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In Quest of the King: Image, Narrative, and Unitive Spirituality in a Twelfth-Century Sufi Classic

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 September 2014

Belden C. Lane*
Affiliation:
Saint Louis University

Abstract

The marriage of storytelling and spiritual formation is as old as the religious spirit of humankind. Farid Ud-Din Attar, a twelfth-century Persian poet and mystic, offers an imaginative example of this union in his Conference of the Birds, a tale describing the pilgrimage of all feathered creatures to their king. It is a spiritual journey that moves in five stages from a sense of longing for the inaccessible splendor of the royal court, through hope, boldness, and despair, to a final, shocking encounter with a majesty elusive as it is grand. The use of metaphor in describing passages of the spiritual life is demonstrated here at its best, as Attar explores the metaphors of impassioned love, the mirrored majesty of the king, and God as a treasure hidden in the world. His work suggests many parallels to the language of Christian and Jewish spirituality and his stories richly deserve retelling.

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Articles
Copyright
Copyright © The College Theology Society 1987

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References

1 Attar, Farid Ud-Din, The Conference of the Birds, trans. Darbandi, Afkham and Davis, Dick (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1984), p. 211.Google Scholar

2 Sufi thought is introduced in Schimmel, Annemarie, Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1975)Google Scholar and Arberry, A. J., Sufism: An Account of the Mystics of Islam (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1970).Google Scholar Further studies can be found in Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, Sufi Essays (London: Allen & Unwin, 1972)Google Scholar, and Massignon, Louis, The Passion of al-Hallaj: Mystical Martyr of Islam (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983).Google Scholar

3 Farid Ud-Din Attar (ca. 1120-1219) was a Persian poet who apparently ran an apothecary shop and practiced medicine in the same town of Neishapour where Omar Khayyam had lived and written a century earlier. For a while Attar was banished from his home, suggesting that he might have been charged with heresy—a fate not uncommon to earlier mystical poets like al-Hallaj and Abu Yazid. He traveled widely, gathering material for his collection of the lives and sayings of Muslim saints. The Conference of the Birds was written in 1177.

4 Attar's work finds an interesting parallel in “The Litany of the Birds,” a poem by a contemporary Persian mystical writer named Sana'i. In this litany, each of the birds speaks to God in his own language; the dove, for example, asking the way to its Beloved by calling ku ku, “Where? Where?” Annemarie Schimmel investigates this metaphor of the “bird soul,” as well as others employed by Persian mystical poets in her book, As Through a Veil: Mystical Poetry in Islam (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982).Google Scholar

5 Mahmoud of Ghazna is used frequently in Attar's work as an example of the grandeur and character one hopes most to find in royalty. Persian poets and philosophers filled this eleventh-century Sultan's court. Its ruins are found today in modern Afghanistan.

6 The Conference of the Birds, pp. 53-54. The idea that God is a hidden treasure wanting to be found, and found most often in neglected dust bins or weed-grown ruins, is common in the Persian poets. See Schimmel, , As Through a Veil, p. 123.Google Scholar

7 Attar observes that Alexander the Great would sometimes disguise himself as one of his own messengers, then declare himself as the commander of his men, but they would think him preposterous and ignore all he said. “Deluded natures cannot recognize / The royal way that stands before their eyes” (The Conference of the Birds, pp. 54-55).

8 See Trible, Phyllis, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978), p. 3161.Google Scholar

9 The Conference of the Birds, pp. 79-80.

10 See Lane, Belden C., “Chutzpa K'lapei Shemaya: A Christian Response to the Jewish Tradition of Arguing with God,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies (forthcoming).Google Scholar

11 The Conference of the Birds, pp. 146-47.

12 Ibid., pp. 132-33.

13 Ibid., pp. 81-82. This is the experience of the moth who flies near a palace window where a large, wax candle burns, to gather news of its elusive glow. When he comes back unscathed, the other moths realize he knows nothing of the flame. It is only as he dips and soars into its fierce translucent red, “self and fire mingled by his dance,” that he finally knows a truth of which the others cannot speak (see p. 206).

14 Ibid., p. 221.

15 Ibid., p. 113.

16 Ibid., pp. 217-18.

17 Ibid., p. 219. The disclosure is made more telling still by a Persian pun, because the word here for king—Simorgh—is made up of two separate words—si, for “thirty” and morgh, for “bird(s).”

18 Alan Watts develops this metaphor of God's enjoyment in playing hide-and-seek. Since “there is nothing outside God, he has no one but himself to play with. But he gets over this difficulty by pretending that he is not himself…. He pretends that he is you and I and all the people in the world, all the animals, all the plants, all the rocks, and all the stars…. Now when God [does this], he does it so well that it takes him a long time to remember where and how he hid himself. But that's the whole fun of it…. He doesn't want to find himself too quickly, for that would spoil the game. That is why it is so difficult for you and me to find out that we are God in disguise, pretending not to be himself” (The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are [New York: Collier, 1966], p. 12Google Scholar). A famous hadith of the prophet includes the divine proclamation, “I was a hidden treasure and wanted to be known, therefore I created the world.”

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