Moses heard a shepherd on the road praying, God,
Where are You? I want to help You, to fix Your shoes
and comb Your hair. I want to wash Your clothes
and pick the lice off. I want to bring You milk,
to kiss Your little hands and feet when it’s time
for You to go to bed. I want to sweep Your room
and keep it neat. God, my sheep and goats
are Yours. All I can say, remembering You,
is ayyyy and ahhhhhhhhh.
Moses could stand it no longer.
Who are you talking to?
The One who made us,
and made the earth and made the sky.
Don’t talk about shoes
and socks with God! And what’s this with Your little hands
and feet? Such blasphemous familiarity sounds like
you’re chatting with your uncles.
Only something that grows
needs milk. Only someone with feet needs shoes. Not God!
Even if you meant God’s human representatives
as when God said, I was sick, and you did not visit me,
even then this tone would be foolish and irreverent.
Use appropriate terms. Fatima is a fine name
for a woman, but if you call a man Fatima,
it’s an insult. Body-and-birth language
are right for us on this side of the river,
but not for addressing the Origin,
not for Allah.
The shepherd repented and tore his clothes and sighed
and wandered out into the desert.
A sudden revelation
came then to Moses. God’s voice:
You have separated Me
from one of my own. Did you come as a Prophet to unite,
or to sever?
I have given each being a separate and unique way
of seeing and knowing and saying that knowledge.
What seems wrong to you is right for him.
What is poison to one is honey to someone else.
Purity and impurity, sloth and diligence in worship,
these mean nothing to Me.
I am apart from all that.
Ways of worshiping are not to be ranked as better
or worse than one another.
It’s all praise, and it’s all
It’s not Me that’s glorified in acts of worship.
It’s the worshipers! I don’t hear the words
they say. I look at the humility.
That broken-open lowliness is the Reality,
not the language! Forget phraseology.
I want burning,
with your burning. Burn up your thinking
and your forms of expression!
those who pay attention to ways of behaving
and speaking are one sort.
Lovers who burn
Don’t impose a property tax
on a burned out village. Don’t scold the Lover.
The wrong way he talks is better than a hundred
right ways of others.
Inside the Kaaba
it doesn’t matter which direction you point
your prayer rug!
The ocean diver doesn’t need snowshoes!
The Love-Religion has no code or doctrine.
So the ruby has nothing engraved on it!
It doesn’t need markings.
God began speaking deeper mysteries to Moses. Vision and words,
which cannot be recorded here, poured into
and through him. He left himself and came back.
He went to Eternity and came back here.
Many times this happened.
It’s foolish of me
to try and say this. If I did say it,
it would uproot our human intelligences.
It would shatter all writing pens.
Moses ran after the shepherd.
He followed the bewildered footprints,
in one place moving straight like a castle
across a chessboard. In another, sideways,
like a bishop.
Now surging like a wave cresting,
now sliding down like a fish,
with always his feet
making geomancy symbols in the sand,
his wandering state.
Moses finally caught up
I was wrong. God has revealed to me
that there are no rules for worship.
and however your loving tells you to. Your sweet blasphemy
is the truest devotion. Through you a whole world
Loosen your tongue and don’t worry what comes out.
It all the Light of the Spirit.
The shepherd replied,
I’ve gone beyond even that.
You applied the whip and my horse shied and jumped
out of itself. The Divine Nature and my human nature
Bless your scolding hand and your arm.
I can’t say what has happened.
What I’m saying now
is not my real condition. It can’t be said.
The shepherd grew quiet.
When you look in a mirror,
you see yourself, not the state of the mirror.
The fluteplayer puts breath into a flute,
and who makes the music? Not the flute.
Whenever you speak praise
or thanksgiving to God, it’s always like this
dear shepherd’s simplicity.
When you eventually see
through the veils of how things really are,
you will keep saying again
This is certainly not like we thought it was!
Mathnawi II 1720-96, from This Longing: Poetry, Teaching Stories, and Selected Letters, translated by Coleman Barks and John Moyne (Putney, Vt.: Threshold Books, 1988), pp. 19-22.
I left out one line in the poem because some people will not understand it. Also, when the shephard says that his Divine Nature and Human Nature have combined, he is merely discussing this authentic hadith:
“Abu Hurayra said that the Messenger of God, may God bless him and grant him peace, said, God Almighty said, ‘I have declared war on anyone who shows enmity to a friend of Mine. My slave does not draw near to Me with anything I love more than what I have made obligatory on him. And my slave continues to draw near to Me with superogatory actions until I love him. When I love him, I become his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees, his hand with which he strikes, and his foot with which he walks. If he were to ask Me for something, I would give it to him. If he were to ask Me for refuge, I would give him refuge.’” [al-Bukhari]
My favorite metaphor in Moses and the Shepherd is that of the flute, Fluteplayer, and the music. It is a beautiful way to describe that all of our acts (music) and beauty that we emanate in the world is not from from us, but through us from God. God is the real source and owner (Fluteplayer), and his breath comes through us (the flutes).
Form vs Meaning:
Our body is the outward form, our soul is the inner meaning. Ritual prayer, Fiqh, and Aqeedah is the form, our love, humility, and devotion to God is the meaning. What this poem is doing is highlighting the similarity of the soul of all religions-which is found in our burning, passionate love for a Higher Being.
“Turn your back in repentance to Him, and fear Him: establish regular prayers, and be not amongst those who join gods with God, those who split up their Religion, and become (mere) Sects,- each party rejoicing in that which is with itself!”
-Qur’an: Surah Rum 31-32