One of the greatest Muslim mystics is Farid al-Din Attar, who lived from around A.D. 1145 to 1221, when he was killed during a Mongol invasion of his hometown, Nishapur, in northeastern Iran.
His title “Attar” would identify him today as a maker of perfumes. In his day, though, it had a broader sense: He was also something like a British “chemist,” a pharmacist.
Little known as a poet during his lifetime, Attar's works are venerated today among the foremost treasures of Persian literature. Perhaps his most famous work is the “Mantiq al-Tayr,” which has been translated several times into English under the title of either “The Conference of the Birds” or “The Parliament of the Birds.”
The protagonist of the story recounted by Attar is a bird called a “hoopoe,” a representative of several colorful related species that are found throughout Africa and across Eurasia. Distinguished by a crown of feathers, the hoopoe appears in the seventh-century Arabic Quran as the confidant of King Solomon the Wise and as a messenger between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. In Persian tradition, the hoopoe represents virtue.
According to Attar’s “Conference of the Birds,” the fowls of the world gather to consider who should be their sovereign, since they lack a king. The hoopoe suggests that they seek the legendary Simurgh, a magnificent bird somewhat comparable to the phoenix of Greek mythology. (The word “simurgh” probably referred, in the most ancient forms of Persian, to an eagle or some other kind of raptor.)
Persuaded by the hoopoe, the gathered birds set out under his leadership to find the Simurgh. Their quest, however, is both difficult and dangerous. Before they can reach the mountain where the Simurgh is said to dwell, they must first cross seven valleys, which are, in order, the valleys of the Quest, Love, Knowledge, Detachment, Unity, Wonder and, finally, Poverty and Annihilation.
As they travel, they are subjected to various trials and are obliged to abandon things that, though precious to them, interfere with their journey. The birds learn, for example, that they must subordinate reason to love, and they discover that their worldly knowledge is useless in their quest. They are obliged to give up their desire for possessions, to become detached from earthly things.
The confidential conversations that took place in his drugstore gave Attar a broad knowledge of human nature that is clearly reflected in his writing. “The Conference of the Birds” features scores of little stories, sometimes humorous, that illustrate human foibles and limitations.
Perhaps the principal attribute that must be shed, according to Attar’s hoopoe, is attachment to self, and this is finally achieved when the ego is abandoned in that last valley of Poverty and Annihilation:
“The people of this world are like the three butterflies in front of a candle's flame. / The first one went closer and said: I know about love. / The second one touched the flame lightly with his wings and said: I know how love's fire can burn. / The third one threw himself into the heart of the flame and was consumed. He alone knows what true love is.”
Unfortunately, the path of their journey is so very hard and perilous that, although many thousands of birds commence the quest, only 30 of them reach its conclusion. Some, in fact, had already died of fright at the very beginning, from the mere description of the journey. Many refused to undertake it at all. Others die of thirst, illness or exhaustion, or fall victim to wild beasts along the way.2 comments on this story
Even when the 30 surviving birds arrive at their goal, though, the Simurgh’s gatekeeper rather harshly orders them to go away. However, they have come too far to be dissuaded and the gate is finally opened to them. And when it opens, they discover that they themselves are the Simurgh — a point that, in the poem, rests on folk etymology and a pun: In Persian, “si” means “30” and “murgh” means “bird.”
“Now the celestial Sun began to shine forth in front of them, and behold! how great was their surprise! In the reflection of their faces these thirty birds of the earth saw the face of the celestial Simurgh. When they cast furtive glances towards the Simurgh, they perceived that the Simurgh was none other than those self-same thirty birds.”
Having lost themselves in the divine, they have merged with divinity and have, effectively, been deified.