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…
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