'Attar began The Conference of the Birds (Mantiq al-tair) with an invocation praising the holy Creator in which he suggested that one must live a hundred lives to know oneself; but you must know God by the deity, not by yourself, for God opens the way, not human wisdom. 'Attar believed that God is beyond all human knowledge. The soul will manifest itself when the body is laid aside. One cannot gain spiritual knowledge without dying to all things. When the birds assemble, they wonder why they have no king. The Hoopoe presents herself as a messenger from the invisible world with knowledge of God and the secrets of creation. She recommends Simurgh as their true king, saying that one of his feathers fell on China.
The Nightingale says that the love of the Rose satisfies him, and the journey is beyond his strength; but the Hoopoe warns against being a slave of passing love that interferes with seeking self-perfection. The Parrot longs for immortality, and the Hoopoe encourages the Peacock to choose the whole. The Duck is too content with water to seek the Simurgh. The Hoopoe advises the Partridge that gems are just colored stones and that love of them hardens the heart; she should seek the real jewel of sound quality. The Humay is distracted by ambition, and the Owl loves only the treasure he has found. The Hoopoe reprimands the Sparrow for taking pride in humility and recommends struggling bravely with oneself. She states that the different birds are just shadows of the Simurgh. If they succeed, they will not be God; but they will be immersed in God. If they look in their hearts, they will see the divine image. All appearances are just the shadow of the Simurgh. Those loving truly do not think about their own lives and sacrifice their desires. Those grounded in love renounce faith and religion as well as unbelief. One must hear with the ear of the mind and the heart.
A total of 22 birds speak to the Hoopoe or ask questions about the journey. Short anecdotes are told to illustrate the Hoopoe's points. The Hoopoe says that it is better to lose your life than to languish miserably. The Hoopoe says,
So long as we do not die to ourselves,
and so long as we identify with someone or something,
we shall never be free.
The spiritual way is not for those wrapped up in exterior life.5
You will enjoy happiness if you succeed in withdrawing from attachment to the world. Whoever is merciful even to the merciless is favored by the compassionate. It is better to agree to differ than to quarrel. The Hoopoe warns the sixth bird against the dog of desire that runs ahead. Each vain desire becomes a demon, and yielding to each one begets a hundred others. The world is a prison under the devil, and one should have no truck with its master. The Hoopoe also says that if you let no one benefit from your gold, you will not profit either; but by the smallest gift to the poor you both benefit. She says,
Good fortune will come to you only as you give.
If you cannot renounce life completely,
you can at least free yourself
from the love of riches and honors.6
A pupil becomes afraid in facing a choice between two roads, but a shaikh advises getting rid of fear so that either road will be good. The Hoopoe tells the eighth bird that only if death ceases to exercise power over creatures would it be wise to remain content in a golden palace. The ninth bird is told that sensual love is a game inspired by passing beauty that is fleeting. The Hoopoe asks what is uglier than a body made of flesh and bones. It is better to seek the hidden beauty of the invisible world. An anecdote about Jesus yields the following lesson:
Strive to discover the mystery before life is taken from you.
If while living you fail to find yourself, to know yourself,
how will you be able to understand
the secret of your existence when you die?7
The Hoopoe advises the eleventh bird that giving yourself over to pride or self-pity will disturb you. Since the world passes, pass it by, for whoever becomes identified with transient things has no part in the lasting things. The suffering endured is made glorious and is a treasure for the seer, for blessings will come if you make efforts on the path. The fifteenth bird is told that justice is salvation, and the just are saved from errors. Being just is better than a life of worship. Justice exercised in secret is even better than liberality; but justice professed openly may lead to hypocrisy. A story of two drunks teaches that we see faults because we do not love. When we understand real love, the faults of those near us appear as good qualities. When you see the ugliness of your own faults, you will not bother so much with the faults of others.
The journey of the birds takes them through the seven valleys of the quest, love, understanding, independence and detachment, unity, astonishment, and finally poverty and nothingness. In the valley of the quest one undergoes a hundred difficulties and trials. After one has been tested and become free, one learns in the valley of love that love has nothing to do with reason. The valley of understanding teaches that knowledge is temporary, but understanding endures. Overcoming faults and weaknesses brings the seeker closer to the goal. In the valley of independence and detachment one has no desire to possess nor any wish to discover. To cross this difficult valley one must be roused from apathy to renounce inner and outer attachments so that one can become self-sufficient. In the valley of unity the Hoopoe announces that although you may see many beings, in reality there is only one, which is complete in its unity. As long as you are separate, good and evil will arise; but when you lose yourself in the divine essence, they will be transcended by love. When unity is achieved, one forgets all and forgets oneself in the valley of astonishment and bewilderment.
The Hoopoe declares that the last valley of deprivation and death is almost impossible to describe. In the immensity of the divine ocean the pattern of the present world and the future world dissolves. As you realize that the individual self does not really exist, the drop becomes part of the great ocean forever in peace. The analogy of moths seeking the flame is used. Out of thousands of birds only thirty reach the end of the journey. When the light of lights is manifested and they are in peace, they become aware that the Simurgh is them. They begin a new life in the Simurgh and contemplate the inner world. Simurgh, it turns out, means thirty birds; but if forty or fifty had arrived, it would be the same. By annihilating themselves gloriously in the Simurgh they find themselves in joy, learn the secrets, and receive immortality. So long as you do not realize your nothingness and do not renounce your self-pride, vanity, and self-love, you will not reach the heights of immortality. 'Attar concluded the epilog with the admonition that if you wish to find the ocean of your soul, then die to all your old life and then keep silent.