Hazrat Farid al-Din ‘Attar r.a (1142-1221)

One of the greatest sufi poet, Farid al-Din ‘Attar was born in Nishapur, in northeastern Iran, in 1142. Attar reached an age of over 70 and died a violent death in the massacre which the Mongols inflicted on Nishapur in April 1221.[1] Today, his mausoleum is located in Nishapur. It was built by Ali-Shir Nava’iin the 16th century.

There is little information on the formative life of the poet other than he was the son of a prosperous pharmacist and that he received an excellent education in medicine, Arabic, and theosophy at a madrasah attached to the shrine of Imam Reza at Mashhad. According to his own Mosibat Nameh (Book of Afflictions), as a youth, he worked in his father’s pharmacy where he prepared drugs and attended patients. Upon his father’s death, he became the owner of his own store.

Work in the pharmacy was difficult for young ‘Attar. People from all walks of life visited the shop and shared their troubles with him. Their poverty, it seems, impacted the young poet the most. One day, it is related, an unsightly fakir visited the shop. The way he marveled at the opulence of the store made ‘Attar uneasy; he ordered the fakir to leave. Looking the owner and the well-stocked shop over, the fakir said, “I have no difficulty with this, pointing to his ragged cloak, to leave; but you, how are you, with all this, planning to leave!”

The fakir’s response affected ‘Attar deeply. He pondered the fakir’s reply for many days and, eventually, decided to give up his shop and join the circle of Shaykh Rukn al-Din Akkaf of the Kubraviyyah order. His new life was one of travel and exploration, very much like the fakir who had inspired him. For a long time, he traveled to Ray, Kufa, Mecca, Damascus, Turkistan, and India, meeting with Sufi shaykhs, learning about the tariqah, and experiencing life in the khaniqahs.

When finally he felt he had achieved what he had been seeking in travel, ‘Attar returned to Nishapur, settled, and reopened his pharmacy. He also began to contribute to the promotion of Sufi thought. Called Tadhkirat al-Auliya (Memorial of the Saints), ‘Attar’s initial contribution to his new world contains all the verses and sayings of Sufi saints who, up to that time, had not penned a biography of their own.

Regarding the poetic output of ‘Attar there are conflicting reports both with respect to the number of books that he might have written and the number of distichs he might have composed. For instance, Reza Gholikhan Hedayat reports the number of books to be 190 and the number of distichs to be 100,000. Firdowsi’s Shahname contains only 60,000 bayts. Another tradition puts the number of books to be the same as the number of the Surahs (verses) of the Qur’an, i.e., 114. More realistic studies consider the number of his books to have been between 9 to 12 volumes.

‘Attar’s works fall within three categories. First are those works in which mysticism is in perfect balance with a finished, story-teller’s art. The second group are those in which a pantheistic zeal gains the upper hand over literary interest. The third are those in which the aging poet idolizes the saint Ali. During this period there is no trace of ordered thoughts and descriptive skills.

One of ‘Attar’s major poetic works is called Asrar Nameh (Book of Secrets) about Sufi ideas. This is the work that the aged Shaykh gave Maulana Jalal al-Din Rumi when Rumi’s family stayed over at Nishapur on its way to Konya, Turkey. Another major contribution of ‘Attar is the Elahi Nameh (Divine Book), about zuhd or asceticism.

But foremost among ‘Attar’s works is his Manteq al-Tayr (Conference of the Birds) in which he makes extensive use of Al-Ghazali’s Risala on Birds as well as a treatise by the Ikhvan al-Safa (the Brothers of Serenity) on the same topic.

Led by the hoopoe, the birds of the world set forth in search of their king, Simurgh. Their quest takes them through seven valleys in the first of which a hundred difficulties assail them. They undergo many trials as they try to free themselves of what is precious to them and change their state. Once successful and filled with longing, they ask for wine to dull the effects of dogma, belief, and unbelief on their lives.

In the second valley, the birds give up reason for love and, with a thousand hearts to sacrifice, continue their quest for discovering the Simurgh.

The third valley confounds the birds, especially when they discover that their worldly knowledge has become completely useless and their understanding has become ambivalent. They cannot understand why both the mihrab and the idol lead to understanding. Devoid of their earthly measures, they lose their ability to distinguish right from wrong.

The fourth valley is introduced as the valley of detachment, i.e., detachment from desire to possess and the wish to discover. The birds begin to feel that they have become part of a universe that is detached from their physical recognizable reality. In their new world, the planets are as minute as sparks of dust and elephants are not distinguishable from ants.

It is not until they enter the fifth valley that they realize that unity and multiplicity are the same. And as they have become entities in a vacuum with no sense of eternity. More importantly, they realize that God is beyond unity, multiplicity, and eternity.

Stepping into the sixth valley, the birds become astonished at the beauty of the Beloved. Experiencing extreme sadness and dejection, they feel that they know nothing, understand nothing. They are not even aware of themselves.

Only thirty birds reach the abode of the Simurgh. But there is no Simurgh anywhere to see. Simurgh’s chamberlain keeps them waiting for Simurgh long enough for the birds to figure out that they themselves are the si (thirty) murgh (bird). The seventh valley is the valley of depravation, forgetfulness, dumbness, deafness, and death. The present and future lives of the thirty successful birds become shadows chased by the celestial Sun. And themselves, lost in the Sea of His existence, are the Simurgh.

~ by Iraj Bashiri

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