The Seal of the Poets

Metropolitan Museum of Art
‘The Conference of the Birds’; detail of an illustration by Habiballah of Sava from a Persian manuscript of the poem by Farid ud-Din Attar, circa 1600

Almost nothing is known for certain about the life of Farid ud-Din Attar, a Persian poet celebrated for his delightful long poem The Conference of the Birds. He had no contemporary biographers and the few vignettes of his life that do exist feel apocryphal. He was born toward the middle of the twelfth century and made his living as an apothecary (Attar, a pen name, means “perfumist” or “pharmacist”). In addition to The Conference of the Birds, he composed three other long narrative poems, a large collection of shorter verses, and a charming book of anecdotes about famous followers of Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam.1 Later Persian poets such as Jalal ad-Din Rumi in the thirteenth century and Hafez in the fourteenth were openly indebted to Attar’s work. He probably died around 1220, when Mongol armies sacked his home city of Nishapur. According to one tradition, after an enemy soldier decapitated him, Attar picked up his head and recited the Bisar-nama (“Book of the Man with No Head,” an actual work, though Attar did not compose it).

The Conference of the Birds is widely understood to illustrate and allegorize Sufi teachings—Henry Corbin, the French scholar of Islamic philosophy, called it a “peak of mystical experience”—but it is not certain Attar ever belonged to a Sufi order or studied with a qualified master. This is curious, for the teacher–student relation was at the heart of medieval Sufism. Each congregation was centered on a particular sheikh, and one could only become a Sufi after intensive study. The early mystics of the ninth and tenth centuries preached austerity in response to the corruption of rulers in Baghdad and the Islamic east, and they countered the strict legalism of the clerics with esoteric, often symbolic interpretations of religious texts. The Sufis taught an exaggerated form of monotheism: not only is there a single God, but God is all that truly exists; everything else, including our worldly selves, is merely a shadow of His presence. Accordingly, Sufi sheikhs urged their followers to disdain wealth and bodily pleasures. By looking inward, believers were taught to recognize the affinity of their soul with God. Through ascetic discipline, they were guided toward a self-annihilating union with the divine.

The Conference of the Birds, which is close to five thousand lines in the original Persian (about the length of Dante’s Inferno), is an allegory of Sufism’s central drama: the soul’s quest to unify itself with God. The poem tells the story of a flock of birds who fly to the ends of the earth in search of the mythical Simorgh, an Iranian version of the phoenix. The title comes from a passage in the…



This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Subscription — $79.95

Purchase a print subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all articles published within the last five years.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.