Here’s one of my favourite anecdotes from the Masnavi:
Hear from the narrator this story about the way and custom
of the people of Qazwin.
They tattoo themselves in blue with the point of a
needle on body and hand and shoulders, so as to suffer no
A certain man of Qazwin went to a barber and said, “Tattoo
me (and) do it charmingly (artistically).”
“O valiant sir,” said he, “what figure shall I tattoo?” He
answered, “Prick in the figure of a furious lion.
Leo is my ascendant: tattoo the form of a lion. Exert your-
self, prick in plenty of the blue dye.”
“On what place,” he asked, “shall I tattoo you? Said he,
“Prick the design of the beauty* on my shoulder-blade.”
As soon as he began to stick in the needle, the pain of it
settled in the shoulder,
And the hero fell a-moaning–“O illustrious one, you have
killed me: what figure are you tattooing?”
“Why,” said he, “you bade me do a lion,” “What limb (of
the lion),” asked the other, “did you begin with?”
“I have begun at the tail,” said he. “O my dear friend*,
he cried, “leave out the tail!
My breath is stopped by the lion’s tail and rump: his rump
has tightly closed (choked) my windpipe.
Let the lion be without a tail, O lion-maker for my heart
is faint from the blows of the prong (the tattooer’s needle).”
That person commenced to prick in (the blue) on another
part (of the man’s shoulder) without fear, without favour,
He yelled–“Which of his members is this?” “This is his
ear, my good man,” the barber replied.
“O Doctor,” said he, “let him have no ears: omit the ears
and cut the frock short.”
The barber began to insert (his needle) in another part: once
more the man of Qazwin set out to wail,
Saying, “What is the member (you are pricking in) now on
this third spot?” He replied, “This is the lion’s belly, my dear
“Let the lion have no belly,” said he: “what need of a belly
for the picture that is (already) sated*?”
The barber became distraught and remained in great be-
wilderment: he stood for a long time with his fingers in his
Then the master flung the needle to the ground and said,
“Has this happened to anyone in the world?
Who (ever) saw a lion without a tail and head and belly? God
himself did not create a lion like this.”
O brother, endure the pain of the lancet, that you may escape
from the poison of your miscreant self (nafs),
For sky and sun and moon bow in worship to the people who
have escaped from self-existence.
Anyone in whose body the miscreant self has died, sun and
cloud obey his command.
Since his heart has learned to light the candle (of spiritual
knowledge and love), the sun cannot burn him.
God hath made mention of the rising sun as turning aside–
like that*–from their cave.
The thorn becomes entirely beautiful, like the rose, in the
sight of the particular that is going towards the Universal.
What is (the meaning of) to exalt and glorify God? To deem
yourself despicable and (worthless) as dust.
What is (the meaning of) to learn the knowledge of God’s
unity? To consume yourself in the presence of the One.
If you wish to shine like day, burn up your night-like self-
Melt away your existence, as copper (melts away) in the
elixir, in the being of Him who fosters (and sustains) existence.
You have fastened both your hands tight on (are determined
not to give up) “I” and “we”: all this (spiritual) ruin is caused
— Mathnawi I: 2981 – 3021
Translation by Reynold A. Nicholson