Dorothy Klement: Sufi Views and Metaphor in Rumi’s Masnavi

After reading select poems of Rumi’s Masnavi as translated by Jawid Mohaddedi, I have chosen to focus on the use of metaphor which functions through use of animals. In addition to linking these poems with their Quranic roots, I looked to better understand the functionality of animals in sufi poetry. To start, I began by looking at the following poem: On the difference between one who is needy of God with thirst for him and one who is destitute of God and thirsts for other things. (2765-2780)

This poem is primarily about poverty, patience, trust, and contentment. These four characteristics of humankind are to be sought for through the Sufi path in stations Four through Seven (Lecture, February 24). To illustrate the difference between spiritual poverty and worldly poverty, Rumi used several metaphors throughout his discourse about what it means to be a true dervish and to seek the unity with the Divine rather than a false dervish who seeks worldly needs. The overarching message of this poem is best reflected in a verse from the non-Quranic Hadith, al-qudsiî. “When a man is too much occupied with praising Me (dhikr) to ask aught of Me, I give him [what he desires] before he asks Me [for it]” (Nicholson).

In the opening three lines of this poem, Rumi describes the false dervish as a dog and as a newt. Both are powerful images of one who is blind to the glory of the Divine and of one who rejects oneness with the Divine. The image of a dog is particularly effective in this poem because in Muslim culture, a dog is considered impure and there is even a verse in the Quran that explains, “And if We had willed, we could have elevated him thereby, but he adhered [instead] to the earth and followed his own desire. So his example is like that of the dog: if you chase him, he pants, or if you leave him, he [still] pants. That is the example of the people who denied Our signs”(7: 176).

The image of a newt, or in other translations, a “land fish”, is thought of as rejecting water for which fish are meant to live in. Rumi used this metaphor for man who rejects knowing and living with God. He compared a fish in water to a mystic in Sufism, where, “the infinite Divine grace is to the gnostic mystic knower what water is to the fish but his thirst can never be quenched” (Nicholson Commentary, 6).

The final animal referenced is a bird: a housebird and a phoenix. The phoenix is also present in The Conference of the Birds, and is called the Simorgh, a legendary bird with mystical and magical abilities, construed as a being living closest and most united with the Divine. The housebird, in comparison only sees the walls of it’s own home. She only sees impressions and pictures of the world outside, and only wants and thanks God for the things that she can see around her.

This idea of impressions and images not sufficing in exposing one to the Divine is continued throughout the rest of the poem. The housebird continues to dream about the attributes of the Divine, but because she does not experience the Divine through seeking the Divine out, she cannot ever truly understand the Divine. This reflects one of the pillars of Sufism that is direct experience of the Divine through experience of multiplicity (tanzih), dissimilarity. This can be achieved through closeness with a mentor; someone of close proximity to the Divine themselves.

In Book Two, there is a story that similarly portrays the image of a domestic bird, a hen, and her counterparts, ducks, which are free to fly and swim in water and walk also on land. In The Story about Ducklings Nurtured by a Domestic Bird (3785-3800), Rumi emphasizes through the metaphor of animals again, that one must seek unity with the Divine and leave all worldly possessions and needs behind. He writes that it is the hen, which is a metaphor for the carnal soul, “who is attached to earth. [The] heart yearns passionately for the ocean; from your true mother (the Divine) it gained that emotion. Your fondness for the world comes from your nurse— Abandon her! Her views are always the worse!” (3785). These two types of birds and their relationship to one another represent the desire manifested by the carnal soul to be attached to worldly things, and the eternal soul that continues to fight to be free and experience the Divine and leave carnal desires behind. The hen can only know land, where the duck has been made to live both in water and on land. This is yet another reference to the mystic as a fish made for water, being love and unity with the Divine. This water is later compared to Solomon, who was taught (by God) the speech of the birds and understood divine language just as the ocean understands the language of God (17: 16-17). This is where the metaphor of the bird comes to light, as men have been chosen and are privileged with both an eternal and a carnal soul, so to have the choice to be with the Divine, where animals have but carnal souls, and angels only eternal.

The line “We have honored the sons of Adam”, refers to a verse in the Quran in which God says, “And, truly, We have honored the sons of Adam, have carried them on the land and the sea, have provided them with (lawful) good things, and have favored them far above most of those We have created with a distinct excellence” (17:70) The mention of Adam is where Rumi clarifies his metaphor and introduces man, a being that is inspired by holy revelation, and has the power to actively choose to follow the path and to “leave ‘we’ve conveyed them to land’ behind” (3790). Sufis believe that every human possesses an eternal soul, reflect of the Divine, and so that we all have the capacity to reach enlightenment and unity with the divine for we have each been endowed with this soul. “We are all waterfowl, my mystic friends”

Animals hold a specific function in Rumi’s poetry, and for many other sufi poets. Because it is believed that animals are not endowed with eternal souls in the way that man is, the use of animals in depicting select characteristics and states of being of man to articulate core Sufi views and God’s expectations and request of man. These strong metaphors urge man to act on behalf of being human rather than succumbing to their carnal souls which would tie them to earth.


Works Cited

Mahallati, Jafar. February 24, 2016. Lecture: Origins and Development of Classical and Medieval Sufism.

Rumi, Jalal al-Din. 2007. Masnavi. Oxford, GB: OUP Oxford. Accessed April 4, 2016. ProQuest ebrary.

Rumi, Jalal al-Din. trans Ibrahim Gamard. Commentary R.A Nicholson 1926. “The Mathnawî-yé Ma`nawî” [Rhymed Couplets of Deep Spiritual Meaning]. doa: April 3, 2016.