“like wind through outstretched fingers you will pass.”
The Conference of The Birds, written by the 12th Century Sufi poet, Farid Ud-Din Attar, tells the mystical story of the birds in search of a king. As the world’s birds congregate, a hoopoe, the wisest among them, suggests only the Simorgh will suffice as their leader. Thus, with the hoopoe as their spiritual guide, the birds embark to seek him. Along the journey however, the hawk, the owl, the heron and many others raise their objections to the journey, citing difficulty, lack of faith and material attachment. To each the hoopoe responds with Sufi wisdom and an allegory to reiterate his point. Of all the world’s birds only 30 successfully cross the seven valleys to finally face the Simorgh. In this monumental piece of prose, Attar captures the essence of Sufi yearning. In it he encapsulates man’s struggle with the material world and our attempts to connect with the divine. Whilst the book is abundant in profound insights, this post will focus on select lines, looking at what they mean and their spiritual importance.
“First He will humble you in dust and mire,
and then bestow the glory you desire.
Be nothing first! And then you will exist,
you cannot live while life and Self persist –
Till you reach Nothingness you cannot see
the Life you long for in eternity.”
A main precept of Sufism is to lose the Self, only once this is done can man truly connect with God. To put this another way, before one can go through the doors of perception the ego must be deconstructed. This ego, as we know it, stands as a barrier between the physical and metaphysical self, our higher consciousness and our impulsive, primal instincts. This notion is something commonly presented by a plethora of modern self help books – hardly surprising considering much of these books borrow from spiritual and religious texts. What the Self, or the ego, essentially come to represent is our attachment to all that is grounded in the material world, to all that is transient as opposed to the eternal. Yet, at the same time one must not disregard a central part of our being. As C.S Lewis rightly points out, we are indeed “spiritual animals”. We possess all the primal urges of the animal kingdom but also, at the same time, a higher, more divine consciousness. Perhaps, in order to access our own divinity, to become nothing, man must first move away from his animalistic traits, or at the very least learn to control them.
“If it is for paradise for which you pray
you can be sure that you have lost your way.”
A timeless critique of the guilt and reward based systems of many religious institutions by Attar. Sufism is a move away from doctrine to a more spiritual branch of belief, one where God and love surpass all other practices.
“Once someone cried to God: “Lord , let me see
the door between us opened unto me!”
And Rabe’eh said: “Fool to chatter so –
when has the door been closed , I’d like to know?”
As a spiritual philosophy, one need not even be a Muslim to become a Sufi. In this sense Sufism is more inline with Eastern philosophy than the Abrahamic religions. Here, Attar highlights that God is always within our grasp, it is we who choose to close the door – something later echoed by Rumi, who states that doubting the existence of God is like the fish debating the existence of the sea.
“When Socrates lay close to death, a youth –
who was his student in the search for Truth –
Said: “Master, when we’ve washed the man we knew
and brought your shroud, where should we bury you?”
He said: “If you can find me when I’ve died,
Then bury me wherever you decide –
I never found myself; I cannot see
How when I’m dead you could discover me.
Throughout my life not one small particle
Had any knowledge of itself at all!”
An interesting allegory, do we ever really know ourselves? That is, our true, higher selves, that silent awareness who experiences our thoughts and observes all feeling yet remains distinctly separate from the physical self.
“A fish will draw you by its breath – a mighty whale,
vast but invisible from head to tail,
who deep in solitude delights to swim
and by his breathing draws the world to him.”
A connection to nature features strongly in Sufism, particularly in the works of Attar’s successor, Rumi. In this sense, the Sufi way intersects with Taoist teachings. In this passage, the Whale is symbolic of God. With his mighty breath the world is drawn to him. “Vast but invisible”, a comment on man’s attraction to something greater than himself he cannot see but rather feel.
The seven valleys which the birds must pass before reaching the Simorgh:
The Valley of the Quest
The Valley of Love
The Valley of Mystery
The Valley of Detachment and Serenity
The Valley of Unity
The Valley of Awe
The Valley of Bewilderment
The Valley of Poverty and Nothingness
Note how the valleys develop through positive experiences such as love, mystery, unity and awe but ultimately end with bewilderment and poverty. This is an interesting commentary on the human condition. Many birds make it through the initial valleys but falter once tested. In the same way, many want to become spiritual but are unwilling to suffer. An uncomfortable truth, but a pertinent one, the path to any form of development is dotted with struggle. The nature of such a path ultimately separates those birds worthy and unworthy of the Simorgh.
After an arduous journey, only 30 birds make it to face their King:
“A new life flows towards them from that bright
celestial and ever-living Light –
Their souls rose free of all they’d been before;
the past and all its actions were no more.
Their life came from that close, insistent sun
and in its vivid rays they shone as one.
There in the Simorgh’s radiant face they saw
themselves, the Simorgh of the world – with awe
they gazed, and dared at last to comprehend
they were the Simorgh and the jouney’s end.
They see the Simorgh – at themselves they stare,
and see a second Simorgh standing there;
they look at both and see the two are one,
that this is that, that this, the goal is won.
They ask (but inwardly; they make no sound)
the meaning of these mysteries that confound
their puzzled ignorance – how is it true
that ‘we’ is not distinguished here from ‘you’?
As silently their shining Lord replies:
‘I am a mirror set before your eyes,
and all who come before My splendour see
themselves, their own reality.”
This, for me, is the most profound part of the entire book. After many perils and much hardship the steadfast 30 birds pass through the Valley of Nothingness to face the Simorgh. However, all are shocked to be confronted with something they did not expect. All had expected a king in the conventional sense, how one might meet a king in the world, one they could prostrate before. Yet, anticipating to be blinded by his divine light, “they shone as one”, they equally were the light. Whats more, “there in the Simorgh’s radiant face they saw themselves, the Simorgh of the world.” All along, the birds of the world were seeking God though they had been, unknowingly, the gods of the world. Only once they shed the kernel of flesh did they access their internal divinity, the higher self. Perhaps, this is what is really meant, when Christians say man is made in God’s image.
It is therefore, entirely plausible that we have misinterpreted religion and the nature of God almost entirely. A critique often made by Atheistic circles is one surrounding God’s ego – a God who craves worship, followers and sacrifice cannot be omnipotent or worthy. Yet, this projection of the human ego is unwarranted. God has no use for an ego because it is almost entirely a survival tool for the preservation of the physical body. (Hence, why the deconstruction of one’s ego features heavily in all spiritual practice). To put it simply, we do not become righteous to please God, rather this process is undergone to become like God, to share in His divinity. C.S Lewis on God’s purpose for us encapsulates this prospect:
“Now get on with it. Become a god.”
A glance at Luke (12:21) further underpins this interpretation; “The Kingdom of God is within you. John (4:16) reiterates; “He who abides in love abides in God, and God in him.” This is very much in line with the Simorgh’s own words; “…all who come before My splendour see themselves, their own reality.”
The viewing of religion in a material sense necessitates that God be a bearded man in the sky. Yet, Sufism, and the rethinking of scripture under a Sufi light, proposes that God is God but also is the metaphysical soul, the higher consciousness that resides within each of us, that part of us which exudes love, kindness and compassion – a difficult notion to grasp in a world where science is tasked with separating what is and what is not.
“how is it true, that ‘we’ is not distinguished here from ‘you’?”
Surely, no one object can also be another? At a glance, this appears true. But intellectualism and logic do have their limitations and one must, in some instances, look to absurdity for understanding in spiritual matters. As water resides within a vessel, perhaps the divine resides in us. That does not make us a meaningless piece of pottery. After all, the water would not be contained in the shape it is without the vessel. Thus, the pot and the water it contains are one, but also separate. For, neither would be the same without the other. Now, this is not a case of idolatry or focusing worship on humans. It is rather an acknowledgement of the deep, unifying trace of the divine which flows through every living thing. Its most common manifestation, which we as humans understand, is love; a universally powerful, infinite force that cloaks every inch of the universe – That sounds a lot like God to me.
Buy the book here.