The masnavfs of Attar

Farld ad-Din 'Attar was probably a slightly younger contemporary of Nizaml's. It is unknown whether the two poets, who spent their apparently uneventful lives in different parts of Persia, knew about each other's works. However, they do have at least two things in common: they made important contributions to the tradition of the mystical masnavl, and they were both great storytellers. Of one of 'Attar's poems it could even be said that it resembles the romantic stories of NizamI: the Khusrau-nama tells about the adventures of a fictitious pair of lovers, without giving any clue to a mystical connotation. The other works of 'Attar, however, are purely mystical works in which narration plays a major role as a means to conveying the theoretical concepts in the more accessible form of a parable.

There is, however, a problem of another kind facing the student of 'Attar's works. If we were to believe the evidence of the attributions occurring in most manuscripts, 'Attar would have been an exceptionally prolific writer of didactical masnavls. The complete list comprises about twenty titles. Serious doubts about the authenticity of several of these works were voiced for the first time by the Persian scholar Sa'ld Naflsl in 1941. He was able to trace a number of them to another poet who also names himself 'Attar, but actually lived in the second of the fifteenth century, that is two-and-a-half centuries later than Farld ad-Din, the pharmacist of Nishapur. Moreover, this other 'Attar reveals himself to be a fervent Shi'ite, whereas his older namesake left no doubt about his adherence to the tenets of the Sunni majority. The odd thing is that the fifteenth century author occasionally poses as if he really were Farld ad-Din 'Attar. We must therefore conclude that this is not a case of wrong attribution, but of deliberate mystification.15

Apart from these notoriously unauthentic poems, the list of 'Attar's works also contains a few titles the true authorship of which has been put into doubt by modern scholars mainly on stylistic grounds. The most important of the latter is Ushtur-nama, 'The Book of the Camel', an extensive masnavl in two parts relating the quest of mystical travellers who are compared to camels in the caravan of the pilgrimage to Mecca. In the introduction of the poem the image of a Turkish puppet player who performs with seven curtains is used as a symbol of the Creator and the Universe.16 In all the works of this group, to which also Bisar-nama ('The Book of the Beheaded') and Haylaj-nama17 belong, the poet's devotion to the mystical martyr Mansur al-Hallaj is a central theme.

The group which is unquestionably authentic consists mainly of four poems of more or less equal length. These four were chosen by the German scholar Hellmut Ritter as the sources for his monumental study on 'Attar, Das Meer der Seele. Mensch,

Welt und Gott in den Geschichten des Fariduddin Attar ('The

Ocean of the Soul. Man, World and God in the stories of Fariduddin 'Attar'). As the title indicates, Ritter based his analysis on the narratives to be found in these poems. From the wealth of references contained especially in the shorter tales and anecdotes a masterful picture of the spirituality of a mystic of 'Attar's age is drawn.

'Attar's great interest in narrative art is noticeable first of all in the use of the device of a frame story in three of these four poems. This device came to Persia from India in the late Sasanian period with the translation of collections of fables such as the Kalila va Dimna. To Western readers it is familiar from the tale of Shehrazade's story-telling, which binds together the collection of popular tales in the Arabian Nights. Stories of this kind were often rather sketchy, having little function besides providing the required coherence to the subject matter of a book of stories. 'Attar's choice of stories for this purpose was, however, much more sophisticated. In each case the encompassing tale is meaningful in its own right so that their summaries provide valuable indications about the poet's ideas.

To the general reader in the West, Mantiq at-tayr ('The Speech of the Birds', sometimes also called Maqamat at-tuyur, 'The Stages of the Birds') is by far the best known. This is due mainly to the nineteenth-century French translation by Garcin de Tassy, which was translated many times over into other Western languages.18

In the Mantiq at-tayr, the story of the frame work was taken from a symbolic tale about birds, which in the twelfth century had been told in Arabic and Persian prose respectively by

Muhammad and Ahmad Ghazall. The use of the bird as a

symbol of the human soul, implied in that story, is even attested earlier in philosophical allegories among the writings of Ibn Slna (d. 1037) in Arabic poetry and prose. In 'Attar's poem, the plot turns essentially on the search for the perfect representative of a category of beings, be it birds or humans. One day, the birds gather to discuss the choice of a king under whose authority they could unite in spite of all their differences. The lead is taken by the hoopoe (hudhud), who reveals that the real 'Sultan of the birds' is the miraculous bird Slmurgh nestling at the end of the world. The birds are thrilled by his description of the glory of this sovereign and ask the hoopoe how the journey to the Slmurgh's court could be made. Then a voice is heard warning them of the mortal dangers of this quest, and one after another the birds excuse themselves from such a perilous enterprise. In the end, only a small group sets out under the guidance of the hoopoe. The journey leads them through a desert with seven valleys; their names betray what is meant by this itinerary: 'search', 'love', 'gnosis' (ma'rifat), 'being self-contained' (istighna), 'confession of unity' (tauhid), 'bewilderment', and 'poverty'. The stages remind of the manazil, the succession of states in the classical training of the Sufis, but there are significant differences. The process outlined by 'Attar has a meaning of its own, which is the gradual initiation to the Divine essence of the Slmurgh and the preparation for the final encounter. The journey is extremely arduous and causes many casualties among the birds. Eventually, only thirty birds (in Persian sï murgh) reach the Slmurgh; on the basis the popular etymology of the miraculous bird's name this amounts to finding their own essence. Even this is not the end of their plight because they are not admitted to the inaccessible court before they have laid down all illusions about themselves and the world, and have reached a state of absolute indigence. When in the end an audience is granted, the Slmurgh teaches them that true salvation can only be reached in the afterlife. In anticipation of that blissful state they are urged to clean their souls, to pray to God and to remember His Name.

The story is full of allusions to motifs and images which were quite familiar to the educated reader of 'Attar's days. The very title of the poem was taken from the Koran (Sura xxvii, 16), where Solomon boasts of his knowledge of the 'speech of the birds'. The hoopoe also belongs to the saga of Solomon, where he is the king's messenger to Bilqls, the queen of Sheba. The seven valleys not only recall the stages of the Sufi path, but also the route through the Arabian desert to be followed on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Moreover, if imagined as going into a vertical direction, they correspond to the ascent through the Ptolemaean spheres which, as we have seen, was a standard analogy of the climb to a perfected state of being. The figure of Slmurgh was borrowed from the ancient epic tradition of Persia.19

The other narratives in the poem are usually told by one of the characters of the frame story, especially by the hoopoe when he answers the questions of the other birds. Here as well as in the other poems ' Attàr avails himself of the mass of stories current in medieval Islam. Being the author of a great collection of hagiographies of Sufi saints, Tazkirat al-auliyd, he was well versed in that particular branch of narrative. Important are also stories about Muhammad, his companions and the other prophets recognised by Islam. There are numerous other anecdotes and anonymous tales derived from written sources, from an oral tradition or perhaps invented by 'Attàr himself.

One story stands out from all the others. First through its exceptional length: with more than 400 distichs it is almost a short masnavl by itself. It also serves as an important pivot in the structure of the poem; the hoopoe tells it when he is winding up of his argument and the birds are about to venture upon their search. Finally, it amply illustrates an idea expressed repeatedly by 'Attar: the demand for a radical elimination of the awareness of self. Essentially the same thought is preached by the Slmurgh at the conclusion of the poem.

In the holy precinct of Mecca once lived a very famous Sufi Master by the name of Sheikh San'an (in some early manuscripts of the Mantiq at-tayr he is called Sam'an), a mystic whose historical identity is uncertain.20 He is the revered teacher of four-hundred pupils, who all are already accomplished mystics themselves. One night he dreams of a very beautiful Christian girl, who lives in Byzantine Anatolia. The Sheikh cannot put her image out of his mind, and all of a sudden he leaves Mecca to seek her. When he finds the girl, she makes the fulfilment of his amorous wish dependent on a number of conditions, all of which signify the renunciation of Islam and all the Sheikh's pious principles. At the bottom of his descent into utter degradation, he becomes the girl's swineherd. In the meantime, a group of faithful adepts sets out to look for him. They find him in this wretched state. Their prayer for God's help is answered. The Sheikh has a vision of the Prophet Muhammad and, after a vigil of forty days, he is freed from his obsession. He converts the girl to Islam just before she dies. To explain this strange adventure he reveals to the adepts that, in spite of his advanced mystical stage, a serious obstacle had remained on his path: the esteem in which he held his own piety. Such a trace of selfishness could only be removed by the experience of sin in its most abject form. This idea is identical to the antinomian ideas expressed in the qalandari poetry discussed in the previous chapter.

The Ilahi-nama contains the story of a Caliph and his seven sons who are filled with high ambitions. One day the father asks each of them about his most cherished wishes. As it appears, the princes all have set their minds on something which belongs to

the sphere of fairy tales and folklore: the princess of the Peris, the cup of the ancient king Jamshld, the magic ring of Solomon, the elixir of the alchemist and so on. The Caliph fulfils each one of their wishes, as he had promised, but not in the way the sons had expected it. With the help of tales fitting his argument, he convinces his sons that their aspirations for sensual pleasure, power, riches and other values of this world should be turned into the strive for higher aims. They should learn to understand their desires as .emblems of the successive stages along the path towards the mystical goal. There the body will be transformed through a spiritual alchemy into a heart, and this heart will be filled with the pain of mystical love. Beyond this, 'Attar concludes, there are more secrets, but the divulgence of these is only permitted on the gallows - a clear reference to the martyrdom of 'Attar's spiritual hero Mansur al-Hallaj. The allegorical meaning of this plot is explained right from the beginning: the Caliph personifies the human spirit; the six sons stand for the faculties and inclinations of the soul.

A straightforward allegory is also the Musfbat-nama, 'The Book of Affliction'. Introducing the poem, 'Attar explains how this poem should be read: as a story told in zaban-i hal, the 'speech of condition'. Although the story would be false if it were judged by the rules of 'ordinary speech' (zaban-i qal), it contains in fact the very truth. By way of an alternative he proposes to call the former 'speech of meditation' (zaban-i fikrat). The technique to which 'Attar refers consists of using various items, concrete as well as abstract, as emblems who explain their own special qualities in a symbolic manner.

The leading character is a mere allegorical shadow, the personification of meditation as a 'traveller' (salik). The 'affliction' mentioned in the title of the poem could perhaps best be characterised as an 'existential crisis': the meditating subject travels around the universe in search of his identity as a human being. He is motivated by the observation of the world and its inhabitants, including mystics, Sufis and ascetics, who try in vain to find the right answers to their queries. In his deepest despair, Divine Help sends him a 'living pir' who guides his quest for the truth about himself. The journey on which they set out comprises both outer and inner strata of the universe. There are forty stages - the number of the days and nights of a Sufi vigil. It is worthwhile to describe here the entire itinerary because also in this poem the frame story reveals much of the poet's intentions.

The journey follows a double track: first, a descent from the transcendental to the material world, and then an ascent which amounts to a return towards spiritual spheres of existence. This conforms to the view of human life in this world as a cycle. In each half of the cycle several sequences can be distinguished as follows:

A. The descending curve:

1. The realm of the archangels: Gabriel (the Messenger of God), Asrafll (the Angel of the Ressurrection), Michael (the Sustainer of Life) and 'Azra'll (The Angel of Death).

2. The transcendental entities which belong to traditional Islamic lore: God's Throne, the Platform (supporting the Throne), the Table of Destiny, the Pen of the Divine Decree, Paradise and Hell.

3. The astral heavens: the Firmament, the Sun and the Moon.

4. The elements and major forms of the lower world: Fire, Air, Water, Earth, the Mountains and the Sea.

B. The ascending curve:

1. The kingdoms of the lower world: Minerals, Plants, Wild Animals, Birds, Cattle, the Devil (Iblls), Demons and Man.

2. The Prophets as they are recognised by Islam: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus and Muhammad.

3. The divisions of human psyche: the Senses, Imagination, Intellect, the Heart and the Soul (Ruh).

The traveller and his guide pay a visit to each item, which then provides the emblematic explanations proper to its nature. These are interpreted each time by the pir at the hand of parables and anecdotes. The climax of the story is reached just before the last series of visits when they meet with the Prophet of Islam. Only Muhammad is able to provide the right answer to the traveller's question by showing him that the way towards knowledge of the Divine passes through knowledge of one's own self.

The design of this allegory has been compared with the Islamic idea of the mediation between man and God assigned to the Prophet, which is expressed by the Arabic term shafaa. There is also some resemblance to the use of allegory by Sana'! in the Sayr al-'ibad ilal-ma'ad as far as the figure of the guide and the metaphysical itinerary are concerned.

The proper chronology of 'Attar's works has not yet been established. There remain, for instance, conflicting opinions about the date of the Asrar-nama ('The Book of Secrets'). According to

Christiane Tortel, the French translator of this poem, it would be the work of his old age, but Andrew Boyle considered it to be o o the first of the four mystical poems. Whatever the case may be, an early dating of the poem would provide a better explanation for the fact that this is the only of 'Attar's four poems lacking a frame story. Although it is divided into chapters, it is written in the same homiletic form which was used earlier by Sana'l and Nizaml. This might be an argument in favour of the assumption that 'Attar wrote the Asrar-nama before the narrative gained such an overwhelming importance in his didactical poetry.

In order to give an impression of the particular style of this poem we will examine here part of his discourse. The passage is taken from the beginning of the sixth chapter (the division into chapters is a rather arbitrary one; headings which could give a suggestion of the central idea dealt with in each case are lacking).

The poet starts to denounce the world for its delusive nature. However immense the world may appear to the eye, in reality it is not the sea itself but merely the froth on the surface; it is a fantasy, a ghost as a child might see in a piece of glass. The true source of the secrets dealt with in this poem should be sought far above this world, near the Throne of God. 'Attar adduces the example of the Arabic alphabet which is meaningless in itself. All the curves of the letters are merely a screen hiding their emptiness. One could learn this already from the first letter, the alift which is written as a straight vertical line; moreover, the alif is the essential letter of the Arabic word la, 'no'. This word his a special significance as it is the word opening the first part of the Muslim creed: 'There is no god but Allah.'

A new theme is introduced when the comment of a pious man on the amdnat, 'the burden of trust', is cited. By this, reference is made to a verse in the Koran which was very popular with the Sufi poets: 'We offered the burden of trust to the Heavens and the Earth and the Mountains, but they refused to carry it and recoiled from it. Man has carried it. He is truly an ignorant sinner' (Sura xxxiii, 72). The mystic in this short tale concludes from this verse that man, by accepting God's amdnat, has forfeited his life.

On the one side there is the unworthiness of the world; on the other side the awesome task God has imposed on the human being in spite of all his shortcomings. This assignment, 'Attar continues, can only be fulfilled by those who are willing to 'lose their head'. By this the supreme act of self-denial is meant which in the tradition of Sufism is connected with the name of Hallaj.

A dream is related which shows Hallaj carrying both his severed head and a cup filled with rosewater. This, so he declares, is the cup of welcome bestowed by the 'King with the Good Name' on those who sacrificed their heads.

Only by forgetting about your own head, 'Attar explains, you may hope to be able to drink from the cup of 'meaning', which will transform all that was body into soul and thus enable you to loose yourself entirely in the 'Name'. (This turn of the discourse is made with the help of a pun on the Arabic words jism, 'body' and ism, 'name'.)

Another parable, illustrating the same point of 'Attar's argument, tells about a proud king who, passing by a road with all his pomp and circumstance, sees a poor man without any care in the world at the side of the road and asks him: 'Would you not rather be me?' The poor man replies: 'My deepest wish is to be not me.'

As this paraphrase of a passage of no more than thirty lines shows, the dense use of imagery, word-play and a few illustrative tales enables the didactical poet to express a connected line of profound mystical thoughts quite effectively within a very small compass. The great art of this homiletic style lies not so much in the attractiveness of the narratives, which are usually very short indeed, but in the flashing movement of the poet's discourse from one theme to another. It was this style as it is exemplified in the Asrar-nama which characterised both the didactical poetry of 'Attar's predecessor Sana'! and that of his successor Maulana Jalal ad-Din Ruml. %

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