The Conference of the Birds: Mantiq ut-Tayr: A Philosophical Religious Poem in Prose
By Farid ud-Din Attar
Rendered into English by C.S. Nott from the
literal French translation by Garcin de Tassy
Publisher: New York: Pir Press, 1998.
Mantiq ut-Tayr (“The Conference of the Birds”) by the 12th and 13th century Persian mystic poet Farid ud-Din Attar is an acknowledged spiritual and poetic masterpiece. The narrative is entertaining and simple at the surface, but profoundly meaningful on many other levels. It is at once an allegory, description of the spiritual journey, account of Sufi teachings, admonition to disciples, and collection of Sufi teaching stories. There are many English translations of the Mantiq ut-Tayr , but some offer only excerpts. C.S. Nott has given us a very accessible prose translation of the complete work.
Attar is considered to be one of the great Sufi poets, along with Rumi, Hafiz, Jami, Sa’di, and Sana’i. Little is actually known about his life. He died, purportedly past the age of 100, in 1221. He made his living as a druggist and perfumer (this is the meaning of “Attar”). He traveled widely in his youth, but settled in his hometown of Nishapur in Khorasan, now in Iran. He wrote over 45,000 couplets, with about thirty works surviving. Mantiq ut-Tayr is his best-known work, but others include Tadhkirat al-Awliya (Memoirs of the Saints), Ilahi-Nama (Book of God), Musibat-Namah (Book of Affliction), and his Diwan. He was killed during the Mogul invasion. As the story goes, his captors demanded a ransom of silver, and he infuriated them by saying he was worth only a ransom of straw.
In Mantiq ut-Tayr Attar tells the story of a group of birds, varieties of them representing the disciples and a Hoopoe representing their spiritual guide. The Hoopoe wants to lead them on a journey to the King of Birds, the Simurgh. The birds need to overcome their fears and limited ideas before they agree to undertake the journey. Some are held back by the pleasures or riches of the world; some are simply content as they are; some desire Paradise (which is, as Attar points out, only a version of this world with every wish fulfilled); some think piety and purity suffice; some cannot leave their loved ones; some think the journey too dangerous. Some question why they should follow a Guide who is just a bird, like themselves.
The Hoopoe responds to each one. To one bird who would rather pursue Paradise, he says,
The palace of the King is far better than your paradise. You cannot do better than to strive to reach it. It is the habitation of the soul, it is eternity, it is the object of our real desires, the dwelling of the heart, the seat of truth. The Most High is a vast ocean; the paradise of earthly bliss is only a little drop; all that is not this ocean is distraction. When you can have the ocean, why will you seek a drop of evening dew?
Once they begin, all along the way they make one excuse after another about why they can go no further. To one who would put off the journey till a better time in the future, the Hoopoe says, “If he who sets out on this way will not engage himself wholly and completely, he will never be free from the sadness and melancholy which weigh him down.” To one who is unaware of how his own vanity, resentment, and envy cripple him, the Hoopoe says, “There is a corner of your being full of dragons, and by negligence you are delivered up to them; and you pet them and cherish them night and day.” Sometimes he urges the birds on with words that could sound harsh, such as: “He who is not engaged in the quest of the inner life … does not even exist, he is a non-entity, a form without a soul.”
At one point, the Hoopoe tells the birds, “Do not imagine the journey is short; and one must have the heart of a lion to follow this unusual road, for it is very long and the sea is deep. One plods along in a state of amazement, sometimes smiling sometimes weeping.” However, he also tells them, “If you submit with grace, the beloved will give his life for you.” He hints at the mysterious ways of love:
When love possesses a man it lifts his heart, it plunges him in blood, it throws him prostrate outside the curtain, it gives him no rest for a single instant; it kills him yet still demands the price of blood. He drinks the water of tears and eats the bread leavened with mourning; but be he more feeble than an ant, love will lend him strength.
The means and the end of the Path are both love. Speaking of the Simurgh, the Hoopoe says: “As for me, I should be happy to discover even a trace of him. That would indeed be something, but to live without him would be a reproach. A man must … lead his soul to the court of the King.” He describes the fervour of love for the Lord needed to attain the goal: “He who undertakes this journey should have a thousand hearts so that he can sacrifice one at every moment.” Attar includes the famous prayer of the 8th century Sufi saint, Rabi`a al-Basri, to convey the one-pointed devotion to the Lord necessary on the path of Love:
O God, you who know the secret of all things, bring to pass the worldly desires of my enemies, and grant my friends the eternity of the future life. But as for me, I am free of both. Even if I possessed this present world or the world of the future, I should esteem them little in comparison with being near to you. I need only you. If I should turn my eyes towards the two worlds, or desire anything but you, I should be no more than an unbeliever.
Ultimately, thirty birds travel through the Seven Valleys of the journey and in the end meet the Simurgh (which in Persian means “thirty birds”). On seeing the Simurgh, the birds realize their Oneness with him. Then the Hoopoe teaches:
Admire then the works of the Lord, though he himself considers them as nothing. And seeing that His Essence alone exists it is certain there is nothing but Him. His throne is on the waters and the world is in the air. But leave the waters and the air, for all is God; the throne and the world are only a talisman. God is all, and things have only a nominal value; the world visible and the world invisible are only Himself.
While Nott’s prose translation is excellent in conveying the poem’s deeper meanings, some readers may prefer a poetic translation. A wonderful one, also unabridged, is Peter Avery’s The Speech of the Birds: Concerning Migration to the Real: the Mantiqu’t-Tair by Faridu’d-Din Attar . To quote just a few verses from that work:
So what is all on? On nothing.
Nothing being nothing, all of this is nothing but nothing.
Think about the craft of this King
Who supports all this on nothing…
Look how this world and that world are He,
Not other than Him, and were there other, that also would be He.
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