Rumi's "Tale of the Reed" That Prof. R.A. Nicholson Didn't Tell

Professor R. A.Nicholson (1868-1945)

The greatest Rumi scholar in the English language, eminent 20th century British Orientalist, and lecturer in Persian and Arabic at Cambridge University, Reynold A. Nicholson was the foremost scholar in the field of Islamic literature and mysticism.

Rumi's "Tale of the Reed" That Prof. R. A. Nicholson Didn't Tell

There is no doubt that the great 20th century British "Orientalist", Professor R. A. Nicholson's contributions to the Persian and Islamic literature are of immense proportions. Fluent in both Persian and Arabic, Professor Nicholson dedicated his life to translating not only Rumis' Masnavi from Persian/Farsi to English, but also translated major Sufi texts - Ibn Arabi, Ali Hujviri, and Mansoor Hallaj's works to name a few. He also wrote two major books: The Mystics of Islam and Literary History of the Arabs.

Yet despite his Islamic insight, profound Sufi knowledge, and literary genius, Nicholson didn't tell the single most important mystical message of Rumi which is embedded in the first eighteen verses of Masnavi known as 'Tale of the Reed'. Professor Nicholson acknowledges his shortcoming in trying to grasp some of Rumi's deeply hidden mystical meaning and messages. He writes in the prologue of his 1926 edition of Masnavi:

" As stated in the Introduction to the first volume, no finality is claimed for this edition. Where the text is uncertain, the translation can only be provisional; but even where we feel confidence in the text, cases occur in which every translator of the Mathnawí can but offer the rendering that seems to him possible or probable, and take comfort in the reflection that est quadam prodire tenus si non datur ultra. Some passages, I believe, will always remain mysterious, since the key to them has been lost: one knows that words uttered by a great spiritual teacher may be almost meaningless outside the group of his intimate friends and disciples, or may become so by lapse of time..."

I humbly disagree with the great Nicholson's notion of "one knows that words uttered by a great spiritual teacher may be almost meaningless outside the group of his intimate friends and disciples, or may become so by lapse of time..". 
By presenting my following translation and the subsequent explanations , I aim to show that it was
actually Prof. Nicholson who didn't somehow grasp the single most important mystical message of 'Rumi's "Tale of the Reed".

The great Persian scholar of Rumi, Majid Nacify argues in
his strongly worded criticism of the "Orientalists" and Coleman Barks, "Coleman Barks and Rumi's Donkey":
" One can approach Rumi's poetry, or for that matter, all religious and mystical books from two different angles: faith or literature. A person who does not believe in god can read Masnavi, The Bible, Koran, Avesta and Sutra and finds "Listen to the Reed!" in Masnavi, the Book of Genesis or Job, Songs of Solomon or the Meccan verses of Koran or the Hymn to Anahita in Avesta both beautiful and deep. One who chooses to approach Rumi's works only as literary texts must, in turn, respect the right of believers who see these texts as words of a saint and looking into them for eternal truths. By the same token, a reader who considers Rumi as a devote Muslim must tolerate the other readers of Masnavi who read this book either as a free-spirit pantheist text or just as a literary work. Reynold Nicholson who was the first scholar to publish the first critical edition of Masnavi in Persian as well as the first full translation of this book into English had intellectual honesty. Although his translation is literal but he had no religious or mystical mission and did not change Rumi in order to promote his own agenda..The essential problem of Coleman Barks lies in the fact that in his version he intentionally changes Rumi, perhaps for the better, but at the expense of distortion and misrepresentation. He approaches Rumi's poetry as sacred texts, which need to be dusted from the passage of times by a touched devotee and prepared for the Post Modern, New Age market in the West. The New Age movement finds a remedy for modern alienation in old recipes, such as horoscope, Extra-Sensory Perception and divination..

Coleman Barks not only "frees" Rumi from the historical limitations of his time but he also tries to disconnect Rumi from the Islamic society in which he lived and the Persian language in which he wrote his poetry. I have never heard or seen that Barks in his radio interviews and TV shows refer to cultural roots of Rumi, as if this poet has fallen from the sky and does not belong to any land or culture. The people of England consider Shakespeare a national treasures and the works of this author have increased the appreciation of English literature and culture worldwide. But unfortunately due to the non-literary and commercial goals of Coleman Barks, his popular version of Rumi has not created any interest within the American public in the land where Rumi was raised, the culture in which he had breathed and the language in which he wrote his poetry..

Returning to Prof. Nicholson's not telling the complete "Tale of the Reed", I start by presenting the first verses from the original Persian/Farsi poem of Rumi's "Ney Namah" or "Tale of the Reed", and also Prof. Nicholson's faulty English translation of it:

بشنو از نی چون حکایت می کند
از جدایی ها شکایت می کند
کز نیستان تا مرا ببریده اند
در نفیرم مرد و زن نالیده اند
سینه خواهم شرحه شرحه از فراق
تا بگویم شرح درد اشتیاق

Translation by Nicholson, 1926 edition:

Listen to the reed (flute), how it is complaining!

It is telling about separations (saying),

"Ever since I was severed from the reed field,
men and
women have lamented in (the presence of) my shrill cries.
(But) I want a heart (which is) torn, torn from separation,
so that I may explain the pain of yearning.

-Rumi J. Mathnawi I:27 (translated by RA Nicholson). In: Nicholson RA, ed. The Mathnawi of Jalalu'ddin Rumi. London: Luzac, 1926.

Professor Nicholson lists the following references at the 'Footnotes' of his above translation of the "Tale of the Reed":


1. Love signifies the strong attraction that draws all creatures back to reunion with their Creator.
2. Self-annihilation leads to eternal life in God the universal Noumenon, by whom all phenomena subsist. See Gulshan i Raz, I. 400.
3. "Raw" and "Ripe" are terms for "Men of externals" and "Men of heart" or Mystics.
4. Alluding to the giving of the law on Mount Sinai. Koran vii. 139.
5. All phenomenal existences (man included) are but "veils" obscuring the face of the Divine Noumenon, the only real existence, and the moment His sustaining presence is withdrawn they at once relapse into their original nothingness. See Gulshan i Raz, I. 165.
6. So Bernard of Clairvaux. See Gulshan i Raz, I. 435.


The English translated line that I'd like to ponder upon is the following from the first verses of "Tale of the Reed":

سینه خواهم شرحه شرحه از فراق

I want a heart (which is) torn, torn from separation.
English Translation by Nicholson, 1926 edition.

What did Rumi actually mean by "I want a heart (which is) torn, torn from separation"?

As one of the foremost Islamic scholars and theologians, Rumi has repeatedly utilized the Quranic passages and verses in both Masnavi and Divan to convey his Sufi mystical messages and teachings. "Tale of the Reed" is obviously no exception, by "I want a heart (which is) torn, torn from separation", Rumi is alluding to the Islamic tradition and teachings which state that "Splitting Open" of a heart/chest is in reference to Prophet Muhammad's early stages of his invitations to Islam, and the hardship and difficulties he was faced in trying to convince the Idol-worshiping residents of Mecca to embrace his strictly monotheistic new faith.

Having witnessed Prophet's difficulties, anxiety, and distresses, God commanded angels to descend from the heavens, split open his chest, and insert the "Eternal Light" into his inner being. 

This passage is mentioned in the following Quranic Verses: Quran 94:1-8 - Surah Al-Sharh -Verses of Solace, Consolation, or Relief:

اَلَمۡ نَشۡرَحۡ لَـكَ صَدۡرَكَۙ‏ وَوَضَعۡنَا عَنۡكَ وِزۡرَكَۙ‏ الَّذِىۡۤ اَنۡقَضَ ظَهۡرَكَۙ‏ وَرَفَعۡنَا لَـكَ ذِكۡرَكَ‏ فَاِنَّ مَعَ الۡعُسۡرِ يُسۡرًاۙ‏ اِنَّ مَعَ الۡعُسۡرِ يُسۡرًا‏ فَاِذَا فَرَغۡتَ فَانصَبۡۙ‏ َاِلٰى رَبِّكَ فَارۡغَب

قرآن الكريم سورة الشرح

" O Prophet!
Have We not opened your breast for you, and removed from you your burden, which weighed down your back and exalted your fame? Surely, with the hardship, there is relief. Surely, with every difficulty, there is relief. Therefore, when you're free from your daily task, devote your time to the labor of worship and turn all your attention towards your Lord." Quran 94:1-8.

" The above Surah was revealed to Prophet Muhammad during the early stages of Prophet's residence at Mecca. This Surah is to console and encourage the Prophet (peace be upon him). He never had to encounter the conditions which he suddenly had to face after embarking on his mission of inviting people to Islam. This was by itself a great revolution in his life. When he started preaching the message of Islam, the same society which had esteemed him with unique honor, turned hostile to him..He was being ridiculed and mocked in the streets and on the roads. At every stop, he had to face new difficulties..That's why this Surah was revealed to console him. This Surah states that Allah has bestowed three major favors on the Prophet: the first is the blessing of Sharh Sadr (opening up of the breast), the second by removing from him the heavy burden that was weighing down his back before the call, and the third by exalting his renown, the like which has never been granted to anyone before him. Finally, the Prophet is instructed: " You can develop the power to bear and resist the hardships of the initial stage only by one means, and it is: "When you are free from your daily tasks, you should devote yourself to the labor and toil of worship, and turn all your attention exclusively to your Creator."

It's precisely the Quranic teachings of never giving up hope in God even in the darkest moments of despair which are embedded in Rumi's Sufi mystical poetic line of
"I want a heart (which is) torn, torn from separation". Rumi was cleverly telling us not to lose hope in the face of adversity, and that we all must seek a heart/chest slit open, so it could be illuminated by God's radiant lights of hope and prosperity.

In conclusion, as I've mentioned above, Rumi's Quranic reference to "I want a heart (which is) torn, torn from separation", and his intended Sufi spiritual and mystical meanings - within the Islamic perspectives - are entirely absent from Prof. Nicholson's translation.

Two question still remains unanswered:

How could a world class scholar of such caliber possibly commit such an omission, despite devoting his scholarly life into translating Rumi's works from Persian to English?

Was R. A. Nicholson so blinded by his "Christian Puritanism" and "Eurocentric Orientalistism" that he had deliberately ignored Maulana Jalaluddin Balkhi "Rumi", the Muslim theologian, preacher, and jurist par excellence?  

Only Allah knows best!


Sources used:

  • The Quran (in Arabic).
  • The Quran (English translation of the meaning of Al-Quran by Muhammad Farooq Azam Malik. Published in Houston, Texas, USA).
  • The Masnavi (English translation by Reynald A. Nicholson, London 1926 edition).
  • نی نامه مثنوی معنوی مولانا
  • "Coleman Barks and Rumi's Donkey by Majid Nacify.

Share this:


Post a Comment

©2009 - 2017
Thank you for visiting Maulana Rumi Online, a blog dedicated entirely to the life, works and teachings of Maulana Jalaluddin Muhammad Balkhi better known simply as Rumi here in our beloved America. Just as a memory refresher, all articles, e-books, images, links and reading materials listed in this Blog are solely for Educational purposes. This Blog is designed and maintained by yours truly, your comments, critiques or suggestions are quite welcome and greatly appreciated. As for my own Rumi Translations, you are welcome to copy and use them as long as it's not for commercial purposes. For best viewing, please try this Blog on Google Chrome Browser. This is a very long Blog though, so please make sure to use the Scroll To Top or Bottom Buttons at the left side, or Back To Top Button at the bottom right corner of your screen for smooth navigation. If you have any question, comment, critique or suggestion, please contact me by clicking the Contact Box embedded at the right middle corner. As Rumi would say, "Come, come, whoever you are, come back again.."!

To link to this blog, simply copy and paste the code below into your blog or website