One of the most charming coincidences of religious history involves the city of Iconium (now Konya in western Turkey). Regular readers of this blog will know that the Anatolian city was the birth-place of the early Christian heroine Thecla of Iconium, but they may not be aware that one of the greatest writers of medieval Islam is buried there. This is the much-loved thirteenth-century Persian poet and mystic known as Mowlana Rumi (‘Our Master Rumi’), whose followers founded the Mevlevi Sufi order known as the Whirling Dervishes. Iconium was a cross-roads for religious exchange across antiquity and the Middle Ages, and according to tradition, the inspiration for Rumi’s great poem, the Masnavi, came as he was walking with a student in a vineyard outside the city.
Rumi is one of the writers who has done the most, over the centuries, to carry the deepest spiritual currents of Islam out to the Muslim world as well as to others of all faiths and none. So with this in mind, I was delighted to receive permission from my friend and colleague Alan Wiliams to share a passage here – work-in-progress from a future publication. – in which the poet imagines the visit between the Virgin Mary and her kinswoman Elisabeth before the birth of Jesus, drawn from the Gospel of Luke (1: 39-44) and re-imagined in a way that is at the same time deeply Muslim, surprisingly universal, and yet uniquely the poet’s own.
How John the Baptist, in his mother Elisabeth’s womb, bowed to the Messiah
By Mowlana Rumi (Masnavi II.3617-3640), translated by Alan Williams
John Baptist’s mother secretly told Mary
before she was delivered of her burden,
ʽMost certainly I saw a king in you,
a Lord of Constancy and wise apostle,
Because whenever I encounter you
my baby bows to him, illustrious Lady!
My foetus bowed in worship to your foetus ‒
my body was in pain from bowing so.’
And Mary said, ʽI also felt within me
this baby’s act of worship in my womb.’
Now, fools declare ʽDelete this fantasy,
because it is a falsehood and mistaken!
For Mary in the course of her confinement
was far away from family and strangers!
Till she gave birth, that maid of sweet enchantment
remained outside the town and did not enter!
And in her pregnancy she met no one,
and did not journey in from out of town!
She bore the child, then held him to her bosom
and took him to present him to her kin!
So where had John the Baptist’s mother seen her
to tell this tale of what had taken place?’
They know not that for people of good heart
what’s hidden to this world is present for them.
The mother of the Baptist came to Mary
as present to her view though far from sight.
Eyes that are shut may still perceive the Friend
when you have made your eyelids like a lattice.
Though she may not have seen her in or outside ‒
just grasp the story’s meaning, silly fool!
Not like the man who’s heard some mythic tales
and got caught up in some myth understanding.
He’d say ‘How could that tongue-tied beast Kalila
take in the words that came from speechless Dimna?
And if they understood each others’ babbling,
how could a human understand such nonsense?
How could that Dimna act as messenger
of lion and ox, and charm them both with stories?
How was the noble ox the lion’s vizier?
How come the elephant feared the moon’s reflexion?
This tale Kalila and Dimna’s all invention
or why’s a stork debating with a crow?’
O brother, story’s like a pair of scales,
the meaning’s like the grain that’s in the balance.
The clever man will take the grain of meaning,
he will not see the scales, like they’re not there.
Hear what the rose and nightingale are saying
though literally there is no speech appearing.
* * *
(Note: Alan has already produced a Penguin Classics volume of translations from Rumi, which is worth looking up if you would like to learn more about this wonderful poet!)