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Islamica Magazine

Moses and the Shepard


The great Muslim scholar and mystical poet Jalal al-Din Rumi has been a bestselling poet in North America. This, however, has not changed common misperceptions of Muslims with many English-speaking readers viewing Muslims as a literalist, intolerant and self-righteous mass. Adding to this unfortunate fact, more disaffected young Muslims are being attracted to politicized interpretations of Islam sometimes confirming this stereotype. So when popular translations divorce Rumi's poetry from his original Islamic context, readers can't be expected to make the connection. Yet his teachings of humility, farsightedness and generosity are as popular among most Muslims as to individuals of other faiths. It was the Islamic tradition that gave Rumi his wisdom and enthusiasm for poetry. As Rumi's 800th birthday approaches in September, we offer as a timely reminder this annotated translation of "Moses and the Shepard," probably the most popular story in Rumi's Masnavi among Muslims.

Moses condemns the prayer of a shepherd

Once Moses overheard a shepherd pray: 'O God! O Lord!' he heard this shepherd say, 'Where do you live that I might serve you there? I'd mend your battered shoes and comb your hair, And wash your clothes, and kill the lice and fleas, And serve you milk to sip from when you please; I'd kiss your little hand, and rub your feet, And sweep your bedroom clean and keep it neat; I'd sacrifice my herd of goats for youThis loud commotion proves my love is true.' He carried on in this deluded way, So Moses asked, 'What's that I hear you say?' 'I speak to my Creator there on high, The one who also made the earth and sky.' Moses replied, 'You've truly lost your way; You've given up the faith and gone astray. It's gibberish and babble, stupid twitYou'd better learn to put a cork in it! Your blasphemy pollutes the atmosphere And tears to shreds that silk of faith so sheer. Powered by Joomla! Generated: 11 August, 2008, 01:01

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While socks and shoes might be superb for you, How can they fit the sun? Have you a clue? If you don't shut your mouth immediately, A fire will burn up all humanity! You don't believe? Then please explain this smoke, And why your soul turned black when you just spoke! If you're aware that He is God, our Lord, Why act familiar when that is abhorred? Such stupid friendship's truly enmity; The Lord's above such acts of piety. For relatives reserve your generous deedsGod has no body, nor material needs: Milk is for creatures who must drink and eat; Shoes are for those who have a need for feet.' Even when you address his chosen slave Select your words with care, don't misbehave, Since God has said, "I'm he and he is I; When I was ill you never once stopped by:[1] He wasn't left alone with his disease, That servant who through me both hears and sees."[2] Don't talk to saints without the reverence due! It blocks your heart, and blots your record too. If you address a man by Fatima's [3] name, Though man and woman are inside the same, He'll still seek vengeance for it if he can, Even if he's a calm and patient manThat glorious name which women all revere Can wound a man more deeply than a spear. While hands and feet are great for you and me, They'd just contaminate God's purityHe was not born, nor does the Lord beget, [4] But reproducing beings are in his debt. Powered by Joomla! Generated: 11 August, 2008, 01:01

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Those with a body were once born, and must Remain until death in this realm of dust; That is because we wither and decay; Unlike our Maker we must fade away. The shepherd said, 'Your words have struck me dumb, Regret now burns my soul, and I feel numb.' He breathed a heavy sigh and ripped his cloak, Then in the desert disappeared like smoke.

God rebukes Moses for what he said to the shepherd

A revelation came down instantly: 'You have just turned a slave away from me! Was not to lead to union why you came? Is causing separation now your aim? As far as possible don't separateAbove all else divorce is what I hate. [5] I've given each one his own special ways And his unique expressions when he prays; What he thinks virtuous you deem scandalous: This person's meat to you seems poisonous. I stand immune to all impurity;{sub type="reg"}

Men's pride and cunning never bother me. I don't command for my own benefit, But so my slaves themselves can gain from it. For Indians their own dialect sounds best, But folk from Sind think theirs the loveliest. I'm not made any purer by their praise; They gain in eloquence and godly ways. And I pay no attention to their speech, But their intentions and the heights they reachI know when men's hearts have humility, Powered by Joomla! Generated: 11 August, 2008, 01:01

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Even if they should speak too haughtily.'

The heart's the essence, words are mere effects: The heart's what matters, hot air He rejects. I'm tired of fancy terms and metaphors; I want a soul which burns so much it roars! It's time to light one's heart with pure desire, Burn thought and its expression with this fire! How far apart the meek and well-behaved From ardent lovers, who may seem depraved. Each moment lovers burn themselves away; A ruined village has no tithes to pay. Don't pick at faults and call him a disgrace, Don't wash the blood upon the martyr's face! It suits a martyr better that he bleeds, And that's worth more than countless pious deeds. Men in the Ka'ba end the qibla [6] rule—

What use are boots when swimming in a pool? You don't seek guidance from those drunken men, So why insist they mend their rags again? God's lovers stand beyond all faiths, as they Are shown by God Himself a higher way. A gem which lacks a seal remains a gem; Though sorrows rain down, love's not changed by them.

A revelation comes to Moses, excusing the shepherd

Then in the depths of Moses God concealed Powered by Joomla! Generated: 11 August, 2008, 01:01

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Such secrets that can never be revealed; Into his heart poured words, pure and refined, Transparent just like speech and sight combined. He lost his wits and then found them anew, From pre- to post-eternity he flew. If I describe this it will be in vainWhat lies beyond words how can I explain? This mystery would smash your brain to bits; When writing it the firmest stylus splits.

Once Moses had heard God's reproach, he ran Towards the desert, searching for that man; He followed footprints that the shepherd laid, Scattering dust throughout the track he'd made. Footprints of drunkards are a special kind, Distinct from those the sober leave behind: He starts just like a rook, steps straight ahead, Then bishop-like diagonally instead, Sometimes just like a wave's crest rising high And then as if a fish has slithered by; Occasionally he'd write his thoughts in sand Like fortune-tellers reading what is planned. On reaching the poor shepherd finally, Moses announced, 'I bring you God's decree: Don't bother with good manners anymore, But let your heart express what's in its core! Your unbelief is faith, your faith God's light; The world, through you, is also safe and bright. Absolved by God, Who does what He should will,7 Speak out, and don't be scared I blame you still!' He said, 'I passed that stage right at the start; Powered by Joomla! Generated: 11 August, 2008, 01:01

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I'm drenched in blood now from my love-torn heart! I've passed that lote tree found at heaven's end;8 A thousand spheres beyond, I still ascend. You cracked the whip, which made my stallion vault Above the heavens with a somersault! May God stay close to human beings like me, And may He bless your hand eternally!9 With words my current state can't be expressed; What I have said give just a hint at best.' The image in the mirror which you see Is yours and not the mirror's obviously; The breath inside the reed a man has blown Is not the reed's, but that reed-player's own. Whenever you should praise God, be aware It's like this shepherd's crazy-sounding prayerThough yours seems better and more accurate, Still, for the Lord, they're both inadequate; So when the veil is lifted don't protest: 'What's now revealed we never could have guessed.'


1. 'When I was ill you never once stopped by': this is part of the saying of the Prophet Muhammad, which describes God as asking Mankind this question at the Resurrection. Mankind is bewildered by the suggestion that they could have visited God when he was sick, so God explains that if they had visited the sick people whom they had ignored they would have found Him there. Appropriately perhaps for this context, a variant of this hadith Moses rather than all Mankind as the person being addressed by God.

2. 'through me both hears and sees': this is possibly the most well-known Sacred Tradition, or saying of the Prophet in which he presents a message from God in his own words. God affirms that His worshippers continue to draw close to Him through extra acts of devotion until they eventually see and hear through Him, and thus subsist through Him.

3. Fatima: the highly revered daughter of Prophet Muhammad. She became the wife of the Prophet's cousin and disciple 'Ali, and the mother of the Prophet's grandsons Hasan and Husayn.

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4. 'He was not born, nor does the Lord beget': The Qur'an 112:3. The 112 chapter is a short one, which asserts emphatically that God is one, eternal and incomparable.

5. 'Above all else is what I hate': part of a saying of the Prophet Muhammad, which empashizes how displeasing the separation of husband and wife through divorce is to God.

6. qibla: the direction of the Ka'ba in Mecca, toward which Muslims pray.

7. 'Who does what He should will': The Qur'an 14:27, where it is stressed that God will guide or lead astray whomever He should choose.

8. 'that lote tree at heaven's end': The Qur'an 53:13-18, where, in a passage about Prophet Muhammad's ascension to heaven, it refers to a lote tree marking the utmost reach of heaven and the limits of human understanding.

9. 'And may He bless your hand eternally': this is probably intended as an allusion to the miraculous transformation of Moses' hand mentioned in the Qur'an 20:22 and 28:132.


DR. JAWID MOJADDEDI is Assistant Professor of Religion at Rutgers University. His translation of The Masnavi: Book One, was published in 2004 by Oxford University Press as an Oxford World's Classics edition. It was awarded the 2004 Lois Roth Prize for excellence in translation of Persian literature by the American Institute of Iranian Studies. His translation of Book Two will be released this year by Oxford University Press to coincide with the 800th anniversary of Jalal al-Din Rumi's birth. {/sub}

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