Translated by Rabbi Anson Laytner and Rabbi Dan Bridge
Illustrated by Umm Kulthum. Introduction by Seyyed Hossein Nasr
Fons Vitae, 2005, 170 pp
Reviewed by Jean Hardy
The story of this book is miraculous in itself. The fable and the message it so clearly contains date from over a thousand years ago. The origins of the story were Indian, but it was actually written down for the first time in the tenth century C.E. in Arabic by a Sufi order. It has since circulated through most of the Eastern religions; this edition is the first one in English. I found out about it through Isabel Carlisle, who converted it into play form and has used it in schools over the last few years.
The story is that there once was a place on Earth, an island called Tsagone, where the animals lived happily and free from persecution by human beings; the Isle was ruled over by Bersaf, King of the Spirits. But a ship carrying passengers was wrecked near its shores and a large group of people clambered onto the island. Quite soon, perhaps inevitably, the people began to use the animals and birds for food and labour, and in fact enslaved them: so for the animals, “eyes that were once filled with trust began to be drowned in stormy oceans of fear.” Eventually the animals, in desperation, met and agreed to ask the King of Spirits for help. He decided to summon the humans to court to answer the charges which were beginning to be specified by the animals.
The humans were strongly divided. Hochmah (Wisdom), the female sage, was in favour of the animals’ case. Zadone (Malice) however was the spokesperson for the humans and led their case in their representation to the King. He argued, in relation to species other than human: “We say they are our slaves and we shall seize those whom we wish and treat them just as we would treat any other possession. Those who submit to us accept the notion that the Creator set us to rule over them—but those who break our yoke and flee—they are rebelling against God’s word…the consequences are theirs.” The humans also maintained that they were the only creatures who had souls, consciences and understanding and that they had the most perfect bodies in all Creation.
The King of Spirits, after wise advice, ordered a full investigation based on evidence and asked both humans and animals to bring together their evidence. The animals sent six emissaries to the different groups of animals to ask them to send a representative. The Horse went to the Lions, the predatory animals: the Ox went to the Phoenix, ruler of the non-predatory birds: the Sheep went to the Osprey, ruler of birds of prey: the Donkey went to the Bee, ruler of the winged swarming things: the Pig went to the Sea Dragon, ruler of water creatures: and the Mule went to the Snake, ruler of the creeping things. The account of these gatherings is fascinating, as all the animals and birds spoke according to their own nature. Emerging as representatives of all animals, judged best able to present their case to the King, were the Dragon, the Nightingale, Parrot, Queen Bee, Frog, and Cricket.
The Court was convened. The arguments are amazingly modern. The Nightingale argued that, “…even the swarming and creeping creatures have knowledge and understanding and unique skills. We all do. Therefore, since we all have a portion of the Creator’s gifts, how can humans glorify themselves over us and claim they are our lords and masters?” She argued that all animals share one soul and are unified, that humans have individual souls and are in constant dispute between themselves and the rest of the world.”
Humans and animals both gave their evidence at some length and with great eloquence. At the end, the King gave his verdict. “By the grace of God, I find myself in favour of the animals, for they have been sorely tested and abused.”
He accepted that humans were beginning to realise the harm they are doing, and must begin to treat all creatures with loving kindness. “Should you err, the animals will begin to disappear, one by one, forever, from the face of the earth; and the air in your settlements and fortresses will become dangerous to breathe…the seasons will be reversed and your climates turned on end…the animals you eat will bring sickness and death upon you…and you will no longer rule the earth.” This can be reversed, but humans have to realise the extent of their cruelty.
The story ends with an exhortation to all humans to realise what they need to do and how they need to live. It comes with great force over a thousand years, to us who can see the catastrophes approaching because humans have through these thousand years largely ignored these warnings, and indeed things are often so much worse for animals in our industrialised and human-centred societies.
I found in this book a message that speaks so clearly to me and to us all. It is remarkable it has survived, and has been published by a small press, the Fons Vitae (fountain of life) in Kentucky USA. It is beautifully illustrated on the cover and throughout by Kelsum Begum, and presented with great love. Further information about it, including a large section of the text with accompanying pictures, can be found on the Internet by clicking here.