The King and his Three Sons
A certain king had three sons, who were the light of his eyes, and, as it were, a fountain whence the palm tree of his heart drank the water of bliss. One day he called his sons before him and commanded them to travel through his realm, and to inspect the behavior of the governors and the state of the administration; and he strictly charged them not to go near a particular fort which he named. But, according to the saying, “Man hankers after what is forbidden,” the three princes disobeyed their father, and, before going anywhere else, proceeded to visit this fort. The result was, that they fell into calamities, and had occasion to repeat the text,
“Had we but hearkened or understood, we had not been
” The fort was full of pictures, images and forms, and amongst them was a portrait
of a beautiful damsel, the daughter of the King of China,
which made such a deep impression on the three princes
that they all became distracted with love and determined to
journey to the court of the King of China and sue for the
hand of his daughter.
The significance of forms.
Be not intoxicated with these goblets of forms,
Lest you become a maker and worshipper of idols.
Pass by these cups full of forms, linger not;
There is wine in the cups, but it proceeds not from them.
Look to the Giver of the wine with open mouth;
When His wine comes, is not cup too small to hold it?
O Adam, seek the reality of my love,
Quit the mere husk and form of the wheat.
When sand was made meal for “The Friend of God,”
Know, O master, the form of wheat was dispensed with.
Form proceeds from the world that is without form,
Even as smoke arises from fire.
The Divine art without form designs forms (ideals),
Those forms fashion bodies with senses and instruments.
Whatever the form, it fashions in its own likeness
Those bodies either to good or to evil.
If the form be blessing, the man is thankful;
If it be suffering, he is patient;
If it be cherishing, he is cheerful;
If it be bruising, he is full of lamentation!
Since all these forms are slaves of Him without form,
Why do they deny their Lord and Master?
They exist only through Him that is without form;
What, then, means their disavowal of their Sustainer?
This very denial of Him proceeds from Him,
This act is naught but a reflection from Himself!
The forms of the walls and roofs of houses
Know to be shadows of the architect’s thought;
Although stones and planks and bricks
Find no entrance into the sanctuary of thought,
Verily the Absolute Agent is without form,
Form is only a tool in His hands.
Sometimes that Formless One of His mercy
Shows His face to His forms from behind the veil of Notbeing,
That every form may derive aid therefrom,
From its perfect beauty and power.
Again, when that Formless One hides His face,
Those forms set forth their needs.
If one form sought perfection from another form,
That would be the height of error.
Why then, O simpleton, do you set forth your needs
To one who is as needy as yourself?
Since forms are slaves, apply them not to God,
Seek not to use a form as a similitude of God.
Seek Him with humbleness and self-abasement,
For thought yields naught but forms of thought.
Still, if you are unable to dispense with forms,
Those occurring independently of your thought are best.
The “Truth,” which is our real self, lies hidden within our phenomenal and visible self, and the Prophets reveal it to us.
“Now have we seen what the king saw at the first,
When that Incomparable One adjured us.”
The prophets have many claims to our gratitude,
Because they forewarn us of our ultimate lot,
Saying, “What ye sow will yield only thorns;
If ye fly that way, ye will fly astray.
Take seed of us to yield you a good harvest,
Fly with our wings to hit the mark with your arrow.
Now ye know not the truth and nature of the ‘Truth,’
But at the last ye will cry, ‘That was the “Truth.”‘
The Truth is yourself, but not your mere bodily self,
Your real self is higher than ‘you’ and ‘me.’
This visible ‘you’ which you fancy to be yourself
Is limited in place, the real ‘you’ is not limited.
Why, O pearl, linger you trembling in your shell?
Esteem not yourself mere sugar-cane, but real sugar.
This outward ‘you’ is foreign to your real ‘ you;’
Cling to your real self, quit this dual self.
Your last self attains to your first (real) self
Only through your attending earnestly to that union.
Your real self lies hid beneath your outward self,
For ‘I am the servant of him who looks into himself.’ ”
“What a youth sees only when reflected in a glass,
Our wise old fathers saw long ago though hid in stones.
But we disobeyed the advice of our father,
And rebelled against his affectionate counsels.
We made light of the king’s exhortations,
And slighted his matchless intimations.
Now we have all fallen into the ditch,
Wounded and crushed in this fatal struggle.
We relied on our own reason and discernment,
And for that cause have fallen into this calamity.
We fancied ourselves free from defects of sight,
Even as those affected by color-blindness.
Now at last our hidden disease has been revealed,
After we have been involved in these calamities.”
“The shadow of a guide is better than directions to God,
To be satisfied is better than a hundred nice dishes.
A seeing eye is better than a hundred walking-sticks,
Eye discerns jewels from mere pebbles.”
The princes ascertained the name of the lady depicted in
the fort from an old Shaikh, who warned them of the perils
they would encounter on their journey to China, and told
them that the King of China would not bestow his favor on
those who tried to gain it by tricks and clever stratagems,
but solely on those who were prepared to yield up their lives
to him, according to the saying, “Die before you die.” This
is illustrated by an anecdote of a Chief of Bokhara, who
made it a rule never to bestow his bounty on beggars who
asked for it, but only on those who awaited his pleasure in
silence. A certain Faqir tried many stratagems to evade this
rule, but his craft was at once seen through by the Chief,
and turned to his own confusion. The thesis that the
unbought free grace of God is superior to any blessing
obtainable by human exertion and contrivance is further
illustrated by an absurd anecdote of two youths, one of
whom trusted for protection to his own contrivance, and
found it a broken reed. The Prophet said, “Two there are
who are never satisfied the lover of the world and the lover
of knowledge;” and he who loves knowledge will continue
to trust in his knowledge, in spite of all exhortations and
experience. But the eldest prince advised his brothers to risk
the perils and persevere in the journey, reminding them that
“Patience is the key of joy.” Accordingly they abandoned
their country and their parents, like Ibrahim Adham, who
renounced the throne of Balkh, and like the old Arabian
king Amru’l Qais, who fled from the pursuit of his female
adorers to seek the Spiritual Beloved in a far country.
How the princes discoursed with one another in figurative
language concerning their beloved mistress.
They told their secrets to one another in dark sayings,
Speaking beneath their breath in fear and trembling.
None but God was privy to their secrets,
None but Heaven was partner in their sighs.
Yea, they used technical expressions one to another,
And possessed intelligence to extract the sense.
The vulgar learn the words of this “language of birds,”
And make boast of their mastery thereof;
But these words are only the outward form of the language,
The “raw” man is ignorant of the birds’ meaning.
He is the true Solomon who knows the birds’ language,
A demon, though he usurp his kingdom, is quite another.
The demon has taken upon him the form of Solomon,
“what we have been taught.”
When Solomon was blessed with inspiration from God,
He learned birds’ language from “what we were taught.”
But thou art only a bird of the air; understand then
That thou hast never seen the true spiritual birds!
The nest of the Simurgh is beyond Mount Qaf,10
Not every thought can attain thereto;
Save thoughts which catch a glimpse thereof,
And after the vision are again shut off.
Yet not all shut off, rather intermitted for a wise end,
For the blessing abides, though shut off and hidden!
In order to preserve that body which is as a soul,
The Sun is veiled for a while behind a cloud;
In order not to melt that soul-like body,
The Sun withdraws itself as from ice.
For thy soul’s sake seek counsel of these inspired ones.
Ah! rob not their words of their technical meanings!
Zulaikha applied to Yusuf the names of all things,
Beginning with wild rue and ending with frankincense.
She veiled his name under all other names,
And imparted her secret meaning to her confidants.
When she said, “The wax is melted by the fire,”
She meant, “My lover is wroth with me.”
So when she said, “See, the moon is risen!”
Or, “Lo! the willow-bough is putting forth leaves;”
Or if she said, “The leaves quiver in the wind,”
Or, “The wild rue yields perfume as it burns;”
Or if she said, “The rose tells her tale to the Bulbul,”
Or, “The king sings his love-strain;”
Or if she said, “Ah! what a blessed lot!”
Or, “Who hath disturbed my heart’s repose?”
Or if she said, “The water-carrier hath brought water,”
Or, “Lo! the sun emerges from the clouds;”
Or if she said, “Last night the victuals were boiled,”
Or, “The food was perfectly cooked;”
Or if she said, “My bread is without savor”
Or, “The heavens are revolving the wrong way;
Or if she said, “My head aches with pain,”
Or, “My headache is now relieved;”
If she gave thanks, ’twas for being united to Yusuf;
If she wailed, ’twas that she was separated from him.
Though she gave vent to thousands of names,
Her meaning and purport was only Yusuf;
Was she an hungred, when she pronounced his name,
She became filled and cheered by his nourishment.
Her thirst was quenched by Yusuf ‘s name,
His name was spiritual water to her soul.
Was she in pain, by pronouncing his mighty name
At once her pain was turned into joy.
In the cold it was a warm garment;
Her lover’s name accomplished all this through love.
“pure name” of God,
Yet it effects no such marvels, for they lack love.
All that ‘Isa accomplished by the name of Jehovah,
Zulaikha attained through the name “Yusuf.”
When the soul is intimately united with God,
To name the one is the same as naming the other.
Zulaikha was empty of self and filled with love of Yusuf,
And there flowed out of her jar what it contained.
The scent of the saffron of union made her smile,
The stench of the onion of separation made her weep.
Each to have in his heart a hundred meanings,
Such is not the creed of true love and devotion.
“The Friend” is to the lover as day to the sun,
The material sun is a veil over the face of the real day.
Whoso distinguishes not the veil from “The Friend’s” face
Is a worshipper of the sun; of such a one beware!
“The Friend” is the real day, and daily food of lovers,
The heart and the heart’s torment of His lovers.
After enduring many toils and misfortunes the three
princes at last arrived in the metropolis of China, and thereupon
the eldest prince expressed his intention of presenting
himself before the king, as he could wait no longer. His
brothers tried to dissuade him from risking his life, pointing
out that if he acted on blind impulse and vain conceit
he would surely go astray, for “a conceit hath naught of
” and they further urged him to listen to the coun-
sels of the Pir, or Spiritual Director. But the eldest brother
refused to be dissuaded from his purpose, saying he would
no longer hide his passion for his beloved, like one who
beats a drum under a blanket, but would proclaim it openly,
and take the risk of whatever might ensue. He added that
he was convinced that he should obtain his desire in some
way or other, if not in the way that he expected; according
to the text, “Whoso feareth God, to him will he grant a
prosperous issue, and will provide for him in a way he reckoned
not.” Seekers after God fancy that He is far from
them, and that they must travel far to reach Him; but these
are both erroneous suppositions; and just as arithmeticians
work out true answers to their problems by the “Method of
Errors,” so must the seekers of God from these errors
work out the conviction that God is very nigh to them that
call upon Him faithfully. To illustrate this an anecdote is
told of a man of Baghdad who was in great distress, and
who, after calling on God for aid, dreamt that a great treasure
lay hid in a certain spot in Egypt. He accordingly journeyed
to Egypt, and there fell into the hands of the patrol,
who arrested him, and beat him severely on suspicion of
being a thief. Calling to mind the proverb that “falsehood is
a mischief but truth a remedy,” he determined to confess
the true reason of his coming to Egypt, and accordingly told
them all the particulars of his dream. On hearing them they
“You must be a fool to
journey all this distance merely on the faith of a dream. I
myself have many times dreamt of a treasure lying hid in a
certain spot in Baghdad, but was never foolish enough to go
there.” Now the spot in Baghdad named by this person was
none other than the house of the poor man of Baghdad, and
he straightway returned home, and there found the treasure.
And he gave thanks, and recognized how “God causes ease
to follow troubles,” and how “Men hate what is good for
them,” and how God delays the answer to prayer, and
allows men to remain poor and hungry for a season, in
order to make them call upon Him, even as the Prophet
said, “My servant is a lute which sounds best when it is
Why the answer to prayer is delayed.
Ah! many earnest suppliants wail forth prayers,
Till the smoke of their wailing rises to heaven;
Yea, the perfume of the incense of sinners’ groans
Mounts up above the lofty roof of heaven.
Then the angels supplicate God, saying,
“O Thou that hearest prayer and relievest pain,
Thy faithful slave is bowing down before Thee.
He knows of none on whom to rely save Thee;
Thou bestowest favors on the helpless.
Every suppliant obtains his desire from Thee.”
God makes answer, “The delay in granting his prayer
Is intended to benefit him, not to harm him.
His pressing need draws him from his negligence to me;
Yea, drags him by the hair into my courts.
If I at once remove his need he will go away,
And will be destroyed in his idle sports.
Though he is wailing with heartfelt cry of ‘O Aider!’
Bid him wail on with broken heart and contrite breast.
His voice sounds sweet in my ears,
And his wailing and cries of ‘ O God!’
In this way by supplication and lamentation
He prevails with me altogether.”
It is on account of their sweet voices
That choice parrots and nightingales are jailed in cages.
Ugly owls and crows18 are never jailed in cages;
Such a thing was never heard of in history.
The disappointments of the pious, be sure,
Are appointed for this wise purpose.
The eldest brother then delayed no longer, but rushed
into the presence of the King and kissed his feet. The King,
like a good shepherd, was well aware of the troubles and
cravings of his sheep. He knew that the prince had abjured
earthly rank and dignity through love for his daughter, even
as a Sufi casts away his robe when overpowered by ecstatic
rapture. The only reason why the prince had lagged behind
in the race and not presented himself to the King before was
that hitherto he had lacked the “inner eye” or spiritual sense
which discerns spiritual verities, and had been consequently
blind to the King’s perfections. They who lack this inner
spiritual sense can no more appreciate spiritual pleasures
than a man lacking the sense of smell can enjoy the perfume
of flowers, or a eunuch the society of fair women. But his
eyes had now been opened by the King’s grace, and he had
escaped from the bondage of worldly lusts and illusions,
and, taught by experience, had resolved never again to be
led captive by them.
This is illustrated by the anecdote of the Qazi who was
beguiled by the wife of a dwarf. The dwarf and his wife were
very poor, and one day the dwarf said to his wife, “God has
given you arched brows and arrowy glances and all manner
of witchery; go and ensnare some rich man, so that we may
extract money from him!” So the woman went to the court
of the Qazi, pretending to have a grievance; and when she
saw the Qazi she beguiled him, and induced him to pay her
a visit at night. While the Qazi was sitting with her the
dwarf returned home and knocked violently at the door,
and the Qazi, in a great fright, hid himself in a large chest.
The dwarf at once fetched a porter, and told him to take the
chest to the bazar and sell it. On the way to the bazar the
Qazi cried out to the porter to fetch the Deputy; and when
the Deputy came he redeemed the chest for one hundred
Dinars, and thus the Qazi escaped. Next year the woman
went to the court and tried to seduce the Qazi a second
time; but he said, “Begone; I have escaped from your toils
once, and will not fall into them again. The action of the
Deputy in freeing the Qazi reminds the poet of the saying
of the Prophet, “Of him, of whom I am the master, ‘Ali also
is master,” and is therefore able to free him from slavery.
The eldest prince at last fell sick of hope deferred, and
gave up the ghost. But though he failed to obtain the King’s
daughter, the object of his earthly attachment, he obtained
union with the King, the real spiritual object of his love,
and the eternal fruition of dwelling in Him.
The joys of union with the Spiritual Beloved
are inexpressible in speech.
In short, the King cherished him lovingly,
And he like a moon waned in that sun.
That waning of lovers makes them wax stronger,
Just as the moon waxes brighter after waning.
Ordinary sick persons crave a remedy for sickness
“Increase my waning!
I have never tasted wine sweeter than this poison,
No health can be sweeter than this sickness!
No devotion is better than this sin (of love),
Years are as a moment compared to this moment!”
Long time he dwelt with the King in this manner,
With burning heart, as a lively sacrifice.
Thus his life passed, yet he gained not the union He
Patient waiting consumed him, his soul could not bear it;
He dragged on life with pain and gnashing of teeth.
At last life ended before he had attained his desire.
The form of his earthly Beloved was hidden from him;
He departed, and found union with his Spiritual Beloved.
Then he said, “Though she lacks clothes of silk and wool,
‘Tis sweeter to embrace her without those veils.
I have become naked of the body and its illusions,
I am admitted into the most intimate union.”
The story admits of being told up to this point,
Bat what follows is hidden and inexpressible in words.
If you should speak and try a hundred ways to express it,
‘Tis useless; the mystery becomes no clearer.
You can ride on saddle and horse up to the sea-coast,
But then you must use a horse of wood (i.e., a boat).
A horse of wood is useless on dry land,
It is the special conveyance of voyagers by sea.
Silence is this horse of wood,
Silence is the guide and support of men at sea.
This Silence which causes you annoyance
Is uttering cries of love audible to the spiritual.
You say, “How strange the spiritual man is silent!”
He answers, “How strange you have no ears!
Though I utter cries, you hear them not;
Sensual ears, however sharp, are deaf to my cries.”
The spiritual man, as it were, cries in his sleep,
Uttering thousands of words of comfort;
While the carnal man at his side hears nothing at all,
For he is asleep, and deaf to the other’s voice.
But the perfect spiritualist who has broken his boat
Plunges into the sea as a fish of the sea (of Truth).
He is then neither silent nor speaking, but a mystery.
No words are available to express his condition.
That marvelous one is in neither of these states
‘Twould be irreverent to explain his state more fully.
These illustrations are weak and inappropriate,
But no fitter ones are obtainable from sensible objects.
When the eldest prince died, the youngest was sick and
could not come; but the second brother came to the court
to attend his funeral. There the King observed him, and
took pity on him and entreated him kindly. He instilled
into him spiritual knowledge of the verities hidden beneath
phenomenal objects, and conveyed to him as deep a perception
of spiritual truths as is not gained by a Sufi after
years of fasting and retirement from the world. It is a fact,
that when the pure spirit escapes from the bonds of the
body, God gives it sight to behold the things of the spirit.
The logician denies the possibility of this divine illumination
of the heart, but he is confuted by the Prophet, who
swore “by the star” that the Koran was revealed to him by
divine illumination.19 Those who cleave to their heresy
(Bid’at) and obstinate unbelief are like to incur the punishment
inflected on the tribe of ‘Ad for disbelieving the
Prophet Hud.20 Earthly forms are only shadows of the Sun
of the Truth, a cradle for babes, but too small to hold those
who have grown to spiritual manhood. When the prince
was thus nourished by the spiritual food given him by the
King, which was such as the angels of heaven subsist upon,
not the unspiritual food of Christians and those who give
partners to God, he began to be puffed up with self-conceit,
and forgot what he owed to the King, and rebelled against
him. The King was cut to the heart by his ingratitude,
which exactly resembled that of Nimrod. When Nimrod
was an infant he was taken by his mother to sea, and the
ship being wrecked, all that were in it perished, save only
the infant Nimrod who was saved through the pity of Izrail,
the Angel of Death. God spared him, and nurtured him
without the aid of mother or nurse; but when he grew up
he proved ungrateful, and was puffed up with self-conceit
and egotism, and showed enmity against God and Abraham
His servant. When the prince found himself cast off by the
King he came to himself, and repented and humbled himself
with deep contrition. The King then pardoned him; but
his doom had already been decreed by God, and he was
slain by the King he had injured, acknowledging the King’s
goodness to him with his latest breath.
The death of the second prince.
In short, the vengeance of That Jealous One (God)
After one year bore him to the grave.
When the King awoke out of his trance to consciousness,
His Mars-like eyes shed tears of blood.
When that incomparable one looked into his quiver,
He saw that one of his arrow-shafts was missing.
He cried to God, “What has become of my arrow?”
God answered, “Thy arrow is fixed in his throat!”
That King, bountiful as the sea, had pardoned him;
Nevertheless his arrow had dealt him a mortal wound.
He was slain, and cried out with his last breath,
“The King is all in all, my slayer and my savior.
If he is not both these, he is not all in all;
Nay, he is both my slayer and my mourner!”
That expiring martyr also gave thanks,
That the King had smitten his body, not his spirit;
For the visible body must perforce perish,
Ere the spirit can live in happiness for evermore.
Though he incurred chastisement, it affected his body
And as a friend he now goes, free of pain, to his Friend.
Thus at first he clung to the King’s stirrup,
But at last went his way guided by perfect sight.
Finally, the youngest brother, who was the weakest of all,
succeeded where his brothers had failed, and obtained his
earthly mistress, the king’s daughter, as his bride, and the
Spiritual Beloved as well.
Here the Masnavi breaks off; but, according to the Bulaq
edition, the following conclusion was supplied by Jalalu-‘d-
Din’s son, Bahau-‘d-Din Sultan Valad:
Part of the story remains untold; it was retained
In his mind and was not disclosed.
The story of the princes remains unfinished,
The pearl of the third brother remains unstrung.
Here speech, like a camel, breaks down on its road;
I will say no more, but guard my tongue from speech.
The rest is told without aid of tongue
To the heart of him whose spirit is alive.
Time for a break.