Diving into the Mystery.

Art, books, illustration, poetry

This is my latest project, a mini hand made book showing the beginning of the poem written by the Sufi poet Attar, with my illustrations of birds alongside.  There’s more to come! For a history of the poem, I have written this introduction, which I may or may not use. Don’;t know yet. Tell me what you think, please!!!

The Conference of the Birds is the best-known work of Attar,a Persian poet born during the twelfth century in north-east Iran, dying in old age early in the thirteenth century. The poem is Sufi doctrine presented in an extended allegorical form , allowing the poet to produce moments of great psychological insight, humour and narrative suspense. It draws the reader by giving it a narrative structure, much in the same way that Chaucer did in his Canterbury tales. Milton and Dante did the same thing, using the telling of tales as the method to deliver their messages. The poem allows the leader, in this case the hoopoe , to digress and address the concerns of the followers (the birds) by telling them tales to illustrate their misguidedness or foolishness. It begins with birds of all varieties getting together to find a king to support and protect them, to enable them to live peaceably and meaningfully. The hoopoe tells them they have a king already, that he lives far away and that the journey to find him is a precarious one. The birds at first are enthusiastic, but once they realize the difficulties they begin to make excuses. The nightingale won’t leave his love; the hawk is satisfied with his position at court ; the finch is too scared to contemplate the journey etc., At this point the hoopoe relates anecdotes illustrating how they are misguided, then as the group flies on, they soon start to ask questions about the Way , and these are also answered using short parables.

The journey of the birds takes them through the seven valleys of the quest, love,understanding, independence and detachment, unity, astonishment, and finally poverty and nothingness. In the valley of the quest one there are  a hundred difficulties and trials. In the valley of unity the Hoopoe announces that although you may see many beings, in reality there is only one, which is complete in its unity. As long as you are separate, good and evil will arise; but when you lose yourself in the divine essence, they will be transcended by love. When unity is achieved, one forgets all and forgets oneself in the valley of astonishment and bewilderment..The Hoopoe declares that the last valley of deprivation and death is practically impossible to describe. In the immensity of the divine ocean the pattern of the present world and the future world dissolves. As you realize that the individual self does not really exist, the drop becomes part of the great ocean . ( I hear echoes of this message throughout the ages, as poets and writers explore the same theme of transcendence through merging with the ineffable essence of Life.

I am part of the sun as my eye is of me. That I am part of the earth my feet know perfectly, and my blood is part of the sea.” D.H. Lawrence

Out of thousands of birds only thirty reach the end of the journey, where the birds discover that the Simorgh is in fact themselves. There is a pun in here, si morgh means thirty birds, thus si morgh is united with Simorgh, the object of their quest.

Two themes emerge as central throughout almost the entire poem — the necessity for destroying the Self, and the importance of passionate love. Attar was particularly engaged by these themes. This is the Sufi way, though Sufism itself is beset with differences in understanding. Some adherents claim it is the mystic dimension within Islam, whereas other practitioners regard the philosophy as being universal and consider its roots to pre-date modern-day religions . Some Muslims do not recognise Sufi teaching to be within Islam. When Attar wrote the poem, Sufism already had had negative attention by the establishment. The teachings were considered heretical by some, and Attar was influenced by the earlier Sufi Mansur al-Hallaj, who was imprisoned for eight years, then tried and condemned to death; he was flogged, mutilated, hung on a gibbet and then decapitated;his body was burned and the ashes were scattered in the Tigris..He had broken with the tradition of secrecy and openly taught mystical doctrine, resulting in his martyrdom. It can be understood why Attar therefore was sometimes obscure in the writings. In the same way Zen Buddhism often appears paradoxical and unclear until the reader ‘works out’ the meaning. Throughout religions and philosophies, the work has to be done not only by the writer, but also by the reader, and it through this interpretive understanding that a deeper understanding may be considered.The whole poem has been translated by Afham Darbandi and Dick Davis, from which I have extrapolated short verses to exemplify. The full poem is well worth a visit and can be read here http://sufibooks.info/Sufism/The_Conference_of_the_Birds_Fardiuddin_Attar.pdf

There is a very full and well written summary there too. Rumi followed Attar and has been heralded as one of the prominent poets from the Eastern tradition. Rumi has been translated across the globe, mainly due to the universality of his expression about the human experience and search for fulfilment. Apparently, there is the belief that Attar and Rumi met, Attar as an old man and Rumi as an infant. Perhaps so. Certainly the spirit of abandonment of Self and the discipline of leading lives of compassionate love is shared by both men. Their words spin out across continents and throughout centuries, touching fellow searchers in their thousands. Their ideas shaped Western thinkers as diverse as Schopenhauer and Einstein, finding outlets amongst leading writers such as D.H Lawrence, E E Cummings, Robert Graves, and Doris Lessing. The works of Idries Shah have played a significant part in presenting Sufism as a secular, individualistic form of spiritual wisdom in the latter part of the 20th century. For anyone interested in the ideas that Sufism explores, there is an interesting article about Idries Shah on Wikipedia with plenty of links.


I died as mineral and became a plant,

I died as plant and rose to animal,

I died as animal and I was man.

Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?

Yet once more I shall die as man, to soar

With angels blest; but even from angelhood

I must pass on: all except God doth perish.

When I have sacrificed my angel soul,

I shall become what no mind e’er conceived.

Oh, let me not exist. For non-existence

Proclaims in organ tones, ‘To him we shall return’.”                  



4 thoughts on “Diving into the Mystery.

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