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Farid ud-Din Attar June 13, 2009

Posted by Farzana Naina in Poetry.
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Farid ud-Din Attar was born in Nishapur, in north-east Iran. There is disagreement over the exact dates of his birth and death but several sources confirm that he lived about 100 years. He is traditionally said to have been killed by Mongol invaders. His tomb can be seen today in Nishapur.

As a younger man, Attar went on pilgrimage to Mecca and traveled extensively throughout the region, seeking wisdom in Egypt, Damascus, India, and other areas, before finally returning to his home city of Nishapur.

The name Attar means herbalist or druggist, which was his profession. It is said that he saw as many as 500 patients a day in his shop, prescribing herbal remedies which he prepared himself, and he wrote his poetry while attending to his patients.

About thirty works by Attar survive, but his masterpiece is the Mantic at-Tayr (The Conference of the Birds). In this collection, he describes a group of birds (individual human souls) under the leadership of a hoopoe (spiritual master) who determine to search for the legendary Simurgh bird (God). The birds must confront their own individual limitations and fears while journeying through seven valleys before they ultimately find the Simurgh and complete their quest. The 30 birds who ultimately complete the quest discover that they themselves are the Simurgh they sought, playing on a pun in Persian (si and murgh can translate as 30 birds) while giving us an esoteric teaching on the presence of the Divine within us.

Attar’s poetry inspired Rumi and many other Sufi poets. It is said that Rumi actually met Attar when Attar was an old man and Rumi was a boy, though some scholars dispute this possibility.

Farid ud-Din Attar was apparently tried at one point for heresy and exiled from Nishapur, but he eventually returned to his home city and that is where he died.

A traditional story is told about Attar’s death. He was taken prisoner by a Mongol during the invasion of Nishapur. Someone soon came and tried to ransom Attar with a thousand pieces of silver. Attar advised the Mongol not to sell him for that price. The Mongol, thinking to gain an even greater sum of money, refused the silver. Later, another person came, this time offering only a sack of straw to free Attar. Attar then told the Mongol to sell him for that was all he was worth. Outraged at being made a fool, the Mongol cut off Attar’s head.

Whether or not this is literally true isn’t the point. This story is used to teach the mystical insight that the personal self isn’t of much real worth. What is valuable is the Beloved’s presence within us — and that presence isn’t threatened by the death of the body.

Poems by Farid ud-Din Attar  (1120? – 1220?)

The Nightingale

The nightingale raises his head, drugged with passion,

Pouring the oil of earthly love in such a fashion

That the other birds shaded with his song, grow mute.

The leaping mysteries of his melodies are acute.

‘I know the secrets of Love, I am their piper,’

He sings, ‘I seek a David with broken heart to decipher

Their plaintive barbs, I inspire the yearning flute,

The daemon of the plucked conversation of the lute.

The roses are dissolved into fragrance by my song,

Hearts are torn with its sobbing tone, broken along

The fault lines of longing filled with desire’s wrong.

My music is like the sky’s black ocean, I steal

The listener’s reason, the world becomes the seal

Of dreams for chosen lovers, where only the rose

Is certain. I cannot go further, I am lame, and expose

My anchored soul to the divine Way.

My love for the rose is sufficient, I shall stay

In the vicinity of its petalled image, I need

No more, it blooms for me the rose, my seed.

The hoopoe replies: ‘You love the rose without thought.

Nightingale, your foolish song is caught

By the rose’s thorns, it is a passing thing.

Velvet petal, perfume’s repose bring

You pleasure, yes, but sorrow too

For the rose’s beauty is shallow: few

Escape winter’s frost. To seek the Way

Release yourself from this love that lasts a day.

The bud nurtures its own demise as day nurtures night.

Groom yourself, pluck the deadly rose from your sight.

How long then will you seek for beauty here?

How long then will you seek for beauty here?

Seek the unseen, and beauty will appear.

When the last veil is lifted neither men

Nor all their glory will be seen again,

The universe will fade — this mighty show

In all its majesty and pomp will go,

And those who loved appearances will prove

Each other’s enemies and forfeit love,

While those who loved the absent, unseen Friend

Will enter that pure love which knows no end.

The Lover

‘A lover’, said the hoopoe, now their guide,

‘Is one in whom all thoughts of self have died;

Those who renounce the self deserve that name;

Righteous or sinful, they are all the same!

Your heart is thwarted by the self’s control;

Destroy its hold on you and reach your goal.

Give up this hindrance, give up mortal sight,

For only then can you approach the light.

If you are told: “Renounce our Faith,” obey!

The self and Faith must both be tossed away;

Blasphemers call such action blasphemy —

Tell them that love exceeds mere piety.

Love has no time for blasphemy or faith,

Nor lovers for the self, that feeble wraith.

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