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The Ancient Secrets of Love

`Attar's Speech of the Birds (Mantiq al-tayr)

Omid Safi

Farid al-Din ‘Attar stands at a pivotal moment in the history of Sufism. Today when we think of the Persian Sufi tradition as articulated by figures like Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi (d. 1273) and Hafez (d. 742/1390), it is through the prism of a synthesis of love-based Sufism and the Persian poetic tradition. More than any other figure, it was ‘Attar who served to fully merge these two traditions.

‘Attar was born in the northern Iranian city of Nishapur in a turbulent world which saw the movement of the Mongols onto the Iranian plateau. But his was also a fruitful world that stood between glorious figures of the 12th century like Abu Hamid Ghazali (d. 1111) and Ahmad Ghazali (d. 1126) and those of the 13th century like Mawlana Rumi. ‘Attar connects these figures together: his masterpiece Mantiq al-tayr builds upon a treatise by Ahmad Ghazali. and Mawlana Rumi is recorded as acknowledging his own debt to ‘Attar.

An image of four hoopoes sitting on a single tree branch.
Image courtesy Umang, used under the Creative Commons license.

Scholars have speculated on the details of 'Attar’s formal relationship with Sufism. Perhaps it is best to identify 'Attar as a Sufi whose association with the teachings of Sufism came not through a formal initiation with a living master, but through a mysterious direct association with the Prophet Muhammad. This type of association, identical with what the companion Uways al-Qarani shared with the Prophet, is precisely what Jami [in the Nafahat al-uns] attributes to ‘Attar.

‘Attar composed an impressive number of treatises in his life, most of them of a heavily mystical nature. His Tazkirat al-Awliya (recently translated by Paul Losensky as Memorial of God’s Friends) is among the most important Sufi hagiographies. Other works of his like Ilahi-nama, Mosibat-nama and Asrar-nama each deserve their own discussion, but here our focus is on the classic work Mantiq al-tayr (“Speech of the Birds,” more commonly translated as “Conference of the Birds”).

Speech of the Birds is a masterpiece of Sufi literature that has been read in India, Iran and Turkey for about 750 years. The overall framework of the narrative is that of the communal and mystical journey of souls to God. 'Attar’s treatise builds on the succinct Risalat al-tuyur [or, al-tayr] composed by Ahmad al-Ghazali, which in turns builds on Avicenna’s tradition of birds allegorizing the spirit. 'Attar incorporates a wealth of Sufi anecdotes, hadith qudsi traditions, and “tales of the prophets” in coming up with a literary masterpiece. The introduction to the Mantiq al-tayr (sadly omitted from many translations) explicitly offers the religious basis of the work. It begins with the praise of God, which to 'Attar means seeing God everywhere, an ecstatic experience of the Divine that leads him to state:

God’s throne is established on the water,
the world is built on air.
Forget air and water.
All is God!

'Attar invites the reader to contemplate that this world and the next “are God, not other than Him. If there was other than Him, that too would be Him!” Such statements have often been mischaracterized as monistic, whereas they are best seen as voicing the direct experience of unity. Likewise his depiction of the Prophet Muhammad is passionate and intimate: for ‘Attar the Prophet is none other than the embodiment of the Nur Muhammad (Light of Muhammad) and the reason for creation itself. Muhammad is praised as the “Master of the two realms,” the “shadow of God” and the “mercy of the wide spaces.” In one of his most tender metaphors, ‘Attar asks the Prophet to suckle him from the “breast of compassion.”

The title of the work, Mantiq al-tayr, is a reference to Qur’anic verse 27:16, where the Prophet Sulayman (Solomon) is said to have been taught the mantiq (“logic,” i.e., language) of the birds. In another Qur’anic narrative [verse 27:30] the bird Hud-hud plays go-between between Solomon and Bilqis (Queen of Sheba). In 'Attar’s story, the Hud-hud again plays match-maker between the birds who want to set out on the path and the Si-murgh, the legendary King-bird—which is to say, God. A number of birds offer rather imaginative excuses for why they do not intend to set foot on the mystical path, a pedagogical device to remind the readers of the excuses that human beings use to avoid the task of self-purification on the Sufi path.

It is in this narrative that 'Attar introduces the “ancient secret,” namely God’s secret and intense love for humanity. Here God reveals that there is a secret way between “the king” and the lover (man rahi dozdida daram su-ye u) through which God is with humanity, even aside from the sending of messengers.

The turning point in 'Attar’s Speech comes with the telling of the longest narrative, the story of Shaykh San‘an. This story is one of the ultimate literary masterpieces testifying to the willingness of the lover to endure suffering, and even symbolically overthrow external religiosity, on the path of love. For the love of the Christian maiden, the Shaykh of San‘an becomes a drunkard, burns the Qur’an, renounces Islam and even tends to the beloved's pigsty. Why would Attar posit such a turn? It is not out of animosity towards Islam, naturally, a tradition he is deeply rooted in himself. It is out of an insistence that through radical commitment to love one must transcend merely “metaphorical” Islam to arrive at a deeper and higher faith. The very purpose of such love narratives is to inspire the audience, to raise them in spiritual aspiration to set foot on the path. This is precisely what takes place in the story, and the birds—which is to say, us—overcome their/our timidity and spiritual excuses to continue rising to meet their fate, their destination, their God.

Eventually a group of birds set out, traveling through seven valleys, which correspond to the spiritual stations (maqamat) of the spiritual path. In 'Attar’s reckoning, these valleys/stations are identified as Seeking (talab), Extreme Love (‘ishq), Gnosis (ma’rifat), Self-sufficient Contentment (istighna’), Unity (tawhid), Bewilderment (hayrat) and lastly, Spiritual Poverty (faqr) and Spiritual Annihilation (fana). At the conclusion of this immortal journey comes the famous Sufi pun, where the thirty birds (“si murgh”; si=thirty, murgh=bird) come to see themselves as the very reflection of the Simurgh, the King-bird. Attar beautifully captures this experience of seeing the collectivity as the mirror of Divinity:

Themselves the complete Simurgh they saw;
the Simurgh Himself was all the time the ‘si murgh’!
These were that One,
and that One was these; in all the world nobody has heard this!

In choosing to have the thirty birds reflect the Simurgh, 'Attar emphasizes that the spiritual path is not a solitary path, but one to be pursued as part of a community.

And so it has been since 'Attar’s time. The birds, spirits, us, rising to meet our Lord, find that the most ancient of secrets is that the One that we have been seeking is already with us, inside us. At the end of the path, we come to see the most luminous part of our own self, having been transformed and transmuted on the spiritual path, to be a reflection of the Divine.

May all of our journeys be like this, insha’Allah.

Omid Safi is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill where he specializes on Islamic mysticism (Sufism), contemporary Islamic thought, and medieval Islamic history. He received his PhD from Duke University (2000). Before coming to UNC he was an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Colgate University in Hamilton, NY. Safi is the Chair for the Study of Islam at the American Academy of Religion. He is also a member of the advisory board of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University. His book The Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, was published in 2006. His translation and analysis of Rumi’s biography is forthcoming from Fons Vitae.

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22 April 2009

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