Lifelong Learning Articles
Farid al-Din ‘Attar
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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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,
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.
‘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.
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).