Sheath Your Sword: The Man Who Spat on Saint Ali

Thursday, March 26, 2015 - 5:47am
Photo by Behrouz Mehri

Sheath Your Sword: The Man Who Spat on Saint Ali

I’m drawn to saintly beings. It’s taken me sometime to figure out why. It’s not about miracles. It’s about heart.

I know that these luminous human beings are still human beings, but I want to figure out how they have become illuminated. I am intrigued by how they struggle with the same urges, desires, hopes, and dreams that we all have — and how that can help all of us figure out how to live more beautifully.

In sorting out these questions, I’ve been searching Rumi’s poetry. One story that really speaks to me is the story of the man who spat on a great saint’s face.

I’ve been teaching Rumi’s masterpiece, the Masnavi, to a class this month. The book is in many ways a roadmap of spiritual growth. It begins with the condition of so many of us: being broken, homesick, cut off, alone, down and out, and unsure of our own worth. The narrative moves through the purification of the heart, the cleansing experience of love, before moving to the state of being a real human being.

The story that the Masnavi tells is the path that all of us have to go through, moving from brokenness to healing, from spiritually feeling worthless and cut off to being wholehearted. That is the whole goal of the spiritual path: not divinity, but full humanity.

In Rumi’s telling, that state is represented by the saintly Imam Ali, a chivalrous knight who met a mighty warrior, a mountain of man, in a duel. The two engaged in traditional wrestling, until Ali picked up the mountainous warrior, threw him to the ground, and was ready to vanquish him.

(Annemiek / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).)

The pagan warrior, flustered and humiliated at having been defeated, spat on Ali’s face. Ali calmly got up from the defeated warrior’s chest, put his sword back in his sheath, and walked away. Here’s how Rumi tells the tale:

Learn how to act sincerely from Ali
God’s lion, free from all impurity:
During a battle, he subdued a foe

Then drew his sword to deal the final blow.
That man spat in Ali’s pure face, the pride
Of every saint and prophet far and wide
The moon prostrates itself before this face
At which he spat — this act was a disgrace!
Ali put down his saber straight away

And, though he was on top, he stopped the fray.
The fighter was astonished by this act,

That he showed mercy though he’d been attacked.

The pagan warrior, puzzled, inquired from Ali why he had not finished him. Ali explains that everything he had done up until that point had been for the sake of God. When the warrior spat on his face, Ali got angry. If he were to kill the warrior, it would not be for the sake of God, but as a response to his own anger.

What Rumi is revealing is that the real measure of power is not about brute force, not the ability to lift mountainous weights, but rather the ability to control one’s own impulses. Perhaps “control” doesn’t quite do it. Control implies too much a relationship based on opposition, pushing down, and fighting. It’s more like skillfully channeling one’s ego.

As Rumi says, if the measure of a human being were simply about power, then elephants would be more human than humans! Rather, the model of humanity is to strive in the path of God, yet to channel away one’s selfish desires so that one can be imbued with divine attributes. If we don’t cleanse the cup of our hearts first, it’s like having a muddy cup in which we keep pouring fine tea. The mud does not disappear, but it doesn’t have to be in our cup. I wonder if anger and lust work like this: the only place that they can be dangerous is in our hearts. Channeled away, they are defused.

Two men wrestle at Spanish Banks Beach in Vancouver, British Columbia.

(Patrick Doheny / Flickr (CC BY 2.0).)

Ali’s model is not one of pacifism, per se, as it is one in which even fighting is sanctioned as striving (literally: jihad) in the path of God, provided it is not inspired by hatred, anger, or passion. Let’s return to Rumi’s telling of the story, with the champion Ali putting his sword away:

He said, I use my sword the way God’s planned
Not for my body but by God’s command;
I am God’s lion, not the one of passion
— My actions testify to my religion: . . .

The illustration depicts a scene from the Masnavi depicting Alī preparing to "kill an infidel who had spat in his face" (folio 26a), excerpted from a 17th century illuminated manuscript from Persia and produced in Safavid, Iran.

(Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī (امير خسرو دهلوى) / Walters Art Museum (CC BY-SA 3.0).)

Rumi then has Ali say that he is the real mountain of a man, and not some piece of straw who is going to be blown here and there by the “winds” of his passions:

I am a mountain, God’s my solid base,

Like straw I’m blown just by thought of His face;
My longing changes once His wind has blown,
My captain is the love of Him alone.

Here is the mystic, active in this world, even on behalf of justice, “blown just by the thought” of God’s face. We are all moved in life. I wonder what moves us? Is it ego? Greed? Anger? Lust? Desire? Or God’s face?

An Iranian Shiite Muslim man prays in Tehran during the early hours of July to commemorate the death of Imam Ali bin Abi-Taleb, who was assassinated in 661 AD, and in preparation for Laylat al-Qadr during the holy month of Ramadan when the Koran holy book was revealed to Prophet Mohammed by archangel Gabriel.

(Behrouz Mehri / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.)

There is something about this narrative, about Ali’s behavior, that I find awfully assuring. The complete human being, the realized human, the saint Ali still experiences passions. He still struggles with anger. But anger doesn’t have to move him to action. I am relieved to know that the full human being is still dealing with the same emotions and passions that all of us struggle with, perhaps with the difference that he or she can pause and let these emotions pass through them without being acted upon. Perhaps this is what it means to be a fully realized human being, to know one’s own heart and soul well enough to be able to channel these emotions away from the home that should be filled by Spirit.

Had the full human somehow been bereft of these emotions, I would have been tempted to give up, to think that these luminous souls belong to some other realm of existence, a place that we, the rest of us, cannot go to. But no, even the saint still has to deal with these emotions.

There is one last chapter in the story that has a lot of relevance for today’s world. As Ali and the fallen warrior continue their dialogue, indeed their friendship, Ali reveals one last secret to his former foe, his new friend. He talks about the deepest reason why he was unable to kill the defeated warrior. Ali, the saint, says that he looked at the warrior through the glance of compassion, and saw his own humanity reflected in his former foe. Ali saw the fallen warrior as himself.

An Iranian Shiite Muslim man prays in Tehran during the early hours of July 19, 2014 to commemorate the death of Imam Ali bin Abi-Taleb, assasinated in 661 AD, and in preparation for Laylat al-Qadr during the holy month of Ramadan when the Koran holy book was revealed to Prophet Mohammed by archangel Gabriel. Imam Ali is the first Shiite Imam and fourth caliph to succeed Prophet Mohammed, his cousin and father-in-law.

(Behrouz Mehri / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.)

Addressing the fallen warrior by his own name (Ali), Ali says:

Illustrious one, I am you and you are I
Ali, how could I cause Ali to die!

I wonder about our own world.
I wonder about so many of us, alone.
I wonder about the enmity in our families, anonymity in our workspaces, tension in our communities.
I wonder about war, occupation, poverty, racism.
I wonder if we are willing to commit ourselves to this path — cleansing our hearts of ego, of lust, of anger.
I wonder if we are ready to do so as individuals, do so as communities, do so as nations.
I wonder if we are willing to put our swords (airplanes, tanks, bombs) back in their sheath.
I wonder if we are ready to look at each other in the eye, and see our own humanity reflected in one another.

If we do. When we do. We would be fully human. And then, just maybe, divinity would be fully present.


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Omid Safi

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University's Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York Times, Newsweek, Washington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads an educational tour every summer to Turkey, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trip is open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

Share Your Reflection



beautiful and true

This is a really beautiful piece, mashaAllah. Thank you for writing this, Ostad, and sharing these gems with us. Conquering your ego is hard, much harder than conquering an external foe. Incredibly, Imam Ali conquered the greatest foe, his own nafs. What a victory! It's the greatest battle that we're all participating in. May Allah swt grant us the ability to emulate him and all other saints.

dear Nora, thank you so much. You put it so beautifully. Yes, taming the inner foe is so much a harder challenge.

Well said about not trying to control the ego. Only the ego would want control. Channeling it or at least staying aware of it's shenanigans is more practical. Being able to see self in the other sounds like a good project to work on.

Mr. Safi, your words have served more than once to reach my heart when others don't. Thank you for your devotion, thoughts and for sharing with us.

dear Elizabeth, you are so kind. If words ever reach you, it must be because your own heart is beautiful, and open.

I wish I was a student taking one of your classes. I so love your columns!

dear Renee, I am honored to be able to share these stories with many friends, even when we do not live in the same place. If you ever have the chance, also consider joining us on these journeys:

You had me at "It's not about miracles. It's about heart." And "how to live life more beautifully."

As I learn today of yet another tragedy, apparently caused by one man's actions ending the lives of 150 and devastating countless others, if I am intent to live my life more beautifully, I have a similar choice right now in how to respond.

Thank you for this timely and beautifully composed reminder.

Such an act of control... is it reasonable to expect us to take pause and reflect so deeply when so many of us feel our own lives are completely out of control? I think yes, but giving oneself the time to learn, grow, and contemplate the beauty of this lesson is the real challenge.

dear Tracy, you are exactly right. I'd like to think that as our lives are out of control, and you are right, they are, there is no momentary zen-like re-orientation, but an infinity of moment-by-moment opportunities to pause, ponder, rethink, and pivot towards the beautiful. God-willing, our lives will be like this, turned towards the beautiful.

This exact story is told by Joseph Campbell in one of his lectures, (here: ) in relation to Zen and a samurai. Do you think these two stories developed separately, or were likely transmitted across cultures? It is fascinating to see two spiritual traditions use the exact same story, to come to the exact same point. Great article, thank you very much!

dear Christopher. That's a lovely connection. It's not hard to imagine historical connection between Sufis and Buddhists, given the overlap in Iran, Central Asia, and elsewhere. And besides, great stories are universal, and do seem to pop up in many places. :-)

Salam Dr. Omid,
Great piece indeed! I've always wanted to have a nice article to have others refer to with regards to this story and I think I've found it. Scratch that, I've found it :-).

*Warning, entering Hardcore Shia Mode*
I just wanted to make note that when we were told this story, whether as a child or an adult, it was told slightly differently. What I'm referring to is:
"Ali explains that everything he had done up until that point had been for the sake of God. When the warrior spat on his face, Ali got angry. If he were to kill the warrior, it would not be for the sake of God, but as a response to his own anger."
It has been told to me that Imam Ali (AS) had not killed the man immediately after being spat on to not imply that he (AS) was killing him out of anger. As it was told, people were watching closely and the impression of every action of Imam Ali (AS) had to be perfect. And therefore, we (hardcore Shias) believe that Imam Ali (AS) was evidently not angry, but was teaching us a lesson by stepping aside momentarily. Exactly like taking our favorite piece from him (AS) (Dua Kumayl) literally as if he had sinned so deeply that he couldn't beg enough for his forgiveness from Allah (SWT). Being an Imam, the Imams (AS) were there to lead us through words and actions.

Just a small tidbit. I'm by no means implying you are wrong, just wanted to voice my opinion about it. I really appreciate you writing this piece in particular. I'm a huge fan of you, your blog, and your lectures :-). May Allah (SWT) bless you and your family infinitely!

With lots of love,

Dear Alireza, salam! Thank you so much for your contribution, and your very kind words. You are of course right about the Shi'i approach to Imam Ali. What I find interesting here is that Mawlana Rumi, who of course belongs to the Sunni tradition, approached Mawlana in this slightly different yet complimentary way. May God bless you, always.

Thank you for these beautiful words and for sharing such a precious story...hiw close are we daily to putting the sheath on our swords? I am a little closer after this reading. ..again...thank you.

dear Susanne, thank you. That's all any of us can hope work, work for, is to come a little bit closer....

While reading the closing poem in tumblr, I am reminded of Isaiah 2:2-5, an image of man willing to rely on God for answers instead of our own intelligence and weaponry.

In particular when Isaiah paints a image of people who no longer desire to fight, but turns to God, I not only wonder but pray for that day to come.

"...nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.

O house of Jacob,
come let us walk
in the light of the LORD." (Isaiah 2:4-5)

And the King James Bible used to say in the very next line: "neither shall they learn war any more." May we study war, no more.

Every time I read your columns, it's as though I'm transported to a different plane of existence, one both universal yet transcendent. A deep, unfathomable peace and serenity pervade every atom of my being. At that moment, I realize all things are one, all people are one. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

As a strict Catholic-raised woman who has become a Buddhist, I am awed and moved by what I've just read. I respect and honor all that is holy in Islam, as I respect and honor my two traditions. Thank you for sharing this material, toward an understanding among all of us Namaste.

Thanks, Omid, for showing us that our foes and detractors can be doorways to greater self-knowledge and -discipline, which together lead to a better world for us all. Tit for tat gets us no where, even when the use of force may seem justified. It's wonderful to hear this story of Ali's compassion during times when there is a lack of self-restraint in responding to one's enemies. I also second your questioning of the belief that saints don't experience tumultuous conflict of the passions that the rest of us do.They wouldn't be saints if they were above us. So, they necessarily are one of us in every way, sometimes more so.

There is nothing to say. I am pursing my lips and scrunching my eyebrows. Thanks for writing and sharing.

Interestingly, this morning before reading this peace, I was contemplating on changes taking place in me as I age. One of the main changes is that I am learning how to allow my emotion, my passion to motivate me to action without letting the emotion itself become the action. The action in this wiser period of my life is becoming more measured, more balanced. So, I can summarize this by saying that I am better able to put boundaries around the different aspects of my psyche, while keeping them all very much enlivened. This piece, while more advanced, specks to my morning contemplations of self/Self. Thank you. I want the book now.

Dear Omid Safi!
I thank you for your latest column!
What a gift it is to read for me as a baptized Christian at the beginning of Holy week!
I know, I will have to read your words again!

You say:" I am drawn to Saints" and you discovered why: And you say:" it is the heart!"

Many years ago,I was introduced to Jean Vanier,s L'ARCHE comunities,and while I studied Theology at the Harvard Divinity School,and got involved with L'Arche,
I discovered also: It was the heart that I discovered there!
My formation took place within these Communities,and tranformed me.
Besides my family ,I recieved my great life-changing gift there!And I am so deeply grateful.

Your students are so very blessed to have you be their teacher!
I do look forward to your forthcoming book,or books about RUMI!
Thank you also for your closing words at the end of your column:
I will take them with me into my Holy week meditations.
It is my prayer that all of us will become more human and in your words:"...and see
our own humanity reflected in one another."
With much gratitude for all I can discover on Krista Tippett,s : ON BEING!

caught on the horns of paralyzing fear the divine in me is often overcome by the reaction most immediate. thank you for exercising the call to more considered actions. in the venues of ritualized fighting the chivalrous warrior is well equipped to show saintliness. i never girded myself for battle but have found myself to be in an unexpectedly devastating one now. still angry and still lashing out I have never trained for this conflict. it is good to see a reminder that there are other ways.

"That is the whole goal of the spiritual path: not divinity, but full humanity." A brilliant sentence that illuminates the final steps of the long spiritual path as well as any I've read.

"That is the whole goal of the spiritual path: not divinity, but full humanity." A brilliant sentence that illuminates the last steps of the long spiritual path as well as any I've read. Thank you for it.

Dear Mr. Safi,
A brilliant piece you have drafted and I thank you for writing it. I heard that a poem existed where mawlana Rumi mentions the event of H.Ali being spit in the face during his skirmish and gives his account of it.
I searched for it and could not find it. Luckily I found this article just when I on the verge of giving up.
So I thank you sincerely. Before I end,might I request the name of the poem or a link with a translation that you may know of ? Any help would be greatly appreciated.
Take care.