In Week 9, we focused on sufi piety through ghazal, also known as the lyrical love poem, and mathnawi, also known as the narrative epic. There was particular focus on works by the 13th century poet Jalaluddin Rumi, Hafiz, and Farid ud-Din Attar’s The Conference of the Birds (which we read for section in a different week but is an example of mathnawi). For my ghazal/mathnawi project, I focused on the ghazal “Andak Andak” by Rumi, so I thought this would be a good chance to focus on a mathnawi.

The Mathnawi is a long poem (and technically, they can be never-ending), usually detailing a moral lesson and composed with a specific structure. John Renard, in Seven Doors to Islam, writes that “religiously oriented mathnawis have three kinds of content: romantic, ethical, and mystical” (117). All three kinds are less passionate and personal than ghazals as they focus more on themes than on interpersonal relationships. In A Two-Colored Brocade by Annemarie Schimmel, the author describes the poem’s formal requirements. The overarching metric system is called arud and it dictates the length of syllables. Each poem consists of bayt, or sections of two-lined verses, which rhyme. These are further divided into hemistichs and then divided again to form four sections, called musammaj. Poets vary in their fluency of the form, with some like Rumi writing so fluently that one cannot read or hear its constraints. Additionally, as with ghazals, mathnawi are often ambiguous and harbor wordplay.

The Mathnawi began in Iran, with San’ai penning a poem about Sufi traditions and stories from India. Attar came next, but it was Rumi who truly shined with The Mathnawi, commonly referred to as “The Persian Qu’ran” for its magnificence and stellar use of the form. This 50,000 line epic flows in and out of hadith quotes, local stories, and commonly told fables. It ends with the lesson that one must be less earthly and physically-concerned to connect fully with God, a message similar to that of The Conference of the Birds, when the birds, who began the arduous journey self-centered, reach a lake and see their own reflection rather than Simorgh.

With the inspiration of themes from A Two-Colored Brocade, I have composed my own mathnawi below. Common themes include people from the Qur’an, the concept of “amana” – the burden of love earthly beings had to carry instead of being in heaven – the names and beauty of the beloved, nature and natural elements, and the story of Joseph. The best stories are ones that detail a lover’s patience or the triumph of love over evil forces.

I have decided to write about the moment the Zulaykha and her women saw Joseph and were immediately entranced by his beauty. This story was one of the first stories we read (in the Renard readings) so not only is this a compelling story about a follower enveloped in love for his beloved, but as my last blog post, it brings the lessons of this class full-circle.


The capable leader invited them, the ladies sat composed

Around the ornate rug they waited, this was only supposed


“Ladies, I have a wish,” she exclaimed, and they listened eagerly

For each woman gathered, to see more than chief’s wife hopefully


A hush falls like a heavy footfall, as she explains her urges,

She spills the secrets of her inner source, and the tension among them falls and surges


Fruits like precious jewels glisten, their hands begin to peel

Each woman whispering to herself, what exactly is his appeal?


“A treat,” she says, “and a lesson for you all”

She calls out to Joseph, who waits down in the hall


His light tread, just one foot placed

A sudden rush, their eyes make haste


His pupils touch the floor, his breath a light breeze

Stately calm stature, the most perfect knees


Light upon light, beauty upon beauty!

His innocence and radiance, his serenity and purity


Truly a prince, enveloped in the ethereal!

Truly a prince, there can be nothing more real!


Astounded were the ladies, as they looked down

The flesh of their hands cut, and red dew drops on their gown


“Oh, this is not a man!” the cries echoed around them

“This is an angel,” the whispers swirled around them


She stood in her place, and looked with longing and need

Like Bilqis and Solomon, a union not yet complete


“Now you understand,” she announced quite boldly

“What I mean when I say, I love that man dearly.”


Not a sound in the room, for the women believed it so

That the fault was not their queen’s, it was the way, too, their hearts would go


I took care to rhyme the couplets and honor the hemistich structure. I tried to use words that had more complex meanings like “suppose” and “surges” as well as metaphors like “a hush falls like a heavy footfall” and variation in phrase lengths to add ambiguity to the poem. The eighth couplet features “Light upon light,” a favorite line of poets to describe the beloved’s radiance and so here, I have employed it to describe Joseph’s overwhelming radiance. The Bilqis and Solomon line references the story of the Queen of Sheba, who is summoned by Solomon, recognizes the throne he disguised, and accepts his faith. Theirs is a love story, based on Sura 27, about a lover submitted to her beloved, so I thought it fit aptly here when Zulaykha admits she is overwhelmed.