The Wisdom of Negation

Mathnawi VI: 703-722

703 In front of the drunken Turk,1 the musician began [to mention]
the secrets of [the verse], "Am I not"2 within the veil of a song:3

"Are You are (like) the moon or an idol? I don't know. What do
You want from me? I don't know.

705 "(And) what (kind of) service should I perform for You?
Should I be silent or make allusions to You? I don't know.

"It's amazing that You aren't separate from me, (but) where am I
(and) where are You? I don't know.

"How do You draw me? (For) sometimes You pull me to (Your)
chest (and) sometimes into blood (and suffering). I don't know."

He opened (his) lips in this way with (the words), "I don't
know." He made a song of "I don't know, I don't know."

When (the rhyme of) "I don't know" went beyond the limits [of
his tolerance], our Turk (was) shocked (and) became displeased by
the (musician's) enthusiastic song.

710 The Turk jumped up and drew (forth) a battle club, so that he
might reach the musician's head with it.

(But) a captain grabbed the club with (his) hand (and) said, "No!
Killing the musician at this time is bad."

(The Turk) said, "This repetition of his, without limit and number,
has pounded my spirit,4 (so) I will pound his head!

"O pimp, (if) you don't know, (then) don't talk crap.5 And if you
know, take aim and strike.6

"O fool (pleased with yourself), talk about what you know, (and)
don't drag on (and on, saying) 'I don't know, I don't know.'

715 "(If) I ask, 'Where are you from?' O conceited pretender, you
will say 'Not from Balkh and not from Herat,

"'Not from Baghdad, not from Mosul, and not from Teraz.' You
will drag out a long way in saying a 'no' and (then another) 'no.'

"But (only) say, 'I am from such a place' (and) open the way [to
understanding]. (For) carrying on a long way is stupid here.6

"Or (if) I ask, 'What did you eat for breakfast?', you will say,
'Not wine and not roast meat,

"'Not strips of dried meat, not soup-bread, and not lentils.' (But)
only say what you ate, and no more.

720 "What is (all) this lengthy word-chewing for?" The musician
answered, "It is because my purpose is hidden.

"In the presence of your negation, affirmation7 flees in fear. I
negated (everything)8 so that you might scent [the reality of]

722 "I bring this (musical) instrument (of mine) into song with [the
theme of] negation. When you die, Death will tell (you) the secret
(of it)."

--From "The Mathnawî-yé Ma`nawî" [Rhymed Couplets of
Deep Spiritual Meaning] of Jalaluddin Rumi.
Translated from the Persian by Ibrahim Gamard (with
gratitude for R. A. Nicholson's 1934 British translation)
Ibrahim Gamard (translation, footnotes, & transliteration)
First published on "Sunlight" (, 4/20/00

Notes on the text, with line number:

1. (703) the drunken Turk: These lines occur at the end of Rumi's
story about how a drunken Turkish prince sent for a musician to
sing for him, as a way to distract him from the headache of a
hangover. The second poem which the musician sang ended with a
rhyme of "I don't know": "I don't know whether You are [more
like] a rose, a lily, a cypress tree, or a moon. (And) I don't know
what You want from this bewildered and agitated one (who is)

2. (703) the secrets of "Am I not": refers to "...the proclamation of
Divine omnipotence... to which all human souls responded in
eternity." (Nicholson, Commentary) This is also called the "Day of
Alast," when the primordial covenant was made between God and
the souls of all mankind prior to the creation: "And when your
Lord drew forth from the children of Adam, from their loins, their
seed, and made them testify concerning themselves, 'Am I not
[a-lastu] your Lord [bi-rabbi-kum]?' They said, 'But of course! We
do testify!'" (Qur'an 7:172) A major goal of the sufis has been to
"remember" within the soul the awareness of God which has been
forgotten by nearly all of humanity since the "Day of Alast."

3. (703) under the veil of a song: Just prior to this line, Rumi said
(translated by Nicholson): "To utter words (concerning Him) is to
shut the window (through which He reveals Himself): the very act
of expression is the concealment (of Him). Sing, like nightingales,
in the presence of the Rose, in order that you may divert them*
from the scent of the Rose, So that their ears will be engaged in
(listening to) the song and their attention will not fly to the face of
the Rose. Before this Sun, which is exceedingly radiant, every
guide is in reality a highway robber."*
[*divert them: "The lovers of God." (Nicholson, footnote)]
[*a highway robber: "I.e. all the proofs of God's existence and
nature are so many stumbling blocks on the Way to Him."
(Nicholson, Footnote)]

4. (712) my spirit: literally, "nature," "disposition."

5. (713) don't talk crap: Nicholson translated, "...(if) you don't know,
don't talk nonsense..." He added that "don't talk nonsense" is
"literally, 'don't eat dung.'" (Footnote)

6. (713) And if you know, take aim and strike: Nicholson translated,
"and if you do know, play (a tune) to the purpose."

7. (717) is stupid here: "Nicholson translated, "... in this case it is
folly to elaborate the point at issue." He explained that "to
elaborate the point at issue" means "pruning and trimming the
problem', i.e. eliminating false ideas about it in detail instead of
declaring its true nature at once." (Commentary)

8. (721) affirmation: Refers to the Islamic principle of affirming of
the reality of God after negating all else, as in the testament of
faith: "There is no divinity except (the One) God" [lâ ilâha illâ
'llâh]. Closely related to this is the sufi teaching that "annihilation"
[fanâ] of all illusions is necessary so that what is permanent [baqâ]
may be known.

9. (721) I negated (everything): "There the mutrib [= the musician]
speaks as a murshid [= spiritual guide] exhorting his disciples to
follow the path of self-negation (faná) in order that they may attain
to the reality of union with God." (Nicholson, Commentary)


muTrib âghâzîd pêsh-é tork-é mast
dar Hijâb-é naghma asrâr?é alast

man na-dân-am ke tô mâh-î yâ waSan
man na-dân-am ta che mê-khwâh-î ze-man?

mê-na-dân-am ke che khidmat âr-am-at
tan zan-am yâ dar `ibârat âr-am-at?

în `ajab ke nêst-î az man jodâ
mê-na-dân-am man ko-jâ-am, tô ko-jâ?

mê-na-dân-am ke ma-râ chûn mê-kash-î
gâh dar bar, gâh dar khûn mê-kash-î?

ham-chon-în lab dar na-dân-am bâz kard
mê-na-dân-am, mê-na-dân-am sâz kard

chûn ze-Had shod, mê-na-dân-am az shegeft
tork-ê mâ-râ z-în Harâra del gereft

bar jahîd ân tork-o dabôwsê kashîd
tâ `alay-hâ, bar sar-é muTrib rasîd

gorz-râ be-g'reft sar-hangê ba-dast
goft na, muTrib-koshî în dam bad-ast

goft în takrâr-é bê-Hadd-o mar-ash
kôft Tab`-am-râ, be-kôb-am man sar-ash

qaltabân-â mê-na-dân-î goh ma-khwar
w-ar hamê dân-î be-zan, maqSûd bar

ân be-gô ay gêj ke mê-dân-î-ash
mê-na-dân-am, mê-na-dân-am dar ma-kash

man be-pors-am k-az ko-jây-î hay morî?
tô be-gôy-î na ze-balkh-o na az herî

na ze-baghdâd-o na mawSil, na Terâz
dar kash-î dar nayê-wo nay râh-é darâz

khwad be-gô man az ko-jây-am bâz rah
hast tanqîH-é manâT în-jâ balah

yâ be-porsîd-am che khword-î nâshtâb?
tô be-gôy-î na sharâb-o na kabâb

na qadîd-o na Sarîd-o na `adas
ân-che khword-î ân be-gô tan-hâ-wa bas

în sokhon-khâyê darâz az bahr-é chêst?
goft muTrib z-ân-ke maqSûd-am khafî-st

mê-ramad iSbât pêsh az nafy-é tô
nafî kard-am, tâ bar-î z-iSbât bô

dar nawâ âr-am ba-nafy în sâz-râ
chôn be-mîr-î, marg gôy-ad râz-râ

(mathnawi meter: XoXX XoXX XoX)