A story that went straight to my heart years ago and that I like retelling comes from Maulana Jalaludin Rumi’s ‘Mathnavi’, which is hailed as the Persian Quran. It is a tale that I think many non-Muslims would find dear and familiar, for it is well in tune with stories from the Indian epics and the lives of saints and devotees. Especially, we can find in it the most touching resonances with Psalms in the Old Testament, with the Gurbani and with the Bhagavad Gita.
Anyhow, here was this unworldly shepherd whose heart overflowed with love for the Creator. All day long, as he tended his flocks, he would talk aloud to God: “Where are you, my Beloved? How I long to serve you.”
One day, Hazrat Moosa (the prophet Moses) passed by the meadow where our shepherd’s flock was grazing and heard him call aloud: “God, where are you, that I might stitch your clothes, mend your socks, polish your shoes, comb your hair and bring you a cup of milk for your nourishment?”
Hazrat Moosa was horrified at what he considered blasphemy of the Formless Almighty. “How dare you speak to God like that?” He raged. “Stuff cotton in your worthless mouth if this is how you blaspheme; at least, others will be spared the sin of listening to your polluting words. Is God a mere human, that he needs to drink milk and have his hair combed and his shoes polished? You insult the Almighty by such talk, you enemy of religion. Let us pray that the Creator will not punish the whole human race because of you.”
The poor shepherd was shattered by this rant. What had he said that was so wrong? Sobbing heartbrokenly, he apologised to the great prophet and led his flock away, feeling wretched and bereft.
Proud that he had caught and taught an erring person, Hazrat Moosa marched grandly away when the Lord’s annoyed voice arrested him. “Why did you interfere with me and mine, Moosa?” asked the Almighty from up above. “Who authorised you to separate the lover from the Beloved? Did I make you my prophet to bring humanity to me or to drive it away?”
Stunned, Hazrat Moosa fell to his knees.
“I did not create this world for my profit, Moosa,” said the Lord sternly. “My creation is for the benefit of my creatures. I have no need of praise and worship; it is the worshipper who benefits, not I. Nor do I care about what form the worship takes. Try to understand me, Moosa. It is the sincerity of the heart that alone interests me. Those bound by outward correctness are unlike those bound by their love for me. Those who love me know no religion but their Beloved.”
Humbled and repentant, Hazrat Moosa went back to look for the shepherd. After much searching, he finally found him in tatters, meditating by a spring. He eagerly related what had passed but the shepherd had no more to say. With a compassionate smile, he simply moved away.