Literature & Poetry
Read Time: 4 min

humanity is one

Redux Extra October 10, 2021
Reading Time: 4 minutes

To See Things Clearly

By Richard Jeffrey Newman

In the last piece I wrote for Redux, “Saadi of Shiraz: A Poet For Our Times,” I quoted Saadi’s most famous lines, the ones that are woven into a carpet on display at the United Nations, and pointed out that the lines take on a very different significance depending on whether you read them on their own, separate from the narrative in which they originally appear, or within the context that narrative provides. Here are the lines in question:

All men and women are to each other
the limbs of a single body, each of us drawn
from life’s shimmering essence, God’s perfect pearl;
and when this life we share wounds one of us,
all share the hurt as if it were our own.
You, who will not feel another’s pain,
you forfeit what you need to be called human.

All too often our political leaders reduce this idea—that all human beings are connected to each other in a shared web of existence; that your well-being is ultimately dependent on mine, and vice versa—to a platitude, a sonorous piece of rhetoric they can trot out when they need to sound like they care about the people they lead in ways that their policies make perfectly clear they do not. That’s why it’s important to know that Sa’di composed these lines not as a discrete poem, but as the concluding stanza of a narrative that is anything but platitudinous. This is the full text of the narrative in which those lines appear, the tenth story in “Kings,” the first chapter of Saadi’s Golestan:

An Arab king who was notorious for his cruelty came on a pilgrimage to the cathedral mosque of Damascus, where I had immersed myself in prayer at the head of John the Baptist’s tomb. The king prayed with deep fervor, clearly seeking God’s assistance in a matter of some urgency:

The dervish, poor, owning nothing, the man
whose money buys him anything he wants,
here, on this floor, enslaved, we are equals.
Nonetheless, the man who has the most
comes before You bearing the greater need.

When he was done praying, the monarch turned to me, “I know that God favors you dervishes because you are passionate in your worship and honest in the way you live your lives. I fear a powerful enemy, but if you add your prayers to mine, I am sure that God will protect me for your sake.”

“Have mercy on the weak among your own people,” I replied, “and no one will be able to defeat you.”

To break each of a poor man’s ten fingers
just because you have the strength offends God.
Show compassion to those who fall before you,
and others will extend their hands when you are down.

The man who plants bad seed hallucinates
if he expects sweet fruit at harvest time.
Take the cotton from your ears! Your people
deserve justice. Otherwise, justice will find you.

All men and women are to each other
the limbs of a single body, each of us drawn
from life’s shimmering essence, God’s perfect pearl;
and when this life we share wounds one of us,
all share the hurt as if it were our own.
You, who will not feel another’s pain,
you forfeit what you need to be called human.

Notice how the human interconnectedness that Saadi’s narrator asserts in that last stanza takes on a very specific significance in light of the fact that the “you” he is addressing is “an Arab king notorious for his cruelty.” In calling out the political nature of that king’s inhumanity, the narrator asserts as something the Arab leader needs to learn a material politics of mutual dependency between ruler and ruled. When he tells the Arab king to “have mercy on the weak among your own people,” he’s not only telling the king to improve the material conditions of their lives; he’s arguing that doing so will in fact strengthen the people’s support for the king’s rule, to the point where “no one will be able to defeat you.”

Saadi then has his narrator develop this idea further, first in a quatrain that inveighs against the king’s arbitrary use of violence and then in a stanza that points out the futility of expecting the “bad seed” planted by that violence to yield the “sweet fruit” of God’s help that the king desires. What matters, the narrator tells the king, is that his “people deserve justice.” Justice, in other words, is the seed the king should have planted, and it’s this idea, that a king’s successful rule is built on his commitment to establishing a just material relationship with those he rules, that provides the context for Saadi’s most famous lines. Read in context, in other words, Saadi’s closing couplet—“You, who will not feel another’s pain,/you forfeit what you need to be called to human”—is not simply a call for us to see ourselves as connected to our fellow human beings. Rather, it is a charge specifically to those in power to cultivate that connection as the foundation of a just rule, of a just politics.

Saadi, of course, lived in a monarchy. We do not. Nonetheless, it is not hard to see at work in many of the social issues we now face the tension between a contemporary version of the Arab king’s position—that the veneer of righteousness provided by the dervish’s prayers should be enough to earn him God’s favor—and the position taken by the dervish. Saadi’s story, in other words, provides a very clear lens through which to assess how our political leaders are responding to the issues of our day. The only question is whether or not we have the will to see things that clearly and then to act on what we see.

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