by Nilab Saeedi

The Arabic term “Naṣīḥat” conveys the efforts aimed at correcting the faults and shortcomings of others. It provides advice to promote virtue and discourage vice, as well as an individual’s efforts to offer enlightenment and guidance for the betterment or detriment of others. Conversely, “Siyāsat” is described as the conscientious care of maintaining an object in a state of sound and proper functioning. It denotes the care and discipline of an animal, especially in horse training, and the responsibility of governing and supervising the affairs of human societies. In various cultural settings, works of literature aim to cultivate conscientious, ethical behavior in society. Within the field of Islamic literature, two distinct genres, namely Naṣīḥat-Nāma (The Book of Ethics) and Siyāsat-Nāma (The Book of Politics) serve as vehicles of social guidance and pedagogy. Within the traditions of Arab and Iranian cultures, numerous works have proliferated, spurred on by the central emphasis in verses and hadiths that have since contributed to the understanding of Islam as a religion based on advice.

Naṣīḥat-nāma embodies moral and didactic compositions within Islamic literature. Islamic societies have historically prioritized the pragmatic application of ethics over theoretical discourse, dealing with behavior that conforms to or contradicts religious precepts as well as traditional and customary ethical norms. Conversely, Siyāsat-Nāma aims to conceptualize the fundamental principles of governance, outlining political virtues such as the necessary attributes of a head of state, the imperatives and pitfalls of governance, the procedures for appointing and supervising government officials, the fiscal management of the Bayt al-Māl (state treasury), the protocols governing inter-state relations, the ruler’s obligations to Allah and the people, and the basic requirements for sustaining the state. Since the arrival of Islam, the Siyāsat-Nāma has served as an indispensable source of advice and recommendations for rulers throughout the Islamic world. Within the vast expanse of Islamic literature, Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī’s (d. 672/1273) magnum opus, the Maṭnawīye Ma’nawī (Spiritual Couplets), stands as an exemplary embodiment of both Naṣīḥat-nāma and Siyāsat-Nāma. Comprising six volumes and some 25,700 couplets in Persian, this seminal work has long informed the basic tenets of Taṣawwuf (Sufism), making it one of the most significant contributions to the Islamic literary tradition. Rūmī’s poetic philosophy transcends poetic composition; rather, he sees poetry as a vehicle for articulating his philosophical insights. He uses expressions that increase the capacity of poetry to encapsulate meaning, asserting the inadequacy of letters to represent complicated concepts fully. Through poetry, Rūmī imparts profound moral, ethical, and political teachings, offering profound insights into Sufi philosophy.

The primary focus of the Maṭnawī is the understanding of Taṣawwuf (Sufism) rather than ethics per se. Rūmī consistently weaves moral elements into his verses within the Maṭnawī, with a particular emphasis on religious ethics. His poetry is devoid of any quest for personal acclaim or prestige. Instead, Maṭnawī aims to serve as a spiritual compass and focuses on prohibitions—especially those relating to worldly attachments. Rūmī castigates materialistic pursuits, hypocrisy, the pursuit of fame, jealousy, the divulging of secrets, and, ultimately, any inclination that diverts humanity from the path to the Ultimate Beloved, the Creator.

از خدا جوییم توفیق ادب
بی‌ادب محروم گشت از لطف رب
بی‌ادب تنها نه خود را داشت بد
بلک آتش در همه آفاق زد

From God we seek the grace of moral art,
Without morals, alone are we lost in the darkness.
Without morality, alone we wander in darkness,
And set all the skies ablaze, a fiery spark

Throughout the Maṭnawī, Rūmī emphasizes the importance of morality, drawing inspiration from the Qurʾān and Sunna to elucidate their principles and guide humanity. He posits that everyone has an origin and a fundamental principle that represents the essence of unity. The implication is that every individual has a beginning and that there is a core principle or idea within them symbolizing Oneness. In Rūmī’s conceptual framework, human beings exhibit distinctiveness and polarity that stem from this origin. He sees the culmination of the human journey in a return to one’s fundamental roots, which embodies the quest for the ultimate source and serves as the focus of a mystic’s endeavors. Rūmī idealizes the perfect human being as one who embodies perfection in both form and spirit, cautioning against a life devoid of the vitality and beauty of existence but also warning against excessive asceticism.

Rūmī holds thought and intellect in high regard, suggesting that eliminating ignorance from one’s mind catalyzes the refinement of the soul. In his view, knowledge emanates from the human soul and spirit, while wisdom is bestowed by God. God gives wisdom to individuals not only to fulfill worldly desires but to transcend them. In Maṭnawī, Rūmī distinguishes two forms of intellect: the conventional intellect acquired through formal education and the “intellect of faith” attributed to Allah. The former, acquired through learning from books, teachers, and schools, makes one superior but exhausting. On the other hand, the latter remains eternally pure and clear, given directly by Allah, and relieves the individual of the burden of protecting their knowledge day and night. Those endowed with this intellect are enlightened by Allah, discern truth during uncertainty, and serve as models for others. Rūmī indirectly addresses ethical issues throughout the Maṭnawī, with each story serving as a parable of guidance and advice. Over time, it becomes natural to draw lessons and guidance from the Maṭnawī, which transcends linguistic boundaries to impart ethics and morality not only to Persian-speaking communities but to all humanity.

Rūmī and his Maṭnawī, typically recognized as sources of guidance and benevolence, can also be viewed through the lens of Siyāsat-Nāma, particularly in Rūmī’s pursuit of truth. Truth, or righteousness, dominates Rūmī’s poetry and is expressed through abstract metaphors such as the sun, the sea, Joseph, the lion, and the king. Among these metaphors, one of the most profound in Rūmī’s cognitive framework is that “Truth is the King,” which encapsulates truth as the ultimate authority. Rūmī draws from his personal experience and chooses “Sulṭān” (kingship) as the symbol to represent and articulate truth. Through such metaphors, Rūmī elucidates the principles of governance and leadership, positioning truth as the central axis around which social order and harmony revolve. Thus, while Rūmī’s teachings are steeped in spirituality and moral guidance, they also offer relevant insights into the principles of governance and the pursuit of truth within Siyāsat-Nāma.

The book Fihe mā fihe (What is in It) contains seventy-one lectures given by Rūmī and compiled from the notes of his disciples. In addition to the discourses, Fihe mā fihe also includes Rūmī’s letters, 120 in all, which provide valuable information about his interactions with the Seljuq rulers. These letters also give an insight into his political worldview. Maṭnawī is not usually consulted for political insights, as Rūmī often expresses contempt for social officials and influential figures. However, his political and social views permeate his work in various ways, intertwining seamlessly with moral exhortations. This holistic perspective addresses both individual behavior and broader societal dynamics.

An important aspect of Rūmī’s ability to transcend religious and linguistic barriers lies in his advocacy against prejudice, which is prominently featured in Maṭnawī. Rūmī argues for tolerance and pluralism, asserting that individuals should be judged and treated within their unique environmental, political, economic, and social contexts. He emphasizes the danger of imposing one’s beliefs on others and warns against actions that lead to social misery. Rūmī encourages openness to new ideas and perspectives and advocates constant re-evaluation of one’s beliefs. He encourages the reader to purify the mind from prejudice and cultivate an open heart when pursuing truth.

Notably, Rūmī extends the avoidance of prejudice into politics, asserting that governments have a fundamental responsibility to promote mutual acceptance and mitigate all forms of prejudice. He warns of the consequences of unchecked linguistic, ethnic, or religious discrimination, which can lead to social discord and undermine the effectiveness of government. Rūmī warns against tyranny and oppression, which he sees as the opposite of justice. Throughout the Maṭnawī, he tells stories that illustrate the consequences of oppression and advises rulers to treat all members of society with fairness and compassion.

ای که تو از جاه ظلمی می‌کُنی
دانک بهر خویش چاهی می‌کَنی
گرد خود چون کرم پیله بر متن
بهر خود چه می‌کنی اندازه کن

O you who do wrong from your lofty perch!
Known for yourself what a pit you are widening.
Around you, like an earthworm’s winding path,
What do you achieve for yourself? Turn back

In several verses, Rūmī notes the tendency of rulers to reject truth and persist in oppression and cruelty against the will of their subjects. At the same time, he distinguishes between the oppression of individuals within society and the tyranny of rulers over their people. Rūmī claims that corruption within society fosters a pervasive atmosphere of distrust and pessimism, resulting in a culture that inherits evil and shame from previous generations.

In his letters, Rūmī emphasizes the importance of entrusting responsibility to individuals based solely on their abilities and skills. He criticizes the assignment of tasks because of arbitrary criteria, claiming that such practices are a source of oppression. The critique particularly applies to rulers and leaders. Rūmī often portrays them as illiterate and ignorant, which leads to the marginalization of scholars and mystics. His personal experiences, including the persecution of his family by a Mongol invasion, likely contributed to his criticism of political authority and ideologies. The political unrest of the Seljuk period also played a role: events such as the Crusades and the Mongol upheavals contributed to an atmosphere of uncertainty and danger that shaped his worldview.

Lastly, Rūmī also offers insights into human personality, viewing rulers as the cause of personality disorders. He attributes societal ills to human immorality and emphasizes the profound impact of individual integrity on social well-being. When discussing the lack of spirituality among rulers, Rūmī warns against the accumulation of power, which, in his opinion, leads to a drift away from justice and spirituality. He supports rulers who fear God and prioritize the welfare of their subjects, but he discourages the pursuit of power and greed. Rūmī metaphorically compares power to disease; he sees the love of power as the greatest darkness of the heart and warns of its potential to fuel oppression and social discord. Instead, he advocates humility and modesty among rulers and stresses the importance of education in promoting personal and social morality. These principles, including opposition to prejudice and belief in equality and acceptance, demonstrate that democratic ideals are deeply rooted in Rūmī’s political thought. He condones social relations based on cooperation, tolerance, and friendship and attempts to formulate a vision of a society in which no individual exercises absolute control over another.

از الوهیت زند در جاه لاف
طامع شرکت کجا باشد معاف
صد خورنده گنجد اندر گرد خوان
دو ریاست‌جو نگنجد در جهان

The divine essence boasts in worldly pride,
Desiring partnership, where can it hide?
A hundred feasters gather ‘round the span of the table,
But two seeking leadership cannot fit into the mortal’s plan

Rūmī’s descriptions of the ideal personality of the ruler, especially that of the Sulṭān, aim to elucidate various facets. He describes the personal attributes of both tyrannical and virtuous rulers to reveal contrasting images of incompetence and ability. Through this portrayal, Rūmī seeks to reconceptualize the virtues that make a ruler worthy of power and position, thus demonstrating the importance of democratic ideals in Sufi philosophy.

Rūmī influence extends far beyond linguistic and geographical boundaries, and his work has left a lasting literary and cultural legacy. Notwithstanding his literary and philosophical brilliance, Rūmī should also be remembered as a distinguished social commentator. He articulates social critique through poetry, presenting insightful political observations veiled in verse and mystical tales. More notably, Rūmī’s criticism of unethical and oppressive governance underscores his dedication to tolerance, equality, and lack of prejudice. He warns against the consequences of violence and tyranny, invoking Islamic teachings to underscore the spiritual implications of immoral acts. Thus, at the heart of Rūmī’s philosophy is the belief that love should replace fear in politics. His poetry provides a profound case that the foundation of love renders coercion and fear unnecessary; violence and tyranny can best be avoided by pursuing justice.

Nilab Saeedi is a researcher at the Institute for Habsburg and Balkan Studies at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna, Austria. She is also pursuing her doctoral studies in history at İbn Haldun University in Istanbul, Turkey. Nilab holds a Master of Arts (M.A.) in Ottoman Literature and a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) with a double major in Modern Languages and Persian Studies. She has also worked in the field of education as a Teaching Fellow at İbn Haldun University. Nilab’s research focuses on early modern Ottoman history, the intellectual legacy of Islamic scholarship, and manuscript studies. Fluent in several languages, including Turkish, English, Arabic, Ottoman Turkish, Persian, Uzbek, Hindi, Urdu, and Kurdish, and with a basic knowledge of German. Nilab is currently working on her doctoral dissertation entitled “MUṢLIḤ AL-DĪN AL-LĀRĪ” (d. 979 / 1572) “AN INTELLECTUAL OF THREE EMPIRES,” which explores the life of a Muslim scholar who played a significant role in the Safavid, Mughal and Ottoman Empires.

Translations by Nilab Saeedi. Edited by Artur Banaszewski

Featured Image: Exhibit of Maṭnawīye Ma’nawī by Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī in the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Canada, Wikimedia Commons.