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Anecdotes of the Wise (c. 1475)

Nur ad-Din Abd ar-Rahman Jami
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    Anecdotes of the Wise (c. 1475)


    A consistent theme in the work of the mystic and poet Nur ad-Din Abd ar-Rahman Jami (1414–1492) is that of a wise ruler, trained in the Sufi path, who uses his enlightened wisdom to become God’s instrument on earth. Jami’s Baharistan (The Abode of Spring) uses anecdotes and proverbs to illustrate this concept, often showing a prideful ruler humbled by a wise mystic. In the chapter excerpted below, Jami relates stories of Alexander the Great, Chosroes of Persia, and Caesar to encourage humility, restraint, and piety. The story of the king who is asked to choose between gold and his enemy is perhaps the most effective of these anecdotes, as it suggests that one acquires wisdom and freedom only after rejecting materialism and temporal power.

    He is held to be wise who, as far as he is able, understands the reality of things, and who has the power to carry out an act in full awareness of all its implications.

    A wise old man, who horrified Alexander the Great with his unsightly appearance, said to him:

    ‘Do not begrudge me my ugly exterior, you who are lacking all virtue and fairness! This body’s a scabbard, the soul is the sabre: in the sabre is action —not in the scabbard’.

    Seek the knowledge that is essential; pay no heed to non-essential knowledge. And when you have the knowledge you need, think only of putting it into practice.

    Never sit to eat, Till your stomach is empty; stand up and leave before your stomach is full.

    Chosroes, a king of ancient Persia, said: ‘I have never regretted what I did not say; but there are many things I have lain in dust and blood for the regret of saying’.

    Caesar said: ‘I have more power over what I did not say than over what I did say’.

    A secret kept is like an arrow in the hand; once divulged, it has left the bow.

    O you, who vaunt your reason, how many times, enslaved by lust, will you shake your sweetheart’s locks —the chains of madness?

    Three men were discussing what was the most distressing affliction.

    ‘Old age and infirmity, coupled with destitution and poverty’, said one.

    ‘A sick body, coupled with a host of worries’, said another.

    ‘The approach of death, coupled with the absence of good actions’, said the third; and on this they were all agreed.

    Do not arouse your temper by fasting: nothing is better than patience and gentleness. When a fast becomes the cause of trouble, better to break it than to keep it.

    Whoever says ‘my table’ and ‘my bread’ —leave his table and his bread! Better to eat the greenery in your garden than that man’s roasted lamb!

    The only good, for a man of clear sight, is whatever it is that renders his soul eternal and blessed.

    A king once asked a wise man for advice.

    ‘First’, said the sage, ‘I shall ask you a question: answer truthfully, which do you prefer—gold, or your enemy?’

    ‘Gold’, said the king.

    ‘What you love you will leave behind in this world, what you hate you will take with you into the next’.

    The king wept and said, ‘You have given me a counsel which contains all others’.

    In a thousand ways you quarrel with the denizens of this lowly world, such is your lust for silver and gold; silver and gold are your friends, whoever possesses them, your foe: you wrest them from his hands by fraud and violence. does reason dictate that you should forsake the friend and carry off the foe?

    The wise have said, ‘Just as the world prospers thanks to justice, so violence causes its ruin; wherever there is justice, its brilliance extends a thousand leagues; violence casts darkness over a thousand leagues’.

    A king said to a dervish, ‘Why have I not seen you here for so long?’

    ‘Because I prefer to hear “Why haven’t I seen you?”—rather than “Why have you come”?’ replied the dervish.

    The Abode of Spring. In Four Sufi Classics. London: Octagon Press, 1980.

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