Sufi Comics – Touching Tales of Spiritual Journeys
Compiled & Edited by:
Mohammed Ali Vakil, Mohammed Arif Vakil & Tanzilur Rahman
By Sufi Studios, Bangalore
Reviewed by Roshan Sha
His appeal transcends every barrier of religion, class and ethnicity. His poetry speaks to us all, no matter who or what or where we may be, what belief-system we may claim to follow, and at what time in history we may live. Some seven centuries after his demise, Maulana Jalaluddin Muhammad Balkhi, more popularly known as ‘Rumi’, remains among the world’s most beloved poets and mystics. Trained as a religious scholar and jurist, Rumi’s meeting with Shams Tabrizi, the man who was to become his spiritual master, marked a complete transformation in his life, leading him to become one of the world’s most well-known Sufi poets and lovers of God.
Rumi’s magnum opus is the Masnavi-e Manavi (“Rhyming Couplets of Profound Spiritual Meaning”), a vast collection of mystically-inspired poems. It is considered to be among the gems of world literature, and has been translated into numerous languages. It focuses on instructing disciples on the Sufi path how to reach their goal.
Some years ago, a band of lovers of Sufi literature based in Bangalore got together to bring out Sufi-related literature in comic form and using contemporary idiom, trying, in this way, to reach out with the Sufi message to a broader cross-section of society, beyond a narrow circle. This beautifully-crafted book—in itself a delicate work of art—is their third publication. The publishers describe the book as “a modest attempt to bring awareness of what Rumi meant to share. A deeper insight into his teachings.”
Rumi’s Masnavi-e Manavi consists of six books of poetry, and comprises some 25,000 verses or some 50,000 lines. If you don’t have the resources or time or even the inclination to read all of it, you can at least savour some samples from it from the selection that this book provides.
The book consists (in addition to a chapter describing in brief some key events in Rumi’s life), of ten ‘episodes’ from the Masnavi-e Manavi, based on selections from verses in the text. These verses are woven together to form an entertaining, and, at the same time, instructive story. Using everyday motifs and experiences that all of us—even now, centuries after Rumi left the world to meet his Maker—can identify with, each story conveys a profound spiritual truth. These truths are all ingredients of the spiritual journey—the love of God, surrendering the ego, controlling the tongue, patiently braving other people’s taunts, and so on.
In a simple, straight-to-the-heart and non-preachy way, Rumi inspires his readers to ponder on and pursue the purpose of why they have been sent into the world and to reflect on how they should lead their lives. In the story of the Tattoo Artist, for instance, we learn of a man who went to a barber to get him to tattoo a lion on his shoulder. The barber begins his work, only to be told by the man, each time he starts tattooing a particular part of the lion’s body, to stop—the pain is too excruciating for him to bear. The flustered barber finally throws away the tattooing needle, saying that he’s never heard of a lion without a tail or head or stomach and that God Himself never created a lion like that! The moral of the story, Rumi tells us, is that to escape from the ‘poison’ of our ‘dark soul’ we have to bear the ‘pain of the needle’.
Another of the several delightful Rumi-tales that the book recounts is the well-known one about the Indians and the elephant. Once, Rumi tells us, a group of Indians took an elephant into a dark-house to exhibit it. People began to go inside to see the strange animal. But since it was too dark, they could only feel it with their hands. One man put his hand on the beast’s trunk and exclaimed that the elephant was like a water-pipe! Another, who touched its ear, insisted it was like a fan! A third, who felt its leg, said it was like a pillar! A fourth, who placed his hand on the animals’ back, said it was like a throne! Each understood—and in his own limited way—the elephant based on his particular limited experience of it. Had the men simply lit a candle in the dark room, all their differences would have vanished and the animal would have been seen for what it truly was! And so it is with us humans too. Each of us views and interprets things from our narrow and restricted perspectives, not seeing them as they truly are.
Another story that is intimately related to our contemporary context—of seemingly intractable conflict between people of diverse religious backgrounds over the one God that all of them claim to revere—is the one about the quarrel about the grapes. A man gives a Persian, an Arab, a Turk and a Greek a coin, and they all want to buy a bunch of grapes with it. But because they call grapes by different names in their respective languages, each of them thinks that what the others want are not grapes but something else! In their madness, Rumi tells us, they start fighting because they do not know “the hidden meaning of names”, being “empty of true knowledge and filled with ignorance.” Had an authentic mystic master, proficient in many languages, been present, the men would have been pacified. He would have said to them, “I can give you everything you want with this one coin, if you give me your heart sincerely without pretence.” “Your one coin will become four,” he would have explained, adding that, “All you say only produces struggle and separation; what I tell you brings harmony.”
Each poem-story is exquisitely illustrated, and is accompanied by some lines from the Quran (in the original Arabic as well as in English translation, in beautiful calligraphic style) that have the same message as the poem (Rumi, it is important to remember, was deeply immersed in the Islamic tradition, and his Masnavi-e Manavi, the publishers tell us, has more than 2000 references to the Quran). In addition to this are short, spiritually-edifying sayings of Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh) and Imam Ali (RA) that reinforce the message of the poem-stories.
This book is a gem, and everyone who has gone into bringing it out deserves, you will surely agree if you get to read it, our heartfelt gratitude and special thanks.