Signs of the Unseen: The Discourses of Jalaluddin Rumi
Translated by W. M. Thackston, Jr.
Publisher: Brattleboro, VT: Threshold Books, 1994.
It is not often that we have a chance to “eavesdrop” on informal talks between disciples and their Master. Signs of the Unseen is Persian scholar W. M. Thackston’s translation of Rumi’s Fihi ma fihi, which literally means “in it is what is in it.” This title has also been translated as “table talk,” a phrase that perfectly describes these free-ranging conversations and talks held by Rumi with his followers.
Reading Signs of the Unseen, we can easily imagine Rumi sitting among his disciples and fielding all sorts of questions – some relevant and others not so relevant but all answered in a spirit of loving kindness. The topics in the Discourses range from Sufi states of consciousness, to admonitions to remember the objective of our lives, to why are the Turks bothering everyone so much? Some of the questions and responses concern orthodox aspects of Islam; others parse fine points of philosophy, often with a healthy dose of paradox. But even when Rumi’s discourses are long and technical, he always weaves in pithy stories. In the midst of one such discourse, he relates,
A king once said to a dervish, “When you enjoy glory and proximity at God’s court, make mention of me.” “When I am in that Presence,” said the dervish, “and am exposed to the radiance of that Sun of that Beauty, I am unable to make mention of myself, much less of you!”
Rumi uses poetic, powerful images. For example, while emphasizing the importance of gratitude, he says, “Gratitude is to suckle at the breast of good things. Even when the breast is full, its milk will not flow unless you suck.”
He often inserts into his discourse an anecdote which is capable of many interpretations, leaving the reader to ponder. In the middle of an extended analogy, where he says that the planting of a seed is a “question” and the tree that grows is the “answer,” Rumi tells a story:
A king read three petitions from a subject but wrote no answer. The subject wrote a complaint, saying “I have petitioned thrice. If my petition is acceptable, please say so. If not, please say so.” On the back of the petition the king wrote, “Have you not realized that no answer is an answer?”
He goes on to claim that all of a man’s actions are “questions.” Weaving in quotations from the Qur`an, Rumi explains that man complains about the “answers”:
Every move man makes is a question, and everything that happens to him – grief and joy – is an answer.… If the answer is unpleasant, one must quickly ask forgiveness and not ask such a question again. Yet when the affliction which We sent came upon them, they did not humble themselves, but their hearts became hardened [6:43] – that is, they did not understand that the answer was in accord with their question. And Satan prepared for them that which they had committed [6:43] – that is, they saw the answer to their own question and said, “This ugly answer is not appropriate to that question.”
Rumi’s Discourses are sometimes startling, disturbing to our preconceptions. For example:
We said, “Some with a desire to see you kept saying, ‘I wish I could have seen the Master’.” That person will not see the Master in reality just now, because the desire he has to see the Master is itself a veil over the Master. At this time he will not see the Master without a veil.
Rumi goes on to explain, “All desires, affections, loves, and fondnesses … are all ‘veils.’” He gives the analogy that when winter comes, people bundle up and stay inside. Plants also curl up, and animals take to hiding in the earth. But when spring unfolds, all their problems “are answered at one blow. The secondary causes disappear. Everything sticks its head out and knows what has caused that calamity.” Similarly, “When one passes beyond this world and sees that King without these ‘veils,’ then one will realize that all those things were ‘veils’ and ‘coverings’ and that what they were seeking was in reality that one thing.”
Rumi tells the story of one sheikh who was in a state of complete absorption in God. He was so lost in his love that he did not heed the Muslim call to prayer. The sheikh’s disciples turned toward Mecca in obedience to the call to prayer, except two who remained facing their master. It was revealed to another disciple that the disciples who were praying had their backs toward Mecca while the two disciples facing the sheikh had their faces toward it.
Since the master had passed beyond the state of ego-consciousness and become lost to himself, consumed in the light of God, as is the meaning of the prophetic saying, `Die before you die’ – he had then become the Light of God, and whoever turns his back on the Light of God to face a wall has assuredly turned his back on the kiblah [the direction of Mecca].
In commenting on the Qur’anic verse, “Whithersoever ye turn, there is the face of God,” Rumi says: “That Face is ever current, uninterrupted, and abiding, never ceasing. True lovers sacrifice themselves to this Face and seek nothing in return. The rest are like cattle.”
Rumi exhorts us,
With God there is no room for two egos. You say “I,” and He says “I.” In order for this duality to disappear, either you must die for Him or He for you. It is not possible for Him to die.… He is so gracious, however, that if it were possible He would die for you in order that the duality might disappear.…
We are sent into this human life for this one specific purpose, to become a true lover, sacrificing oneself for love. “If you neglect to accomplish the task for which you were sent, it is as though you did nothing.” One day of human life “is worth more than the life of the whole world from beginning to end.” Using this human life for other purposes is like using a golden bowl to cook turnips. “One fraction of that bowl could buy one hundred pots.”
Day and night you cater to your body. Now this body is your steed, and the world is its stable. A horse’s food is not fit for its rider.… Since you have been overwhelmed by your bestial and animal nature, you have remained in the stable with the horses and have no place among the ranks of the kings and princes of the world where your heart is.
He counsels his disciples to make all the effort they are capable of, and only when they have expended all, when they collapse helpless and exhausted, will God’s grace carry them forward.
We say to you, “Travel this endless road on your own weak legs.” We know that with your weak legs you will never be able to finish the way – in a hundred thousand years you will not finish even one stage of the way. Only when you make the effort and come onto the road to fall down at last, unable to go another step, only then will you be uplifted by God’s favor.
Another excellent translation of Rumi’s Fihi ma fihi is also available under the title Discourses of Rumi, translated by A. J. Arberry (Samuel Weiser, 2001, reprint of the 1961 original).
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