The Fish-Head Monk

Epistemic Status: Parable

By way of the comments on SlateStarCodex, from Essential Sufism:

‘There was a poor fisherman who was a Sufi teacher. He went fishing every day, and each day he would distribute his catch to the poor of his village, except for a fish head or two that he used to make soup for himself His students dearly loved and admired their ‘fish-head sheikh.”

One of the students was a merchant. Before traveling to Cordoba, the teacher asked him to convey his greetings to his own teacher, the great sage Ibn ‘Arabi, and to ask the sage for some advice to help him in his own spiritual work, which he felt was going very slowly.

When the merchant arrived at Ibn ‘Arabi’s house, he found, much to his surprise, a veritable palace surrounded by elaborate gardens. He saw many servants going back and forth and was served a sumptuous meal on gold plates by beautiful young women and handsome young men. Finally he was brought to Ibn ‘Arabi, who was wearing clothing fit for a sultan. He conveyed his teacher’s greetings and repeated his teacher’s request for spiritual guidance. Ibn ‘Arabi said simply, “Tell my student that he is too worldly!” The merchant was shocked and offended by this advice coming from someone living in such worldly opulence.

When he returned, his teacher immediately asked about his meeting with Ibn ‘Arabi. The merchant repeated Ibn ‘Arabi’s words and added that this sounded totally absurd coming from such a wealthy, worldly man.

His teacher replied, “You should know that each of us can have as much material wealth as his soul can handle without losing sight of God. What you saw in him was not merely material wealth but great spiritual attainment.” Then the teacher added, with tears in his eye, “Besides, he is right. Often at night as I make my simple fish-head soup, I wish it were an entire fish!” ‘

The comment finishes, and others agree:

Plausible, but one might think “pretty convenient for those with temporal power, especially holders of hereditary positions, as a lot of Sufi leadership is.”

Responders were also not thrilled by Ibn ‘Arabi’s behavior:

Truly, The Donald is the greatest Sufi master.


Yyyyeah… that sounds a lot like the kind of abuse that gets used as an example when they warn you about joining a cult.

The fish-head monk understands.

Often at night as he makes his simple fish-head soup, he wishes it were an entire fish.

This desire is not compatible with his spiritual path. He journeys hungry and jealous. This gross distraction halts his progression on his path. When one is constantly hungry, it is impossible to focus on other things. His mind turns to fish. He is too worldly!

He also seeks to be seen as the fish-head monk, concerned with what others see rather than his own path. This also is not compatible. Again he is too worldly.

Ibn ‘Arabi admonishes the monk not for giving up too little, but for giving up too much. He says, eat the whole fish! We each must eat our fill. Then turn to your quest.

Ibn ‘Arabi faces the opposite challenge. Wealth frees us from worldly desire by meeting our needs. Wealth enslaves us by adding new needs. Our needs remain unmet.

Perhaps Ibn ‘Arabi has all he needs, and turns his mind fully to the spiritual. What a great man! Truly he has the wealth that he can handle.

Perhaps Ibn ‘Arabi needs all he has, and turns his mind fully to the spiritual. Perhaps not a great man. But a good man. A man trying. Truly he has the wealth that he can handle.

Perhaps Ibn ‘Arabi has all he needs, and turns his mind to needing more. Perhaps he spends his day separating marks from their wealth, ordering servants and indulging in hedonism. What a terrible man!

Which is he? Impossible to know for sure. Listen for the likelihood ratios. Update your priors.


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1 Response to The Fish-Head Monk

  1. Pingback: Rational Feed – deluks917

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