Fariduddin Attar (AD 1119 - 1229)

[This is taken from Claud Field's Mystics and Saints of Islam, originally published in 1910.]

Fariduddin Attar was born in the village of Kerken near Nishapur in Khorassan, A.D. 1119 under the Sultan Sandjar. Some years after his birth his father removed to Schadbakh, where he kept a druggist's shop. On his father's death, Fariduddin carried on the business, whence he received his cognomen Attar (druggist). His call to the religious life was as follows: One day while he was seated in his shop surrounded by servants busily attending to his orders, a wandering dervish paused at the door and regarded him silently, while his eyes slowly filled with tears. Attar sharply told him to be off about his business. "That is easily done," replied the dervish; "I have only a light bundle to carry, nothing in fact but my clothes. But you with your sacks full of valuable drugs, when the time comes to go, what will you do? Had you not better consider a little?" The appeal went home. He promptly abandoned his business in order to devote himself to a religious life. Bidding a decisive adieu to the world, he betook himself to a Sufi convent, presided over by Sheikh Ruknuddin. Here he resided for some time engaged in devotional practices, and then made the pilgrimage to Mecca, where he met with many devotees and conceived the idea of compiling a collection of stories of the holy men of Islam. To this work he devoted several years of his long life; he also composed a Pand-nama or "Book of Counsels." But the work by which he is chiefly known is the "Mantiquttair" or "Parliament of Birds," and of this we proceed to give some account.

In this allegorical poem various birds representing mystics, unite themselves under the leadership of the hoopoe in order to journey to the court of the Simurgh, a mysterious bird whose name signifies "thirty birds," dwelling in Mount Kaf, the mountain which encircles the world. At the commencement of the poem there is a long debate between the hoopoe and the other birds, who at first allege various excuses for not undertaking the journey, while he rebukes them for their lukewarmness, not concealing, however, the fact that the journey is full of peril, and that though many start few will reach the goal. The hoopoe's description of the road is as follows: "We have seven valleys to traverse. The first is the Valley of Search; the second the Valley of Love, which has no limits; the third is the Valley of Knowledge; the fourth is the Valley of Independence; the fifth is the Valley of Unity, pure and simple; the sixth is the Valley of Amazement; last of all is the valley of Poverty and Annihilation, beyond which there is no advance. There thou wilt feel thyself drawn, but will have no power to go any further.

"(1) When thou enterest the Valley of Search, at every step new trials will present themselves; there the parrot of the celestial sphere is as mute as a fly. There thou must cast away all thy possessions and imperil all thy riches. Not only must the hand be empty, but thy heart must be detached from all that is earthly. Then the Light of the Divine Essence will begin to cast upon thee some rays.

"(2) In order to enter the second valley (of love) thou must be made all of fire; he who is not composed of fire will find no pleasure in that valley; he must not think of the future, but be ready to sacrifice a hundred worlds to the flames, if needs be. Faith and infidelity, good and evil, religion and irreligion, are all one for him who has arrived at the second stage; for where love reigns, none of them exist any more.

"(3) In the third valley (of knowledge) the progress of the pilgrims is in proportion to their innate powers. In the path traversed by Abraham the Friend of God, can a feeble spider keep pace with an elephant? Let the gnat fly as hard as he may, he will never keep up with the wind. Thus the degrees of knowledge attained to by the initiated are different; one only reaches the entrance of the temple, while another finds the Divinity who dwells in it. When the Sun of Knowledge darts its rays, each is illumined in proportion to his capacity, and finds in the contemplation of the truth the rank which belongs to him. He sees a path lie open before him through the midst of the fire, the furnace of the world becomes for him a garden of roses. He perceives the almond within the shell, that is to say, he sees God under the veil of all apparent things. But for one happy man who penetrates into these mysteries, how many millions have gone astray? Only the perfect can dive with success into the depths of this ocean.

"(4) In the fourth valley (of independence) thou hast done with everything but God. Out of this disposition of mind, which no longer feels the need of anything, there rises a tempestuous hurricane, every blast of which annihilates whole kingdoms. The seven seas are then no more than a pool of water; the seven planets are a spark; the eight paradises are only a single curtain; the seven hells a mass of ice. In less time than it takes the greedy crow to fill its crop, out of a hundred caravans of travellers there remains not one alive.

"(5) The Valley of Unity which succeeds to that of Independence, is the valley of privation of all things and reduction to unity, that is to say, the attainment of a degree of spirituality, in which the Divine Essence, apart from every attribute, is the object of contemplation.

"(6) In the sixth valley, that of Amazement, the pilgrim's lot is to suffer and to groan; each breath he draws is like a sword; his days and nights are passed in sighs; from each of his hairs distils a drop of blood, which, as it falls, traces in the air the letters of the word "alas!" There he remains in a state of stupefaction, and finds his way no more."

To make the meaning of "Amazement" clearer, Attar gives the following allegory. He supposes that the young companions of a princess wished one day to amuse themselves at the expense of a slave. They made him drink wine in which they had dropped a narcotic drug, and when he was asleep had him carried to the harem. At midnight, when he woke, he found himself on a gilded couch surrounded by perfumed candles, scent-boxes of aloes, and lovely women whose songs ravished his ear. "Disconcerted and stupefied," says the poet, "he no longer retained reason nor life. He was no longer in this world, nor was he in the other. His heart was full of love for the princess, but his tongue remained mute. His spirit was in ecstacies. When he awoke in the morning he found himself again a slave at his old post. The memory of the past night was so vivid that it caused him to utter a cry; he tore his garments, and threw dust upon his head. They asked him what was the matter, but he knew not what to reply. He could not say whether what he had seen was a dream or a reality; whether he had passed the night in drunkenness or in full possession of his faculties. What he had seen had left a profound impression on his mind, and yet he could not trace it out accurately. He had contemplated Beauty beyond all words, and yet he was not sure whether he had seen It after all. The only effect of his vision was a trouble of mind and uncertainty."

(7) At last comes the seventh valley, that of Poverty and Annihilation. "But these words are insufficient to describe it; forgetfulness, deafness, dumbness, fainting—such is the condition of the pilgrim in this valley. One sun causes millions of shadows to vanish. When the ocean is agitated, how can the figures traced on its waters remain? Such figures are this world and the world to come, and he who knows them to be nothing is right. He who is plunged in this sea, where the heart is astray and lost, has by means of his very annihilation found immutable repose. In this ocean, where reigns a constant calm, the heart finds nought but annihilation."

Attar also illustrates the Sufi doctrine of annihilation (which resembles the Buddhistic nirvana) by an allegory. "One night," he says, "the butterflies were tormented by the desire to unite themselves with the candle-flame. They held a meeting, and resolved that one of them should go and experiment, and bring back news. A butterfly was sent to a neighbouring house, and he perceived the flame of the candle which was burning within. He brought back word and tried to describe the flame according to the measure of his intelligence; but the butterfly who presided over the assembly said that the exploring butterfly had attained no real knowledge of the candle-flame. A second butterfly went forth, and approached so close to the flame as to singe his wings. He also returned, and threw a little light on the mystery of union with the flame. But the presiding butterfly found his explanation not much more satisfactory than the preceding one.

"A third butterfly then flew forth; he was intoxicated with love for the flame, and flung himself wholly into it; he lost himself, and identified himself with it. It embraced him completely, and his body became as fiery-red as the flame itself. When the presiding butterfly saw from afar that the flame had absorbed the devoted butterfly and communicated its own qualities to it; 'That butterfly,' he exclaimed, 'has learnt what he wished to know, but he alone understands it. Only he who has lost all trace and token of his own existence knows what annihilation is. Until thou ignorest thyself, body and soul, thou canst not know the object which deserves thy love.'"

The foregoing terrible description of the seven mysterious valleys was well calculated to discourage the birds, and Attar tells us that after hearing it they stood with hearts oppressed and heads bent. "All understood," he says, "that it was not for a feeble hand to bend this bow. They were so terrified by the discourse of the hoopoe that a great number died on the spot where they were assembled. As to the others, in spite of their dismay, they consented to commence the journey. During long years they travelled over hill and dale, and spent a great part of their lives in pilgrimage.

"Finally, of all who set out, a very small band arrived at the goal. Some were drowned in the ocean, others were annihilated and disappeared. Others perished on the peaks of high mountains, devoured by thirst and a prey to all kinds of ills. Others had their plumes burnt and their hearts dried up by the scorching heat of the sun; others fell a prey to the wild beasts which haunted the road, falling panic-struck, without resistance, into their claws; others died of sheer exhaustion in the desert; others fought and killed each other madly for chance grains of corn; others experienced all kinds of pains and fatigues, and ended by stopping short of the goal; others, engrossed in curiosity and pleasure, perished without thinking of the object for which they had set out.

"When they started, their numbers were countless, but at last only thirty arrived, and these without feathers and wings, exhausted and prostrated, their hearts broken, their souls fainting, their bodies worn out by fatigue. They had arrived at the Palace of the Simurgh. A chamberlain of the King, who saw these thirty hapless birds without feathers or wings, questioned them whence they came, and why. 'We have come,' they answered, 'that the Simurgh may become our king. The love that we feel for him has unsettled our reason. We have denied ourselves all rest to follow the road that leads to Him. It is very long since we started, and of our many millions, only thirty have reached the goal. The hope of appearing here has buoyed us up hitherto; may the King think kindly of the perils we have undergone, and cast upon us at least a glance of compassion.' The chamberlain returned a harsh answer, and ordered them to go back, telling them that the King had no need of their homage. This answer at first cast them into despair, but afterwards, imitating the moth which seeks certain death in the flame of the lamp, they persisted in their request to be admitted to the presence of the Simurgh. Their steadfastness did not remain unrewarded. The "chamberlain of grace" came out, opened a door, and presented them with a document which he ordered them to read. This contained a list of all the sins which the birds had committed against the Simurgh. The perusal of it caused them nothing less than death, but this death was for them the birth into a new life."

Attar says: "By reason of the shame and confusion which these birds experienced, their bodies became dust, and their souls were annihilated. When they were entirely purified from all earthly elements, they all received a new life. All that they had done or omitted to do during their earthly existence passed entirely out of mind. The sun of proximity burnt them, that is to say, their former existence was consumed by the sun of the Divine Essence which they had approached, and a ray of this light produced a life which animated them all. At this moment they beheld themselves reflected in the Simurgh. When they stole a glance at Him, He appeared to be the thirty birds themselves; when they looked at themselves, they seemed to be the Simurgh; and when they looked at both together, only one Simurgh appeared. The situation was inexpressible in words. They were all submerged in an ocean of stupefaction, with all faculties of thought suspended. Without moving a tongue, they interrogated the Awful Presence for an explanation of the mystery of apparent identity between the Divinity and his adorers.

"Then a voice was heard saying, 'The Majesty of the Simurgh is a sun-resembling mirror; whosoever contemplates Him beholds his own reflection; body and soul see in Him body and soul. As you are thirty birds, you appear in this mirror as thirty birds; if forty or fifty birds came here they would see forty or fifty. Although you have passed through many changes, it is yourselves only whom you have seen throughout. Can the eye of an ant reach the Pleiades? Then how can your inch of inkling attain to Us?

"In all the valleys which you have traversed, in all the acts of kindness which you have done to others, it was by Our impulse alone that you were acting. All this while you have been asleep in the Valley of the Essence and the Attributes. You thirty birds have been unconscious hitherto. The name "thirty birds" belongs rather to Us, who are the veritable Simurgh. Find then in Us a glorious self-effacement, in order to find yourselves again in us.'

"So they vanished in Him for ever, as the shadow disappears in the sun. While on pilgrimage they conversed; when they had arrived, all converse ceased. There was no longer a guide; there were no longer pilgrims; the road itself had ceased to be."

Such is this allegory, or Sufi's "Pilgrim's Progress," which contains nearly five thousand couplets. Attar varies the monotony of the long speeches of the Hoopoe and the other birds by inserting anecdotes, of which the following is one of the most striking:—


Story of the Sheikh Sanaan

The Sheikh Sanaan was one of the saints of his age; four or five times he had made the pilgrimage to Mecca; his prayers and fasts were countless; no practice enjoined by the religious law was omitted by him; he had passed through all the degrees of the spiritual life; his very breath had a healing influence upon the sick. In joy and in grief, he was an example for men, and, as it were, a standard lifted up.

One night, to his distress, he dreamt that he was fated to leave Mecca (where he was then residing) for Roum (Asia Minor), and there become an idolator. When he awoke, he said to his disciples, of whom he had four hundred, "My decision is taken; I must go to Roum in order to have this dream explained." His four hundred disciples accompanied him on the journey. They went from Mecca to Roum, and traversed the country from one end to another. One day, by chance they saw on an elevated balcony a young and lovely Christian girl. No sooner had the Sheikh seen her than he became violently in love, and seemed to lose all regard for his religious duties. His disciples tried to rouse him out of his perilous state, but in vain. One said to him, "O thou knower of secrets, rise and perform thy prayers." He replied, "My 'mihrab' is the face of my Beloved; only thither will I direct my prayers." Another said, "Dost thou not repent? Dost thou not preserve any regard for Islam?" "No one," he said, "repents more deeply than I do for not having been in love before." A third said, "Anyone with intelligence can see that though thou wast our guide, thou hast gone astray." He answered, "Say what you like, I am not ashamed; I break with a stone the vase of hypocrisy."

To many similar remonstrances he made similar replies. At last, finding their efforts of no avail, his disciples left him. Lost in a kind of stupor, he remained the whole night motionless before the balcony.

In the morning the young Christian came out, and seeing that he had not left, understood that he was in love. He poured out a passionate appeal, when she would have dismissed him, and refused to depart. At last she said, "If thou art really in earnest, thou must utterly wash thy hands of Islam; thou must bow to idols, burn the Koran, drink wine, and give up thy religious observances." The Sheikh replied, "I will drink wine, but I cannot consent to the three other conditions." She said, "Rise, then, and drink; when thou hast drunk, thou mayest, perchance, be able." Accordingly the Sheikh drank wine, and, having done so, lost his senses entirely, complied with her requests, and became her abject slave. He then said to her, "O charming maiden, what remains to be done? I have drunk wine, I have adored idols; no one could do more for love than I have done." She, though she began to requite his affection, wishing still further to prove him, answered, "Go, then, and feed my swine for a year, and then we will pass our lives together in joy or in sorrow."

So this saint and great Sheikh consented to keep swine for a year. The news of his apostasy spread all over Roum, and his disciples again came to remonstrate with him, and said, "O thou who disregardest religion, return with us again to the Kaaba." The Sheikh answered, "My soul is full of sadness; go whither your desires carry you. As for me, the Church is henceforth my place, and the young Christian the happiness of my life." He spoke, and turning his face from his friends, went back to feed his swine. They wept, and looked at him wistfully from afar. At last they returned sadly to the Kaaba.

Now there was a friend of the Sheikh, who happened to have been absent when the Sheikh left Mecca. On the arrival of the Sheikh's disciples, he questioned them, and learned all that had happened. He then said, "If you are really his friends, go and pray to God night and day for the Sheikh's conversion." Accordingly, forty days and nights they prayed and fasted, till their prayers were heard, and God turned the sheikh's heart back again to Islam. The secrets of divine wisdom, the Koran, the prophecies, all that he had blotted out of his mind, came back to his memory, and at the same time he was delivered from his folly and his misery. When the fire of repentance burns, it consumes everything. He made his ablutions, resumed his Moslem garb, and departed for Mecca, where he and his old disciples embraced with tears of joy.

In the meantime the young Christian saw the Prophet appearing to her in a dream, and saying, "Follow the Sheikh! Adopt his doctrine; be the dust under his feet. Thou who wert the cause of his apostasy, be pure as he is." When she awoke from her dream, a strong impulse urged her to seek for him. With a heart full of affection, though with a feeble body, she went to seek for the Sheikh and his disciples. While she was on the way, an inner voice apprised the Sheikh of what was passing. "This maiden," it said, "has abandoned infidelity; she has heard of Our sacred House, she has entered in Our way; thou mayest take her now, and be blameless."

Forthwith, the Sheikh set out on the way towards Roum to meet her; his disciples essayed to stop him and said, "Was thy repentance not real? Art thou turning back again to folly?" But he told them of the intimation which he had received, and they set out together till they arrived where the young Christian was. But they found her prostrate on the ground, her hair soiled by the dust of the way, her feet bare, her garments torn. At this sight tears ran down the Sheikh's cheeks; she, when she saw him, said, "Lift the veil that I may be instructed, and teach me Islam."

When this lovely idol had become one of the Faithful, they shed tears of joy, but she was sad; "O Sheikh!" she cried, "my powers are exhausted; I cannot support absence. I am going to leave this dusty and bewildering world. Farewell, Sheikh Sanaan, farewell! I can say no more; pardon me and oppose me not." So saying, her soul left the body; the drop returned to the ocean.

Other anecdotes which occur in the Mantiq-ut-tair are the following:—


The Angel Gabriel and the Infidel

One night Gabriel was near the Throne, when he heard Allah pronouncing words of acquiescence in answer to someone's prayer. "A servant of God," said Gabriel to himself, "is invoking the Eternal just now; but who is he? All that I can understand is that he must be a saint of surpassing merit, whose spirit has entirely subdued his flesh. Gabriel wished to know who the happy mortal was, but though he flew over lands and seas, he did not find him. He hastened to return to the proximity of the Throne and heard again the same answer given to the same prayers. In his anxiety to know the suppliant, he again sought for him throughout the world, but in vain. Then he cried, "O God, show me the way that conducts to his dwelling." "Go," was the answer, "to the country of Roum; enter a certain Christian convent, and thou shalt find him." Gabriel hastened thither, and saw the man who was the object of the divine favour; at that very moment he was adoring an idol. Then Gabriel said to God, "O Master of the world, reveal to me this secret; How canst Thou hear with kindness him who prays to an idol in a convent?" God answered him, "A veil is upon his heart; he knows not that he is astray. Since he has erred through ignorance, I pardon him, and grant him access to the highest rank of saints."


The Clay of Which Man is Made

One day the Prophet drank of a stream and found its taste more sweet than rose-water. As he was sitting by the stream, someone came and filled his clay pitcher from it, and the Prophet drank out of that also. To his amazement, he found the water bitter. "O God," he said, "the water of the stream and the water in the pitcher are one; disclose to me the secret of the difference in their taste. Why is the water in the pitcher bitter, and the other sweet as honey?" From the pitcher itself came the answer. "I am old; the clay of which I am made has been worked over and over again into a thousand shapes. But in every shape I am impregnated with the bitter savour of mortality. It exists in me in such a way that the water which I hold cannot be sweet."


The Dead Criminal

A poor criminal died, and as they were carrying him to burial, a devotee who was passing by stood aloof, saying that funeral prayers should not be said over such an one. The next night, in a dream, the devotee saw the criminal in heaven, with his face shining like the sun. Amazed, he said to him, "How hast thou obtained so lofty a place, thou who hast spent thy life in crime, and art foul from head to foot?" He answered, "It is because of thy want of compassion towards me that God has shown me mercy, though so great a sinner. Behold the mystery of God's love and wisdom. In His wisdom, He sends man, like a child with a lamp, through the night as black as a raven; immediately afterwards he commands a furious wind to blow and extinguish the lamp. Then He asks His child why the lamp is blown out."

"Night and day, O my child, the seven spheres carry on their revolutions for thee. Heaven and hell are reflections of thy goodness and of thy wickedness. The angels have all bowed down to thee. The part and whole are lost in thy essence. Do not, therefore, despise thine own self, for nothing is higher than it. The body is part of the Whole, and thy soul is the Whole. The body is not distinct from the soul, but is a part of it, neither is the soul distinct from the Whole. It is for thee that the time arrives when the rose displays its beauty; for thee that the clouds pour down the rain of mercy. Whatever the angels do, they have done for thee."


Anecdote of Bayazid Bastami

One night Sheikh Bayazid went out of the town, and found reigning everywhere profound silence. The moon was shining at the full, making the night as clear as day. The sky was covered with constellations, each fulfilling its course. The Sheikh walked on for a long while without hearing the least sound, and without perceiving anyone. He was deeply moved, and said, "O Lord, my heart is pained. Why is such a sublime audience-hall as Thine without throngs of worshippers?" "Cease thy wonder," an inner voice replied to him. "The King does not accord access to His Court to everyone. When the sanctuary of Our splendour is displayed, the careless and the slumbering are without. Those who are to be admitted to this Court wait whole years, and then only one in a million enters."

In his latter years, Fariduddin Attar carried his asceticism to such a degree that he gave up composing poetry altogether. The story of his death illustrates in a striking way the indifference to external things cultivated by the Sufis. During the invasion of Persia by Genghis Khan (1229 A.D.) when Attar had reached the great age of 110, he was taken prisoner by the Mongols. One of them was about to kill him, when another said, "Let the old man live; I will give a thousand pieces of silver as his ransom." His captor was about to close with the bargain, but Attar said, "Don't sell me so cheaply; you will find someone willing to give more." Subsequently another man came up and offered a bag of straw for him. "Sell me to him," said Attar, "for that is all I am worth." The Mongol, irritated at the loss of the first offer, slew the saint, who thus found the death he desired.





Copyright © World Spirituality · All Rights Reserved