Rumi's Mathnawi (selections)

Week 6: Middle East - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images


Solomon and the Gnat

Reading time: 3 minutes. Word count: 500 words.

The next story features the figure of Solomon, a figure of extraordinary importance in Islamic folklore and legend. Solomon is a figure from the Hebrew Bible, the son of King David and Bathsheba who became king when David died. He later became a "wisdom figure" in the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions (later on, you will meet the magical ring of Solomon in an Estonian fairy tale!). Among Solomon's many legendary gifts was the ability to understand the language of the birds. Here is what the Koran says about Solomon in the Sura of the Ant:

We endowed David and Solomon with knowledge, and they said, "Praise GOD for blessing us more than many of His believing servants."
Solomon was David's heir. He said, "O people, we have been endowed with understanding the language of the birds, and all kinds of things have been bestowed upon us. This is indeed a real blessing."
Mobilized in the service of Solomon were his obedient soldiers of jinns and humans, as well as the birds; all at his disposal.


Solomon and the Gnat (trans. E.H. Whinfield)

A gnat came in from the garden and fields,
And called on Solomon for justice,
Saying, "O Solomon, you extend your equity
Over demons and the sons of Adam and fairies.
Fish and fowl dwell under the shelter of your justice;
Where is the oppressed one whom your mercy has not ought?
Grant me redress, for I am much afflicted,
Being cut off from my garden and meadow haunts."

Then Solomon replied, "O seeker of redress,
Tell me from whom do you desire redress?
Who is the oppressor, who, puffed up with arrogance,
Has oppressed you and smitten your face?"

The gnat replied, "He from whom I seek redress is the Wind,
'Tis he who has emitted the smoke of oppression at me;
Through his oppression I am in a grievous strait,
Through him I drink blood with parched lips!"

Solomon replied to him, "O sweet-voiced one,
You must hear the command of God with all your heart.
God has commanded me saying, 'O dispenser of justice,
Never hear one party without the other!"
Till both parties comes into the presence,
The truth is never made plain to the judge."

When the Wind heard the summons, it came swiftly,
And the gnat instantly took flight.
In like manner the seekers of God's presence-seat, -
When God appears, those seekers vanish.
Though that union is life eternal,
Yet at first that life is annihilation.


"Gnats Inside the Wind" (trans. Coleman Barks)

Some gnats came from the grass to speak with Solomon.
"O Solomon, you are the champion of the oppressed.
You give justice to the little guys, and they don't get
any littler than us! We are tiny metaphors
for frailty. Can you defend us?"
"Who has mistreated you?"
"Our complaint is against the wind."
"Well," says Solomon, "you have pretty voices,
you gnats, but remember, a judge cannot listen
to just one side. I must hear both litigants."
"Of course," agree the gnats.
"Summon the East Wind!" calls out Solomon,
and the wind arrives almost immediately.
What happened to the gnat plaintiffs? Gone.
Such is the way of every seeker who comes to complain
at the High Court. When the presence of God arrives,
where are the seekers? First there's dying,
then union, like gnats inside the wind.


Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • why was the gnat angry at the wind?
  • what does Solomon do when the gnat complains to him about the wind?
  • what happens when the wind arrives?

Source: E. H. Whinfield, The Masnavi (1898). Weblink.
Source: Coleman Barks, The Essential Rumi. Harper Collins, 1995. Weblink.


Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM