10-Virtue in the Narrative Poetry of Rūmī

Virtue in the Narrative Poetry of Rūmī

What follows is a consideration of the themes mentioned throughout this book in the context of Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī’s narrative masterpiece, Mathnawī-i Maʿnawī (“The Rhymed Couplets of Spiritual Signification”). Recounting a tale told by Rūmī, and some of its many digressions, this chapter aims to see ethics within the framework of storytelling. The focus will be on virtue, mostly in the Sufi sense, but when possible in the philosophical sense as well.

Rūmī composed his poems at a time when the various sciences he had studied, including scripture, theology, jurisprudence, and the Arabic language, had reached such levels of intricacy and specialization that students of those topics today still often defer to the masters of that time. Moreover, mystical didactic-narrative poetry and mystical love poetry had become genres of their own, aided by two poets beloved of Rūmī, ʿAṭṭār and Sanāʾī. Thus, Rūmī was not merely a poet. He, like Ghazālī before him, was a synthesizer in a time of intellectual fragmentation, and his poetry represents a culmination of scholarship much like a rope represents a taut winding of fibers. It is for this reason that a wide variety of Islamic learning can be found in his poetry.

Of course, Rūmī has become somewhat legendary for his antagonism vis-à-vis those who place all their trust in reason, epitomized by the philosophers. Perhaps equally famous is his reprimand of adherents to rational arguments, describing them as walking on stilts.1 In his Mathnawī, philosophers appear as spokespersons of fanciful thought, disbelief, corruption, and skepticism, who deny the existence of demons (dīw) while actually being demonic in form.2 One tale warns of a philosopher who denies God’s agency, only to awake physically blind because of his metaphorical blindness to divine omnipotence.3 The failures of philosophers and logicians contrast with those who purify their hearts. While philosophers have become “shackled by intelligibles,” Rūmī says, agreeing with Ghazālī before him, “the purified one, king-like, arrives mounted on the intellect’s intellect.”4 In fact, Rūmī’s explanation for the Prophet’s foreseeing—according to a narration—that most of those who attain salvation would be dull-witted was that they would be saved from the “villainy of the philosopher,” that is, the villainy of the philosopher’s alluring arguments.5 Yet Rūmī’s work sometimes includes branches of knowledge pursued by the philosophers, such as their insights into virtue and humoral medicine. Rūmī uses these sciences often as a foil for statements about a spiritual knowledge that transcends them. Therefore, he might use the language of alchemical transmutation to extol a temperament with “hashish” in it, that is, a temperament privy to the super-rational.6 Or, he might put humoral terminology in the mouth of Satan, who claims to be a doctor on a par with “Galen,” in order to teach his audience that moral error often results from being baffled and misled about one’s ultimate wellbeing.7 In any case, if Rūmī’s poetry is a slice of a much larger thirteenth-century intellectual pie, it is instructive to see that philosophical virtue ethics and humoral medicine do at times appear as ingredients—especially humoral medicine, which was perhaps simply too practical to shun. Of course, scriptural ethics and Sufi teachings doubtless supersede other approaches to virtue in his writings.


Who was Rūmī? Franklin Lewis has written a definitive study of Rūmī’s life, works, and cultural legacy, which contains the best biography of Rūmī currently available. Born Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad in 1207 in Vakhsh, Rūmī received the title “Jalāl al-Dīn” (“Splendor of the Religion”) from his father, Bahāʾ al-Dīn Walad. Rūmī’s father was himself an ascetic and preacher versed in the Ḥanafī school of law and graced with dreams and visions. In search of patronage, Bahāʾ al-Dīn took his family to major centers of learning, Baghdad, Mecca, and Damascus, until he found his place in Āqshahr (near Malatya, a city of modern-day Turkey) and, eventually, the more important city of Konya. Rūmī inherited from his father the college and group of followers that he had established there. He also inherited from his father an approach to knowledge and the spiritual way, which meant that Rūmī did not engage in poetry and the ecstatic dance of God’s lovers known as samāʿ.

These two facets of Rūmī’s life, poetry and samāʿ, would change with the legendary arrival of Shams al-Dīn Tabrīzī (d. ca. 1247). While the two had met briefly before, Shams’s relationship with Rūmī in Konya brought sudden changes to his life and, it seems, his worldview. They were confidants and interlocutors, and while often Shams played the role of a spiritual master or teacher, sometimes the guiding hand was Rūmī’s. We have, in English, a simple word for their relationship, neither tutelage nor allegiance, and lacking formally distinct hierarchies of sainthood: friendship. Shams had come from Tabriz, a place rich in mystics and ascetics, but he had been traveling from place to place searching for an authentic spirituality that he found in Rūmī, one that emphasized following the Prophet Muhammad. Rūmī, conversely, became drawn to Shams not only as a pure soul but also as a teacher of love and divinely inspired joy. The hagiographers describe Rūmī as having undergone a change from God’s worshipper to His lover; from renunciant of the world to knower of the divine; and from bookish shaykh to dancing poet.

In a mystery that became the stuff of legend, Shams left Rūmī and vanished, never to be found—having already disappeared temporarily once before. Outspoken about his grief over the loss of Shams, Rūmī did eventually forge another very intimate friendship with a goldsmith, Salāḥ al-Dīn Farīdūn Zarkūb (d. 1258), who served as Rūmī’s deputy, successor, and spiritual complement for about ten years. Following Zarkūb’s death, this position was occupied by Chalabī (Çelebi) Ḥusām al-Dīn (d. 1284), son of a prominent figure in a local futuwwa guild, or “Akhī” order, as they were called in Anatolia. Chalabī’s devotion to Rūmī brought the members of his Akhī order under Rūmī’s guidance.8 Rūmī, then, had established close relations not only with an influential Akhī order via Chalabī, but also with merchants (such as Zarkūb) and state officials, setting the stage for his order to become a central component of Anatolian religious life. It was Chalabī who encouraged Rūmī to write his massive narrative poem studied here, Mathnawī-i Maʿnawī, which amounted to six books of well over 25,000 double-lines.

Arguably none of the legacies Rūmī left rivals the Mathnawī. It is a poem said to be the Qurʾan in Persian tongue, resulting in voluminous commentaries and occupying a foremost place in anyone’s canon of Persian literature, Sufi texts, or Islamic ethics.9 Above all, the poem captures the profundity of thought and perfection of character that brought Rūmī to be mourned not only by the masses of Muslims in Konya upon his death, but also by the city’s Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians. Rūmī’s other living legacy, the Mevlevi order of “whirling dervishes” centered in today’s Turkey, took shape as a Sufi order proper through the efforts of his son Sulṭān Walad, who led Rūmī’s community after the death of Chalabī.

Note: see Kitab al-Ma’ârif    the Skills of Soul Rapture

a Disclosure of Wisdom  for our Time    Sultan Valad  1226-1312 , Son of Jalal ad-Din Rumi







The Mathnawī is a world of voices and perspectives. This complexity renders it fertile ground for considering virtue ethics in literary forms as opposed to other forms, such as treatises written in discursive prose. Rūmī brings in multiple voices when considering a topic or theme, and sometimes the poet’s own voice cannot be clearly discerned. (Indeed, to highlight the ambiguity of voice in Rūmī’s poetry, I will avoid quotation marks in my translation, despite the added burden for the reader.) The following few paragraphs provide some modest theoretical context for Rūmī’s “polyphonic” style of narrative poetry.

One of the qualities attributed by the Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin (d. 1975) to the novel—dialogism—can perhaps be found in the writings of Rūmī, even if restrained by an overarching didactic voice. The novel in its finest expression, according to Bakhtin, captures the actual way in which language works, such that genre weaves into genre, voice into voice, and the interactions of significations and viewpoints create out of this multiplicity some picture of a contextualized reality. Conversely, the “world of poetry,” says Bakhtin, is marked by singularity or “illumined by one unitary and indisputable discourse.”10 One overarching poetic voice can only lend authority to other voices in the poem, but the unity of style and language (often a “language of the gods”) means that there is not as much of a place for other registers of language in the poem as there is in the novel.11 Bakhtin’s observations, which include lyric and narrative (especially epic) poetry, hold somewhat true in the case of Rūmī. Yet there is a multiplicity of voice and viewpoint in Rūmī’s poetry that might also offer us a picture of a contextualized reality. Of course, Rūmī’s poetry does not have the same sort of interwoven context and “heteroglossia” one finds in the more modern form of the novel. “Heteroglossia” is Bakhtin’s term for the way in which a primary language (such as a national language, or the driving language of a novel) incorporates various intersecting languages, voices, types of speech, or genres.12 In recognition of this interchange of perspective and voice (if not strictly speaking “heteroglossia”), Alan Williams describes Rūmī’s use of multiple voices as “dynamic and polyphonic.”13

Williams traces seven different voices in the Mathnawī that replace one another, usually without notice: (1) the “authorial voice,” which initiates stories and determines direction; (2) the “storytelling voice,” which often switches to past tense to describe third-person characters and the events surrounding them; (3) the “analogical voice,” which comments on narratives, usually to make a pithy observation or to give an example; (4) the “voice of speech and dialogue of characters,” which introduces a polyphony of perspectives, usually easily distinguishable from the authorial voice’s perspective, but not always; (5) the “voice of moral reflection,” which is the authorial voice in didactic or even homiletic mode, often using quotations from scripture; (6) the “voice of spiritual discourse,” which redirects ethical contemplation away from human discourse and toward the soul’s conversation with God, the voice of absorption in love of the divine and self-effacement; and (7) the “voice of hiatus,” which is the voice calling the poet and his audience away from digressions, back to the narrative, and sometimes to silence, since Rūmī often “unsays” that which he has attributed to an ultimately indescribable, unknowable, and transcendent deity.14 This mystical phenomenon of unsaying (called “apophatic language”) has been studied by Michael Sells, and poetic silence—in the specific context of Rūmī—has been studied by Fatemeh Keshavarz.15

While the correspondence is inexact, one sees in Rūmī’s use of multiple voices the quality that Adam Zachary Newton calls the “intersubjective dynamics of narrative,” wherein subjectivity and perspective resemble the intelligent world of multiplicity outside of the individual mind (or inside the multifarious and hence intelligent mind), as opposed to writings that have one dominating voice and perspective.16 The characters that appear in Rūmī’s narrative poems might stand on opposite sides of an ethical or theological issue, but the learning seems to be in their failures to agree as well as in the concluding didactic lesson that Rūmī will offer. In this way, Rūmī’s narrative poetry clearly affirms Newton’s claim that human selves “acquire meaning only through intersubjective horizons, horizons which surround textual as well as human encounter.”17 I will briefly return to this dimension of literary virtue ethics in the analysis of Rūmī’s poetry below.


What follows is a section from the sixth book of Rūmī’s Mathnawī exemplifying the relationship between the body, virtue, Sufi states and stations, other strands of Islamic ethical thought, and medieval Persian narrative literature. Instead of a particular focus or topic, Rūmī’s narrative directs this chapter. Hence the story begins with a key theme in the ethics of the Mathnawī, namely that the external world serves as a playground of sorts for the much more profound happenings of the internal world.18

A certain ailing person went to the physician

saying—Inspect my pulse! O man of wisdom,

For from the pulse one observes the state of the heart

because the hand’s vein is to the heart attached.

Because the heart’s unseen, when you need its parallel

look there, for it has a conduit to the heart.

The wind’s hidden from the eye, my trustworthy friend,

look for it in the dust and in the tossing of leaves,

To know, does the wind blow from the right side or the left?

The movement of the leaves speaks to you about its state.

So, you don’t know where to find the drunkenness of the heart?

Seek its signs in the droopy narcissus that is the drunken eye.

Distant as you are from the essence of the Real, you can still

discern it from the Messenger and his inimitable miracles,

miracles and grace-inspired marvels, incognito to most,

strike upon the heart from wise and purified elders, […]

making powerless the stranger, barred from the inner circle,

but making powerful the breath-sharing companion.

When you cannot find this happiness within your heart,

from outward things—at every breath—derive the inner meaning,

for effects are apparent to the human senses,

and these effects give you news about the effect-Causer;

the inner workings of every medicine are hidden to you,

as with every act of magic and device of the illusionists,

but once you gaze upon its actions and upon its effects

you lay it bare, even though it is unseen:

A force whose interiors are concealed to you

appears and emerges visible when it acts.

Now since so many invisibles appear by their effects,

why wouldn’t He appear through leaving traces, God to you?

Aren’t all causes and effects, from the kernel to the shell,

if you look into it, really the traces of Him?

You come to love things merely because of the effect they have,

so why have you lost communication with the Cause of all effects?

You love the creatures for the effects you imagine they’ve caused;

why not love the Monarch of the West and of the East?

No end to this speech is there, o King Qubād!19

May our insatiability for such things never find its conclusion.



In the lines quoted above, Rūmī begins his story of the Sufi and the Judge with reflections upon the medical practice of pulse-taking.20 For anyone unfamiliar with Rūmī, that the poet seems to digress before the story has even begun might be disheartening, though “digress” might not be an entirely appropriate word here. Rūmī’s objective is not storytelling for storytelling’s sake. Rūmī teaches, inspires, and provides examples for self-betterment. His long narrative poem, as a whole, according to its own preface, is the “roots of the roots of the religion,” and Rūmī’s most piercing observations about the religious sciences often occur in diversions from the narrative. One might imagine, for example, the weave of a homily, in which narratives lead into thoughts about life, scripture, and moral wellbeing.

One should not be too surprised that mention of pulse-taking, in particular, would lead Rūmī to an extended discussion of the relationship between the seen and the unseen. Signs from the body, as the Brethren of Purity pointed out, indicate the state of the soul, to which we have no direct access. There is no access to the heart but through the body. The body’s movements, moments of stillness, and consumption, as well as its function as a vehicle of speech, violence, and indeed all action, put it at the center of ethical and spiritual perfection, both for monitoring and for diagnosing the heart. This paradigm should explain the fascination of Rūmī and his contemporaries with the science of pulse-taking, which appears prominently in the Mathnawī: The first story in the entire poem, back in Book One (our narrative takes place in Book Six, the last book), after an introduction likening the homesick soul to a reed flute, is indeed another “pulse-taking” story.

In that story from Book One, a wise doctor cures a king’s beloved slave-girl by feeling her pulse, asking her questions that make her pulse quicken, and discovering the source of her sickness, namely, a handsome goldsmith whom she loved in Samarqand before the king took possession of her.21 Rūmī highlights in this story the failure of physicians who do not consider interior matters, matters of the heart, instead trying to remedy a particular imbalance in the girl’s humors that affects those who occupy themselves too much with thought or spend too much time awake.22 Conversely, the wise doctor, like the spiritual master, knows that the states of the soul triumph and cannot be hidden, or, as Rūmī says in a different narrative also using the science of humors, “the face’s color illustrates the state of the heart.”23 Such pulse narratives come to Rūmī through a long literary tradition that ties together the humors, ethics, and storytelling.24

In both of Rūmī’s pulse stories, though specifically in the lines quoted above, Rūmī frames his discussion of the outer–inner, body–soul, effect–cause as subservient to a higher moral imperative: the human’s relationship with God. If Rūmī’s listener laments that he or she must worship a God that is transcendent and thus unseen, Rūmī advises gazing upon creation. The origins and movements of all things point to the creator behind them, much like leaves and dirt can show the unseen wind. God is, as the lines above show, the cause of all effects, the source of all traces, and thus the actual curative property for all medicines. The doctors in the king-and-slave-girl story, for example, miss this point, failing because they cannot fathom anything beyond the balance of humors, failing because they see the cure as coming from themselves and not God, as exemplified by their omission of the phrase “God willing” in their promise of a cure.25 If one looks thoughtfully into the happenings of the external world, one sees the happenings of the internal world; and if one looks into that, one might see the will of God.

This relationship between the internal and external forms the foundations of Rūmī’s virtue ethics. One alters and perfects the internal by controlling the external. To begin to do this, one must diagnose the internal—one must know one’s own character deficiencies and spiritual ills. To do that, one can observe the externals, namely, the actions, words, habits, and even bodily effects that result from the state of the heart. In order to do this, a person should be in communication with a spiritual elder, someone who can stimulate awareness in the initiate’s soul in miraculous ways. That elder can diagnose the heart’s ailments and prescribe cures. In doing so, he will reach the infirm heart using the aperture of the body: Fasting, silence, verbal repetition, prayer, stillness, and acts of obedience all begin with the body, but ultimately affect the soul or heart.

Yet Rūmī’s aim for his audience is not merely the attainment of virtuous soundness for its own sake. One must do so in order to know and even see God. To do this, also, one uses the visible world to witness the invisible. While this sentiment certainly appears in Neoplatonically influenced philosophical treatises, such as the writings of the Brethren or Avicenna, Rūmī’s influence can be found closer to home. His father, Bahāʾ al-Dīn Walad, has a passage in his Maʿārif (Knowings) from which Rūmī has clearly drawn the abridged description of medicine in the lines quoted above (“the inner workings of every medicine are hidden to you”):

You come to know everything in the world through its traces. You know the medicine of heat, cold, dryness, and wetness, o little doctor, through the effects of heat, cold, wetness, and dryness you have seen. This is true even though the source of wetness, dryness, cold, and heat is never subject to sensory perception; you have not sensed it. So, it becomes evident that you see the traces from something hidden. Why, then, wouldn’t such a Presence, transcending all properties, be hidden?26

The words of Bahāʾ al-Dīn—under whom his son studied—clarify the full import of Rūmī’s description of medicine. God appears only through His acts, effects, and commands, much like medicine only appears through its cure. In the words of the poet ʿAṭṭār, a favorite source of influence for Rūmī, “What is medicine until the cure becomes visible? / What is the command until rain becomes visible?”27 In rain, one can witness God’s merciful but invisible command. ʿAṭṭār probably (and Rūmī perhaps as well) has in mind a passage from the Qurʾan, telling believers to “gaze upon the traces of God’s mercy, how He brings the earth to life after her death” (Q 30:50), a verse that the Sufi commentator Sahl al-Tustarī describes as referring outwardly to rain, while “its interior speaks of the life of hearts through remembrance.”28 Remembering God, communicating with him—which ends up being the main message of Rūmī’s lines above—clears away everything else, so that a person comes to see the divine source of all effects. Such remembrance can even come to a point where God’s servant does not even see his or her own agency, as can be seen in a statement of al-Junayd: “When intimate knowledge of God becomes immense, all traces of the servant disappear.”29 This experience in which a person realizes the illusoriness of selfhood—called fanāʾ (annihilation)—is a major theme in Rūmī’s writings and, as discussed in Chapter Nine, a final aim of progressing through Sufi stations.


The complex weave of moral perspectives and voices mentioned above becomes more apparent as Rūmī’s story continues. Perhaps the most valuable part of this narrative is the way in which humoral medicine and ethics transforms into a much more difficult discussion of justice. Remember that Miskawayh defined justice as a power of administration when faced with the contending forces of the appetitive, irascible, and rational faculties. Rūmī presents a chain reaction that brings these faculties into conflict, one that begins with a simple slap.30

Come back from digressing and tell the ailing man’s tale,

with the perceptive physician, a concealer of flaws by nature:

He took his pulse and immediately came to understand

that there was no hope for the recovery of this patient.

He said—Do whatever your heart wants to do

until this ancient pain leaves this body of yours.

Whatsoever your mind craves, do not withhold

lest your forbearance and renunciation become a case of dysentery.

Think of forbearance and renunciation as pernicious for your sickness:

Whatever your heart wants, just give vent to it.

So too God Most High has told such sickly souls—

Do whatsoever you desire [Q 41:40], sweet old man.

[The sick man] said [to the doctor]—Leave! Hurry! Be well, my dear.

I’m going to do some sightseeing at the riverbank.

By the water, he was strolling, just as his heart desired,

in order to find an entryway to health.

At the bank of the waterway was sitting a Sufi,

washing his arms and face, adding purity to purity.

He saw the back of his neck, and, like one delusional,

had a hankering for slapping it.

Over the nape of that tamarind-soup-adoring Sufi31

he straightened his arm, preparing for a smack.

For—If I don’t drive away each craving until it disappears,

my doctor said that it’d become a malady.

I’ll unsheathe a slap for him battleground-style,

because, says the Book, don’t throw yourself into destruction [Q 2:195].

Forbearance and renunciation are self-destruction here, o you,

hit him good, don’t just stand there like everyone else.

A thunderclap erupted when [the sick man] slapped him.

The Sufi said—Hey, hey, you mother-disowned pimp!

The Sufi wanted to punch him twice, three times,

yank out each mustache and beard hair separately.

People are ill from squabbling and are incurable,

behind ramparts of slaps trapped, through the deceit of Satan,

ravenous for torturing the guiltless, they all are,

searching for weaknesses in the napes of one another.

O you who strike behind the necks of innocents,

don’t you see the retribution behind you?

O you who suppose base desire to be your prescription,

allocating slappings for those who are so weak,

you’ve been laughed at by the one who told you this was remedy,

the same one who ushered Adam to the [forbidden] wheat,

saying—Eat of this grain, you two seekers of assistance,

as a medication for you so that you two will live forever [Q 7:20].

He caused him to slip, and he slapped the back of his neck,

it boomeranged back to him and became his retribution.

He caused him to slip stumblingly into a very bad sliding,

but behind him, and grabbing his hand, was the Real.

A mountain was Adam, so even if brimming with snakes,

he’s an antidote repository, leaving him unharmed.

You who do not have even a speck of that antidote,

why such false hopes that you’ll be rescued in the end? […]

Though a fortunate person, falling from a minaret,

caught the wind in his gown and found deliverance,

you’re uncertain, good soul, that such fortune will be yours,

so why have you thrown your self out upon the winds?

The central theme of this section falls more within the domain of divine command ethics than virtue ethics, but must be discussed nonetheless. For Rūmī, as for many Sufi writers, virtues are acquired within the limits of divine commands and even by means of obedience to those commands. Rūmī’s main point here is that God’s expectations and commandments increase the more one believes, that is, as one becomes worthier of obeying Him. Conversely, for those who disbelieve, God has lifted the burden of expectations and has said—as Rūmī notes, quoting the Qurʾan—“Do whatsoever you desire” (Q 41:40). Here freedom to act is not a gift, but a curse, a divine disregard for the one who has turned away from God. The sick man believes that acting upon his impulses will save him. Little does he know that this freedom has resulted from a lack of hope for his deliverance. Having despaired of his patient’s recovery, the doctor wants to make sure that the terminally ill man enjoys the last few days of his life. The doctor’s prescription tells us that complete freedom is only for the hopeless. Restrictions maintain health, so those who have no hope for health have no need for restrictions. When it comes to the soundness of the soul or of the heart, restrictions serve the same purpose. So, if a person finds himself or herself enjoying absolute freedom from harm, poverty, pain, or the rigors of life, then that person should be suspicious of having been set free. In other words, a lack of burdens might actually be an allowance for one from whom God no longer expects anything, one whose trajectory no longer points to salvation. The same might be said for prosperity: The Qurʾan makes clear that those who are given “wealth and sons” should not suppose that God is favoring them (Q 23:55–6). In fact, God gives the disbelievers time and resources to cement the decision they have made to disbelieve, so that these seeming blessings actually cause them to increase in their sins (Q 3:178). As a striking example, God announces that He would give even more of worldly pleasures (silver roofs, stairways, doors, and couches, along with golden decorations) to those who disbelieve in Him, were it not the case that then all of humanity would disbelieve (Q 43:33–5).

The patient embodies an ugly side of ethical egoism, the stance that people ought to act in their own self-interests. Humans value their own lives so much, Rūmī says, that they are willing to do anything—even injustice to others—just for self-preservation. This impulse to preserve oneself, Rūmī comments, was the very cause of Adam and Eve’s being duped by Satan. In the Qurʾanic version of this narrative, Satan promises the two humans that they have been prohibited from approaching the tree (interpreted in commentaries as “wheat”) in Paradise only so that they do not become “two angels, or that you two do not become everlasting” (Q 7:20). Adam was God’s deputy and recipient of God’s spirit. He and his wife Eve repent, and God forgives them (Q 7:23, 2:37). One might, then, pursue the needs of the lower self and end up forgiven, though still not unscathed, since Adam and Eve were exiled to life on Earth. On the other hand, too much is at stake to take such risks. The narrative’s other leading figure, Satan, does not repent, blames God, and makes it his life mission—all the way up to the Day of Judgment—to prove God wrong in His selection of Adam as His deputy, ending up among the damned (Q 15:39). Once again, as in Chapter Six, we return to the significance of repentance as an ethical corrective in which a person turns away from self-centeredness.

From a social perspective, Rūmī is reacting to a very real dilemma in his day that occurred when medicine and divine proscription conflicted. It was quite common, for example, that classical Arabic physicians, influenced by their Greek predecessors as well as by experience, would recommend wine for certain diseases or as an analgesic despite its being forbidden in the Qurʾan, which led to legal debates about the permissibility of wine for medicinal use.32 Such an action—or, even worse, harming another person to benefit oneself—will not lead to felicity. This is because one must always answer for one’s choices, even if requital is delayed until the Day of Judgment. In other words, sometimes the impulse for self-preservation leads to self-destruction.


Rūmī then shifts the direction of his narrative away from the problem of obedience and toward the problem of retribution.33

Although that Sufi, from anger, became replete with fire,

still, he fixed his eyes on the final consequences. […]

If what you seek is safety from deprivation,

close your eyes to immediates and look toward the very end,

to see being in place of all the things that are nonexistent,

see all beings as perceived, ontologically low.

Case in point: Certainly, any reasonable person

day and night is in pursuit, searching for naught—

in begging, seeking a generosity that is not,

in stores, seeking a profit that is not,

in fields, seeking an income that is not,

in plantations, seeking a date palm that is not,

in schools, seeking a knowledge that is not,

in monasteries, seeking a forbearance that is not,

deferring real existences until later,

seekers and slaves, they are, of nonexistents,

for the mine and treasury of God’s smithery

has nothing but nonexistence for its burnishing. […]

Said the Sufi—In reprisal for a mere nape

a person shouldn’t blindly lose his head.

This Sufi cloak of submission draped from round my neck

has taken the edge off the slap I have received.

The Sufi saw that his enemy was much afflicted

and said—Were I to punch him mercilessly

he would crumble like tin, with just a single blow,

then the king would order me arrested and punished.

The tent’s dilapidated, its framing pole broken,

looking for an excuse to fall down altogether;

a waste it’d be for this dead man’s sake, a waste,

for me to suffer retaliation beneath the executioner’s blade.

Since he couldn’t lay a hand on his adversary

he decided, instead, to take him to the Judge,

who is the scales of truth and its measure,

refuge from Satan’s subterfuge and tricks,

like scissors for feelings of hatred and quarrelling,

rending battle between enemies, their I-said, he-said,

whose magic charm traps the demon in a bottle,

whose Law quells every troublemaking.

Once the rapacious enemy beholds the scales,

he abandons headstrongness, becoming obedient.

Without those scales, given even more than his due,

his shrewdness won’t let him settle for his lot.

The Judge is mercy, a preservation from dispute,

a drop from the sea of the Resurrection’s justice,

a drop, however small and abbreviated,

displays the delicate grace in the water of the sea. […]

Come back to the topic: The Sufi is heavyhearted,

anxious for comeuppance for the cruelty done to him.

You who’ve committed wrongdoings! Why so cheerful?

Have you forgotten the claims that the wronged will make against you?

Or perhaps you’ve forgotten your doings entirely,

because the curtains of heedlessness have fallen over you? […]

Went the Sufi after the man who had slapped him

and grabbed his frock, just as would a plaintiff,

dragging him, bringing him before the Judge,

saying—Mount this accursed ass upon an ass [for a humiliation parade]

or punish him with the woundings of the scourge,

however your own judgment sees most befitting,

for whoever perishes finished by your lashes,

you owe no restitution; it’s subject to immunity.

In the Judge’s discretionary and fixed punishments, whoever might die,

the Judge has no liability, for he’s no lightweight:

Spokesman for the Real and the shadow of His justice,

mirror for every claimant and everyone facing a claim.

He disciplines because there has been oppression,

not for his own honor, anger, or revenue.34

Because it’s for the Real and for the Day Postponed,

even if a mistake’s made, your backing clan’s got the wergild.

Liable is the one who hits for his own sake,

protected is the one who hits only for the Real.

Let’s say a father beats his son, who therefore dies,

that father is for the wergild accountable,

because he struck him to further his own gain;

after all, the boy’s in service to his father.

But if the teacher strikes the boy and he expires

there’s nothing upon the teacher, do not fear,

for he is the [father’s] proxy and so made secure.

The ruling is thus for anyone granted security;35

service to the instructor was not obligatory for him,

hence the instructor’s lashes didn’t aim to extract gain,

but when the father struck, he did it for himself,

he’s clearly not exempt from giving the wergild.

So cut the head off of selfhood, o ʿAlī’s Two-Bladed Sword,36

become ego-free, a self-annihilated dervish-like soul.

You’ll be secure once divested of self: All you do

will be [the Prophet’s] you did not throw when you threw [Q 8:17],37

then the responsibility [for throwing] was the Real’s, not the Trusted [Prophet]’s,

the elaboration of this [reality] came to light in jurisprudence.38 […]

Hurry on back to the Sufi and Judge discussion,

and that oppressive, weak, and miserable man.

The Judge said—First ascertain the throne, [as they say,]

before with the good and bad I decorate it.39

Where’s the striker? Upon what body part can I exact revenge?

He has become from sickness a phantasm.

The law is for the living and the capable,

what law is there for the dwellers of the graves?

In the case of the Sufi’s petition, the Sufi makes an argument that the Judge need not worry about the sick man’s dying as a result of his punishment. The Sufi is wrong, of course, but he makes a convincing case; he seems to know enough about Sharia to make a flawed argument seem solid. The Sufi’s interpretation alludes to the primacy of intention, an important theme in normative Islamic ethics. His point is that one exacting or decreeing corporal punishment is relieved of liability as long as the intention can have no trace of selfishness. The teacher’s corporal punishment of the student is intended to benefit the student, not the teacher, and thus the teacher is legally immune from accidental death or injury in this case. The Sufi’s presentation of corporal punishment parallels discussions in books of Islamic jurisprudence, as has been explored by Ayesha Chaudhry. According to one legal scholar of Rūmī’s own Ḥanafī school, Zayn al-Dīn ibn Ibrāhīm ibn Nujaym (d. 1563), the striking of a child is in the child’s own interests, and so, we might assume, is not subject to retribution or to “wergild” (a translation of the Arabic diya, meaning monetary compensation) if something goes wrong. Such measures would apply neither to the father nor to the teacher who might represent the father, punishing the child in his absence.40 Conversely, Shāfiʿī scholars, such as ʿAlī ibn Muḥammad al-Māwardī (d. 1058) have maintained that the teacher who accidentally kills a child during corporal punishment is indeed responsible for wergild.41

Many of us, including myself, become disturbed when reading Rūmī’s casual description of flogging and possible death, especially that of a child. Two observations must be made here. First, if the Sufi’s words seem insouciant and even cold, that is partly Rūmī’s point. The Sufi sees the law as rigid, blind, and unforgiving, when, in fact, the opposite turns out to be true. Second, our own view of the proper boundaries of punishment, while seemingly universal to us, results from social and historical factors in much the same way as that of the Sufi in Rūmī’s story. The French philosopher Michel Foucault’s (d. 1984) book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (Surveiller et punir: naissance de la prison) considers European and American distaste for corporal punishment as indicative of transformations in the course of Western thought. Despite the fact that what the criminal endures (such as limits on food and basic comforts) might be said to maintain a “trace of torture,” nevertheless, the various Western penal systems go to great lengths to limit manifest forms of corporal punishment and to elevate the position of a judge from “punisher” to a role much more complex, a psychological, medical, and social administrator whose pronouncements for the criminal resolve something.42 Punishment has become obfuscated, buffered by all sorts of technical and bureaucratic consolations, from psychologists to tranquillizers. Needless to say, for Rūmī and his premodern audience, a lashing was not only a more appropriate punishment for a wrongdoer than an extended prison stay, but was also—perhaps oddly to us—more compassionate. Thus, for example, the poet Abū al-Walīd Aḥmad ibn Zaydūn (d. 1070) comically argued that the only crimes deserving of around one year and five months in prison (500 days to be exact, which was the sentence he was serving at the time he wrote) would be in the category of praying to the Golden Calf of Moses’ people, leading the elephant with which the tyrannical Abraha attempted to destroy the Kaʿba, forswearing the first caliph, Abū Bakr, and assassinating the fourth caliph, ʿAlī, by means of a poisoned sword.43 Five hundred days would, conversely, be a moderate sentence for grand larceny (Ibn Zaydūn’s crime) by modern American standards.44

Where did the Sufi go wrong? How can a person make a convincing legal argument and yet still be morally mistaken? Clearly the Sufi lacks, in his spiteful attitude toward the sick man, that comprehensive virtue held most highly by Sufis, the virtue of futuwwa discussed in Chapter Eight. Qualities of futuwwa lacking in our Sufi are self-sacrifice, generosity of spirit, a lack of pettiness, and, generally, placing the needs of others over one’s own and overlooking one’s due.45 Indeed, the actions of the Sufi directly contradict a description of futuwwa by an anonymous Sufi writer of the late tenth or early eleventh century: A possessor of futuwwa should (1) care for the indigent, (2) remember his own blessings, and (3) forget his misfortunes.46 Rūmī’s character, the Sufi, is (1) indifferent toward his aggressor’s poverty and physical weakness, (2) forgetful of his own wellbeing (after all, the slap leaves no lingering physical effects), and yet (3) unable to forget the wrong done against him. The Sufi’s failure in futuwwa can be understood best by seeing his actions in light of an explanation of the relationship between futuwwa and Sharia by Shihāb al-Dīn ʿUmar al-Suhrawardī, who might have met with Rūmī’s father:47

Many things are permissible under the Sharia but are not so according to muruwwa and futuwwa, yet futuwwa and muruwwa do not contradict the Sharia. But the attribute of the People of Futuwwa is that if someone commits evil against them, they perform a good deed in exchange. [But on the basis of] the Sharia they would perpetrate an evil act in recompense for an evil act.48

Important in the lines we are reading is that the Judge, who should represent Sharia, behaves with futuwwa, while the Sufi, who should represent futuwwa, demands the retribution of Sharia. Here al-Suhrawardī has in mind—by “Sharia”—the limits of the law, not “right action” overall. The limits of the law allow for retribution, but there exists a higher ethical standard, one that al-Suhrawardī identifies with futuwwa.

Since Rūmī is often called a “Sufi” poet, his treatment of the Sufi character in this tale might seem surprising. Yet he attributes this kind of scrupulousness and pettiness to Sufis on more than one occasion in the Mathnawī. This is because, for Rūmī and for others, the word “Sufi” can indicate someone initiated into a spiritual path, exerting himself or herself in acts of devotion and self-denial, and yet far from having achieved what the knower of God (ʿārif) has achieved in terms of knowledge and thus virtue.49 This sort of “Sufi” is tied to the ascetic, who is often disparaged in Persian poetry as having a misguided fixation on his personal spiritual wellbeing. This fixation can strip one of futuwwa—as well as of its concomitant virtues of selflessness and courage. One finds the figure of the futuwwa-lacking Sufi in another of Rūmī’s narratives, in which a Sufi is too cowardly to carry out an execution.50 The Sufi appears in that story with many of the same characteristics as in this one: pious, but meticulous and excessively so; cowardly and hence, according to Rūmī’s description, “woman-like”; spiteful but lacking what Rūmī describes as the manly characteristics needed to carry out acts of armed conflict; and, generally, more focused on trivial details than larger, more important matters.51 In both tales, the image used to capture the Sufi’s excessive attachment to the simple and hence trivial is the tamarind soup that he eats (ḥamza), a mark of dedication to asceticism that—like any food—could become habit-forming.52 The soup is a metonymic symbol for asceticism itself. In asceticism one aims to renounce pleasure, but such renunciation can itself become a gratifying and selfish pleasure. Moreover, since the ascetic deprives himself or herself and yet maintains selfish inclinations, those selfish inclinations are hidden more deeply within the self. The ascetic is either unaware of or indifferent to his or her own selfishness, leading to a hypocrisy that admits of no futuwwa. Such false Sufis, Rūmī tells us, have ruined the reputation of true Sufis, who do indeed exhibit courage.53


A common and stereotypical understanding of “mystical” poetry places Sufism in opposition to Islamic legalism. In this narrative, however, it is the representative of law—not the Sufi—who ends up as the most admirable figure mainly because of his justice, namely, his application of virtues, especially wisdom, in the public domain. As Rūmī presents it, the Judge, in stark contrast to the Sufi, reveals a justice higher than retributive justice.54

The Judge said—The living realm’s my magistracy;

when have I been for grave-dwellers an arbiter?

Though he’s not been buried in external form

the graves have already crossed his family threshold,

You’ve so often seen a corpse within a grave,

Now see the grave within a corpse, blind one.

If adobe from a grave caves in on you,

when would the rational seek redress from a grave?

Don’t fixate upon wrath and rancor for a dead man,

look, don’t wage war with a drawing in the hammams.

Give thanks that you weren’t struck by one alive—

one spurned by the living’s been spurned by the Real.

The wrath of the living is the Real’s wrath and thrashing,

for that purified skin is living by the Real. […]

A shame-parade’s not juristically sound for him;

can one set upon an ass a mere image of kindling?

To seat him upon an ass is unbeseeming;

upon a bier for him is more beseeming.

What’s injustice? To place something out of place.

Be careful! Do not ruin him out of place.

Said the Sufi—So you think it fair

that he slapped me without bearing reprisal or a penny?

Is it right that this jackass-bear of a scoundrel

just go around smacking Sufis for nothing?

The Judge said—What do you own, more or less?

He said—In all the world, I have six dirhams.

The Judge said—Take three dirhams for expenditures,

give the other three to him without a word.

Wretched, ailing, indigent, and weak he is,

he’ll need those three dirhams for leeks and for bread.

His gaze fell upon the back of that Judge’s neck,

sweeter even than the Sufi’s nape,

he straightened his arm, preparing for a slap,

for—My slapping’s settlements have become cheap.

Nearing the Judge’s ear, as if confidentially,

he brought down upon that Judge a slap.

He said—Take all six, o my two foes,

I am free! Case closed and no more sickness!

The Judge was fuming, the Sufi said—Whoa now!

Your verdict is just; no error, to be sure.

O scholar of religion, That which you hate for yourself

why don’t you also hate for your brother, trusted one?55

Don’t you know the pitfall you dig for me

you’re also digging for your own finale?

Haven’t you read He who digs a pitfall in narrations?56

Act upon that which you’ve read, my dearest son.

This one decision of yours was such a judgment

that it brought a slap for you upon the neck,

Woe to you for your other adjudications,

who knows what will befall you, head to foot.

You show mercy to an oppressor, out of generosity?

Saying—For spending, three dirhams for yourself?

Chop off the oppressor’s hand! What makes it apt

to place within his hand the rule and reins?

You resemble that goat, o stranger to justice,

who nursed with her own milk the wolf’s cub.

The Judge said—Satisfaction is our duty,

no matter the violence decreed for any neck.

Inside, I am happy about what the scrolls prescribed [Q 54:52].

Though my face might be sour, as the Truth is bitter,

my heart’s a garden, my two eyes are its clouds:

At weeping clouds, the garden laughs, so blissful;

in drought years, the sun’s uncontrolled guffaw

brings the garden blight and loss of life.

You’ve read of the Real’s injunction to weep much [Q 9:82];

why, like a roasted lamb’s head, are you still smiling?

You’ll illuminate the house, just like a candle,

if, like a melting candle, you shed tears.

The scowling face of a mother or a father

protects the child from every injury.

You’ve tasted laughter, you who laughs in frenzy;

now learn that weeping’s taste is a sugar hoard.

Since envisaging hell will move a soul to tears,

hell becomes more salubrious than heaven’s orchards.

Laughs have been sealed in instances of weeping:

In ruins you will find the treasure still intact.

Ecstasy’s in sorrows, though they’ve lost the way,

the Water of Eternal Life’s in shadows.

The justice of the Judge—as opposed to the retributive justice sought by the Sufi—might be called “narrative” justice, a justice that takes individual narratives (that is, real circumstances) into question. In this case, the Judge has no spot (maḥall) to punish, because the sick man’s body has wasted away and left no invulnerable places to receive blows of corporal punishment. Only the living body is the Judge’s jurisdiction, while the soul is punished in the afterlife. Moreover, the sick man is poor and cannot be asked to pay a compensation for his crime. Even if he has committed an injustice, the sick man’s wellbeing and livelihood matter.

The Sufi sees justice as black and white. He avoids exacting retaliation because he fears punishment from the king, but he has no doubt that a strike merits a strike. Even in that, we see that his lower self calls him to more than one slap—yanking out every hair and punching the sick man numerous times. The Sufi has mastered self-control, so he refrains from taking such action. Rūmī makes clear, moreover, that such self-restraint is on account of habituation by mentioning the Sufi cloak of submission that he wears, which signifies his initiation into an order and his exertion in acts of renunciation and self-discipline. What the Sufi has not mastered, however, is a magnanimous forgoing of one’s due that might be necessary in the case of a dying poor man. This ability to have a panoramic view of the needs of everyone, both self and others, and make judgments that suit perfectly the circumstances of the moment is called, in Aristotelian virtue ethics, “practical wisdom.”57 It is defined by our own Miskawayh as “preferring that which is most virtuous and acting upon it with habituated constancy.”58 Thus, the Judge, who is also slapped, is able to restrain his anger because he, like the Sufi, has practiced managing the irascible faculty. But, very much unlike the Sufi, he has practical wisdom and can prefer the most virtuous course of action without effort. He can have mercy in this case, because this particular person’s affliction merits mercy. Justice is not the blind application of tit-for-tat retribution, but a consideration of each person’s specific situation.

Rūmī’s commentary parallels insights from virtue ethics, but also highlights an expectation that he and other Muslims had of judges. Wael Hallaq discusses ways in which premodern Sharia was not “law” in the modern sense, that is, in the sense that law must be fixed and based on precedents, because it was considered as malleable as the social and personal circumstances to which it responded.59 Moreover, Sharia was not “blind,” because those who were weak, sick, or poor—like the misguided slapper in Rūmī’s story—should be given preference over those who are privileged, healthy, and self-sufficient. The “law” of Sharia was what Hallaq calls an “ijtihadic process,” a constantly renewing and contextualized reinterpretation within the constant framework of scripture, jurisprudential principles, and community consensus.60 The notion of Sharia as state law, a legalized code with universal implications, was a product of colonization that actually began in the British dominance of India, especially in the late 1700s, when the British determined that indigenous law should be as codified as English law.61 Before this period, it would have seemed ridiculous to imagine law as divorced from “social and spiritual morality” or as a prerogative of legislators.62 Based on the contrast Hallaq describes between the fluidity of premodern interpretations of Sharia and the rigidity of modern state law, we might read as a critique of universal applications of law the Sufi’s interpretation of Sharia as an unforgiving code of “law.” It is also evidence that the misunderstanding of Sharia as a blind code of conduct and retribution has existed for some time.

Jurisprudential books tend to discuss punishment in precisely the same matter-of-fact, nonchalant manner as Rūmī’s Sufi does. Yet Rūmī is able to transform a legal discussion into a discussion of virtue, showing us that the practice of law did indeed rely on virtue, especially the virtues of the judges who applied the law. Temperance is seen as comically lacking in the sick man, but possessed by both the Sufi and the Judge, who are able to hold themselves back from returning a slap. Yet each of those two—the Sufi and the Judge—has varying motivations, one external (the Sufi fears the king) and the other internal (the Judge has wisdom). Only the Judge possesses futuwwa—here very similar to “magnanimity”—for he comes as close to excusing the sick man as the boundaries of the law will allow. One key issue, Rūmī notes in the previously quoted passage, is self-interest, a point that the jurists themselves make about corporal punishment, but upon which Rūmī expands. A person must rise above not only self-interest but every kind of selfishness and even selfhood, so that all of that person’s actions become expressions of divine will as opposed to self-will. In such a case, a person becomes unaccountable, because divine wisdom endorses each of his or her actions. Once these two wills become identical, divine wisdom impels each human action. This higher, more profound ethical truth “came to light in jurisprudence,” as Rūmī says, because all of jurisprudence is a nuts-and-bolts approach to higher ethical principles, a real-world realization of matters pertaining to the realm of pure spirit. Hence the connection between law and virtue can always be assumed—a point with which almost any legal scholar would agree absolutely. Rūmī, however, throws in a complication. The Judge has been liberal not with his own rights, but with the rights of someone else. Hence—the Sufi assumes—the Judge receives a slap because of divine retribution, a sort of fatalistic justice promised in the pseudo-hadith to which the Sufi alludes, “Whoever digs a pitfall for his brother will fall into it.” The Judge, on the other hand, ends up the true master of hidden mysteries by proving to the Sufi that a painful slap need not be punishment at all. Suffering leads to true happiness, because it leads to the soul’s maturity and perfection.

AL-BAARI’ : The One Who Plans and Rules the Universe


Rūmī has shown us in the person of the Judge that human justice is not simple. Human justice entails much more than the blind application of law that the Sufi continuously suggests. Rather, it is a twofold ability: first, to overcome the tugs of one’s lower nature, the irascible and appetitive faculties, gathering within oneself all virtuous qualities; and, second, to take all exigent circumstances into account, including the effects that a decision might have on all involved. In the case of divine justice, the Sufi, who sees matters as absolute, cannot fathom that good and evil both exist, when there is only one all-good creator who created all things. If this is the case, from where does evil come?63

The Sufi said—Since gold’s all from one mine,

why does this gold aid its owner, that brings harm?

Why’s one sober, while the other one is drunk,

when it’s all been taken from a single hand?

Since the flowing rivers issue from one sea,

why does one sweet, the other so toxic taste?

Since lights all emanate from a constant sun,

how’d the difference arise between true and false dawn?

The Judge’s answer to the Sufi is that what appears to us as evil is in fact movement, the movement of all things in a grand, cosmological love-tragedy for God.

The Judge said—O Sufi, don’t be befuddled,

listen, instead, to a parable in explanation:

Just as the restlessness of passionate lovers

comes from the cold stillness of beloveds,

she [the beloved] like a mountain, fixed in self-sufficiency,

the lovers like leaves, fluttering helplessly,

her laugh provoking tears upon tears,

her dignity bringing many to lose dignity,64

all of this “why” and “how” is like froth

rolling upon the why-less, how-less sea.

God is the beloved, and all created things are lovers. The divine beloved is still, while everything else moves frantically, seeking Him, experiencing the ups and downs of existence. The reality of existence is so far beyond comprehension that only humility has worth. It is best to admit intellectual defeat, because neither reason nor the senses can understand what is in the “abode of bewilderment.”65 Humility, poverty, and weakness are attributes in recognition of the order of things, in recognition of God as unknowable and self-sufficient, and in recognition of creation as multiple forms of ignorance and neediness. For this reason, the weak (and by extension those who suffer) are closer to reality than those who are perceived as strong. Whether in word or action, they have admitted defeat.

Once the Judge raises this point, the Sufi begins to focus more on his own particular pain, asking why suffering—everything from a slap to death itself—occurs. The Judge’s answer is that the vicissitudes of good and bad in life have no worth when one considers their purpose. Life exists merely as a means to know and come to love God, so one should not seek pleasure in this life. After all, worldly pleasure is merely a diversion from the very purpose of the world. God has created humans for the sort of life in which are both pleasure and pain, good and evil, guidance and temptation, so that people might choose morally. Otherwise human achievement—“courage,” “wisdom,” “forbearance,” “truthfulness,” and “liberality”—would be meaningless, says the Judge.66

The Judge illustrates this point about suffering using a parable that relies on the humors and the ethical mean.67 He recounts the tale of a “Turk,” a Turkic soldier from “Cathay” (Khiṭā), who hears of the deceptiveness of tailors and their penchant for stealing cloth.68 He resolves to show that he cannot be duped and even wagers money on it. Having located the wiliest of all tailors, Pūr-i Shush, he hands over his fabric and makes his order. The Turk, as a stereotypical soldier, is governed by the irascible faculty. Because of his sanguine nature (blood-dominated), he is quick to anger, what we would call “hot-headed.” Yet this sanguine nature also makes him prone to other energetic states and actions, such as happiness and boisterous laughing. In fact, his foolish attempt to outfox the tailor results from his becoming “warmer” and “warmer” as his friends provoke him.69 The tailor uses the soldier’s sanguine nature to dupe him. Knowing that the soldier will succumb to kindness and laughter, the tailor begins by welcoming the soldier in a “warm” manner.70 Then he begins telling humorous tales. Each time the Turk’s laughter causes him to close his eyes or fall, the tailor pilfers pieces of the valuable fabric. After the Turk begs him for a fourth joke, the tailor shows mercy and replies that another joke would “make your caftan (qabā) too tight.”71 That is, he has stolen all he can without sacrificing the Turk’s requested garment.

The characters represent ethically expressed imbalances that correspond to Miskawayh’s mean. Thus, the soldier’s excessive courage brings him to undertake a foolhardy venture, trying to outsmart the smartest of tailors. The tailor, too, suffers from an imbalance. His unchecked practical intelligence has made him cunning and hence unjust. Yet Rūmī ably ties this into scriptural moral concerns. The tailor represents the deceitful nature (ghurūr) of worldly pleasures.72 The Turk-soldier represents all of us who seek to avoid worldly suffering and to enjoy worldly pleasure, when these are mere distractions. The wise seek closeness with God, and they only suffer when they sense their infinite distance from Him.

The tale of the Sufi and the Judge ends with a profound consideration of such true suffering, the suffering of the lover of God, which is a sense of distance from the beloved.73

Relinquished desire no doubt brings bitter taste,

but less bitter than separation from the Real.

Though struggling and fasting are difficult, harsh,

still, they’re better than a distance that tests you.

How could pain remain that instant when the Kindly Bestower

would say—How are you holding up, My sick one?

All the suffering in the world will vanish upon that beatific meeting between the human lover and the divine Beloved, or perhaps even upon a realization that He is watching. Knowing that the Beloved has willed the pain of the lover makes such pain tolerable. God has cared enough to make the lover suffer. Suffering allows the obedient soul to conform to the will of God and implies a promise that if the soul bears it patiently, it will reach Him. Therefore, the enlightened lover of God enjoys an awareness of reality that mitigates and makes tolerable all suffering, by giving it meaning. For this enlightened person, the sort of worldly suffering expressed by the slapped Sufi is not suffering at all. Here Rūmī, and the many Muslim philosophers, mystics, and theologians who would have agreed with him, finds himself in conformity with ancient Greek thinkers, such as Socrates and the Stoics, who held that a virtuous person will find happiness despite the vicissitudes of life and fortune.74 The inner world of the self can be safeguarded from misfortune through rational reflection upon one’s place in the world. Plato more or less agrees, while acknowledging certain contributors to happiness outside of a person’s will.75

Although Aristotle labels “nonsense” the view that a virtuous person is happy even if tortured or enduring calamity, he does emphasize that happiness lies not entirely in fortune. Rather, happiness is in the virtuous life, which requires a bare minimum of good fortune.76 Hence, in ancient Greek ethics, the cultivation of virtues was in the best interest of each person. It was part of a program for good living, a way of life that emphasized “care of the self” (epimeleisthai sautou). This impulse in Greek thought, argues Foucault, was neglected by Western cultures, on account of a Christian asceticism that considered caring for the self to be opposed to self-renunciation. This was compounded by an Enlightenment philosophical trajectory that valued the Greek maxim to “know oneself” as part of a theory of knowledge and not a theory of practice that would demand self-care.77

This relates in a rather odd way to what the Judge presents to the Sufi: To bear and even enjoy suffering, to see the world as meaningless, is not only rational, it is in your best interest. To suffer in one way (grieving over distance from God) will benefit you, in large part by putting other forms of suffering in perspective. The Judge presents a “caring for the self” that still carries with it a markedly ascetic impulse. A person should acknowledge virtuous self-interest, and even suffering, while also acknowledging God’s awareness of that suffering. As the Biblical patriarch Jacob says in the Qurʾan, having wept for his lost son Joseph to the point of blindness, “I complain of my suffering and sadness only to God, and I know from God that which you do not” (Q 12:86). When read in light of Rūmī’s lines, Jacob’s words comment on the enlightened suffering championed by the Judge. I do indeed suffer—in other words—but for me suffering is part of a relationship, and that relationship benefits me more than my suffering harms me. In fact, contemplating that relationship alters my suffering, yielding greater realization of my dependence on the self-sufficient deity who created me, sustained me, and allowed this suffering within the larger context of my best interests. It is thus that the human–divine relationship transmutes suffering into virtue, namely, the virtue of forbearance (ṣabr).


This example from Book Six of Rūmī’s Mathnawī has indicated ways in which one narrative comprises multiple dimensions of ethics known to the author. These dimensions include Sufi ethics, “folk” ethics (through stories and jokes), Qurʾanic ethics, legalistic Islamic ethics, and even, to some extent, philosophical virtue ethics. Yet the intersubjectivity of narrative allows Rūmī to treat these often-distinct approaches to ethics (which appear as multiple “voices”) as a unified whole, showing how they might have been an interconnected, lived ethics in his own time.

There is still much room to consider what, exactly, makes ethics in literary genres different from ethics in discursive prose. The narrative of a deluded sick man with an urge to slap Sufis seems to necessitate context in a way that abstract writing—such as in philosophical or Sufi treatises—does not. An ethical stance becomes more than a matter of contending moral theories; everything has situatedness and subjectivity. The sick man must slap to save his life. The Sufi, indignant at the harm done to him, holds himself back in order to seek a legal form of retributive justice. The Judge adjudicates from a distance. Unbiased and informed, he functions much like the “ideal observer” imagined by the Scottish philosopher David Hume (d. 1776). Yet the narrative throws subjectivity onto the Judge by having the sick man slap him as well. This allows us to see how the Sufi might have reacted, were he more knowledgeable and hence virtuous. That is, it forces the Judge to become a moral actor himself and not simply remain a judge of the moral actor. An extended dialogue between the Sufi and the Judge proves the former to be good, the latter to be beyond good; the former to be law-abiding, the latter to be just.

Every perspective in the story has value and deserves empathy, even if one (the Judge’s) ends up as wiser than others. The Judge’s wisdom derives in part from his panoramic mindset, his ability to view the situation from multiple subjectivities that include the circumstances, dues, and needs of all involved. The sick man needs mercy, while the Sufi needs to be taught to endure suffering patiently. Woven into the Judge’s perspective is that of the author (Rūmī), who projects the voice of a spiritual master well traveled in the ways of God. This voice addresses these manifold perspectives in universal terms. The multiplicity of perspectives deserving attention and empathy might be called “intersubjectivity,” with the added modifier of “limited,” because of this overarching authorial voice. On one hand, this “limited intersubjectivity” might be a function of Rūmī as an insightful author. On the other hand, it must be—to some degree—an indication of the way his contemporaries practiced ethical reasoning in arenas of contention, such as court cases. Such intersubjectivity, however limited, presents a snapshot of moral life in Rūmī’s world and the world of the authors studied throughout this book. It is a real-life application of multiple theories of Islamic ethics, theories touched upon in the previous chapters. Rūmī’s tales present these theories as an integrated, organic whole, providing layers of justification, motivation, and meaning for virtuous living.


1 MM, 3:2128. References from Mathnawī-i Maʿnawī are according to daftar and line number. As noted in the bibliography, I have relied on the edition of Reynold Alleyne Nicholson, further edited by Ghulām-Ḥusayn Aʿrābī and published as one volume. I have compared this edition to that of Muḥammad Istiʿlāmī (Tehran: Zawwār, 1990), published in seven volumes, and mentioned in the notes when Istiʿlāmī’s edition might offer a better reading. To avoid confusion, Istiʿlāmī’s edition is not mentioned in the bibliography.

2 MM, 1:3279–85.

3 MM, 2:1633–1704.

4 MM, 3:2527.

5 MM, 6:2370.

6 Rūmī, Kullīyāt-i Shams-i Tabrīzī, pp. 1:374, no. 694.

7 MM, 5:150–6.

8 Ridgeon, Morals and Mysticism in Persian Sufism, pp. 86, n. 34; Lewis, Rumi, p. 217.

9 Lewis, Rumi, pp. 475–80.

10 Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel,” p. 286.

11 Ibid., p. 287.

12 Bakhtin, “From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse,” p. 67; Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel,” p. 263.

13 See Rūmī, Spiritual Verses, p. xxvi (Williams’s introduction).

14 See ibid., pp. xx–xxix.

15 See Sells, Mystical Languages of Unsaying. In the case of Rūmī’s lyric poems, Keshavarz has considered silence as a literary tool with a variety of purposes and applications, especially a poetic power to create by omission, to provoke the active participation of the audience by freeing the poem from the bonds of words. See Keshavarz, Reading Mystical Lyric, pp. 49–71.

16 Newton, Narrative Ethics, p. 33.

17 Ibid., p. 46.

18 MM, 6:1293–1300, 6:1310–20. In translating the poem, I have opted for a translation that leans more toward verse than prose, but allows for variation when meaning might be obfuscated or lost.

19 Kay Qubād is an ancient (and mythological) Iranian monarch, belonging to the era of the Kayānids, before the Achaemenid Empire. Rūmī uses him in the Mathnawī and in his Dīwān to praise a person (or his listener) as having kingly attributes.

20 For an excellent discussion of the relationship between pulse, health, and virtue in the Islamic medical tradition (as influenced by Galen), see Farage, “The Ethics of the Physician in the Galeno-Islamic Tradition.”

21 MM, 1:35–246.

22 MM, 1:53–4. The imbalance is one of excessive yellow bile (ṣafrā) as well as dryness (khushkī) in the brain, which are signs of a choleric or agitated melancholia. Compare Rūmī’s description to a passage by al-Suhrawardī, for example, which mentions the same symptoms (The Philosophical Allegories and Mystical Treatises, p. 7, especially n. 2 on that page). See also al-Rāzī, al-Ḥāwī al-Ṭibb, p. 1:48; Jouanna, “The Typology and Aetiology of Madness in Ancient Greek Medical and Philosophical Writing,” pp. 113–16.

23 MM, 1:1272.

24 The story of the king and the slave-girl resembles quite closely a historical legend told by Plutarch (d. ca. 120). That story is summarized in Horine, “An Epitome of Ancient Pulse Lore,” p. 214. Rūmī’s contemporaries might have known this story through the Firdaws al-Ḥikma (“Paradise of Wisdom”) of ʿAlī ibn Rabban al-Ṭabarī, a physician of the ninth century (see Furūzānfar, Aḥādīth wa Qiṣaṣ-i Mathnawī, p. 2). Still, the near-definite source for Rūmī’s story about the king and the slave-girl is the Chahār Maqāla (“Four Discourses”) of Niẓāmī-ʿArūḍī, in which he cites an incident in which Avicenna applies the pulse method to cure a lovesick young man, an incident that resembles the physician’s firsthand account in The Canon of Medicine (al-Qānūn fī al-Ṭibb). See Niẓāmī-ʿArūḍī Samarqandī, Chahār Maqāla, pp. 85–7; Furūzānfar, Aḥādīth wa Qiṣaṣ-i Mathnawī, pp. 2–3.

25 MM, 1:48.

26 Bahāʾ al-Dīn Walad, Maʿārif, p. 1:345, faṣl no. 221.

27 ʿAṭṭār, Muṣībat-nāma, p. 183, l. 1452. In terms of influence, it deserves mention that the theme of a Sufi’s being slapped on the nape of the neck also occurs in ʿAṭṭār’s poetry. See Manṭiq al-Ṭayr, p. 416, ll. 4032–5.

28 Al-Tustarī, Tafsīr al-Tustarī, p. 123.

29 Al-Junayd, Rasāʾil al-Junayd, p. 268; al-Sarrāj al-Ṭūsī, Kitāb al-Lumaʿ, p. 225.

30 MM, 6:1321–46, 6:1349–50.

31 As discussed below, the word ḥamza (here translated as “tamarind soup”) refers to a food associated with world-renouncing Sufis.

32 See Karmi, “Clinical Diagnosis, Fevers and Dietetics,” p. 2:351; Morrison, Islam and Science, p. 113; Gutas, Avicenna and the Aristotelian Tradition, pp. 209–13.

33 MM, 6:1355, 6:1360–7, 6:1483–96, 6:1501–3, 6:1507–24, 6:1533–6.

34 Here I have preferred Istiʿlāmī’s khishm or khashm (anger) to Nicholson’s shukhm (crop-yield). See Istiʿlāmī’s edition of MM, p. 6:75, line 1519. It is line 1513 in Nicholson’s edition, as cited here.

35 See Ayesha S. Chaudhry’s discussion of this issue according to Rūmī’s own school of Ḥanafī law (Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition, pp. 105, n. 33, 107), as well as the Shāfiʿī school, in which the teacher and father would both indeed be liable in case of a boy’s death (ibid., p. 122, n. 94).

36 Literally “o Dhū al-Faqār,” the name of a legendary sword used by ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib—the Prophet’s son-in-law and cousin—in Islam’s earliest battles. ʿAlī and, metonymically, his sword have an important place in Sufism and the Sunni spirituality of Rūmī, as heir to the Prophet’s spiritual secrets and as paragon of the possessor of futuwwa (fatā). The sword captures the image of a spiritual warrior, brave, selfless, and absorbed in devotion to God.

37 “You did not throw when you threw, but it was God who threw” (Q 8:17). In Sufi texts, this part of the Qurʾanic verse is used to illustrate how human action (here the Prophet’s throwing of a handful of earth and stones at the enemy) can be attributed to God, when the person acting has become so devoid of selfhood that God’s will has become that person’s will.

38 Here fiqh (“positive law”) has been translated as “jurisprudence” (which I have normally used for uṣūl al-fiqh) because Rūmī intends the cumulative process of deriving law.

39 This is a saying often used by those who study the narrations of the Prophet. It means that, before analyzing something, let us make sure it actually exists.

40 Chaudhry, Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition, p. 105, n. 33.

41 Ibid., p. 122, n. 94.

42 Foucault, Discipline and Punish, pp. 16, 22.

43 Stewart, “Ibn Zaydūn,” pp. 315–16.

44 Ibid., p. 307.

45 A good reference in English for these qualities of futuwwa is al-Qushayrī, al-Qushayrī’s Epistle on Sufism, as translated by Alexander Knysh, pp. 237–42.

46 ʿIlm al-Taṣawwuf, pp. 45, 48.

47 Lewis, Rumi, pp. 65–6.

48 Ridgeon, Morals and Mysticism in Persian Sufism, p. 68. This is Ridgeon’s translation, from p. 105 of al-Suhrawardī’s Kitāb fī al-Futuwwa (in Rasāʾil-i Jawānmardān, ed. M. Ṣarrāf, Tehran, 1991), which I have modified for consistency with the style of this book.

49 See Aflākī, The Feats of the Knowers of God, pp. xvi–xviii (O’Kane’s introduction).

50 MM, 5:3737–9.

51 MM, 5:3779, 5:3804.

52 Nicholson defines ḥamza as a wheat porridge, but, as Badīʿ al-Zamān Furūzānfar argues, such has never been the meaning of that word, whether in Persian or in Arabic (see Bahāʾ al-Dīn Walad, Maʿārif, pp. 2:187–8). The Ilāhī-Nāma (p. 398, l. 6361, and note on p. 716) of ʿAṭṭār suggests that ḥamza would be a simple food served in a bowl. The irony of the cowardly ḥamza-eating Sufi appears highlighted in the fact that the tamarind of this “tamarind soup” is shaped like a sword. See MM, 5:3776–7.

53 MM, 5:3806. That true Sufi is, for Rūmī, a historical figure named ʿIyāḍī, who is probably Aḥmad Khiḍrawiyya Balkhī (d. 854) and whose struggles with his own lower soul coupled with his courage impel him toward heroic feats on the battlefield (see MM, 5:3780–3814). There is some confusion about the identity of this figure, but Abdülbâki Gölpinarli, citing a correspondence noted by Furūzānfar between this passage and ʿAṭṭār’s Tadhkirat al-Awliyāʾ, favors this identification (Gölpinarli, Nathr wa Sharḥ-i Mathnawī-i Sharīf, p. 3:424).

54 MM, 6:1544–51, 6:1556–87.

55 The hadith referred to here, as found in Ṣaḥīḥ Bukhārī and Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, reads, “None of you has believed until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” See Furūzānfar, Aḥādīth wa Qiṣaṣ-i Mathnawī, p. 550.

56 The scholars of the Hadith have determined that this saying cannot be properly attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, although, in terms of meaning, it is sound. The saying reads, “Whoever digs a pitfall for his brother will fall into it.” See Furūzānfar, Aḥādīth wa Qiṣaṣ-i Mathnawī, pp. 62, 551.

57 Aristotle describes “practical wisdom” as the trait of one able to manage oneself, one’s family, and one’s city, because of both virtuous character traits and experience with particular situations. See NE, 6.8, 1141b–1142a, pp. 110–12.

58 Miskawayh, Tahdhīb al-Akhlāq, p. 95. While Avicenna also uses the phrase “practical wisdom” (al-ḥikma al-ʿamaliyya), he offers little elaboration. It is clearly, however, the wisdom of the practical intellect, one subject to excess and deficiency, unlike the wisdom of the theoretical intellect, which has no excess. See Avicenna, The Metaphysics of “The Healing,” pp. 377–8. For a discussion that includes the context of al-Fārābī, see Legenhausen, “Ibn Sīnā’s Practical Philosophy.”

59 Hallaq, An Introduction to Islamic Law, pp. 165–6.

60 Ibid., p. 166.

61 Ibid., pp. 85–6.

62 Ibid., p. 113.

63 MM, 6:1604–7, 6:1613–17.

64 This is reading Istiʿlāmī’s ābirū-hā (MM 6:1622) in place of Nicholson’s ābirūd-hā (MM 6:1616).

65 MM, 6:1629.

66 MM, 6:1750–1; the Judge alludes to Q 3:17.

67 A version of this tale can be found in the Persian jokes of ʿUbayd-Allāh Zākānī (d. ca. 1370–1); see Zākānī, Kulliyyāt, p. 290.

68 MM, 6:1666.

69 MM, 6:1677–8.

70 MM, 6:1684.

71 MM, 6:1718.

72 MM, 6:1720; see Q 3:185, 35:5, 57:20 for the Qurʾanic context of Rūmī’s allusion.

73 MM, 6:1768–70.

74 Irwin, Plato’s Ethics, pp. 55–6.

75 Devettere, Introduction to Virtue Ethics, p. 41.

76 NE, 7.7, 1153, p. 140.

77 Foucault, Ethics, pp. 226–8.