From the Introduction to “The Sufi Path of Love”,
William Chittick, Albany, 1983.
Rumi’s major works are the Diwan-i Shams-i Tabriz-i (The Works of Shams of Tabriz – named in honor of Rumi’s great friend and inspiration, the dervish Shams), comprising some 40,000 verses, and the Mathnawi of about 25,000 verses. Additionally, three collections of his talks and letters have been preserved.
The Diwan is made up of some 3,230 ghazals totaling 35,000 verses; 44 tarjiat, poems composed of two or more ghazals, a total of 1,700 verses; and 2,000 rubaiyat, or “quatrains”. Its creation spanned a period of almost thirty years, from sometime after the arrival of Shams in Konya (Turkey), until Rumi’s death. This is an important point, for it is often forgotten that much of the Diwan was composed concurrently with the Mathnawi, during the last twelve or fourteen years of Rumi’s life.
The Mathnawi comprises six books of poetry in a didactic style (designed or intended to teach; intended to convey instruction and information as well as for pleasure and entertainment). Whereas the Diwan contains Rumi’s individual ghazals and other miscellaneous poems arranged according to the rhyme scheme, the Mathnawi represents a single work which was composed in its present order.
Biographers state that Rumi began the Mathnawi at the suggestion of his then-favorite disciple, Husam al-Din Chalabi, who knew that many of Rumi’s devotees also studied carefully the didactic poetry of Sanai-i and Attar, two masters who had preceded Rumi. Such works present Sufi teachings in a form readily accessible and easily memorized, and are better suited to the warmth and fellowship of Sufi circles than the classical textbooks labored over by savants.
When Chalabi presented Rumi with the idea that he should write a work in the style of Sanai-i and Attar, to complement his other poetry, the story is told that Rumi responded by taking down from his turban a slip of paper containing the first eighteen lines of the Mathnawi. From then on Rumi and Chalabi met regularly, Rumi composing and dictating, and Chalabi writing and editing. This work began around 1260 A.D. and continued with certain delays until Rumi’s death in 1273. The sixth book of the work breaks off in the middle of a story, indicating that Rumi apparently died before completing it.
Like the Sufi teaching collections before it, the Mathnawi is a rambling collection of anecdotes and tales derived from a great variety of sources — from the Koran, from folktales, from jokes, and from ecstatic experience. Each story is told to illustrate some point, and its moral is discussed in detail. The subject matter of the anecdotes and more particularly of the digressions, runs the whole of Islamic wisdom, with particular emphasis upon the inward or Sufi interpretation. In contrast to the Diwan, the Mathnawi is relatively sober. It represents a reasoned and measured attempt to explain the various dimensions of spiritual life and practice to disciples intent upon following the Way. More generally, it is aimed at anyone who has time to sit down and ponder the meaning of life and existence.
Rumi dedicated the Mathnawi to Husam Chalabi, claiming that he was the only one who understood the vast and secret order of that work.