Rumi’s Representation of Woman

Woman as the temptation of Evil[i]

Reading Masnavi, Book 5, lines 940-961[ii]

شهوتّی است او و بس شهوت پرست          زآن شرابِ زهرناک ژاژ مست

گر نه بهر نسل بودی ای وصی           آدم از ننگش بکردی خود خَصی

She is all lascivious and lustful

drunken with poisonous sloth

If it were not for procreation, O’ God

one would have castrated oneself out of shame[iii].

These are the opening verses that seem to serve as a prelude to the poem by Rumi in the book five of his theoretical work, Masnavi.  In the story we are witnessed to Satan’s bargain with God.  Satan is trying to acquire means from God to seduce man, or as Rumi calls it, to “go hunting,” in order to shake the belief of the faithful.  According to the title of the poem, it is to elucidate the symbolism behind the killing of a rooster by Abraham.  Rumi sets the context of his poem right by its title in an inquisitive form: “To the defeat and destruction of which temper among the horrible ugliness in the hearts of his followers, one can attribute the killing of the rooster by Abraham?”  

This brief encounter is to look at only one of many strategies of subjugation, I believe Jalal Al-din Rumi, the renowned 13th century Iranian poet and Sufi, deliberately employs to undermine the positive image of woman, hence providing religious, ethical and intellectual basis for her suppression.

“You, the provider of wherewithal to all,” Satan calls on God, “I ask thee an effective trap for my hunting.”(Line 942)  God confers on him gold, silver and herds of horses, assuring Satan that: “You can rob many people with these.” (Line 943)  But the offerings, Rumi reports, do not impress Satan for the dificult task at hand.  The poem develops and the bargain goes on.  All things good in life that a medieval man might find desirable are accorded.  “Good wine, pastry and sweets, pearls and precious metals and silk attires.”  Yet, Satan remains unconvinced that any of them would succeed in tempting the pious.  As he maintains: “many men who are drunk with God’s influence will tear off these minor restraints.” (L949)  Satan even rejects God’s grand gesture of offering the musical instruments for this scheme.  Eventually, God bids his last and best chip, the Woman. 

When “God showed him the beauty of women, which easily surpasses man’s rationality and patience,” Rumi poetically muses, “Satan snapped his fingers and began to dance with joy” …”You’ve granted me!”, he delaires, “…Now, I have found what I wanted.” (L 956-957)

Rumi explains in detail what was seen and what is to be seen in women, and its effects in the world. The beauty spots, the eyebrows, the ruby lips. Satan saw those seductive “dreamy eyes” which “makes wisdom and rationality of man anxious,” “those beautiful faces that scorch the heart like insents,”. Eventually declairing: it was as if “God himself was manifest from behind a thin lace curtain.” (L956-961)

چونکه خوبی زنان با او نمود   که ز عقل وصبر مردان می فزود

Such was the beauty of women as revealed to him

That exceeded the wisdom and the patience of men. (L 956)

By using a plural, Rumi here is asserting that the Almighty have in fact revealed to Satan, the beauty of all women at once. Further, Rumi’s use of word خوبی, Khoobi, should not be taken to be as some form of moral or inner “goodness” in women as the idiomatic interpretation of the word might suggest.  By looking at the way Satan celebrates the offering, as was mentioned above, one can easily see that the word denotes to bodily goodness, beauty.  Therefore, the issue of identity of women tied to her moral goodness is not the topic here.  Discussion concerns her physical beauty as a genus, which can allure men, ruby lips, beautiful face, etc.  It is her bodily attributes that are being dickered here, her labor power as the beautiful, as it relates to Satan’s plans.  But unlike any laborer, post slavery, she lacks the ability to say no in the exchange process.  She has no will, and poses no possibility of disagreement or resistance.  Unlike the inanimate objects that carry defined characters, like gold or sweets, or even horses that have been offered earlier by God, Rumi’s construct of woman, lacks quality and disposition; she is only a veiled beauty that is nothing yet, but at the same time, she is all that is evil. She is only a plan, an instrument that is to bring deception into the world.

Further, the seductive woman here does not, and cannot initiate her own seductive powers at will, or for or her own sake.  She does not to have self-consciousness. Her seductive powers are only motivated by Satan’s will to satisfy his schemes.  As such, she is, and forever will remain Devil’s instrument.  She is the agent of evil par excellence, as she is not in charge of her will and her actions. She cannot repent for the wrongs she is bound to do.  Worst yet, she can never be redeemed.  As she cannot ask for forgiveness from God for any harm she might cause.  For, God willingly has forsaken her body and her soul on this poetic bargain.  Wagered away, she remains dispossessed of body, dispossessed of mind, and dispossessed of her own will.  Never loved by her own creator, she is only sent to earth to facilitate the Sufi’s fanatical conception of religious history.

It is stunning to believe that a religious man of God, who according to his numerous admirers, had dedicated his life to “love,” to be this cruel. Surely, one can understand that a religious man in the middle ages, not to believe in the concept of free will. Or, along with his colleagues around the world at the time, not believe in any form of equal rights for women. But to condemn women as evil, whose destiny is to be formed and possessed by Satan seems to be a bit too indulgent. But to what end Rumi condemns half of world’s population?

In this story, Rumi seems to be taking a very ingenious step.  He appears to be providing a scene before the fall of man before our Abrahamic time begins. Before man proves to God his fallibility. With this apriori bargain, Rumi seems to be providing a space and justification for the grand story of the fall.  Before history and praxis of mankind, God and Satan are in the boardroom bargaining away.  They are thus planning for the future status of woman and man and the long history of deception and temptation, and humanity’s ceaseless search for the salvation to come.  Woman as a beautiful archetype, as it is conceived by Rumi here, is to reveal herself in history, only to obfuscate piety’s progress.  For, she is an ally of Satan and the underworld, not of God and virtue.  Hence, in the interest of truth and piety, as the poem suggests, all her powers, are to be feared, despised and rejected forever.  Indeed her entire being, her body, is to be regarded as a redundant distraction.

It is in this light, that the first two scornful lines of the prelude to the story make sense. Exasperated by temptations as a result of sharing this world with such a lustful salacious being, Rumi claims that he would castrate himself out of shame, if it wasn’t for the burdens of his other responsibilities. Besides being an obvious response to Abraham’s violent act of killing the virile in the rooster, Rumi’s desire for self-mutilation, is also a testament to his single minded struggle to achieve the pious purity. The state of purity he sees necessary for mankind, not just as a matter of religious duty, but more importantly, as a condition to unite with God as an ideological desire and the lofty fascination of Sufi asceticism.

It would be naïve to assume that assigning women a Satanic status, that is a constant threat to piety and to the pious, will not have social consequences. How is a moral society to be built, knowing that devil’s device with “beautiful face” and “ruby lips” is at work to “scorch the hearts” of the faithful? Believing Rumi, we know that castration of the believer is not an option. How is then an ethical order based on our religious books to be maintained? Here is a brilliant idea: What if we didn’t see those beautiful faces and ruby lips? Isn’t a veil, a burka, her banishment from social interactions a great option?

Of course, this is not to hold Rumi responsible for all the ills of history in regards to women in the Middle East, where his influence reigns supreme. It is simply, holding him responsible to what he has said and advocated in this poem as an influential historical figure and a great poet.

[i] This study is a shorter part of a work on the forthcoming Rumi’s Representation of Woman.

[ii]  مثنوی معنوی، مولانا جلال الدین بلخی، بر اساس نسخۀ رینالد نیکلسون چاپ اول 1390انتشارات اشارات طلایی،

Mathnavi- Manav; Based on the Edition by Reynold A. Nicholson; Published by Esharat Talaii; 2012, Tehran, Iran

[iii] All translations are mine.

Behrooz Ghorbanian

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