Mohit Dubey: Three Rumi Poems

In the following paper, I will discuss the Sufi concepts present in three poems from Rumi’s Masnavi. Written between 1262 A.D. and Rumi’s death in 1273, the Masnavi is a 26,000 verse Persian literary work composed of three separate volumes and considered by many, Sufi and non-Sufi alike, to be “the greatest mystical poem ever written” [1]. Each volume of the Masnavi is dripping with wonderful stories, parables, and exegesis that reveal the subtleties of the Sufi concepts developed and practiced in medieval Persia, which can be notably difficult to preserve in translation. Using the well-received translation of Mojadeddi I have selected the following three poems, which I believe display the richness of Sufi concepts present in the Masnavi as well as the wondrous and simple ability with which Rumi (via Mojadeddi) communicates.


The first poem, titled “The story of the old harpist who in Omar’s reign would play the harp in the middle of a graveyard without any food just for the sake of God”, is a longer poem that moves back and forth between a self-explanatory story and exegesis of various hadith. In this analysis, I will focus on the opening section of the poem which sets the scene for the story with the underlying theme of resurrection through music as a metaphor for the transcendent healing power of God, as in “Esrafil, whose voice was heard ahead and brought back souls to bodies of the dead” [2]. Through this poem, Rumi explores the fundamental Sufi concept of sama, or listening (to music) with the intent of the focused remembrance of God (dhikr). Rumi says “Prophets too have special tunes inside…the sensual ear can’t hear such melodies since it’s been tainted by iniquities” [3], implying that one cannot fully concentrate on (or “hear”) the divine while being distracted by the sensual world. Rumi also emphasizes that these “special tunes” do not have their sources in the Prophets but that “This voice has a distinctive tone, to grant life is the job of God alone” [4] and “This call comes from the King Himself, it’s true, although His servant utters it to you” [5]. God alone is the source of the nourishing sound, but it can be heard through those who are near to Him, such as the saints (qutb), and travel along an initiatory chain (silsila). Rumi also extends the poem to encompass the important Sufi concepts of fana, annihilation of the self in God, and the resultant baka, subsistence of the self through God in the lines, “Go forth, because through me you hear and see… sometimes I say ‘It’s you’, sometimes ‘It’s me; Regardless, I am sunlight can’t you see?” [6]. Rumi closes the poem with the common Sufi imagery of light reflected in many mirrors as symbolic of God’s omnipotence to reemphasize the earlier message of the necessity of continuous and dynamic resonance of divine teaching in Sufi practice: “Either be nourished by the final flame or the soul’s candle, they’re all the same, either receive light from contemporaries, or from the candles of past visionaries” [7].


The next poem, from the second volume, is a parable titled “A Sufi asks a servant to look after his ass and the servant says, ‘There is no strength or power except through God’”, which is referring to an invocation recommended by the Prophet during hard times. In brief, the Sufi arrives at a khanqa and partakes in a meditation session, after which he entrusts his donkey to a servant with very specific and careful instructions, causing the servant to become irritated (hence the invocation) and ignore caring for the donkey altogether. In this important story, which teaches the lesson to not trust the important things, symbolized by the donkey, to others also interweaves many important Sufi concepts. In the opening description of the meditation, Rumi emphasizes the Sufi notion that it is necessary to learn from a living law, embodied by a teacher, as in “With them, in meditation he partook- such company can teach more than a book: The Sufi’s book’s not marked with words men write” [8]. Rumi deepens this description to also reveal that, in Sufism, knowledge can be accessed in different ways according to one’s capacity, “By footrprints is the Sufi’s method shown… But now the scent of musk serves as his guide… One stage by scent alone if you ascend, that’s more than crossing scores by tracks, my friend!” [9]. In this sense, Sufi’s find it best if you are able to immediately taste the knowledge (dhawq) rather than arrive at it through rationality. Later in the poem, Rumi also explicates the important Sufi concepts of waqt, or existence in the present moment, through the lines “You think about the future and the past – escape them both and you’ll be cured at last” [10] and kashf, or the unveiling of knowledge, as in “When you look at the sun you see one sphere, but those still veiled by forms claim that’s not clear” [11].


The final poem in my analysis is from volume three and is titled “The exegesis of the Qu’ranic verse ‘O hills and birds, repeat his praise’” which tells of the marvelous singing abilities of David that could bring hills to tears. In this poem, Rumi deals very subtly with the Sufi concept of qurb, or the constant desire of nearness with God which is considered a primary aim of the Sufi. Rumi states, as from God to David, “Separation you have known, cut off from good friends for my sake alone… You seek companions, minstrels, singers too – God presents these hills to you” [12] implying that although David has had to sacrifice forms of earthly companionship, he is rewarded for his qurb with the empathy of nature. Later on, Rumi encapsulates the concept of hal, or the inner state experienced by one as a gift from God, in the lines “Questions and answers at a rapid pace enter your heart from realms beyond all space; though you can hear them, others cannot hear” [13]. This line also brings to light the powerful Sufi notion that God is constantly aware of us so that, although we made hide things from one another, nothing is hidden from God.




  1. Rūmī, Jalāl Al-Dīn, and J. A. Mojaddedi. The Masnavi, Book One. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print. Page xx
  2. Page 119, Line 1926
  3. Lines 1929-1930
  4. Line 1942
  5. Line 1946
  6. Lines 1948-1950
  7. Lines 1959-1960
  8. Rūmī, Jalāl Al-Dīn, and J. A. Mojaddedi. The Masnavi, Book Two. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print. Page 13, Lines 159-160
  9. Lines 161-65
  10. Line 178
  11. Line 187
  12. Rūmī, Jalāl Al-Dīn, and J. A. Mojaddedi. The Masnavi, Book Three. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print. Page 259, Lines 4274-4276
  13. Lines 4282-4283