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  • Rumi: Teachings
  • James Bockmier
Rumi: Teachings. Edited by Sayed Gahreman Safavi. London: London Academy of Iranian Studies, 2008. Pp. 292.

Rumi: Teachings, edited by Sayed Gahreman Safavi, is a collection of two dozen or so thematically linked essays from various authors, among whom are some of the established names in the field of Islamic philosophy including Nasr, Chittick, and Leaman. All the essays proved to be equally rewarding to this reader. The editor groups them into five sections titled as follows: "Principles and Style," "The Structure and Methodology of Mathnawi," "The Relationship between Man and God," "Love in Mawlawi Rumi's Works," and "The Interrelation and Influence of Mawlawi with and upon other Scholars."

This book is as concerned with Rumi's poetic teaching methods as with his doctrinal teachings. For at least one reader this is a welcome departure from whatever expectations the title engenders. While most of the two dozen or so essays deal primarily with the subject matter and themes of Rumi's poetry, a number of what may well be the most intriguing contributions focus on its form, structure, and composition.

Prima facie this may appear to be of interest only to the literary specialist, and even then nothing particularly earth-shattering. After all, this is the sort of stuff so much literary criticism dwells upon generally (albeit somewhat less so since the discipline's postmodern turn). Yet such a response neglects one crucial variable: Rumi's reputation for "unstructured" and "formless" poetry. Normally, calling poetry "unstructured" and "formless" might as well equate to calling it "bad." Given the universal acclaim affording Rumi the status of a great poet, this would make him an exception to what should be a truly exceptionless rule.

However, the essays in this volume explain that this is only an apparent exception. In recent years researchers at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London have uncovered a "macro-compositional" pattern in Rumi's Mathnawi. This pattern appears on a number of different structural levels (as in fractal "self-similarity") and is empirically testable—it has, in fact, passed many such tests. The pattern itself is a symmetrical arrangement of parallel passages, much like an "arch form" in musical composition. For instance, Weightman's essay analyzes the structure of Mathnawi's first discourse (comprising its first nine sections) as A-B-C-D-E-D*-C*-B*-A*.

Unfortunately, the essays addressing the aesthetic structure of Rumi's poetry are rather distinct from those addressing the doctrinal dimensions. Little in this collection links the two. Yet the SOAS researchers' findings may perhaps have as great a potential for contributing to our understanding of the philosophy of Rumi's poetics as the art of Rumi's poetry. One best makes such a strong, organic connection between the two for Muslims and other religiously or spiritually oriented people who see art as a [End Page 551] means rather than an end, an instrumental good conducive to God-qua-Sumum-Bonum. An autonomist approach of pure aestheticism fails to ascend the ladder of Beauty, but stops to permanently admire a single rung. Meanwhile, a purely philosophic or religious approach to criticism may climb other ladders toward God, yet neglect the one that art best and most directly serves.

At least in art objects, as hylomorphic beings, beauty reveals itself as a property of form and—more specifically—of proportion. Plotinus made sharp and astute criticisms of the idea of the beauty-means-proportion doctrine as it precludes the beauty of the simple and immaterial. However, at least at the level of hylomorphic objects (natural or artistic), the doctrine appears sound. The trick is correlating the proportion doctrine with the insights of Plotinus. The words of the medieval Christian Neoplatonist philosopher Robert Grosseteste—as Umberto Eco quotes him in the Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas—appear to do so beautifully:

[Light] is beautiful in itself, for its nature is simple and all of it is there at once. Wherefore it is integrated in the highest degree and most harmoniously proportioned and equal to itself, for beauty is a harmony of proportions.1

According to Grosseteste's example of light (standing...


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