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

Reynold Alleyne Nicholson (1868-1945), was the greatest Rumi scholar in the English language. He was a professor for many years at the 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 ranslated into Persian (by Hasan Lht, 1995).

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

His earliest translations of selected ghazals from Rumi's Divan ("Selected Poems from the Dvni Shamsi Tabrz," 1898) has been superceded by A. J. Arberry's translations ("Mystical Poems of Rumi," 1968; "Mystical Poems of Rumi: Second Selection," 1979), in that Arberry used a superior edition of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" (F-hi M F-hi) in the English language (in a 1924 article in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society).1

Nicholson's work on Rumi has been criticized for over-interpreting Rumi's Masnavi via the theosophy of Ibnu 'l-`Arabi (whose teachings 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 [khla] were to have testicles [khya], she would be an uncle [khl]-- 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 even more difficult for the general reader to approach and appreciate).

NOTES 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.