Simple, sometimes humoristic stories that eventually reveal something very profound about the human condition and the way things ought to be, at least from a Sufi perspective, are the defining characteristics of Rumi’s Masnavi, Book One. The Masnavi, which means “Rhyming Couplets of Profound Spiritual Meaning,” is a profound work of religious poetry, intended somewhat as a guide to Sufi morals and ethics. But beyond this merely practical application, the stories contained in the Masnavi encourage a sort of pre-reflexive, mystical response. As Mojaddedi explains in the introduction to his English translation, “[Rumi’s] poetry emphasizes the importance of love to transcendent attachments to the world, and dismisses concerns for worldly reputation, literal-mindedness and intellectualism” (Rumi, xvii). Rumi is therefore preoccupied with feeling rather than thinking, as the following verses make clear:
Philosophers doubt, for they’re logical –
Tell them to slam their heads on a brick wall!
For water, earth, and clay speak, and each word
By Sufi mystics is quite clearly heard; (ll. 3293-3294)
Ironically though, despite this emphasis on feeling at the expense of thinking, many of the stories in the Masnavi are especially thought-provoking.
There is, for instance, the story of “The Healing of the Sick Slave-Girl,” which is about a king who falls in love with a sick slave-girl and tries to cure her with the help of a doctor. When the doctor identifies the slave-girl’s affliction as love sickness, the king sends messengers to a neighbouring village to retrieve the goldsmith whom the slave-girl was in love with. The jealous king then poisons the goldsmith, and slave-girl’s love for him disappears as she witnesses the deterioration of his physical appearance:
The first six months together how they thrived,
The servant girl soon totally revived!
But then the groom was poisoned in a plot,
She saw the doctor’s potion make him rot:
Through sickness he lost all his youthfulness,
Each day his looks got worse, her love grew less,
He soon became so ugly, pale, and old
That she could feel her heart becoming cold –
Love which is based on just a pretty face
Is not true love, it ends in shear disgrace. (vv. 202-206)
These verses illustrate one of Rumi’s fundamental concerns, which is to differentiate earthly, physical lust from what he considers to be “true” love, that is, the love of the divine. The passage is thought provoking even to the uninitiated outsider, as it tests the nature and significance of human interpersonal love, and skillfully introduces the possibility of experiencing a different kind a love, one that is unaffected by any law of physical attraction.
To pursue on the subject of the initiation of outsiders, an interesting facet of the Masnavi are its frequent references to the Koran. The Masnavi has indeed been called “the Koran in Persian,” not because it contains literal translations of integral sections of the Islamic sacred text, but rather due to the way Rumi attempts to illustrate, through various stories, some fundamental Koranic principles. For example, in the poem called “Description of Mohammad in the Gospels,” the verses “Their faith was tampered with, it’s not the same, / Those false, misleading scrolls are all to blame!” (v. 740) allude, as Mojaddedi explains in his notes, to the Muslim belief that the message delivered by Jesus in his holy book was tampered with and distorted, and not represented accurately in the New Testament. Also, there are numerous references to Judgment Day, such as the following verses in “Hiding your Mystical Station”: “Spirits to angels to Him will ascend – / And make the heavens shake from end to end” (v. 3454). This same poem also contains the verses “Opinion does not free you from all need – / You won’t reach heaven on your reasoning’s steed” (v. 3456), which refers to Koran 10: 36, “where it is asserted that mere opinion is of no avail when faced with the truth” (Rumi, 262). References of this kind to the Koran are pervasive throughout Book One of the Masnavi.
As previously mentioned, humour is an important literary ingredient in the Masnavi, almost as if Rumi intended to use it as a strategy to captivate his audience’s attention, in order to eventually lead them to decidedly more profound statements about God and the nature or meaning of our existence. “The Bald Parrot and the Monk” is a tale about a grocer’s parrot that accidentally spills oil in the store (“The parrot hopped down from the bench one day, / Spilling a flask of rose oil on its way” (v. 251)). The grocer strikes the parrot’s head out of anger, but soon regrets this move as the parrot subsequently refuses to speak. Finally, the passage of a bald monk prompts the parrot to speak again: “’How did you end up such a slaphead, friend? / Did you like me a flask of oil upend?” (v. 262). This is undoubtedly a funny story, but the implications of the words uttered by parrot are, for the grocer (and Rumi), far from humorous. The parrot’s outburst is followed in the poem by a long elaboration on the inappropriateness of the parrot’s address to the monk, where the parrot is criticized for assuming the monk as its equal and comparing itself to God’s elite. For Rumi, the parrot’s behaviour exemplifies what is truly wrong with the world, which is the persistent denial by some of the infinite gap between human beings and the divine:
Themselves the prophets’ equals some proclaim
And that from saints they differ just in name,
‘We’re all human beings,’ they will say,
‘They too must eat some food and sleep each day,’
Their blindness stops them from discerning it –
Between the two the gap is infinite (vv. 266-268).
After this initial clarification, Rumi deploys a series of metaphors to emphasize the magnitude of the gap he is referring to (“Both wasps and bees those flowers are nourishing, / Bees give back honey, wasps a painful sting!” (v. 269)), and initiates a vigorous attack on what he considers to be human hypocrisy, comparing unbelievers to apes (“Whatever men should do, apes imitate, / They try to copy every human trait, / Thinking, ‘We’ve copied them so faithfully.’ / Deluded, apes can’t sense the way we see” (vv. 283-284)). Therefore, what begins as a humorous anecdote about of chatty parrot evolves into a lesson to unbelievers on God’s worthiness of utmost respect and absolute devotion. Rumi’s treatment of unbelievers is at times in fact quite harsh, as illustrated in this passage of “The Prophet’s Scribe Becomes an Apostate,” where unbelievers are equated to animals eligible for slaughter:
It’s lawful to take unbelievers’ lives
Like beasts, with arrows, spears, and hunting knives!
The same goes for their families, you know,
For they lack wisdom and they’re mean and low –
From truth the ones who turn away and flee
Are soon reduced to animality. (vv. 3331-3333)
An important characteristic of Rumi’s style is how he draws the reader into his narrative by first presenting an intriguing problem which then generates what he calls a “thirst” within the reader for spiritual direction. As Rumi explains in “The Poor Bedouin and his Wife,”
If I put problems and their answers first,
I can’t give water to those who have thirst;
If problems make you feel much stress and grief,
Be patient – patience is what brings relief! (vv. 2920-2921)
Patience is indeed what is sometimes needed to get to the core of Rumi’s message, as the stories are frequently interrupted by sometimes interesting but unrelated sidebars, such as the section on the importance of having good manners (“From God, who grants success, we ask for success in maintaining good manners always; explanation of the harm in being ill-mannered” (Rumi, 9)) in “The Healing of the Sick Slave-Girl” story discussed above. But these occasional interludes prove to be no more than momentary distractions, as Rumi systemically returns to the main narrative once the auxiliary message has been delivered. Rumi effectively maintains the reader’s thirst to know “How the Hare Killed the Tyrannical Lion” (Rumi, 57) or to understand “Why Ali Dropped his Sword in Battle” (Rumi, 227) by the promise of enlightenment nestled within the rhyming progression of these curious tales.
JALA¯L AL-DI¯N RU¯MI¯, & MOJADDEDI, J. A. (2004). The Masnavi, book one. Oxford, Oxford University Press.