Masnavi, Daftar 1, Verse 1

By Rumi
Book 1, verse 1

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بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَنِ الرَّحِيمِ

Listen to this Nay (Reed-flute) how it complains
How it tells the tales of (long lasting) separations

بِشْنَوْ اينْ نَىْ  چُونْ شِكايَتْ مى كُنَدْ   
       اَزْ جُداييها حِكايَتْ مى كُنَدْ


The researchers of Masnavi have explained this verse in many different ways. In the following we will review issues related to those interpretations.

The is no doubt that the word Nay refers to the reed-flute which is played by being blown into, since Rumi was a musician himself and had an intimate relationship with this instrument and has indeed mentioned the Nay in his other poems:

Come off my heart moans of the Nay
Scent of my beloved comes off the Nay
Divan Kabir v.699

O you the one who has conquered a universe
The sounds of the Nay, the sounds of the Nay and the sounds of the Nay
Divan Kabir v. 30836

O you wonderful sounding Nay, solace, happiness for the heart
Sometimes sounding with warmth and at other times sounding with chill (melancholy)
Divan Kabir 31825

O you Nay how wonderful it is to know of the secrets
The work is done by he who knows how to work
Divan Kabir 31897

This Nay (Reed Flute) is indeed a similitude or a metaphor for in reality the Nay is Rumi himself! It has gutted himself out with a cavity to blow in both the love and the beloved, be it Shams Tabrizi or Husamud-Din Chalabi or God, when the love of God conquers Rumi’s heart, for Rumi believes that God is inseparable from the loves and beloved(s) of his heart. This is evident since prior to his overflowing love for Shams Tabrizi, Rumi did not verse any poems! It is the love of others which made Rumi verse and dance to express the meanings of the unveiled secrets, so are love and the beloved the motivating forces behind his poetry, as they are in synchronicity with the Al-Haqq (The Absolute Reality and Truth, Allah).

It is not Rumi who is chanting the beautiful poems! Love and the beloved have taken over his throat and are vicariously rolling these caressing poems off Rumi’s tongue like the flying ambers of a passionate music played by the membranes of his larynx.

Whether these musical poems are about stories of love and loss, or about admonishments, whether they are harshly stated or softly spoken, they are nothing but the spoken words of love and the teachings of the beloved. This rope (of the poems) is lassoed around Rumi’s neck and he is pulled in different directions helplessly moving this way or that way, for this Masnavi was versed by him without any premeditation and thought involuntarily uttered and then scribed by Chalabi; it was caused exclusively through the uproars of what was boiling and burning within Rumi, without any volition of his own self. That is why the word Nay (Reed Flute) is used to describe the process of this poetry as though a flute was hollowed, as in the  removal of Rumi’s Self while the musician now takes over the blowing of the aerial music within the cavity that was once Rumi’s Nafs (Self). Indeed we can conclude that this Nay (Reed Flute) is Rumi himself and the word is not a similitude or metaphor of something else:

We are like unto a Nay (Reed Flute) and the music from You
Or we are like a mountain and the echoes within from You
Masnavi Vol. 1, v. 599

The universe is like a Nay and He blows into every opening
Every moan of the music (comes) from those two sugary lips
Divan Kabir 5664

Within the heart such exciting tumultuous music
And I know for sure that is the song of your Nay
Divan Kabir 6486

The truth is: Those sweet lips that blow into me
The cause for the music of this Nay beyond my control
Divan Kabir 2569

Who is more desired and more pious than the Nay ?
For it puts its lips upon yours to teach you the rhythms

Much sought after with greed are these Nays and specially the sugar-Nay
Dancing within the reed-marshes or: You endow with honor whom You will [3:26]
Divan Kabir 93, 94

I know O my father that I talked much about what you already know
That I am like unto a Nay, head-less and feet-less, clutched by the hands of the Nay player
Divan Kabir 14685

I am so filled with air that certainly I am the Nay and You are the Nay player
That within my Self, o my love, I am hunting after that Self-worshiper
Divan Kabir 16830

I am like unto an inanimate Nay, silent without your lips
But O what rhythms I can sound, the moment when a breath is blown into me
Divan Kabir 17184

I wish not to speak except through the cupbearer (that plays my Nay)
Who blows into us as though we are the Nay
Divan Kabir 17234

The lovers bemoaning like the Nays and love like the Nay player
What does it blow into me, this love into my Nay
Divan Kabir 20374

You are my tambourine and don’t let just anyone slap you
You are my Nay and bemoan not the lamentations of just anybody
Divan Kabir 21750

You are like my Nay and thus bemoan not except upon my lips
And play no tunes unless clutched by my hand otherwise stay silent
Divan Kabir 23512

Shams Tabrizi plays me like a Nay
With the excuse of  a Nay, the musician feverishly performing
Divan Kabir 25491

The mouth of love laughs aloud that I called its name
That indeed love is blowing into us, that we are the Nay and that it is the Nay player
Divan Kabir 26446

I am that Nay that is to be excused (for this music is not really from me)
That any moment you wish you blow into me

And though all the puffs of air in this world are accounted for
Yet O you the puff that blows into me, how is it that you are not accounted for?
Divan Kabir 28562, 28563

I am like unto a Nay tasting your lips while bemoaning
That I play such little tunes that are not attracting any new beloveds!
Divan Kabir 30374

The musician is within you so why give in to another musician (from outside you)
Your body is no less of a Nay, your soul is no less of a Nay
Divan Kabir 30161

How could I not bemoan the person that clutched at me so hard
By both hands and by his lips and played me like a Nay
Divan Kabir 32637

Upon the memories of the beloved parched are the lips
Happily, with an empty belly,  I bemoan like unto a Nay

Empty your Self, and be hollow upon the lips of the Nay player
Be not filled once I play the Nay (translation ?)
Divan Kabir 34707, 34708

Another point of view is adapted from the Sufis i.e. Fana-Fa’l (The Evanescence through deeds) which is coined as Chang (‘harp’, Farsi) or Rabāb (Bedouin string instrument, Arabic) or Tabla (Tambourine, drum) i.e. without the strike force and an inflicted wound no sounds can be generated! As Rumi has versed:

We are like a harp and you are striking us with wounds
The moaning is from us and not from you
Masnavi Vol. 1, v. 598

Beatitude upon the one that is stroked by the hand of the Haqq
Placed close to Him and performed as his instrumental music
Divan Kabir 7775

Whether we are good or evil please deny us not
That we are harps and our hearts like unto the strings

Sometimes play us like a wet tune
Sometimes play us like a dry tune

That if You do not play the heart of this harp
It would be best to leave it alone at some corner
Divan Kabir 12371-73

I am silent but you did not leave me as such
Like I am unto a harp subjugated to your lamenting songs
Divan Kabir 23591

The questions and the answers are all from Him and I am like unto a string instrument
Hurriedly he strikes at me with wounds, in other words: do bemoan!

One moment a song of help and one moment a song of death
With such goodness, (he) strikes at me thus elucidating my affairs
Divan Kabir 14295-6

We are all hollow like a tambourine in Your Presence
Screaming with moans once you strike us with wounds
Divan Kabir 14325

The heart said: How can I be torn away from You?
How can a drum make a sound without a drummer banging

The entire universe is a drum and You are the drummer
How can anyone go away from You, while all the passages are blocked

Answered: Be cognizant of your Self as a drum
Be sometimes a drum and sometimes a drummer and that shall bring your humility
Divan Kabir 14352-4

It has been speculated that the origins of these concepts is the Arabic phrases:

The likeness of a believer is that of a reed-flute, his voice will not reach perfection and beauty unless his belly is empty!

Rumi has considered this Arabic phrase as a Prophetic Narration (Hadith) and again has mentioned it in Masnavi (Vol. 4, v. 4213) and within the Divan Kabir (v. 6472, 18235). However the same phrase slightly reworded is attributed to Abu Talib Muhammad Ibn Ali Ibn Atiyah Makki one of the grand sheikhs of Sufism (386 HQ); it has also been considered to one of the anecdotes of the Bedouins  (‘Uyun Al-Akhbar, Egypt, Vol.3, P. 222). Nevertheless, it is the habit of Rumi to make a mountain out of a strand of a hay, thus to transform small and uninteresting dry concepts into grandiose works of imagination.

مثلُ المؤمِنِ كمثلِ المزمارِ لا يَحسُنُ صَوْتُهُ الّا بخلاءِ بطنِهِ

Therefore there is no doubt that the Nay (Reed Flute) is Rumi himself.

Rumi is the reed and love or the beloved blows into him and thus he sounds moaning sounds of music: Rumi is nothing but a heavenly musical instrument, like unto a moth flying around the flame of the candle, burning silently: That this song is not from me, He is playing the music through me, striking hard at the strings of my thoughts, wounding me with fiery lesions.

The above was narrated from Kamalul’-Din Hussein Kharazmi and Jami elucidating the first verse of the Masnavi.

The Nay (Reed Flute) has many other interpretations as well:

1.    Nay also means ‘negation’ in Farsi, thus referring to the state of Insan Kamil who is emptied or evanesced from his own Nafs (Self). Some have objected to this use since the negation in Farsi is Ney (‘e’ sounding as in nerd) and not Nay (‘a’ sounding as in cat). It should be noted that around the cities of Tabas and Bashruyeh Nay (‘a’ sounding as in cat) is used in the Farsi dialect as negation. Therefore the Nay can also be considered as a negation in Farsi, as well as a Ney (Reed Flute); both usages are supported.
2.    The Sanctified Ruh (Soul) that is separated from the sempiternal universe it belonged to, bemoaning its imprisonment within the dungeons of the bodily cage.
3.    It can also be interpreted as a reed that is cut to write with i.e. in calligraphy style or here the Nay is Qalam (Pen) facing the Lauh (The Divine Tablet).
4.   Or the Haqiqat-Muhammadia (Muhammadan Reality) that is in synchronicity with Qalam (The Divine Pen) and Lauh (The Divine Tablet), related to the ‘Iqra’ (Read! The first word of Qur’an), as Rumi started the first verse similarly Bish-naw (Do listen!) which is in harmony in relation to: “And when the Qur’an is read do listen and be silent” [7:204]

These last interpretations seem far from the spirit of Rumi, for in the Qunieh manuscript of the Masnavi, the verse reads: In-Nay (This Reed) i.e. Rumi pointing to his own person.

15:29 “When I have fashioned him (in due proportion) and breathed into him of My spirit”, is another explanation for Rumi’s Nay (Reed Flute). We are made from clay which is molded like a wind instrument and we have no sound whatsoever except when Allah blows from Hu’s (ITs, His) spirit into our corporeal mold which is hollowed from all else! Our intention is to keep our insides clean and free from all else, so that the sound of this Divine Spirit can be heard like unto a beautiful music.

فَإِذَا سَوَّيْتُهُ وَنَفَخْتُ فِيهِ مِنْ رُوحِي

© 2007-2002,  Dara O. Shayda, Dr. Hind Rifai