BURSEVÎ’s interpretation of the Mesnevî: Rûhü’l-Beyân and the manners of interpretation

[“BURSEVÎ’s interpretation of the Mesnevî: Rûhü’l-Beyân and the manners of interpretation”, ‘Wondrous Words: The Poetic Mastery of Jalal al Din Rumi’ British Museum, 13-15 September 2008, London, UK.]

BURSEVÎ’s interpretation of the Mesnevî: Rûhü’l-Beyân and the manners of interpretation

Dr. Ismail Güleç*

Following its completion, Mevlâna’s famous work Mesnevî-i Manevî was translated and interpreted into many languages; and this is still the case. Most translations and interpretations have been made in the Turkish language. Even though there are seven complete interpretations of the Mesnevî in Turkish, there are also individual interpretations that focus only on some of the books, selected verses, the first eighteen verses and the first two verses. The magnitude of interpretations can be attributed to the fact that the Mesnevî has always been considered as a special book amongst the Mevlevi order. However much it is a tradition to read and understand the Mesnevî amongst the Mevlevis it has also always been read amongst other sects and literally considered as an educative source for the personal development of their followers. This is why the number of non-Mevlevi mystics (Sufis) who read, make read and make references to in their own works to the Mesnevî is significant.

One of interpreters who partially interpreted the Mesnevî even though he was not a Mevlevi himself was Ismail Hakkı Bursevî el-Celvetî. Compared to the other famous people of the time we have much more information[1] about Ismail Hakkı Bursevî and know that he was a renown scholar and a Sufi mystic. He was born in the town of Aydos which lies in modern day Bulgaria in 1653. He is known as Bursevî for he lived for many years and later died in the city of Bursa. Bursevî, who started his education in his town of birth, was introduced to Islamic mystic circles at a very young age. He came to Istanbul to get hymn lessons from the sheikh of the Celveti order Osman Fazlî and completed his education there. Bursevî’s maturing in Islamic mysticism and other studies took place during his years in Istanbul. In 1675, he was sent to Skopje by Osman Fazlî with the title of caliph to preach, lead and guide followers and from then till the death of his sheikh he tried to spread out the teachings of the sect under the directives of his leader. Bursa was his last appointment and till the day he died on July 20th, 1725 he guided the public with preaching, debates and the books he wrote. Bursevî’s tomb still exists in the cemetery of the mosque he constructed.

There are various rumours on the number of works written by Ismail Hakkı who was completely intolerant to the unfair laws of his time and made endless trips for this purpose. Nevertheless it is a fact that the figure exceeds one hundred. It interesting to see that even though Arabic was the language used at religious schools; he wrote most of his works in Turkish and used the language as plain as possible within the context. The largest works of Bursevî are respectively; Rûhü’l-Beyân, Ferâhu’r-Ruh, Şerh alâ Tefsiri cüzi’l-âhir li’l-Kâdî’l-Beydâvî, Şerhü Nuhbetü’l-Fiker, Rûhü’l-Mesnevî, Kitâbu’l-Hakkı’s-sarih ve’l-Keşfi’s-sahîh, Kitâbu’n-Netîce, Tuhfe-i Hasakiyye and Kitâbu’n-Necât

Interpretations make up an important part of Ismail Hakkî’s works. As one of the most prominent poets of the time, Ismail Hakkî interpreted the first seven hundred and forty eight verses of the 1st book of the Mesnevî. Though he only interpreted a relatively small portion of the verses, Ismail Hakkî’s wrote a large volume and with this work he became considered as one of the most significant figures of Mesnevî interpretation in Turkish literature. Though he points out to mystic truths thought to have been said in the Mesnevî; according to us he also puts forward a claim.

Ismail Hakkî completed this volume after three years of work, following the death of his sheikh, on the 13th day of July 1704.[2] This is Ismail Hakkî’s maturity period and we can consider Rûhü’l-Mesnevî as one of the first works of this stage.

Ismail Hakkı Bursevî explains the reason behind interpreting the Mesnevî as follows: A friend of Bursevî requests him to write a book so as the Mesnevî could be better understood. Upon this request, he randomly opens a page from the first book of the Mesnevî and starts reading. Later one night, he sees a dream in which he is given a large book. This is the book his friend wants explained. As a result, his friend’s request and the dream he saw makes him start the interpretation of the first book of the Mesnevî.[3]

Also, it is understood that the words Bursevî chose for the introduction, contain a responsive manner to someone. In the introduction, he states that regardless of being a Mevlevi or not, those with wisdom and those who convey too many ideas cannot properly interpret the Mesnevî. According to him, maturity is reaching one’s purpose. He goes onto say that interpretation is not easy and therefore one could damage the Mesnevî during the process. According to him, not only does one have to possess the virtues above, but at the same time, it is a necessity to have inspiration from god, knowledge on the nature of god and an understanding of fine arts free of any imitations.[4]

In another citing, he expresses that he created this work to be a useful soul to students after his death and to speak of the truths just as wise sheiks with holy permission.[5] By explaining his own interpretation as “Fusûs al-Hikam The Second” and exposing a similarity between Ibn Arabî’s work Füsûs, popular amongst mystics, it can be perceived that he values this work and would like more people to read it.

In accordance with the traditions he was brought up with, Bursevî started his work by seeing a dream and as a result of this dream, he completed the interpretation of the first thirty five verses. In the Mesnevî, the first story starts after these verses. He had just completed the interpretation of the first thirty five verses and had come to a point where he was not going to continue with the rest of the Mesnevî, but he saw another dream.

Just as the interpretation was complete and he had left pen and paper, Bursevî sees once more in his dream a reverend person who takes his hand and places a ring in his palm and says “here, take this seal it is Mevlana’s own seal, he sent it to you” and adds “this seal cannot be put on the ground”. Upon this, Bursevî gets hold of a jewellers scale and on one side puts the ring and on the other an object and weighs them. He words the dream he saw as follows: the purpose of the ring is the heart of Mevlana. The designs on the ring are pictures of meaning and reality, drawn onto the heart prior to the world of the unknown. Mesnevî is one of his creations. And he has pointed out to this work for it to be interpreted right to the very end. Upon seeing Mevlana’s wish and upon the meaning of all this, he found will to start the rest of the interpretation.[6]

Even when he was interpreting the 651st verse he still did not know when the book would finish (II/443). After interpreting the 748th verse he was told that the work was well received and perceived indications that this should be the end of the interpretation.[7] Bursevî stated that there would be hundreds of volumes of text, but the part already completed, contains everything; he then added “one sign is enough for the wise and mediate for less or more” and put an end to the interpretation. Mevlana also had said that he had started writing the Mesnevî with inspiration and had ended the text for this holy inspiration had come to an end. It is very significant, in terms of how Bursevî made such a strong connection between his own interpretation and the original text that, he also says he started the interpretation with inspiration and ended with inspiration. As a result an incomplete interpretation of an actually incomplete text has been created.

The Manner of Interpretation

In times when classical poetry was written and read Persian works such as Bostan, Gülistan, Hafız Divanı, Mantıku’t-Tayr, Mesnevî as well as Arabic works such as Kaside-i Bürde, Muallaka and the eulogies of Ibn Farız were often translated and interpreted in a classical style. The method between these interpretations varied according to if they were in verses or in prose, the language and contents, the personality of the interpreter and to which audience it was meant for. While the explanation was more eminent in interpretations of verses, it can be observed that more philological explanations are given in the interpretations of prose. The words that make up the passage are first explained, grammatical explanations are given as necessary, then one can sense a move made from level of words to the level of the passage. If the interpreted text has importance for any belief, then the interpretation is to some extent shaped by the concepts and terminology that is used. Even in interpretations of literature texts, it is rare to come across an approach that is shaped by limitations and rules[8].

Looking at the samples available, we see that literature texts are interpreted for two fundamental reasons. The first occurs in the manner of explaining special names and concepts mentioned in the text, thinking that the reader would have insufficient knowledge on the subject. Providing information is the foundation of this manner of interpretations.[9] The second is to use the text for purposes of explaining a system of belief, a way of thinking. However much, Bursevî stated that the purpose of the interpretation was to inform the followers and at times he gave such information; when we look at the work in general, one can say that in his interpretations he adopted the second method mentioned above.

It can be also said that the main issues preventing the Rûhü’l-Mesnevî’ from being read easily in our times, is the use of Arabic and Persian verses and more so the strong presence of mystic terminology and concepts.

Sections of the Interpretation

In his work, from the first verse to the very last one Bursevî has flawlessly adopted a certain method. The method is respectively as: the text, the explanation of the words, the translation, the interpretation, prayer-admonition and verse. Now lets take a look at these sections:

Section 1: Text

This section contains the Persian original of the verse to be explained. The text used by Bursevî was a copy of the Mesnevî’ from his own library. As necessary he also states that he has read several other copies of the Mesnevî’.

Section 2: Explanation of Words

In some exceptional situations it is seen that this section does not exist for some of the verses. This section provides the dictionary meaning of some of the words used in the verse. Additionally there are some explanations given on the grammatical rules and structures. Special names and concepts thought to be unknown by the reader are explained using relevant resources. At times only the meaning is provided for some of the words and at times the meanings of these words are given accompanied by an indication as to which meaning should be considered. These explanations do not always have examples with them. When we look at the information provided in this section, we see that they are only there for informative reasons and are comprised of information gathered from various resources. Often, references to the resources are provided as well. The references most used are dictionaries and grammar books.

Looking at the explanations in this section, we can conclude that Bursevî was proficient in the languages of Arabic and Persian, enough to provide exceptions that could be considered as minute details. If the word in the text is Arabic, Turkish and Persian explanations are given and similarly Persian words are accompanied by their Arabic and Turkish equivalent. If the word is a combination, information is given on how many words it is formed of and according to which grammatical rule it has formed.

It is a fact that Bursevî utilised several dictionaries in the process. One of the facts that differentiate the work from others, is the clear explanations on which word came to what meaning in which language. Amongst the resources he used, are the most fundamental dictionaries in Arabic and Persian.

Section 3: Translation of Verse

After the explanation of words, the Turkish translation is provided. At times these translations can be word for word and at times with the incorporation of comments. In general the two lines are translated together followed by their interpretation, and at times a single line is translated followed by its interpretation.

Section 4: Interpretation of Verse

We already mentioned that in the preface of his work, Bursevî mentions the necessity of two kinds of knowledge. The first is what we call the rational and spiritual knowledge, primarily including the Koran and Mohammed’s sayings as well as the Bible, theology books, books of poetry, books of history and dictionaries[10]. The second is explorative and artistic knowledge obtained from the knowledge of truth of his cult and his own mystic experiences. In any case according to him these verses could only be explained by the knowledge of truth. It is impossible to explain the Mesnevî’ with stories and legends.

In this section Bursevî frequently makes use of both sources of knowledge. In our opinion, this is the section that forms the essence and originality of the work. At times, the explanations he makes based on artistic and explorative knowledge surpass being an interpretation and become an wilful misinterpretation. This can be attributed to the fact that Bursevî had intense mystic experiences. At times it is hard to differentiate if he is interpreting the Mesnevî’ or if he is referring to himself. There are examples where the comments stray away from the subject and turn into Bursevî‘s own thoughts*. These parts can be between a paragraph and several pages.

In his interpretations, Bursevî sometimes criticise certain information he came across in his readings. He occasionally does this by just mentioning that it is wrong; and at times he mentions it is wrong and provides an explanation as to why. Şârih Sürûrî, Kadı Beydâvî, Sâib, Ibn Cevzî, Mesûdî Rıdvan Efendi, Sûdî, Ibn Kemâl and Ebussuud Efendi have all been criticised by Bursevî.

Section 5: Admonition, wish and pray

At the end of his interpretations Bursevî prays or makes a wish. The admonition is frequently in the form a prayer; the wishes can be only just a sentence or a whole paragraph. Another feature of these prayers is the fact they are in Arabic.

Bursevî prays in accordance with the topic he explains. If he is mentioning of issues like the heavens and other nice things, his prayer and wish is mostly in the form of requesting these niceties. If he is mentioning of the devil or bad things like illnesses he wishes from God to be protected from them. There are verse explanations that do not have this section.

Section 6: Example poem

Bursevî generally ends his interpretations with section that features a self-written poem, usually in Turkish, often starting with “Li-muharririhî” and summarising his explanations. It is difficult to say that there is poetic value in these poems. The poems in this section can sometimes be only a line, sometimes a couplet, sometimes a quatrain and sometimes several couples. This section does not exist for every explanation of a verse. There are exceptions where he ends the explanation with a couplet written by someone else.

Conclusion and Evaluation

Rûhü’l-Beyân (Spiritual Meaning) is still a prominent example of interpretation since it has given Bursevî, the title “The Second Mevlana”[11] and is still extensively read since its creation. Regardless of the first volume being only 748 verses long, it is known as an interpretation of the whole of the Mesnevî and is the one of the first to come to mind. According to us, this interpretation has two important features. The first is the fact that, just like modern day researchers, Bursevî has closely followed relevant literature, provided a reference to the information and systematically followed this rule throughout the work. The second feature is that the Mesnevî has proven not to be only a book for Mevlevis, it can be read and understood by any mystic with an appreciation of uniting. It is this feature that transcends the Mesnevî’ from something private to something universal.

When we observe the tradition of Mesnevî’ interpretation, we see that the objective of the interpreters is to help with the good and correct understanding of Mevlevis as an educational book. Modern interpreters, on the other hand are focused on teaching the work and the period it was written, to much later generations by introducing the special names and concepts. Totally different from these two objectives, Bursevî interprets for those who have read and understood the Mesnevî’ with holy delight. This is why it is not easy for the regular reader to read and understand.

At the same time this work is a valuable example showing that there is no similarity between old interpretations and new ones. As we have tried to explain BURSEVÎ literally creates a new work in his interpretation where as modern day interpreters focus only on understanding the text. In our point of view this is significant.

Thank you for patiently listening to me...

The Pattern of Interpretation


literal meaning of a word

Dirîğ, Birkaç ma‘nâya gelir. Burada murâd kıskanmak ve mendir. Velîk istidrâk içindir ki, velîkin’den terhîm ve tahfîf olunmuşdur. Ve bu istidrâk yalnız mısrâ-ı sâniye merhûn değildir. Belki beyt-i âtîye dahî taalluku vardır.

The translation of the verse

Ma‘nâ-yı beyt budur ki; İsâ’dan cânım diriğ değildir. Yâni yoluna canımı kıskanmam. Ve andan anı men etmem ve bu ma‘na çokdan husûle gelir ve vücûd bulurdu. Velâkin ben onun dinî ilmine kati hûb vâkıfım ve ziyâde ittilâım vardır. Pes, eğer bu âne dek fenâ bulsam İsâ’nın ulûm-ı dîniyesi dahi fenâ bulur. Ve ehl-i milleti câhil kalırdı.

Interpretation of the verse

Warning and wish

Bundan maksûd vezîr-i mezbûrun i‘tizâr ve ıdlâl-ı Nasârâyı temennîdir. Bunda işârât vardır. Evvelkisi budur ki; âlim olan kimse mechûl olduğu yerde iktizâ var ise kendini ilâm eylemek gerekdir. Tâ ki, halk onun ilminden müntefi olalar ve hadîsde gelir; [ ] İkincisi budur ki; insan kendine ilsak-ı eşyâ olan cânını mahbûbundan dirîğ etmemek gerekdir, fe-keyfe ki, evlâd u emvâl. Nitekim Hazret-i İbrahim aleyhisselâma vâki oldu. Üçüncüsü budur ki; ulemânın mevti sebeb-i mâtem-i âlemdir. Zira bir suyun bâşı külliyen kesilse insan ve hayvan telef olur. Dördüncüsü budur ki; bu dünyada ki, sicni’l-mü’mindir, tûl-ı meks taleb etmek ifâde ve istifâde niyyetine gerekdir. Tâ ki, istifâde ile cehlden halâs ola ve ifâde ile hayr-i müteaddî olan rütbe-i talîm ve irşâd bula. Hadîsde [45] bu manaya dâirdir.

Falem ve famel.



Hayırsız serv gibi âzâde                  Ne durursun bu fenâ dünyada

Dâne saç git zâd-ı amâle               Biçesin tâ ki, ânı ukbâda (II/44-45)

* Assistant Prof., Sakarya University, Faculty of Education, Department of Turkish Education (www.ismailgulec.net)

[1] For further information see: Yurtsever, İsmail Hakkı Divanı, (Bursa: Arasta, 2000); Ali Namlı, İsmail Hakkı Bursevî, Hayatı, Eserleri ve Tarikat Anlayışı, (İstanbul: İnsan, 2001).

[2] İsmail Hakkı BURSEVÎ, Rûhü’l-Mesnevî II, (İstanbul: Matbaa-ı Amire), 1870, s. 138.

[3] İbid, v. I, p. 2-3.

[4] İbid, v. I, p. 2.

[5] İbid, v. I, p 230.

[6] İbid, v. I, p. 83.

[7] İbid, v. II, p. 579.

[8] Yekta Saraç, “Şerhler”, Türk Edebiyatı Tarihi II, ed. Talat Sait Halman and oth., (Ankara: Kültür ve Turizm Bakanlığı, 2006), s. 124-125. This style can be easily seen especially interpretations to Mesnevî.

[9] İbid, s. 124.

[10] If we classify according to the subject matters we see that he referred to Divans (84) mostly. 22 Dictionaries, 20 of various literary works follow. Bursevî bibliography includes 17 interpretations and 15 mystic works 11 Islamic Doctrine, 7 geography and history, 5 islamic jurisprudence, 5 philosphy logic, 5 grammar, 3 hadith, 2 biography and bibliographia, 2 Kuran sciences, 1 morals, 1 calculation, 1 astronomy 1 Ethics-cathecism books.

* Other mesnevi interpreters have this characteristic as well.

[11] Mahir İz, “Necati Lugal”, Necâti Lugal Armağanı, (Ankara: TTK, 1968), s. 58.

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