“Act like a subject, since you’re not the sultan!”

Rumi The Camel and the Mouse1A mouse finds himself entangled in the tether of a camel, and as the camel begins to move forward, the mouse suddenly thinks that it is he who is driving the beast; he thinks, I’m a mouse of a special kind. The camel has a hunch that his tiny new companion has gained an inflated opinion of his strength. He tells him, Amuse yourself, I’ll sort you out. They then come to a deep river; the mouse freezes in his tracks. The camel says to him, Why are you at a loss?/Step forward like a brave man—walk across!/Great mouse, my guide and leader, don’t stop here/And give up. There is nothing now to fear. The two animals discuss the water’s depth. While the camel shows the mouse it only reaches to his knees, the mouse reminds the camel, A dragon for me is an ant to you. In other words, if the water comes to the camel’s knees, it’s already far above the rodent’s head. The camel sees this as a teaching moment. He tells the mouse, Don’t be so bold again/Or else you’ll burn with soul-tormenting pain! He’s on a roll, Compete with your own species, and beware/You’ve nothing that a camel wants to share. The mouse begs his forgiveness and begs for a ride. Help me to make it to the other side! The camel feels a sense of compassion, Jump!/Climb on my back, then rest upon my hump./This is not difficult for me to do/I could take millions of small mice like you!

“The Camel and the Mouse” is a tale from Rumi, the celebrated thirteenth-century Persian poet, teacher, theologian and Sufi mystic. And like Aesop and the Panchatantra‘s anonymous author, Rumi saw in animals’ true nature, lessons to guide his fellow Sufis along their mystical path toward their ‘union with God’ and utter ‘knowledge of reality.’ The mouse’s lesson in humility and dozens and dozens of other fables appear in his impossibly long, twenty-six-thousand-verse-poem the Masnavi. Its plain title, translated to mean nothing more than a straightforward description of the work’s structure, its ‘rhyming couplet,’ belies the fact that it’s considered the ‘greatest mystical poem ever written.’ Rumi marinates each anecdote in his own words of wisdom and advice. The mouse’s conceit enables the poet to admonish: Act like a subject, since you’re not the sultan!/Don’t row the boat when you are not the boatman/…God said, ‘Keep silent!’ so don’t you forget./Be all ears since you’re not God’s mouthpiece yet!”

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Sources: Lines from The Masnavi (Book Two) by Rumi, translated by Jawid Mojaddedi, Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford University Press, 2008; Dar-al-Masnavi.org.

(Image: A mouse, clutching the reins of a camel, at a stream of water, ink and pigments on thin laid paper, folio from an illuminated manuscript of Rumi’s Masnavi, scribe unknown, circa 1663, the Walters Art Museum, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)


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