Posted by: Tom Triumph | April 8, 2011

141. The Conference of the Birds: Farid ud-Din Attar

I am tired.

I just got home from a long day of parent conferences. Because we want to make ourselves available to parents, and understand that some parents find it difficult or cannot afford to take time off from work during the school day, we pile all of our conferences from noon until after eight in the evening. It makes for a long day.

Feeling punchy, I looked for a poem about parent conferences. Whenever I type in most school topics I get a slew of cutsie-pooh poems that are (to be honest) not poetry. Blah. I had little hope, but my lack of hope was rewarded with a poem from Persia that has nothing to do with parent conferences, but a conference of birds.

I’ll let Wikipedia fill in the plot:

The Conference of the Birds (Persian: منطق الطیر, Mantiqu ‘t-Tayr, 1177) is a book of poems in Persian by Farid ud-Din Attar of approximately 4500 lines. The poem uses a journey by a group of 30 birds, led by a hoopoe as an allegory of a Sufi sheikh or master leading his pupils to enlightenment….

The story recounts the longing of a group of birds who desire to know the great Simorgh, and who, under the guidance of a leader bird, start their journey toward the land of Simorgh. One by one, they drop out of the journey, each offering an excuse and unable to endure the journey. Each bird has a special significance, and a corresponding didactic fault. The guiding bird is the hoopoe, while the nightingale symbolizes the lover. The parrot is seeking the fountain of immortality, not God and the peacock symbolizes the “fallen soul” who is in alliance with Satan.

The birds must cross seven valleys in order to find the Simorgh: Talab (Yearning), Eshq (Love), Marifat (Gnosis), Istighnah (Detachment), Tawheed (Unity of God), Hayrat (Bewilderment) and, finally, Fuqur and Fana (Selflessness and Oblivion in God). These represent the stations that a Sufi or any individual must pass through to realize the true nature of God.

Within the larger context of the story of the journey of the birds, Attar masterfully tells the reader many didactic short, sweet stories in captivating poetic style. Eventually only thirty birds remain as they finally arrive in the land of Simorgh — all they see there are each other and the reflection of the thirty birds in a lake — not the mythical Simorgh. It is the Sufi doctrine that God is not external or separate from the universe, rather is the totality of existence. The thirty birds seeking the Simorgh realise that Simorgh is nothing more than their transcendent totality. The idea of God within is an idea intrinsic to most interpretations of Sufism. As the birds realize the truth, they now reach the station of Baqa (Subsistence) which sits atop the Mountain Qaf.

So, it really is about teaching. Go figure. The world is a strange, small place and poetry is at the center (yes, I’m a bit punchy).

The entire text is long, and on-line sources are hard to come by, or fragmented, or their translations have been criticized. The most noted is by Edward Fitzgerald, which can be found here. Still, if you look around you will find prose translations and detailed summaries and no one is clear how much is translation and how much is the translator’s take on it.

I offer up what Wikipedia claims are the four most famous lines (I am not ready for 4,500 at this time of night). They are… enigmatic. Let your problem solvers figure this out (koans are good for them). More important: so what? Delve into the concept of reflection. If, like me, you have a class moving onto the next level in June, have them relate it to their year with you.

The Conference of the Birds
Farid ud-Din Attar

Come you lost Atoms to your Centre draw,
And be the Eternal Mirror that you saw:
Rays that have wander’d into Darkness wide
Return and back into your Sun subside

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Responses

  1. Where is the poem

    • I apologize for not giving this epic its due. The entire text is long, and on-line sources are hard to come by, or fragmented, or their translations have been criticized. The most noted is by Edward Fitzgerald, which can be found here. Still, if you look around you will find prose translations and detailed summaries and no one is clear how much is translation and how much is the translator’s take on it.

      I offer up what Wikipedia claims are the four most famous lines. Again, I have not given this poem the justice it deserves, but I use what I need in my classroom.

      The Conference of the Birds
      Farid ud-Din Attar

      Come you lost Atoms to your Centre draw,
      And be the Eternal Mirror that you saw:
      Rays that have wander’d into Darkness wide
      Return and back into your Sun subside


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