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Listen: Commentary on the Spiritual Couplets of Mevlana Rumi

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Commentary on the Spiritual Couplets
of Mevlana Rumi
 
Kenan Rifai
Translated by Victoria Holbrook
 
ISBN: 9781891785870

Rumi's six-volume Masnavi is recognized as a classic of the mystical epic, which employs narratives in verse form to convey the terms of spiritual experience. Due to its complexity and the layers of symbolism, the Masnavi has typically been read through the medium of a commentary. 

In this commentary of the Masnavi, Kenan Rifai (1867-1950) clarifies the narrative line, comments on symbolic implications, and connects Rumi's verse to passages from the Qur'an, the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, and the sayings and poems of Sufi masters in Arabic, Turkish, and Persian.  It is this rich multilingual texture that gives Kenan Rifai’s commentary its particular flavor.  His explanation conveys the multiple levels of reference and allusion that were typically brought to bear in study circles where Rumi's verses were recited and discussed.  There is a certain informality in the style of Kenan Rifai’s commentary that distinguishes it from the more scholastic approach of its predecessors. 


Most readers of Rumi in the West are unaware that, for centuries, muslims in much of the world have looked upon him as an outstanding guide on the path of achieving oneness with God.  Holbrook’s highly readable translation of Rifai’s Listen! goes a long way toward showing how rumi has been understood in his own cultural context down to modern times.
— William C. Chittick, Professor, Department of Asian and Asian-American Studies, Stony Brook university

For all of us Rumi lovers who have adored Rumi’s sublime poetry, here is the answer to our prayers:  a rich, profound, and yet accessible commentary on Rumi’s masterpiece, the Masnavi.  The lovely translation, by the superb scholar Victoria Holbrook, of Kenan Rifa’i, stands out as the definitive English language commentary on Rumi’s writings. Kenan Rifa’i stands as an heir to the ottoman wisdom of Sufism, yet is fully situated as a modern being whose sensitivities make this commentary a bridge between our world and the world of Rumi, even as Rumi’s own being and writings bridge earth and heaven. Drink it with heart and soul!
— Dr. Omid Safi, Religious Studies: UNC-Chapel Hill

Rumi’s Masnavi is a monument of spiritual wisdom, a roadmap for the soul, a cleansing for the heart, an illumination for the spirit. it is a blessing to have a companion like the respected Kenan Rifai when entering the paradise of the Masnavi. He offers us something rare in these times: a perspective that comes from great knowledge and a living tradition of gnosis.
— Kabir Helminski, Sufi author, Mevlevi Shaikh

What a gift! We are grateful to Victoria Holbrook for conveying into English Ken’an Rifai’s beautiful commentary on Rumi’s Masnavi. For the lovers of Mevlana Rumi this will be a great blessing, enlivening their researches and enlightening their hearts.
— Camille Helminski, translator of Rumi & author of Women of Sufism; co-director of The Threshold Society


Kenan Rifai was a major figure in late Ottoman Sufism who navigated the transition from the Ottoman caliphate through the Republican period into the era of Turkish secularism.  He can be viewed as a traditionally educated but modernizing figure, combining an expertise in Arabic and Persian texts with an interest in modern French literature.  He supervised the transformation of his branch of the Rifai Sufi order into a spiritually oriented civil society movement that includes prominent women leaders in Turkey.  This work is not a technical demonstration for scholars; rather, it is a close transcription of how a learned Ottoman Sufi would have explained the significance of the Masnavi to an audience of students in oral conversation.  Kenan Rifai interprets Rumi’s Masnavi in Rumi’s Muslim religio-cultural context.  Rather than treating Rumi as an isolated figure who transcends all cultural and religious identities, this commentary situates him in terms of the main Sufi traditions and presents him as his principal heirs understood him.    As the only English commentary on Rumi’s Masnavi available in print, thanks to the meticulous and beautiful translation by Dr. Victoria Holbrook, this highly accessible volume is an exceptional contribution to the understanding of a key figure in Islamic mysticism, Jalal al-Din Rumi, as seen in the Ottoman Sufi legacy culminating in Kenan Rifai.


Kenan Rifai (Thessaloniki 1867 – Istanbul 1950). His father, Abdulhalim, was a member of a dynastic Turkish family from Plovdiv, and his mother, Hatice Cenan (Khatidje Djenan) was the key person who opened the gates of moral and spiritual world to him. She introduced her son to the guidance and supervision of her murshid (spiritual guide), Sheikh Edhem Efendi. Having graduated from Galatasaray High School, he was given a position at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, while, he studied law at the university.

He worked as a director for Provincial Directorates of National Education in various Ottoman cities and as a principal for a High School in Medina.  Returning to Istanbul, he worked as a French language instructor at Boys’ College of Teachers, as a Council Member at Scientific Research Center, the Principal at Dar-ush Shafaka High School (a prestigious school dedicated to orphans) and a member at the Education Council. During the time when he was the Principal at Medina High School, he was in the service of great sheikh (Sheykh-il Meshayikh) Hamza Rifai. After four years of exclusively endowed spiritual training and guidance, he was given the permit to teach and guide, thus became a “murshid”. He began to teach his murids (his aspirants i.e. followers) Islamic Mysticism and Sufism at Altay Lodge in Istanbul that her mother had built. In addition to his native language, Turkish, he was fluent in French, German, Arabic, Persian, Greek, Circassian and English.


Table of Contents
Foreword to the english edition of Commentary on The Spiritual Couplets xiv
Preface by Cemalnur sargut xv
Preface by Carl W. ernst xvi
Translator’s note xx
The spiritual Couplets Beginning 1
The story of how a padishah fell in Love with a Girl and bought her 11
The inability of the physicians to cure the Girl becomes evident to the padishah 
and he turns to the Court of God and dreams of the friend 14
Beseeching the Lord, who is Guardian of Success, for Success in Observation 
of Right Conduct in every Circumstance, and explicating the Grave Consequences 
of a Lack of right Conduct  18
The meeting of the shah with the Divine physician whose Coming had been 
announced to him in a Dream 20
The padishah brings the physician to the patient’s Bedside so that he may 
see her Condition 21
The friend asks the padishah if he may be alone with the Girl in order to discover 
the Cause of her affliction 28
The friend understands what the illness is and presents the matter 
before the padishah 32
The shah sends messengers to samarkand to fetch the Goldsmith 33
Explaining that the slaying and poisoning of the Goldsmith was according to Divine
Suggestion, not Lust of the Soul and Vicious Intent 35
The story of the Grocer and the parrot and how the parrot spilled oil in the shop 39
The story of the Jewish padishah who killed the Christians out of fanaticism 49
The Vizier Instructs the Padishah to Stage a Deception 50
The Christians Accept the Vizier 52
The Christians Follow the Vizier 52
The Story of the Caliph who saw Leyla 56
Concerning the Vizier’s Envy 60
The Sharp-Witted among the Christians Realize the Vizier is Deceitful 61
How the Shah Secretly sent Messages to the Vizier 61
Concerning the Twelve Tribes of the Christians 62
The Vizier Confounds the Tenets of the Gospel  62
Demonstrating that Contradiction is in the Surface Form, not in the Reality 
of the Way 66
The Downfall of the Vizier in this Deception 69
The Vizier Hatches Another Plot to Lead the Tribe Astray 74
The Vizier Puts Off the Disciples 75
The Disciples Repeat their Request that the Vizier Break his Retreat 77
The Vizier Replies that he will not Break his Retreat 79
The Disciples Object to the Vizier’s Seclusion 79
The Vizier makes the Disciples lose Hope that he will Abandon Seclusion 84
The Vizier Separately Appoints each one of the Emirs as his Successor 85
The Vizier Kills Himself in Seclusion 86
The People of Jesus—peace be upon him—ask the Commanders, “Which one 
of you is the Successor?” 87
Explaining “We do not differentiate any one of His messengers from another,” 
for all are Messengers of God the Truth 88
The Commanders Contend for the Succession 89
Honoring of the Words in Praise of Mustafa, Peace be upon Him, Mentioned 
in the Gospel 92
the story of another Jewish padishah who made efforts to Destroy the religion 
of Jesus 93
How the Jewish Padishah made a Fire and put an Idol beside it, saying, 
“Whoever Prostrates Himself to this Idol shall escape the Fire.” 97
how a Child raised his voice in the midst of the fire and urged the people 
to Come into the fire 99
How a Man spoke the Name of Muhammed, Peace be upon him, derisively, and his
mouth remained twisted 102
The Jewish padishah reproaches the fire 102
The Story of the Wind which Destroyed the People of Ad during the Time of Hud,
 upon him be peace 106
How the Jewish padishah engaged in mockery and Denial and did not take 
the Counsel of his own advisors 108
How the Wild Beasts told the Lion to trust in God and abandon effort 111
How the Lion answered the Beasts and spoke about the Benefit of effort 111
How the animals asserted the superiority of trust in God over effort 
and Acquisition 112
How the Lion Asserted the Superiority of Effort and Acquisition 
over trust in God and submission 112
How the animals asserted the superiority of trust in God over struggle 112
The Lion again asserts the superiority of effort over trust in God 114
The animals again assert the superiority of trust in God over effort 116
How Azrael Glanced at a Man and the Man Fled to the Palace of Solomon, 
and exposition of the superiority of trust in God over effort and the paucity 
of Benefit in effort 117
The Lion again asserts the superiority of effort over trust in God and 
expounds the advantages of effort 118
How the superiority of effort over trust in God was established 121
How the animals objected to the hare’s Delay in Going to the Lion 121
The hare’s answer to the animals 122
The animals object to what the hare said 122
The hare answers the animals 123
About the hare’s Knowledge and the virtue and advantage of Knowledge 125
The animals ask the hare the secret of what he is thinking 126
How the hare withheld the secret from them 127
The story of the hare’s stratagem 128
The falseness of the fly’s shallow anagogy 133
How the Lion roared at the late arrival of the hare 134
Also in exposition of the hare’s stratagem 136
The hare came to the Lion and the Lion was angry with him 141
The hare apologizes 142
The Lion answers the hare and sets off with him 144
The Story of the Hoopoe and Solomon, demonstrating that when Destiny arrives, 
clear eyes are sealed 146
The Crow impugns the hoopoe’s Claim 149
The Hoopoe responds to the Crow’s Attack  150
The Story of Adam, Peace be upon him, and how Destiny bound his Sight from 
observing the clear Meaning of the Prohibition and refraining from Anagogy 151
The Hare Draws Back from the Lion as He approaches the Well 155
The Lion again asks the Hare why he has lagged behind 159
The Lion looks into the Well and sees the reflection of himself together 
with the Hare 160
The Hare brings the Animals the Good News that the Lion has fallen into the Well 164
The Animals gather round the Hare and speak in Praise of him 166
The Hare advises the Beasts of Prey to not be overjoyed at this 167
Explication of “We have Come from the Lesser Jihad to Return 
to the Greater Jihad”  168
How the Ambassador of Rum came to the Commander of the Faithful Umar,
 may God be pleased with him, and saw the Miracles of Umar, may God be 
pleased with him 170
The Ambassador of Rum finds Umar, may God be pleased with him, 
sleeping under the Palm-Tree 172
The Ambassador of Rum greets the Commander of the Faithful, may God be pleased
with him 173
The Roman Ambassador questions the Commander of the Faithful, 
may God be pleased with him 176
How Adam attributed that Fault to himself, saying, “O Lord, we have done wrong,” 
and Iblis attributed his own Sin to God, saying, “Because You have led me astray.” 181
Explication of “And He is with you wherever you may be.” 184
How the Roman Ambassador asked Umar, may God be pleased with him, about 
the Cause of the Trials of the Spirits in these Bodies of Water and Clay 185
On the Secret of “Let him who desires to sit with God sit with the Sufis.” 189
the story of the merchant who went to india and the parrot that gave him a message
for the parrots of india 192
The attributes of the Wings of the Birds of divine intellects 196
the merchant sees the parrots of india in the Wilderness and gives them 
The message of that parrot 197
Explication of the Saying of Fariduddin Attar, God sanctify his Spirit, “You are 
a Man of Soul, O Heedless One, drink Blood in the Dust; for if the Man of Heart
drink Poison, it will be Honey 199
How the Magicians honored Moses, Peace be upon him, saying: “What is your 
Command?  Shall you cast down your Rod first, or shall we?” 201
the merchant tells the parrot about What he observed of the parrots of india 205
The Parrot hears what those Parrots did and dies in the Cage, and the Merchant 
laments for him 210
Explication of the Saying of Hakim Sanai: “What does it matter whether a Word 
that keeps you from the Path be of Non-Faith or Faith; what does it matter if a Form
that keeps you far from the friend be ugly or beautiful?” and on the meaning of the
Saying of him upon whom be Peace, “Verily, Saad is jealous, and I am more jealous
than Saad, and God is more jealous than I; and out of His Rivalry he has forbidden
foul Acts, both Manifest and Interior.” 220
Return to the story of the merchant 227
How the merchant tossed the parrot out of the Cage and the Dead parrot flew away 229
How the parrot bade farewell to the merchant and flew away 231
The harm in Being prominent and honored by people  232
Explication of “Whatever God wills comes to pass”  234
The Story of the Old Minstrel who in the Time of Umar, may God be pleased with 
him, was starving one Day and played the Harp for God’s Sake 240
Explication of the Hadith, “Verily, there are fragrant Breaths of your Lord in the Days
of our Time; be attentive to them.” 245
The story of how Aisha, may God be Pleased with her, asked Muhammed, on whom
be Peace, “Since it rained today and you went to the Graveyard, how is it that your
Clothes are not wet?” 254
Explication of the verses by hakim sana’i: 
there are skies in the region of spirit 
ruling over the worldly firmament 
in the spirit’s way there are lows and highs 
There are oceans and there are mountains high 258
On the Meaning of the Hadith, “Seize upon the Coolness of Spring . . . ” 260
How Siddiqa, may God be Pleased with her, asked Mustafa, God bless him and give
him Peace, “What was the Mystery of Today’s Rain?” 262
The Rest of the Story of the Old Minstrel and Explication of its Moral  263
How a Voice from the Unseen spoke to Umar, may God be pleased with him, in a
dream, saying, “Give such-and-such amount of Gold from the Public Treasury 
to that Man who is sleeping in the Graveyard.” 267
How the Hannana Pillar moaned when they made a Pulpit for the Prophet, peace be upon
him, because the Community had become great and they said, “We do not 
see your blessed Face when you preach to us,” and how the Messenger and 
his Companions heard that Moaning, and Mustafa conversed with the Pillar plainly   269
The Manifestation of the Miracle of the Prophet, peace be upon him, in the Pebble 
in the Hand of Abu Jahl, may he be cursed, and the Testifying of the Pebble 
to the Truth of Muhammed, blessings and peace upon him 275
The Rest of the Story of the Minstrel and how the Commander of the Faithful Umar,
may God be pleased with him, conveyed to him the Message spoken by the Voice
from the Unseen  277
How Umar, may God be Pleased with him, made him turn his Gaze from the Station
of Weeping, which is Existence, to the Station of Absorption in God, which is Non-
Existence 281
Commentary on the prayer of those two angels who proclaimed in every market 
every Day: “O God, give all who spend freely the like of what they spend!  O God,
bring all misers to ruin!” and explanation that he who spends freely is striving 
on the Path of God and not a Prodigal on the Path of vain Desire   285
story of the Caliph who in his own time surpassed hatim tayyi in Generosity 
and had no Peer 288
story of the poor Bedouin and What passed between him and his Wife dues to their
Penury and Poverty  289
how needy murids are deluded by lying imposters and suppose them to be shaykhs
venerable and arrived and do not know the Difference between the false 
and the true and what cannot grow and what can   290
in exposition of how it may rarely happen that a murid binds himself to a false 
imposter in sincere Belief that he is someone and in this Belief arrives at a station
never dreamed of by his Shaykh, and Fire and Water do not harm him 
although they harm his Shaykh, but this is rare   292
how the Bedouin bade his Wife to have patience and told her of the excellence of
patience and poverty 293
How the Woman counseled her Husband, saying, “Do not speak above your Rank and
station—Why do you say What you do not do?—for although what you say is right,
you do not have that Degree of Trust in God, and to speak above one’s Station and
practice is harmful and will be exceedingly hateful to God  296
How the Man counseled his Wife, saying, “Do not look upon the Poor with Contempt,
but regard the Work of God as Perfect, and do not revile Poverty and the Poor 
in your fantastical opinion of your own indigence 299
Exposition of how the Action of a Person proceeds from the Place where he is, and he
sees everyone from the Circle of his own existence.  Blue Glass shows the sun as
blue, red Glass as red.  When a Glass transcends Color it becomes white and more
truthful than others and the Leader of them all 302
how the Wife attended to her husband and repented for what she had said 305
how the man made himself amenable to the Woman’s entreaty that he seek means 
of Livelihood, and took her Opposition to him as a Sign from God 310
Exposition of how both Moses and Pharaoh are subject to divine Will, as are Antidote
and Poison and Darkness and Light, and how Pharaoh beseeched God in Private not
to destroy his good reputation  312
The Reason why the Wretched are disappointed in both Worlds: “He has lost the world
and the life to come.” 318
How the Eyes of External Sense saw Salih and his She-Camel to be of low Account
and without Kin, for when God wishes to destroy an Army He makes them appear in
the sight of their adversaries to be of low account and few in number although the
Adversary be Superior, and “He made you seem few in their eyes so that God might
bring to pass a thing that was to be done.”  321
on the meaning of “He let the two seas go to meet; between them is a division they do
not seek to cross.” 328
On what it means that the Murid should not presume to do as the Friend does, that
Halva does no Harm to the Physician but is harmful to the Sick, and that Frost and
Snow do no Harm to the ripe Grape but harm the young Fruit which is on the way,
for he has not yet become: “That God may forgive you the wrongs you have 
committed and those to follow.”  333
the sum of the story of the arab and his mate 335
How the Arab set his Heart on his Beloved’s Request and Swore, “In this my 
submission i have no intent of trickery or trial.”  339
How the Woman chose the Means for her Husband to earn a Livelihood, and how he
accepted 344
how the arab carried a Jug of rainwater out of the Desert to Baghdad as a Gift 
to the Commander of the Faithful, believing that Water was scarce there too 347
How the Wife of the Arab sewed the Jug of Rainwater inside felt Cloth and sealed it,
due to the arab’s extreme Conviction that it was precious 349
In Exposition of how the bountiful Giver is in love with the Beggar, just as the Beggar
is in love with Bounty and in love with the bountiful Giver; if the Beggar is more
patient, the bountiful Giver will come to his Door, and if the bountiful Giver is more
patient, the Beggar will come to his Door; but the Beggar’s Patience is Perfection 
in the Beggar, while the patience of the Bountiful Giver is in him a lack 352
the Difference between a person who is poor in God and thirsting for him and one
who is poor without God and thirsting for what is other than He  353
how the announcers and Gatekeepers came forward to honor the Bedouin and accept
his Gift  356
in explication of how a person in Love with the World is like a person in Love with a
Wall struck by Sunbeams, who makes no Effort or Exertion to understand that Radi-
ance and splendor proceed not from the Wall but from the Disk of the sun in the
Fourth Heaven; consequently he sets his whole Heart upon the Wall, and when the
sunbeams return to the sun he is left forever in Despair: “And a barrier is placed
between them and what they desire”   361
How the Arab delivered the Gift, that is, the Jug, to the Slaves of the Caliph 364
The Story of what passed between the Grammarian and the Boatman 366
how the Caliph accepted the Gift and bestowed presents although he had 
absolutely no Need of the Water or the Jug 368
Concerning the Pir’s Qualities and Obedience to him 378
The Legacy of the Prophet, Peace be upon him, to Ali, may God honor his Face: “All
seek nearness to God through some act of obedience.  seek nearness through fellowship
with intelligent and elect bondsmen so that you may have precedence over all.” 381
how the man from Qazvin tattooed the figure of a Lion on his shoulders 
and regretted it on Account of the Needle Pricks  385
How the Wolf and the Fox went to serve the Lion in the Hunt 388
How the Lion tested the Wolf and said, “Come forward, O wolf, and distribute the
Catch among us.” 391
the story of the man who knocked at a friend’s Door and the friend asked who he
was, and he said, “It is I,” and the Friend said, “Since you are you, I will not open 
the door, I know no friend who is ‘I’” 393
Concerning the assertion of God’s unity 395
How the Lion disciplined the Wolf, who showed Disrespect in Distributing the Spoils 399
How Noah, peace be upon him, threatened his people, saying: “Do not wrestle with me,
for I am a veil; in reality you are wrestling with God within it, O forsaken people!” 401
How Padishahs seat gnostic Sufis before themselves, so that with them their Eyes 
may be illumined 404
How a guest came before Joseph, peace be upon him, and Joseph demanded of him 
a Gift and present 406
how Joseph asked the Guest for a Gift 407
How the Guest said to Joseph, “I have brought you a mirror as a gift, so that 
whenever you look into it, you will see you own fair face and remember me.” 410
how the recorder of Divine revelation became an apostate because the ray of rev-
elation struck him and he recited the Verse before the Prophet did, peace be upon
him, and he said, “So I too am the site of Revelation.” 415
How Bal’am son of Ba’ur prayed, “Make Moses and his People turn back frustrated
from this City they have besieged.”  425
how harut and marut relied on their own Chastity and tried to mix with the people 
of the World and came to mischief 429
the rest of the story of harut and marut and how an exemplary punishment was in-
flicted upon them in this world in the pit of Babylon 432
how a deaf man went to visit his sick neighbor 434
the first to bring analogy to bear upon revelation was iblis 438
explaining that one must keep one’s state and intoxication hidden from the ignorant 442
the story of the Contention between the Greeks and the Chinese over the art of paint-
ing and picturing 448
How the Prophet, peace be upon him, asked Zayd, “How are you today and in what
state did you rise?” and Zayd answered him, “This morning I awoke as a believer, 
O Messenger of God.” 452
How Zayd answered the Prophet, peace be upon him, saying, “The States of the 
People are not Hidden from me.” 456
How Slaves and Fellow Servants threw Suspicion upon Luqman, saying that he had
eaten the fresh Fruit they brought 463
The Remainder of the Story of Zayd and his Answer to the Messenger, peace be upon him 466
How the Messenger, peace by upon him, said to Zayd, “Do not speak this mystery 
more plainly than this and preserve conformance.” 472
Returning to the Story of Zayd 475
The Fire that broke out in the City during the time of Umar, may God be pleased 
with him 480
How an enemy Warrior spat in the face of the Commander of the Faithful, Ali, may
God honor his person, and how Ali dropped the Sword from his hand 482
How that Kafir asked Ali, may God honor his person, “How could you throw aside
your sword when you triumphed over one such as i?” 490
How the Commander of the Faithful answered, explaining the Reason why he 
dropped his sword in that Case 493
How the Messenger, peace be upon him, whispered in the Ear of the Stirrup-Holder 
of the Commander of the Faithful Ali, “I tell you, Ali will be slain by your Hand.” 501
How Adam, peace be upon him, marveled at the Error of Iblis and thought himself better 508
Returning to the Story of the Commander of the Faithful Ali, may God honor his 
person, and the Tolerance he showed to his Murderer 512
How the Stirrup-Holder of Ali, may God honor his person, came and said, “For God’s
sake, kill me and deliver me from that fate.” 514
Explaining that the Messenger, peace be upon him, sought to conquer Mecca and be-
yond Mecca not out of Love of worldly Dominion—for he said: “The world is 
a carcass”—but on the contrary, at the divine Command 515
How the Commander of the Faithful Ali, may God honor his person, said to his Com-
panion, “When you spat in my face, my soul was stirred and there remained no
Sincerity of Action; that was what prevented me from killing you.”   519
Glossary 525
Index  529