A story teaching a lesson, taken from the book, “Rumi Stories for Young Adults from the Mathnawi”, translated and adapted by Muhammad Nur Abdus Salam.
Once there was a poor Sufi. He had a donkey which he would ride on in his travels from one place to another. During the day he would travel about as was his custom and at night, if he should come upon a house of dervishes or an inn, he would spend the night in their company. If he did not find such a place, he would sleep in a mosque or in some ruins. He used to say to himself, “Wherever night falls, there is my bed.”
Since the dervish had no family and owned nothing, and he possessed no skills, to live he would recite poetry about morals and in praise of the prophets and religious leaders in villages and towns and then move on. He was able to survive on the gifts of money, food, and other articles that the people gave him. In his own world he was content and he thanked God for His bounty.
The only thing the dervish owned other than the clothes on his back was that very donkey. With it he was able to roam God’s world and learn lessons from the world’s good and evil. He didn’t spend much time thinking about food and eating. He used to say, “An open mouth does not remain without its daily bread. As long as it is my portion and fate, there will be enough to keep me alive from whatever source. All that is needed is a heart free from the worry about what I have and don’t have.”
And this freedom, too, the dervish had.
One day when the dervish was crossing a desert with his donkey and he was tired, exhausted, hungry, and thirsty, he came upon a village. He drank water from the first irrigation ditch he came upon and washed his face and hands. While refreshing himself he gave his donkey to drink its fill, then he went in search of a dervish inn.
Some men pointed out a garden and said that there was such an inn there. So the dervish went to it and looked at the Sufis and dervishes that were gathered there. He led his donkey to the stable and after putting some hay into the manger, he told the stable hand to groom the animal. Then he went back to the assembly of dervishes.
There were many different kinds of dervishes at the inn. There were upright Sufis and tired dervishes; there were broken-hearted beggars and tight-lipped rogues; in short, all kinds of men.
The Sufis and dervishes welcomed the new arrival and greeted him warmly. But the rogues in the inn, who had seen the newcomer arrive with a donkey that he had put in the stable, made more of a fuss over him than any of the others and showed him much honor.
One of the rascals prayed loudly to God for the newcomer’s good health in the manner of true dervishes. Another showed him to the place of honor in the assembly. Still another with great warmth asked him how he was and gently engaged the new arrival in conversation, while still others signaled and gestured to each other and then left the assembly quietly. In truth, they were always in wait for such an event: that a stranger would come to them and have something of value with him that they could use for themselves. And now this dervish had arrived with a donkey which was now tied up in the stable!
The scoundrels collected together and headed straight for the stable and stole the dervish’s donkey. In another street they sold the animal to a passerby who was ignorant of what had happened. The thieves then spent the money on food and drink and sweetmeats and whatever else they fancied and returned to the inn.
Yes, they returned and gleefully invited all in the assembly to share in a feast in honor of their recently arrived guest. They all exclaimed, “The pleasure of the arrival of a dervish is love!”
The dervish was very pleased with the hospitality of the inn. They all ate a heavy supper of many kinds of food and enjoyed the sweets and various drinks, having a good time as dervishes will. The dervish was offered tidbits and made to feel welcome by all present. They shook the dust off his clothes and kissed his hands and prayed for his well-being. They beseeched the Lord for the his glory. The party grew more animated as the night wore on. Gradual-ly the Sufis began to recite poetry and clap hands. Soon they were stamping and dancing.
At a signal from the thieves, the minstrel began to sing and beat a drum. Since he knew about the theft and the sale of the dervish’s donkey, that was the first thing that occurred to him to sing about. So he beat his drum and sang this verse in a loud voice:
Joy has come and sorrow has gone;
The donkey’s gone, the donkey’s gone, the donkey’s gone,
The donkey’s gone, the donkey’s gone!
The thieves joined in the minstrel’s song and sang loudly:
“The donkey’s gone, the donkey’s gone!”
Everyone was excited and shouting. They jumped up and down and continued to repeat that verse.
Now the visiting dervish, when he saw the liveliness of the men, forgot his own exhaustion. Thinking that the words “the donkey’s gone!” had some special significance to the dervishes at the inn, he joined in the singing. He began to enjoy himself so much that he sang more loudly than the rest: “The donkey’s gone! The donkey’s gone!”
The party continued for a couple of hours and then, when the hour had become late and they were worn out from their singing and dancing, some of the dervishes left while another group stayed at the inn. Our dervish, too, stayed behind and since he was tired from his journey, he found a spot and went to sleep.
Early the next morning all of the dervishes left on their own business while our Sufi woke up later than the rest. After making ready to travel and not knowing what had happened, he went to the stable to take his donkey, but the animal was not in the stable!
He thought to himself, the groom has probably taken the donkey for a drink of water, but when the groom came back he did not bring the dervish’s donkey with him.
“Where’s my donkey?” the dervish demanded of the groom.
“What donkey?” the groom sneered.
“What do you mean?” cried the dervish. “The donkey I put in your charge last night!”
The groom made fun of the dervish. “Look at his long beard!”
The dervish grew agitated. “My good fellow, what kind of talk is this? I’m telling you to bring my donkey and you’re making fun of me? Are we bosom buddies to fool around together? Hurry up! Bring the donkey! I want to get started. If you think you can get rid of me with this nonsense you’ve got another thing coming! I’ll go to the judge and lodge a complaint against you! I’ll disgrace you!”
The groom snapped, “You’re the one who is the fool, my good fellow! Where do you think all that food and drink, hot and cold, that we consumed last night came from? It all came from the money they got for selling the donkey. Right?”
“O my God!” wailed the dervish. “My donkey? Who gave you permission to sell my donkey?”
The groom replied, “I didn’t sell it. The thieves sold it.”
“Then why did you give them my donkey? Wasn’t I its owner?”
“Well, they were too many for me. They were ten men and they scared me. They told me that they were going to take the donkey and if I said anything they’d take revenge on me. I was afraid for my life so I stayed quiet. They even left two men with me to make sure that I didn’t go the party. Yes, sir, that’s the way it was, until the affair heated up and no one knew what he was doing.”
“Supposing that what you say is true,” said the dervish, “and they took the donkey in broad daylight, I was still here! You should have let me know a half hour, an hour, or a couple of hours later so that I could recognize them and start a fight with them. I could have gotten good men to arbitrate between us and try to get my money back. That wouldn’t have put you in any danger.”
The groom nodded. “That is true. In fact, two hours after the festivities had started I went there to call you and let you know what had happened, but when I went in, I saw that you were enjoying yourself and making more of a commotion than anyone else! You yourself were celebrating the donkey’s departure, dancing, and bellowing The donkey’s gone! The donkey’s gone!’”
“I figured that you knew about the affair and there was nothing more for me to say,” continued the groom. “I said to myself that the dervish is an upright man, a saint, and he seems to delight in making the other dervishes happy by selling his own donkey and using the money for a party. If you were in my place, what would you have done?”
The dervish admitted that the groom was right. “Now I realize this was all my own mistake. I followed them in their behavior blindly without understanding or knowledge. I became as one of them. If I had thought about the meaning of ‘the donkey’s gone’ from the very beginning, none of this would have happened. Now there is nothing I can do. It was my blind imitation of their behavior that caused you to misunderstand the situation. If I had not sung the song of the thieves more loudly than they did, I would not have lost my donkey.”