17th December 2023 will be the 750th anniversary of the death of Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi (1207 – 1273). Rumi wrote his greatest and longest work, the Masnavi-ye Ma‘navi (“The Spiritual Couplets”), in the last few years of his life. With its voluminous length and profound meanings, it has always been a great challenge to readers despite it appearing to be merely a compendious book of stories.

In this talk Alan Williams will question “What is Rumi really talking about…?”. Whilst this may seem to imply that an essential answer can be found, over the centuries readers have interpreted his writings in many different ways due to individual responses to their needs and expectations. Some read with empathy, as devotee- disciples; some with scepticism or hostility, as critics or opponents of Sufism; and more recently there has been a “free-for all”, as Rumi became a #1 best-seller internationally.

Alan Williams reflects on how Rumi has been received in the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds to the present day, and whether “we” in the 21st century, can really understand what he was writing about three quarters of a millennium ago in a very different, medieval, pre-technological world. A central idea in Alan’s thinking is that “we” are always reading in translation – even if we have the original manuscripts in front of us. In fact, Rumi himself, from the start, was writing to translate, translating from his inner experience of realities (Arabic /Persian haqa’iq) into the outer language of forms and symbols, stories and discourses. Reading is therefore discovering, not losing, in translation.

Join Mathnavi expert Alan Williams in a unique and fascinating lunchtime experience.

About The Speaker

Headshot of Alan Williams

Alan Williams

Alan Williams has published many books and articles on ancient, medieval and modern literature, religion and language, both in Iranian studies and in the comparative study of religion and literature. Funded by the British Academy, Wolfson Foundation and the Leverhulme Trust, he is currently engaged in publishing all six volumes of Rumi’s Masnavi for IB Tauris / Bloomsbury, in English metrical translations and commentary, along with the accompanying Persian text.