No Comment — October 18, 2007, 7:10 am

A Rumination on the ‘Laziest Son’

If we had to craft a list of the ten greatest poets of human history, then certainly this thirteenth-century Muslim theologian, who began his life in modern day Afghanistan and ended it in what later became Turkey, would have an assured position on the list. And as for universality – what better measure than the fact that in 2004, Rumi ranked in surveys as the best read poet in Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and, thanks to the brilliant translations of Coleman Barks, the United States. As with any Rumi poem, this one has many layers of meaning to it. But here’s my understanding.

Like Boccaccio’s ring story in the Decameron (the third from the cycle of the first day) or Lessing’s parable from Nathan the Wise (act 3, scene 4)– this choice of virtue among three sons should be immediately understood (and certainly would have been understood by a contemporary of Rumi’s) this way: which of the three faiths “of the Book” is the true faith? The father is, of course, the God of the Book, and the sons, “tall like Cypresses,” are Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Rumi echoes that in the follow-on (“Not Christian, Jew or Muslim…”) And to this question Rumi offers several answers, mostly laden with irony. He tells us that professed belief counts for little, particularly if not sincerely held. “I can know a man by his voice,” says the eldest son, who is promptly ejected from the contest. (But compare this with the wiser man – as Rumi reminds us, the clay pot must be tapped to test for a crack; the buyer who relies on the outward appearance alone is a fool). And, like Boccaccio and Lessing, he says that it is our conduct that matters and must ultimately provide the basis for a judgment.

But on this point the irony of a Sufi mystic kicks in. For conduct, Rumi takes “laziness,” for which here I see the introspective process of truth-seeking that is Rumi’s hallmark, and that of the Mevlevi Brotherhood which he helped define. It involves discipline and rigor (“disciplined silence”), but to the uninitiated it must, of course, seem nothing but “laziness.” (“Mystics are experts in laziness.”) Can you hear the laughter? Rumi mocks himself, or at least, shows that he has a sense of humor.

Importantly, Rumi warns us against demonization of the outsider, of the nonbeliever (the “boogeyman,” who, he reminds us through the voice of a child, “has a mother, too.”) The man who distinguishes among his species on the basis of outward labels (claims to be Muslim, Christian or Jew, for instance), is a fool. What counts is not this profession of faith but the conduct and the content of the character of the individual. And conversely, those who draw distinctions through the species on the basis of these labels are fools, for the real truth-seekers can be found in each community.

But back to our question. Who is the chosen son? In the end we learn that it is “the youngest son,” and the youngest of the three faiths is, of course, Islam. But this is not Rumi’s ultimate meaning. The true answer is to point to the false premise of the question. The answer lies in what unites, not in what divides humankind – what ties humans one to another and to the world in which they live. A Sufi faithful would know this as the doctrine of the oneness of God, tauhid. Hence, the right answer: “there’s a window open/ Between us, mixing the night air of our beings.” Those who are driven by differentiation and false pride for their religious choice – whatever the religious choice – have failed the test in the most miserable way.

And on this point, Rumi, Boccaccio and Lessing – the Muslim, the Catholic, and the Protestant who launched the drive for the emancipation of Europe’s Jews – see things very much eye-to-eye. But their message is a vital one for our day. We live in an age in which thoughts of crusaders and caliphates have been resurrected for shameful and blood-drenched purposes. This must be overcome with urgency.

In our day the Middle East is riven with bloodshed and violence, and the immediate prospects before us are for more violence still. Against this we must strive to remember Rumi’s message: a plea for tolerance, compassion and respect for the ties that bind humankind. The land in which Rumi once walked spans the present zone of conflict – from his native city of Balkh in Afghanistan to his final home in Anatolian Konya. This land is in great need of Rumi’s vision and compassion. And that is no less true for the United States, where the poison of religious bigotry seeps ever closer to the groundwater. I hope we all can find that way “between voice and presence” of which Rumi writes. We need it badly. “With disciplined silence it opens/ With wandering talk it closes.” Rumi wants us to make one resolve: to find the tools to keep that window open. There is nothing that humanity requires more urgently than this.

Originally published on Balkinization, Dec. 30, 2006.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

March 2016

Save Our Public Universities

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Rogue Agency

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mad Magazines

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Killer Bunny in the Sky

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Bird in a Cage

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Hidden Rivers of Brooklyn

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Save Our Public Universities·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Whether and how we educate people is still a direct reflection of the degree of freedom we expect them to have, or want them to have.”
Photograph (crop) by Thomas Allen
Article
New Movies·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Force Awakens criticizes American imperialism while also celebrating the revolutionary spirit that founded this country. When the movie needs to bridge the two points of view, it shifts to aerial combat, a default setting that mirrors the war on terror all too well.”
Still © Lucasfilm
Article
Isn’t It Romantic?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“He had paid for much of her schooling, something he cannot help but mention, since the aftermath of any failed relationship brings an ungenerous and impossible impulse to claw back one’s misspent resources.”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
The Trouble with Iowa·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It seems to defy reason that this anachronistic farm state — a demographic outlier, with no major cities and just 3 million people, nine out of ten of them white — should play such an outsized role in American politics.”
Photograph (detail) © Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Article
Rule, Britannica·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“This is the strange magic of an arrangement of all the world’s knowledge in alphabetical order: any search for anything passes through things that have nothing in common with it but an initial letter.”
Artwork by Brian Dettmer. Courtesy the artist and P.P.O.W., New York City.

Number of people who attended the World Grits Festival, held in St. George, South Carolina, last spring:

60,000

The brown bears of Greece continued chewing through telephone poles.

In Peru, a 51-year-old activist became the first former sex worker to run for the national legislature. “I’m going to put order,” she said, “in that big brothel which is Congress.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Two Christmas Mornings of the Great War

By

Civilization masks us with a screen, from ourselves and from one another, with thin depth of unreality. We habitually live — do we not? — in a world self-created, half established, of false values arbitrarily upheld, largely inspired by misconception, misapprehension, wrong perspective, and defective proportion, misapplication.

Subscribe Today