Almost nothing is known for certain about the life of Farid ud-Din Attar, a Persian poet celebrated for his delightful long poem The Conference of the Birds. He had no contemporary biographers and the few vignettes of his life that do exist feel apocryphal. He was born toward the middle of the twelfth century and made his living as an apothecary (Attar, a pen name, means “perfumist” or “pharmacist”). In addition to The Conference of the Birds, he composed three other long narrative poems, a large collection of shorter verses, and a charming book of anecdotes about famous followers of Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam.1 Later Persian poets such as Jalal ad-Din Rumi in the thirteenth century and Hafez in the fourteenth were openly indebted to Attar’s work. He probably died around 1220, when Mongol armies sacked his home city of Nishapur. According to one tradition, after an enemy soldier decapitated him, Attar picked up his head and recited the Bisar-nama (“Book of the Man with No Head,” an actual work, though Attar did not compose it).
The Conference of the Birds is widely understood to illustrate and allegorize Sufi teachings—Henry Corbin, the French scholar of Islamic philosophy, called it a “peak of mystical experience”—but it is not certain Attar ever belonged to a Sufi order or studied with a qualified master. This is curious, for the teacher–student relation was at the heart of medieval Sufism. Each congregation was centered on a particular sheikh, and one could only become a Sufi after intensive study. The early mystics of the ninth and tenth centuries preached austerity in response to the corruption of rulers in Baghdad and the Islamic east, and they countered the strict legalism of the clerics with esoteric, often symbolic interpretations of religious texts. The Sufis taught an exaggerated form of monotheism: not only is there a single God, but God is all that truly exists; everything else, including our worldly selves, is merely a shadow of His presence. Accordingly, Sufi sheikhs urged their followers to disdain wealth and bodily pleasures. By looking inward, believers were taught to recognize the affinity of their soul with God. Through ascetic discipline, they were guided toward a self-annihilating union with the divine.
The Conference of the Birds, which is close to five thousand lines in the original Persian (about the length of Dante’s Inferno), is an allegory of Sufism’s central drama: the soul’s quest to unify itself with God. The poem tells the story of a flock of birds who fly to the ends of the earth in search of the mythical Simorgh, an Iranian version of the phoenix. The title comes from a passage in the Koran about King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba in which the king claims to have learned “the speech of the birds” (mantiq al-tayr), a more literal translation of Attar’s title. Solomon’s go-between is the hoopoe, a small bird with a spikey crest of feathers, who is also the main character of Attar’s poem. Like a Sufi spiritual guide, or pīr, Attar’s hoopoe exhorts the other birds to renounce their material comforts and join him on a difficult journey through seven valleys (the first is the Valley of the Quest, the last is the Valley of Poverty and Nothingness) to reach Mount Qaf, home of the Simorgh.
At the beginning of Attar’s epic, which is composed in rhyming couplets, each species hesitates to join the hoopoe for his own reasons. The finch complains that he is too weak for the journey, the hawk boasts that he already enjoys lofty connections, and the nightingale is infatuated with a flower:
My love is for the rose; I bow to her;
From her dear presence I could never stir.
If she should disappear the nightingale
Would lose his reason and his song would fail.2
In the hoopoe’s responses to each bird, readers are given a primer on Sufi beliefs and ethics: the impermanence of worldly things, the importance of spiritual courage, the ideal of divine love. In response to the nightingale, the hoopoe warns against deceiving appearances:
This superficial love which makes you quail
Is only for the outward show of things.
Renounce delusion and prepare your wings
For our great quest.
After traversing the world, just thirty birds of the original multitude remain to meet the Simorgh. They arrive in his presence only to discover a mystical mirror: “There in the Simorgh’s radiant face they saw/Themselves, the Simorgh of the world—with awe/They gazed, and dared at last to comprehend/They were the Simorgh and the journey’s end.” The birds were the very thing they’d searched for. It is an eloquent summary of the Sufi teaching that the divine lies within each believer’s soul. In Persian, this collapse of difference into unity is clinched by an accident of language. Simorgh, the name of the divine bird, breaks down into si-morgh, meaning “thirty birds.” How many poets would dare to put so much pressure on what is essentially a linguistic joke? The German scholar of Sufism Annemarie Schimmel called it “the most ingenious pun in Persian literature.”
Late in his life, Jorge Luis Borges wrote “The Unending Rose,” a short poem that imagines Attar in his garden meditating on a rose—“like one who thinks, not like one who prays”—as the Mongol armies close in. Borges projects his own blindness onto the Persian poet, who is free to imagine that the rose he holds and smells is white, or gold, or red. In the last lines of Borges’s poem, the flower loses all specificity, transformed into a bottomless allegorical sign:
is an infinity of things. You, you are music,
Rivers, firmaments, palaces and angels,
O endless rose, intimate, without limit,
which the Lord will finally show to my dead eyes3
Borges, who elsewhere compares Attar favorably to Dante, is subtly suggesting that Attar is first of all an imaginative thinker—a poet for whom any one thing might become the symbol of any other thing. The delight one gets in reading Attar’s poem has everything to do with its surprising turns of thought, its intellectual daring, its literary wit.
In his role as spiritual guide, the hoopoe tells the assembled birds many short tales along their journey to illustrate his arguments. The bulk of Attar’s poem is made up of these stories, adapted from the Koran, Islamic history, and the lives of Sufi saints. In the centuries after Attar’s death, as the Mongol conquerors of Persia converted to Islam and established courts that rivaled those of Istanbul and Florence in sophistication and luxury, many of these retellings became subjects for elaborately illustrated manuscripts. The most exquisite of these, which includes works by the master painter Behzad, was commissioned in the late fifteenth century in Herat, Afghanistan, and is now in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.4
The retellings of Koranic tales are, in effect, Attar’s interpretations of the holy text. Some of them are terrifically strange, seeming to upend the meaning of the original story altogether. This sort of revisionism is a Sufi specialty. It is a commonplace of mystical teaching, for example, that the Koranic story of Satan’s refusal to bow before Adam as the rest of the angels do, a story that appears in several passages of the Koran, is not evidence of Satan’s pride, as it is understood in traditional interpretations, but rather of his overpowering love for God, which did not permit him to bow to anyone else. (In this sense, Satan is the model monotheist.) Attar goes further, saying that God’s curse of Satan is to be prized, since any form of divine attention, even in the form of a curse, must be counted a blessing.
The most important Koranic narrative for Attar’s poem is the story of Joseph, which the Koran itself calls “the best of all stories.” Joseph, who was cast into a well and then sold into slavery by the very brothers who pledged to watch over him, makes many appearances in The Conference of the Birds, most often as a symbol of the pure soul. At the end of Attar’s poem, before the birds confront themselves in the mirror, they are shown a ledger of their worldly deeds. Attar compares this balance sheet to the slave merchant’s receipt that Joseph reveals to his brothers when they meet in Egypt. It is one of the most powerful passages in the poem, moving between Koranic original, Attar’s fable, and the reader’s conscience:
As they read
They understood that it was they who’d led
The lovely Joseph into slavery—
Who had deprived him of his liberty
Deep in a well, then ignorantly sold
Their captive to a passing chief for gold
(Can you not see that at each breath you sell
The Joseph you imprisoned in that well,
That he will be the king to whom you must
Naked and hungry bow down in the dust?)
While much of Sufi literature is esoteric, mechanically allegorical, and spiritually high-strung, it can also be playful and experimental (the same might be said of Jewish mystical literature). Attar is skilled at retelling old stories to reveal unsuspected meanings, and he has a special liking for stories that turn on some dramatic reversal of fortune—a religious conversion, a king brought low, a slave raised high. One effect of these topsy-turvy narratives is to cast doubt on the permanence or even legitimacy of any worldly power. Kings, like roses, will not last forever, and the man who seems to be a sovereign might actually be a slave to his passions.
Attar’s suspicion of authority lends his poetry an attractively modern note, but this skepticism is deeply rooted in his own times. In medieval Iran, Sufi communities emerged for the most part outside the royal courts, which they regarded as dens of debauchery and worldly intrigue. The mystics’ legendary piety and ascetic way of life stood as a rebuke to the intemperance of rulers (as well as the hypocrisy of official clerics). Attar boasted of never having written a poem in praise of a king—“Why eulogize/Some idiotic fool as great and wise?”—and warned against cozying up to powerful men. “An earthly king acts righteously at times,” the hoopoe warns the hawk, “But also stains the earth with hateful crimes,/And then whoever hovers nearest him/Will suffer most from his destructive whim.”
Ultimately more subversive than his mistrust of rulers is Attar’s conception of love. One might even say that for him, Sufism is fundamentally the cultivation of love—not in the sentimental sense of an affection for particular people (although this may be the first symptom of the real thing), but rather as the state of readiness to give up everything, including one’s most deeply held beliefs, for the sake of one’s passion. Love in this sense is a profoundly irrational and asocial—even antisocial—force. “Give up the intellect for love,” the hoopoe urges his disciples more than once, “and see/In one brief moment all eternity.”
In a rich and extraordinarily wide-ranging study, the late scholar of Islam Shahab Ahmed recently argued that the “religion of love” (madhhab-i ‘ishq) is a central element of Muslim history and thought, in societies stretching from the Balkans to Bengal.5 The popular stereotype of Islam as a puritanical and legalistic faith—an image that often persists in scholarship as well—is in his account very far from the lived truth. In view of the enormously widespread circulation of poems by Attar, Rumi, and Hafez, as well as the visual art that grew out of these works and the philosophical arguments they engaged with, Ahmed argues that Sufi poetry is a more reliable guide to Muslim “orthodoxy” than jurists and theologians.
Ahmed’s argument is a useful corrective to more prevalent opinions, but it is difficult to imagine Attar’s notion of love ever serving as a guiding principle for a social or religious organization. For Attar, love is instead a process of transformation that transcends received notions of good and evil. The longest story in The Conference of the Birds is about Sheikh San’an, a pious Meccan who falls for a Christian girl and converts to her religion—one of Attar’s typical reversals. The sheikh’s disciples remonstrate with him, but he responds with a series of blasphemies, delivered with the eerie serenity of a man who is head-over-heels in love:
One urged him to repent; he said: “I do,
Of all I was, all that belonged thereto.”
One counseled prayer; he said: “Where is her face
That I may pray toward that blessèd place?”….
And one reproached him: “Have you no regret
For Islam and those rites you would forget?”
He said: “No man repents past folly more;
Why is it I was not in love before?”
Divine intercession eventually restores the sheikh to his original faith—the Christian girl converts to Islam—but the experience of love has profound consequences. It liberates the sheikh from the outward shows of religion and inducts him into its deeper mysteries.
The sheikh’s passion for the Christian girl is clearly an allegory of the spiritual love that rises above earthly distinctions of sect. In this sense, the Christian is—paradoxically—the Muslim sheikh’s pīr, or Sufi master, who initiates him into higher truths. But as Attar tells us in lingering detail, the girl is beautiful in a mundane sense too: “Her mouth was tiny as a needle’s eye,/Her breath as quickening as Jesus’ sigh;/Her chin was dimpled with a silver well/In which a thousand drowning Josephs fell.” Later on, the girl demands that the sheikh drink forbidden wine to prove his love for her, which leads to an equally rapturous passage about the effects of intoxication. The celebration of physical beauty and sensual delight is clearly at odds with Attar’s strictures against worldly pleasures and outward shows. But the poet’s joy in language, which is itself a kind of sensual pleasure, seems to outrun his spiritual dictums. For some readers, it is the thrill of seeing style triumph over stricture that gives Attar’s poetry its special appeal.
Sufism has a reputation, particularly in the West, as a “moderate” or even ecumenical branch of Islam. An ode of Ibn Arabi, the Andalusian philosopher and poet, is often quoted in this spirit:
My heart can take on
a meadow for gazelles,
a cloister for monks,
For the idols, sacred ground,
Ka‘ba for the circling pilgrim,
The tables of the Toráh,
The scrolls of the Qur’án.
I profess the religion of love;
wherever its caravan turns
along the way, that is the belief,
the faith I keep.6
Sufism’s reputation for tolerance and mysticism has attracted religious syncretists of all kinds. In the United States, what goes by the name of Sufism is basically a branch of the New Age movement and bears almost no relation to Sufi orders of the Middle East and South Asia. In this spiritualist milieu, the poetry of Attar, Rumi, and Hafez—like that of the early-twentieth-century Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran—is read as a form of wisdom literature, valued above all for its sayings, parables, and apothegms.
Sholeh Wolpé, the most recent translator of Attar’s epic into English, writes in the foreword to her new version that “the parables in this book trigger memories deep within us all. The stories inhabit the imagination, and slowly over time, their wisdom trickles down into the heart. The process of absorption is unique to every individual, as is each person’s journey. We are the birds in the story.” This is a plausible response to Attar’s pedagogic intentions. We are plainly meant as readers to identify ourselves (or at least our souls) with the birds. But this interpretation ignores the literary and rhetorical dimensions of Attar’s poem, and it is in this respect that Wolpé’s translation often falls short.
The Conference of the Birds is not a poem that cries out for retranslation. Dick Davis and Afkham Darbandi’s version, first published in 1984 and revised in 2011, is a wonderfully lucid and stylish rendition. Darbandi and Davis maintain the rhyming couplets of the original—they turn the eleven-syllable lines of the Persian into iambic pentameters—without any sacrifice of sense (and astonishingly few stumbles). Their Attar is at once folksy and formal; the couplets maintain narrative momentum even during the most esoteric flights. Darbandi and Davis, accomplished Persianists, approach the poem primarily as a work of imaginative literature, for which Attar’s conception of Sufi doctrine provides a convenient structure. No doubt the doctrine is at times seriously meant, but it is not where the real action is—not for the poet, and not for the translator, either.
Wolpé’s version is rather earnest and earthbound by comparison. She makes the curious choice to render the retellings of legendary material in what she calls “poetic prose”—though it is not exactly clear what makes it poetic—and the speech of the birds in unrhymed verse. But her hoopoe often sounds merely sententious:
Cast off the shame of narcissism.
How long will you keep this faithlessness, this disgrace?
Stake your life for the Beloved and you will be
Liberated from everything, even good and evil.
Surrender your ego and step into the Path,
Cross that threshold dancing.
“Surrender your ego” is a maxim of the yoga studio. Wolpé defends her use of that jarringly clinical word, which she employs throughout her translation: “I chose ‘ego’ because it felt like a word closest in meaning to the inner conceited self, the non-soul. Do not read it as the psychoanalytical ego, minted by the nineteenth-century neurologist and father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud.” One must point out that Freud’s word was in fact the German Ich or, “I”; “ego” was minted by his English translator, Ernest Jones. In any case, translators get to choose only the words, not the words’ connotations. “Ego” cannot help but make contemporary readers think of Freud, but also—more worrisomely—of New Ageism and the tendency it encourages to treat literature as a kind of therapy or self-help. This approach is not entirely foreign to Attar, but it fails to pick up on what is most distinctive about his poetry.
The epilogue of The Conference of the Birds, a poem dedicated to scourging the self, is Attar’s grand self-eulogy:
“Until the end of time there’ll be no one
Who’ll write about these things as I have done.
I bring pearls from Truth’s sea, and poetry—
This book’s the proof—has found its seal in me!”
Muhammad was “the seal of the prophets” in the sense that he was the last prophet, whose revelation superseded all previous revelations. Attar’s claim to be the seal of the poets seems to be another case of his pleasure in language—in this case, the pleasures of hyperbole—getting the better of his doctrine of humility. He was not the last poet, of course; many others have been guided by Attar’s example in the nine centuries since his death. The best students recognized that his virtue lay not in his precepts but in his limitless powers of invention.
A selection of these stories has been translated by A.J. Arberry, Muslim Saints and Mystics (University of Chicago Press, 1966). ↩
All citations are from the translation of Dick Davis and Afkham Darbandi (Penguin, 2011). ↩
Borges: Selected Poems, translated by Alastair Reed (Penguin, 2000), p. 367. ↩
An illustrated volume of the epic, which includes these original fifteenth-century images along with others from a variety of sources, was published in 2014 as The Canticle of the Birds: Illustrated in Eastern Islamic Painting (Paris: Éditions Diane de Selliers). ↩
Shahab Ahmed, What Is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic (Princeton University Press, 2016), pp. 38–46. ↩
The translation is by Michael Sells, Stations of Desire: Love Elegies from Ibn ‘Arabi and New Poems (Jerusalem: Ibis, 2000). ↩