Invocation

PRAISE to the Holy Creator, who has placed his throne upon the waters, and who has made all terrestrial creatures. To the Heavens he has given dominion and to the Earth dependence; to the Heavens he has given movement, and to the Earth uniform repose.
He raised the firmament above the earth as a tent, without pillars to uphold it. In six days he created the seven planets and with two letters he created the nine cupolas of the Heavens.
In the beginning he gilded the stars, so that at night the heavens might play tric-trac. With diverse properties he endowed the net of the body, and he has put dust on the tail of the bird of the soul. He made the Ocean liquid as a sign of bondage, and the mountain tops are capped with ice for fear of him. He dried up the bed of the sea and from its stones brought forth rubies, and from its blood, musk. To the mountains he has given peaks for a dagger, and valleys for a belt; so that they lift up their heads in pride. Sometimes he makes clusters of roses spring from the face of the fire; Sometimes he throws bridges across the face of the waters. He caused a mosquito to sting Nimrod his enemy who thereby suffered for four hundred years. In his wisdom he caused the spider to spin his web to protect the highest of men. He squeezed the waist of the ant so that it resembled a hair, and he made it a companion of Solomon; He gave it the black robes of the Abbasides and a garment of unwoven brocade worthy of the peacock.
When he saw that the carpet of nature was defective he pieced it together fittingly. He stained the sword with the colour of the tulip; and from vapour made a bed of water-lilies. He drenched clods of earth with blood so that he might take from them cornelians and rubies. Sun and Moon — one* the day, the other the night, bow to the dust in adoration; and from their worship comes their movement. It is God who has spread out the day in whiteness, it is he who has folded up the night and blackened it.
To the parrot he gave a collar of gold; and the hoopoe he made a messenger of the way. The firmament is like a bird beating its wings along the way God has marked out for him, striking the Door with his head as with a hammer. God has made the firmament to revolve — night follows day and day the night. When he breathes on clay man is created; and from a little vapour he forms the world.
Sometimes he causes the dog to go before the traveller; sometimes he uses the cat to show the way. Sometimes he gives the power of Solomon to a staff; sometimes he accords eloquence to the ant. From a staff he produces a serpent; and by means of a staff he sends forth a torrent of water. He has placed in the firmament the orb of the proud, and binds it with iron when glowing red it wanes.
He brought forth a camel from a rock, and made the golden calf to bellow. In winter he scatters the silver snow; in autumn, the gold of yellow leaves. He lays a cover on the thorn and tinges it with the colour of blood.
To the jasmine he gives four petals and on the head of the tulip he puts a red bonnet. He places a golden crown on the brow of the narcissus; and drops pearls of dew into her shrine. At the idea of God the mind is baffled, reason fails; because of God the heavens turn, the earth reels. From the back of the fish to the moon every atom is a witness to his Being. The depths of earth and the heights of heaven render him each their particular homage. God produced the wind, the earth, the fire, and blood, and by these he announces his secret. He took clay and kneaded it with water, and after forty mornings placed therein the spirit which vivified the body. God gave it intelligence so that it might have discernment of things. When he saw that intelligence had discernment, he gave it knowledge, so that it might weigh and ponder. But when man came in possession of his faculties he confessed his impotence, and was overcome with amazement, while his body gave itself up to exterior acts.
Friends or enemies, all bow the head under the yoke which God, in his wisdom, imposes; and, a thing astonishing, he watches over us all. At the beginning of the centuries God used the mountains as nails to fix the Earth ; and washed Earth’s face with the water of Ocean. Then he placed Earth on the back of a bull, the bull on a fish, and the fish on the air. But on what rested the air? On nothing. But nothing is nothing — and all that is nothing. 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.
There is none but Him. But, alas, no one can see Him. The eyes are blind, even though the world be lighted by a brilliant sun. Should you catch even a glimpse of Him you would lose your wits, and if you should see Him completely you would lose your self.
All men who are aware of their ignorance tuck up the flap of their garment and say earnestly: ‘O thou who art not seen although thou makest us to know thee, everyone is thou and no other than thou is manifested. The soul is hidden in the body, and thou art hidden in the soul. O thou who art hidden in that which is hidden, thou art more than all. All see themselves in thee and they see thee in everything. Since thy dwelling is surrounded by guards and sentinels how can we come near to thy presence? Neither mind nor reason can have access to thy essence, and no one knows thy attributes. Because thou art eternal and perfect thou art always confounding the wise. What can we say more, since thou art not to be described!’
O my heart, if you wish to arrive at the beginning of understanding, walk carefully. To each atom there is a different door, and for each atom there is a different way which leads to the mysterious Being of whom I speak. To know oneself one must live a hundred lives. But you must know God by Himself and not by you; it is He who opens the way that leads to Him, not human wisdom. The knowledge of Him is not at the door of rhetoricians. Knowledge and ignorance are here the same, for they cannot explain nor can they describe. The opinions of men on this arise only in their imagination; and it is absurd to try to deduce anything from what they say: whether ill or well, they have said it from themselves. God is above knowledge and beyond evidence, and nothing can give an idea of his Holy Majesty.
O you who value the truth, do not look for an analogy; the existence of this Being without equal does not admit of one. Since neither the prophets nor the heavenly messengers have understood the least particle, they have bowed their foreheads on the dust, saying: ‘We have not known thee as thou must truly be.’ What am I then, to flatter myself that I know Him?
O ignorant son of the first man, the Khalif of God on earth, strive to participate in the spiritual knowledge of your father. All creatures that God draws out from nothingness for their existence prostrate themselves before him. When he wished to create Adam, he made him go out from behind a hundred veils, and he said to him, ‘O Adam, all creatures adore me; be adored in your turn.’ The only one who turned from this adoration was transformed from an angel into a demon. He was cursed and had no knowledge of the secret. His face became black and he said to God: ‘O thou who art in possession of absolute independence, do not abandon me.’
The Most High replied: ‘You who are cursed, know that Adam is both my steward and the king of nature. Today go before him, and tomorrow burn for him the ispand.’ When the soul was joined to the body it was part of the all: never has there been so marvellous a talisman. The soul had a share of that which is high, and the body a share of that which is low; it was formed of a mixture of heavy clay and pure spirit. By this mixing, man became the most astonishing of mysteries. We do not know nor do we understand so much as a little of our spirit. If you wish to say something about this, it would be better to keep silent. Many know the surface of this ocean, but they understand nothing of the depths; and the visible world is the talisman which protects it. But this talisman of bodily obstacles will be broken at last. You will find the treasure when the talisman disappears; the soul will manifest itself when the body is laid aside. But your soul is another talisman; it is, for this mystery, another substance. Walk then in the way I shall indicate, but do not ask for an explanation.
In this vast ocean the world is an atom and the atom a world. Who knows which is of more value here, the cornelian or the pebble? We have staked our life, our reason, our spirit, our religion, in order to understand the perfection of an atom. Sew up your lips and ask nothing of the empyrean or the throne of God. No one really knows the essence of the atom — ask whom you will. The Heavens are like a cupola upside down, without stability, at once moving and un-moving. One is lost in contemplation of such a mystery — it is veil upon veil; one is like a figure painted on a wall, and one can only bite the back of one’s hand.
Consider those who have entered in the way of the Spirit. Look what has happened to Adam; see how many years he spent in mourning. Contemplate the deluge of Noah and all that patriarch suffered at the hands of the wicked. Consider Abraham, who was full of love for God : he suffered tortures and was thrown into the fire. See the unfortunate Ishmael offered up in the way of divine love. Turn towards Jacob who became blind from weeping for his son. Look at Joseph, admirable in his power as in his slavery, in the pit and in prison. Remember the unhappy Job stretched on the earth a prey to worms and wolves. Think of Jonah who, having strayed from the Way, went from the moon to the belly of the fish. Follow Moses from his birth: a box served him for a cradle, and Pharaoh exalted him. Think of David, who made himself a breast-plate and whose sighs melted the iron like wax. Look at Solomon whose empire was mastered by the Jinn. Remember Zacharias, so ardent with the love of God that he kept silent when they killed him; and John the Baptist, despised before the people, whose head was put on a platter. Stand in wonder at Christ at the foot of the cross, v/hen he saved himself from the hands of the Jews. And finally, ponder over all that the Chief of the Prophets suffered from the insults and injuries of the wicked.
After this, do you think it will be easy to arrive at knowledge of spiritual things? It means no less than to die to everything. What shall I say further, since there is nothing more to say, and there remains not a rose on the bush ! O Wisdom! You are no more than a suckling child; and the reason of the old and experienced strays in this quest. How shall I, a fool, be able to arrive at this Essence; and if I should arrive, how shall I be able to enter in by the door? O Holy Creator! Vivify my spirit! Believers and unbelievers are equally plunged in blood, and my head turns as the heavens, I am not without hope but I am impatient.
My friends! We are neighbours of one another: I wish to repeat my discourse to you day and night, so that you should not cease for a moment to long to set out in quest of Truth.
Excerpt from: The Conference of the Birds (Manṭiq-uṭ-Ṭayr) by Hazrat Faridi-ul-Din Attar (r.a) Translation 1954 by C. S. Nott

Conference of the Birds : A Seekers Journey to God by Farid ‘ud-Din Attar

Written in the 12th Century, Farid ad-Din Attar’s Allah be pleased with him metaphorical tale of birds seeking a King (God) has inspired readers across time and around the world. In this edition, from R.P. Masani’s 1923 translation, noted Sufi scholar and spiritual teacher Andrew Harvey sets the scene. ” The allegorical framework has the stark, luminous simplicity of Islamic calligraphy. You may believe you are reading a witty, dazzling allegory. Very soon, however, if you reading with attention, you will realise you are being drawn into a vision of a mystical path of the greatest depth.”

Like the birds, we may anticipate our pilgrimage until we realise that we must relinquish our fears and hollow desires. One by one, the birds – and the different types of humans they represent – begin to make excuses. Conference of the Birds is not for the faint hearted. Yet, if we want to know God and our own true and best selves, reading and
re-reading these stories reveals the path.

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?

The Valley of the Quest

“When you enter the first valley, the Valley of the Quest, a hundred difficulties will assail you; you will undergo a hundred trials. There, the Parrot of heaven is no more than a fly. You will have to spend several years there, you will have to make great efforts, and to change your state. You will have to give up all that has seemed precious to you and regard as nothing all that you possess. When you are sure that you possess nothing, you still will have to detach yourself from all that exists. Your heart will then be saved from perdition and you will see the pure light of Divine Majesty and your real wishes will be multiplied to infinity. One who enters here will be filled with such longing that he will give himself up completely to the quest symbolized by this valley. He will ask of his cup-bearer a draught of wine, and he has drunk it nothing will matter except the pursuit of his true aim. Then he will no longer fear the dragons, the guardians of the door, which seek to devour him. When the door is opened and he enters, then dogma, belief and unbelief–all cease to exist.”

The Valley of Love

“The next valley is the Valley of Love. To enter it one must be a flaming fire–what shall I say? A man must himself be fire. The face of the lover must be enflamed, burning and impetuous as fire. True love knows no after-thoughts; with love, good and evil cease to exist.

“But as for you, the heedless and careless, this discourse will not touch you, your teeth will not even nibble at it. A loyal person stakes ready money, stakes his head even, to be united to his friend. Others content themselves with what they will do for you tomorrow. 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. Until the falcon reaches his aim he is agitated and distressed. If a fish is thrown onto the beach by the waves it struggles to get back into the water.
“In this valley, love is represented by fire, and reason by smoke. When love comes reason disappears. Reason cannot live with the folly of love; love gas nothing to do with human reason. If you possessed inner sight, the atoms of the visible world would be manifested to you. But if you look at things with the eye of ordinary reason you will never understand how necessary it is to love. Only a man who has been tested and is free can feel this. He who undertakes this journey should have a thousand hearts so that he can sacrifice one at every moment.”

The Valley of Understanding

“After the valley of which I have spoken, there comes another–the Valley Understanding, which has neither beginning nor end. No way is equal to this way, and the distance to be traveled to cross it is beyond reckoning.

“Understanding, for each traveler, is enduring; but knowledge is temporary. The soul, like the body, is in a state of progress or decline; and the Spiritual Way reveals itself only in the degree to which the traveler has overcome his faults and weaknesses, his sleep and his inertia, and each will approach nearer to his aim according to his effort. Even if a gnat were to fly with all its might could it equal the speed of the wind? There are different ways of crossing this Valley, and all birds do not fly alike. Understanding can be arrived at variously–some have found the Mihrab, others the idol. When the sun of understanding brightens this road each receives light according to his merit and he finds the degree assigned to him in the understanding of truth. When the mystery of the essence of beings reveals itself clearly to him the furnace of this world becomes a garden of flowers. He who is striving will be able to see the almond in its hard shell. He will no longer be pre-occupied with himself, but will look up at the face of his friend. In each atom he will see the whole; he will ponder over thousands of bright secrets.
“But, how many have lost their way in this search for one who has found the mysteries! It is necessary to have a deep and lasting wish to become as we ought to be in order to cross this difficult valley. Once you have tasted the secrets you will have a real wish to understand them. But, whatever you may attain, never forget the words of the Koran, “Is there anything more?”
“As for you who are asleep (and I cannot commend you for this), why not put on mourning? You, who have not seen the beauty of your friend, get up and search! How long will you stay as you are, like a donkey without a halter!”

The Valley of Independence and Detachment

“The there comes the valley where there is neither the desire to possess nor the wish to discover. In this state of the soul a cold wind blows, so violent that in a moment it devastates an immense space; the seven oceans are no more than a pool, the seven planets a mere sparkle, the seven heavens a corpse, the seven hells broken ice. Then, an astonishing thing, beyond reason! An ant has the strength of a hundred elephants, and a hundred caravans perish while a rook is filling his crop.

“In order that Adam might receive the celestial light, hosts of green-clad angels were consumed by sorrow. So that Noah might become a carpenter of God and build the ark, thousands of creatures perished in the waters. Myriads of gnats fell on the army of Abrahah so that that king would be overthrown. Thousands of the first-born died so that Moses might see God. Thousands of people took to the Christian girdles so that Christ could possess the secret of God. Thousands of hearts and souls were pillaged so that Muhammad might ascend for one night to heaven. In this Valley nothing old or new has value; you can act or not act. If you saw a whole world burning until hearts were only shish kabab, it would be only a dream compared to reality. If myriads of souls were to fall into this boundless ocean it would be as a drop of dew. If heaven and earth were to burst into minute particles it would be no more than a leaf falling from a tree; and if everything were to be annihilated, from the fish to the moon, would there be found in the depths of a pit the leg of a lame ant? If there remain no trace of either of men or jinn, the secret of a drop of water from which all has been formed is still to be pondered over.”

The Valley of Unity

“You will next have to cross the Valley of unity. In this valley everything is broken in pieces and then unified. All who raise their heads here raise them from the same collar. Although you seem to see many beings, in reality there is only one–all make one which is complete in its unity. Again, that which you see as a unity is not different from that which appears in numbers. And as the Being of whom I speak is beyond unity and numbering, cease to think of eternity as before and after, and since these two eternities have vanished, cease to speak of them. When all that is visible is reduced to nothing, what is there left to contemplate?”

The Valley of Astonishment and Bewilderment

“After the Valley of Unity comes the Valley of Astonishment and Bewilderment, where one is a prey to sadness and dejection. There sighs are like swords, and each breath a bitter sight; there, is sorrow and lamentation, and a burning eagerness. It is at once day and night. There, is fire, yet a man is depressed and despondent. How, in his bewilderment, shall he continue his way? But he who has achieved unity forgets all and forgets himself. If he is asked: “Are you, or are you not? Have you or have you not the feeling of existence? Are you in the middle or on the border? Are you mortal or immortal?” he will reply with certainty: “I know nothing, I understand nothing, I am unaware of myself. I am in love, but with whom I do not know. My heart is at the same time both full and empty of love.”

The Valley of Deprivation and Death

“Last of all comes the Valley of Deprivation and Death, which is almost impossible to describe. The essence of the Valley is forgetfulness, dumbness and distraction; the thousand shadows which surround you disappear in a single ray of the celestial sun. When the ocean of immensity begins to heave, the pattern on its surface loses its form; and this pattern is no other than the world present and the world to come. Whoever declares that he does not exist acquires great merit. The drop that becomes part of this great ocean abides there for ever and in peace. In this calm sea, a man, at first, experiences only humiliation and overthrow; but when he emerges from this state he will understand it as creation, and many secrets will be revealed to him.

“Many beings have missed taking the first step and so have not been able to take the second–they can only be compared to minerals. When aloe wood and thorns are reduced to ashes they both look alike–but their quality is different. An impure object dropped into rose-water remains impure because of its innate qualities; but a pure object dropped into the ocean will lose its specific existence and will participate in the ocean and in its movement. In ceasing to exist separately it retains its beauty. It exists and non-exists. How can this be? The mind cannot conceive it.”

~ Manteq al-Tayr (Conference of the Birds) Translated by C. S. Nott

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