By Sadia Dehlvi
Sep 14, 2012
One of my all-time favourite books is the 12th-century Persian Sufi Fariduddin Attar’s Mantiq ut Tair, which has been translated into English as Conference of the Birds. His name Attar, alluded to the fact that he sold perfumes.
A wealthy merchant, Attar took to the mystic path following a visit by a mystic to his shop who asked Attar how he would die with all the wealth that surrounded him. An angered Attar told him that he would die the same way as him.
The mystic said he owned nothing except his cloak and begging bowl, lay down, uttered the name of God and died. Impacted deeply by this incident, Attar sold everything he owned, gave the money away to charity and devoted himself to the quest of Allah. He became a high-ranking mystic and is said to have authored scores of books on spirituality. An amazing storyteller, his enduring poetry and prose were written to elevate the moral and spiritual state of the reader.
In the Conference of the Birds, a group of birds desirous of finding their king, requests a wise hoopoe to lead them. The hoopoe informs them that Simurgh — meaning 30 birds in Persian — is the king they seek who lives in the far away mountain of Kaf that surrounds the world. The hoopoe tells the birds that they will need to cross valleys and endless deserts before they enter the palace of the king. The hoopoe begins the training for the journey by teaching each bird according to its own capacity to comprehend.
The birds with weak wills and those afraid of the difficult path ahead drop out. Parrot, peacock and some other birds make excuses to avoid the long journey. The peacock says he will wait for the judgment day, the goose exclaims he cannot survive without water. The nightingale believes her love for the rose is enough and claims to possess the secrets of true love.
The hoopoe guides the remaining birds through the seven valleys of understanding, encountering slaves, hermits, princesses and other creatures on the way. They confront their fears, and eventually just 30 birds reach their destination. Under the guidance of a wise teacher, the seeker birds are purified by the trials and tribulations of the long journey. Finally, upon entering the hall of the kings palace, the birds are astonished to find that the king is none other than themselves. All 30 of the birds are transformed into the wondrous, unknown and beautiful Simurgh bird. They find the king in the mirror of their hearts and in the search for the king, they find themselves. To quote Attar:
They were the Simurgh and the journeys end
They see the Simurgh at themselves they stare
And see a second Simurgh standing there
They look at both and see the two are one…
Sadia Dehlvi is a Delhi-based writer and author of Sufism: The Heart of Islam