The only things we know for sure about the life of Farid al-Din Attar are that he was a pharmacist and a native of Nishapur, Iran, where a monument to him that was built over his tomb at the end of the 15th century CE still stands. The best evidence that we have places his birth in Nishapur in either 1145 or 1146; and scholars seem to agree that he died in Nishapur when he was well over seventy years old, at the hands of Mongol invaders, in April of 1221. The legends which grew up around him once his fame as a poet and mystic began to spread in earnest in the 1400s tell us something about the high esteem in which others held him and his work, but—except for the fact of how he earned his living and his claim that he therefore did not have to write the eulogies and other panegyrics that court poets had to produce to earn their keep—the work itself reveals next to nothing about the details of his life.
Attar wrote six major works of poetry and one of prose. The prose work, Tadhkirat al-awliya (Memoirs of the Saints), is a collection of biographies of famous Sufis. The poetic works are Asrar-nama (Book of Mysteries), Mantiq al-tayr (The Conference of the Birds), Mushibat-nama (Book of Adversity), Mukhtar-nama (Book of Selections), Divan (Collected Poems), and the book portions of which I will be translating, Ilahi-nama (Book of the Divine). Recognized masterpieces though they are, none of these books earned Attar much recognition outside of Nishapur during his lifetime. Only after he died, in the second half of the thirteenth century, did people start to pay attention in earnest to Memoirs of the Saints, and, as mentioned above, it was not until the 15th century that his fame as a mystic, a poet and master of narrative really began to spread.
The more people valued Attar’s work, the more they told stories about him. There is, for example, a probably apocryphal tale about the time that Rumi’s family came to Nishapur when Rumi was still a child. Attar—who was by then already an old man—immediately recognized in the young Rumi a unique curiosity and intelligence. One day, according to this narrative, Attar saw Rumi following his father out of their house and said, “Look! There goes a sea chased by an ocean!” This story also has Attar giving Rumi a copy of his Book of Mysteries and, when Rumi’s family left Nishapur, saying to Rumi’s father, “One day your son will set fire to all forlorn hearts” (Moyne & Newman 28-29).
The desire that there should have been a meeting between Attar and Rumi, certainly one of the greatest poets Iran has ever produced, no doubt arose from Rumi’s own acknowledgment of Attar as one of his spiritual and literary masters. About Attar, for example, Rumi wrote the following:
Attar was the spirit;
Sanai, its two eyes.
I am their shadow.
Attar has toured the seven cities of love;
I am still at the turn of the first alley. (Quoted in Moyne & Newman 29)
Rumi, in other words, looked to Attar not only, and perhaps not even primarily, as a literary influence, but also as a spiritual one. Indeed, everything Attar wrote is devoted exclusively to Sufi practice and ideas. As Leonard Lewisohn and Christopher Shackle write in their introduction to Attar and the Persian Sufi Tradition: The Art of Spiritual Flight, “throughout all of [Attar’s] genuine collected works, there does not exist even one single verse without a mystical colouring [sic]; in fact, Attar dedicated his entire literary existence to Sufism” (xix). This spiritual focus lies at the root of Attar’s importance in both the East, where his stature and influence are comparable to that of John Milton in the West, and the West, where the translation and study of his work has not only influenced Western perceptions of Iran and, more generally, Islam, but has also inspired artists of all kinds.
The first work of Attar’s to be translated into English, in 1809 by the Reverend J. H. Hindley of Manchester College, was what we now know to be the apocryphal Pand-nama. Hindley translated it, according to Christopher Shackle, to help the British “colonial administrator [of India] get inside the Muslim mind-set [….]” (168). This colonialist agenda drove much of the translation of classical Iranian literature into English during the 1800s, and one can find it also, though not as explicitly expressed, in Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of The Conference of the Birds, the first authentic work of Attar’s to be brought into our language, and the only one to receive any substantive attention in the West. Fitzgerald’s translation was published by his literary executor in 1889. Most recently, in 1984, Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis published the only verse translation of the entire text.
The Conference of the Birds is about the mystical journey undertaken by thirty birds to find the Simorgh and achieve enlightenment. “Simorgh,” however, means “thirty birds” in Persian, and the point of the story is that the birds discover they are themselves the Simorgh, that enlightenment is already within them. The Conference of the Birds has sparked the imaginations of writers, poets, musicians and directors throughout the English-speaking world. American novelist Jeffrey Lewis, for example, published The Conference of the Birds: A Novel in 2005 (Other Press), while the Australian poet Anne Fairbairn recast Attar’s masterpiece in a contemporary Australian context in her book length poem, An Australian Conference Of The Birds (Black Pepper, 1995). As another example, the musical group Om recorded an album called Conference of the Birds in 2006; and the director Peter Brook, along with Jean-Claude Carriere, adapted The Conference of the Birds for the stage in a version that was published in 1982, a project for which the British poet Ted Hughes wrote one hundred poems based on Attar’s text (Heilpern 8).
Clearly, Farid al-Din Attar is a poet to be reckoned with. He is a central figure in the literature of Iran, and of Persian Sufism more specifically. Moreover his work has influenced the literary landscape of English in ways that continue to reverberate. The rest of Attar’s work deserves to take its place in English next to The Conference of the Birds, so that we can see what else he has to teach us and how else we might be inspired by what he has to say. My next post will be about Ilahi-Nameh, the book of Attar’s selections from which I will be translating.
Heilpern, John. Conference of the Birds: The Story of Peter Brook in Africa. Theatre Arts Book 1999
Lewisohn, Leonard & Christopher Shackle. Attar and the Persian Sufi Tradition: The Art of Spiritual Flight. London: I. B. Tauris 2006
Moyne, John A. & Richard Jeffrey Newman. A Bird in the Garden of Angels: On the Life and Times and An Anthology of Rumi. Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers 2007
Cross posted on It’s All Connected