Politics, religion, and culture where East meets West

The Conference of the Birds

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Sufi poet Farīd ud-Dīn ‘Attār’s 12th century poem, The Conference of the Birds, may not be easy to understand in its entirety, but one thing is made obvious: There are long-standing reasons to be skeptical about whether Sufism is really Islam at all.

With the time that an unpleasantly long bus ride afforded me, I recently read Sir R. P. Masani’s (prose) translation of Farīd ud-Dīn ‘Attār’s Conference of the Birds. In the world of Sufi poetry, Attar is certainly less visible than Rumi—but he also has a different sort of charm. Andrew Harvey, who composed the introduction to the translation that I have at hand, quotes an unnamed Sufi on the difference between Rumi and Attar:

The former, like an eagle, flew up to the height of perfection in the twinkling of an eye; the latter reached the same summit, but it was by crawling slowly and perseveringly like an ant.

Given the subject matter of the Conference of the Birds—the long, painful Sufi path—the latter’s life seems a more appropriate reflection of the trials to be expected from Sufi devotion. But if that isn’t enough to convince you of the poem’s worth, here’s Harvey’s translation of what Rumi himself had to say about Attar (from his Divan):

I am the master of Rumi whose words are perfumed with sweetness. But in everything I say I am only the servant of Attar.

Now that I have (perhaps) established that Attar’s masterpiece is worth reading (which I will maintain), I will say that I found it interesting—but not too enlightening. The poem itself (here’s a quick summary) is one large allegory dotted with smaller allegories, all of which attempt to explain the trials along the Sufi’s path to God and the human errors that cause failure. One problem is that some of the smaller allegories, told as parables, frequently served to muddle the point for me. The all-important Sufi conception of love (which is beyond reason) that the parables tried to demonstrate even seemed contradictory at times, especially with the all-important Sufi conception of “Self”-destruction.

But I won’t go into too much detail about my misgivings right now. Rather, I will take Harvey’s advice and read it again later, hoping to get some more enlightenment out of it. Until then, here’s what I found interesting:

In the poem (here’s the summary again), after braving the seven ruthless valleys (The Quest, Love, Knowlege, Independence and Detachment, Unity, Bewilderment and Stupefaction, Poverty and Annihilation) on their way to the Simurgh (God), the remaining thirty birds (the few successful Sufis) are told off by the Simurgh’s usher at the gate. With nothing left to live for, they break down:

So fervent was their grief, so heart-broken their lamentation that they were admitted to the presence of the Sovereign. But, first of all, a register was placed before them, in which every detail of the deeds that each one of them had done, or had omitted to do, from the beginning to the end, was carefully entered. Seeing this list of transgressions, they were annihilated and sank down into confusion, and their bodies were reduced to dust. After they had been thus completely purged and purified from all earthly elements, their souls were resuscitated by the light of His Majesty. They stood up again, dazed and distracted. In this new life the recollection of their transgressions was completely effaced from their mind. This was baqa after fana, immortality after perishability, life after life’s loss, eternal existence after extinction.

Now the Sun celestial began to shine forth in front of them, and lo! how great was their surprise! In the reflection of their faces these thirty birds of the earth beheld the face of the Celestial Simurg. When they cast furtive glances toward the Simurg, they perceived that the Simurg was no other than those self-same thirty birds. In utter bewilderment they lost their wits and wondered whether they were their own selves or whether they had been transformed into the Simurg. Then, to themselves they turned their eyes, and wonder of wonders, those self-same birds seemed to be one Simurg! Again, when they gazed at both in a single glance, they were convinced that they and the Simurg formed in reality only one Being. This single being was the Simurg and the Simurg this being. That one was this and one was that. Look where they would, in whatever direction, it was only one Simurg they saw. No one had heard of such a story in the world. Drowned in perplexity, they began to think of this mystery without the faculty of thinking, but finding no solution to the riddle, they besought the Simurg, though no words passed their lips, to explain this mystery and to solve this enigma of I and Thou.

The Simurg thereupon deigned to vouchsafe this reply to them: “The Sun of my Majesty is a mirror. Whoever beholds himself in this mirror, sees there his soul and his body, sees himself entire in it. Soul and body see soul and body. Since you, thirty birds, have come here, you find thirty birds in the mirror. Had you been forty or fifty, you would have beheld forty or fifty. Completely transformed though you be after your journey, you see yourselves here as you were before. At the beginning of your journey, you were numerous, but only thirty of you are able to see Me, and what you see is your own selves.

Finding the Simurg they found themselves and the riddle of I and Thou was solved.

Is this pantheism? Panentheism? How could this have developed out of a tradition that describes its personal God as “King,” “Avenger,” “Praiseworthy,” “Slayer,” “Strong,” “Abaser” and “Independent.” Is this even Islam?

As one Turk said to me last week over a hot cup of tea, “some say this is not Islam at all. But they miss the point. This is above religion—all religion.”

The mere fact that some people think this way is, in my opinion, enough reason to give Attar’s Conference of the Birds at least one read. The ideas may be old, but in today’s Turkey, they couldn’t be more relevant.


Written by M. James

July 16, 2012 at 12:18 pm

Posted in History, Religion, Turkey

Tagged with , , , ,

7 Responses

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  1. “You don’t do it through intellectual processes. What you do is you telepathically tap in to the one great world religion,
    which is only one,
    which has no name,
    and all of the other religions are merely maps of that.”

    Stephen Gaskin
    — — — — — —

    All the mystical sects: Quakers, Sufis, Hasidim, Zen, etc seem to be aimed toward that. So what a Sufi sees in Islam — is likely to differ from a less poetic idea of ‘what is Islam’. Just as early Friends found many things in official versions of ‘Christianity’ that didn’t seem quite Christian, and were many times accused of not being Christian themselves. [The hodgepodge we are today, well, may turn out to be a fruitful confusion… but I can’t be sure so far, one way or the other.]


    July 16, 2012 at 7:44 pm

  2. I must say, I wasn’t expecting a Quaker to drop in, but you can probably shed light on this better than just about anyone—I have two questions for you:

    Would you say that some Quakers have more beliefs in common with some Sufis than they do with their fellow Christians?

    And does reason (intellectual processes) have any place at all in mysticism, as you see it?

    M. James

    July 17, 2012 at 9:32 am

  3. What, to drop in in one of our buggies?… (wrong sect! And if you thought we were the ones who died out from not holding with making-babies, that was the Shakers.)

    Yes, some Quakers have more beliefs in common with some Sufis than with the vast majority of [whatever-people-mean-by] ‘Christians’. In my own case, more beliefs in common with some Sufis than with most Quakers, though I’m truly more ‘Quaker’ than anything else I know of.

    “Reason” is “poetry” if you do it right. That form of ‘intellectual process’ has a lot to do with mysticism, so far as I’ve dipped my toes therein. (Not far enough, nor anywhere close, though I have occasionally “seen” what it’s about.)

    The “Bible as technical manual” sort of “reason”, oy veh!

    I don’t know if you’re set to automatically dump 2-link comments, but you can find the Bible-discussion via my own SynchchroniciDaddy.wordpress.com (where I’ve put some of the poetry.)

    [Most of the early posts are not by me; many of the early ones got misappropriated when I moved the discussion site to wordpress.]


    July 17, 2012 at 10:18 am

  4. I see. Well I’m not surprised that you find it easier to identify with Sufism than with most Quakers—the Quakers I’ve encountered seem to be little more than pseudo-Christian pacifists. Forgive me if I don’t attempt to place them, and you, within the labyrinthine divisions of Quakerism, but it seems that you are of a significantly different mind.

    The reason I asked about intellectual processes within mysticism was because the Sufi conception seems to be that there is a certain point at which the human intellect cannot grasp the idea (or more accurately, the experience) of God—it simply must be experienced by the individual. I assume that the reason poetry is so favored is because it tries to convey an experience (presumably had by the author) rather than reasons for action (which are ultimately pointless). The poetry will always fall short of fully expressing the experience, of course, but it’s the best one can do.

    Do you think the experience of God is as highly individual as I’m making it out to be? Bear in mind that this is not to say that religious dogmatism, tradition, or community have no purpose—only that the individual ultimately needs to make the leap (of faith, not reason) himself.

    And I understand what you mean about the “Bible as technical manual” view. It’s shallow. I’ll certainly be perusing the material on your other other site.

    M. James

    July 17, 2012 at 2:06 pm

  5. Well, I think I’d like you “perusing” — and commenting as well.

    Part of it is — that metaphor is the only way we can ‘get a grip’ on anything beyond the explicit words of a language.

    Paintings — even my wife’s paintings — don’t really “look like” the original object, scene, person — but the effort to make them look that way is a good, frustrating and illuminating endeavor.

    God is beyond “the experience of God,” let alone “the idea of” — but so is any human being. This fact doesn’t render God, nor us, unintelligible. Human words like “love”, “wisdom,” “power”, do apply. They just don’t cover the ground.

    What does our idea of “wisdom” look like when you expand the time frame? Best outcome ‘tomorrow’? ‘Next week’? ‘Next century’?

    Anyway, busy — but I hope to do more justice to all this in a soon.


    July 17, 2012 at 3:10 pm

  6. What I “saw” (after smoking a joint and reading a Scientific American article on ‘consciousness’ — knowing that it wasn’t about anything whatsoever that could be externally measured) was like ‘awareness of awareness’ — as distinct from any particular content might appear in it. Later, I concluded that creative Spirit was implied, providing the coherence that ongoing experiencing necessarily entails.

    So later, when I sometimes wondered whether I might have been ‘mistaken’, it was evident that 1) The evidence was of course always present and 2) what I’d ‘seen’ exists, whether I’d _truly_ seen it or not.


    July 18, 2012 at 12:04 am

  7. That’s interesting. So you’d say that complete awareness isn’t necessary to understand the possibility of complete awareness—or the worth of complete awareness. The fleeting glimpse is enough to at least understand that understanding is desirable. Good news for a Sufi, I suppose.

    Well thank you for the insight: I think it’s more important to hear from a practitioner than a statistician when it comes to these matters. While Sufi mysticism won’t be comprising the meat of this blog any time soon, I’m sure I’ll be touching on it again in the future—It’s too important to ignore.

    M. James

    July 18, 2012 at 3:32 pm

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