“Conference of  the Birds” by Mohammed ibn Farid-ud-din ATTAR

The purpose has been to look at two Teaching Stories from the Sufi Tradition, both originating from Medieval Islam  :  one a so-called “philosophical romance” from 12th cent. Andalucia, entitled            “Awakening of the Soul” – the story of Hayy by Ibn Tufayl;  and one a “mystical fable” from 12th cent. Persia , “The Conference of the Birds”, a narrative poem by Attar.   And through these beautifully crafted works, to understand more of the inner message of Sufism,  and perhaps also something of modern-day Fundamental Islam.   Background notes are provided for personal study and investigation, but it is the texts of the Stories themselves that provide the Teaching:  that is –           the Path of the Sufi Mystic.

This is another story about a spiritual journey, a search for union with the Divine    But it is not a solitary quest; it tells of a great company of souls journeying together – represented by birds (a frequently used symbol).   Like the Story of Hayy, it has definite stages along the Way,  but it belongs to a different mystical Tradition, that of Fable and Morality tale.
The original poem has over four and a half thousand lines of rhyming couplets.
This Talk is based on three versions of the text (listed in Bibliography) and the Commentaries that accompany them, selecting passages from each as appropriate, to bring out the “feel” of the Story.

Three Key-words –  Symbols of the Quest    (These trace the Mystic Path we are to follow from multiplicity back to Unity )

BIRDS are very frequently used to symbolize human souls;  the earliest examples are found in the hieroglyphic art of ancient Egypt, and they often appear in Islamic art.   It is said that when Mohammed went to Heaven he found the Tree of Life whose fruit restores youth to all those who eat of it, and on its branches were many birds, brilliantly coloured and singing melodiously:  these are the souls of the faithful.   So by definition “the poem is a fable because the birds talk and act as humans…the birds are identified by their species, and each species clearly indicates a human type…”  “it shows a kind of folksy humour” and would have been a familiar theme – even Avicenna wrote a short treatise called ‘The Bird’.

The HOOPOE  emerges as the birds’ guide and leader,  “he is therefore the equivalent of a sheikh leading a group of religious adepts, or would-be adepts, along their path”
Laleh Bakhtiar says:  ”The hoopoe is the symbol of inspiration” and she sees the initial gathering of the birds as the assembling of the spiritual faculties to begin the Quest, and their language is the language of self in the human world”.   And the Penguin ed. of the Poem says:  “Attar very frequently gives the impression of merging his personality with that of the hoopoe “ … “many of the stories at first reading seem obscure…the reader is being asked to look at some problem in an unfamiliar way, rather than logically (c.f. Zen koans)”

The SIMURGH  is the Divine King which they seek at the end of their journey.  He is the “Beloved”,  the Sovereign Lord.   Traditionally it is an enchanted bird whose feathers have the power of healing and renewal:   a mystical griffin or peacock.
(It is to be noted that all the characters are birds, whether human or divine.)

Introduction to the first stage of the journey (from the Penguin edition) :
“The allegorical framework of the poem is as follows:  the birds of the world gather together to seek a king.   They are told by the hoopoe that they have a king – the Simurgh – but that he lives far away and the journey to him is hazardous.   The birds are at first enthusiastic to begin their search, but when they realize how difficult the journey will be they start to make excuses. … “
And in response to each there are stories, anecdotes and admonitions.
The Story begins – with the words of   the Hoopoe :   “Dear Birds I am one who is engaged in divine warfare,,, and I am a messenger of the world invisible.   I have knowledge of God and of the secrets of creation…Yet my days pass restlessly and I am concerned with no person for I am wholly occupied by love for the King…I talk with Solomon and am the foremost of his followers…For years I have travelled by sea and land, over mountains and valleys…I have measured the bounds of the world.   I know well my King, but alone I cannot set out to find him.   Abandon your timidity, your self-conceit and your unbelief…be generous with your life.   Set your feet upon the earth and step out joyfully for the court of the king.   We have a true king, he lives behind the mountains called Kaf.  His name is Simurgh and he is the king of birds.  He is close to us, but we are far from him.   The place where he dwells is inaccessible, and no tongue is able to utter his name.  Before him hang a hundred thousand veils of light and darkness, and in the two worlds no one has power to dispute his kingdom…He does not manifest himself completely even in the place of his dwelling, and to this no knowledge or intelligence can attain.   The way is unknown, and no one has the steadfastness to seek it…Even the purest soul cannot describe him, neither can the reason comprehend…….Do not imagine that the journey is short, and one must have the heart of a lion to follow this unusual road…As for me, I shall be happy to discover even a trace of him….to live without him would be a reproach.   A man must not keep his soul from the beloved but must be in a fitting state to lead his soul to the court of the King.  Wash your hands of this life if you would be called a man of action.   For your beloved, renounce this dear life of yours, as worthy men.   If you submit with grace, the beloved will give his life for you.”

Thus,  the Author introduces us immediately to the two main themes  of Sufism :
the necessity for destroying the lower self and its attachments
the importance of passionate love (whatever the cost, or however unexpected, which the Penguin  ed. describes  as :  “love that flies in the face of either social or sexual or religious convention…Attar’s concern is to demonstrate that the Sufis’ truth exists outside of human conventions…to insist that ‘normal’ apprehensions and expectations are questionable, to turn them inside out”

Masani says:  ”Here then we see a large assemblage of birds.  These feathered friends, who represent human souls, have set their hearts on attending the mysterious court of Simurgh, the King of Birds.   In the language of the Sufis, the Simurgh is the type of Divine Unity, embracing all plurality.  Despite the hardships and perils of the journey, these birds have mustered strong under the banner of their daring leading, the Hoopoe, who has undertaken to guide them through all the dales and deserts to the seat of the Sovereign Bird..”   BUT  –  not quite yet…

The initial response of the birds to the Hoopoe is natural enthusiasm and emotion
“at once the birds /effusively responded to his words./ All praised the splendour of their distant king;/all rose impatient to be on the wing;/ each would renounce the Self and be the friend/of his companions till the journey’s end,  / But when they pondered on the journey’s length,/they hesitated, their ambitious strength/dissolved: each bird, according to his kind,/felt flattered but reluctantly declined.”    In other words, they either cannot or need not go:  they are still attached to worldly affairs.

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