The conference of the birds by farid attar is a vividly metaphoric and inspiring story of a group of birds in search of their king, Simurgh. The story is focused on their journey through seven valleys:
- The Valley of Yearning
- The Valley of Love
- The Valley of mystic Understanding
- The Valley of Independence and Detachment
- The Valley of Unity
- The Valley of Bewilderment
- The Valley of Fulfillment in Annihilation (Attar, 13)
In each, the birds are faced with an enigmatic challenge that characterizes that particular valley. These challenges are earmarks of the Sufi metaphysical tradition and are crucial in Attar’s explanation of the “Way”. This concept follows the doctrine that,
“the soul is trapped within the cage of the body but can, by looking inward, recognize its essential affinity with God; the awakened soul, guided by God’s grace, can progress along a ‘Way’ which leads to annihilation in God” (Attar, 11)
There are a few poignant subtleties to recognize here. Firstly, there is a distinction of a Way, not the Way, which signifies that there is a multiplicity of paths, unique to each individual which include similarities but are not identical in linearity of self-discovery. Secondly, there is mentioned the imagery of the physical body as a prison or a cage. This illuminates the dichotomy between the material world and the existential existence of God. Sheik Muzaffer Ozak adds,
“The Path of Sufism is the elimination of any intermediaries between the individual and God. The goal is to act as an extension of God, not to be a barrier” (Ozak, Love is the Wine, 1).
Attar uses the imagery of God’s shadow in a similar way. Thirdly, the idea of annihilation in God is an important concept (in many ways the most difficult to fully grasp) and marks the culmination of the spiritual quest. What is key to recognize here is that annihilation and death do not equate to the cessation of being, in fact, they mark the beginning of a new existence in God and the everlasting discovery of the infinite nature of reality. Sufi scholar and leader, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, stressed this distinction in his work, ihya’ ‘ulum al-din, translated to,The Revival of the Religious Sciences, when he wrote:
“The breadth of the knowledge of God is only comparable with the heavens and the earth. it leads the gaze beyond all measurable quantities for its extent is infinite. The initiate ceaselessly acquires such knowledge in paradise… In those gardens he travels and picks their fruit. He sips from their cisterns. He is safe from any cessation since the fruits of this garden are neither finite nor forbidden. The pleasure is everlasting; death does not sever it, for death does not destroy the substrate of the knowledge of God. Its locus is the spirit which is a divine and heavenly thing. Death alters only its circumstances, death frees it from its captivity, but as for annihilating it? Absolutely not!” (Ormsby, Ghazali, 138).
Keeping in mind that Ghazali is using the word, annihilate, to signify the cessation of existence, and not divine unity with God in the way Attar uses it, we come to see that the two scholars agree not only in the “captivity” that defines the material world, but also in the True existence of God that awaits beyond. These notions are critical in the Sufi tradition, as Sheik Ozak says, “The four ways to faith are: knowledge of something, sight of something, being in something, becoming something” (Ozak, Love is the Wine, 3). A path followed by the birds in Attar’s classic.
The Conference of the Birds was a great text for our class in Turkey. Attar’s precise and entertaining style of writing, while easy to read and stay focused on, remains highly effective in conveying complex notions of reality and the nature of God. This story is one that opened our class’ eyes to the beauty of the Sufi tradition, the subtleties of the Islamic religion and the benevolence of the Muslim population as a whole.