Photo: Scene from The Conference of the Birds in a Persian miniature. The hoopoe, center right, instructs the other birds on the Sufi path.
Moths gathered in a fluttering throng one night
To learn the truth about the candle light,
And they decided one of them should go
To gather news of the elusive glow.
One flew till in the distance he discerned
A palace window where a candle burned --
And went no nearer: back again he flew
To tell the others what he thought he knew.
The mentor of the moths dismissed his claim,
Remarking: "He knows nothing of the flame."
A moth more eager than the one before
Set out and passed beyond the palace door.
He hovered in the aura of the fire,
A trembling blur of timorous desire,
Then headed back to say how far he'd been,
And how much he had undergone and seen.
The mentor said: "You do not bear the signs
Of one who's fathomed how the candle shines."
Another moth flew out -- his dizzy flight
Turned to an ardent wooing of the light;
He dipped and soared, and in his frenzied trance
Both self and fire were mingled by his dance --
The flame engulfed his wing-tips, body, head,
His being glowed a fierce translucent red;
And when the mentor saw that sudden blaze,
The moth's form lost within the glowing rays,
He said: "He knows, he knows the truth we seek,
That hidden truth of which we cannot speak."
To go beyond all knowledge is to find
That comprehension which eludes the mind,
And you can never gain the longed-for goal
Until you first outsoar both flesh and soul;
But should one part remain, a single hair
Will drag you back and plunge you in despair --
No creature's self can be admitted here,
Where all identity must disappear.
(Attar, Conference of the Birds)
'The Conference of the Birds'
By Farid Attar (Author)
Composed in the twelfth century in north-eastern Iran, Attar's great mystical poem is among the most significant of all works of Persian literature. A marvellous, allegorical rendering of the Islamic doctrine of Sufism - an esoteric system concerned with the search for truth through God - it describes the consequences of the conference of the birds of the world when they meet to begin the search for their ideal king, the Simorgh bird. On hearing that to find him they must undertake an arduous journey, the birds soon express their reservations to their leader, the hoopoe. With eloquence and insight, however, the hoopoe calms their fears, using a series of riddling parables to provide guidance in the search for spiritual truth. By turns witty and profound, The Conference of the Birds transforms deep belief into magnificent poetry.
Like Rumi and Hafiz, the name Attar conjures up images of passionate attraction to the divine. Attar was a Persian Sufi of the 12th century and his masterpiece is The Conference of the Birds, an epic allegory of the seeker's journey to God. When all the birds of the world convene and determine that they lack a king, one bird steps forward and offers to lead them to a great and mighty monarch. Initially excited, each bird falters in turn, whereupon the leader admonishes them with well-targeted parables. These pithy tales are the delight of this 4,500-line poem, translated deftly into rhymed couplets. What is your excuse for not seeking God? Your life is fine already? You prefer material pleasure? You are holy enough? You have pride, lack courage, or are burdened with responsibility? Attar has an answer to encourage you on the path to the promised land. And when you get there, the king may not be what you'd expect, but you must make the journey to see.