The Ebb and Flow of “The Ocean inside a Jug”: The Structure of Book One of Rūmī’s Mathnawī Reconsidered

in Journal of Sufi Studies
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Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī’s Mathnawī has long been considered to be a poem without an organizational plan as if produced extemporaneously, despite the fact that its approximately 26,000 verses are divided fairly evenly into six books that follow the same general format. Recent studies (Safavi and Weightman, 2009; Karamustafa, 2010; Williams, 2013) have re-examined the question of the structure of the poem. This article contributes to this discourse by focusing on Rūmī’s own comments about his idiosyncratically frequent departures from his narratives, as well as on a significant passage of the first book of the Mathnawī which both corresponds to Rūmī’s expressed intentions and raises questions about the theory of Safavi and Weightman. It is argued here that Rūmī deliberately prevented the reader from becoming distracted from his immediate message to them, whether through the anticipation of the endings of stories or through any attempt to situate verses within an overall plan. It is proposed that Rūmī would not have wished an organizational plan to be prominent, and this, rather than an esoteric explanation, can better explain the lack of any obvious plan for the poem.

The Ebb and Flow of “The Ocean inside a Jug”: The Structure of Book One of Rūmī’s Mathnawī Reconsidered

in Journal of Sufi Studies




J. Baldick“Persian Ṣūfī Poetry up to the Fifteenth Century,” in History of Persian Literature From the Beginning of the Islamic Period to the Present Dayed. G. Morrison (Leiden: E.J. Brill1981) 124–6. The frame story of ʿAṭṭār’s Ilāhī-nāma takes the form of a caliph questioning his six sons in turn about what they desire the most with their responses being in turn a beautiful virgin magic a cup that reveals the world’s mysteries the Water of Eternal Life Solomon’s ring with mysterious powers and the ability to practice alchemy (see ʿAṭṭār Ilāhī-nāma ed. F. Rūhānī [Tehran: Kitābfurūshī-yi Zuwwār 1961]). As should be immediately evident Baldick’s translation of the wishes of the sons in this frame story into themes for books of the Mathnawī is not direct or straightforward.


Baldick“Persian Ṣūfī Poetry up to the Fifteenth Century” 126.


Safavi and WeightmanRūmī’s Mystical Design220.




See Baldick“Persian Ṣūfī Poetry up to the Fifteenth Century” 125.


See below p. 122 concerning “the Old Harpist” and “the Bedouin and His Wife” stories.


See Jean-Louis MichonLe Shaykh Muḥammad al-Hāshimī et son commentaire de échiquier des gnostiques: un diagramme des étapes et des dangers de l’itinéraire initiatique attribué au Shaykh al-Akbar Muḥyī al-dīn Ibn al- ʿ Arabī (Milan: Arché1998).






Safavi and WeightmanRūmī’s Mystical Design208–9. See also 184 190 where they acknowledge that the material before the final “hidden discourse” is really preparatory to the nafs-i mutmaʾinna which leaves one asking: on that basis isn’t the “nafs-e lawwāma” also preparatory?


J. Baldick“Persian Ṣūfī Poetry up to the Fifteenth Century” 125.


Gustav RichterPersiens Mystiker Dschelál-eddin Rumi. Eine Stildeutung in drei Vortraegen (Breslau: Frankes Drukerei1933) 27–49.


Safavi and WeightmanRūmī’s Mystical Design223. The numbers 18 24 30 and 40 crop up as total numbers of section in the individual “hidden discourses” of Safavi and Weightman but they opt not to try to interpret them.






Karamustafa“Speaker Voice and Audience” 45.


See Julie Scott Meisami (trans.)Haft Paykar: A Medieval Persian Romance (Oxford: Oxford University Press1995) introduction.


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