Our essential need to gather together, paired with our compelling desire to share our experiences, thoughts, dreams, and entertainment, ultimately culminates in the act of storytelling. Stories are an ingrained part of lives everywhere, and in fact life is a series of successive stories with endless changing promises and surprises. Every experience in life embraces a backstory that may illumine and interpret the meaning of our lives.
Like all skillful and worthwhile stories, ancient Sufi stories continue to be relevant to our lives today, because they’re universal and timeless. The universality of a good story serves to demonstrate that we’re not so different from our counterparts across the globe, which in turn prompts us to empathize with the “other” to the extent that we will eventually feel as the “other”; thus, respect and empathy are the inevitable by-products of this process.
Timeless Sufi Stories
Rumi’s stories are a prime example of the perfectly timeless Sufi story, with a core message that is unvaried and that remains pertinent to us even in the mad rush of today’s technologically driven world. Rumi’s teaching stories are the core of his Masnavi (extensive poem), in which he raises commonsense issues that people grapple with regularly, but he concentrates on their hidden spiritual aspect, transforming them into profound Sufi lessons. In the Masnavi, Rumi includes many animal stories as well, mostly derived from other literary traditions, but he alters them somewhat to suit his purpose and prove his point.
We live in a fast age; everything moves more quickly—our cars drive faster, our appliances work more efficiently, we can access people across the globe on our mobiles for free, and of course we have the Internet, which itself transmits at ever increasing speeds. Living in rapidly evolving societies, where every minute counts and people never seem to have enough downtime, one can’t expect that many people would choose to read long, unfamiliar, and perhaps tedious works of literature or commentary, regardless of how enriching or essential they may be.
By translating Rumi’s works, I hope to reach out to people who may have never heard of him, especially the younger generation. But Rumi’s longer, difficult, winding stories may not be the best introduction to his works, even though they contain deeply intense moral, psychological, and spiritual lessons that are well worth the attention of the dedicated reader. But Rumi wrote many short pieces that are equally complex and morally significant in their own way. Believing that these short works are more suitable as an introduction to Rumi and hoping that readers will be inspired to then seek out all of his works, including the longer pieces, I’ve decided to confine the present volume to Rumi’s short stories.
I realized some years ago that every time I read a Rumi story, which he composed in verse, in my mind I instinctively turned it into prose as I was processing it. Throughout the years, many readers who are generally interested in spirituality but who are not great fans of poetry have expressed their disappointment in being unable to take full advantage of Rumi because of their lack of connection with poetry. With them in mind, as well as all Rumi lovers, I present this volume as a collection of Rumi’s short stories translated into prose for broader accessibility.
Sufism and Rituals
Ritual has historically been an essential part of any society in which citizens come together to share meaningful experiences. Carrying out rituals that have connected people for millennia instills behaviors and thought patterns that shape the character of a people within their society.
In Sufism, where ritual is taken extremely seriously, Sufi's practice zikr, in which one or more of the ninety-nine names of God are repeated rhythmically for a certain length of time. The ritual is so profound that the practitioner can transcend beyond the present world and into the lap of God. It may not be possible for us today to attend zikr ceremonies regularly or at all, depending on where we live. We can, however, connect with the essence of zikr wherever we are.
I believe that connecting to Rumi on a regular, daily basis helps one, as in zikr, to transcend the interfering ego and lift one to a higher and purer level of consciousness. I have personally made a ritual of reading a few verses of the Masnavi every morning before I begin my day to help me face the assault of the Internet and other modern-day forms of instant communication. If I can manage to practice yoga after reading from the Masnavi, I know that I will be guaranteed a serene and balanced mind and body to welcome the new day.
The value of ritual, though, is in adhering to it, following it passionately, and not breaking the flow; this persistence in the practice of ritual is the greatest challenge. Reading one Rumi short story per day could easily become anyone’s ritual.
To gather together a collection of stories that suits the taste of every reader is an impossible task. Yet in Rumi’s stories, we come across such a vast and impressive spectrum of subjects, each with its unique appeal, that modern-day readers from diverse backgrounds and dissimilar walks of life are bound to find something of interest within. I’m confident that every reader will succeed in finding not one but many stories by Rumi to satisfy their curiosity for meaningful spiritual lessons, often sprinkled with sly humor.
Grapes for Four -- by Rumi
Four men had been traveling in the same caravan all day long but had not spoken a word to one another. When their convoy stopped for the evening, the four men made a fire together and warmed themselves as they gathered around it.
The men were from four different countries, and none spoke the others' languages. They were laborers in tattered clothes who looked destitute. As they sat huddled together, shaking like leaves in the chill air, one of their fellow travelers, who was better off, took pity and offered them a small sum of money so they could buy something to eat.
The Persian was quick to suggest: "Let's spend our money on grapes."
"What a creep! I don't want what he wants, I want grapes," said the Arab defiantly.
"No, my dear fellows," complained the Turk, "I don't like what you've suggested: I prefer grapes."
"Come on guys, don't argue. It's best if we all agree to buy grapes," concluded the man from Greece.
Not understanding each other, the men began fighting, throwing punches and cursing in their own respective tongues.
As the men fought among each other, a wise and holy man saw them from afar and quickly approached them. Succeeding in separating them, he managed to find out what their problem was, as he was fluent in all four languages.
Thanks to the wisdom of the sage, the grapes were soon acquired, relieving the four unwitting men from the burden of their rage.
©2018 by Madyam Rafi. All Rights Reserved.
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.