About R.A. Nicholson and his Translation and Commentary on the Masnavi (2024)

About R.A. Nicholson and his Translation and Commentary on the Masnavi (1)

Reynold Alleyne Nicholson (1868-1945), was the greatest Rumi scholar in the English language. He was a professor for many years at Cambridge Universtiy, in England. He dedicated his life to the study of Islamic mysticism and was able to study and translate major sufi texts in Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Turkish. That a Western scholar of "the first rank" dedicated much of his life to the study and translation of Rumi's poetry was very fortunate.

His monumental achievement was his work on Rumi's Masnavi (done in eight volumes, published between 1925-1940). He produced the first critical Persian edition of Rumi's Masnavi, the first full translation of it into English, and the first commentary on the entire work in English. This work has been highly influential in the field of Rumi studies, world-wide. His critical Persian text has been re-printed many times in Iran and his commentary has been so highly respected there, that it has been translated into Persian (by Hasan Lâhûtî, 1995).

Nicholson also produced two volumes which condensed his work on the Masnavi and which were aimed at the popular level: "Tales of Mystic Meaning" (1931) and "Rumi: Poet and Mystic" (1950).

His earliest translations of selected ghazals from Rumi's Divan ("Selected Poems from the Díváni Shamsi Tabríz," 1898) has been superceded by A. J. Arberry's translations ("Mystical Poems of Rumi," 1968; "Mystical Poems of Rumi: Second Selection," 1979), in that Arberry used a superior edition of the Divan (done by Foruzanfar). Arberry re-translated all of the ghazals previously translated Nicholson (his teacher and predecessor at Cambridge University) based on the superior edition, minus seven ghazals which were not in the earliest manuscripts of the Divan (and therefore are no longer considered by scholars to be authentic Rumi poems (Nicholson's numbers IV, VIII, XII, XVII, XXXI, XXXIII, and XLIV).

In addition, Nicholson published the first information about Rumi's "Discourses" (Fî-hi Mâ Fî-hi) in the English language (in a 1924 article in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society).1

Nicholson's work has been criticized for over-interpreting Rumi's Masnavi via the the theosophy of Ibnu 'l-`Arabi (teachings which Rumi, as well as his spiritual master Shams-i Tabriz, largely ignored); for deficiencies in understanding Persian idioms (he believed he would be a "more objective" scholar by never visiting or living in Middle Eastern countries); for over-prudishly translating "lewd" words and phrases in the Masnavi into Latin (for example, in Book IV, line 511: "Materterae si testiculi essent, ea avunculus esset: this is hypothetical-- 'if there were.'" ["(If) an aunt [khâla] were to have testicl*s [khâya], she would be an uncle [khâlû]-- but this 'if there were' is (only) by supposing (something)."]); and for choosing a method of translating the Masnavi that was aimed primarily at helping gradutate students learn classical Persian (thereby making the translation and commentary even more difficult for the general reader to approach and appreciate).

The present author (Ibrahim Gamard) has translated Nicholson's Latinized translations from Persian (with the help of several scholars, including a Latinist). And he has corrected Nicholson's English translation using the latter's indices of corrections (following the translation of Books III and IV). These indices bring Nicholson's translation of Books I, II, and the first third of Book III into allignment with the oldest manuscript of the Masnavi in the world (a copy of the one owned by Husâmu 'd-dîn Chalabî, copied in 1278 CE--five years after Mawlânâ Rûmî's death). Nicholson made these lists of corrections because he did not obtain his own copy of the oldest manuscript until he had translated (and edited the Persian text of) about of a third of the Masnavi. In addition to this, the present author has made corrections that Nicholson made in his two volumes of commentary on the Masnavi (especially the places where he wrote: "Translate, instead..."). These improvements may be found on a new Masnavi website: MASNAVI.NET, regarding which the present author is a collaborator.


1. Some of the information provided here is from: "Rumi-- Past and Present, East and West: The Life, Teaching and Poetry of Jalal al-Din Rumi," by Franklin D. Lewis, 2000, pp. 531-533; "Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi of R. A. Nicholson," by Marta Simidchieva, in "Mawlana Rumi Review," vol. 1, 2010, Exeter, UK: Archetype, pp. 33-68; and "Homage to Professor Nicholson," by Badi` al-Zaman Foruzanfar, translated from the Persian by Rasoul Sorkhabi, in "Mawlana Rumi Review," vol. 1, 2010, pp. 125-34.

About R.A. Nicholson and his Translation and Commentary on the Masnavi (2024)


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