The Conference of the Birds: An epic 4,500 line poem

Farid al-Din ‘Attar’s Conference of the Birds (Mantiq al-tayr), is still considered to be the finest example of Sufi poetry in the Persian language after that of Rumi.

Written in the mathnawi style (rhyming couplets), the Conference of the Birds is a 4,500 line poem that traces the journey of thirty birds through seven valleys to find their mythical king, Simurgh, a cosmic bird of ancient Iranian mythology, who turns out to be their real Self.

This epic masterpiece has also enjoyed several musical and theatrical adaptations in the West while its stories are common subjects of illustration in Persian miniature painting.

Born in Nishapur in northeastern Iran around 1142, Farid al-Din ‘Attar is one of the most celebrated poets of Sufi literature who inspired the work of many later mystical poets. He composed six major works of poetry and one prose, Tadhkirat al-awliya’, or Memoirs of the Saints, which comprises a monumental anthology in Persian of biographies of famous Sufis. All of his works are devoted to Sufism, incorporating mystical elements.

‘Attar’s Book of Adversity (Musibat-namah) recounts the Sufi path, following the voyage of the ‘Pilgrim of Thought’ (salik-i fikrat) through the mineral, vegetable, animal, human, and angelic realms. He appeals to forty mythical beings for help, asking questions along the way, until at last he is directed to Prophet Muhammad, who gives him the answers he needs to set him on the right road.

His Divine Book (Ilahi-namah) relates the story of a king who asks his six sons what they desire most; they all ask for worldly things. The king exposes their vanity in a series of anecdotes. The Book of Selections (Mukhtar-namah) is a collection of over 2,000 quatrains (ruba‘i) arranged in 50 chapters according to various mystical themes.

The painting from the manuscript illustrates the beginning of Attar's mystic allegory where the birds begin their pilgrimage in search of the Simurgh. Image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The painting from the manuscript illustrates the beginning of Attar’s mystic allegory where the birds begin their pilgrimage in search of the Simurgh.
Image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Best known for his often-translated masterpiece the Conference of the Birds (Mantiq al-tayr), his verse is still considered to be the finest example of Sufi poetry in the Persian language after that of Rumi. Written in the mathnawi style ((rhyming couplets), the Conference of the Birds is a 4,500 line poem that traces the journey of thirty birds through seven valleys to find their mythical king, Simurgh, a cosmic bird of ancient Iranian mythology, who turns out to be their real Self. This epic masterpiece has also enjoyed several musical and theatrical adaptations in the West while its stories are common subjects of illustration in Persian miniature painting.

References:
Professor Hermann Landolt, Farid al-Din ‘Attar, The Institute of Ismaili Studies
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Research by Nimira Dewji


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