The Conference of the Birds
The Conference of the Birds
by Farid al-Din Attar
THE LITERACY WORK
A twelfth-century allegorical poem set in mythical Iran about a journey to the fabled Mount Qaf; completed in Persian (as Manttq at-tayr) in 1188; first published in its entirety in English in 1984.
A number of birds set out on a pilgrimage. Along the way, many fall prey to worldly distractions, but 30 reach the source of spiritual enlightenment—the phoenix, or Simurgh, whose identity comes as a complete surprise to them.
Farid al-Din Attar of Nishapur, Iran, is one of the three greatest mystical poets in Persian literature. His life spanned the period between that of the other two master poets of the Islamic mystical tradition—Sana’i of Ghaznavi (d. 1130) and Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207-73). Attar’s birth and death dates remain unknown, though he is thought to have perished in his nineties around 1229, when the Mongols invaded Nishapur in northeastern Iran. During his lifetime, the Seljuqs, a Turkish-speaking dynasty from Central Asia, ruled the northeastern Iranian province of Khurasan, where Nishapur is located. To administer their empire in Iran and collect its lucrative tax revenues, the Seljuqs employed other Turkic tribes, who formed dynasties of their own that competed, often brutally, for the revenues. These upheavals did not prevent Attar from following his father into the apothecary trade (attar means “perfumer” or “druggist” in Persian). It was a profession that put him in the patrician class, along with religious scholars, judges, physicians, landed gentry, Christian monks, philosophers, food wholesalers, and farmers (Ravandi, p. 423). Doubling as a physician and an apothecary, he examined patients (as many as 50 per day) and prescribed and prepared remedies for their ailments (Nafisi, p. 34). His busy days financed Attar’s first love: expressing in nightly poetry writing what he encountered in the world of ideas. In his own words, “there is so much meaning in my mind that, God knows, I am wholly captive to its expression” (Attar in Nafisi, p. 37; trans. P. Sprachman). His literary career could have followed the servile path of the court poet, which began with exaggerated praise of the many petty tyrants who ruled Nishapur, then proceeded to flattery of the ministers close to imperial power, and, if the poet was very fortunate, culminated in panegyrics (praise poetry) for the great Seljuq himself. Bits of praise poetry tell us that Attar traveled this path briefly, but the rest of his voluminous writing shows that he “repented,” for his “heart was sickened by praise poetry and absurdity” (Attar, Divan, p. 49). Instead of squandering his genius on self-promotion and advancement through the ranks of court poets, he devoted himself to the two main goals of Islamic mysticism: self-denial and union with God. His works are filled with exemplary stories about the great mystics, both male and female, who scaled the heights of spiritual understanding. One of his prose works, Tazkirat al-awliya (The Lives of the Saints), is a compendium of such tales, many of which also appear in verse form in The Conference of the Birds. Altogether Attar composed at least eight poetical works as well as shorter works in prose, some of his best-known titles being llahi-namah (The Book of God), Musibat-namah (The Book of Affliction), and Asrar-namah (The Book of Secrets). Attar’s most renowned work, The Conference of the Birds, is about the difficult journey to spiritual enlightenment and the excuses that people make to avoid taking it.
Attar did not consider his poetry merely a means of expressing the ideas that teemed in his head. He also treated it as hallowed ground, innocent of the religious prejudices (ta‘assubat) that historians tell us poisoned the social climate of Nishapur. To express the transcendent nature of true poetry, he often uses puns that exploit the fact that Persian writing is a string of consonants written without short vowels. In Persian, for example, the three consonants that form Shi‘r, “poetry,” are not written with short vowels but appear as sh‘r. Instead of “poetry,” the consonants can be rearranged to produce shar‘r, “divine law,” or ‘Arsh, “the throne of God” (Ritter, pp. 156–57). To the Sufi imagination this accident of orthography is proof enough of the sacred nature of literature.
Caliphs and pilgrims
In Attar’s time, centuriesold differences of opinion about who should have been caliph or “successor” to the Prophet Muhammad when he died in 632 often caused strife between the two main sects of Islam. On one hand, the Sunni majority to which the poet belonged favored succession by election. This resulted in the following line of leaders: Abu Bakr (caliph 632-34), Umar (caliph 634-44), and Uthman (caliph 644-56). On the other hand, the Shf ite minority championed a hereditary succession, which would have made the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, the first caliph. Ali finally became caliph in 656, but Shf‘ites have always resented the usurpation of his right by the other three caliphs. Part of the prologue to The Conference of the Birds attacks these ancient prejudices. Attar accuses the Shf ites of rejecting the incontestable truth (haqq) that the companions (sahabah) of the Prophet would never have chosen an unworthy or unlawful candidate to take his place, as could happen if one relied on heredity (Attar, Mantiq al-tayr, original, pp. 27-28; this part is not in the English translation).
There was less contention about another aspect of Muslim life, the hajj, which caliphs, like all Muslims, were obligated to take if they had the means to do so. The hajj is the principal pilgrimage in Islam. During the month set aside for it, pilgrims (hajjis) of all ages and from all social classes and ethnic groups visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in today’s Saudi Arabia. Since the hajj occurs during a lunar month, the pilgrimage takes place at various times during the solar year. All hajjis don the simple white robes of a pilgrim, which are designed to erase class and national distinctions. Among the rites they perform is the circumambulating of the Ka‘bah, the black stone that stands in the middle of the Grand Mosque of Mecca and is associated in the Quran (2:125) with Ibrahim (Abraham of the Bible).
Shi’ites become hajjis along with all other Muslims; however, they have also traditionally performed other pilgrimages (ziyarat) that are closer to home (principally in Iraq and Iran). These local visitations, which unlike the hajj happen any time of year, take the hajjis to shrines that honor the 12 imams and their families, the holiest figures in Shi’ism. (The imams, direct descendants of Ali, are regarded as intermediaries to the divine in Iran.) The most important Shi’ite pilgrimage sites are in Iraq: Najaf (the shrine of Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad) and Karbala (the shrine of Ali’s martyred son, Husayn). Shi’ite pilgrims also visit the shrine of the eighth of the Shf ite leaders, Imam Reza, in Mashhad in northeastern Iran. As in the Hajj, during Shi’ite visitation it is customary to circumambulate—only in the case of visitation one goes around the sepulchers of the imams, intoning prayers and imploring their spirits to intervene in matters of wealth, health, fertility, and so forth. In addition to these main sites, there are hundreds of sub-shrines that honor Shf ite saints, who are typically descendants of the imams or members of their families. Pilgrims make their way to these sub-shrines as well.
Sufis also visit the shrines (zawiyah) dedicated to the saints venerated by their individual orders. During these pilgrimages, which like the Shi’ite
THE SEVEN STAGES ON THE SUFI PATH TOWARD ENLIGHTENMENT
There are seven stages—known in Arabic as maqamah—on the path to spiritual enlightenment and union with God. These stages become progressively more difficult as the wayfarer passes from one to the next. The seven maqamahs are:
Maqamah 1: The struggle (jihads against the Imperious Self (al-nafs al-ammarah). In this stage the Sufi learns to overcome those feelings that place the self above other considerations: eg., lust, anger, greed, etc.
Maqamah 2: The struggle against the Blaming Self (al-nafs al-lawwamah). In this stage the Sufi grapples with envy and the urge to scheme and to make invidious comparisons.
Maqamah 3: The acquisition of the Enlightening Self (al-nafs al-mulhamah). At this point the wayfarer attains such good qualities as contentment, humility, gentleness, etc.
Maqamah 4: The attainment of the Tranquil Self (al-nafs al-mutma’innah). In this stage Sufis learn complete acceptance of their lots in life and patience in the face of hardship.
Maqamah 5: The evolution of the Satisfied Self (al-nafs al-mardiyah). The renunciation of every thought but the contemplation of God. So entrancing is divine beauty at this stage that all other sights become illusory by comparison.
Maqamah 6: Achieving the Approved Self (al-nafs at-mardiyah). Here love between the Creator and creation enters the soul, and the Sufi learns to view the reality of this world with knowledge of the next.
Maqamah 7: The stage of the Perfect Soul (an-nafs al-kamilah). This phase encompasses all the good qualities of the previous stages. Here the Sufi no longer needs physical exercises or stimulants to achieve a spiritual state—it comes naturally.
(Adapted from Trimingham, pp. 155–57)
visitations do not take place at any particular time of year, they perform spiritual exercises (repeating the names of God, chanting, dancing) and pray to the saints for guidance on how to become better devotees to their orders. Sufis often sleep at these shrines in hopes of dreaming of the saints buried in them. Such spiritual odysseys take them all over the world of Islamic mysticism, from Mauritania in West Africa to India and Indonesia in South Asia.
Sufism is Islamic mysticism. This simple definition masks the dizzying complexity of the subject. At least one scholar asserts that a proper description is impossible because Sufism includes a wide variety of beliefs and practices (Schimmel, p. 3). The word itself derives from the Arabic suf or “wool,” the rough fabric composing a cloak (dalq, zhindah), which, like the Christian mystic’s hair shirt, was the badge of the Sufi’s penance and poverty. The original Muslim mystics denied themselves the comforts of clothing, food, and shelter so as not to be distracted from the true way (tariqah) toward knowledge (ma‘rifah) of and, ultimately, union (wusul) with God. Like the poem’s Shaykh Noughani, real-life mystics often appeared in “tattered clothes, alone and weak” (Attar, The Conference of the Birds, line 1770). Some bragged that their cloaks became oppressively heavy because of all the patches they had to sew onto them.
In addition to self-deprivation, the Sufis of Attar’s day relied on intuition, inspiration, and a range of physical exercises to progress from stage (maqamah) to stage along the true way.
Early in the spread of Islam, the Sufis began to read the revelations of the Quran allegorically, finding hidden meanings behind practically every expression in the Arabic text. These readings eventually became the standard Sufi learning that informs large parts of mystical poems like Attar’s Conference of the Birds and Rumi’s Masnavi.
A mystical understanding of part of the Quran dealing with Sulayman (biblical Solomon) is essential to an informed reading of The Conference of the Birds. At the beginning of the narrative, Attar writes that Solomon understood the language of the birds:
Dear hoopoe, welcome! You will be our guide:
It was on you King Solomon relied
To carry secret messages between
His court and distant Sheba’s lovely queen.
He knew your language and you knew his heart.
(Conference of the Birds, lines 616-20)
This is a Sufi interpretation of Quran 27:16, which says that Solomon knew the language of the Tayr, the name of a tribe of people over whom he and his father David had dominion. The Sufis chose to read Tayr as “birds,” which is possible in Arabic but not supported by the Quran, where, as explained, it denotes a specific tribe of people. The reading of Tayr as “birds” turns Solomon into a Sufi at the highest level of enlightenment, privy to the language of the birds. Because birds commonly symbolized the soul in Sufi literature, Sufi Solomon becomes aware of humanity’s inner spiritual musings.
Other Sufi methods were and are less contemplative, at times verging—from the point of view of non-Sufis—on “excessive” or “wild” behaviors. Expressing the rapture (wajd) associated with closeness to God, these behaviors include singing, dancing or whirling (the practice of the Mevlevi dervishes of Konya), and listening to music, all of which were and are condemned in orthodox Islam. These behaviors, say the orthodox, distract the devout from the prescribed means of reaching God—the five daily prayers.
By Attar’s time Sufi methods and beliefs had become standardized and many orders had emerged throughout Western and Central Asia. The general route from initiation to graduation was uniform across the orders. One entered the path as a novice (murid) and followed the instructions of an adept or guide (murshid) at a retreat (khanaqah). Attar’s order was named the “Kubrawiyah,” after the great Khivan scholar and mystic Najm al-Din Kubra (1145-1221). His teacher was Majd al-Din al-Baghdadi, who also perished in the Mongol invasion of Iran.
The Kubrawiyah used a form of spiritual exercise called dhikr or “remembrance.” The practice grows out of the prayer ritual in Islam during which certain Arabic phrases like Allah akbar (“God is great”) are intoned several times. In dhikr the names of God (in Islam there are 99) or the names of revered Imams (saints and martyrs) are repeated, mantra-like, several thousand times so that the Sufi reaches a state of spiritual understanding (hal) unavailable to the intellect. These repetitions are accompanied by hyperventilation, which leads to a dizziness conducive to alternate views of reality.
Another important feature of Sufi life is a practiced indifference to the opinions of society. The Sufis of Attar’s day often went out of their way to be disreputable, either affecting or actually engaging in activities designed to repel the vast majority of the devout. In an Islamic context these activities included frequenting taverns and using intoxicants, openly carrying on love affairs with non-Muslim males and females, uttering obscenities and blasphemies, and similar violations of religious practice. The Sufis behaved this way to drive a point home to the orthodox, to counter what seemed to be excessive control in the name of religion. Reminding others that God looks into people’s hearts, not their actions, they promoted tolerance for individual ways of worship. They also practiced such deviant behavior to show how much the mystic wayfarer was willing to forgo the self. Only if Sufis abandoned worldly attachment could they annihilate love of self, the main barrier to knowing God.
In The Conference of the Birds, Attar often uses forbidden love as a metaphor for the abandonment of worldly attachments. The longest tale in the poem (lines 1185-1593) tells how one of the most pious and learned Muslims of his time, Shaykh Sam‘an (or San‘an), falls in love with a Christian girl whose “mouth was tiny as a needle’s eye” and whose breath “as quickening as Jesus’ sigh” (Conference of the Birds, lines 1221-22). The shaykh’s infatuation forces him to do things Islam strictly forbids. First, he begins to worship the girl (idolatry violates monotheism, the first principle of Islam); second, he drinks wine (prohibited so one can fix one’s total consciousness on God, without any of the senses being dulled); and, third, he becomes a Christian (leaving Islam is a mortal sin, punishable in some places by death). Shaykh Sam‘an completes the process of self-abasement by becoming the girl’s swineherd (Muslims abhor pork). Finally the angels take pity on the shaykh, and the Prophet himself intervenes through a dream to cure him of his infatuation.
The Sufi ideal of selfless love can also take the form of a king’s affection for his slave boy (ghu-lam). Typically there were many such slaves at the royal court, and the sultan had life-and-death power over them. He could give his slaves as presents to courtiers or use them however he wished. The relationship between the sultan and the slave thus became metaphorical for the tie between the Creator and His creatures. The great disparity between the status of the king (the highest) and the place of the slave (abject) suits the ideal perfectly. Like the Sufi wayfarer, the king abandons all wealth, power, and position to attain the ultimate joy of divine enlightenment, typically symbolized by the beauty of the slave boy. In the lover’s eyes, the perfect beauty of the slave is an earthly replica of the perfection of the divine visage. Both are objects of absolute adoration.
Sufi poets often use the story, which is in part supported by history, of Mahmud, sultan of Ghazni (reigned 998-1030), and Ayaz, his stunning servant, to express this theme. In The Conference of the Birds (lines 3078-80), Attar writes:
Shah Mahmoud called Ayaz to him and gave
His crown and throne to this bewitching slave,
Then said: “You are the sovereign of these lands;
I place my mighty army in your hands—
I wish for you unrivaled majesty,
That you enslave the very sky and sea.
These lines capture the paradoxical character of Islamic mysticism. It is a world in which a slave enslaves and a king becomes sovereign by giving up his kingdom.
Dispensing with gender
The quest for eternity, or union with God, also changes the fundamental natures of those who embark on it. It can, for example, make women of men and men of women. This is not accidental. The blurring of gender is important to the quest because it gives the Sufi license to engage in activities that are outlawed in “normal” society. The life of Rabfah al-Adawiyah (d. 801), perhaps the most celebrated woman among the great Sufis, typifies the gender switch. Attar devotes part of his Lives of the Saints to Rabf ah. In the beginning of the entry, he anticipates objections to including a woman among the “men of the path.” His justification is based on a saying (hadith) of the Prophet Muhammad: “Verily God does not look at your faces [rather He reads what is in your hearts]” (Attar, Guzidah-’i tazkirat al-awliya, p. 61). To Sufis, this means that once a woman enters the path, she becomes a “man,” as she acquires the male traits of initiative and daring, which are needed to become one with God. Moreover, writes Attar, since unity (tawhid) is the ultimate goal of the quest, grammatical and other distinctions disappear: the pronouns “you” and “I” and the separate genders male and female cannot have any meaning.
A story in The Conference of the Birds illustrates the opposite case: how the quest feminizes a man. It seems that in Baghdad where he spent most of his life, the great mystic Abu Bakr Shibli (d. 945) would disappear from public view from time to time. When one of his followers finds him in a house of prostitution that features boys and creatures of “questionable” gender (mukhannath khanah, i.e. transvestites), he explains (lines 1926-28):
In the world’s way these you see
Aren’t men or women; so it is with me—
For in the way of Faith I’m neither man
Nor woman, but ambiguous courtesan—
Unmanliness reproaches me, then blame
For my virility fills me with shame.
A MEDIEVAL FEMINIST?
In most medieval Islamic societies, the sexes were strictly segregated. Men and women attended separate shrines or partitioned parts of the same shrine. Women’s religious activities could also take place within the confines of the inner home, far from the prying eyes of men not allowed to see their faces. Women were not expected to speak in public, let alone express themselves on sexual matters. A notable exception is the poetess Mahsati (b, 1141) from Ganjah (in modern Azerbaijan). Poetic chronicles report that she had the temerity to write of her desire in, for example, the following quatrain, which she recited.
I’m Mahsati, the fairest of the flock,
For beauty famed from Mashhad to Iraq;
O preacher’s boy, you good-for-nothing bum,
We’re through if I’ve no bread or meat or cock!
(Mahsati in Sprachman, p, 3)
Whether Mahsati indeed wrote all the quatrains attributed to her is a matter of some debate. In any case, she is representative of those women who performed and served at taverns and other public places. Many were the entertainers and prostitutes that inhabited the kharabat, or “ruins”—disreputable places that existed on the outskirts of every proper town.
By frequenting such a disgraceful place, Shibli not only loses his reputation but his gender as well. His story serves the same paradox found in the sultan/slave-boy tales mentioned above: namely, seekers must debase themselves—unsex themselves, in fact—before they can become pure and one with divine Truth.
Because most of The Conference of the Birds is composed of parables and exemplary tales that do not advance the plot, the poem’s basic story line is quite spare.
The poem begins with customary praise of God, the Prophet Muhammad, and the four caliphs: Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali. It then launches into the strong criticism of the Shi‘ite religious prejudices described above. These preliminary sections do not appear in the English translation.
The actual story begins at verse 617 with greetings to the hoopoe (hudhud), the leader of the pilgrim flock. The birds agree in principle to seek the Simurgh, the source of all divine enlightenment, but when it comes to actually going, a number of them try to avoid the journey with excuses that reflect their particular avian natures. For example, love of the rose threatens to stop the nightingale (bulbul) a cage prevents the parrot (tuti); the duck (batt) cannot live without water; the partridge (kabk) likewise cannot do without mountains, and so on. The hoopoe responds to each objection with anecdotes drawn from the vast body of Islamic and Sufi learning. He eventually manages to convince a number of birds to make the pilgrimage.
The pattern of defection from the quest and the leader’s artful recourse—using the Quran and Sufi anecdotes to bring the birds back into line—continues. For example, when one of the birds is unable to go on the journey because of a love of gold (lines 2079-82), the hoopoe tells the story of the novice and his master (lines 2101-11). The novice had a hidden stash of gold that the master knew about. While on a journey with a decisive fork in the road, the novice asked his master which way they were to go. The master replied that the way to know is to rid oneself of all hidden things.
The hoopoe then describes the seven valleys that they must cross before they can reach the Simurgh: the Valley of the Quest (talab) the Valley of Love (ishq); the Valley of Insight into Mystery (ma‘rifat); the Valley of Detachment (istighna); the Valley of Unity (tawhid); the Valley of Bewilderment (hayrat) and the Valley of Poverty and Nothingness (faqr). Because each valley is more difficult to cross than the one before it, more and more of the birds fall prey to fatigue or temptation as the journey proceeds. By the last stage only 30 pilgrims, who have been fully cured of their worldliness, remain. When the birds finally meet the Simurgh, the significance of the number 30 becomes clear. Attar reveals the pun that governs the entire poem in the following lines:
Their souls rose free of all they’d been before;
The past and all its actions were no more.
Their life came from that close, insistent sun
And in its vivid rays they shone as one.
There in the Simurgh’s radiant face they saw
Themselves, the Simurgh of the world—with awe
They gazed, and dared at last to comprehend
They were the Simurgh and the journey’s 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,
That this is that, that this, the goal is won.
(Conference of the Birds, lines 4232-37)
In Persian “thirty” is si and “bird” is murgh; thus “Simurgh” literally means “thirty birds.” At the end of the quest, the flock realizes that together they compose the Simurgh, their final destination. Ultimately the quest of the birds amounts to a circle; the pun brings home the message that they themselves were actually the enlightenment that they sought.
Mystical use of history
A great deal of language in The Conference of the Birds is borrowed from the world of the royal court. The Simurgh is the “king” of the birds that holds “court.” The birds approach his royal threshold as “suppliants.” The “blaze of his majesty reduces their souls to unreality” (Conference of the Birds, line 4186). Several bird pilgrims boast of their proximity to royalty. For example, the huma, biologically the bearded vulture, but in mythology a phoenix-like creature associated with kingship, asks
. . . Who can look down
On one whose shadow brings the royal crown?
The world should bask in my magnificence—
Let Khosroe’s [the Sasanian king Khusraw’s] glory stand in my defense.
(Conference of the Birds, lines 922-23)
This language is typical of the refined discourse of a courtier, which was necessary in the presence of the king.
Aside from the courtly language, real sultans and monarchs figure prominently in many of the exemplary tales, where history is recast to suit the Sufi message. As noted, Sultan Mahmud, the ruler of the Ghaznavid Empire from 998-1030, is celebrated in mystical Persian literature for his relationship to his slave Ayaz. To Muslim historians, the sultan was the perfect ghazi, or warrior, for Islam because his expeditions into northern India (known as Hindustan) brought vast territories into the Islamic empire. The spoils from his raids on the temples in India, which were coated in layers of gold leaf and filled with jewel-encrusted statues of the many Hindu gods, financed a standing army of some 50,000 troops (Boyle, p. 13). Needless to say, the Hindu historians of India do not see Mahmud the way the Muslims do. To them, the sultan was a bloodthirsty conqueror who converted millions of non-Muslims by the sword.
One of Mahmud’s most famous exploits in India was the taking of the temple at Somnath (in Persian the word is Sumanat). Before the Islamic conquest, the temple was the richest Hindu shrine in the region of Gujrat. A thousand Brahmin priests resided at the temple and spent their lives in continuous worship of its idol. Some 500 dancing and singing girls and 200 musicians devoted themselves to serving this idol (Habib, pp. 52-53). Mahmud left Ghazni on October 18, 1025, and took the temple in November of the same year. He stripped the shrine of its gold and gems and, true to the Islamic iconoclastic ideal, smashed the idol. The shattered pieces were installed in the entryway to Ghazni’s great mosque, where believers wiped their feet.
The Conference of the Birds includes a retelling of the Somnath story. In this version the idol, which was actually a Hindu focus of worship carved from solid rock, becomes Lat, one of three pre-Islamic goddesses shaped like female cranes that the Prophet Muhammad destroyed when he brought monotheism to the Arabian peninsula:
When Mahmoud’s army had attacked Somnat
They found an idol there that men called “Lat.”
Its worshippers flung treasure on the ground
And as a ransom gave the glittering mound;
But Mahmoud would not cede to their desire
And burnt the idol in a raging fire.
A courtier said: “Now if it had been sold
We’d have what’s better than an idol—gold!”
Shah Mahmoud said: “I feared God’s Judgement Day;
I was afraid that I should hear Him say
“Here two—Azar and Mahmoud—stand and behold!
One carved idols, one had idols sold!’”
And as the idol burned, bright jewels fell out—
So Mahmoud was enriched but stayed devout;
He said: “This idol Lat has her reward,
And here is mine, provided by the Lord.”
Destroy the idols in your heart, or you
Will one day be a broken idol too—
First burn the Self, and as its fate is sealed
The gems this idol hides will be revealed.
(Conference of the Birds, lines 3121-31)
Though, as historians point out, this story is a fabrication, it is useful because it shows how Sufis interpret history (Habib, p. 57). Instead of being a great Muslim conqueror, Mahmud is a mystic more concerned with his soul than gaining the riches of India and expanding the sweep of Islam. The idols become the worldly preoccupations that keep the Sufi from destroying the self—killing the self to become selfless and reach God. The gems, like the beauty of the slave boy, symbolize the enlightenment that comes from union with God.
Sources and literary context
The title The Conference of the Birds (Mantiq al-tayr —literally “the speech of birds”) is a reference to a verse in the Quran (27:16). In this verse Solomon (corresponding to the Jewish king in the Bible) proclaims, “O ye people! We have been taught the speech of the Tayr.” This is usually interpreted to mean that God distinguished Solomon by granting him knowledge denied to other men and prophets. In one of Attar’s poems (Divan, p. 81), this secret language is the medium of communication of the “bird of the soul.” In other words, Solomon had the pure knowledge of mysticism. Such Sufi interpretations begin with the Quran and the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) and, in some cases, with Islamic folklore.
Attar was not the first writer to use this title. Another work that describes the pilgrimage of a group of birds toward God is Ibn Sina’s (also known as Avicenna, 980-1037) Risalat al-tayr (“Treatise of the Birds”). This treatise describes the eight stages that the birds must traverse before they can reach God. The influential Iranian theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali (1058-1111) also wrote a “Treatise of the Birds,” which seems to have been Attar’s model.
Since its completion in February of 1188, The Conference of the Birds has been considered Attar’s masterpiece. It is one of two or three basic texts of Persian literature and Sufism that is still taught in the original and in translation throughout the world. Revered Persian mystics who follow Attar, such as Jalal al-Din Rumi (also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern Literature and Its Times) and Abd al-Rahman Jami (1414-92), praise both the quality of the poetry and the poet’s encyclopedic knowledge of religion and Sufi traditions. All scholars of Persian mysticism agree that next to Rumi’s Masnavi, Attar’s Conference of the Birds is the most important Sufi text (Schimmel, p. 304). Since its publication, the work has achieved the status of a handbook of mystical knowledge. For many Sufis it is the work that most clearly and concisely captures the essence of the mystical quest.
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