An Urn of Water

As the good-looking look at a mirror,
The generous look at the weak and the poor!
Mirrors reflect the beauty in the face of the good-looking;
The poor reflect the beauty of generosity and giving.


One night a bedouin woman said to her husband as she carried her talk beyond bounds:

– While we are suffering all this poverty and hardship, the whole world is living in happiness. We alone are unhappy. We have no bread; our only condiment is anguish and envy. We have no urn of water and our only water is to be found in the teardrops flowing from our eyes. Our garment by day is the burning sunshine, at night our bed and coverlet are made of moonbeams. We fancy the disk of the moon to be a round disk of bread and lift up our hands towards the sky. The poorest of the poor feel shame at our poverty; as day is turned to night darkened by our anxiety borne of our meager daily portion of food. Kinsfolk and strangers have come to flee from us as gazelles flee from men.

The bedouin bade his wife to be patient and in a state of contentment declared to her the excellence of patience and poverty as follows:

– How long will you seek income and worldly possessions? What indeed is left of our life? Most of it has past. The sensible man does not look at sufficiency or deficiency, because both will pass as a torrent. Whether life be pure, clear and untroubled or whether it be a turbid flood, do not speak of it, since it is not enduring for even a moment. In this world, thousands of animals are living happily, without need of the anxieties of gain and loss. These uprooting grievances are as a scythe to us: to judge that this is such and such or that that is such and such is a temptation of the Devil. Know that every pain is borne of desire; expel desire from you if there is but a means to do so. You were once young, and then you were more content; now you have become a seeker of gold, whereas at first you were indeed precious and perfect gold yourself. You were a fruitful wine. How have you succeeded in becoming rotten when your fruit was but ripening? Fruit ought to become sweeter with age!

The wife cried out at him saying:

– O you, who has made a reputation of his morals, I will not swallow your spells and deceiving speeches any more. Do not talk nonsense in your presumption and pretension; be gone, do not speak from pride and arrogance. How long will you continue to utter such pompous and artificial phrases? Look at your own acts and feelings and be ashamed! I say enough of this palaver, pretense, and bluster, O you, whose house is as frail as the house of a spider? When has your soul been illumined by contentment? Of contentment, you know no more than the name. Do not call me your spouse; do not flap your lips so much. I am the mate of justice; I am not the mate of fraud.

The husband answered calmly:

– O woman! Are you a woman or the father of sorrow? Poverty is my pride. Do not beat me on the head, as you lash me with your reproaches. Wealth and gold are as a hat on the head. One must be bold to make a shelter of his cap, but he that has curly and beautiful locks is happier when his cap is gone. The wealthy that are up to their brim in faults cover them with their money. Poverty is something you do not understand! Do not disdain poverty. In the eyes of the prophets and the saints, it is perceived as a blessing. This poverty draws me closer to Allah. May Allah protect me from desire for this material world! I carry in my heart a world made of contentment. O woman! Leave aside fighting as you abandon destroying our relationship. Otherwise, leave me alone. My soul even shies away from reconciliation, let alone fights. It would be better for you to be silent. Otherwise, I may leave home right away…

Having heard the words of separation, the wife saw that he was fierce and unmanageable. She began to weep, but tears in sooth are a woman’s lure. She approached him in the guise of self-naughting and self-abasement:

– I am as your dust, not worthy to be thy lady-wife. Body and soul and all I am, is yours: the authority and the command belongs to you alone. If because of poverty my heart has lost patience, it is not for my own sake, but for yours. You have been my remedy for all afflictions; I am unwilling that you should be penniless. On my soul and conscience, this is not for my own sake: this wailing and moaning is only for you. Have mercy free of self-conceit O angry one, O you whose nature is better than a hundred mounds of honey.

In this fashion, as she was speaking graciously and winningly, a fit of weeping came upon her and when the tears and sobs had passed beyond all bounds, from her who was fascinating even in repose, there appeared from that rain a lightning-flash that shot a spark of fire into the heart of the lonely man. She, through whose beauteous face man was enslaved, led him to ponder how it would be when she began to play the humble slave. The man yielded to his wife’s request that he should seek a means of livelihood, and regarded her opposition to him as a divine sign.

The wife, observing the change in her husband, said:

– We have the rainwater in the urn: it is your property, capital, and means. Take this urn of water and depart, and make of it a gift and go into the presence of the King of kings. Say, “We have no means except this: in the desert there is nothing better than water. Although your treasury is full of gold and jewels, you have never seen the likes of water like this. It is rare.”

The wife did not know that in Baghdad, near the thoroughfare, a great river of water sweet as sugar flows as a sea, full of boats and fishnets, through the city center. She sewed the jug of rainwater in a felt cloth and put a seal on it because of her utter conviction that it was a precious gift for the Caliph.

The husband said:

– Yes, stop up the mouth of the urn. Take care for this is a gift that will bring us great profit. Sew this urn in felt, that the Caliph may break his fast with our gift, for there is no water like this in the entire world. No other water is as pure as this.

When the bedouin arrived from the remote desert at the gate of the Caliph’s palace, the court officers went to meet him and they generously sprinkled a rose water of graciousness on his bosom. Without him having said even a word, they had perceived what he wanted. It was their practice to give before being asked. He then proceeded to say to them:

– O respected people! I am a miserable bedouin. I have come all this way to the palace for the sake of dinars. When I arrived, I fell into drunkenness at its sight (i.e. contemplative). Bear this gift to the Sultan, and redeem the king’s suitor from indigence. It is sweet water in a new green urn– some of the rainwater that we collected in the ditch.

The officials smiled and accepted the urn in a magnanimous gesture as though it was as precious as life. Clearly, the graciousness of the good and wise Caliph had made a mark and impressed itself on the characters of the courtiers. The Caliph accepted the gift and bestowed largess, notwithstanding that he was entirely without need of the gift of water and the urn. He ordered:

– Give into his hand this urn full of gold. When he returns home, take him to the Tigris. He has come hither by way of the desert, by traveling on land: it will be easier for him to return by water.

When the bedouin embarked on the boat and beheld the Tigris, he prostrated himself in shame and bowed his head, saying, “Oh, how wonderful is the kindness of that bounteous king. It is even more remarkable that he has accepted the water. How did that sea of munificence so generously accept from me such a spurious tidbit?”



Know, O son that everything in the visible universe is as an urn filled to the brim with wisdom and beauty. Know too, that everything in this universe is but a drop of the Tigris of His beauty. This beauty was a hidden treasure that because of its fullness overflowed and made the earth brighter than the heavens. As it surged up it made the soil like a Sultan robed in satin. However, if the bedouin had but seen a drop of the divine Tigris, he would have immediately destroyed his urn. They that have seen it, always lose themselves: like one beside himself, they hurl a stone at the urn of their self-existence. Of you who from jealousy have hurled stones at the urn, know that the urn has only been raised to a higher perfection through being shattered. The jar is shattered, but the water does not spill from it: from this shattering its soundness has increased a hundred fold. Every piece of the jar is in a dance of ecstasy, though to the partial discursive reason this may seem absurd. In this state of ecstasy, is neither the urn, nor the water manifest. Consider well, and Allah knows best what is right.

In the story the bedouin represents the spiritual intellect while his wife represents desire (i.e. the nafs). The intellect and the nafs are always engaged in a struggle with each other. Both of them reside in the kingdom of the body. They continuously fight day and night. The woman who represents the nafs articulates the needs of the body; she wants honor, status, appreciation, clothes and food. Occasionally, she shows humility to reach to her goals. Sometimes she puts her face on the ground to gain mercy; sometimes she acts arrogantly as she rises to the zenith.

The spiritual intellect, however, is unaware of the thoughts of the body. It is preoccupied only with the love of Allah. It is overwhelmed by the agony and fear of the possibility of losing the love of Allah.

The Caliph in the story is the Tigris of divine knowledge. The bedouin who took an urn of water to the Tigris is pardonable because he did not know it. He resided in a desert far removed from the Tigris. If he had known about the Tigris, he would not have carried the urn in the desert. Instead, he would have thrown it on the rocks and broken it into pieces as he strove to clean his heart and purify it by following the order of the Prophet r to “die before you die” through absorption in the aim to discover the divine Tigris.

The woman who represents the nafs and the bedouin who represents the spiritual intellect have not yet realized that the real value and pleasure is in the water of divine knowledge and that tasting it is dependent on obtaining a share of it from the ocean of divine wisdom.

“The gate of the Caliph,” on the other hand, represents the “divine gate.”

A believer should never rely on knowledge, property, wealth, or good deeds regardless of how abundant they may be. He should look at all of these as but gifts from Allah and keep in his mind the realization that regardless of how many good deeds one might perform, they are but only an urn of water beside the Tigris.

The water, which was collected in the desert by the bedouin with great perseverance that was presented to the Caliph, was his life elixir. Nevertheless, when it was poured into the Tigris it was effaced in it.

The sum a human being understands of the divine order is less than but a drop of the Tigris when compared to the scope of its true vastness. The urn of water in the story represents our limited knowledge. Yet, since we are unaware of the endless knowledge of Allah, we think that our knowledge is broad and comprehensive. This is similar to an ant that likens his mound to the whole world, or to a fish, that likens his aquarium to a huge ocean. It would be an act of vast self-deception, due to his incognizance of his dwarf like size, for a human being to think in the fashion of the ant or fish just mentioned.

When the urn of existence is shattered, the water in it is filtered, and becomes transparent and clear. Exceptional manifestations emerge out of this shattering.

The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) said: “O my Lord! I glorify you and declare that you are beyond any imperfection. We can not know you the way you deserve to be known!”

The classical scholars of this sublime religion have also confessed that their knowledge was deeply limited. Imam Abu Yusuf was consulted on an issue by the Caliph Harun al-Rashid. Imam Abu Yusuf answered by saying, “I do not know.” The assistant to the Caliph said to Abu Yusuf: “You have a salary and you say you do not know.” In response, the great scholar Abu Yusuf said: “My salary is according to my knowledge. If it were according to my ignorance, the treasury of the state would not suffice.”

The great scholar Imam Ghazali also was not afraid to acknowledge his weakness with great humility: “If I were to put the matters that I do not know under my foot, in contrast to what I know, my head would touch the sky.”

These great figures did not refrain from confessing that what they did not know far exceeded what they knew.

The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) described fallen and divinely realized states of knowledge as follows: “Knowledge is as three spans of hand. The one who reaches the first span feels proud. The one who grows to the second span is amazed. The one who attains to the third span realizes that he does not have enough knowledge.”

Are not the good deeds one inclines to rely on as but an urn of water in comparison to the Tigris River? Allah forbid, similar to a sky covered by dark clouds which block the light of the sun, if the heart becomes a throne for the Devil, how will the light of the Most Merciful Creator reach it? Since a human being may not know the Tigris, one might confuse an urn of water for an ocean and drown in it. Just such people are lost in their illusions.


Junayd al-Baghdadi came across a man who was selling ice. The ice vendor was shouting as follows:

– Help the man whose capital is melting!

When Junayd al-Baghdadi heard this, he fainted and fell to the ground.

If we cannot transform our worldly investments into investments in the Hereafter, our mundane efforts will be but shares in the hands of Satan. The outcome will be a painful illusion. The craziness of extravagance and the absence of mercy are among the greatest problems of this world, and they function as investments in our punishment in the Hereafter. The files on our past are closed. There is no possibility to make revisions in them. The nature of our existence in the future is uncertain. The moment is now. If we use the drops of sweat of our heart to water the good deeds we plant in the field of our life today, Allah willing, excellent stations will be ours in Paradise. This is what the famous Sufi poet Sadi has stated in the following verse:

“The face of earth is the open table of the Lord.”

In the world, all creatures are fed abundantly as a manifestation of the divine name ar-Rahman, the Most Merciful. They are all given food, drink and covering. No distinction is made between friend and enemy, those loyal and those rebelious. The infinite mercy of Allah embraces all creatures.

Among the manifestations of this comprehensive mercy is the love of the porcupine for its baby and the acceptance of the prayers of the oppressed even if they are non-Muslims. The rationality, wisdom and divine art or creation will fill the heart of anyone, whose nature has not been spoiled, with reverence for the glory of the divine, with love of solitude in company with Allah, as well as with purity and softness of heart.

Nevertheless, Allah’s most delicate blessings are saved for the Hereafter. These are the manifestations of the name ar-Rahim, the Most Compassionate, and will be kept exclusively for the believers.

At this exclusive table of blessings, Paradise and “the witnessing of the beauty of Allah” (ru’yati jamalullah) will be offered. These are the greatest blessings a human may be granted. Since a human being is a perfect and complete manifestation of the divine names, he is a small manifestation of the entirety of creation. His physical structure has originated from soil. It is the external dimension of his existence, and is but a temporary structure. His real existence is a hidden treasure of secrets, made up of divine light and divine truth. This is the blessed dimension of a human being. For him to attain a share from the ocean of knowledge, which is the purpose of his creation, depends on his connection with this dimension. Hallaj-i Mansoor shed his temporary existence in the ocean of secrets. His act reminds us of a moth that falls in love with light even at the expense of being burned. Mansoor was consumed in the fire of the manifestations of the divine. His soul rose and became immersed in divine knowledge, his nafs lost strength until it was completely extinguished. He became an alien to himself and tried to free himself from his self. Yet he was unable to carry these heavy manifestations. He became intoxicated and exclaimed:

– O my friends! Kill me! My eternal life is in my death.

The only thing that wounded him was a carnation thrown by a friend while he was being stoned. Even such a small worldly appreciation and a smile were too heavy for him.

In other words, his spiritual state is an expression of attaining to eternity and completely submitting temporary existence to that of the eternal.

Similar to the existence of a drop of water that is lost on contact with the sea, the one who dies in the sea of eternity does not see anything other than the eternal.

Those who reach to this level see everything including their own self as a reflection of divine truth. Yet, it is only a spiritual state. When it is over, one recognizes the distinction between the divine and the transient.

The following hadith explains this spiritual state with an example: “Those who wish to see a living-dead being in this world should look at Abu Bakr.”

The great Caliph Umar (r.a) who was a statue of mercy and justice, ordered his servant to ride their only camel when they entered the city of Damascus because it was his turn. He entered the city on foot. The people thought that the servant was the Caliph.

After the Caliph Umar passed away his friends saw him in their dreams. They asked him:

– How has the Lord treated you?

He said:

– Thanks be to Allah; my Lord is the Most Merciful and the Most Compassionate.


The great teacher Rumi, quddisa sirruh, said:

“Since poverty is a mirror for generosity, be aware and know that it is harmful to blow on the mirror.”

This means that words that insult a poor, miserable person break his heart. His heart becomes unclear like a mirror that has been blown on. It loses its clarity and depth. Consequently, it cannot reflect the beauty of generosity. Usually our good deeds, sacrifice and donations appear to be substantial to us. This mistaken impression deceives us and engages our mind. It fills us with contentment. Since we are unaware of the Tigris and its Owner, a mere urn of water appears to be an ocean to us.

Our mundane desires never cease. We presume that what we own is our natural birthright. When we are asked to make a sacrifice our behavior changes as if we have been asked for something from our own personal possessions. Consequently, the bright, crystal clear and delicate mirror of trustworthiness and generosity becomes stained.

However, as Almighty Allah has revealed in the Qur’an: “As to the orphan do not oppress him. Nor refuse the one who asks for help” (Duha, 9-10).

Rumi, quddisa sirruh, said:

Just as physically beautiful people search for bright and clear mirrors, for generosity to be seen poor and powerless people are required. As a beautiful person’s face may be reflected in a mirror, so too the beauty of those who help the needy through their generosity is reflected in the poor and the miserable.

The mirror may enslave those who are good-looking as they perpetually return in their narcissism to confirm their beauty. They may even look in stained windows to see themselves as they pass by. Generosity, which is our original spiritually rooted beauty, watches itself in the mirror of the heart of the poor and the miserable.

Rumi, quddisa sirruh, said:

“Thus, the poor are the mirror of divine mercy and generosity. Those who are with Allah or lost in the existence of Allah are in a state of continuous generosity.”


Tafsir-i Hazin, a commentary on the Qur’an, reports the following from the great companion Jabir:

A small child came to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). He told him that his mother had asked for a shirt. At that time the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) owned only the shirt that he was wearing. He told the child to come back another time. The child returned to his home. But, soon he came back and told the Prophet r that his mother wanted the shirt he was wearing. The Messenger of Allah r went to his room, took off his shirt and gave it to the child.

At that moment, Bilal, the muadhdhin of the Prophet (pbuh) began reciting the Adhan, or the call to prayer. The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) could not come out of his room to lead the communal prayer because he did not have a shirt. Some of the companions came to his room since they were worried about him and they discovered that the Prophet (pbuh) no longer had a shirt to wear.


Wealth is a trust of Allah given to our care. The only way to enjoy it and feel happy about it is by sympathizing with the suffering of the needy by opening a window of mercy and compassion from our heart to them.

The great Rumi said:

Act like the sun in mercy and compassion!

Act like the night in covering the mistakes of others!

Act like a river in generosity and sacrifice!

Act like a dead one in anger and fury!

Act like the soil in humility and selflessness!

Act in accordance with the way you look!

Look in accordance with the way you act!

We should keep in mind that regardless how one presents oneself, what will come out of him is what he has in the urn of his heart. It is true that many urns that have claimed to be full of love have only produced eventually the water of indiscretion and heedlessness. Likewise, many people who have spoken about the elixir, or the water of life, could not drink a drop of it nor could they offer any to others. On the other hand, many people who hide themselves in humility and externally look like empty urns are special servants of Allah and carry endless oceans in their hearts. And they unhesitatingly offer water to burning lovers like the water of al-Kawthar, a river in Paradise.

May Allah raise all of us to be of His sincere and pure-hearted servants, so that we may too offer to all of humanity drops from the water of al-Kawthar and Tasnim[1] while still in this world.


[1].      al-Kawthar (literally, ‘The Abundant’) is a river of Jannah and Tasnim (literally, ‘Nectar’) is a spring of Jannah.

Osman Nuri Topbas from the book of  “Tears of the Heart”