RLS 380 Islamic Classics
October 27, 2008
The “Woman” in Rumi’s Poetry
Woman is she whose way and goal are color and scent: she is the reality of the ego that commands to evil embodied in the physical constitution of human kind. (D 19431; from SPL 165)
If a modern day feminist (without any pre-conceived notions of Rumi) picked up one of his poems and read this line, his/her reaction would likely not have been a positive one . Rumi may have been maligned as a male-chauvinist; a poet who wrote about and emphasized the love between male humanity and God. Clearly it is essential that western readers must become familiar with Sufi cosmology and metaphysics before attempting to explicate the meaning behind Rumi’s use of female symbolism. The “woman” in Rumi’s poetry usually does not represent the physical, human female. The “woman” is often used as a symbol to represent the receptive attributes of the universe, the tendency to follow and submit, and the qualities of mercy, gentleness, and beauty. “Woman”, or receptivity, represents one half of the universe’s unified reality—distinguished from the “man” who represents the active attributes of the universe. Rumi often uses the symbol “woman” to describe the condition of a human who submits to his ego and body while neglecting the spirit and intellect. However, a person who is receptive to the spirit, and therefore feminine towards the spirit, is actually a “man” on the path of God. Thus the feminine qualities of receptivity and mercy are vital steps on the Sufi path of awareness and attaining love and close proximity to God. For one to be feminine towards the spirit is to be virtuous, and for one to be masculine towards the spirit is gross rebellion.
Similar to the Confucian concept of Yin and Yang, the universe is divided into two complementary realities that all other multiple realities are derived from. These realities can be represented as active and passive, male and female, divine justice and divine mercy. A line in the Koran says, “And of everything We created a pair” [51:49]. Rumi makes a distinction between the Koranic terms, “heaven” and “earth” to represent activity and receptivity:
Heaven is the man and earth is the woman: Whatever the one throws down the other nurtures. (M III 4404; from SPL 163)
Within the human microcosm, the man and the woman represent the intellect and the ego, respectively. Whatever the intellect chooses and intends, the ego obeys and manifests. However, the human being has been given the test of free will. Therefore a human may allow the desires of his ego to consume his intellect, thereby vanquishing his manliness and manifesting his womanliness. Rumi often addresses his poetry to the humans who have succumbed to the “womanliness”, or to the submission of the soul to the ego:
Alas for him whose intellect is feminine and whose ugly ego is masculine and prepared!
Without a question his intellect will be vanquished; he will be taken only toward loss.
Happy is he whose intellect is masculine and whose ugly ego is feminine and helpless!
His partial intellect is masculine and dominant; intelligence has negated the feminine ego….
The animal attributes prevail in woman, because she tends toward colors and scents.
When the ass perceived the color and scent of the pasture, all arguments fled from its head. (M V 2459-64, 2466-2467; from SPL 165)
Total loss is the consequence for those whose intellects have submitted to their egos. The intellect has become a woman —and therefore the complement to this womanly intellect is the manly ego. In this scenario, the masculine ego is indisputably viewed in a negative light. The active attributes of the male has taken precedence within the ego and has taken control of the pure intellect. This is also known as negative femininity; the original alignment (fitra) of the human’s metaphysical realities is in a distorted hierarchy. The body and the ego are superior to the spirit and intellect. The third and fourth lines of this passage explain the bliss and harmony one will feel when the human’s metaphysical realities are in proper alignment: the spirit and intellect are in control of the ego and body. The intellect in this case is a man while the ego and the body are female since they have submitted to the noble intellect. This is positive femininity and the goal of every adherent to the Sufi Tariqah (path). The last two lines of the passage compare the “woman” to animal attributes. One who has a womanly soul will fall captive to “colors” and “scents” because they see only the beauty of form, and are blinded by the beauty of meaning. The “arguments” that flee from the asses’s head symbolize the intellect and reason which is vanquished within the womanly soul.
Due to this reality that spiritual “men” are the true Sufis on the path of God, the term “men” is often used in Rumi’s poetry to describe prophets and saints, while the term “women” often describes disbelievers or deniers. The disbeliever is veiled from the light of the intellect and spirit, therefore all she witnesses is form rather than meaning. However the believer witnesses meaning rather than form, because he is guided by the clear light of the intellect. The following passage describes the state of spiritual man:
The intellect in the body of a man is like a commander. So long as the subject members of the body are obedient to it, all the body’s affairs proceed well and perfectly; but when they are not obedient, all its affairs come to disorder…Just as the intellect is commander in the midst of the body, so these different entities, who are humankind, together with their several intellects, knowledge, speculation, and learning, are in relation to the saint all unalloyed body, and he is the intellect in the midst of them. (Arberry 65)
This passage compares the hierarchy of the man’s intellect over his ego to the saint’s intellect over the intellects of the murids (people who have committed to following the spiritual path of a particular saint). The murids must submit to the intellect of the shaykh/saint, and obey the saint’s command over his/her own will and intellect. This is the positive femininity that all Sufis strive for and that Rumi emphasizes: “When the Prophet said, ‘Put the Females last!’ he meant your ego. For it must be put last, and your intellect first” (M 56l, from SPL 134). The murids must place their egos in subservience to their intellects, and their own intellects in subservience to the saint’s intellect. Rumi says, “If you are not a highwayman on the road of religion then worship not colors and scents like women” (M V 4082, from SPL 166). These “highwayman”, are murids on the path of God who are advised to be careful in safeguarding their “women”, their egos, from performing shirk and worshiping “colors” and “scents”.
Like a woman, the ego sometimes displays humility and sometimes seeks leadership to remedy its plight.
The Intellect, indeed, knows nothing of these thoughts; its mind contains naught but longing for God. (M I 2621-2622; from SPL 165)
The murids on the path of God have to safeguard their egos from desiring mastery over their shaykh and desiring the praise of others. This changing ego that springs back and forth from submitting to the intellect and from submitting to the ego is a good representation of the blaming soul. The lowest state of the soul, the soul that commands to evil is represented as the “woman”. This is the soul that stringently obeys the command of the ego. A “woman” also has masculine qualities, but these are the negative masculine tendencies that of the soul as incarnate to Iblis (Murata 317). The “man” is representative of the soul at peace, the soil that is in harmony and unity with God. This man “contains naught but longing for God.” A “man” has feminine qualities, the positive feminine attributes of the soul at peace with God (Murata 317).
“Women are hidden in the bodies of those men who are feminine from faintness of heart” (M V 1885; from SPL 166). It is clear from this line that when Rumi speaks of “women”, he is referring to a metaphysical reality of womanhood, rather than a physical human female. Men who are “faint at heart” exhibit negative femininity, and thus the complement also exists: a woman who exhibits positive femininity. This woman had actually become a spiritual “man”. Rumi refers to Mary as one of these spiritual warriors:
Since women never go out to fight the holy war, how should they engage in the Greater Holy War?
Except rarely, when a Rustam is hidden within a woman’s body, as in the case of Mary. (M VI 1883-84; from SPL 165-166)
From this is clear that women can strive to become “men” on the path of God. Although Rumi points out that it is rare to find a “man” enveloped under a woman’s body, he also points out in the next line in the Mathnawi that most men are actually “women”, considering the fact that they submit to their egos: “In the same way, women are hidden in the bodies of those men who are feminine from faintness of heart” (M VI 1885; from SPL 166).
In the afterlife, Rumi stresses that Muslims will be resurrected according to the metaphysical “sex” that they have embodied on this earth.
In the next world, that womanliness will take on form for everyone who did not become mature in manliness. (M V 1886; from SPL 166)
To abandon anger, sensuality, and greed is all manliness and a trait of the prophets. Suppose he has none of the masculinity of the asses in his veins. God will still call him “mighty king”. (M V 4027; from SPL 166)
Those humans who have replaced the “masculinity” of their animal natures into women and transformed their intellects into “men” will be honored as a “mighty king” on the Day of Judgment. This title is reserved for both human men and women who have attained to the level of the Universal Intellect and embodied the spiritual “man”. In fact, the Persian poet ‘Attar says that Mary will be the first person to step into the ranks of men (Murata 318).
The “man” and “woman” of Rumi’s poetry represent much more than the physical form. The metaphysical realities of womanhood and manhood are present within both the physical human male and female. According to Rumi, both men and women must strive to make their egos “female” and their intellects “male”. The fact that God’s mercy precedes his wrath is a clear indication that one’s femininity toward the intellect takes precedence on the path towards achieving nearness to God. The perfect female soul that submits to the intellect is an honorable gift bestowed on those who have achieved the highest stations on the Tariqah. If Mary, the mother of Jesus, was able to become a spiritual man and the Pharoah mentioned in the Koran had become a spiritual woman, then there is no advantage a male physical human has over a female physical human on the path of Sufism. Hence, both males and females in this present world can celebrate with Rumi once we have finally corrected our feminine selves: “Jump up, let us all dance, clapping our hands! For we have been delivered from women through our manliness!” (D 35533; from SPL 167).
Arberry, AJ. Discourses of Rumi. New York: Samuel Weiser Inc., 1972.
Chittick, William. The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983.
Koran Translation by AJ Arberry
Murata, Sachiko. The Tao of Islam. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.