(Editor's Note: This article is excerpted from the The Book of Rumi's foreword (by Narguess Farzad) and contains a story by Rumi from the book itself.)
Whatever our cultural or linguistic background, we can all claim some knowledge of the lives of others, and this knowledge has reached us through stories. These stories may have been told by an animated grandparent; maybe we heard them on the radio or encountered them during a religious-studies lesson at school, where we learned about the lives and times of saints, gods, and goddesses.
The literature and history classes that have made the longest-lasting impressions on me are those in which I was allowed a glimpse of the life story of a writer or when my teacher focused on the human stories of the period being taught, peeling away the layers to reveal something of the ordinary life or emotional experiences of the towering figures whose conquests or defeats we were studying or, more poignantly, about the ordinary lives and emotional experiences of the common people of the time. It really did not matter whether these peripheral accounts were tenuous or apocryphal, since their inclusion in the lesson made the whole episode under scrutiny more gripping and memorable.
Stories need not always refer to the great or the good or the legendary. In our own daily lives, we continually share snapshots of our social experiences with ever-expanding and overlapping circles of acquaintances. We ritualistically mark an occasion, such as a significant birthday, an anniversary, or a remembrance, by concentrating on stories that subtly and carefully bring to the fore an individual’s vulnerabilities, passions, and idiosyncrasies. Like master storytellers of the past, we edit out the unnecessary infelicities and shine our light on the unforgettable characteristics and achievements we are witness to and, in the process, create yet another indelible substory, some of which may be told in years and even generations to come.
Prophets and preachers of all religions and creeds, too, have been masters of the practice and have relied on parables and maxims to communicate complex theologies to their followers. Parables of the tragedies of martyrs have drawn, and continue to draw, men and women to places of worship around the world, to shrines and town squares; such parables often comprise bits of truth side by side with bits of myth, using literary finesse to stir passions and breathe new life into common themes.
Those who hear or read these stories never seem to find the new variants of old themes tedious. Perhaps there is some reassurance in the predictability of how these tales of morality inevitably conclude. Modern-day films depicting the lives of greed merchants on Wall Street, spiced up with titillating subplots, are, in essence, adaptations of ancient lessons that one cannot serve both God and money. Furthermore, almost all morality tales ascertain that “lust for the flesh and the lust of the eye” invariably lead to trouble.
Hungry for stories that give us respite from the drudgery of our lives, we now gather before the pulpit of Instagram and Facebook and YouTube to get our daily fill of the antics of the modern deities, the 21st-century gods and goddesses and gurus who inhabit the heights of Hollywood and its tinseled replicas throughout the world.
For many communities and in many cultures, the most trustworthy narrators of irresistible tales are the poets. Poets, in their own inimitable ways, tell us about the challenges and failures of finding love and the joys of forming friendship. They warn us of the pitfalls, of the betrayals and injustices, that we always encounter along the way, yet encourage us to banish envy and the desire for revenge from our hearts. It is almost always the poets who teach us how to gauge the enormity of a loss, to grieve with dignity, and ultimately to accept mortality.
For more than eight hundred years, countless numbers of people in the Persian-speaking lands, and in recent decades many more around the world who have access to a growing number of excellent translations, have chosen Mowlana Jalal od-Din Balkhi, Rumi, as the spiritual teacher whose coruscating turn of phrase, coupled with the poignancy of candidly expressed emotion, has been a source of comfort as well as instruction.
Although the extent of academic scholarship on the philosophical and theological foundations of Rumi’s order of mysticism now outweigh the poet’s own writings, it is more rewarding to read Rumi’s actual stories, which open the mystical portal to his world.
The stories that Rumi invents or reuses to aid in understanding the principles of Sufism are intricately woven into the warp and weft of the fabric of his teachings, yet to see them in isolation as the parables that they are, we need to painstakingly work our way through twenty-six thousand double lines of metrical verse, compiled in the six books of the Masnavi-ye Manavi (Spiritual Couplets), his magnum opus.
It is a relief and a delight to have the task completed for us by Maryam Mafi , one of the most respected, faithful, and eloquent translators of Rumi’s poetry. Mafi the translator moves effortlessly between the two languages of Persian and English as she delivers the semantic meaning of the original text in English. However, Mafi the writer and close reader of the Masnavi transfers the exquisite subtleties, precise vision, and spontaneous wit of the original to the English version, thus giving life to Robert Frost’s definition of poetry as “that which is lost out of verse in translation.”
In her latest translation, The Book of Rumi, Mafi has turned her attention to more than one hundred stories that she has selected from the Masnavi.
In page after page of parables and tales, Rumi not only entertains but also guides the reader, or more accurately the listener, in making sense of the complexities of life, in obeying the authority of love, and in resolving conflicts. Rumi raises unanswered as well as unanswerable questions.
The cast of most of his tales are recognizable characters whose clones inhabit stories around the globe: wise or deceptive judges, cunning or distrustful women, wily or lachrymose beggars, charlatans, gullible souls, and many talkative animals.
Rumi tells of kingly deeds and the miracles of prophets; he elaborates on the mischief of rouges and catches out mercenaries. Bodily functions, disguises, deeds of heroism, mistaken identities, sexual entanglements, consequence of gluttony and hubris, and all imaginative and extravagant accounts of vices and virtues, as well as common superstitions, are thrown into the mix.
The language of the poetic narrator of the tales soars to the heights of high verse with flawless use of metaphors and intricately structured internal dialogues, then plunges into the use of puns, vernacular idioms of the time, expressions of ribaldry, and pure bawdy humor. He quotes from the best of Persian and Arabic poetry of his era and relies on his scholarly knowledge of the Koran and the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed to support his arguments. Rumi is just as comfortable with the parlance of the lowlife and the rascals of the souk as he is with the rhetorical discourse of theologians at the mosque and grammarians at the madrassa.
Rumi deploys many dramatic devices to communicate with people from all walks of life. The roles that he assigns to animals, the flora and fauna, are in keeping with millennia-old traditions of storytelling in the East, where the sagacity of animals or their mischief-making are on par with human character.
Mowlana Jalal od-Din, along with many of his medieval contemporaries in Iran, such as Sa’di of Shiraz and Nezami of Gandja, valued the potency of stories as the most reliable ambassadors to diffuse cultural and oral traditions across political, religious, and national boundaries.
Rumi’s voice in all his literary output, but particularly in the Masnavi, alternates between playful and authoritative, whether he’s telling stories of ordinary lives or inviting the discerning reader to higher levels of introspection and attainment of transcendent values. Maryam Mafi’s translations delicately reflect the nuances of Rumi’s poetry while retaining the positive tone of all Rumi’s writings, as well as the sense of suspense and drama that mark the essence of the Masnavi.
The Book of Rumi is another gem in Maryam Mafi ’s series of translations, which salutes the universality of Mowlana both as a poet and as a storyteller. I can think of no better tribute to the legacy of Rumi than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s assessment of what makes a great poet:
"All that is best in the great poets of all countries is not what is national in them, but what is universal. Their roots are in their native soil; but their branches wave in the unpatriotic air, that speaks the same language unto men, and their leaves shine with the illimitable light that pervades all lands."
Students and Teacher -- by Rumi
The students were exasperated by their dreadfully strict teacher, who never allowed them a moment’s respite. Every day, they conjured up naughty plans to distract him but somehow never managed to fool him. One day, the cleverest of the boys, who was also the most streetwise, came up with a brilliant plan. As his classmates gathered around him after school, he explained to them:
“Tomorrow morning when we come to school, I’ll approach the master first and ask him how he feels and why he’s looking so pale. I’ll wish him well and say that he should take better care of himself. Then, you all should follow my lead and one after the other repeat the same questions so that we can instill doubt in his heart. After the fifth or sixth person, surely he must begin to wonder whether we’ve got a point or not. When thirty of us have told him the same thing, he’ll have no choice but to believe us and let us off school at least for a couple of days.”
The boys were all excited and commended the clever boy for his astute idea. The boy made them all promise not to tell their parents and stick to their scheme. The next morning, the students were all on time and awaited the arrival of the clever boy, for they could not begin their plot without him. As soon as he arrived, they nodded to each other and one by one entered the classroom.
“Good morning to you, sir. Are you all right sir? Why do you seem so pale this fine morning?” said the clever boy to the teacher cunningly.
“I’m perfectly fine. What are you blabbering about? Go sit down in your seat,” the teacher ordered the boy in his usual abrasive manner.
The first seed of doubt had been planted. The students then walked into the classroom one after the other and each addressed the teacher in turn, commenting with concern on the latter’s health. Despite his repeated denials, the teacher slowly began to believe the boys, as he had heard the same remark about his pale countenance thirty times. He began to shiver and actually feel feverish. Soon, he was hastily packing his papers and books and hurrying home, with thirty boys in tow.
All the way home, he was thinking about how his wife had recently been neglecting him, and how despite all his kindness and generosity she’d been wishing him ill. Entertaining these negative thoughts about his innocent wife, the teacher hastened through the narrow backstreets to his humble home, while the boys followed him closely every step of the way.
He slammed the front door noisily, intending thus to announce his untimely arrival to his wife as he entered their house. When she saw that he had returned from school so early, she quickly approached him and inquired about his health.
“Are you blind? Don’t you see how sick I am? You’re such a hypocrite! You can very well see how awful I’m feeling, yet you pretend that nothing’s the matter with me!” he retorted.
“My darling, what are you saying? You must be suffering from delusions. Nothing is the matter with you!” his wife said, trying to appease his anger.
“You’re despicable; you’re a horrid woman! Can’t you see my sorry state? Is it my fault that you’re blind and deaf to my needs?” he continued, cruelly slandering his wife.
“I’m going to bring you the mirror so you can see for yourself that nothing’s the matter with you.”
“To hell with your mirror! You’ve always hated me and wished me the worst. Go and prepare my bed, I need to rest!”
The woman was stunned, unable to move or decide what she should do, when her husband screamed at her: “Get going, you good-for-nothing! Do you want me to pass out right here?”
The woman decided to remain quiet and do as he asked; otherwise, he might indeed think that she had foul intentions, and he could truly turn nasty. Thus, she prepared his bedding on the floor and left him with his students, who had accompanied him into the house. The boys gathered around his bed and began to review their lesson loudly, having been instructed by their ringleader to make as much noise as possible to exacerbate their teacher’s fantasy headache.
“Quiet!” snapped the teacher. “Quiet, I said! Go home. Leave me in peace.”
The students were free at last; wishing their teacher all the health in the world, they practically flew out of his house. They didn’t go home, though, and instead remained in the streets, playing various games that they’d long fantasized about. Their mothers, however, soon found out that their sons had skipped school, and when they found them on the streets they reprimanded them, refusing to accept that they’d been excused by their teacher. They threatened to visit the teacher’s home the next day and find out the truth. And so they did. They found the poor man lying miserably under several duvets, sweating like a pig and moaning in pain.
“Dear sir, forgive us, for we didn’t believe our sons,” confessed the women. “Now we can see for ourselves how ill you really are! May God grant you a long, healthy life.”
“I’m actually grateful to your perceptive sons for having detected my malady,” said the teacher gratefully. “I was so intent on teaching them that I had totally ignored my own health. If it hadn’t been for them, I’d have soon been dead for certain!”
And such was the fate of the ignorant teacher, who’d been fooled by baseless repetition and indoctrination conducted by mere children.
©2018 by Madyam Rafi. All Rights Reserved.
Foreword copyright 2018 by Narguess Farzad.
Excerpted with permission of the publisher,
Hampton Roads Publishing. www.redwheelweiser.com.
The Book of Rumi: 105 Stories and Fables that Illumine, Delight, and Inform
by Rumi. Translated by Maryam Mafi. Foreword by Narguess Farzad.
Rumi's voice alternates between playful and authoritative, whether he is telling stories of ordinary lives or inviting the discerning reader to higher levels of introspection and attainment of transcendent values. Mafi's translations delicately reflect the nuances of Rumi's poetry while retaining the positive tone of all of Rumi's writings, as well as the sense of suspense and drama that mark the essence of the Masnavi. (Also available as a Kindle edition and MP3 CD.)
About the Authors
Rumi (Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi) was a 13th-century Persian Sunni Muslim poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic.
Maryam Mafi was born and raised in Iran. She went to Tufts University in the US in 1977 where she studied sociology and literature. While reading for her master’s degree in international communications in American and Georgetown Universities she began translating Persian literature and has been doing so ever since.
Narguess Farzad is a senior fellow in Persian studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.