Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Conference of the Birds (Mantiq aṭ-Ṭayr)

Introduction to The Conference of the Birds (Mantiq aṭ-Ṭayr)

Led by the hoopoe, the birds of the world set forth in search of their king, Simurgh. Their quest takes them through seven valleys in the first of which a hundred difficulties assail them. They undergo many trials as they try to free themselves of what is precious to them and change their state. Once successful and filled with longing, they ask for wine to dull the effects of dogma, belief, and unbelief on their lives. In the second valley, the birds give up reason for love and, with a thousand hearts to sacrifice, continue their quest for discovering the Simurgh. The third valley confounds the birds, especially when they discover that their worldly knowledge has become completely useless and their understanding has become ambivalent. There are different ways of crossing this Valley, and all birds do not fly alike. Understanding can be arrived at variously—some have found the Mihrab, others the idol.

The fourth valley is introduced as the valley of detachment, i.e., detachment from desire to possess and the wish to discover. The birds begin to feel that they have become part of a universe that is detached from their physical recognizable reality. In their new world, the planets are as minute as sparks of dust and elephants are not distinguishable from ants. It is not until they enter the fifth valley that they realize that unity and multiplicity are the same. And as they have become entities in a vacuum with no sense of eternity. More importantly, they realize that God is beyond unity, multiplicity, and eternity. Stepping into the sixth valley, the birds become astonished at the beauty of the Beloved. Experiencing extreme sadness and dejection, they feel that they know nothing, understand nothing. They are not even aware of themselves. Only thirty birds reach the abode of the Simurgh. But there is no Simurgh anywhere to see. Simurgh's chamberlain keeps them waiting for Simurgh long enough for the birds to figure out that they themselves are the si (thirty) murgh (bird). The seventh valley is the valley of deprivation, forgetfulness, dumbness, deafness, and death. The present and future lives of the thirty successful birds become shadows chased by the celestial Sun. And themselves, lost in the Sea of His existence, are the Simurgh.

Attar's Seven Valleys of Love in the Mantiq al-Tayr

  • The Valley of Quest
  • The Valley of Love
  • The Valley of Understanding
  • The Valley of Independence and Detachment
  • The Valley of Unity
  • The Valley of Astonishment and Bewilderment
  • The Valley of Deprivation and Death

The Conference of the Birds Quotes

“The ocean can be yours; why should you stop
Beguiled by dreams of evanescent dew?
The secrets of the sun are yours, but you
Content yourself with motes trapped in beams.”
― Farid ud-Din Attar, The Conference of the Birds

“Heart’s blood and bitter pain belong to love,
And tales of problems no one can remove;
Cupbearer, fill the bowl with blood, not wine -
And if you lack the heart’s rich blood take mine.
Love thrives on inextinguishable pain,
Which tears the soul, then knits the threads again.
A mote of love exceeds all bounds; it gives
The vital essence to whatever lives.
But where love thrives, there pain is always found;
Angels alone escape this weary round -
They love without that savage agony
Which is reserved for vexed humanity.”
― Farid ud-Din Attar, The Conference of the Birds

“...Rise up and play
Those liquid notes that steal men's hearts away.”
― Farid ud-Din Attar, The Conference of the Birds

“Since love has spoken in your soul, reject
The Self, that whirlpool where our lives are wrecked;
As Jesus rode his donkey, ride on it;
Your stubborn Self must bear you and submit -
Then burn this Self and purify your soul;
Let Jesus' spotless spirit be your goal.”
― Farid ud-Din Attar, The Conference of the Birds

“Who trusts the sea? Lawlessness is her law;
You will be drowned if you cannot decide
To turn away from her inconstant tide.
She seethes with love herself - that turbulence
Of tumbling waves, that yearning violence,
Are for her Lord, and since she cannot rest,
What peace could you discover in her breast?
She lives for Him - yet you are satisfied
To her His invitation and to hide.”
― Farid ud-Din Attar, The Conference of the Birds

“I doubt my doubt, doubt itself is unsure
I love, but who is it for whom I sigh?
Not Muslim, yet not heathen; who am I?”
― Farid ud-Din Attar, The Conference of the Birds

“I'd rather die deceived by dreams than give
My heart to home and trade and never live.”
― Farid ud-Din Attar, The Conference of the Birds

Download commentary on the Conference of the Birds - Translated by Afham Darbandi and Dick Davis

Farid ud-Din Attar Biography


Abū Hamīd bin Abū Bakr Ibrāhīm (1145-1146 - c. 1221; Persian: ابو حمید ابن ابوبکر ابراهیم‎), better known by his pen-names Farīd ud-Dīn (فریدالدین) and ‘Attār (عطار - "the perfumer"), was a Persian Muslim poet, theoretician of Sufism, and hagiographer from Nīshāpūr who had an abiding influence on Persian poetry and Sufism.

Information about Attar's life is rare. He is mentioned by only two of his contemporaries, `Awfi and Tusi. However, all sources confirm that he was from Nishapur, a major city of medieval Khorasan (now located in the northeast of Iran), and according to `Awfi, he was a poet of the Seljuq period. It seems that he was not well known as a poet in his own lifetime, except at his home town, and his greatness as a mystic, a poet, and a master of narrative was not discovered until the 15th century.

`Attar's mausoleum in Nishapur, Iran
`Attar was probably the son of a prosperous chemist, receiving an excellent education in various fields. While his works say little else about his life, they tell us that he practiced the profession of pharmacy and personally attended to a very large number of customers. The people he helped in the pharmacy used to confide their troubles in `Attar and this affected him deeply. Eventually, he abandoned his pharmacy store and traveled widely - to Baghdad, Basra, Kufa, Mecca, Medina, Damascus, Khwarizm, Turkistan, and India, meeting with Sufi Shaykhs - and returned promoting Sufi ideas.

`Attar's initiation into Sufi practices is subject to much speculation and fabrication. Of all the famous Sufi Shaykhs supposed to have been his teachers, only one - Majd ud-Din Baghdadi - comes within the bounds of possibility. The only certainty in this regard is `Attar's own statement that he once met him.

In any case it can be taken for granted that from childhood onward `Attar, encouraged by his father, was interested in the Sufis and their sayings and way of life, and regarded their saints as his spiritual guides.

`Attar reached an age of over 70 and died a violent death in the massacre which the Mongols inflicted on Nishapur in April 1221. Today, his mausoleum is located in Nishapur. It was built by Ali-Shir Nava'i in the 16th century.

Like many aspects of his life, his death, too, is blended with legends and speculation.

Tadhkerat al-Awlīya
Attar's only known prose work which he worked on throughout much of his life and which was available publicly before his death, is a biography of Muslim saints and mystics. In what is considered the most compelling entry in this book, `Attar relates the story of the execution of Hallaj, the mystic who had uttered the words "I am the Truth" in a state of ecstatic contemplation.

The Ilahi-Nama (Persian: الهی نامه‎) is another famous poetic work of Attar consisting of 6500 verses. In terms of form and content, it has some similarities with Bird Parliament. The story is about a king who is confronted with the materialistic and worldly demands of his six sons. The King tries to show the temporary and senseless desires of his six son by retelling them a large number of spiritual stories. The first son asks for the daughter of the king of fairies (Pariyaan).

Mokhtar Nama
Mokhtar-Nama (Persian: مختار نامه‎), a wide-ranging collection of quatrains (2088 in number). In the Mokhtar-nama, a coherent group of mystical and religious subjects is outlined (search for union, sense of uniqueness, distancing from the world, annihilation, amazement, pain, awareness of death, etc.), and an equally rich group of themes typical of lyrical poetry of erotic inspiration adopted by mystical literature (the torment of love, impossible union, beauty of the loved one, stereotypes of the love story as weakness, crying, separation).

A miniature painting by Bihzad illustrating the funeral of the elderly Attar of Nishapur after he was held captive and killed by a Mongol invader.
The Divan (Persian: دیوان عطار‎) of Attar consists almost entirely of poems in the Ghazal ("lyric") form, as he collected his Ruba'i ("quatrains") in a separate work called the Mokhtar-nama. There are also some Qasida ("Odes"), but they amount to less than one-seventh of the Divan. His Qasidas expound upon mystical and ethical themes and moral precepts. They are sometimes modeled after Sanai. The Ghazals often seem from their outward vocabulary just to be love and wine songs with a predilection for libertine imagery, but generally imply spiritual experiences in the familiar symbolic language of classical Islamic Sufism. Attar's lyrics express the same ideas that are elaborated in his epics. His lyric poetry does not significantly differ from that of his narrative poetry, and the same may be said of the rhetoric and imagery.


Influence on Rumi
`Attar is one of the most famous mystic poets of Iran. His works were the inspiration of Rumi and many other mystic poets. `Attar, along with Sanai were two of the greatest influences on Rumi in his Sufi views. Rumi has mentioned both of them with the highest esteem several times in his poetry. Rumi praises `Attar as follows:
Attar has roamed through the seven cities of love while we have barely turned down the first street.

As a pharmacist
`Attar was a pen-name which he took for his occupation. `Attar means herbalist, druggist, perfumist or alchemist, and during his lifetime in Persia, much of medicine and drugs were based on herbs. Therefore, by profession he was similar to a modern-day town doctor and pharmacist.

In popular culture
Several musical artists have albums or songs which share the name of his most famous work, Conference of the Birds, as well as the themes of enlightenment contained therein. Notably, jazz bassist David Holland's album, which was written as a metaphor for his own enlightenment, and Om's Conference of the Birds, which deals with extremely esoteric themes often connected with metaphors of flight, inward vision, destruction of self, and oneness with the cosmos


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