Regarded as one of the most beautiful and important pieces of classical Persian literature, Mantiq al-Tayr or The Conference of the Birds is believed to have been composed around 1177 by Farid ud-Din Attar (c.1142–c.1220) – a poet, hagiographer and theoretician of Sufism (also chemist or perfumer, as his last name indicates) who was born and died in the city of Nishapur in Iran. Attar spent much of his childhood being educated at the theological school attached to the shrine of Imam Reza at Mashhad (the largest town in north-eastern Iran and a major centre of pilgrimage). Later, he travelled to Rey (the ancient Raghes, near modern Tehran), Egypt, Damascus, Mecca, Turkistan (southern Russia) and India.
Such itineraries were common in the lives of the Persian poets of this period – like their counterparts in medieval Europe, the troubadours and wandering scholars. These travels were made in search of knowledge or patronage or both. For Attar, it was more a matter of knowledge than patronage.
Roughly 4500 lines long, Mantiq al-Tayr is an allegory of the human quest for the Divine and might have been inspired by two particular works – Kalila and Dimna or The Fables of Bidpai, a (possibly) 4th-century text of Indian origin containing talking animals and moral lessons and The Recital of the Bird, a short Arabic treatise written by the Muslim polymath Avicenna/Ibn Sina (980-1037) in which a bird – representing the human soul – is freed from a cage by other birds and flies off with his new companions on a journey to the “Great King”.
In Attar’s allegory, the birds of the world congregate to decide upon a king for themselves. The hoopoe bird, the wisest of them all, steps forward and suggests that they travel to meet the majestic and mysterious Simorgh (a borrowing from pre-Islamic Zoroastrian Persian mythology; equivalent of the western Phoenix). The hoopoe’s words:
We have a king; beyond Kaf’s mountain peak/ The Simorgh lives, the sovereign whom you seek,/ And He is always near to us, though we/ Live far from His transcendent majesty./ A hundred thousand veils of dark and light/ Withdraw His presence from our mortal sight,/ And in both worlds no being shares the throne/ That marks the Simorgh’s power and His alone -/ He reigns in undisturbed omnipotence,/ Bathed in the light of His magnificence -/ No mind, no intellect can penetrate/ The mystery of his unending state…
But the birds aren’t impressed or persuaded. When they learn that vast seas and deserts lie between them and the Simorgh’s court, they hesitate. One by one, they present excuses to not travel on the arduous Way. Somebody is too proud, somebody too humble. Many have prior commitments. The nightingale is in love with the rose, the parrot only thirsts for the stream of immortality and will not seek the Simorgh’s throne, the peacock – splendidly arrayed in many-coloured pomp – wants to go back to Paradise, which it once inhabited and from which it was banished after being deceived by the Serpent. The duck cannot leave water. The partridge wants precious stones, the owl hopes to discover buried treasure around abandoned ruins. The hawk has grand political, royal and military connections. The finch, too feeble, would much rather hide in a well.
The hoopoe counters each one with anecdotes that demonstrate the baselessness of their fears and doubts and attachments (this structure of vignettes set around the prospect of pilgrimage is similar to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales). The clever guide and instructor of Mantiq al-Tayr constantly emphasises the transient nature of worldly things and the everlasting splendour of the Simorgh. Moreover, he is able to point out that even preoccupations that seem fairly “spiritual” in nature can be misguided.
For instance, in the case of the parrot who wishes to find the stream of immortality. When the parrot thrills:
I have been caged by heartless men, But my desire is to be free again; If I could reassert my liberty I’d find the stream of immortality Guarded by Khezr — his cloak is green like mine, And this shared colour is an open sign I am his equal or equivalent. Only the stream Khezr watches could content My thirsting soul — I have no wish to seek This Simorgh’s throne of which you love to speak.
…the hoopoe replies:
Khezr sought companionship with one whose mind was set on God alone. The man declined and said to Khezr: ‘We two could not be friends, for our existences have different ends. The waters of immortal life are yours, and you must always live; life is your cause as death is mine — you wish to live, whilst I impatiently prepare myself to die; I leave you as quick birds avoid a snare, to soar up in the free, untrammelled air’.
Khezr (aka Al Khidr) is a righteous character in the Quran, who, in folklore, happens to be associated with immortality. Attar finds his life antithetical to the Sufi Way – which is about death to and not extension of the Self.
Similarly, when the peacock confesses its obsession, the following conversation occurs:
I was a dweller once in paradise; There the insinuating snake’s advice Deceived me — I became his friend, disgrace Was swift and I was banished from that place. My dearest hope is that some blessèd day A guide will come to indicate the way Back to my paradise. The king you praise Is too unknown a goal; my inward gaze Is fixed for ever on that lovely land – There is the goal which I can understand. How could I seek the Simorgh out when I Remember paradise?
In reply, the hoopoe:
“These thoughts have made you stray Further and further from the proper Way; You think your monarch’s palace of more worth Than Him who fashioned it and all the earth. The home we seek is in eternity; The Truth we seek is like a shoreless sea, Of which your paradise is but a drop. This ocean can be yours; why should you stop Beguiled by dreams of evanescent dew? The secrets of the sun are yours, but you Content yourself with motes trapped in its beams. Turn to what truly lives, reject what seems – Which matters more, the body or the soul? Be whole: desire and journey to the Whole.
Later in the narrative, the hoopoe reveals the relationship between the birds and the wondrous avian creature:
When long ago the Simorgh first appeared – His face like sunlight when the clouds have cleared – He cast unnumbered shadows on the earth, On each one fixed his eyes, and each gave birth. Thus we were born; the birds of every land Are still his shadows — think, and understand. If you had known this secret you would see The link between yourselves and Majesty…
A bird finally enquires on the length on the journey. And the hoopoe talks of the seven valleys: (1). Valley of the Quest, (2). Valley of Love, (3).Valley of Insight into Mystery/Mystic Apprehension, (4). Valley of Detachment and Serenity/Independence, (5). Valley of Unity, (6). Valley of Bewilderment and (7). Valley of Poverty and Nothingness/Fulfilment in Annihilation – where “you are suspended, motionless”, “a drop absorbed in seas that have no shores”. Regarding these, the British scholar of Islam J. Spencer Trimingham (1904-1987) wrote in his book The Sufi Orders in Islam:
The aspirant has: to purify his nafs, i.e. his personality-self, from its inclination to shahawat, that is, the thoughts and desires of the natural man, and substitute these with love (mahabba); then he must be cast into the flames of passion (ishq) to emerge in the state of union (wusla) with transmutation of self (fana) through the gifts of dazzlement and wonder (haira) to everlastingness (baqa).
In the story, by the time the birds pass the seven valleys, only thirty of them remain. There is a pun in this. When “si” [thirty] “morgh” [birds] reach the land of Simorgh, they find not the mythical bird but their own reflections in a lake. The thirty birds have gloriously annihilated their “selves” and, consequently, their “souls” now have reached a higher – divine – plane of existence.
Although The Conference of the Birds emerges out of a decidedly monotheistic tradition (wherein the Creator/Creature distinction is supposed to be strict and clear), the symbolism of the narrative can seem somewhat ambiguous in its theological/philosophical vision. The absorption of “si” + “morgh” into Simorgh carries a flavour of pantheism, or at least, of panentheism. Furthermore, the idea of birds originating from the shadow of the mighty Simorgh is not totally dissimilar from the philosophy of emanation proposed by Greek-speaking Roman thinker Plotinus (204/5–270 AD), in which the natural world proceeds forth and is illuminated in lesser degrees of perfection by the One – an absolute, transcendent, impersonal source of ultimate being and light. Such technical ontological issues aside, The Conference of the Birds is a timeless and intoxicating tale that will resonate with all seekers – whatever their persuasion, path and final destination.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York houses a manuscript of the Mantiq al-Tayr that was initiated under the Timurid court atelier in Herat and completed in the Safavid court atelier in Isfahan. It contains illustrations that are attributed to the famous painter Bihzad. See it and read about it here.
Also, Paris-based publisher Éditions Diane de Selliers has released a wonderfully illustrated version of the English translation by Afham Darbandi and Dick Davis (mentioned above) titled The Canticle of the Birds: Illustrated Through Persian and Eastern Islamic Art.
Learn more in the video below:
Featured: Persian miniature on the Mantiq al-Tayr, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain