Quarreling Over Shapes

Mathnawi III:1259-1274

The disagreeing over the qualities and shape of the elephant1

1259 (An) elephant was in a dark building. (Some) people from
India2 had brought it for exhibition.

1260 Many people kept going into that dark (place) in order to see

Each one was stroking it (with his) hands in the dark, since seeing
it with the eyes was not possible.

In the case of one person, (whose) hand landed on the trunk, he
said, "This being is like a drain pipe."

For (another) one, (whose) hand reached its ear, to him it seemed
like a kind of fan.

As for (another) person, (whose) hand was upon its leg, he said, "I
perceived the shape of the elephant (to be) like a pillar."

1265 (And) in the case of (another) one, (who) placed (his) hand
upon its back, he said, "Indeed, this elephant was like a throne."

In the same way as this, any one who reached a part (of the
elephant) used his understanding (in regard to) any (particular)
place he perceived (by touch).3

Their words were different and opposing because of the (different)
viewing places.4 One person gave it the nickname of (the bent
letter) "dâl;" this (other one), (of the straight letter) "alif."

If there had been a candle in the hand of each person,5 the
disagreement would have gone out (completely) from their speech.

The eye of (physical) sense is like the palm of the hand, nothing
more. (And) the palm (of the hand) has no access6 the whole of
(the elephant).7

1270 The eye of the Ocean is one thing and the foam (is)
something else.8 Abandon the foam and look out of the Ocean's

The movement of the (surface) foam (continues) night and day
from the Ocean.10 You keep seeing the foam, but not the Ocean.
(How) amazing!

We are colliding against (one other) like boats. We are darkened of
eyes -- and (yet) we are in the clear (and brightly lit) water.11

O you (who have) gone to sleep in the boat of the body! You've
seen the water -- (but) gaze at the Water of the water.12

1274 The (physical) water has a (Universal) Water (as its source,
which drives it (forth). (Likewise), the spirit has a (Universal)
Spirit13 calling 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 1930 British translation)
Ibrahim Gamard (translation, footnotes, & transliteration)

Notes on the text, with line number:

1(Heading) The disagreeing over the qualities and shape of the
elephant: "This apologue occurs in the Hadíqah [= by the sufi poet
Sanâ'î [= of Ghazna], died 1131], Book I, 8, 10 sqq. and in the Ihyá
[= by the sufi theologian Ghazâlî, died 1111], IV 7, 10 sqq. Both
these [= earlier] versions are a good deal fuller than the one given
here, but the chief difference is that while Saná'i and Ghazálí
describe the people who handled the elephant as blind (`umyán),
Rúmí says they could not see it because of the darkness of the
place in which it was exhibited... Ghazálí tells the story in reply to
criticism of his view that there is no 'fundamental' contradiction
between the doctrines of 'jabr' (necessity) and 'kasb' (freewill)....
He sums up as follows: 'Every one of these persons spoke the truth
in a way, since he described the qualities of the elephant so far as
his knowledge of it reached; yet the whole party failed to
comprehend the real form of the elephant. Now consider this
parable carefully, for it illustrates the nature of most of our
(religious) controversies.'" (Nicholson, Commentary)

2(1259) people from India [hunûd]: the Arabic plural for "Hindu." In
the Dari Persian of the 13th century C.E., it meant Indians (who
could be Muslims). In the story, the elephant was brought for
exhibition in a land where elephants were unknown.

3(1266) any (particular) place he perceived (by touch): Nicholson
translated, "Similarly, whenever any one heard (a description of
the elephant), he understood (it only in respect of) the part that he
had touched."

4(1267) Their words were different and opposing because of the
(different) viewing places: "It is similar to the leaders of different
(Islamic) schools of law [maZâhib] and the masters of various
(Islamic) sects [milal]. In other words, their viewpoint was
dependent in accordance with a single fixed amount out of the
entire Divine level, and they had believed that (this) fixed portion
(was) the whole. Therefore, they gave a report from that same
level, which was their point of view. In the same way as this, their
belief and striving for an opinion became (full) of error and
opposition in relation to the belief of a people with a different
level.'" (Anqaravi, the 17th century Turkish commentator,
translated here into English from a Persian translation)

5(1268) If there had been a candle in the hand of each person: here,
Nicholson referred to Rumi's story about the disagreement over the
grapes, Mathnawi II: 3687-88: "If a master of (the meaning of)
secrets, a venerable one (with knowledge) of numerous languages,
had been there, he would have given them reconciliation and
peace. Then he would have said, 'By means of this one silver coin,
I will grant the wishes of all of you.'"

"(It means), 'If there had been the candle of (true) witnessing and
the light of (accurate) inspection in the "hand" of the hearts of
every one of them, the conflict between their words would have
disappeared. And every one of the leaders of the differing schools
of (Islamic) law would have become a (true) follower of God. And
the Divine level, which is the entire whole of qualities and degrees
would have been revealed all together within themselves.'" (Anqaravi, Commentary)

6(1269) access [dast-ras]: literally, "hand-reaching." An idiom
meaning the power to reach something.

7(1269) the whole of (the elephant): "The eye of (the physical)
sense is like the mere palm of the hand in understanding (Divine)
Reality... Therefore, the partial intellect lacks the ability and
capacity to understand (Divine) Realities and is helpless, like the
sense of sight and the sense of touch in understanding the degree of
the Whole. Therefore, the eye of the Universal Intellect is needed
for the contemplation of the Ocean of (Divine) Realities."
(Anqaravi, Commentary)

8(1270) The eye of the Ocean is one thing and the foam (is)
something else: "'oculus cordus [= the eye of the heart], is
contrasted with (chashm-i) kaf, the eye that sees nothing beyond
the sensible world. There is an untranslatable play on the double
meaning of 'kaf,' 'hand' [= in Arabic] and 'foam' [= in Persian]."
(Nicholson, Commentary)

"The eye of the ocean -- meaning an eye which is worthy of
contemplating the Ocean... " (Anqaravi, Commentary)

9(1270) Abandon the foam and look out of the Ocean's eye: "(It
means), 'Look to the Ocean of (Divine) Realities out of the Ocean's
eye.' In other words, 'If you wish to see the Ocean of Realities,
then look with the eye which sees truth.'" (Anqaravi, Commentary)

10(1271) The movement of the (surface) foam (continues) night and
day from the Ocean: "the ceaseless manifestations of Reality in the
form of phenomena. Cf. I 1112 [= translated by Nicholson:
"Reason is hidden, and (only) a world (of phenomena) is visible:
our forms are the waves or a spray of it (of that hidden ocean)."]
(Nicholson, Commentary)

11(1272) We are darkened of eyes -- and (yet) we are in the clear
(and brightly lit) water: here, Nicholson refers to two related
passages in the Mathnawi, I: 1110, and 1120, as well as
"... Nasafí's parable of the fishes who 'realised that they lived,
moved, and had their being in water, but felt that they were quite
ignorant of what constituted the very source of their life'..."

"(It means), 'We are darkened of eyes from (inability to see) this
clear and bright Water which is the cause of our movement and
confronting (each other).'" (Anqaravi, Commentary)

12(1273) the Water of the water: "the 'Water' of which every living
thing is made (Qur. XXI 31), i.e. the all-pervading Essence (Dhát)
and Ipseity (Huwiyyat) of God." (Nicholson, Commentary)

"The intended meaning of 'the Water of the water'... among the sufi
masters is the Divine Essence which is 'flowing' in water and in all
existent things and which drives water forth -- in the sense of the
words (from the Qur'an), 'And We made all living things from
water' [21:30)." (Anqaravi, Commentary

131274) the spirit has a (Universal) Spirit: "Jílí [= died, ca. 1410,
who followed the sufi philosophy of Ibn `Arabî] says: 'You must
know that every sensible object has a created spirit which
constitutes its form, and the spirit is to the form as the meaning to
the word. The created spirit has a Divine Spirit which constitutes
it, and that Divine Spirit is the Rúhu 'l-Quds.'" (Nicholson,


ikhtilâf-kardan dar chegûnagî-wo shakl-é pîl

1259 pîl andar khâna-yé târîk bûd
`arZa-râ âwarda bûd-and-ash hunûd

az barây-é dîdan-ash mardom basê
andar ân Zulmat, hamê shod har kasê

dîdan-ash bâ chashm chûn mumkin na-bûd
andar ân târîkiy-ash kaf mê-be-sûd

ân yakê-râ kaf ba-kharTûm ôftâd
goft ham-chûn nâwa-dân-ast in nehâd

ân yakê-râ dast bar gôsh-ash rasîd
ân bar-ô chûn bâd-bîzan shod padîd

an yakê-râ kaf chûn bar pây-sh bûd
goft shakl-é pîl dîd-am chûn `amûd

ân yakê bar posht-é ô be-n'hâd dast
goft khwad în pîl chûn takhtê bod-ast

ham-chon-în har yak ba-juzwê ke rasîd
fahm-é ân mê-kard har jâ mê-shonîd

az naZar-gah goft-éshân shod mukhtalif
ân yakê dâl-ash laqab dâd în alif

dar kaf-é har kas agar sham`ê bodî
ikhtilâf az goft-éshân bêrûn shodî

chashm-é His ham-chûn kaf-é dast-ast-o bas
nêst kaf-râ bar hama-y ô dast-ras

chashm-é daryâ dîgar-ast-o kaf degar
kaf be-hel, w-az dîda-yé daryâ negar

jonbesh-é kaf-hâ ze-daryâ rôz-o shab
kaf hamê bîn-î-wo daryâ na, `ajab!

mâ chô keshtî-hâ ba-ham bar mê-zan-êm
tîra-chashm-êm-o dar âb-é rôshan-êm

ay tô dar keshtîy-é tan rafta ba-khwâb
âb-râ dîd-î, negar dar âb-é âb

1274 âb-râ âbê-st k-ô mê-rân-ad-ash
rûH-râ rûHê-st k-ô mê-khwân-ad-ash

(mathnawi meter: XoXX XoXX XoX)