Kabir Helminski

A talk delivered at the Dergah of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, December 15th, 2007,

Published in The Philosophy of Ecstasy, 2015,
Winner of United States Book Award, General Religion Category


Humanity today is faced with unprecedented challenges and there is a consensus that we are in a defining moment of our human history. A defining moment is a moment when we are faced with an inexorable choice. The consequences of our choice will determine whether we survive and develop as a unified humanity, or descend into greed, conflict and chaos. It is a stark choice between creating a possible civilization of paradise, or compromising, degrading, and endangering our environment, our societies, and our souls.

2007 is the 800th anniversary of Rumi’s birth and has been declared by UNESCO as “The Year of Rumi.” Is it a mere accident or coincidence that we should be honoring this great human being at this time? Is there any other figure in human history that all of humanity could honor in this way at this critical moment in our history?

While it is certainly true that, despite this honoring, the wider world does not know Rumi as he deserves to be known, nevertheless he has been made known more than ever to the consciousness and heart of humanity. Lip-service has been given to him as a universal voice of peace and love, all the more important because he is a voice from within Islam. At a time when Islam is widely denigrated from outside and when many within the Muslim community suffer with a sense of malaise, discouragement, and humiliation, when what we know to be essentially a religion of peace and truth is coming to be viewed as a source of violence, oppression of women, and intellectual backwardness, Mevlana is a voice that needs to be heard, studied, and appreciated in depth.

For Mevlana is not merely a feel-good public relations banner, nor a simplistic mass media message of peace and love. Mevlana is a master of psychology, a verifier of revelation, a most profound guide to the depths of human nature, a supreme literary genius, and a consummate scientist of ultimate reality.

Now let us turn toward a story that might shed light on the crisis we find ourselves in. It is in the form of a fairy tale that occurs very near the beginning of Book One of the Masnavi: The Tale of the Lion and the Animals of the Jungle. An adequate inquiry into this story might takes us days, but let us look at some portions of it.

A powerful Lion has been feeding upon the animals of the jungle, causing them much anxiety and disruption. They agree it would be better is they were to come to an agreement with the lion and they make the following proposal. These creatures will offer themselves regularly as a meal for the Lion, and in this way the majority of them will at least be saved from the worry of who is to be devoured next. An argument about individual effort and reliance on God takes place between the Lion and the animals. Rumi places in the mouth of the Lion the most eloquent argument for individual responsibility and effort, while the animals argue for trust in God to convince the Lion that he should accept their terms. In the end the Lion accepts the deal and he begins to get his regular meals without any effort.

One day, however, a little rabbit decides that he doesn’t want to be the meal of the day and he devises a scheme. The rabbit intentionally shows up late for the Lion’s lunch and the Lion is furiously tearing up the ground for having to wait. The rabbit explains, “I was delayed along the way by another lion who seized my plump companion who was going to be today’s meal. That lion has barred the way to you so that I am afraid we will not be able to fulfill our agreement with you.”

The Lion, of course, becomes even more angry and jealous that there should be another lion in the jungle to disrupt his meals and challenge his power. The rabbit offers to lead him to that same lion, who, as it happens, lives at the bottom of a well. Arriving at the well, the Lion looks into it and sees a lion and another rabbit at the bottom. Enraged, the Lion springs into the well to attack his imagined challenger, But that lion is, of course, a mere reflection of himself, and he, finally, is drowned in the well himself.

Now to return to an earlier point in the story, just as the rabbit sets off to confront the Lion, Rumi offers this complete lesson in metaphysics:

Whole worlds are manifested by Divine Intelligence (‘aql), which is like an ocean. All the forms of existence are like cups or bowls floating on the face of the water. They float for a while, and eventually they fill with water and sink back to the depths from which they came. The Divine Intelligence remains hidden, while the worlds are visible as waves and ocean spray. Sometimes these forms can reveal the true nature of the Ocean, and sometimes the Ocean casts the forms away.

Just as an arrow forgets the Archer, the heart forgets the Giver of conscience. In such a state we are like a rider who thinks he has lost his horse while he is speeding down the road. We go mindlessly from place to place searching for our horse, unaware that the horse is under our thighs. Spirit is so obvious and immediate that we do not see It. We see colors, but those colors become veils and we do not recognize the Light. Light itself makes perception possible, yet we are unaware or even in denial of the Light. Light allows us to perceive both the outer forms, as well as inner thoughts and states.

The light of the eye is derived from the light of the heart, and the light of the heart is from the Divine Light, which is pure and separate from the light of intellect and sense.

Both light and darkness exist, but darkness exists in order to reveal the Light. Pain and sorrow cause us to value real happiness. Hidden qualities are revealed by opposites. We are only able to perceive through contrasts and opposites, but since God has no opposite, He is hidden. Our eyes do not see God, but God encompasses our seeing. Forms are bodied forth from the reality of Meaning. The jungle creates the Lion; an articulate voice arises from thought, but we do not see the sea of thought. But if the waves of words are beautiful, you know the sea from which they come is noble.

The form was born from the Word and died again; the wave fell back into the Sea. Indeed, unto Him we are returning. (I:1109-1141)

The rabbit’s plot, inspired by Divine Intelligence, restores harmony in the jungle and also reveals an essential psychological insight. It shows us the inevitable consequences of projecting our own evil outside ourselves. Making the Truth known is making the Divine Mercy known for the ground of our being is the Divine Mercy.

Again from the Masnavi:

When the Lion leaped into the well, what he tried to do he did to himself.
The more iniquitous one is, the more dangerous is his well. This is nothing but Divine Justice.
Our actions rebound on ourselves. If we dig a hole for others to fall into, we wind up in that hole ourselves.
Never think the weak are without a defender: remember the words of the Qur’an,
When the help of God shall come.
If the wretched of the earth beg for help, their cries reach the Heavenly Hosts. . .
The lion saw himself in the well, and in his rage he could not distinguish himself at that moment from the enemy.
He regarded his own projection as his enemy: and he took up arms against himself.
Oh, many an evil that you see in others is your own nature projected upon them, O reader!
You see in them your own hypocrisy, evil, and insolence.
You are that, and you are striking those blows at yourself: you are cursing yourself at that moment.
If you could see clearly the evil in yourself, you would hate yourself with all your soul.
When you reach the core of your own being, then you will know that that vileness was from yourself.
At the bottom of the well the lion realized that what seemed to be the “other” was really his own image.

(I: 1308-1327)

The jungle depicted in this story is the jungle of our own hearts. It is inevitable that the outer world, i.e. human societies in general, will reflect the ignorance and iniquities within the hearts of people. Whether the Lion is a globalist empire, a totalitarian ideology, or a misguided religious crusade, hope comes from the fact that there is an Inspirer of Conscience, an All-Merciful Teacher and Guide. It is this Divine Intelligence that is always present and can inspire in an insignificant rabbit a solution, a rescue plan, a way to the Truth.

Mevlana’s guidance informs us that our true well-being is always dependent on our relationship with Divine Intelligence. As much as we may be overwhelmed and bewildered by the vicissitudes and circumstances of the Jungle of the five senses, there is a deeper reality from which we can derive security (amanah) and certainty (yaqin):

From God come privileges, from God come changes of fortune.
God is continually revealing His aid to doubters and seers alike.
Be mindful! Do not exult in a kingdom of transience. You who are in bondage to vicissitude, do not act as though you are free!
A realm beyond vicissitude is waiting for you, and the drums are beating beyond the planets.
Beyond vicissitude are the real sovereigns: their spirits are circling with the Cupbearer perpetually.
If you will renounce these worldly intoxications for a day or two, you will taste the Wine of Paradise.

(I: 1367-1372)

Now, let us return to the actualities of our current global crisis. The defining moment in which we find ourselves is characterized by several crises, among them:

  1. The environmental crisis which forces us to look at the consequences of our own greed and consumption.
  2. The arms crisis which threatens annihilation through nuclear holocaust, and perpetual war through the addiction to the military-industrial complex.
  3. Finally, the crisis of surveillance and control which looms in the very near future when it will be possible to monitor any communications and activities of citizens that threaten the status quo. Through advanced technologies it will be more possible both to propagandize populations and to monitor dissent.

Now, how is it possible that the words and ideas of a 13th century Sufi mystic can help us with problems of this magnitude? Might it be more wise to focus ourselves fully on the unprecedented problems and challenges of the present rather than search the ideas of past centuries for wisdom and guidance?

One answer to this question is that Mevlana has left us a mirror, a compass, and a touchstone.

The Masnavi, itself, is like a mirror in which we find the varieties of our earthly life reflected. Its characters and stories reveal what is within ourselves. It is as if a Shakespeare, with all his drama, trajedy, and humor, were inspired with the Prophetic intelligence of a Jesus. Historical drama then becomes the teachings of timelessness and eternity.

The mirror of timelessness can help us to see the actuality of the present. Focused entirely on the present we lack the perspective and the capacity for reflection. Rumi’s timeless perspective, which derives from the quality of inspiration that created the Masnavi, helps us to realize the nature of the times we live in.

The compass that Rumi offers us orients us toward the Real: Whole worlds are manifested by Divine Intelligence (‘aql), which is like an ocean. . . The Divine Intelligence remains hidden, while the worlds are visible as waves and ocean spray. . . Forms are bodied forth from the reality of meaning (ma’na). The jungle creates the Lion; an articulate voice arises from thought, but we do not see the sea of thought. But if the waves of words are beautiful, you know the sea from which they come is noble.

The world of forms is in one sense like the waves upon an ocean. Forms are created by meaning which precedes them. And our thoughts are like a jungle that produces the lion of egoism. But “an articulate voice” can arise within this jungle of thoughts.

Without a metaphysical compass we are lost in a labyrinth of speculation, subjective values, and mere opinion. Those who have the capacity to appreciate this metaphysical compass—and clearly there will always be those who live in denial of such spiritual realities—will be guided by it as they contend with the challenges of the present. The more that such enlightened individuals turn to profound sources of traditional wisdom, the more this world can be protected from the dehumanizing forces which threaten social justice and human dignity.

Finally, the touchstone that Mevlana offers us is the touchstone of true humanness. The light of the eye is derived from the light of the heart, and the light of the heart is from the Divine Light, which is pure and separate from the light of intellect and sense. Many in the contemporary world see human nature as something that can be arbitrarily shaped by education, media, and various influences under the control of those with the power and money. Mevlana offers us a wisdom that springs from the heart of reality itself, that “articulate voice.” The creative power that has designed the human heart offers guidance for the most fulfilling possibilities for the human being.

The human heart is the instrument of theophany, the locus in which the divine experiences itself as other. In all of existence, and in the heart of the perfected human being more than anywhere else, the divine becomes known to itself. In the heart of the Complete Human Being, insan al kamil the purpose of creation is fulfilled: here the Divine is known in the mirror of human consciousness.

The purpose and value, then, of Mevlana’s wisdom at this defining moment of human civilization is to orient us toward that which is completely and essentially human at a time when we are in danger of forgetting the meaning and purpose of our humanness.

The rabbit is an example of how the Divine Intelligence operates within the world of appearances to reveal the Truth. An insignificant, powerless creature, inspired by the Divine Intelligence leads the Lion toward a fate which the Lion’s jealousy and pride made inevitable. Mevlana tells us that spiritual knowledge governs the world of forms, and the way to this spiritual knowledge is through a constant mindfulness. We are constantly beset with invisible psychic influences that we can accept or reject within our souls:

Knowledge is the seal of the kingdom of Solomon.
The whole world is form. Knowledge is the Spirit. . .
The human being has many secret enemies.
The cautious person is the wise one.
At every instant influences, good and bad,
are striking the heart.
You go to wash in the river and a thorn pricks you.
Although its beneath the surface of the water, you feel it.
The pricks of inspirations and temptations
come from thousands of beings, not just one.
Wait for your bodily senses to be transmuted,
So that you will be able to see.
Then you will know whose words you have rejected
And whose you have followed.
(I:1030, 1034-1040)

The deepest knowledge is the knowledge of the Prophets. Much of what passes for knowledge today in our universities, and especially in our mass media, is like writing on the water:

When the pen is of wind and the scroll is of water,
Whatever you write vanishes quickly.
If you expect constancy from it
You’ll wind up biting your own hands.
The wind in us is vanity and desire;
Only when we have abandoned our whims and desires
Will His message come to us.
The speeches and nations of the politicians pass away;
The speeches and community of the Prophets abide.
The royal images stamped on coins will vanish.
But the name of Ahmad is permanently inscribed,
And this is the name of all the Prophets.
The hundredth includes the ninety-nine.

The speeches of politicians disappear like writing on the water. Coins stamped with the images of kings perish. But the words of saints and prophets continue to live in human hearts. The whole world is mere form; spiritual knowledge is the energy and intelligence behind forms.

Perhaps humanity as a whole has never been this close to waking up to its true Divine nature. The crisis of our times is forcing us to recognize the destructiveness of our egoism that projects itself on others, and to acknowledge the deep core of our being, which exists beyond the prison of the five senses and all the compulsions and fears these produce. Our inner being is the threshold to the spiritual world. Whole societies, cultures, and worlds float on that Ocean of Intelligence. That Ocean is also accessible within us. The light of the eye is the light of the heart. That light is from the Divine Light which is independent of the intellect and the senses.

What remains for us to do is to distill the knowledge of the Prophets into a language and a way of life that recognizes this True Reality, al Haqq. If the Prophet Muhammad is the summation of all the Prophets, then Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, our teacher and our friend, is the essence of Muhammad and all the Prophets revealed even more explicitly in the language of Love. With Mevlana the beauty and spiritual depth of Revelation continues to unfold in a creative and explicit language of Love that a desperate humanity is waiting to hear.