The Conference of The Birds: An Excerpt and Some notes

21 Jun

This was written a while back for a class. The Conference of the Birds is a handbook on Tasawwuf (spirituality) written by Farid Al-Attar, circa 1145. Attar was a Persian poet and the following was taken from an online translation:

Lines 94-108: Bayazid’s annihilation (q.s.)

One Night from out the swarming City Gate

Stept holy Bajazyd, to meditate

Alone amid the breathing Fields that lay

In solitary Silence leagues away,

Beneath a Moon and Stars as bright as Day.

And the Saint wondering such a Temple were,

And so lit up, and scarce one worshipper,

A voice from Heav’n amid the stillness said:

‘The Royal Road is not for all to tread,

Nor is the Royal Palace for the Rout,

Who, even if they reach it, are shut out.

The Blaze that from my Harim window breaks

With fright the Rabble of the Roadside takes;

And ev’n of those that at my Portal din,

Thousands may knock for one that enters in.’

A similar narration in Tazkirat al-Awliya’ quotes, from Bayazid himself –

“one night, when I was a child, I left the city to go to the desert. The moon was shining and the world was at peace. Suddenly I had a vision; I saw an illuminated silhouette. The image was so bright that the light of the sun looked pale compared to this apparition. I fell into a state of rapture and a deep feeling of joy came over me. I whispered to myself, ‘Oh Allah, such a beautiful gate, yet empty, such an almighty realm, yet lonesome!” I heard a voice say, “the doorstep is empty, not because no one comes, but no one is admitted to come. This is not the realm of the impure; not many have the honor of admittance.” I thought, from whom in creation could I call upon to intercede for my admittance? And I remembered that the only one to intercede was the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w). I could not call upon anyone but wait for him to give me permission to enter. It was then that I received a message saying, “because of such politeness I will raise your name so you will be remembered as the Sultan al-’Arifeen, Bayazid.”

Here the Almighty realm is empty because no one is granted permission. This is because only Allah exists and for one to reach this realm he must have annihilated in Him. No permission is granted as long as the self is present.  Also, the path to the Divine is through His Beloved, Muhammad s.a.w.



Lines 109-126

Thus spoke the Tajidar: and the wing’d Crowd,

That underneath his Word in Silence bow’d, 110

Clapp’d Acclamation: and their Hearts and Eyes

Were kindled by the Firebrand of the Wise.

They felt their Degradation: they believed

The word that told them how to be retrieved,

And in that glorious Consummation won

Forgot the Cost at which it must be done.

‘They only long’d to follow: they would go

Whither he led, through Flood, or Fire, or Snow’—

So cried the Multitude. But some there were

Who listen’d with a cold disdainful air, 120

Content with what they were, or grudging Cost

Of Time or Travel that might all be lost;

These, one by one, came forward, and preferr’d

Unwise Objection: which the wiser Word

Shot with direct Reproof, or subtly round

With Argument and Allegory wound.

Bayazid’s account, as told by the Hoopoe (here called the Tajidar, meaning ‘the adorner of the diadem’, a symbol of wisdom), humbles the birds as it becomes a reminder of the journey’s cost. The self is a hefty price to pay for anyone who thinks he is something, and that is most of us. The Nafs al-Ammarah and Nafs al-Lawwamah are susceptible to worldly obsession, which oftentimes becomes the barrier to feeling the sweetness of devotion. A related quote narrates, “verily in your heart sits the daughter of Iblis and that is Dunya, and it is incumbent upon the father to visit his daughter in her home, and his visit brings nothing but destruction”.

Lines 127-150

The Pheasant first would know by what pretence

The Tajidar to that pre-eminence

Was raised—a Bird, but for his lofty Crest

(And such the Pheasant had) like all the Rest—

Who answer’d—’By no Virtue of my own

Sulayman chose me, but by His alone:

Not by the Gold and Silver of my Sighs

Made mine, but the free Largess of his Eyes.

Behold the Grace of Allah comes and goes

As to Itself is good: and no one knows

Which way it turns: in that mysterious Court

Not he most finds who furthest travels for’t.

For one may crawl upon his knees Life-long,

And yet may never reach, or all go wrong:

Another just arriving at the Place

He toil’d for, and—the Door shut in his Face:

Whereas Another, scarcely gone a Stride,

And suddenly—Behold he is Inside!—

But though the Runner win not, he that stands,

No Thorn will turn to Roses in his Hands:

Each one must do his best and all endure,

And all endeavour, hoping but not sure.

Heav’n its own Umpire is; its Bidding do,

And Thou perchance shalt be Sulayman’s too.’

This begins with the Pheasant’s judgment of the hoopoe – questioning his authority and on what grounds he was chosen. This reflects the Hadith, “the believer is a mirror to his brother”. Whatever the pheasant saw in the hoopoe, was what he had in himself. The hoopoe answers that it was not by his virtue alone, his dialogue explains extensively the lessons behind the aforementioned account of Bayazid.  The point here being that the fruits of ‘amal are never granted by one’s own virtue, everything is by the Mercy and Favour of Allah Almighty – dare we question His Wisdom?

Lines 151-191: The story of Shah Mahmud

One day Shah Mahmud, riding with the Wind

A-hunting, left his Retinue behind,

And coming to a River, whose swift Course

Doubled back Game and Dog, and Man and Horse,

Beheld upon the Shore a little Lad

A-fishing, very poor, and Tatter-clad

He was, and weeping as his Heart would break.

So the Great Sultan, for good humour’s sake

Pull’d in his Horse a moment, and drew nigh,

And after making his Salam, ask’d why

He wept—weeping, the Sultan said, so sore

As he had never seen one weep before.

The Boy look’d up, and ‘O Amir,’ he said,

‘Sev’n of us are at home, and Father dead,

And Mother left with scarce a Bit of Bread:

And now since Sunrise have I fish’d—and see!

Caught nothing for our Supper—Woe is Me!’

The Sultan lighted from his horse. ‘Behold,’

Said he, ‘Good Fortune will not be controll’d:

And, since Today yours seems to turn from you,

Suppose we try for once what mine will do,

And we will share alike in all I win.’

So the Shah took, and flung his Fortune in,

The Net; which, cast by the Great Mahmud’s Hand,

A hundred glittering Fishes brought to Land.

The Lad look’d up in Wonder—Mahmud smiled

And vaulted into Saddle. But the Child

Ran after—’Nay, Amir, but half the Haul

Is yours by Bargain’—’Nay, Today take all,’

The Sultan cried, and shook his Bridle free—

‘But mind—Tomorrow All belongs to Me—’

And so rode off. Next morning at Divan

The Sultan’s Mind upon his Bargain ran,

And being somewhat in a mind for sport

Sent for the Lad: who, carried up to Court,

And marching into Royalty’s full Blaze

With such a Catch of Fish as yesterday’s,

The Sultan call’d and set him by his side,

And asking him, ‘What Luck?’ The Boy replied,

This is the Luck that follows every Cast,

Since o’er my Net the Sultan’s Shadow pass’d.’

Here the story of a boy and his encounter with the Sultan is narrated. The boy is in a destitute situation: his father had passed away; his mother barely has a morsel to feed their big family. They now count on the boy, who has had very little luck fishing since sunrise. The Sultan chances upon him and offers to help, and strikes a bargain with the boy:  whatever he (the Sultan) catches today belongs to the boy, but whatever the boy catches tomorrow will be for him.

This story is highly metaphorical in that the boy and is representative of the individual. His situation the Hell he creates for himself when one chooses to rely on his own resources.  In gnosis, the Master of everything is recognized, and one should have no resource other than Him to rely on.  The Sultan’s arrival represents Gnostic recognition and how it is the key to abundance. Abundance is a state of being rather than a physical phenomenon, therefore it is irrelevant what form it comes in. It lies in the satisfaction that accompanies every moment of remembrance, and the awareness of God’s hand in everything.


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Posted by on June 21, 2013 in Poetry, Rants, Spirituality


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