Masnavi, or mathnawī, is the name of a poem written in rhyming couplets, or more specifically, "a poem based on independent, internally rhyming lines". Most mathnawī followed a meter of eleven, or occasionally ten, syllables, but had no limit in their length. The mathnawi consists of an indefinite number of couplets, with the rhyme scheme aa/bb/cc.
Mathnawī have been written in Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish and Urdu cultures.
Arabic mathnawi poetry is called muzdawidj. It is a poetic style that includes alliteration or a rhyme scheme within the ending words of two lines, and follows a specific meter. It is very similar to the Persian, Urdu, and Turkish mathnawi, with one major difference: most Muzdawidj follows an aaa/bbb/ccc pattern, while the other mathnawi follow an aa/bb/cc pattern.
In Persian mat̲h̲nawī (مثنوى), the poems strictly adhere to a meter of 11 syllables, occasionally ten. While the length of a mat̲h̲nawī is not prescribed and is therefore unlimited, most of the better known mat̲h̲nawī are within a range of 2,000-9,000 bayts (verses). The first known mat̲h̲nawī poem was written in the Sāmānid period (4th/10th century). Despite certain dates indicating a possibility otherwise, modern scholars believe it is a continuation of an Iranian verse form, not of its Arabic counterpart(there is some debate that the word mat̲h̲nawī is derived from Arabic, but most scholars believe that the Persians coined the word themselves).
Mat̲h̲nawī are usually associated with the didactic and romantic genres, but are not limited to them. There is great variety among Persian mat̲h̲nawī, but there are several conventions that can help a reader recognize a mat̲h̲nawī poem. Most mat̲h̲nawī have a distinction between the introductory and body paragraphs (although it is not always easy to determine where that is), praise of the one God and prayers, a eulogy of the Prophet, reflections on the value of poetry, and occasionally a description of an object as a significant symbol.
Certain Persian mat̲h̲nawī have had special religious significance in Sufism, such as Rumi’s Mathnawi-i Ma’nawi, which consists of 6 books/25,000 verses, which has been used in prayer among many Sufi’s, such as the Whirling Dervishes. While some Islamic legalists find the practice unconscionable, Sufi Abu Hamid al-Ghazali supported the use of poetry as worship.
Turkish mathnawi began developing in the 8th/14th century. Persian mathnawi influenced Turkish authors, so many Turkish mathnawī (at first) were creative translations and adaptations of Persian mathnawī. The oldest known Turkish mathnawī is a didactic poem called Kutadgu Bilig.
Turkish mathnawī are strongly driven by their plot, and are usually categorized into three genre--mutaḳārib (heroic), ramal (religio/didactic), and hazadj (romantic). Some mat̲h̲nawī were written with an understanding that the audience would appreciate the importance of the subject of the poem, but some were also written purely for entertainment purposes.
Mat̲h̲nawī remained prominent in Turkish literature until the end of the Ottoman Empire, when it began to transform into more conversational and rhetorical literature. Few Turkish mat̲h̲nawī have been translated into a modern language.
Urdu mat̲h̲nawī are usually divided into three categories- early, middle, and late.
Early Urdu mat̲h̲nawī began in the 11th/17th century. In the beginning of this period, many mat̲h̲nawī were religious in nature, but then grew to include romantic, heroic, and even secular stories. Early Urdu mat̲h̲nawī were influenced by Dakkanī literature, as well as Persian mat̲h̲nawī. Because of this influence, many early Urdu mat̲h̲nawī were translations of Persian mat̲h̲nawī, although there are some original early Urdu mat̲h̲nawīs.
Middle Urdu mat̲h̲nawī became prominent in the 12th/18th century, when Urdu literature broke away from the Dakkanī tradition. In the 12th/18th century, romantic mat̲h̲nawī became very popular. Another new convention that appeared in middle Urdu mat̲h̲nawī was authors using their own personal experiences as a subject for their poem. The great Masnavi writer in Urdu Allama Dr.Syed Ali Imam zaidi "Gauhar Lucknavi"( great grand Son of Mir Baber Ali Anees). Modern Urdu mat̲h̲nawī began in the 13th/19th century, during a time of literary reform. Mat̲h̲nawī as a whole became much shorter, and the traditional meters stopped being observed. These mat̲h̲nawī dealt more with everyday subjects, as well as providing a medium for children's poetry.