Mathnawi Sohbets from the Ottomans to Present Day (December 2007)

By H. Nur ARTIRAN, Konya, 13 December 2007 


Based on historical evidence, Mawlana Djalaluddin Rumi’s Mathnawi was written between 1260 and 1267, and since then it has been read with much interest and admiration by millions of people from all denominations all over the world. The Mathnawi informs mainly on Religion, Islamic Mysticism (better known throughout the world as Sufism ) and Social affairs, relying frequently on verses from the Quran, Hadiths and folk tales. It covers almost every topic; sociology, psychology, history, mysticism, as well as science – including its more recent discoveries.


Although Mathnawi is generally accepted as didactic work addressing to ‘Reason’, it also possesses passionate and exuberant poems appealing to the ‘Heart’, similar to the ones in Divan-i Shems-e Tabriz or Divan-ı Kabir as otherwise called. 


The wisdom of the Mathnawi is not different to the revelations of the Prophets who came one after another to enlighten and guide Humanity. Prophets Jesus, Moses, Joseph and David are frequently mentioned. At times a reference is made from an Islamic Philosopher and at other times from a Christian Saint, all in accordance with Mawlana’s general view that Humanity is like a single body and different nations are like the different organs of this body. Religions may differ due to their unique ways of devotion but the spiritual eye only sees them as One. Nationalities may be many, but their spirit is one and the reason d’etre of all human beings is the same. In all his Works Mawlana has held Brotherhood of Mankind, Peace, Love and Unity above all.


In a research conducted by the Nobel Institute in 2002, the Mathnawi was included in the Masterpieces of Humanity and has been accepted by all religions and nations as part of World’s Common Heritage.


For the Mawlawis however, the Mathnawi is all important because it is regarded as the

‘initiating book’ for those who are on the Path.


In its unique didactic style, the Mathnawi investigates every detail of Islamic mysticism and sets a standard for the ‘annotation tradition’ that followed.


In fact it could be said that, Muhyiddin Ibnu’l-Arabi’s Fususu’l-Hikem and Mawlana’s Mathnawi – both regarded as the two major works of Islamic mysticism – are responsible for the introduction of the ‘annotation tradition’. To answer the question of how widely these two important books were read in the Ottoman Society, one could say that whilst the Fusus was read only by the ‘elite’, the Masnawi was read more widely, not only by those on the spiritual path but also by the general public.


The above mentioned aspects have deemed it neccessary to have a ‘guide’ to read and interpret the Mathnawi and in this way a new profession called Mesnevihan came into being which denotes: reading, translating, commenting on the meaning of Mathnawi and (occasionally) chanting it.


In Persian, the suffix han (as in Mesnevihan) meaning ‘reader’ or ‘instructor’ was

also widely used in the Ottoman language e.g Duahan or Mevluthan for prayers and

Gazelhan for Ghazals.


After Mawlana passed away or in his own words ’re-united with his Beloved’,

Husameddin Chelebi, his devoted friend, follower and scribe, began to read and explain the

Mathnawi to the people in public platforms. This is why, Husameddin Chelebi has been

regarded as the original expert of the Mathnawi and the first Mesnevihan. This tradition

continued through Mawlana’s son, Sultan Veled.


It is known that Husameddin Chelebi personally trained a handfull of special students

to succeed him, Mesnevihan Siraceddin being one of them. Other important figures during

this time were Sultan Veled’s son Ulu Arif Chelebi and Mahmut Dede who translated

Menakıbu’l-Arifîn into Turkish. When Arif Chelebi was assigned to the more important task of

spreading the Mawlawi Order throughout the Empire, Mesnevihans Siraceddin and Mahmut

Dede took over in the Konya Asitane to read and interpret the Mathnawi.


In the following era the Mesnevihan profession became an institution. Chelebi’s of Konya allowed non-khalifs (persons who were not trained by the Mawlawi’s, however as competent) to wrap the white destar (a white cloth wrapped around the sikke) around their sikke which signified that permission was granted to the holder, to instruct the Mathnawi as Mesnevihan.


As the Mawlawi Tariqa (‘path’ or in this case a Religious Sect) expanded and the Mawlawi Lodges started to emerge all over the country, it became the custom to place two pedestals in the Mawlawi Dargah’s (a place of gathering for the Sufi brotherhood, a Sufi Lodge) during the Mathnawi Sohbets. The first was occupied by the Senior Mesnevihan who recited the Mathnawi from memory and the other was for a second Mesnevihan whose job it was to interfere in case there was a mistake or an omission. Senior Mesnevihan was called Hafiz-i Mesnevi and his assistant Kari-i Mesnevi.


Although in the Mawlawi tradition it was (and still is) mandatory to be trained and to

be given authorization by the Mesnevihan of the day, there has been exceptions to this rule.

Certain spiritual personalities who were in sufficient command of Persion to comprehend the

Mathnawi, were also given special permission.


In the Ottoman Empire, the authorization of the Mesnevihan profession was given with the precondition to conform to what was called the Ankaravi (annotation) InterpretationIn the final stage of the Ottoman Empire, Sıdkı Dede (d.1933) in Konya, Hoca Husameddin Efendi in Eyup Hatuniyye Tekke (places for gatherings of a Sufi brotherhood), Osman Selahaddin Dede in Yenikapı Mevlevihane, Mehmed Celaleddin Efendi (d.1908) and Shaikh Abdulbaki Efendi were major Mesnevihans. Esad Dede of Thessaloniki who taught Mathnawi to Mehmet Akif Ersoy (a famous Turkish poet and writer of the words to the National Anthem), was the Mathnawi instructor in the Fatih Mosque for almost half a century.


Also, during this time Ahmed Celaleddin Dede in Galata Mevlevihane, Ahmed Remzi

Dede in Beyazit and Uskudar Yeni Cami were famous Mathnawi instructors.


It is interesting to note that in the 14. Century, not only the Malawis but also some of the outstanding major Nakshibendi (one of the major Sufi orders of Islam) Shaikhs of Istanbul, acted as Mesnevihans. Upon the merging of the Mawlawi and Nakshibendi lodges, Hoca Husameddin Efendi, also known as Mesnevihan-ı suheyr (Master Mesnevihan), Hoca Nes’et (d.1807), Mehmed Murad Efendi (d.1848) (founder of Daru’l-Mesnevi) taught the Mathnawi, although they were Nakshibendi Shaikhs. They were allowed to wear Mawlawi sikke with destar and were able to instill in the hearts of the followers the so-called ‘Mawlawi joy and essence’.


During the Ottoman Era, Mesnevihan profession established itself within the protocol and the code (of conduct) of the Mawlawi Order and Mawlawi Society. The Mathnawi was taught primarily in Mawlawi tekkes (lodges) but also in selatin mosques (Mosques that are designated for the Sultans), Darul-Mesnevis (Traditional name for an education center dedicated to studying Mathnawi) and Sultan’s Palace. Furthermore, according to Feridun Nafiz Uzluk (a descendant of Rumi’s who did translations and annotations of Mathnawi), new foundations were formed for the sole purpose of teaching Mathnawi. Later on, Damat Ibrahim Pasha (Grand Vizier during two periods under the reign of last Ottoman Sultan Mehmed IV)decreed Islamic mysticism and Readings of the Mathnawi to become compulsory in the madrasah (Religious school of the day) that was built in his name. From then on Mathnawi would be included in every madrasah’s curriculum.


In the 14. century a new institution named Daru’l-Mesnevi or Mesnevihane was established with the purpose of teaching Mathnawi to non-Mawlawis, i.e the ordinary public. By attenting these institutions, ordinary people had the opportunity to learn and benefit from the Mawlawi culture. Interest for the Mathnawi had become so widespread that a new institution was needed.


Daru’l-Mesnevi was established by the Nakshibendi Shaikh Mehmed Murad Efendi in Fatih Carsamba, near Murad Molla Dergâh which was a Nakshi tekke (lodge). Sultan Abdulmecid was present in the opening ceremony. According to Cevdet Pasha who was taught Persian and Mathnawi by Shaikh Murad Efendi, there were two Mesnevihanes (local places where Mathnawi was taught exclusively) in Istanbul. These were Hoca Husameddin Efendi’s Mesnevihane in Kucuk Mustafapasa and Daru’l-Mesnevi in Carsamba. Sheikh Yahya Galip Efendi of Cerrahi tekke (lodge) and Midhat Pasha were the two prominent personalities taught by Sheikh Murad Efendi in Daru’l-Mesnevi during this time.


By the end of the 14. century, Mesnevihan profession had extended to mosques and became part of regular preaching to the public. Esad Dede was the first Mesnevihan at Fatih Mosque, teaching Mathanawi once a week. He was followed by Karahisarlı Ahmed Efendi and following his death, Tahiru’l-Mevlevi succeeded him.


The last in the long lineage of Mesnevihans from the Ottomans to date were Tahiru’l-Mevlevî and his successor Sefik Can. Tahiru’l-Mevlevi adopted “Olgun” as surname following the Surname Act. He was the Kâri-i Mesnevi of his teacher Mehmed Esad as well as Celaleddin Dede (Sheikh of Yenikapi Mevlevihane) before he started his Mathnawi lessons in Fatih Mosque (1923- 1925).


The period between 1925 and 1948 has been silent for Mesnevihans for political reasons during the transition from the Otoman Empire to Turkish Republic. Then in 1948 the political situation of Turkey changed and Mathnawi teaching was again possible. Consequently, Tahiru’l-Mevlevi was able to perform his Mesnevihan profession at the Suleymaniye Mosque and Laleli Mosque until his death in 1951.


With his many talents as poet, author, Mawlawi Master, Journalist, Mesnevihan and literary Historian, Tahiru’l-Mevlevi has been a very important figure keeping alive the Mesnevihan Tradition during the transition from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic.


Following Tahiru’l-Mevlevi, his student Sefik Can took over the spiritual mission. His training by Tahiru’l-Mevlevi started in 1935 and Sefik Can served his teacher with great love and respect until his teacher’s death in 1951. He then continued to serve as Mesnevihan with unending passion from 1960 until the end of his life.


In the Sixties, Sefik Can started Mathnawi teaching in a house that belonged to Mrs. Seniha Bedri Goknil. Later on he continued his lessons in numerous venues; Munevver Ayaslı’s house, the conference hall of a private school in Erenkoy called Gunes College (Now Isik High School), the library of Mustafa Nazmi Ersin Mosque, Nezahat Nurettin Ege’s house, conference hall of Maltepe elderly rest home, various locations provided by God lovers who loved Mawlana and his Mathnawi, an education center in Uskudar, Yunus House in Kiziltoprak and finally Kazim Karabekir Cultural Center.


Until the year 1998 Sefik Can annotated the Mathnawi in the classical way, that is page by page, sometimes reading it in original Persian and sometimes in Turkish.


In 1999 due to the deterioration of his eye-sight, Sefik Can could not continue and so he relied on the asistance of the author of this article to prepare topics from the Mathnawi, under his supervision. During his last years he continued his lectures with his asistant reading the chosen topics and he commenting on the religious, scientific and literary aspects of what was read.


It is an ironic fact that whereas in the past new Mesnevihanes were being opened everywhere, Sefik Can had difficulty in finding venues to teach during the last period.


This is how Sefik Can recalls those days in his own words and with humour:

The first venue was no more, when its owner Seniha Bedri Goknil passed away. The second venue which was Munevver Ayaslı’s house came to an end when the maid was exhausted after carrying endless number of chairs from the neighbours !
At Gunes College some of the neighbours complained that religious practice was taking place. At Mustafa Nazmi Ersin Mosque, some worshippers didn’t approve men and women sitting together during the classes. In the Home for the Elderly, the elderly could not get any rest… In Yunus House it was time for renovation. In the Uskudar cultural center, the administration changed. Consequently time after time because some people got disturbed we were moved. Now here at Kazim Karabekir Cultural Center, we shall stay- that is until it is time for my removal! 


Indeed, time proved him right and he did give his last Mathnawi lecture at Kazim Karabekir Cultural Center.


Sefik Can, who was the last of the lineage of the Mesnevihan Tradition from Celebi Husameddin to present time, handed over the spiritual responsibility to H. Nur Artıran (who is the author of this article), before he united with his Beloved in 2005.


Thereby making her the first female Mesnevihan since Mrs. Kamile (who was the daughter of Kucuk Arif Chelebi of Konya) and her daughter Mrs.Fatma (who took over the mission from her mother in the early 17th century).


Shortly after the demise or ‘reunion with the Beloved’ as he put it, of her teacher Sefik Can, the author of this article has started reading and teaching the Mathnawi at the Sisli Mosque Foundation in Istanbul. She has also started lecturing at the “Self Transcendence Psychology Association” in Uskudar and in the “Tarık Zafer Tunaya Cultural Center” situated within the Galata Mevlevihanesi – a place which has become almost synonomous with Sheikh Galib (one of the most important Sufi poets of 18th century. Author of Husnu Ask).


In the recent past, when there was an insufficient number of Mesnevihans trained in the Mesnevihan tradition, various institutes and foundations in Istanbul, Ankara, Konya, Bursa, Urfa and Sakarya flourished and certain spiritual men (or men of the Heart as they are often called) volunteered to fill the gap.


In the Mathnawi Mawlana says: So long as the World exists and life goes on, the poetry of the Mathnawi will last and give pleasure to everyone who reads it. Indeed, his predictions have come true, as today we see around the world and in Turkey, an immense interest in Mawlana and his Mathnawi.


God All Mighty says: There are such holy people under my Heavenly Dome that no one knows but me. Who knows how many souls, Men of the Heart over the centuries have silently and patiently devoted a lifetime with Mawlana and the Mathnawi?


Here, I tried to mention in the time and space allowed, the invaluable services of just a few venerable men during the course of history. However, with deepest respect and gratitude I would like to pay a tribute to all those great men and women of the past who are not mentioned here but who have made their notable contributions.




(This article was presented by H. Nur ARTIRAN in “International Traces of Mawlana in the World” Symposium organized by Konya Selcuk University on December 13th-15th, 2007.

Translation: Münir Akdoğan and Nurcan Yıldırımçakır.)