Editor’s Note: Rumi’s Mathnawi is an epic poem comprising of thousands of stanzas of allegories, fables, parables and tales which convey moral lessons as well as emphasize a spiritual connection with the Almighty. Bringing the works of a mystical poet to life is not an easy job, and Zayn Kassam in this reading retells two stories from Rumi’s majestic work which will be enjoyed by readers of different ages and backgrounds.
During his lifetime, Mawlana Rumi enjoyed especially good relations with people of diverse social, cultural and religious backgrounds. He addressed humanity as a whole: “I do not distinguish between the relative and the stranger.” As such his work and thought remain universally relevant today. In 2002, a Time magazine article pointed out that the 13th-century Muslim poet was the best-selling poet in the United States. A few years later, in 2007, UNESCO celebrated Rumi’s 800th anniversary by holding seminars and special events, and also a issued a medal in his honour (see photo, above). A block of stamps on Rumi’s theme, displaying the UNESCO logo, were also distributed by post offices in Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey.
It is hoped that the following tales will enhance the reader’s sense of wonder in the rich poetic literature of Islamic Civilizations.
Stories retold by Zayn Kassam
I. The Snake-Catcher and the Serpent
There was once a man in Iraq who decided to go into the cold and snowy mountains in search of a snake. He wanted to display the snake to the townspeople and thereby raise a few coppers from the incredulous crowd.
Foolish man that he was, he searched through the mountains and lo and behold! He found a terrible and fierce-looking dragon who seemed quite dead from the cold. He bundled up the creature in a cloth and tied it up with string, and carried it down to the town.
“See!” he cried out to the townspeople, “See what I have brought, with great difficulty and much searching, from the mountains! Come and see this terrible and fierce-looking dragon, whom I have killed!”
The townspeople came from near and far to behold such a sight. They rallied around the dragon, and the crowd grew so thick that people jostled against one another, all craning their necks to catch a glimpse of this fierce and terrible dead dragon.
In the town, the sun grew stronger and by the warmth of its rays, the dragon began to emerge slowly from its frozen state. As it warmed, life revived in the dragon, who had not been dead at all but merely frozen beyond outwardly movement. Soon it burst forth from the cloth and string that had been tied around it.
The townspeople were filled with terror at the sight of the fierce dragon, come back from the dead as it were, and ran away from it in panic, crushing each other as they fled.
The dragon, mighty serpent that it was, devoured whoever was in its path, and finding a pillar, entwined itself around it, eating alive the man who thought he had easily captured a terrible and fierce-looking dragon.
And thus ends the story of the snake-catcher and the serpent.
In this story, the snake-catcher is a human being. As such, he has within him the capacity for spiritual knowledge and enlightenment. However, attracted to the prospect of gaining material wealth and worldly fame, he goes into the snowy mountains to catch a serpent, a creature that has never befriended the human race. The serpent is a symbol for the sensual soul within human beings. If befriended, the serpent will ultimately devour such human beings and thereby destroy their capacity for spiritual growth and perfection.
The serpent seems quite dead to the snake-catcher, but is not really so. It is simply that in the cold and snowy mountains the conditions are not favourable for the serpent to exercise its natural tendencies. These conditions are created by separating the sensual soul from its desires, such as lust, greed, gluttony, etc. On the other hand, if one allows the rays of greed and lust to shine upon the sensual soul, it will grow stronger and stronger, such that whatever restraints one may have placed upon sensual soul will present no barrier to its breaking free. In being released from its bonds, the sensual soul is capable of destroying the very being that gave it life, and thereby result in its master’s spiritual death.
II. The Elephant and the Travellers
There was once a sage in India who saw a party of friends. They had travelled far and were hungry and tired. He said to them that he knew how tired they were, but had some advice for them. He knew that on their path they were going to encounter young elephants who were weak and tender and deliciously plump, whose mother was lying hidden, overcome with grief. She had been searching in vain for her children and was moaning and making lament. So the sage said to the party of friends, “Beware of hurting her cherished children! Be content with the herbage and leaves you have and do not hunt down the young elephants. I tell you this to save you from fruitless repentance. Beware, and don’t be overtaken by greed! So saying, he parted.
The travellers went on their way, growing ever hungrier. Suddenly, in the direction of the highway, they saw a young elephant, newly born. They fell upon it like hungry wolves and ate it up, and then cleaned their hands. One of the travellers did not eat it, reminding the others of the warning of the sage. The other travellers did not heed him, and ate the roasted flesh. Having satisfied their hunger, they all fell asleep, all save the one who had not eaten, and he was awake in the night.
Since he was awake, he saw a frightful elephant approaching. She came to him, who was keeping guard, and smelt his mouth three times, and no disagreeable smell came from it. She circled him several times, but did not harm him. She smelt the lips of every sleeper, and the smell of her young one’s flesh came to her from each of those sleeping men. Each man had eaten the roasted flesh of the young elephant. With no compunction, she tossed each one of them into the air, so that their bones were broken as they fell back to earth.
The elephant is God. This parable may be understood on various levels. On the first level, her children are the abdal, that is, the perfect saints. They are separated from their mother as a trial and a probation. However, God is secretly their friend and protector, for they have spiritual ears and know the secrets of the divine, whereas human beings have only their physical ears and do not hear what is said to them. In order to hear the truth, they must escape from their own imperfections. The Prophet Muhammad is entirely ear and eye, and he nurses [human beings] like a mother, while human beings are like infants.
On the second level, the young elephants are the righteous and innocent, who have been “mothered” by the prophets and the saints.
Remember that the mother elephant will come to seek vengeance for the young elephant whose flesh you ate, for the mother elephant knows the smell of her child.
Rumi says: “0 taker of bribes! You ate the young elephant, from you, too, the Master of the elephant will wring the breath (that is, will kill you).” For if Muhammad was able to smell the aroma of the divine presence from distant Yaman, then why would he not perceive the smell of falsehood from you? Muhammad smells it, but he conceals that he does from us, and meanwhile the good and bad smells go up to heaven.
While you sleep [the sleep of ignorance], the smell of your unlawful deeds is going up to the examiners in the celestial sphere. The odor of pride and greed and concupiscence will become, in speaking, like the smell of onions, that is, these qualities will appear in your speech. Even if you swear that you have not eaten onions, your breath will betray you. Many prayers are rejected because of the accompanying smell, for the corrupt heart shows up in the tongue.
Date article posted on Simerg: March 3, 2011
Copyright: Zayn Kassam, Ponoma College, California.
[Readers are referred to Reynold A. Nicholson, The Mathnawi of Jalaluddin Rumi for the English translation of Rumi’s original stories]
Editor’s Note: “Two Tales from Rumi” was published in an earlier revision in Hikmat, July 1990, Vol III, No. 4, pages 61-64. The two illustrations accompanying the stories were prepared by Fatima Hirji, then art editor of Hikmat.
About the Author: Zayn Kassam is Professor of Religious Studies at Pomona College in Claremont, CA. She received her Ph.D. from McGill University in the History of Religions in 1995, with a specialization in Islamic and Indian Philosophy. She teaches courses on women in Islam, Islamic mysticism, Islamic philosophy, as well as contemporary Muslim literature. More recently, she has also been teaching courses on religion and the environment.
Her paper Corbin and his Understanding of Ismailism was published on this Web site recently.
Please read the UNESCO Executive Board’s proposed draft resolution to issue a medal in honour of Rumi at http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0014/001473/147319e.pdf
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