Alan Williams: Open Heart Surgery

Like Rumi, in explaining the things of which Rumi himself talks, we too must often resort to metaphor. In this lecture I have seized upon the play of words of the already metaphorical description of an emotional condition, ‘open heart’ and a particular surgical operation known as ‘open heart surgery’. If you want to see a video of physical open heart surgery, please go to…openheart.html now, and don’t read this lecture. If however you know roughly what I am referring to in the title, the pun is useful, because it describes an operation which saves lives – the coronary bypass. In this operation, when the reader’s heart stops, the Masnavi is his or her very own heart-lung machine for the duration of the operation. This makes sense: as Rumi’s poetry is ‘heart-stoppingly beautiful’, beauty stops the heart so that the mystical surgeon may operate on it. This lecture is about the procedure of that operation to open the eye of the heart which is blinded and obstructed by ‘self’. Quite a lot of the lecture is direct quotation from my translation of Masnavi Book 1, along with a transcription of the Persian text.

The subject I want to talk about today, in the year of Rumi’s anniversary, is love in the Masnavi;Rumi is known as the qutb or ‘pole’ of love. Understanding what that means is difficult for us using that English word ‘Love’, simply because, as we all know, it tends to have two associations; one with sentiment and the other with erotic love.[1] Now what Rumi means by love is something that we discover as we read the Masnavi; one of the words he uses is the Arabic/Persian word ‘eshq. This is a mysterious word, not because it is in itself mysterious, but because we misunderstand it. Because we love form. And the whole of the Masnavi is a lesson in the love of what is beyond form. Now ‘Open Heart Surgery’ is not just a clever title – it is a clever title – but I mean exactly by that that I now believe that the Masnavi is what Gurdjieff and J.G. Bennett referred to as a ‘legominism’ (I think that was the word he used). If I remember rightly, what Bennett meant by legominism was a text that must be heard or said and which has the effect of inducing in the reader a change of heart, because of the impact of a form of wisdom in the text. The Masnavi is a teaching in a poem. And that is why I think that the Masnavi is as deliberate as a surgeon’s operation on the heart. So it tells you what the Masnavi is, it is open-heart surgery. It requires an operation on our selves.

Rumi has already donned his surgical garments in the first few lines of the Masnavi when he declares, leaning heavily on a medical reference:[2]

shād bāsh ay ‘eshq-e khwosh sawdā-ye mā
 ay tabib-e jomle ‘allathā-ye mā
Rejoice, O Love, that is our sweetest passion,
physician of our many illnesses!

ay davā-ye nakhvat o nāmus-e mā
 ay tu eflātun o jālinus-e mā
Relief from our pomposity and boasting,
O You who are our Plato and our Galen!

And here he mentions the most famous metaphysician and physician of the ancient world, Plato and Galen.[3] In Rumi’s time, as well as in the ancient world, the philosopher and physician worked in a continuum of reality, and ‘doctor’ was someone learned in both realms. But in this line he addresses no human being at all, but Love itself, ay ‘eshq; ‘o Love’ and he calls upon God – upon Love -– who cures us of our many illnesses. And Rumi immediately illustrates the workings of the divine physician with the very first story of the Masnavi, of the King and the slave-girl, which is familiar to all of you. In this story, four words are used for sickness, which show the range of the term as in English ‘illness’, ‘sickness’, ‘disease’, ‘affliction’; Arabic marz and ‘allat, and Persian ranjuri and bimāri. He focuses on two separate instances of sickness: the first when the slave-girl, whom the king has just bought, falls sick and frustrates the king’s lascivious intentions, and one which seems brutally to resolve the story, when the king’s divine physician has the slave-girl’s former boyfriend poisoned. The first sickness is immediately diagnosed by the divine physician as ‘an aching heart’ –we could call it spiritual heart disease to follow the metaphor of my title, when Rumi says:

did ranj o kashf shod bar vay nehoft
 lik panhān kard o bar soltān nagoft
He saw the pain and opened up the secret
but did not tell the king and kept it hidden.

ranjash az sawdā o az safrā nabud
 buye har hizam padid āyad ze dud
Her pain was not from black or yellow bile:
the scent of wood is sent up in its smoke.

did az zārish ku zār-e del ast
 tan khwosh ast o u gereftār-e del ast
He saw in her distress her broken heart:
her body healthy but her heart in chains.

‘āsheqi paydāst az zāri-ye del
nist bimāri chu bimāri-ye del
The sign of being in love’s an aching heart;
there is no suffering like the suffering heart.

The pain was opened up, just as a secret is revealed. It is not caused by a bodily malfunction, but rather by the sickness of the heart


nist bimāri chu bimāri-ye del
there is no suffering like the suffering heart.

The moment he says this line, Rumi is carried away on a discourse of ecstatic flight, which is perhaps unparallelled in the rest of the Masnavi, as he contemplates the unimaginable power of love, suggested by one word, and that is the word shams, ‘the sun’. He has moved effortlessly from the lovestruck palpitations of an adolescent serving girl to contemplating the glories of divine love which have been shown to him in ecstasies, which he cannot bring himself to reveal here to his listeners, although he struggles to do so. And all because love is one and a reality which is continuous, going between the mundane and the ultimate levels of reality.

This is why Rumi says:

‘allat-e ‘āsheq ze ‘allathā jodāst
 ‘eshq astrolāb-e asrār-e khodāst
110 The lover’s suffering’s like no other suffering:
Love is the astrolabe of God’s own mysteries.

‘āsheqi gar zin sar o gar zān sar ast
 ‘āqebat mārā bedān sar rahbar ast
No matter whether love is of this world
or of the next, it steals us to that world.

har che guyam ‘eshq rā sharh o bayān
 chun be ‘eshq āyam khejel bāsham az ān
Whatever words I say to explain this love,
when I arrive at love I am ashamed.

garche tafsir-e zabān rowshangar ast
 lik‘eshqbi zabān rowshantar ast
Though language gives a clear account of love,
yet love beyond all language is the clearer.

chun qalam andar neveshtan mishetāft
 chun be ‘eshq āmad qalam bar khwod shekāft
The pen had gone at breakneck speed in writing,
but when it came to love it split in two.

These lines are very beautiful in Persian, and I would like to play you an extract of them sung by Hossein Omoumi and Parisa. (plays musical example and reads lines in Persian.)

Now I want to look at this word love. The word Rumi uses for ‘love’ in this line 111

No matter whether love is of this world
or of the next, it steals us to that world.

is ‘āsheqi. It’s different from the more abstract word ‘eshq ‘passionate love’, the love of the perfect lover for God and the love of God for the perfect lover. It’s not the philosophical abstraction ‘love’, but rather the agent noun ‘āsheq, like English ‘lover’ so ‘āsheqi is the state of being an ‘āsheq, i.e. a ‘lover’, just as mādari motherhood is the abstract of the active state of being a mother mādar. Lover-hood-ness. The abstract of the agent noun. The state of being a lover. He mentions the astrolabe.
Love is the astrolabe of God’s own mysteries

The astrolabe is a measure and a microcosm of the whole universe by which the medieval astronomer could understand its workings. And so Rumi does not blame the slave-girl for feeling heart-sickness, for he is acknowledging that love has this power over us to make us suffer, whether it is a tender infatuation, or a profound mystical yearning. ‘āsheqi ‘being a lover’ is the human condition, the state of attraction, needing, yearning, and we are torn apart by it. This is the very starting point of the Masnavi, expressed in the familiar lines which begin this great poem:

beshno in nay chun shekāyat mi konad
 az jodā’ihā hekāyat mi konad
– Listen to this reed as it is grieving;
it tells the story of our separations,

kaz nayestān tā marā bobride and
 dar nafiram mard o zan nālide and
‘Since I was severed from the bed of reeds,
in my cry men and women have lamented.

sine khwāham sharhe sharhe az farāq
 tā beguyam sharh-e dard-e eshtiyāq
I need the breast that’s torn to shreds by parting,
to give expression to the pain of heartache.

Here, the heartache and being torn apart is meant at the highest level of mystical understanding, and that too is part of the human condition. The Masnavi tells that God is known primarily through love, and that God is approached as the divine beloved. Rumi’s principal theme, and his method of working on the transformation of the heart, is announced in this first line, which commands the listener to hear the story of separation. It is in understanding what causes separation, and why, when we feel torn apart by desire, longing, suffering, we may understand its resolution. Separation is the human predicament: love is both the cause of this predicament of separation, and also its solution. Human love forms an attachment to the object of love, which inevitably results in the experience of separation from it. Then, if this transitory love is lost, occasioned by a failing heart or a failing of health, can love be given and felt any more? The cure is divine love, which is not to be found in other, transitory things, not even in the image of a transcendent beloved; for to do so would be to return to things which can be lost and forgotten. Right from the beginning, in the first story of the king and the slave-girl, Rumi leads the reader into the complexities of human love and separation, and discloses the action of divine love when it is earnestly sought and asked for. As the Masnavi progresses, each couplet conveys a nokte, or ‘point of intelligence’, that penetrates and lightens the sense of separation felt by the soul,[4] which is dominated by the nafs, the egoistical and illusory condition of ‘self-regard’. The goal of Sufi teaching is to die to self-regard and live in the consciousness of the divine.

The reed becomes the symbol of this paradoxical love, as it complains bitterly of having been torn from its reedbed, and whose cries have always moved men and women to tears, but which is also soothing to us as it reminds us of love’s consolations:

nay harif-e har ke az yāri borid
 pardehā-ash pardehā-ye mā darid
The reed is friend to all who are lovelorn;
its melodies have torn our veils apart.

hamchu nay zahri o teryāqi ke did
 hamchu nay damsāz o mashtāqi ke did
Who ever saw a poison and a cure,
a mate and longing lover like the reed?

The operation of the mystical heart surgeon, then, is different from that of the cardiologist of the medical operating theatre. Rumi’s spiritual physician uncovers the veils which obscure the heart. Rumi is not working to unblock ventricles and arteries, but rather to restore the sight of the heart (we would probably prefer to say ‘insight’). In Persian the heart has an eye, chashm-e del. In Masnavi I, when Caesar’s ambassador could not see the Caliph’s palace, he was told:

ay barādar chun bebini qasr-e u
 chun ke dar chashm-e delat rostest mu
O brother, how will you perceive his palace,
when hair has overgrown your inner eye?

chashm-e del az mu o ‛ellat pāk ār
 vān gah ān didār-e qasrash chashm dār
1405 Your heart’s eye must be cleansed of hair and error,
then go and have a look and see his palace.

What causes this blindness of the heart’s eye is variously described by Rumi. In one passage Solomon is said to have achieved perfect vision by emptying his heart of all that cluttered it, namely ‘the kingdom of this world’:

chun ke māl o molk-rā az del berānd
 zān soleymān khwish joz meskin nakhānd
990 Since Solomon had cleansed his heart of wealth
and power he’d only call himself ‘the poor’.

kuze-ye sar baste andar āb-e zaft
 az del-e porr bād fowq-e āb raft
A stoppered jar, in troubled waters even,
can float on water, with its air-filled heart.

bād-e darvishi chu dar bāten bovad
 bar sar-e āb-e-jehān sāken bovad
So when the air of poverty’s within us
there’s peace upon the waters of the world.

garche jomle in jehān molk-e veyast
 molk dar chashm-e del-e u lā shay ast
Although this whole world is His sovereign kingdom
this kingdom is as nothing to his heart’s eye.

In the simplest of terms, Rumi diagnoses the defect as selfishness:
āyine ghammāz nabvad chun bovad
…how can a mirror be without reflection?

āyine-t dāni cherā ghammāz nist
 zānke zangār az rokhash momtāz nist
Do you know why your mirror tells of nothing?
The rust has not been taken from its surface.’

It is one of his favourite images. Rust is ugly on a mirror, as selfishness defaces the heart:

bar del-e tārik-e por zangārashān
2575 Or for their rust-encrusted blackened hearts?

In a beautiful, lyrical passage in the latter part of the first book, which I quote at greater length, Rumi returns to a definitive expression of this theme:

hin makash bahr-e havā ān bār-e ‛elm
 tā bebini dar darun anbār ‛elm
3465 Don’t bear that weight of knowledge from ambition;
make sure you see the fruits of inner knowledge,

tā ke bar rahvār-e ‛elm āyi savār
 ba‛d az ān oftad tu-rā az dush bār
And ride upon the vehicle of wisdom
and then the burden tumbles from your shoulders.

az havāhā kay rahi bi jām-e hu
 ay ze hu qāne‛ shode bā nām-e hu
Without His cup will you be free from cravings,
O you who are content with just His name?

az seffat vaz nām che zāyad khayāl
 vān khayālash hast dallāl-e vasāl
What comes of qualities and names? Illusion.
yet that illusion signifies the union.

dide’i dallāl bi madlul hich
 tā nabāshad jāde nabvad ghul hich
Have you seen signs without a signifier?
when there’s no road, there is no ghost to haunt it.

hich nāmi bi haqiqat dide’i
 yā ze gāf o lām–e gol gol chide’i
3470 And have you seen a name without its essence?
from‘r’, ‘o’, ‘s’, ‘e’, have you picked a rose?

esm khwāndi row mosammā-rā be jā
 mah be bālā dān na andar āb-e ju
You’ve named it, now go find the thing you’ve named!
The moon is in the sky, not in the river.

gar ze nām o harf khwāhi bogzari
 pāk kon khwod-rā ze khwod hin yeksari
If you would pass beyond the name and letter,
then cleanse yourself of self, once and for all.

hamchu āhan zāhani bi rang show
 dar riyāzat āyne’ye bi rang show
Be rust-free, like the sheen of polished iron;
be rust-free in your practice, like a mirror.

khwish-rā sāfi kon az awsāf-e khwod
 tā bebini zāt-e pāk-e sāf-e khwod
And cleanse yourself of qualities of self
so that you see your pure and holy essence.

bini andar del ‛ulum-e anbiyā
 bi ketāb o bi mo‛id o bi owstā
3475 You’ll see within your heart the prophets’ science
without a book or tutor or a master.

There are countless images of the wounded heart in Rumi’s writings. Perhaps the simplest is:

chun kasi-rā khār dar pāyash jahad
 pāye khwodrā bar sar-e zānu nehad
150 As when a thorn has stuck in someone’s foot,
he takes his foot and puts it on his knee,

vaz sar-e suzan hami juyad sarash
 var nayābad mi konad bā lab tarash
And with a needle’s point seeks out the tip,
and if he does not find it, licks the point.

khār dar pā shod chonin doshvāryāb
 khār dar del chun bovad vā deh javāb
That thorn is so elusive in the foot,
tell me, how much more hidden in the heart!

khār-e del-rā gar bedidi har khasi
dast kay budi ghamān-rā bar kasi
If any fool could see the thorns in hearts,
then when indeed would sorrows overwhelm us?

Or as blindness caused by wickedness:

khashm o shahvat mard-rā ahval konad
 zesteqāmat ruh-rā mobdal konad
Desire and anger make men go cross-eyed,
for they distort the spirit from uprightness.

chun gharaz āmad honar pushide shod
sad hejāb az del besuye dide shod
335 When craving comes, then virtue is concealed;
a hundred veils divide the heart and sight.

The term ‘heart’ is used in a variety of strengths of sense. Sometimes it is used in a weak sense, as in the English ‘in my heart’, meaning ‘the genuine person’; and sometimes in a stronger sense, as in the central organ of one’s spiritual nature which must be opened and purified. Once strengthened and purified, one is sāheb-del, a difficult Sufi term to translate, literally ‘master/owner of the heart’. I render it as ‘heart-strong’, i.e. the opposite of ‘head-strong’, and someone who is perfected in their spiritual nature. Here in a ‘purple passage’, Rumi opens with the image of a laughing pomegranate:

jomle dāniyān hamin gofte hamin
 hast dānā rahmatan li ’l-‛ālamin
The wise have all agreed on this exactly;
the wise one is ‘a mercy to all creatures’.

gar anāri mi khari khandān bokhar
 tā dehad khande ze dāne u khabar
A pomegranate should be bought when laughing
so that its laugh will tell you of its seeds.

ay mobārak khande ash ku az dahān
 mi nemāyad del chu dorr az dorj-e jān
How lucky is its laugh, for from its mouth
its heart is shown like pearls in soulful caskets.

nāmobārek khande-ye ān lāle bud
 k-az dahān-e u siyāhi del nemud
But inauspicious was the tulip’s laughter
whose mouth displayed the blackness of its heart.

nār-e khandān bāgh-rā khandān konad
 sohbat-e mardānat az mardān konad
725 The pomegranate’s laugh delights the garden
and human company will make you human.

gar tu sang-e sakhre o marmar shavi
 chun be sāheb del rasi guhar shavi
You may be stone, or you may be of marble
but when you meet the heart-strong you’re a jewel.

mehr-e pākān dar miyān-e jān neshān
 del madah ellā be mehr-e del khwoshān
Implant the pure ones’ love within your soul
and keep your heart for love of the sweet-hearted.

kuye numidi marow umidhāst
 suye tāriki marow khworshidhāst
Do not go down the hopeless track – there’s hope.
Do not go to the darkness – there are suns.

del tu-rā dar kuye ahl-e del keshad
 tan tu-rā dar hebs-e āb o gel keshad
The heart will lead you to the heart-strong way,
the body to the gaol of earth and water.

hayn ghazā-ye del bedeh az hamdeli
 row beju eqbāl-rā az moqbali
730 Go on, and feed your heart from friendly hearts;
go find your fortune with the fortunate.

Del (‘heart’) is also used in its strongest sense as virtually synonymous with God himself, not in a philosophical sense as an abstraction but as the organ which is directly illuminated by divine light. Rumi explains this very carefully, though it was extremely difficult to translate such a condensed few verses into English metre:

in berun az āftāb o az sohā
 vandarun az‛aks-e anvār-e ‛olā
This outward light is from the sun and stars,
the inward light’s reflection of sublime light.

nur-e nur-e chashm khwod nur-e del ast
 nur-e chashm az nur-e del-hā hāsel ast
Your own eye’s light’s light is the light of hearts;
the eye’s light is the outcome of the heart’s light.

bāz nur-e nur-e del nur-e khodāst
 ku ze nur-e ‛aql o hess pāk o jodāst
1135 Your own heart’s light’s light is the light of God;
it’s pure and far from mental, sensual light.


But the light of the heart, and even the heart itself, does not belong to the self, and therefore there must be a sacrifice in order for the heart to return to full strength and capacity. And this is the central conundrum and paradox of the Sufi teaching, expressed in the line:

ey hayāt-e ‛āsheqān dar mordagi
 del nayābi joz ke dar delbordagi
How much of lovers’ lives is spent in dying!
You only win the heart by losing it.

For Rumi, the pain of human separation was the teacher of this process of letting go attachment to desire and attachment to sensuality and self-regard. This was a man in his 60s, who had lost both parents before he was 40, his first wife, his eldest son, and several beloved spiritual teachers, including losing Shamsoddin of Tabriz twice. In the first story, the king first thought the slave-girl would be a cure for his pain. But his pain had apparently only started when he had felt he was going to lose her through her illness. In other words she had become a cure once she had begun to cause him to suffer. He could only be released from this kind of pain by being released from love of her, when he found a true love in the person of the spiritual physician:

goft ma‘shuqam tu budasti na ān
 lik kār az kār khizad dar jehān
He said, ‘In truth you were my love, not she,
but in this world one thing becomes another…

She is only released from the pain of her own heartache when she falls out of love with him:

chun ze ranjuri jamāl-e u namānd
 jān-e dokhtar dar vabāl-e u namānd
In sickness now his beauty was no more
the girl’s soul would not see him through his sufferings.

chunke zesht o nākhwosh o rokhzard shod
 andak andak dar del-e u sard shod
205 As he turned ugly, grim and pale of face,
he gradually went cold within her heart.

‛eshqhā’i k-az pay-e rangi bovad
  ‛eshq nabvad ‛āqebat nangi bovad
When love is for the sake of a complexion
it is no longer love, it ends in shame.

He protests that he has been unfairly treated, but dies in the end:

…ān kanizak shod ze ‛eshq o ranj pāk
…the slave-girl was released from love and pain.

zānke ‛eshq-e mordegān pāyande nist
 zānke morde suye mā āyande nist
Because the love of dead men does not last
because the dead man does not come to us.

Rumi concludes this story with a celebration of the true love which does not suffer separation:

‛eshq-e ān zende gozin ku bāqi ast
 k-az sharāb-e jān fazāyat sāqi ast
220 Choose love of that immortal living one
the bearer of rejuvenating wine.

‛eshq-e ān bogzin ke jomle anbiyā
 yāftand az ‛eshq-e u kār o kiyā
Choose love of Him from Whom the prophets all
derived their power and glory from His love.

A theme that emerges early on in the Masnavi, is that the ability to feel pain is not only a human universal, but also that it is profoundly necessary as a guide to the truth. Sickness can be beneficial:

hasrat o zāri gah-e bimāri ast
 vaqt-e bimāri hame bidāri ast
It’s sighs and sorriness when you are sick;
the time of sickness is a time to waken.

ān zamān ke mishavi bimār tu
 mikoni az jarm esteghfār-e tu
Just at the time when you are falling sick,
you beg forgiveness for your trespasses.

mi nomāyad bar tu zeshti-ye gonah
 mikoni niyyat ke bāz āyam be rah
The hatefulness of sin is shown to you,
and you resolve ‘I’ll come back to the path.’

‛ahd o paymān mikoni ke ba‛d az in
 joz ke tā‛at nabvadam kāri gozin
630 You promise and you pledge that ‘After this
I’ll only choose obedience for my deeds.’

pas yaqin gasht in ke bimāri tu rā
 mibebakhshad hush o bidāri tu rā
So this becomes a certainty, that sickness
will bring good sense to you, and wakefulness.

pas bedān in asl-rā ay asl ju
 har ke-rā dard ast u bordest bu
So know this for a fact, fact-finding one,
whoever is in pain has got the scent.

har ke u bidārtar porr dardtar
 har ke u āgāhtar rokh zardtar
She who is more awake is in more pain;
she who is more aware is paler faced.

In the story of the First Jewish King and the Christians, the Christians are separated from their teacher, the Jewish vizier who deceives them all. They also suffer the terrible pain of loss, but this time when they see (in their blind folly) their pain as their cure, it is self-delusion, and this is the point of the story: that you can fool some of the people all of the time.

ba‛d az ān chel ruz-e digar dar bebast
 khwish kosht o az vojud-e khwod be rast
He shut himself away for forty days
then killed himself and fled from his existence.

chun ke khalq az marg-e u āgāh shod
 bar sar-e gurash qiāmatgāh shod
When people were informed about his death
it was the Day of Judgment round his grave.

khalq-e chandān jam‛ shod bar gur-e u
 mu kanān jāme darrān dar shur-e u
So many people gathered at his grave
all tearing hair and ripping clothes in grief,

kān ‛adad-rā ham khodā dānad shomord
 az ‛arab vaz tork o az rumi o kord
That God alone can estimate their number
Of Arabs, and of Turks and Greeks and Kurds.

khāk-e u kardand bar sarhā-ye khwish
 dard-e u didand darmān jāye khwish
670 They heaped the dust upon their heads for him
they saw their pain for him as their own cure.

ān kholāyeq bar sar-e gurash mahi
 karde khun-rā az du chashm-e khwod rahi
A month long those poor creatures at his grave
were streaming paths of blood from both their eyes.

In some of the passages of even this early in the Masnavi, Rumi is delivering a message which is profoundly difficult to understand, namely that sometimes suffering can be good for us:

ātesh-e tab‛at agar ghamgin konad
 suzesh az amr-e malik-e din konad
And if your nature’s fire should cause you pain,
it burns by order of the Lord of Judgment.*

ātesh-e tab‛at agar shādi dehad
 andar u shādi malik-e din nehad
And if your nature’s fire should cause you joy,
the Lord of Judgement puts the joy in it.

chunke gham bini tu esteghfār kon
 gham be amr-e khāleq āmad kār kon
840 When you are feeling pain, then ask forgiveness:
the pain which the Creator wills is useful.

chun be khwāhad ‛ayn-e gham shādi shavad
 ‛ayn band-e pay āzādi shavad
He wills, and pain itself is turned to joy,
His very manacles will make you free.

‘His very manacles will make you free’ says it all, but it is one of those impenetrable gems of Rumi’s poetry one contemplates, and rarely can see into. Rumi, as one brought up in the lore of Iranian tradition, knows that suffering is inevitable in this mixed world of good and evil:

khalq-e panhān zeshtashān o khubashān
 mizanad dar del be har dam kubashān
The hidden creatures which are good and evil
strike at the heart with blows at every moment. (1039)

But he counsels tranquillity to transform our understanding of suffering:

khār khār-e vahyhā o vasuse
 az hazārān kas bovad na yek kase
The wounds ofinspirations and temptations
come from a thousand sources, not from one.

bāsh tā hess-hā-ye tu mobdal shavad
 tā bebinishān o moshkel hall shavad
Be still so that your senses are transformed
that you may see them and the pain is cured. (1042-3)

The purpose of pain is mysterious, for somehow contentment (khwoshdeli) arises from its opposite, yet God has no opposite:

ranj o gham-rā haqq pey ān āfarid
 tā bedin zedd khwoshdeli āyad padid

For God created pain and grief for this, that by these opposites contentment comes.

pas nehāni-hā be zedd peydā shavad
 chun ke haqq-rā nist zedd panhān bovad
So hidden things appear through opposites
God has no opposite, He stays concealed.

There are said to be some who are exempted from pain and grief, because of their exceptional commitment and spiritual fortitude:

pas shahidān zende zin ruyand o khwash
 tu bedān qāleb bemangar gabrvash
And so the martyrs live, they live in joy –
do not dwell on the body like the pagans –

chun kholaf dādastashān jān-e baqā
 jān-e iman az gham o ranj o shaqā
Since He gave them the everlasting life,
the life immune from grief and pain and suffering.

But the majority, says Rumi, are in love with pain, as the merchant laments for the death of his parrot:

‛āsheq-e ranjast nādān tā abad
 khiz lā uqsim bekhān tā fi kabad
‘…The stupid man’s in love with pain forever,
go, read from “I do swear” to “in affliction”.

az kabad fāregh bodam bā ruy-e tu
 vaz zabad sāfi bodam dar juy-e tu
1720 With your face I was free from all the suffering,
untainted in your stream by any froth..

in darighā-hā khiyāl-e didanast
 vaz vojud-e naqd-e khwod bobridanast
These groans are mirages of seeing, and
the act of severance from my own true being.

gheyrat-e haqq bud o bā haqq chāre nist
 ku deli k-az ‛eshq-e haqq sad pāre nist
It was God’s jealousy, there is no way round God
where is the heart not shattered by His love?

gheyrat ān bāshad ke u gheyre hamest
 ānke afzun az bayān o damdamest
It’s jealousy for He’s unlike all others,
much more than explanation or report.

ey darighā ashk-e man daryā bodi
 tā nasār-e delbar-e zibā bodi
Alas! I wish my tears became an ocean
to shower down upon my lovely sweetheart.

tuti-ye man morgh-e ziraksār-e man
 tarjomān-e fekrat o asrār-e man
1725 My parrot, o my most sagacious bird,
interpreter of all my thoughts and secrets!

harche ruzi dād o nādād āyadam
 u ze avval gofte tā yād āyadam
Whatever comes to me that’s just and unjust,
she told me from the first so I’d remember.’

And Rumi comments at this point:

tuti-i kāyad zevahy āvāz-e u
 pish az āghāz-e vojud āghāz-e u
A parrot with a voice from revelation
began her life before the first existence.

andarun-e tust ān tuti nehān
 ‛aks-e urā dide tu bar in o ān
This parrot is concealed inside yourself;
you’ve seen her image in phenomena.

mi barad shādiyat-rā tu shād az u
 mi paziri zolm-rā chun dād az u
She takes your happiness yet you are glad;
you take her blows as if she gave you justice.

ey ke jān-rā bahr-e tan mi sukhti
 sukhti jān-rā o tan afrukhti
1730O you who burned your soul all for the body,
youburned the soul and you inflamed the body.

sukhtam man sukhte khwāhad kasi
 tā ze man ātesh zanad andar khasi
I’m burnt, and anyone in need of tinder
can set alight their rubbish using me.

sukhte chun qābel-e ātesh bovad
 sukhte bestān ke ātesh kash bovad
Since tinder is amenable to fire
take tinder which most quickly sets ablaze.

ey darighā ey darighā ey darigh
 kān chonān māhi nehān shod zir-e migh
Alas! and o alas! and o alas!
that such a moon as this went into cloud!

chun zanam dam kātesh-e del tiz shod
 shir-e hajr āshofte o khunriz shod
How can I breathe with such a flaming heart,
the lion of absence wild and shedding blood?

It is as if this wisdom dawns on the merchant only as he contemplates his loss, and Rumi himself has taken over the voice and now rises to an ecstatic plane. He ‘takes the cup in hand’ and approaches the poetry of the ineffable, coming closer and closer to the sweetness of silence. I am going to read a fairly extended passage, because I prefer to let Rumi do the talking this afternoon anyway, a couple of passages which are a kind of legominism because they lead the mind from this world to the next. I explained in the introduction to my Penguin translation that academics have in the past looked for a thematic unity in the Masnavi, for a conventional, or even an ‘esoteric’ thematic development of teaching, a didacticism which can be described in outer discourse and they’ve come to blows over it. Some people have even come to see ring composition in the Masnavi. I shan’t say here what I think the theory of ring composition to be.

I would argue that the unity of the Masnavi’s structure is in harmony with its meaning, that the structure of his work, like the meaning of the work, is to be found beyond form, and that if you look for a formal structure within the Masnavi you will not find it. My contention is (and I have tried to explain it in simple terms in the introduction to my book), that the poetry starts with story, because story hooks our imagination and takes us somewhere with him. However, as you are so used to when you read Rumi, you very quickly find that he has left the story -– has left the building -– and gone somewhere else. And you follow. You follow. Where does he take you? He takes you into analogy, and you get the analogy, and then he takes you into a moral discourse, which you manfully struggle to keep up with, and it goes on and on, and then suddenly—phshwooih—he’s gone, he’s gone! And where is he? Ah! But this is a vertical take off. I’ll try to explain. He has a vertical trajectory, which is that you’re not expecting that at any moment he just goes phhwihh! And he’s just beamed up. And you can follow him there, which is the lovely thing and it’s why we like Rumi, because we go with him: he takes us to that formless, silent world. Well, at least, he doesn’t take us to the silent world, but to the point where he is actually frustated by his inability to say, and each line then becomes a sort of throwaway – crying out in ecstasy, crying out for help, each line behind him as he goes on, and each one burnt as he goes further on: and what happens is that he comes to a point of hiatus or silence where he leaves you to finish the Masnavi for him in your life.

ān ke u hoshyār khwod tond ast o mast
 chun bovad chun u qadah girad be dast
1735 The one whose sober state is wild and drunk –
what happens when he takes the cup in hand?

shir-e masti k-az seffat birun bovad
 az basit-e marghzār afzun bovad
The drunken lion who goes beyond all telling
is too much for the confines of the plain..

qāfiye andisham o deldār-e man
 guyadam mandish joz didār-e man
I’m contemplating rhymes ― my lover tells me,
‘You only contemplate your vision of me!’

khwosh neshin ey qāfiye andish-e man
 qāfiye dowlat tu’i dar pish-e man
Relax, dear rhyming-couplet-contemplator
for in my couplet you are rhymed with triumph.

harf che bvad tā tu andishi az ān
 harf che bvad khār-e divār-e razān
What’s in a word that you should contemplate?
What’s in a word? The thorns around the vineyard.

harf o sawt o goft-rā bar ham zanam
 tā ke bi in har se bā tu dam zanam
1740 I throw the words and strains and speech together
so that without them I can sigh with you.

ān dami k-az ādamash kardam nehān
 bā tu guyam ey tu asrār-e jehān
That sigh which I did keep concealed from Adam
I’ll say to you, O mystery of the world!

ān dami-rā ke nagoftam bā khalil
 vān ghami-rā ke nadānad jebra’il
That sigh I never breathed with Abraham,
that sadness Gabriel has never known.

ān dami k-az vey masihā dam nazad
 haqq ze gheyrat niz bi mā ham nazad
That sigh which the Messiah never breathed,
God never mentioned, in His zeal, without us.

mā che bāshad dar loghat asbāt o nafy
 man na asbātam manam bi zāt o nafy
What’s ‘we’ in words? The ‘yes’ and ‘no’.I’m not
affirming. I am essenceless negation.

man kasi dar nākasi dar yāftam
 pas kasi dar nākasi dar bāftam
1745 I found identity in the impersonal state
I wove it into the impersonal state.

jomle shāhān bande-ye bande khwodand
 jomle khalqān morde-ye morde khwodand
All kings become the servants of their servants
and all become deceased in their own dead.

jomle shāhān past past-e khwish rā
 jomle khalqān mast mast-e khwish rā
All kings are humbled by their humble servants
and all are drunk on those who swoon for them.

mishavad sayyād morghān-rā shekār
 tā konad nāgāh ishān-rā shekār
The catcher of the birds becomes their prey
and suddenly he’ll make them prey to him.

bi delān-rā delbarān joste be jān
 jomle ma‛shuqān shekār-e ‛āsheqān
With all their souls the amorous seek the lovelorn
and all beloveds are their lovers’ prey.

harke ‛āsheq didiyash ma‛shuq dān
 ku benesbat hast ham in o ham ān
1750 The one you saw as lover is beloved,:
he’s both of these in terms of the relation.

teshnegān gar āb juyand az jehān
 āb juyad ham be ‛ālam teshnegān
The thirsty may seek water in the world,
and in the world the water seeks the thirsty.

chunke ‛āsheq ust tu khāmush bāsh
 u chu gushat mi keshad tu gush bāsh
So since He is the Lover, you be silent!
Be ear, since He is tugging at your ear!

band kon chun sayl saylāni konad
 varna rosvā’i o veirāni konad
Restrain the torrent when it starts to flood,
or it will cause disgrace and desolation.

man che gham dāram ke veyrāni bovad
 zir-e veyrān ganj-e soltāni bovad
Why should I care if there be desolation?
For underneath there lies a princely treasure.

gherq-e haqq khwāhad ke bāshad gherqtar
 hamchu mowj-e bahr jān zir o zebar
1755 The one who drowns in God desires more drowning,
his soul tossed up and down like ocean waves.

zir-e daryā khwoshtar āyad yā zebar
 tir-e u delkashtar āyad yā separ
It’s better under or above the sea?
His shaft’s more captivating or His shield?

pāre karde vasvase bāshi delā
 gar tarab-rā bāz dāni az balā
You will be split apart by whisperings,
dear heart, if you distinguish joys and trials.

gar morādat-rā mazāq-e shakkarast
 bi morādi ni morād-e delbarast
Though your desire is for the taste of sugar
the lover’s true desire’s desirelessness?

har setārash khunbahā-ye sad halāl
 khun-e ‛ālam rikhtan urā halāl
His stars atone a hundred crescent moons
He is allowed to shed the world’s life-blood.

mā bahā o khunbahā-rā yāftim
 jāneb-e jān bākhtan beshtāftim
1760 And we obtained our price and the atonement
and quick we were to play our souls away.

ey hayāt-e ‛āsheqān dar mordagi
 del nayābi joz ke dar delbordagi
How much of lovers’ lives is spent in dying!
You only win the heart by losing it.

man delash joste be sad nāz o dalāl
 u bahāne karde bā man az malāl
With a hundred loving looks I sought His heart
He wearily excused Himself from me.

goftam ākher gharq-e tust in ‛aql o jān
 goft row row bar man in afsun makhān
I said, ‘My mind and soul are drowned in You.’
He said, ‘Be off, don’t chant such spells at me.

man nadānam ānche andishide’i
 ey du dide dust-rā chun dide’i
Do I not know what you have contemplated?
Ah, how could your two eyes behold the Friend?’

ey garān jān khvār didasti varā
 zān ke bas arzān kharidasti varā
1765 O leaden soul, how you looked down on Him
because you bought Him at so cheap a price.

harke u arzān kharad arzān dehad
 guhari tefli be qorsi nān dehad
Whoever buys for nothing sells for nothing;
A child will sell a jewel to buy a loaf.

gharq-e ‛eshqi am ke gharq ast andar in
 ‛eshqhāye avvalin o ākherin
For I am drowned in love which does contain
the loves of former times and future times.’

majmalash goftam nakardam zān bayān
 varna ham afhām suzad ham zabān
I spoke in brief, I gave no full account,
lest it consume your tongue and understanding.

man chu lab guyam lab-e daryā bovad
 man chu lā guyam morād ellā bovad
When I say ‘lip’, I mean the ocean’s shore;
when I say ‘no’ the intention is ‘except’.*

man ze shirini neshastam ru turush
 man ze besyāri-ye goftāram khamosh
1770 I’m sitting down and grimacing from sweetness;
I’m silent from a surfeit of my speech.

tā ke shirini-ye mā az du jehān
 dar hejāb-e ru turush bāshad nehān
So that our sweetness may be kept disguised
from both worlds in the veil of grimacing.

tā ke dar har gush nāyad in sakhon
 yek hami guyam ze sad serr-e ladon
This discourse does not fall on every ear
I tell one in a hundred heavenly secrets.

And so Rumi brings to a close one of his most celebrated stories, The Merchant and the Parrot, with a sublime discourse on the love of God, and why it appears both awesome and terrible in its jealousy at the same time as being the cure and resolution of all our separation. The love of God is the manifest form which is only apparent to the human heart, not to the nafs. Rumi takes great pains, literally, to intimate to his listeners the nature of this divine love, which is like no other form of love, yet from which all loves are ultimately derived.

We have to remember, of course, that the whole conception of this takes place in a frame dominated by the image, the hadith, the context, the story of the divine unity loving in order to be known. We are caught half way in this circle of revelation on the way back to the Beloved, so the jealousy of God, the love of God for us is the attraction which draws us back to him.

gheyrat-e haqq bar masal gandom bovad
 kāh-e khorman gheyrat-e mardom bovad
The jealousy of God would be like wheat,
and human jealousy like straw in haystacks.

asl-e gheyrat-hā bedānid az elāh
 ān-e khalqān far‛-e haqq bi eshtebāh
The root of all our jealousies is come
from God Who is beyond comparison.

sharh-e in bogzāram o giram geleh
 az jofāye ān negār-e dahdeleh
I leave this explanation to bewail
the cruelty of that ten-hearted sweetheart.

nālam irā nāle-hā khwosh āyadash
 az du ‛ālam nāle o gham bāyadash
And I lament ― laments are sweet to Him ―
He needs laments and sadness from both worlds.

chun nanālam talkh az dastān-e u
 chun niyam dar khalqe-ye mastān-e u
1785 I must lament His fraud with bitterness
since I’m not in the circle of His revellers

chun nabāsham hamchu shab bi ruz-e u
 bi vesāl-e ruye ruzāfruz-e u
Why should I not be night without His day
without the union of His day-igniting face?

nākhwosh-e u khwosh bovad dar jān-e man
 jān fedāye yār-e delranjān-e man
His nastiness is sweet within my soul ―
soul, victim to the Friend who tortures me.

‛āsheqam bar ranj-e khwish o dard-e khwish
 bahr-e khoshnudi-ye shāh-e fard-e khwish
I am in love with both my grief and pain,
all for the pleasing of my Matchless King.

khāk-e gham-rā sorme sāzam bahr-e chashm
 tā ze guhar porr shavad du bahr-e chashm
I make an eye-balm from the earth of sorrow;
both oceans of my eyes are filled with pearls.

ashk kān az bahr-e u bārand khalq
 guhar ast o ashk pandārand khalq
1790 The tears which people shed on His behalf
are pearls, yet the people think them tears.

man ze jān-e jān shekāyat mikonam
 man niyam shāki revāyat mikonam
I am lamenting for the Soul of souls;
I don’t complain, I tell it as it is.

del hami guyad kazu ranjide am
 vaz nafāq-e sost mikhandide am
My heart says how I am tormented by Him,
I’ve ridiculed its low hypocrisy.

rāsti kon ey tufakhr-e rāstān
 ey tu sadr o man darat-rā āsetān
Be just, o Glory of the righteous ones,
O You who are the throne and I your shoe-rack.

āsetāne o sadr dar ma‛ni kojāst
 mā o man ku ān taraf kān yār-e māst
Shoe rack and throne? –what do they mean in spirit?
both ‘we’ and ‘I’ are where our Lover is.

ey rahide jān-e tu az mā o man
 ey latife-ye ruh andar mard o zan
1795 O you whose soul is freed from ‘we’ and ‘I’,
O spiritual grace in women and in men.

mard o zan chun yek shavad ān yek tu’i
 chun ke yek-hā mahv shod ānke tu’i
When lovers become one You are that one;
when difference is effaced then there You are.

in man o mā bahr-e ān bar sākhti
 tā tu bā khwod nard-e khedmat bākhti
You made this ‘I’ and ‘we’ with this intent,
That You should play the game of Nard with You.

tā man o tu-hā hame yek jān shavand
 ‛āqebat mostaghreq-e jānān shavand
That all the I’s and You’s become one soul
and finally absorbed in the Beloved.

in hame hast o biyā ey amr-e kon
 ey monazze az biyā o az sakhon
All this exists, and ‘Come!’, o word of Being,*
You who transcend this ‘Come!’ and all such words.

jesm jesmāne tavānad didanat
 dar khiyāl ārad gham o khandidanat
1800 Flesh sees you only in the fleshly form,
imagining Your sorrow and Your laughing.

del ke u baste gham o khandidanast
 tu magu ku lāyeq-e ān didan ast
With heart tied down to sorrow and to laughing,
do not protest that it deserves to see Him.

ān ke u baste gham okhande bovad
 u bedin du ‛āriyat zende bovad
He who is tied to sorrow and to laughing
he lives on these two things which have been borrowed.

bāgh-e sabz-e ‛eshq ku bi montahāst
 joz gham o shādi daru bas mivehāst
In love’s fresh garden ―which is infinite ―
are many fruits apart from joy and grief.

‛āsheqi zin har du hālat bartar ast
 bi bahār o bi khazān sabz o tar ast
To love is higher than these two conditions
and green and tender without spring or autumn.

dah zakkāt-e ruye khub ey khub ruy
 sharh-e jān-e sharhe sharhe bāz gu
1805 So pay your lovely face’s tax, my beauty,
and tell the tale of how my soul is torn,

k-az kereshm-e ghamze’i ghammāze’i
 bar delam benhād dāgh-e tāze’i
The charms of glances of seductive eyes
have lately stamped a brand upon my heart.

man halālash kardam ar khunam berikht
 man hami goftam halāl u migerikht
And I did sanction Him to shed my blood.
I kept on saying ‘sanctioned’ and He’d flee.

chun gerizāni ze nāle khākiyān
 gham che rizi bar del-e ghamnākiyān
You flee the cries of scrabblers in the dust.
Why heap more sorrow on the hearts of grievers?

ey ke har sobhi ke az mashreq betāft
 hamchu cheshme moshreqat dar jushyāft
Each dawn which shone its rays up from the East
found You erupting like the solar fountain.

chun bahāne dādi in shaydāt rā
 ey bahā na shakkar-e labhāt rā
1810 Why did You spurn this madly love-sick one
O You, whose lips of sugar have no price.

ey jehān-e kohne-rā tu jān-e now
 az tan-e bi jān o del afghān shenow
O You, the new soul for the ancient world
now hear the soulless, heartless body’s cry

sharh-e gol bogzār az bahr-e khodā
 sharh-e bolbol gow ke shod az gol jodā
Leave off your talk of roses, for God’s sake;
tell how the nightingale was parted from it.

az gham o shādi nabāshad jush-e mā
 bā khiyāl o vahm nabvad hush-e mā
Our fervour does not come from grief and joy,
nor is our mind in fancies and conjectures.

hālati digar bovad kān nāder ast
 tu mashow monkar ke haqq bas qāder ast
There is another state which is most rare.
Do not deny this; God is full of power.

tu qiyās az hālat-e ensān makon
 manzel andar jaur o dar ehsān makon
1815 Do not compare this with the human state;
don’t set up house in wickedness and virtue.

jaur o ehsān ranj o shādi hādes ast
hādesān mirand o haqqshān vāres ast
For wickedness and virtue, pain and joy,
are things which pass away and God inherits.

sobh shod ey sobh-rā sobh o panāh
 ‛ozr-e makhdumi hosāmoddin bekhwāh
It’s dawn, o dawn and refuge of the dawn;
ask pardon of Hosamoddin my lord.

‛ozr khwāh-e ‛aql-e koll o jān tu’i
 jān-e jān o tābesh-e marjān tu’i
Excuser of the universal mind
and soul, You’re Soul of souls and coral’s brilliance.

tāft nur-e sobh o mā az nur-e tu
 dar sabuhi bā mey-e mansur-e tu
The light of morning shone, and in Your light
our morning draft of Your Hallaj’s wine.

dāde-ye tu chun chonin dārad marā
 bāde ke bvad ku tarab ārad marā
1820 And as Your gift takes hold of me like this,
what other wine could bring me such delight?

bāde dar jushesh gadā-ye jush-e māst
 charkh dar gardash gadā-ye hush-e māst
And wine fermenting craves our fermentation,
and heaven turning craves our understanding.

bāde az mā mast shod nah mā az u
 qāleb az mā hast shod nah mā az u
The wine got drunk on us, not we on it;
the body came from us, not we from it.

mā chu zamburim o qāleb-hā chu mum
 khāne khāne karde qāleb-rā chu mum
We’re like the bee, the body’s like the hive,
each body cell’s constructed like the hive.

One of the first lines that I quoted is the one I’d like to finish on which is when he says in I.112

Whatever words I say to explain this love,
when I arrive at love I am ashamed.

So this is why it’s not a particularly suitable task for an academic to discourse on, because when I come to love, I am ashamed. [5]
© Alan Williams 2007
Alan Williams


[1] Not in the Socratic sense of ho erōs as explained by Diotima in Plato’s Symposium nor in the sense of Christian love, agapē.

[2] I give a simplified romanized transcription of the Persian couplets in order that the reader may get an idea of the sound and shape of Rumi’s language.ā is long a as in fāther.[3] As R.A. Nicholson said of this line, ‘Arabian and Persian medicine is permeated by Greek philosophy, so that the standard Moslem biographical dictionary of famous physicians naturally includes, by way of introduction, articles on Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, and other philosophers as well as on Hippocrates and Galen. Plato’s own theory of love makes the mention of him here specially appropriate; if further authority for linking him with Galen were needed, we might quote Ibn Abi Usaybi‘ah, I 49 penult., where it is stated that he wrote “a book on medicine, which he sent to his disciple Timaeus”.[4] One cannot but help notice Rumi’s gentle wit and humour throughout the Masnavi that are a source of constant consolation to his readers – to continue the metaphor of surgery – of oxygen to the troubled heart.[5] For an introductory essay on the voices and levels of discourse which Rumi uses in the Masnavi,see my Introduction to my translation Rumi Spiritual Verses The First Book of the Masnavi-ye Ma‘navi, Penguin Classics, Penguin Books 2006, pp. xx-xxxv.

Dr Alan Williams is Reader in Iranian Studies and Comparative Religion at the University of Manchester, England. He studied Classics, then Persian and Arabic for his first degree at The Queen’s College, Oxford, having begun to read Rumi while still at school in London and having met Beshara in its early incarnation at Swyre Farm. He did his PhD at SOAS, University of London on the Zoroastrian tradition in Old and Middle Persian literature. He has written several books and many articles on Zoroastrian and Iranian studies, and on comparative literature, religion and translation studies, most recently Rumi Spiritual Verses The First Book of the Masnavi-ye Ma‘navi, Penguin Classics, Penguin Books 2006, and Parsis in India and the Diaspora, ed. with John R. Hinnells, London: Routledge, 2007. He lives in Buxton, in the Peak District of Derbyshire.

Listen to the talk:

Open Heart Surgery: the Operation of Love in Rumi's Masnavi

by Professor Alan Williams