عبدالکريم سروش

9 May 2007 ,Istanbul 

The Relationship between the Mathnawi and the Qur'an


 Abdolkarim Soroush



Every inch of the Mathnawi reveals that Jalal-al-Din Rumi, the ardent mystic, was deeply attached to the Qur'an. In the Mathnawi as a whole, there are more than two thousand instances in which the verses of the Qur'an have been cited or meanings and words derived from it. Perhaps only Abu-Hamid al-Ghazzali's Revival of the Sciences is comparable in this respect. This is the most obvious relationship between the Qur'an and the Mathnawi, and there has been a great deal of research into this.

But the second relationship is the relationship between the Prophet and the Qur'an. Rumi considers the Qur'an to be both the word of God and the word of the Prophet. In fact, in many instances, he goes so far to suggest that the Prophet is no more than 'a cover' for God's action. In other words, God is both the speaker and the hearer and the Prophet is like someone who has been bewitched by fairies and has had words put into his mouth. "If this is the way of fairies and jinni / how much the more so for the God of fairies / Although the Qur'an came from the Prophet's lips / anyone who says it wasn't said by God blasphemes / He's slipped a cover over the sun / In truth, see it as the word of God"

In other words, the Prophet's experience of union with God and the losing of himself during revelation leaves no distance between them and the words can be attributed to either one of them; just as the lover, Majnun, because of his union with the beloved, Leila, was afraid that if he was injured and bruised, she, too, would be injured and bruised. "I fear that as the surgeon's knife approaches me / it will suddenly cut into Leila's skin / Who am I but Leila? Who is Leila but me? / We're one spirit in two skins"

More importantly, Rumi believes that the Qur'an is a depiction and a mirror of prophets' states of being or dispositions (not a depiction of their stories). He says this much explicitly and leaves the rest to the intelligent reader. Is it not possible to conclude that, as far as Rumi is concerned, the Qur'an is also a reflection of the Prophet of Islam's dispositions? In other words, that the Prophet's personality and his changing states/dispositions have also been reflected in the Qur'an? If there are ups and downs in the Qur'an's eloquence and expressiveness (and there is); if there are expansions and contractions and repetitions and variations in the stories that are told (and there are); if there is severity and mercy and gentleness and harshness in the language of the Qur'an (and there is), is this not a product of the Prophet's varying dispositions? And does this not open a new door to understanding the Prophet's 'spirit' and the truth of revelation and the (tale?) of the Qur'an? "The Qur'an is the prophets' states of being / the pure fish in the ocean of God / When you approach the Qur'an of God / you mingle with the prophets' spirits / If you read the Qur'an and don't understand it / cast an eye on God's friends and prophets"

There can be no doubt that that contraction and expansion, too, comes from God, and that fish are nothing without the sea, and that therein lies their life, their food and their medicine. "Water is everything to fish / food, drink, garments, medicine and sleep / Those who sleep may need sentries to watch over them / but of what use are sentries to fish?"

But the third relationship is the relationship between the Qur'an and readers. Rumi offers many wise points on this, including the idea that, from beginning to end, the Qur'an teaches people the lesson of 'the rejection of causality' and shows them that causes are neither here nor there and that God is everything. Of course, habit invites us to use causes but the discerning eye can see that causes are nothing but 'a cover': "All of the Qur'an is a lesson that rejects causality / from start to finish, the Qur'an says no to causality"

Another point is that there are many 'unreasonable' remarks in the Qur'an and, instead of interpreting them hermeneutically on the basis of reason, we have to interpret our own being. That is to say, in the words of past philosophers, we have to acquire 'a second nature' in order to understand them. One such instance is the Qur'an's reference to the singing of God's praises by all trees and inanimate objects. Rumi takes the Mu'tazilites to task for twisting the meaning of this verse away from its apparent meaning and saying that trees remind us that we should sing God's praise: "Given that trees remind you to sing God's praise / the chain of events is like the trees uttering a reminder to you"

Rumi tells them that they should change their ears instead so that "You'll hear inanimate objects sing the praise of God / and rid yourselves of the siren song of interpretation"

More importantly, in keeping with the ears and eyes that they acquire, people will understand the Qur'an's utterances in different ways. In other words, Rumi maintains that someone who has been the addressee of certain utterances until today may cease to be their addressee in the future or vice versa. As if he realizes that his name is no longer being called or that they are saying something different to him. This is the meaning of approaching Scripture and God's word in a personal way and opening one's entire personality (not just one's mind) to it. This point has been expressed in the most charming way in the story of Hamzah, the Prophet's uncle, who used to wear body armour when he was young, and, when he was an old man and had become a Muslim, he used to go into battle without armour. They said to him: "When you were young and strong / you never went to war without armour / Why, now that you're old and frail / have you turned so reckless?"

Hamzah said in reply (and it is, in fact, Rumi who is putting these word's in Hamzah's mouth): Then I was the addressee of the verse that says, God has asked you not to invite death, but, today, I am the addressee of the verse that says, Rush to Me. Because, then, I thought of death as the end, whereas today I see death as the epitome of life and felicity.

The fourth relationship is the status that the Mathnawi has in Rumi's eyes. He explicitly and without mincing his words suggests that his book is comparable to the Qur'an, and he sees similarities between the Qur'an and the Mathnawi both in terms of their effect and in terms of their (longevity?). For example, in response to critics and detractors, who used to say that there was nothing of great philosophical or mystical value in the Mathnawi and that it consisted of nothing but stories that 'children could understand', Rumi replied that the exact same charge could be levelled at the Qur'an. He recalled that the Qur'an had been described by some as consisting of 'ancient legends' which spoke of nothing but "Joseph and his wavy locks / Or Yaqub's love for Zulaykha". But, Rumi added, the Qur'an had endured and the sneering had passed away. "O ignorant people! / you who considered the Qur'an fictitious / Depicting it as a fairy tale / you sowed the seeds of blasphemy / Where have you gone to now? / you've turned into fairy tales"

And, by analogy, he suggests that the Mathnawi, too, will endure and will not be harmed by detractors' sneers. Rumi even resorts to discourteous language here in response to the cynics and, in keeping with the Qur'an, which likened deniers to donkeys fleeing from a lion, Rumi says: "You bark like rabid dogs / you deny the Qur'an's truth / this lion is not one that you can escape / there's no escaping the curse of God"

Rumi also attributes the composition of the Mathnawi to some kind of 'divine inspiration' and 'supernatural events', as if the poetry descended onto his heart and tongue in circumstances in which he was not himself: "At every moment, I long to be silent / At every moment, I try to repent / but, again and again, it makes me speak / one hundred times, it brings me to speech / You, within, who want me to speak / please assist me or stop requesting it"

Even more strange and spectacular than this is Rumi's explicit assertion in the book's introduction that the Mathnawi is 'the greater jurisprudence (fiqh) and the more brilliant divine law (shar')', which, like the Qur'an, can both guide and misguide; which cannot be grasped but by the hands of the pure; and which was sent down by God and no falsity could find its way therein. And, in Vol. 6, Rumi says that, in much the same way as the Prophet had said of the Qur'an, some of the Mathnawi's contents served to guide and some served to misguide.

And the fifth and final relationship is the Mathnawi's position in Islamic culture as a whole. If we see the Qur'an as the Book of Awe, then the Mathnawi is the Book of Joy. The language of the Qur'an is, more than anything, the language of fear and, when love is occasionally mentioned, it is not expanded on at great length. And the believers are those who, when they hear the names of the damned, their hearts tremble. And the Qur'an is a book that - had it been revealed to a mountain - the fear of God would have ripped the mountain asunder. Although this fear is a kind of 'lover's mortification', the mortification has the upper hand over the love, and the fear outpaces the affection. But the Mathnawi is the '(market stall?) of union' and this is a union that is born of love: "Bravo to love that so masterfully unites a hundred thousand droplets / just as the potter unites grains of dust to form a jug"

This love, which is the Mathnawi's key word and its midwife, brings both joy and unity; it both transforms an ogre into an angel and brings an end to sorrow; it both (surpasses divine law?) and lends courage to the lover; it grants not just generosity but also loquacity; not just munificence but also joy; not just good temper but also success; it both kills and brings to life; it kills both greed and envy. And, in a word, it is God's regent on earth. Or, as he goes so far as to say in the Diwan-e Shams, this love is identical to God. "Last night I was aflame, my love saw me and said: / Don't shout, don't fuss, say nothing! / On the road to spirit, there appeared a soul-like moon / how sweet is the journey to spirit, say nothing! / I said, tell me what this is, I must know or go insane / Be as you like, came the reply, but say nothing! / I said, Is this the face of an angel or a human? / 'Tis neither angel nor human, say nothing! / I said, O spirit, have a fatherly heart, is that not a description of God? / It is, came the reply, but for your father's sake, say nothing!"

It was not for nothing that, in the history of Islamic culture, ascetic and fearful Sufism preceded the Sufism of love, and that Abu-Hamid al-Ghazzali stepped into the arena of culture before Rumi did. It was only by passing through fear and asceticism that Rumi arrived at love. Perhaps it can truthfully and dramatically be claimed that the Mathnawi rescued a (condensed and wronged?) truth from (neglect and abstraction?), and so breathed life into it and made it so corpulent as to make the resulting product life- and faith-giving in its own right. The Qur'an was the truth of love. Rumi placed the Mathnawi's Book of Love beside the Qur'an's Book of Awe, and he offered the lover's joy in contrast to the ascetic's sorrow. And he gave the single-winged bird of religion the gift of a second wing, so that it could fly more evenly and more joyfully. His religion was the religion of love, which was distinct from all other religions. He replaced servitude with ardency, for, to him, the Beloved was beguiling as well as mysterious. And he elevated munificence above religious law. "For munificence is to give without any cause / religion never speaks of the need for sacrifice / Being in love is neither mastery nor servitude / you demand no reward for being in love / The religion of love is distinct from any other religion / it is the religion of the lovers of God"




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