Composed in the twelfth century in north-eastern Iran, Attar’s great mystical poem is among the most significant of all works of Persian literature. A marvellous, allegorical rendering of the Islamic doctrine of Sufism – a system concerned with the search for truth through God – it describes the conference of the birds of the world when they meet to begin the search for their ideal King, the Simorgh bird. On hearing that to find him they must undertake an arduous journey, the birds soon express their reservations to their leader, the hoopoe. With eloquence and insight, however, the hoopoe calms their fears, using a series of riddling parables to provide guidance in the search for spiritual truth. By turns witty and profound, worldly and spiritual, The Conference of the Birds transforms deep belief into magnificent poetry.
This edition has been updated to include translation of the poem’s prologue and epilogue for the first time. A new introduction by Dick Davis outlines Attar’s life and beliefs, discusses the poem’s themes and influence, and places it in the context of medieval literature.
In his poetry, and especially perhaps in his best-known work, The Conference of the Birds, Attar shows himself to be one of the most attractive and memorable of all the many medieval Persian poets whose verse has come down to us; his poetry combines the intimate with the splendid, the worldly with the spiritual, and the specific with the universally human. His achievement is all the more remarkable because his subject matter, the nature of religious and metaphysical truth, is one that, in Attar’s time and subsequently, has often lent itself to grim-faced homily rather than to beguiling anecdote, to prescriptive regulation rather than to humour and raciness, and to an elevated monotony of tone rather than to the flips and twists of manner appropriate to a master storyteller intent on keeping his audience on the edge of their seats.
Not that Attar is in any sense a trivial poet without a serious message to pass on; he is in deadly earnest, and he leaves us in no doubt of his perception of the gravity of what he wishes to convey. But he delivers this message by means of anecdotes that can be, in turn, serious or funny, sweet or bitter, pithy or expansive, comforting or disconcerting. He is one of the earliest Persian religious poets to do this successfully and extensively, and his manner had a huge effect on poets who came after him and dealt with similar subject matter. The most obvious beneficiary this technique of constantly shifting banter and admonition, surprise endings and bewildering beginnings, of pathos and bathos, and the heavenly and earthly appearing cheek by jowl, was Rumi, whose poetry is permeated with the spirit of Attar, and from whose work Rumi also borrowed various specific tropes and anecdotes, as, in a-number of verses, he himself acknowledges.
As is the case with many medieval Persian poets, especially the better-known ones, a number of entertaining and inspirational anecdotes gradually gathered around Attar’s name, but in reality the details of his biography remain almost entirely opaque to us; except in its broadest outlines we know virtually nothing about his life. The little that we do know can be stated very quickly: he was born around the middle of the twelfth century (1146 and 1158 have been suggested as possible dates), and he died in the 1220s, probably when the invading Mongols overran the province (Khorasan) and city (Nieshapur) in which he lived, and slaughtered a great number of the inhabitants. Various manuscripts of The Conference of the Birds claim 1175, 1178 or 1187 as the date of its completion; if either of the two earlier dates is accurate, 1158 seems far too late for Attar’s birth, as it would mean that he composed the poem in his teens, and this, given the sophistication of its technique and the wealth of learning it displays, seems highly unlikely. If we take the earlier of the two suggested birth dates (1146) and the last of the claimed dates of composition (1187), this would mean the poem was written when he was about forty, and this seems a reasonable supposition.
Attar (which is a pen-name; virtually all medieval Persian poets wrote under chosen rather than given names) appears to have lived for most of his life in Nieshapur in north-eastern Iran, and his chosen name suggests that he was a perfume seller and pharmacist (and perhaps a physician, as the trades were sometimes combined); there are corroborative details of his perfumer/pharmacy profession in his poems. The name Attar is the same word from which we derive ‘attar’, meaning a distilled scent, in phrases like ‘attar of roses’: when, at the opening of the Epilogue to The Conference of the Birds, Attar says that he has filled the world with ‘these mysteries’ musky scent’, he is making a punning reference to his pen-name. More than sixty works have been attributed to him at different times, but the number that can be ascribed to him with any certainty is relatively few: his works in verse include The Conference of the Birds, The Book of the Divine, The Book of Secrets, The Book of Affliction, a collection of lyrical poems and another of quatrains. As well as these volumes of verse, Attar also wrote an important prose work, Memorials of the Saints, a collection of hagiographic accounts of prominent religious figures, mainly but not exclusively Sufis. In a number of his poems he includes anecdotes about many of the figures whose biographies he gives in Memorials of the Saints.
As to his personal beliefs, the Prologue to The Conference of the Birds makes it abundantly clear that he was a Sunni Muslim, that is a Muslim who accepts the authority and legitimacy of the four caliphs (Abu Bakr Omar, Osman and Ali) who succeeded the Prophet Mohammad as head of the Muslim community, rather than a Shi’a Muslim, that is one who accepts the legitimacy only of the fourth of the Sunni caliphs, Ali, and who believes that the preceding three were usurpers of a position that should have been Ali’s on the death of Mohammad. In this, Attar is among the great majority of medieval Persian poets, virtually all of whom were Sunnis (the important exceptions are Naser Khosrow, who was an Esmaili Shi’a, and perhaps Ferdowsi, who might have been either an Esmaili Shi’a or a Twelver Shi’a). Iran did not become a predominantly Shi’a country until the sixteenth century, by which time the great efflorescence of Persian medieval poetry was drawing to a close.
Among the attractive but apocryphal stories told about Attar is that he dandled the young Rumi on his knee and predicted his future greatness, when Rumi’s family was travelling west through Khorasan, probably in order to stay ahead of the Mongols. Another is that he was converted to Sufism when a wandering dervish (religious mendicant) entered his shop and asked if he (Attar) could die as he (the dervish) could: ‘Certainly,’ replied Attar. Whereupon the dervish put his begging bowl on the ground, laid his head upon it, uttered the word ‘God’ and promptly died. When apocryphal, tales are told about the lives of great men, there is usually a reason for their fabrication; they attempt to fill what is perceived as a gap that shouldn’t ideally be there. The first of these anecdotes seems to have been invented a relatively trivial and cosy reason: to provide a satisfying personal link between an older poet and his young successor on whose work he was to have a great influence, and also to suggest a kind of laying-on-of-hands transmission of insight and mastery. But the second anecdote points to a more interesting puzzle. In ascribing Attar’s introduction to Sufism to this dramatic encounter with a dervish ready to give up everything, including his life, for his faith, it reads like an attempt to fill a lacuna in the record: what exactly was Attar’s relationship to Sufism, and how did be become a Sufi? Indeed, did he become a Sufi? The honest answer to these questions is that we don’t know.
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