Pen Portrait: Attar of Nishapur
Welcome to our Pen Portrait series, where we look into the lives and works of some of the world's most influential thinkers. Today, we are focusing on Attar of Nishapur, who is well regarded as one of the greatest writers in Persian poetry.
Attar of Nishapur, who lived between 1145 and 1220 CE, and was also known as Farid ud-Din, is one of the most important voices in global literature and poetry, both ancient and modern. His literary masterwork The Conference of the Birds(1) influenced thousands of writers, including England’s great literary father Geoffrey Chaucer – not only in the format for The Canterbury Tales, but also the use of birds to represent human psychological types in The Parliament of Fowls(2).
Of Attar, Jaal ad-Din Rumi said: "Attar has traversed the seven cities of Love; we are still at the turn of one street."(3)
Attar's ideas, like Rumi's, transcend even the strongest of divisions. Both are revered by Shia Muslims although they were Sunni. Both were – and are – adored in European and East Asian literary and philosophical circles, though the medieval English Christians knew them to be Muslim writers, as did the Buddhist Chinese.
Unsurprisingly then, tolerance is a major theme in The Conference of the Birds. A hoopoe bird(4), representing a Sufi Master, tells of how one day God directed the Archangel Gabriel (“Jibril” in Arabic) to bring to Him a man God viewed as most worthy among humankind. The perplexed Gabriel returned empty handed saying there must have been a mistake. The directions God gave led directly to a Christian priest at prayer before his idol.(Chapter 19) This kind of religious and cultural universality did make Attar a contentious figure at times, but overwhelmingly a celebrated one.
Throughout the work, the various birds symbolize various type of seekers on a pilgrimage, vignetted so as to tell philosophical aphorisms: The Nightingale is a dreamer infatuated with the idea of romance, but not with giving oneself to another. Along the way, it discovers its beloved is just the stimulus for a vain romance. It cannot weather the pain of self-sacrifice or giving from the heart, only seeking indulgence.
“Love loves the difficult things”, the hoopoe later counsels(6).
The Sparrow plays the performatively humble person that, through their overt grubbing and self-effacement shows “a hundred signs of vanity and pride”. The Duck is the ritualistic hypocrite who follows all the rules of prayer and observes all the social customs, but cares nothing for them beyond appearances.
The birds must cross seven difficult valleys to reach the kingdom of their lord, the mythological Simurgh, a kind of phoenix. Each valley is a place of learning, filled with trials that are meant to test their resolve and bring them to an understanding of their follies. Only after learning from one can they move on to the next.
Per each trial, so many of the birds give reasons not to overcome – to turn back, or wait, or some other excuse. The more things change the more they are the same.
Attar, summarizing the excuses of the other birds to not undertake their quests and overcome the valleys, says this:
"When they had understood the Hoopoe's words,
A clamour of complaint rose from the birds:
'Although we recognize you as our guide,
You must accept - it cannot be denied -
We are a wretched, flimsy crew at best,
And lack the bare essentials for this quest.
Our feathers and our wings, our bodies' strength
Are quite unequal to the journey's length;
For one of us to reach the Simurgh's throne
Would be miraculous, a thing unknown.
He seems like Solomon, and we like ants;
How can mere ants climb from their darkened pit
Up to the Simurgh's realm? And is it fit
That beggars try the glory of a king?
How ever could they manage such a thing?(7)'"
To which the Hoopoe says:
"'Strive to discover the mystery before life is taken from you.
If while living you fail to find yourself, to know yourself,
how will you be able to understand
the secret of your existence when you die(8).'"
This work tells of the Sufi way as Attar observed it in his time, a mystical view of the Path that was estranged from the mainstream religious interpretations. He ascribes tasks to be assigned and carried out, obstacles to overcome, and speaks about issues of human existence and character that are usually more abstracted or simplified in other teachings. The poetic allegory of birds softens the blow to the reader’s human ego, but the lessons are clear.
Besides his monumental work, little is known as to the details of Attar’s life. Most commentators agree that he was born and lived most of his life at Nishapur, birthplace of the prolific polyglot Omar Kayyam. He inherited an apothecary from his father and carried out the same trade for much of his early life before spending about thirty years visiting Sufi monasteries collecting manuscripts and stories. He then died at the alleged age of 110 during the Mongol conquest of Persia by Hulagu Khan, which would see the great empire’s golden age come to an end.
Some commentators from the Renaissance forward have dismissed Attar's work as fanciful or overtly poetic, but starting in the early 1900s, a new appreciation for his work began. Reflecting on Attar’s image of the experience of the last valley, Edwin Arnold ends his poem The Light of Asia – chronicling the life of Gautama Buddha, with "The dewdrop slips into the shining sea."
The idea that we can merge with all existence and still maintain some meaningful existence contradicts our daily experience. Yet, it is affirmed not only by Attar, but also Gautama Buddha(9) and Adi Shankara(10), and forms the philosophical basis for Yoga.
In his book, The Sufis, Idris Shah(11) quotes the Sufi teacher Adil Alimi in his commentary on Attar's teachings: "They will be disbelieved by the materialist; attacked by the theologian; ignored by the learned; avoided by the shallow; rejected by the ecstatic; be welcomed but misunderstood by the theoretician and imitation Sufi."
We thus submit that Attar, so long ago, wrote in the spirit of Theosophy.
(1) Described: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Conference_of_the_Birds
(2) Bo Pettersson, How Literary Worlds Are Shaped: A Comparative Poetics of Literary Imagination, De Gruyter: 2016 (available on Google books)
(3) Seyyed Hossein Nasr, "The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Promise of Sufism," HarperCollins, Sep 2, 2008. page 130
(4) Considered regal among birds because of its golden crown of feathers meritted in legend because it was the favorite of King Solomon. It is the national bird of Israel.
(5) Chapter 19 C.S. Nott trans. Shamballa Publicans
(6) Chapter 14 Nott.
(7) Sholeh Wolpe trans. Norton & Co; compare to Nott Chapter 13
(9) We lose our individuality and enter Nirvana
(10) Atma merges with Nirguna Brahman
(11) p 109