by Noora Kamel
Farid ud-Din Attar’s Conference of the Birds is an allegorical poem elaborating on the nature of mystical experience and the stages on a wayfarer’s path to the Divine. Using an overarching story of the hoopoe bird of Solomon who convinces a host of other birds to undertake a spiritual journey, ‘Attar maps out the human weaknesses that must be overcome before such a quest, as well as the arduous obstacles one will need to overcome to reach the goal. At each step of the journey, ‘Attar uses countless smaller tales within the frame story to underscore the point being made; cautionary tales warn of the dangers of worldly attachment, while stories of lovers and their beloveds illustrate the relationship that should exist between seeker and God. The poem gives a detailed presentation of a number of elements of the Sufi experience.
The seven valleys of spiritual stages, or maqamat, in ‘Attar’s poem, skillfully describe the stages in Sufi doctrine of the tariqa, or pathway to God, while the hoopoe’s role as guide for the birds and the relationship between Shaykh Sam’an and his disciples elaborate on the nature of master-disciple relationships. ‘Attar’s description of the seven valleys can best be described as stages or maqamat on the path to the Divine. As Ernst notes, different Sufis gave a different number of maqamat on the path, ranging from four to over a hundred. The number usually depended on the number of the stages that the author himself passed through, and each had to be overcome before advancing to the next stage (Ernst, 1997, p.102-3).
‘Attar’s poem describes seven maqamat: Quest, Love, Insight into Mystery, Detachment, Unity, Bewilderment and Poverty and Nothingness, which correspond to some of the maqamat mentioned in other Sufi texts. For example, ‘Attar’s valley of Love corresponds to al-Kalabadhi’s descriptions of the Sufi doctrine of love. Both ‘Attar and al-Kalabadhi describe the station of love as one in which the seeker is consumed wholly by love. al-Kalabadhi notes that the feature of this state is that one will not have any attention to give to any other creature, rather, one’s focus will be wholly absorbed by God (trans. Arberry, 1935, p.103). Similarly, ‘Attar claims the lover “...knows of neither faith nor blasphemy... who has no time for doubt or certainty” (trans. Darbandi & Davis, 1984 p. 172).
Thus both authors suggest that reaching the maqam of love involves attaining a level of oblivion to all besides God. This is further exemplified in the stories associated with the Valley of Love in‘Attar’s poem. The man in love with a beer seller defines lover as one who will sell all he owns and do anything at all for the sake of being near the beloved (‘Attar, p. 173). Majnoun expresses a similar sentiment when he risks his life for the merest glimpse of Leili; this supports al-Kalabadhi’s description of the lover being someone who prefers the beloved to all else in existence (al-Kalabadhi, trans.Arberry, 1935, p.102). Another aspect of the Valley of Love is that it includes achieving a state of intoxification with God. al-Kalabadhi describes the Sufi doctrine of intoxification as that state in which the lover finds both wealth and poverty, good and bad, are equal in worthlessness in the face of overwhelming awareness of the beloved. In other words, all consciousness of the material world falls away and is solely focused on the object of love (Doctrines of the Sufis, al-Kalabadhi, trans Arberry, p.110-1). Thus, Majnoun’s consideration of the ragged sheepskin as being worth the same as a lavish cloak, and the both insignificant compared with love for Leili, exemplifies this. The idea that both pain and pleasure are of equal worth to the intoxicated is expressed in ‘Attar’s lines, “...poverty in love is like salt...It gives love taste; you can’t call that a fault” (trans. Darbandi & Davis, p. 175).
This matches al-Kalabadhi’s description of the state of intoxification as being one in which pain brings pleasure and is chosen over pleasure (al-Kalabadhi, trans. Arberry, p 110-1). Love is also an integral part of the next valley in ‘Attar’s seven, that of ma’rifa, or gnosis. Here ‘Attar continues the theme of the lover by recounting the stories of the sleeping lover and the wakeful lover. Sincere love is described as having the ability to unveil hidden secrets about God, should the lover remain steadfast in his love. However, ‘Attar differs in his order here from other Sufi orderings of the way stations on the path. For example, al-Qushayri puts Love after Gnosis, instead of before as ‘Attar does (Ernst p.104). For Ansari, the maqam of Love comes many stations before the attainment of Gnosis, which occurs just a few stations from the end of his long list (Ernst p. 105-6). Again, this illustrates the different nuances of mystical experience, underscoring that each person will take a different route to the Divine. ‘Attar himself states this in the Valley of Insight, saying that it is a place where “every pilgrim takes a different way...and different spirits different rules obey” (‘Attar, trns. Darbandi & Davis, p. 179).
‘Attar also suggests that some element of intoxication is present at this stage of the path, as intoxication will lead to a love that will open the doors of ma’rifa for the seeker (ibid. p. 183). This is also supported by Ibn Tufayl’s assertions about the nature of mystical experience, as put for in his introduction to Hayy ibn Yaqzan, that it is a highly individual and idiosyncratic experience that defies description in human words (Ibn Tufayl, trans Goodman, 2009, p.95-7) .
‘Attar’s Valley of Detachment corresponds in some ways with the Sufi doctrine of detachment elaborated on by al-Kalabadhi. al-Kalabadhi describes this stage as one in which all care of this world falls away, and one should act without any anticipation of reward or otherwise, but solely act for God. This detachment should even be carried to the point of becoming oblivious to one’s states as well. Thus everything in existence becomes worthless to oneself,
* Al-Qushayri's Epistle On Sufism By Abu'l-Qasim al-Qushayri