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Farid al-Din ‘Attar

This is an edited version of an article that appeared in Medieval Islamic Civilization, An Encyclopedia, Vol. I, p. 78-80, ed. Josef W. Meri published by Routledge New York-London in 2006. 
 

Abstract
Farid al-Din ‘Attar is one of the most famous mystic poets of Iran, and a contemporary of the philosophers/poets, Jalal al-Din Rumi and Nasir al-Din Tusi. One of his most well-known works, Mantiq al-Tayr, The Conference of the Birds, is a 4,500 line poem that traces the journey of 30 birds through seven valleys to find their mythical king, Simurgh. ‘Attar was born in Nishapur, Khorasan, in the Eastern province of Iran, where his tomb also lies.
 
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Key words:

Sufi, hagiographer, Nishapur, Mongol, Mawlana Rumi, mathnawi, Diwan, Mantiq al-Tayr, Khusraw-Nama, Gul-u-Hur­muz, Mukhtar­ Nama, Ilahi-Nama, Khusraw­Nama, Asrar-Nama, Maqamat al-Tuyur, Musibat-Nama, Tadhkirat al-Awliya, al-Hallaj, Simurgh, fikrat, mystical journey, soul, resurrection, death.

A celebrated Persian poet and Sufi hagiographer, ‘Attar lived during the second half of the twelfth century CE and the first two or three decades of the thirteenth century in or near Nishapur. According to the most commonly received scholarly opinion, he died during the Mongol sack of Nishapur in April 1221 CE, but 1230 CE also remains a possibility. Reliable biographical information about him is scarce, and many supposed autobiographical indications derive from works that have turned out to be spurious. It is nevertheless clear that he was known as an expert pharmacist. He appears to have had close ties with the well-known Sufi of Khwarazm, Majd al-Din Baghdadi (d. 1209 CE or later) or with one of his disciples, Ahmad Khwari, in Nishapur.

However, ‘Attar generally had very little to say about the Sufis of his own time, and he never mentioned anyone as his own Sufi master, whereas he obviously admired the great Sufi saints (awliya’) of the past. Unlike his famous counterpart among the Sufi poets, Mawlana Rumi (d. 1273 CE), he does not seem to have played any active role in organised Sufism. The oft-repeated story of ‘Attar meeting young Rumi in Nishapur belongs to the realm of succession myths (F.D. Lewis, 2000). The literary historian, Muhammad ‘Awfi, who visited Nishapur around 1200 CE, describes ‘Attar as a pious, withdrawn Sufi and a fine mystical poet. ‘Awfi cites examples from ‘Attar’s lyrical poetry but does not comment on his mathnawis (narrative poems). An­other early account comes from the Shi‘i scholar and philosopher Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (1201-1274 CE), who visited ‘Attar personally when he was a student in Nishapur. Tusi was impressed with the old poet’s “eloquence” and his way of interpreting the “dis­course of the [Sufi] masters, the knowers [of God] and the spiritual guides,” as he later put it to his stu­dent Ibn al-Fuwati (d. 1323 CE). The latter, in his report, adds a reference to ‘Attar’s complete collection of lyrical poetry (his “great Diwan”) and to one of his mathnawis, the “Mantiq al-Tayr.”

A number of works attributed to ‘Attar were in fact written by a later poet using the same pen name or have otherwise turned out to be falsely attributed to the famous ‘Attar. This applies not only to those works portraying him as a fervent Shi‘i but also to the so-called Khusraw-Nama (also known as Gul-u-Hur­muz), a romance that was regarded as authentic until recently, and the spuriousness of which has been con­vincingly demonstrated by contemporary Iranian scholarship (M.R. Shafi‘i-Kadkani, 1996 and 1999). ‘Attar’s authentic works include, in addition to the Diwan and a selection of quatrains titled Mukhtar­-Nama, four great mathnawis that are mentioned in the introduction to the latter work in the following order: “Ilahi-Nama” (properly called “Khusraw-­Nama”), “Asrar-Nama,” “Mantiq al-Tayr” (or “Maqamat al-Tuyur”), and “Musibat-Nama.” It is not clear whether this sequence also reflects their relative chronological order; references to the poet’s advanced age in the first two would rather speak against such an assumption. ‘Attar’s prose work about the saints, Tadhkirat al-Awliya’, is no­where mentioned by the poet himself, but there is no good reason to question the authenticity of its first part (i.e., the part ending with the entry about al-Hallaj).

The most famous among the mathnawis is the “Mantiq al-Tayr.” This is the tale of the mystical journey of the birds through seven valleys in search of their mythical king, Simurgh, a cosmic bird of ancient Iranian lore, who turns out to be their real Self. The theme of the journey of the birds had been used long before ‘Attar as a symbol for the soul’s attempt to approach God in philosophical (Ibn Sina) and Sufi (Ghazali) literature; however, ‘Attar’s adaptation is by far the most poetic and mystical. The main theme of the “Musibat-Nama” is also a mystical journey, but this time the wayfarer is thought itself (fikrat), guided by a master who is not of this world, although he must be found in this world. This journey leads the wayfarer through forty encounters with fan­tastic angelic, human, and purely physical beings to the recognition that he has to submerge himself in the Ocean of the Soul: only then can the “journey in God” begin. In the “Ilahi-Nama”, a king/caliph teaches his six sons how to transform their worldly desires into related spiritual aims. The “Asrar-Nama” is, despite its mathnawi form, not really a tale but rather a meditation on the themes of death and resurrection.

Primary Sources

‘Attar, Farid al-Din. Asrar-Nama, ed. S. Gawharin. Teh­ran: Chap-i Sharq, 1338 (AHS/1959). (French transla­tion by C. Tortel. Le Livre des Secrets. Paris: Les Deux Océans, 1985.)

— — Diwan-i Ghazaliyat-u Qasayid, ed. T. Tafazzuli. Tehran: Chap-i Bahman, 1341 (AHS/1962). (Second edi­tion by M. Darwish, ed. Tehran: Jawidan, 1359. [AHS/ 1980]).

— —Ilahi-Nama, ed. H. Ritter. Leipzig and Istanbul: F.A. Brockhaus and Ma‘arif, 1940. (Translation by J. A. Boyle. The Ilahi-Nama or Book of God of Farid al-Din ‘Attar. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1976.)

— — Mantiq al-Tayr, 3rd ed., ed. M.J. Mashkur. Tehran and Tabriz: 1347 (AHS/1968). (English verse translation (incomplete) by C.S. Nott. The Conference of the Birds. London: Penguin Books, 1984. Complete prose transla­tion by P. Avery. The Speech of the Birds: Concerning Migration to the Real. Cambridge, UK: Islamic Texts Society, 1998.)

— — Mukhtar-Nama, 2nd ed., ed. M.R. Shafi‘i-Kadkani. Tehran: Intisharat-i Sukhan, 1375 (AHS/1996).

— — Musibat-Nama, 3rd ed., ed. Nurani-Wisal. Tehran: Zawwar, 1364 (AHS/1985). (French translation by I. de Gastines. Le Livre de l’Epreuve. Paris: Fayard, 1981.)

— — Tadhkirat al-Awliya’, part I, ed. R.A. Nicholson. London and Leiden: Luzac & Co. and E.J. Brill, 1905; part II, London and Leiden: Luzac & Co. and E.J. Brill, 1907. (Partial translation by A.J. Arberry. Muslim Saints and Mystics: Episodes from the Tadhkirat al-Auliya’ (“Memorial of the Saints”). London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1966.

Further Reading

Handbook of Oriental Studies I, The Near and Middle East, 69, 1st ed. Leiden: Brill, 1955.

Lewis, F.D. Rumi—Past and Present, East and West: The Life, Teaching and Poetry of Jalalal-Din Rumi. Oxford: Oneworld, 2000.

Lewisohn, L., and C. Shackle, eds. Farid al-Din ‘Attar and the Persian Sufi Tradition. London: I.B. Tauris and The In­stitute of Ismaili Studies, 2006.

Reinert, B. “‘Attar, Shaikh Farid-al-Din.” In Encyclopedia Iranica I, 20-5.

Ritter, H. The Ocean of the Soul: Men, the World and God in the Stories of Farid al-Din ‘Attar, transl. O’Kane. Leiden: Brill, 2003.

Shafi‘i-Kadkani, M.R. Zabur-i Parsi: Nigahi bi Zindagi wa Ghazalha-yi ‘Attar. Tehran: Agah, 1378 (AHS/1999).

The Institute of Ismaili Studies - Farid al-Din ‘Attar
Last updated: 6/24/2011 16:02