Rumi's Mathnawi (selections)

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

Jokes from the Mathnawi

Reading time: 2 minutes. Word count: 300 words.

Rumi had a great sense of humor, as you can tell from the story of the grapes and some of the other stories that you have read. He was able to take all kinds of jokes and turn them into teaching tales. These two jokes come from a collection of translations by Arberry - and Arberry does not include Rumi's "sermon" with the jokes. By now you have probably gotten a sense of how Rumi expands his stories into spiritual sermons: can you image what he might have preached about these stories? What is the deeper spiritual meaning that Rumi would recognize in these two little jokes?

The Grammarian & The Boatman

A GRAMMARIAN once embarked in a boat. Turning to the boatman with a self-satisfied air he asked him: ‘Have you ever studied grammar?’

‘No,’ replied the boatman.

‘Then half your life has gone to waste,’ the grammarian said.

The boatman thereupon felt very depressed, but he answered him nothing for the moment. Presently the wind tossed the boat into a whirlpool. The boatman shouted to the grammarian: ‘Do you know how to swim?’

‘No’ the grammarian replied, ‘my well-spoken, handsome fellow’.

‘In that case, grammarian,’ the boatman remarked, ‘the whole of your life has gone to waste, for the boat is sinking in these whirlpools.’

You may be the greatest scholar in the world in your time, but consider, my friend, how the world passes away - and time!

The Prince and the Jester

THE prince of Tirmidh said one night to his court-jester Dalqak, 'You have taken to wife a harlot in your haste. You should have mentioned the matter to me, then we might have married you to a respectable woman'.

'I have already married nine respectable and virtuous women,' said the jester. 'They all became harlots, and I wasted away with grief. Now I have taken this harlot not knowing her previously so as to see how this one would turn out in the end. I have tried good sense often enough already; hence forward I intend to cultivate madness!'

Lest safety go, and live dangerously; forsake good repute, be notorious and a scandal.

I have made trial of provident good sense; hereafter I am going to make myself mad.

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

  • why does the scholar tell the boatman that his life has been a failure?
  • how does the scholar's failure turn out to be the worst failure of all?
  • why did the prince's jester decide to get married to a prostitute?

Source: Tales from Masnavi, Jalal al-Din Rumi, translated by A.J. Arberry (1961). 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