Initiatic Grace in the Masterwork of Jalal ud-din Rumi
by Lynn C. Bauman
Of all the strands of tradition and thought that make up the universe of Islamic discourse, the works of Jalal ud-din Rumi1 stand out as the perhaps the most luminous. Rumi, known simply as Mawlana (our Master), one of the greatest spiritual masters of Islam, composed what is considered by many Muslims to be a masterpiece of the Persian language and of Islamic spirituality.2 After translating Rumi’s work for nearly thirty-five years, R. A. Nicholson declared him to be “the greatest mystical poet of any age.” In concluding his monumental work on Rumi’s masterwork, the Mathnawi, he asked, “Where else shall we find such a panorama of universal existence unrolling itself through Time into Eternity?”3
At the heart of this ocean of spiritual wisdom stands the central concern of all traditional spiritual teaching and practice—the transformation of human being through initiatic grace. This feature, often conspicuously missing in many expressions of twenty-first century spirituality, is the definitive process by which the seeker is brought step-by-step along a spiritual path through the dialectic of understanding and practice (theoria and praxis) to transformation of being and consciousness.
Initiatic grace is evidenced everywhere in the text of the Mathnawi. It forms the meta-structure and context in which the work itself is written—providing guidance for those who were under the instruction of Rumi himself. Nothing, perhaps, more pointedly illustrates both the need for and the process of spiritual direction through initiatic grace than one particular parable that is told in this volume. It is a short story that concentrates this wisdom in a brief, powerful narrative. Highlighting the need for guidance through a Master of Awakening, Rumi discloses the means by which the spiritual novice is set upon a path of authenticity and integrity. As the narrative unfolds, the steps of the journey (ravan-i ruh) become clearer in an alchemy of transfiguration in which strategic, inner work is done at each precise moment of need. The end of the process is the manifestation of the physiology of the “Perfect Man” who is the product of a path (tariqah) of initiatic grace.
Islamic Tradition and Sufi Doctrine
The sacred tradition of Islam spread over the Middle East in the eighth century of the Common Era. By its presence it brought into being a new unity; a synthesis of doctrine and practice (called later by the term Sufism) that drew elements from such diverse sources as the primordial vision of its founder, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), the spiritual potency of the Qur’an, the Socratic and neo-platonic traditions, elements of an existing metaphysics, the spiritual perspectives of other sacred traditions as diverse as Hinduism and Buddhism, sacred legends and stories, Judeo-Christian histories, epiphanies of Zoroastrian “light,” the miracles and teachings of Jesus, gnostic and hermetic legacies, and the hagiography of its own remarkable development. This synthesis, however, was not simply a collection. It was a fresh reconfiguration of the perennial wisdom under the creative force of the central thesis of Islam, the Divine Unity (tawhid).
It is around this doctrine that the spiritual tradition of Islam (Sufism) formed as an explicit and interior means of approaching the Divine Reality(al-haqq). What Sufism teaches about that Reality can be summed up in two doctrines: the transcendent unity of being (wahdat al-wujud), and the universal or Perfect Man (alinsan al-kamil). From these perspectives, says Seyyed Hossein Nasr, “All things are theophanies of the Divine Names and Qualities, and derive their existence from the One Being who alone ‘is’.”4 The human person is, of all creatures, centrally and axially located in such a way that the Divine Reality manifested through the Names and Qualities can be reflected through humanity in a total and conscious manner. To become this being is to become the archetypal human, the Perfect Man, the Sufi ideal. The realization of this state through spiritual practice utilizes the exoteric dimensions of Islam inwardly, adapted to esoteric realities.5
This religious and spiritual perspective, then, forms the context in which the teachings of Rumi must be read. As a Master of Sufism, Rumi “makes real” the inner dimensions of Islam’s exoteric doctrine and practice. Through his poetic imagery he establishes the possibility of a form of knowing and being that can be actualized through initiatic grace along the spiritual path. To assist his own students in this process he uses the venerable tradition of parable and poetry whose metaphors can spark the spiritual imagination and ignite transformation.
Traditional Texts, Spiritual Hermeneutics
The hermeneutics of a mystical text is a spiritual science based not only in traditional interpretation (tafsir), but also upon the use of two specific faculties, the analogical imagination (khayal) and spiritual intuition (dhawq). These come into play as a form of contemplative gnosis (ma’rifah) that undergirds the spiritual reading of sacred texts (ta’wil). What follows is an interpretation of one small portion of Rumi’s masterwork crucial to the topic of initiatic grace. It attempts the use not only of ancient and contemporary hermeneutical theory, but also contemplative seeing (kashf) into the inner meaning and structure of the text.6
The selection chosen for this exploration is a translation by Coleman Barks and John Moyne taken from the Mathnawi, II, 2338-2342, 2384-2385, 2400-2430, 2436-2438, 2442, which has been critically edited and translated by R. A. Nicholson (1925-40). In this interpretation I am working directly from the Persian text itself and the Nicholson edition. However, I am satisfied that the Barks and Moyne translation closely expresses the spirit of the original verse (though I will indicate where I feel certain changes in the English translation would be helpful for a clearer or more complete understanding of the original).7
The Sheikh On the Stick-Horse
A certain young man was asking around,
“I need to find a wise person. I have a problem.”
A bystander said, “There’s no one with intelligence
in our town except that man over there
playing with the children,
the one riding the stick-horse.
He has keen, fiery insight and vast dignity
like the night-sky, but he conceals it
in the madness of child’s play.”
The young seeker approached the children, “Dear Father,
you who have become as a child, tell me a secret.”
“Go away. This is not a day
“But please! Ride your horse this way,
just for a minute.”
The Sheikh play-galloped over.
“Speak quickly. I can’t hold this one still for long.
Whoops. Don’t let him kick you.
This is a wild one!”
The young man felt he couldn’t ask his serious question
in the crazy atmosphere, so he joked,
“I need to get married.
Is there someone suitable on this street?”
“There are three kinds of women in the world.
Two are griefs, and one is a treasure to the Soul.
The first, when you marry her, is all yours.
The second is half-yours, and the third
is not yours at all.
Now get out of here,
before this horse kicks you in the head! Easy, now!”
The Sheikh rode off among the children.
The young man shouted, “Tell me more about the kinds of women!”
The Sheikh, on his cane horsie, came closer,
“The virgin of your first love is all yours.
She will make you feel happy and free.
A childless widow is the second. She will be half-yours.
The third, who is nothing to you, is a married woman with a child.
By her first husband she had a child, and all her love
goes into that child. She will have no connection with you.
Now watch out.
I’m going to turn this rascal around!”
He gave a loud whoop and rode back,
calling the children around him.
“One more question, Master!”
The Sheikh circled,
“What is it? Quickly! That rider over there needs me.
I think I’m in love.”
“What is this playing that you do?
Why do you hide your intelligence so?”
“The people here
want to put me in charge. They want me to be
Judge, Magistrate, and Interpreter of all the texts.
The Knowing I have doesn’t want that. It wants to enjoy itself.
I am a plantation of sugarcane, and at the same time
I’m eating the sweetness.”
Knowledge that is acquired
is not like this. Those who have it worry if
audiences like it or not.
It’s a bait for popularity.
Disputational knowing wants customers.
It has no soul.
Robust and energetic
before a responsive crowd, it slumps when no one is there.
The only real customer is God.
your sweet sugarcane God-Love, and stay playfully childish.
Your face will turn rosy with illumination
like the redbud flowers.
Narrative Unfolding and Initiatic Emplotment
Narration in its many forms illustrates historical consciousness and the temporal processes of human experience. As an aspect of human experience, mysticism is also characterized by forms of narrative emplotment crucial to spiritual development. The literary structure of the parable told by Rumi, signifies the spiritual unfolding and development of the traveler (salik) or seeker (taleb). It illustrates stages or levels of mystical journey undertaken in the progress of initiation.
The narrative (or plot structure) of this story is a most interesting one. It can be useful in helping us see matters from a spiritual perspective, and in discovering Rumi’s initiatic method. In what follows I shall give a brief outline and description of the plot form of the narrative and then describe the linguistic markers which help to illustrate an understanding of its initiatic significance. Essentially there are four mini-episodes in this story, and three encounters of the seeker with the sheikh.
Episode One: The Seeker’s Inquiry
A. The seeker asks for directions to a wise man.
B. The answer is given that there is no one except the one who plays with the children.
C. The description and contradiction of a “wise man.”
In this first episode the seeker is referred to simply as the nondescript “one” (an yeki, in Persian) who is in search of someone who can give him counsel in some kind of difficulty. After making his initial inquiry, he is given a response by someone else essentially unknown to us who is cognizant of the actual situation. This unknown speaker explains that there is no one who fits the category of a wise counselor except for the “one who appears to be insane” (majnun nema). The appearance of insanity is supported by the fact that he is riding a stick-horse (ney) and playing with the children. These two paradoxical facts seem to contradict the characterization of wisdom. However, the anonymous guide supports his initial portrayal of the sheikh as a wise man with a series of observations about his actual state of being, though he agrees that it is hidden behind apparent madness.
Episode Two: The Seeker’s First Encounter and Question
A. The seeker asks to be told a “secret.”
B. The Request is rejected by the sheikh.
C. An appeal and accommodation.
D. The seeker’s “false” question.
E. The sheikh’s riddle and ride back among the children.
The protagonist is described in the second episode as a “seeker of advice” (mashvarat juyande). However, when the moment comes, instead of asking for advice, he asks the sheikh to tell him a “secret” (raz). The term implies the disclosure of “esoteric knowledge” which, since the inquirer is an unknown person, the sheikh is not ready to give. He tells the seeker that the doorway to the “circle” of devotees is not open, nor is this a day for telling these sorts of secrets. The implication is that in the “play” of the moment secrecy is neither needed nor wanted. (The particular phrase concerning the “circle” of devotees being closed is not present in this particular translation). In the face of rejection, the aspirant persists, and is now characterized at this spot in the text as a spiritual seeker (taleb), who describes the cane-horse as a “pegasus.” At this juncture, the sheikh begins to play or pretend with the seeker; he demands a quick exchange. The seeker is put off either by the atmosphere or by the demand that he be quick. He feels that he cannot ask his serious question, or as it says in the Persian, “speak the secret of his heart” (raz-i del goftan), so he pretends: he asks advice about marriage. The sheikh answers the marital question with a riddle about the three kinds of women, two of which are griefs and one who is a treasure of the soul.
Episode Three: The Young Man’s Second Encounter
A. The young man literally shouts out for an explanation.
B. The sheikh gives commentary on the three women.
C. The sheikh returns boisterously to the company of the children.
The seeker is now characterized as a “youth” (javan), which speaks no doubt to his chronological age, but more pertinently perhaps to his level of spiritual development. He has now begun to be spiritually aware, and so demands an interpretation (tafsir) of the riddle. In giving commentary to the riddle, however, the sheikh does not in fact “solve” it. The question as to its meaning (how two can be a grief and the other a treasure to the young man’s soul or how it actually applies to the young seeker) remains as much a mystery as before—although the sheikh gives both an account of the relationships of the three women and something of what their effect upon the young man will be. However, in contrast to the serious nature of this commentary, the sheikh continues to maintain the playful spirit of pretense with the children.
Episode Four: The Deep Question of the Third Encounter
A. The “Interrogator” asks a third and final request.
B. The “deep question” of the sheikh.
C. The sheikh’s answer and discourse on knowledge.
D. Parting instructions.
The depth of the seeker’s search in this last episode is indicated first by the term, questioner or interrogator (sayel), and more importantly perhaps by the shift away from the seeker’s concerns about himself to a focus upon the sheikh as the object of his inquiry. The movement from fixation upon his personal problems to a dawning awareness of the royal state of the sheikh (shah-i kia) has come in stages. The first indication of his turning away from his own self-interest occurs in the last episode where he asks for an interpretation of the riddle. Here, however, his “turn” is completed in a recognition not only of the station of the sheikh, but also of the weight and import of what he is doing—particularly, for the life of the seeker. The sheikh now willingly explains his “secret” by contrasting the external demands of society upon him with the internal authority of the wisdom he obeys. The price of his obedience to the essence and reality (jowhar) of things is his willingness to sacrifice the external form (araz, batin), but the knowledge gained is a sweetness that can only be known by its taste. The sheikh will sell his soul to none but God, the true customer of its riches. In the end we find that “illumination” (tajalli) has been the goal along, not just for the sheikh, but for the seeker. All of the sheikh’s actions have been to stimulate these series of questions and to turn him toward the depths of gnosis; toward sapiential and enlightened knowing. This is the initiatic goal, accomplished here in stages through the plot structure of this narrative. It is a progression that gives temporal shape to the seeker’s spiritual history through dialogue and the fusion of horizons, which is at the heart of spiritual initiation.
Spiritual Dialogue and the Fusion of Spiritual Horizons
In the context of contemporary hermeneutical theory dialogue and the fusion of diverse (or multiple) horizons is crucial. Hans-Georg Gadamer makes it clear that the discovery of meaning always involves dialogical exchange between the diverse horizons of speakers and readers.8 This exchange and fusion is powerfully illustrated by the elliptical and convergent nature of the entire text of the Mathnawi which is in fact one immense dialogue between traditions, speakers, students, and perspectives. This dialogical stance is further exemplified in the conversational form of this tale. Finally and perhaps most importantly: dialogue as a hermeneutical strategy and spiritual methodology is illustrated in the very way in which the remote horizon of the seeker and the sheikh are finally bridged through its exchanges and questionings. Dialogue is perhaps the central methodology of mystical discourse within Islamic practice, and is used not only to bridge intellectual barriers, but more importantly to bridge between horizons on the hierarchy of the mystical scala distinguished by Islam and illustrated in this story.
These same dialogical processes, so central to Sufi praxis, are apparently the origin of the Mathnawi itself whose roots are no doubt in the mystical dialogues (sohbat) between Rumi and Shams-i Tabrizi. It is clear, however, that the writing and work of the Mathnawi also emerges from the conversations between he and Chalabi (his devoted scribe), as well as from dialogues arising within Rumi’s circle of disciples. The Mathnawi attempts the fusion of these many horizons. In its universality, material drawn from multiple traditions and diverse perspectives is blended into a central unity that brings convergence and clarity without destroying its rich diversity. Finally, the timeless quality of the work, which remains accessible even today, reaches across the ages of human history in a continuing dialogue between its perennial wisdom and our own time. There is immediacy to this tale and in much of the Mathnawi (which gives it a timeless and universal quality), and the sense that its wisdom is neither remote nor obscure, but proximate and available.
Mystical Truth and the Spiritual Play
As this tale unfolds we are not only drawn into the specific features of the story, but are invited into the play between author and reader. The specific content of the mystical truth Rumi seeks to present is expressed first in the sheikh’s play with the children; second, in the sheikh’s game of pretend with the seeker; and finally, in the riddle he tells as another form of spiritual play.
In the story, before the seeker arrives on the scene, the sheikh is already involved in his play with the children on the town square.9 The implication is that the sheikh and the children are “playing in circles,” a reference not only to the game itself, but also perhaps to the circling “dance” in the ring of whirling dervishes. In his “play” the sheikh is demonstrating the liberating truth of enlightenment, which releases him from the conventions of society, and allows him access to the free-spirited nature of children. This set of meanings seems represent the first level of spiritual play.
At the second level, however, the sheikh plays a game of “pretend” on his cane-horsie with the bewildered and “serious” seeker. Paradoxically, the lack of seriousness (or depth) in the seeker’s initial request is mocked by the obvious frivolity in the sheikh, and his lack of somber consideration for the issues raised by the seeker. At several points in the tale, the sheikh deliberately draws the seeker into his game of pretend, by making him back away from the invented hooves of the horse. In the end, through this “game” of pretend with its evident lack of seriousness the sheikh succeeds in an initiatic breakthrough into the depths of the seeker’s more “serious” spiritual concerns, which in the end are meant to make him “playfully childish.” Finally, the seeker (and perhaps also the reader) is drawn into a venerable and ancient form of linguistic game, the riddle. One almost cannot help but play it. It is designed to capture the attention of the listener (and the reader), and through the exercise of its linguistic rules tease out far deeper meaning. In each of these levels, both the reader and the seeker are playing “against” the rules established for three separate games, and through absorption in the play are drawn into its unique truth.
Nested Structures and Metaphoric Worlds
In this short text two worlds are made available through the use of nested structures which give this text its unique initiatic depth. The story itself is a parable within a parable, or more accurately, a riddle within a parable. Both function to create these two “worlds “ into which the reader/seeker can be drawn and transformed by initiatic grace. The first world is that of the sheikh which is both a riddle and a parable. However, in the midst of the encounter between the seeker and the sheikh, another more enigmatic riddle is posed concerning the life of three women who represent another potential world of encounter for the seeker.
These nested structures require a contemplative reading. The riddle, of course, can be engaged separately, or both the riddle and the parable can be seen to reflect a single theme, for which each world and its set of metaphors plays an explanatory role for the other. The single theme may be understood as the “answer” which the young man has initially sought and which he ultimately receives. In the process the “answer” is transformed into something entirely different by the “truth” that the sheikh expresses both in “child’s play” and in the riddle. The two structures interact differently in their relationship to this theme. The first world is the unremitting circle of paradoxality expressed in the wisdom/madness of a sheikh willingness to play seriously with children in his game of pretend on the stick-horse (all of which are its major metaphors). These images draw the seeker to new understanding and ultimately transform his search, taking him out of his own world from one initiatic level to another.
In the second world (the riddle) posses a serious enigma to the intellect of this earnest young adult. Through its metaphors, it engages him so that he is made vulnerable to the transformative power of the first set of playful metaphors in the first world. Through the riddle the seeker is made to ponder his marital future in such a way that he must confront three possibilities which do not seem to make sense. How is it, for example, that the first two women, the one who is all his and can make him feel happy and free, and even the second who will at least be half his, are a grief? How could it be that the last women, the one who will have nothing to do with him, is a “treasure of the soul?” If the sheikh holds the key to this riddle, which remains unresolved even after the sheikh’s commentary, then he is indeed assumed to be a man of wisdom and power. The ultimate riddle, however, is the sheikh himself. He is either completely mad, or utterly wise in a way that makes the answer, even to his insanity (like the answer to the riddle), transparently clear. The seeker eventually assumes the latter. Ultimately he is given an answer to the sheikh’s madness and becomes, by virtue of that explanation, enlightened, which becomes the key to the unsolved riddle concerning the three women.
Parables and the Deconstruction of Worlds
In his literary study John Dominic Crossan has pointed out that parables “are stories which shatter the deep structure of our accepted world and thereby render clear and evident the relativity of story itself. Parables remove our defenses and make us vulnerable to God. It is only in such experiences that God can touch us, and only in such moments does the kingdom of God arrive.”10
This shattering of “the deep structure of our accepted world” is a deconstructive process, which is the only possible means for transformative reconstruction. It is this subversive role as a parable that is used by a Master of parable to show the limitations of the current structures of the world and to shatter their claim to reality in such a way that their relativity and restriction become perfectly clear. In the context of Rumi’s parable, the processes of deconstruction and reconstruction are intense and even explicit, but the processes work on many different levels at once. At one level, in the story itself, the seeker is confronted by two parables or riddles which have the effect of deconstructing his world, and later setting him upon the road to a fresh reconstruction. Second, and perhaps more importantly, Rumi tells this story as parable in an attempt to deconstruct and reconstruct his own disciples’ worlds (and by implication the world of any reader).
As the story opens we are made to feel that in the desperate search of the seeker there is perhaps some difficulty which already has his world in crisis. We never find out exactly what that difficulty is, but whatever the cause, its function has been to drive the seeker to find the sheikh who is busily deconstructing the conventional forms of the religious and social structures of his day. The way in which he refuses to conform to the expectations of the community and declines to assume responsibility for its exoteric formalities as they are thrust upon him (and then seems to mock the “seriousness” of these religious and social demands in the play of children), is both subversive and deconstructive. The sheikh is busily deconstructing his own world, and extends that deconstructive move outward to those who fall within his circle of influence. In the riddle that the sheikh tells, there is the opportunity for further deconstruction, which, in the sheikh’s view, is considered a benefit. If the seeker follows the examples in the riddle and marries either one of the first two women he will know grief; if he marries the last woman she will have nothing to do with him. In either case, he suffers some form of breakdown.
Mystical Insight and the Breakdown of the Self
In mystical teaching the deconstruction of the ego does not result in complete and unreconstructed obliteration. According to both eastern and western mystical traditions, the deconstructive and reconstructive processes operate upon separative ego-consciousness so that as the old “self ” is abolished, a new Self is reconstituted allowing it to participate in a greater fullness. It is precisely this process which (in the hands of a Master such as Rumi—or the Master of the story) is the power of initiatic grace. Within the Islamic tradition at the heart of Rumi’s teaching, the deconstruction of the ego and the reconstruction of the Self is expressed through the traditional terms fana’ (the extinction of the social and cultural self as ego-construct) and baqa’ (entry into divine subsistence or abundance).11
It is imperative to explain these terms through the cosmogonic cycle employed by all sacred traditions and Islam in particular. Within an Islamic narrative of spiritual pilgrimage the structure of this tale is an archetype of participation in those aspects of the cosmogonic cycle where the seeker begins the journey of ascent through fana’ into baqa’. Rumi uses this parable to stimulate the analogical imaginations of his students, inviting their full participation in mystical ascent. It is not, therefore, a call to participate in the teaching simply as an ideology, but as an enticement into the madness of child’s play that brings the self into the experience of extinction (fana’) so that it may detach it from the illusory world and find its life reconstituted in Ultimate Reality (baqa’). Detachment from its “knots of desire,” however, appears to be a form of madness to the conventional mind. In summarizing this teaching, Rumi expresses the traditional doctrine in terms of the shahadah (see footnote 11),
“Everything is perishing but His face’: unless thou art in his face, do not seek to exist. When any one has passed away (from himself) in My Face, the words ‘everything is perishing’ are no longer applicable.
Because he is in ‘but,’ he has transcended ‘no,’ whoever is in ‘but’ has not passed away [in respect to the Ultimate Self].”(I, 3052-4)
“When a man’s ‘I’ is negated from existence, then what else remains? Consider, O denier. If you have an eye, open it and look! After ‘no,’ why, what else remains?”(VI, 2096-7)
It is within the parable itself that we begin to see what this traditional teaching actually means. The journey through extinction (fana’) to abundance (baqa’)— where the self begins to know both annihilation and fullness, elimination and subsistence—is illustrated by all that the sheikh is and does. As a spiritual master, he is himself detached and free from the conventions of society, and from the expectations and ambitions which shape the ego as a social construct. In his freedom he is willing to appear mad, and to be thought of as demented. His freedom, however, is expressed in the sheer joy of his play with the children, which is at the same time a sign of his detachment (or of the extinction of the self that is fastened to external reality). More importantly, perhaps, the doctrine of extinction (fana’), seems also to be the key that unlocks the riddle that he tells. To be “happy and free” in conventional human terms is to have the whole devotion (or at least half of the affection) of a woman’s love. It is, put in other terms, to egoically “possess” the woman.
As the sheikh knows, genuine freedom (which is a “treasure of the soul”) can only be known when one is no longer bound by possessiveness. The woman who will have nothing to do with him is the condition for the possibility of his ultimate release, the final sign of detachment or annihilation. Using the traditional metaphors of Sufism, the last woman described is the sign of the Beloved, the Divine Image, who loves only the “child” (nature), and who in effect releases that child into a greater freedom to become a true seeker of the Beloved’s Face. While this understanding does not deal with all the possible permutations of meaning present in the text, it begins to explain perhaps the tie between the parable and the riddle and their mutual relationship.
At each level of the dialogue between himself and the mad sheikh, the seeker is invited deeper into the freedom of his “madness.” He is being enticed to step into the “crazy” world of complete detachment. Rumi’s ultimate concern in telling the tale is to initiate the cosmogonic cycle (the adventure’s quest), which will put his own students upon the path of ascent. The first step, leading through fana’, is a form of knowing (ma’rifah) which can only be gained through spiritual praxis.
Spiritual Praxis and Mystical Gnosis
It is clear from the outset of the parable that a particular kind of knowing is being expressed which falls outside of the conventional boundaries of human cognition. The young man is in search of someone who will know how to solve his problem. What he finds is wisdom that takes him beyond “his problem” through a process of spiritual praxis. The sheikh has no “answer” that will satisfy the seeker at the level in which he arrives. In fact all the Master’s “answers” do is frustrate the young man further. The sheikh’s knowing, as he says later, is something that transcends social norms and religious dogma. It is not easily expressed, and when it is, only the madness of child’s play can do it. Otherwise it becomes merely a type of disputational knowledge, an ideology, to be haggled over, bought and sold like so much merchandise on the open market.
The sheikh, however, is the “Master” of a form of knowledge symbolized in the wild riding of his stick-horse. This symbolization is complex and subtle and is not easily expressed in English. The best avenue of access is through a direct translation of the term “stick horse” from Persian and an examination of the opening lines of the Mathnawi. Both of these use the same term (ney, cane or reed) to express (either explicitly and implicitly) an enduring theme used throughout the whole masterwork. Nicholson in his commentary calls the reed, “an emblem of the transporting influence of Divine inspiration” (Commentary on the Mathnawi, Book II, 323), and translates the opening couplets of the Mathnawi which introduces this very metaphor in the following way,
“Hearken to this Reed forlorn,
Breathing, ever since ’twas torn
From its rushy bed, a strain
Of impassioned love and pain.
The secret of my song, though near,
None can see and none can hear.
Oh, for a friend to know the sign
And mingle all his soul with mine!
’Tis the fame of Love that fired me,
’Tis the wine of Love inspired me.
Wouldst thou learn how lovers bleed,
Hearken, hearken to the Reed!”
(Mathnawi, I, 1-6)
The sheikh rides a ney, his cane pony, that for Rumi is the reed through which the Spirit blows. For the sheikh it is the divine Breath of his inspiration, his painful passion and longing. The sheikh has become the “Master” of this reed (ney, stick-horse) only because it is the Spirit which has mastered him. His “wild ride” on the reed becomes the instrument of the divine Breath blowing through him and through all things. He knows that breath by experience because he lives its breathing. This is his wild ride which he both shapes and expresses. He is its master and its willing slave, for he has himself become the reed of the Spirit (the instrument of divine inspiration), a “pegasus”12 that can be ridden into transcend- ence. It is for him neither opinion nor ideology, but knowledge gained through experience. He has ridden the high winds of its wild blowing. It is to this “wild ride” that the seeker is invited, which appears to be madness. It seems only like a game of pretend, but that is because, as he says, it is a form of knowing that can only be known by its “taste” through sheer enjoyment. God, not humanity, is its only customer. It is the knowing that brings baqa’ (the full rosy blush of enlightenment before the Beloved’s Face) in stages.
Childhood and the Structure of Initiation
Though it is difficult from this small sample to do a full analysis of the developmental processes at work in spiritual initiation, its outline may be seen in three details. First in the importance which it assigns to children; second, in the terms used for the seeker as he moves from one encounter with the sheikh to another; and finally, in the guidance given at the end of the story in which the sheikh instructs him to stay “playfully childish.” In each of these the focus is be upon the structure of childhood as the foundation for further stages of development. The nomenclature used to describe the seeker, however, seems to put him at the very early stages of spiritual pursuit; at the level of childhood.
In understanding the spiritual significance of this structural level, one must know that the beginning of the journey upon the Path or Way (tariqah) originates in spiritual birth and continues through an inevitable period of childhood. Even for an individual who enters the Path as an adult, the gateway remains the same. At its inception, birth and childhood are indispensable and demanding stages of spiritual life because they involve the deconstructive movement away from the conventional concepts of “adulthood.” To initiate the seeker’s spiritual pursuit, the sheikh must help him detach from his adult expectations and assume the openness and playfulness of a child. It is only in that condition that true knowledge can be gained.
The sheikh, therefore, remains forever open to “childhood.” Playfulness endures even in the station (maqam) of advanced wisdom, which does not exclude it. It is exhibited not only because it is embedded at the base of all the developmental layerings, but also because no disciple can be initiated without it. Also, to lose one’s “self ” in play as a child is similar in effect to the loss of one’s ego in a state (hal) of spiritual “intoxication” (or ecstasy) which is another of the favorite metaphors of Sufism and of Rumi.13 In order to know any higher level of being or form of consciousness it is imperative that one know loss in order to gain childhood, and through childhood realize a more exalted wisdom. Rumi’s tale and the sheikh’s activities, however, are not simply teachings, but forms of praxis where one begins development at the stage of childhood through initiatory birth, and grows toward the “Perfect Man.”
The “Perfect Man” as Sacred Archetype
In this short text, the eschatological nature of Islamic tradition is highlighted by the sheikh as archetype of “perfect humanity” (al-insan al-kamil). Ultimate perfection stands prophetically on the distant horizon of the Islamic eschaton. The sheikh, however, personifies that archetypal figure of the Universal Human both within time and as the “axis of existence” (qotb), which is Islam’s claim for the Spiritual Master as well as a manifestation of ultimate, human destiny. The sheikh has become a living example of the archetypal human, the eschatological image of the completed form of human being, the Sufi ideal.
However there also is in this ideal form not only images of progression toward the Eschaton, but also, paradoxically, a return to Genesis. In Rumi’s portrayal, the archetypal human form has assumed characteristics of the child (genesis). The two, the child and the aged master are not, however, separate images—for the beginning cannot be neglected at the end, and the beginning is recapitulated (apocatastasis) in the end. The Genesis and the Eschaton are united in the image of the Archetypal Human. As an authentic epiphany of the divine Presence, therefore, the sheikh also becomes a theophany of the future and the distant horizon is made near. The possibility of a theomorphic mode of being is revealed which in unity includes all levels of being (arche and telos, Genesis and Eschaton). Within the conditions of our historical and human exigencies, however, these images appear odd to us (strange, even mad), but their authenticity is verified by the power of their effects.
The sheikh portrays the archetypal form in Islamic garb as the “wise old man” who has become a child, the sage who plays the “fool” for the sake of wisdom. This is a universal and perennial figure known in all traditions whose numerous refigurations are expressed uniquely by different symbolic systems. Rumi depicts the sheikh as the clever idiot who feigns danger on his stick-horse, and becomes “dangerous” indeed to the conventional life of any seeker who gets close enough to be “kicked in the head” by such “sapiential foolishness.”
The perilous energy radiating from Rumi’s depiction of this archetypal personage can best be recognized in his skillful use of the potentialities of the present moment to promote initiatic transformation. His skill is manifest not so much in the play of controlled madness, nor the ability to sustain that pattern in the face of conventional antagonism, nor even in his ability to draw the young seeker toward wisdom, but in the manner in which he uses even the seeker’s artless duplicity concerning the actual problem and easily turns it to his ultimate benefit.
Out of either embarrassment or anxiety, the seeker refuses to tell the sheikh his “real” question, so he concocts a false one. The sheikh does not care. Even the deception becomes a passageway that leads out of darkness toward the light of wisdom. Nothing is wasted and nothing obstructs the sheikh’s keen insight nor his powers of transformation. After all, he is the “rider of the Reed,” appearing on such an unlikely steed as a light out of the Eschaton. It is he, the archetypal form of perfected humanity, who alone can open for the unenlightened seeker all the dark and obstructed pathways which ascend and descend through the layerings of being toward an “abundance” (baqa’) that is known only through “extinction” (fana’). It is into this grace-filled way that Rumi invites us and all seekers,
“Come, come into the garden of extinction and behold: paradise after paradise within the spirit of your own abundance”(Divan… 4047)
No seeker can enter that paradise without the assistance of initiatic grace. Few seekers can experience that grace without the assistance of those powers of initiation, which are inherent within sacred tradition and for which they have been given as revelation to the world. Islamic tradition, in solidarity with other initiatory paths makes available the grace of the “Masters” of the tradition. By the grace of heaven, these individuals are given to assist the seeker through the very processes that this figurative parable has illustrated. It is for this reason that the sacred traditions have been preserved and manifested down to our day as a means of initiatic grace. It is through them that we have access to a process that is as effective in the modern world as it was in the time of the Master, Jalal ud-din Rumi.
1 Jalal ud-din Rumi was born on September 30, 1207 in the city of Balkh, in Khurasan the northeastern province of Persia, a region that is now a part of Afghanistan. While still a young boy his family fled from the threat of an impending Mongol invasion, and after many years of wandering arrived in Asia Minor, in the region known as the Roman Anatolia from which Rumi (the Roman) gets his name. They settled in the city of Konya in present day Turkey where his father, Baha’ ud-din Walad, who was from a line of scholars, theologians and jurists and known for his learning as a Sufi, occupied a high religious office offered by the Seljuk king, ‘Ala ud-din Kayqubad, and was given the title Sultan al-’ulama, “Sultan of the men of knowledge” William C. Chittick. The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi, (Albany: SUNY Press, 1983). Following in the tradition of his father, Rumi began studying the exoteric sciences of Islam including Arabic grammar, the Qur’an, jurisprudence, history, theology, philosophy, mathematics and astronomy. Given his erudition, it is not surprising perhaps that at age twenty-four, at the death of his father, he was asked to succeed him in his duties as a teacher and scholar in the Muslim community.
2 Rumi’s major works are the Diwan-i Shams-i Tabrizi (The Collected Poems of Shams of Tabriz), and the Mathnawi-i Ma’navi (The Couplets of Contemplative Meaning). The Diwan is a collection of ecstatic utterances dedicated to Shams-i Tabrizi, said to be composed spontaneously by Rumi during the sama, or mystical dance, which later became known as “the dance of the whirling dervishes” employed by the Mevlevi order which was founded by Rumi. It contains poetry describing the mystical states of Islam and expounds certain aspects of Sufi doctrine. The Mathnawi, from which the sample for this interpretive examination is taken, is the great masterwork of Rumi, and has been called, “the Qur’an in the Persian language.”
3 From the Preface to Diwan: Selected Poems from the Divani Shamsi Tabriz (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1898) and in vol. 6, xiii of The Mathnawi of Jalauddin Rumi (London: Luzac and Company 1925-1940).
4 Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Sufi Essays (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1972) p35.
5 William Chittick says of this relationship, “Sufism deals first and foremost with the inward aspects of that which is expressed outwardly or exoterically in the Shari’ah, the Islamic religious law. Hence it is commonly called ‘Islamic esotericism’. In the view of the Sufis, exoteric Islam is concerned with laws and injunctions which direct human action and life in accordance with the divine Will, whereas Sufism concerns direct knowledge of God and realization—or literally, the ‘making real’ and actual—of spiritual realities which exist both within the external form of the Revelation and in the being of the spiritual traveller (salik). The Shari’ah is directly related to Sufism inasmuch as it concerns itself with translating these same realities into laws which are adapted to the individual and social orders” The Sufi Doctrine of Rumi: An Introduction, (Tehran: Daneshgah-i San’ati-i Aryamehr, 1974) pp20-21.
6 The Arabic designations tafsir and ta’wil refer to the hermeneutical disciplines which give the reader access to the exoteric meaning of the text on the literal level (zahir) as well as the interior or esoteric counterpart (batin). Tafsir involves the literal interpretation and exegesis of a text, whereas ta’wil denotes symbolic exegesis and the employment of analogical and allegorical possibilities which are crucial to the “unveiling” (kashf) of the meaning of a sacred or spiritual text.
7 The Barks/Moyne rendering is set in the form of free verse. This, Barks suggests, is a style well suited for the Mathnawi, because it is “one of the strongest and most spiritually open and questing traditions in Western writing” (1988, ix). The poetic text is a reproduction of the Coleman Barks and John Coleman translation’s of Rumi’s parable as it appears in This Longing (Putney, Vermont: Threshold Books, 1983, pp3-5).
8 Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (NY: Crossroads, 1985).
9 My designation, town square, is actually called in the Persian text a “circle” (meidan), which is the typical pattern for the center of Persian cities, towns and villages, and here also functions as a symbol of the “circle” of Sufi disciples with whom the sheikh is also at play.
10 John Dominic Crossan The Dark Interval (Allen, Texas: Argus Communications 1975) p122.
11 In his exposition of the Sufi doctrines of Rumi, William Chittick elucidates these issues in terms of Islamic spirituality. “Generally speaking,” he says, “the realization by man of his primordial state—that of Universal Man in its fullness—is called from the point of view of the spiritual traveller or the ‘operative’ (‘amali) aspects of the Path, ‘union with God’ (al-wisal bi’l-haqq). The path leading to union is long and difficult and has been described in a variety of ways by different Sufis. For our purposes here it is sufficient to limit ourselves to a consideration of two main steps on the Path; steps which are an application of the Shahadah to the spiritual travail. The first of these is fana’, “annihilation of self,” which derives from the ‘no’ of the Shahadah: ‘There is no god but God,” there is no reality but the Reality. Man’s self-existence is not real, since he is not God; therefore the illusion that it is real must be annihilated. The second is baqa’, ‘subsistence in God,’ which springs from the “but:” There is no reality but the Reality. Since God alone is real, man’s real Self is God. Man attains to Reality only by passing away from his illusory self and subsiding in his real Self ” The Sufi Doctrine of Rumi: An Introduction. Tehran: (Daneshgah-i San’ati-i Aryamehr, 1974) pp67-68.
12 The term “pegasus” (faras) is used in the Persian text, but not translated directly by Barks and Moyne. It helps to strengthen the metaphor and signals the “winged” nature (transcendent reality) of the instrument of play that the sheikh rides.
13 See, for example, William Chittick’s commentary on Rumi’s use of the images of intoxication and sobriety in the chapter, “Winedrinking and Revelry,” The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983) pp311-333, or in the opening chapters of his Sufism: A Short Introduction (Oxford: Oneworld, 2000).