story of the Masnavi, “The King and the Slave Girl”. Next week I will discuss the manners in which this story has traditionally been interpreted as well as lay out my own approach to the story.  


Please read the first story of the Masnavi, “The King and the Slave Girl”, for next week. If you’re unable to obtain a good copy of the English version, I have posted Nicholson’s version of it (link 2.1) next to this post. Nicholson’s translation may be a little dry but it’s accurate and so you should be able to gather the necessary meaning from it (though you will miss most of its poetic beauty).

Here are some things to think about as you read:

1) Why did Rumi place this story as the first story of the Masnavi?
2) What did he mean by calling this story “the very marrow of our inward state” which is Nicholson’s translation for “نقد حال ما” ?
3) How did this story make you feel?
4) Please leave any thoughts or comments you have on the story below!

Happy reading!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

2: Wax on - Wax off

Last week I discussed the similarities between the techniques used by Mr. Miyagi to teach Daniel-san how to be a student and Rumi’s own techniques for training the reader how to be open to the Masnavi’s teachings. I made the claim that similar to Mr. Miyagi’s unusual training of Daniel-san, Rumi uses difficult teaching techniques in the Masnavi in order to (1) test whether his readers have “the right stuff” for spiritual learning, and (2) force his readers to leave behind any preconceived notions they might have, so that they will be open to Rumi’s teachings. This week and next week I will begin to support this claim by highlighting Rumi’s discussion of the reader’s role in his proem (poetic introduction) to the Masnavi (commonly referred to as “The Song of the Reed”). This week’s post, however, will mostly be a boring "wax on - wax off" laying out of the basic approach and ground rules I will be using in my analyses in this blog.

So here are the following important points about the approach I will be taking for interpreting the Masnavi:

(1) Throughout my posts I will always assume that you have already read the particular section of the Masnavi that is under discussion. For next week therefore, if you haven’t already read “The Song of the Reed” then please do so. Here is a link to some English translations of the proem: (I prefer #4 by Nicholson). You can also find a version in the original Persian at: . Please read “The Song of the Reed” at least once all the way through before continuing on to the next post.

(2) Second, I will try to avoid using overly technical terms throughout this blog but sometimes in order to explain a particular idea I will be forced to use some specialized vocabulary. In all such cases I will place specialized terms in italics the first time they are used and will explain their meanings in (parentheses).

(3) When referring to specific line numbers from the Masnavi in my posts I will also place them in parentheses, so that, for example, line one will be (1).

(4) I am taking a reader response approach to interpreting the Masnavi. What does that mean? Simply that instead of being concerned with the philosophical, mystical, or psychological meanings that the historical Rumi intended for the Masnavi, I am looking at the text of the Masnavi itself in order to see what happens to readers as they read it. All the claims I make, therefore, will be supported by evidence from the text of the Masnavi, even if they might appear to contradict what is believed to be known about the historical Rumi. This will help us avoid any debate or discussion about what Rumi “really” meant and allow us to focus on what he actually said.

(4) Since however, one can never separate the meaning of a piece of literature from the form it takes, my conclusions about how the Masnavi works as a text will necessarily lead to conclusions about what it means as a mystical teaching, and even as a mystical experience.  Except on rare occasions, however, I will mostly leave such conclusions for the reader to tease out for themselves.

In terms of “The Song of the Reed”:

(1) As with the Masnavi in general, there has been a lot of discussion about the mystical, spiritual, psychological, and/or allegorical meanings of "The Song of the Reed", but less attention has been paid to what it says about its own readers.  

(2) A careful look at "The Song of the Reed" however shows that it makes some very important statements about such readers.  

(3) In next week's post therefore I will focus on and analyze these statements in order to tease out the role that "The Song of the Reed" envisions for the Masnavi's readers.


(1) If you haven’t done so already, please read “The Song of the Reed”.

(2) Once you have read it through entirely, please read it again and try to focus on what it says about its readers and listeners. Try to find any lines that discuss, highlight, or illuminate such a relationship and jot them down.

Okay! Now that we have all of the boring “wax on – wax off” stuff out of the way, next week we can jump right into the exciting stuff of figuring out what exactly “The Song of the Reed” tells us about ourselves, the Masnavi’s readers!

Happy reading!

Friday, December 13, 2013

1: How Rumi is Like Mr. Miyagi

One movie that has stuck with me since childhood is The Karate Kid.  Besides giving me dreams of learning how to do the crane kick in a real fight and becoming a martial arts expert (we can always dream, can't we?), the relationship between Mr. Miyagi and Daniel held a lot of lessons for me. Even after watching it dozens of times, I still enjoy the scene where Daniel throws in the towel and complains that Mr. Miyagi isn't teaching him any karate; instead he seems like he's just taking advantage of Daniel to get his housework done.  I love how Mr. Miyagi completely reverses Daniel's perception of things when he has him carry out a series of blocks that all those hours and days of housework taught him.  For me it's like watching magic come alive as the mundane (housework) is transformed into the wonderful (karate!) and the expectations of the student are thrown out by the strange wisdom of the master.  The biggest event in this scene, however, is not the demonstration of awesome karate moves but Daniel-san's real acceptance of Mr. Miyagi as his master and, as a result, his graduation to becoming a genuine student of Mr. Miyagi.  

This scene naturally raises a question though: "Why didn't Mr. Miyagi just tell Daniel the purpose of all the housework at the beginning?"  After all, wouldn't this have taken away all of the frustration and anger on Daniel's part and let him just concentrate on learning karate?  The problem with the question is that we are assuming that Mr. Miyagi's main purpose with all the boring, difficult, useless, and confusing housework was to teach Daniel karate.  In fact karate was only an added benefit.  What Mr. Miyagi was really trying to accomplish was two things.  First, he wanted to test Daniel to see if he was a real student. Was he hard working? Would he stick with it? Did he have the stuff to really learn karate or was he just in love with the idea of it all and would split the moment things got tough?  In short, this was Mr. Miyagi's way of making sure that Daniel had the 'right stuff'.  Second, Mr. Miyagi wanted to teach Daniel how to be a student.  At the beginning Daniel thought he already knew how a karate master should act and how a karate student should learn.  He had a whole array of preconceived ideas about the instruction process but it was these very ideas that got in the way of being receptive and open to Mr. Miyagi's method of teaching karate.  In a sense Daniel wanted to be the master by dictating for Mr. Miyagi how to do his job.  This however would not work if Daniel truly wanted to learn. So in addition to being a test, the long hours of housework were also a way of helping Daniel to leave his preconceived notions behind and let Mr. Miyagi do his job.  Seeing what he had interpreted as 'housework' turn into 'marital arts training' forced Daniel to reconsider his ideas about what he knew about the world and himself, and in that moment of surprise, that moment of finally understanding, Daniel became open to Mr. Miyagi's teaching.  In short, all that work turned Daniel into a real student.

So what does any of this have to do with Rumi and his Masnavi?  Everything. The Masnavi is difficult, confusing, long, often boring, and seems to lack any logical coherence or structure. Many of its stories seem irrelevant and irreverent and often a huge waste of time. All of this however is only skin deep. It is the surface image that Rumi presents to the world in order to accomplish the same two goals as Mr. Miyagi : (1) testing his students/readers, and (2) teaching his students/readers how to be students/readers.  As we plow through the difficult maze of the Masnavi only those who have got the 'right stuff' will be able to stick with it, while those who don't will likely close the book in frustration and pick up something a little easier. The Masnavi is therefore a test and one passes the test by sticking with it. The more one sticks with it, however, the more one will discover that those very passages that seem the most boring or difficult are often the ones that most call into question our assumptions and preconceived notions about reading, interpretation, ourselves, and the world.  The Masnavi is therefore also a deep lesson in learning how to be a true student; in learning how to forget one's own expectations in order to accept the expectations of Rumi. It is a teaching that shows us how to get out of the way so that Rumi can step in and show us the way. As Hafez says in one of his ghazals, we are the veil of ourselves and so we must be removed in order to see clearly. The process of reading the Masnavi is the process of discovering and removing such veils.

So who am I and why am I writing this blog?  I am a PhD candidate and I'm currently writing my dissertation on the Masnavi. While I enjoy what I am doing I feel that I have discovered so many wonderful things in the Masnavi that I can't keep it all bottled up while I finish my dissertation and so my intention with this blog is to share my findings with everyone else and hopefully learn from them as well. Each week or two I plan to post a lesson about reading the Masnavi, and using it in order to understand Rumi's poetry as well as ourselves better.  I will proceed step by step so that every lesson will build on the previous one and it is my hope that, by the end, readers of this blog will walk away with the tools necessary to better understand this amazing work of mystical literature.  It is my final hope that readers will discover in the Masnavi a devoted and honest friend who is a wonderful companion in their times of joy and a deep support in their times of need.

So if you're ready to 'wax on' and 'wax off' with me for a while then get yourself a copy of the Masnavi for next week's post.  Any edition will do - you can either find online versions or buy one from Amazon.  Read both the prose introduction and the proem (poetic introduction) and I will see you next week!