The High Station of Man (part one)

Mathnawi VI: 129-140

The inquiry of a questioner about a bird which was (assumed
to be) seated on top of the walls of a city: "Is its head
more excellent, venerable, noble, and honored-- or its
tail?" And the preacher's giving a reply to the questioner
(in accordance) with the extent of his understanding.1

129 One day a questioner said to a preacher: "O (you who
are) the most sublime speaker of the pulpit,2

130 "There is one question of mine. Tell (me) the answer to
my question in this gathering, O (you who are) endowed with
pure intelligence!3

"A bird sat on the fortified walls (of a city).
Regarding its head and tail, which of these is better?"

"(The preacher) replied, "If its face is toward the city
and (its) tail toward the (outer) countryside,4 know that
its face (is) better than its tail.

"But if (its) tail is toward the city (and) its face
toward the (outer) countryside, (then) be the dust on that
(bird's) tail and leap away from its face."5

The bird flies to (its) nest with (its) wings. (But) the
wings of mankind, O people, are (spiritual) aspiration.6

135 (In regard to) a lover (of God) who has become tainted
by good and evil, don't look at (his) good and evil (but)
see (his spiritual) aspiration.7

Even though a (royal) falcon is (pure) white and without
equal, it is contemptible if its prey is a (lowly) mouse.8

But if there is an (ugly) owl, and its longing (is)
toward the King, it (possessed of) the falcon's head9-- (so)
don't look at the hood.10

Mankind, with the (physical) stature of a (mere) basin
(for kneading) dough11 has increased [in its spiritual
aspiration] beyond the (seven) heavens and the ether.12

The heavens never heard (the Divine words), "We have
honored (the children of Adam)"13 which this humanity (so)
full of sorrow has heard.

140 Did anyone [else] offer beauty, intelligence, meaningful
words, and desire to the heavens and the earth?14

--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" (,5/17/01

Notes on the text, with line number:

1. (Heading) (in accordance) with the extent of his
understanding: refers to a saying of the Prophet Muhammad,
"Speak to people in accordance with the amount of their
understanding" [kallimi 'n-nâsa `alà qadri `uqûli-him].
2. (129) O (you who are) the most sublime speaker of the
pulpit: "It means, 'You are the preacher who is the best of
the preachers in admonishing and explaining clearly. And
you make every question understood by the listener with an
excellent explanation.'" (Anqaravi, the famous 17th century
Turkish commentator, translated here into English from a
Persian translation)

3. (130) O (you who are) endowed with pure intelligence:
Nicholson translated, "O possessor of the marrow (of
wisdom)." "It means, 'O possessor of intelligence and
wisdom.'" (Anqaravi, Commentary)

4. (132) toward the (outer) countryside: Nicholson
translated, "to the country." Apparently the reference is to
the villages outside of the protective walls of a city. For
Rumi, village life symbolizes sensuality and ignorance while
city life symbolizes spiritual advancement and refinement.

Nicholson referred to Rumi's lines (which he translated),
"Do not go to the country [deh]: the country makes a fool of
a man, it makes the intellect void of light and splendour. O
chosen one, hear the Prophet's saying: 'To dwell in the
country is the grave of the intellect' If any one stay in
the country a single day and evening, his intellect will not
be fully restored for a month. For a (whole) month
foolishness will abide with him: what but these things
should he reap from the parched herbage of the country? And
he that stays a month in the country, ignorance and
blindness will be his (lot) for a long time. What is 'the
country'? The Shaykh [= spiritual master] that has not been
united (with God), but has become addicted to
conventionality and argument. Compared with the town, (which
is) Universal Reason, these senses (of ours) are like asses
(going round and round) in an ass-mill with their eyes
bandaged." (III: 517-523) Nicholson quoted (in Arabic) this
saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad: "al-tawattun fí
'l-qurá qabr-un li-'l-nuhá" [= The habitual living in
villages is the grave of intelligence]. (Commentary)

5. (133) (then) be the dust on that (bird's) tail and leap
away from its face: "i.e. 'follow devotedly any one who in
spirit (reality) is travelling towards the Truth, though in
the body (superficially) he is turned the opposite way'."
(Nicholson, Commentary)

"In this speech, the intended meaning of 'tail' is the
body, and the intended meaning of 'face' is resolved aim and
aspiration. If you see that someone's intention and
aspiration (is) away from worldly people and toward the
'city of Truth,' and you have witnessed that his inclination
and love (is) for the people on the path of spiritual
realization [aSHâb-é Tarîqat-é ma`rifat], his purpose and
determination are more noble and excellent than his body....
But if his attention is toward the world and toward worldly
people, his body is more noble and excellent than his aim
and aspiration." (Anqaravi, Commentary)

6. (134) the wings of mankind, O people, are (spiritual)
aspiration: Nicholson referred to similar verses (which he
translated), "Do not regard thy ugly or beauteous form;
regard Love and the object of thy search. Do not regard the
fact that thou art despicable or infirm; look upon thy
aspiration, O noble one. In whatsoever state thou be, keep
searching; O thou with dry lip, always be seeking the
water." (III: 1437-1439)

"In a similar way that the bird flies with wings and
feathers, mankind possessed of desire also flies with the
wings and feathers of aspiration and intention. And... they
arrive to the nest of Origin and the station of Union."
(Anqaravi, Commentary)

7. (135) (but) see (his spiritual) aspiration: As the
Prophet Muhammad said, "Truly, the actions (of a person) are
(judged by God) according to the intentions [an-niyyat]."
Just prior to this section, Rumi had said (as translated by
Nicholson), "Yet all these (evil) qualities of theirs may
become good: evil does not remain when it turns to seeking
good. If egoism is foul smelling like semen, (yet) when it
attains unto the spirit (spirituality) it gains light. Every
mineral that sets its face towards (aspires to evolve into)
the plant (the vegetative state)-- life grows from the tree
of its fortune. Every plant that turns its face towards the
(animal) spirit drinks, like [= the mysterious prophet]
Khizr, from the fountain of [= Eternal] Life. Once more,
when the (animal) spirit sets its face towards the (Divine)
beloved, it lays down its baggage (and passes) into the life
without end." (VI: 124-128)

"(It means), 'Any lover whose aspiration is directed
toward the Presence of God, one cannot maintain an opinion
(about his) worth and value-- for his sake. (For) if his
intention is lofty, but his (outward) form is soiled with
good and bad, he will not be made to attain a lowly rank of
harm and loss (as) his (final) dwelling." (Anqaravi,

8. (136) it is contemptible if its prey is a (lowly) mouse:
The meaning is that a trained royal falcon of the king
should bring back a worthy prey for the king. "It means, 'If
someone is like an incomparable white falcon and (is) the
accepted and beloved one of the king of the world; and if
his quarry and prey is a contemptible mouse of the world and
the worldly realm; necessarily, he is also lowly and
contemptible.'" (Anqaravi, Commentary)

9. (137) it (possessed of) the falcon's head: Nicholson
translated, "it is (noble as) the falcon's head." "But if
his form and dwelling is lowly and contemptible, yet his
aspiration is lofty and noble, he is... a person of high
worth." (Anqaravi, Commentary)

10. (137) don't look at the hood: "I.e. the bodily form
which masks its spiritual nature." (Nicholson, Footnote)

11. (138) a (mere) basin (for kneading) dough: Nicholson
translated, "a kneading-trough (scooped in a log)." "The
intended meaning of the expression (is)... a wooden tray
specially designed for dough, the depth of which is more
than (that) of a tray." (Anqaravi, Commentary)

12. (138) beyond the (seven) heavens and the ether:
Nicholson translated, "Man... has surpassed (in glory) the
heavens and the aether (the empyrean)." According to ancient
astronomy, beyond earth, water, air, and fire was a
substance called ether which extended to the highest
heavens, filling all space in between.

13. (139) (the Divine words), "We have honored (the children
of Adam)": refers to a verse from the Qur'an in which God
speaks in the "plural of majesty": "And We have surely
honored the children of Adam. And We have caused them to be
carried (on transport) on the earth and sea, given them
provision of pure and good things, and have greatly favored
them above most of what We have created" (17:70). This
describes the original state of mankind before the Fall into
forgetfulness of God and of spiritual realities. This verse
is also understood to allude to the human qualities (such as
reason, judgment between good and evil, and yearning and
aspiration) which animals lack and which make mankind
(potentially) superior to the angels.

"According to this meaning, it becomes known that (in
regard to) being large and possessed of magnificent form and
shape, (Man) lacks weight and value. But he is (worthy) in
view of intelligence, spiritual realization [ma`rifat],
knowledge, and virtue of character [Husn-é sîrat]."
(Anqaravi, Commentary)

14. (140) to the heavens and the earth: Nicholson
translated, "Did any one offer to earth and sky (his) beauty
and reason and eloquence and fond affection?" These refer to
human qualities which the rest of creation lack. It is also
a reference to the verse: "Certainly We offered the Trust to
the heavens, the earth, and the mountains but they refused
to bear it, being afraid of it. But mankind bore it. Truly,
he tends to be unjust and foolish." (Qur'an 33:72). The
Trust [al-amânat] is generally interpreted to mean
intelligence, free-will, and (especially) the responsibility
to choose between good and evil.


sû'âl-é sâyil az morghê ke bar sar-é rabaZ-é shahrê neshasta
bâsh-ad sar-é ô fâZl-tar-ast wa `azîz-tar wa sharîf-tar wa
mukarram-tar yâ dom-é ô? wa jawâb-dâdan-é wâ`iZ sâyil-râ
ba-qadr-é fahm-é ô

129 wâ`iZê-râ goft rôzê sâyilê
k-ay tô munbar-râ sanî-tar qâyil-î

130 yak sû'al-ast-am, be-gô ay Zû lubâb
andar-în majlis sû'âl-am-râ jawâb

bar sar-é bârû yakê morghê neshast
az sar-o az dom kodâm-în-ash beh-ast?

goft agar rôy-ash ba-shahr-o dom ba-deh
rôy-é ô az domm-é ô mê-dân ke beh

w-ar sôy-é shahr-ast dom, rôy-ash ba-deh
khâk-é ân dom bâsh-o az rôy-ash be-jeh

morgh bâ par mê-par-ad tâ âshyân
parr-é mardom himmat-ast, ay mardom-ân

135 `âshiqê k-âlûd shod dar khayr-o shar
khayr-o shar ma-n'gar, tô dar himmat negar

bâz agar bâsh-ad sapîd-o bê-naZîr
chûn-ke Sayd-ash môsh bâsh-ad, shod Haqîr

w-ar bow-ad choghdê-wo mayl-é ô ba-shâh
ô sar-é bâz-ast, ma-n'gar dar kolâh

âdamî bar qadd-é yak Tasht-é khamîr
bar fozûd az âsmân-o az aSîr

hêch karram-nâ shenîd în âsmân
ke shenîd în âdamîy-é por-gham-ân

140 bar zamîn-o charkh `arZa kard kas
khôbî-wo `aql-o `ibârât-o hawas?

(mathnawi meter: XoXX XoXX XoX)