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 Maulana Rum on Human Nature    by Professor A.R. Momin

Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi’s conception of human nature is notable on three counts. First, it is basically derived from Islamic sources, especially from the Quran and the Traditions of the Prophet, and is therefore in harmony with the Islamic perspective on man’s nature. Secondly, there is a significant continuity and convergence between the views of classical Sufis on human nature and those of Maulana Rum. Thirdly, he has described the dynamics and complexity of human nature and the elusive and enigmatic character of the human self through folklore, parables and metaphors, which even the man in the street could understand. The appeal and effect of the narrative is heightened further by the elegance and beauty of his poetic composition. This constitutes his greatest and unique contribution to the subject.

Dwelling on the ennobling view of human nature in the Islamic tradition, Maulana Rum says that man is “the astrolabe of the qualities of highness.” In Fihi ma fih (the collection of his letters addressed to one of his disciples), he alludes to the polarity of human nature and says that man is caught between the angelic world and the human world. To quote him:

The situation of man is like this: they took the feathers of an angel and tied them to the tail of an ass, that haply the ass in the ray and society of an angel might become an angel.

He says in the Mathnawi that man is “a mixture of bee and serpent.”

Maulana Rum believes in human freedom and in man’s God-given capacity for moral choice. He sees no contradiction between God’s omnipotence and submission to His will on the one hand and man’s freedom on the other. This is illustrated with a fascinating anecdote mentioned in the Mathnawi and in Fihi ma fih.

A man stealthily entered an apple garden with the intention to steal some fruits. When caught and questioned by the owner, he casually replied that it was in his destiny to steal the apples. When he received a sound thrashing from the owner he came to his senses and admitted that it was not God’s decree but his own evil intention which made him commit this act.

The Prophet is reported to have said, “This world is the seedbed of the Hereafter.” Maulana Rum emphasises that every good deed will have its reward in this world as well as in the Hereafter. Similarly, every evil deed will bring about adverse consequences for the actor by way of punishment. He illustrates this fundamental truth by a simple example, saying:

When you plant colocinths you cannot reap sugarcane.

Maulana Rum dwells a great deal on the follies, temptations and deceptions of the lower self (nafs). He compares it to an uncouth rustic who comes into the bazaar, makes loud, unpleasant noises, and makes a nuisance of himself. The Maulana employs evocative metaphors, similes and symbols to describe the wickedness of the lower self. Some Sufis describe the lower self as the “greater idol.” Drawing on this simile, he says:

Your (lower) self is the mother of all idols,
For they are (like) serpents and this one is like a python.

He takes the simile further and says:

The idol is (like) black water hidden in a jar,
Consider the (lower) self as a stream of this black water.

Pride and conceit is one of the distinctive components of the lower self which, according to the Islamic tradition, brought about the fall of Iblis or Satan. Alluding to this episode, the Maulana says:

Satan’s disease was ‘I am superior,’
This disease exists in the lower self of every being.

Maulana Rum, like the Sufis in general, is not content with describing the deceit and guile of the lower self. He urges its domestication and purification through constant vigilance, education, sustained effort, hardships, and companionship with the sages. In the first volume of the Mathnawi Maulana Rum alludes to a Tradition of the Prophet wherein he remarked, after returning from an expedition, that “we have come back from a smaller holy war (with the enemies of Islam) to a greater holy war (with the lower self)”. The Maulana then comments:

Consider it easy to be a lion that tears asunder lines of people,
The real lion is one who breaks his own lower self,
So that he may become God’s lion with His help,
And delivered from his (lower) self and its Pharaoh.

At another place, he asks, rhetorically: what is beheading? And replies: slaying the carnal self in the holy war.

Maulana Rum greatly emphasises the psychological and spiritual benefits accruing from the company of saints and sages. Thus he says:

If you happen to be sandstone and marble,
You will become a pearl if you take to the company of sages.

A little time spent in the company of men of God,
is better than a hundred years’ sincere worship.

The companionship of noble people will make you noble,
That of the wicked will make you wicked.

The Sufis point out that the experience of suffering and hardship is one of the most potent means for cleansing the lower self and for the purification of the hart. Shaqiq of Balkh (d. 790) spoke of the alchemy of hunger. Junaid, the eminent Sufi saint of Baghdad (d. 906), is reported to have said: “We did not imbibe the principles of Sufism from discourses and talks, but from hunger and renunciation of the world and from giving up things to which we were accustomed and which we found desirable.” Maulana Rum offers a perceptive and insightful expatiation on the role of suffering and privations in self-purification through highly suggestive metaphors and similes. He points out that everything reaches completion and fruition through pain and suffering.

The nutshell has to be broken so that the precious oil can be extracted from it. Similarly, the shell of the oyster has to be split in order to obtain the pearl. Raw hide has to be subjected to a painful process of tanning and scrubbing before it is transformed into fine leather. The field has to be cut and dug up so that seeds could be planted in it, and the grain has to crushed by the millstone so that it could be made into flour, from which bread is to be made. In the same way, he says, the lower self has to undergo a process of cleansing through suffering and hardships before it can partake of divine grace.

The Sufis point out that the lower self tries to beguile and seduce people in a variety of subtle and devious ways. It may for example seduce the novice who fancies that he has already traversed the mystic path. Maulana Rum cautions people to be aware of its ruses. He says:

The nafs has a rosary and a copy of the Quran in the right hand,
And a dagger and a sword in the sleeve.

The domestication and purification of man’s lower self does not require asceticism, world-renunciation or self-mortification. What is important is to be aware of its deceptions and to subjugate it while carrying on with one’s worldly obligations. In other words, the essence of spiritual life is to remain constantly in the presence of God, as it were, amidst worldly preoccupations and concerns. Echoing this view, Mawlana Rum says:

What is the world? It is (essentially) being oblivious of God,
And not worldly provisions, silver, children and wife.

Maulana Rum believes that the key to eternal bliss lies in divine love. Some of his most eloquent verses deal with this theme. Thus he says:

Cheer to you! O obsessive love of mine!
O you, who is the healer of all my ills!
O you, who is the cure for my pride and vanity,
O you, who is my Plato and my Gallen!

Maulana Rum’s Mathnawi has provided spiritual nourishment, inspiration and guidance to generations of readers and listeners across large parts of the Islamic world during the past eight centuries. Its continued appeal and fascination lies in the fact that it effectively portrays the reality of the human condition and offers a time-tested panacea for the ills of the human psyche through highly evocative metaphors, similes and parables which can be understood and appreciated by all and sundry.

Undoubtedly, Maulana Rum has been, and will continue to remain, one of the best and most popular interpreters and spokesmen of the Islamic ethos in general and of Sufism in particular.

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