Farīd ud-Dīn Attar Abū Hamīd bin Abū Bakr Ibrāhīm (1145-1146 - c. 1221 / Nishapur)
Biography of Farīd ud-Dīn Attar Abū Hamīd bin Abū Bakr Ibrāhīm
Abū Hamīd bin Abū Bakr Ibrāhīm , better known by his pen-names Farīd ud-Dīn and ‘Attār, was a Persian Muslim poet, theoretician of Sufism, and hagiographer from Nīshāpūr who had an abiding influence on Persian poetry and Sufism.
Information about Attar's life is rare. He is mentioned by only two of his contemporaries, `Awfi and Tusi. However, all sources confirm that he was from Nishapur, a major city of medieval Khorasan (now located in the northeast of Iran), and according to `Awfi, he was a poet of the Seljuq period. It seems that he was not well known as a poet in his own lifetime, except at his home town, and his greatness as a mystic, a poet, and a master of narrative was not discovered until the 15th century.
`Attar was probably the son of a prosperous chemist, receiving an excellent education in various fields. While his works say little else about his life, they tell us that he practiced the profession of pharmacy and personally attended to a very large number of customers. The people he helped in the pharmacy used to confide their troubles in `Attar and this affected him deeply. Eventually, he abandoned his pharmacy store and traveled widely - to Baghdad, Basra, Kufa, Mecca, Medina, Damascus, Khwarizm, Turkistan, and India, meeting with Sufi Shaykhs - and returned promoting Sufi ideas.
`Attar's initiation into Sufi practices is subject to much speculation and fabrication. Of all the famous Sufi Shaykhs supposed to have been his teachers, only one - Majd ud-Din Baghdadi - comes within the bounds of possibility. The only certainty in this regard is `Attar's own statement that he once met him.
In any case it can be taken for granted that from childhood onward `Attar, encouraged by his father, was interested in the Sufis and their sayings and way of life, and regarded their saints as his spiritual guides.
`Attar reached an age of over 70 and died a violent death in the massacre which the Mongols inflicted on Nishapur in April 1221. Today, his mausoleum is located in Nishapur. It was built by Ali-Shir Nava'i in the 16th century.
Like many aspects of his life, his death, too, is blended with legends and speculation.
The thought-world depicted in `Attar's works reflects the whole evolution of the Sufi movement. The starting point is the idea that the body-bound soul's awaited release and return to its source in the other world can be experienced during the present life in mystic union attainable through inward purification. In explaining his thoughts, 'Attar uses material not only from specifically Sufi sources but also from older ascetic legacies. Although his heroes are for the most part Sufis and ascetics, he also introduces stories from historical chronicles, collections of anecdotes, and all types of high-esteemed literature. His talent for perception of deeper meanings behind outward appearances enables him to turn details of everyday life into illustrations of his thoughts. The idiosyncrasy of `Attar's presentations invalidates his works as sources for study of the historical persons whom he introduces. As sources on the hagiology and phenomenology of Sufism, however, his works have immense value.
Judging from `Attar's writings, he viewed the ancient Aristotelian heritage with skepticism and dislike. Interestingly, he did not want to uncover the secrets of nature. This is particularly remarkable in the case of medicine, which fell within the scope of his profession. He obviously had no motive for showing off his secular knowledge in the manner customary among court panegyrists, whose type of poetry he despised and never practiced. Such knowledge is only brought into his works in contexts where the theme of a story touches on a branch of natural science.
`Attar speaks of his own poetry in various contexts including the epilogues of his long narrative poems. He confirms the guess likely to be made by every reader that he possessed an inexhaustible fund of thematic and verbal inspiration. He writes that when he composed his poems, more ideas came into his mind than he could possibly use. He also states that the effort of poetical composition threw him into a state of trance in which he could not sleep.
The question whether all the works that have been ascribed to him are really from his pen, has not been solved. This is due to two facts that have been observed in his works:
There are considerable differences of style among these works.
Some of them indicate a Sunnite, and others a Shia, allegiance of the author.
Classification of the various works by these two criteria yields virtually identical results. The German orientalist Hellmut Ritter at first thought that the problem could be explained by a spiritual evolution of the poet. He distinguished three phases of `Attar's creativity:
Works in which mysticism is in perfect balance with a finished, story-teller's art.
Works in which a pantheistic zeal gains the upper hand over literary interest.
Works in which the aging poet idolizes Imam Ali ibn Abu Talib while there is no trace of ordered thoughts and descriptive skills.
Ritter surmised that the last phase, that of old age, was coincidental with a conversion to Shi'ism. However, in 1941, the Persian scholar Nafisi was able to prove that the works of the third phase in Ritter's classification were written by another `Attar who lived about two hundred and fifty years later at Mashhad and was a native of Tun. Ritter accepted this finding in the main, but doubted whether Nafisi was right in attributing the works of the second group also to this `Attar of Tun. One of Ritter's arguments is that the principal figure in the second group is not Ali, as in the third group, but Hallaj, and that there is nothing in the explicit content of the second group to indicate a Shia allegiance of the author. Another is the important chronological point that a manuscript of the Jawhar al-Dāt, the chief work in the second group, bears the date 735 A.H. (= 1334-35 AD). While `Attar of Tun's authorship of the second group is untenable, Nafisi was certainly right in concluding that the style difference (already observed by Ritter) between the works in the first group and those in the second group is too great to be explained by a spiritual evolution of the author. The authorship of the second group remains an unsolved problem.
According to Edward G. Browne, Attar as well as Rumi and Sana'i were all Sunni Muslims and their poetry abound with praise for the first two caliphs Abu Bakr and Umar ibn al-Khattāb. According to Annemarie Schimmel, the tendency among Shia authors to include leading mystical poets such as Rumi and Attar among their own ranks, became stronger after the introduction of Twelver Shia as the state religion in the Safavid Empire in 1501.
In the introductions of Mokhtār-Nāma and Khosrow-Nāma, `Attar lists the titles of further products of his pen:
He also states, in the introduction of the Mokhtār-Nāma, that he destroyed the Jawāher-Nāma' and the Šarḥ al-Qalb with his own hand.
Although the contemporary sources confirm only `Attar's authorship of the Dīvān and the Manteq al-Ṭayr, there are no grounds for doubting the authenticity of the Mokhtār-Nāma and Khosrow-Nāma and their prefaces.One work is missing from these lists, namely the Tadhkerat al-Awlīya, which was probably omitted because it is a prose work; its attribution to `Attar is scarcely open to question. In its introduction `Attar mentions three other works of his, including one entitled Šarḥ al-Qalb, presumably the same that he destroyed. The nature of the other two, entitled Kašf al-Asrār and Ma'refat al-Nafs, remains unknown.
Led by the hoopoe, the birds of the world set forth in search of their king, Simurgh. Their quest takes them through seven valleys in the first of which a hundred difficulties assail them. They undergo many trials as they try to free themselves of what is precious to them and change their state. Once successful and filled with longing, they ask for wine to dull the effects of dogma, belief, and unbelief on their lives. In the second valley, the birds give up reason for love and, with a thousand hearts to sacrifice, continue their quest for discovering the Simurgh. The third valley confounds the birds, especially when they discover that their worldly knowledge has become completely useless and their understanding has become ambivalent. There are different ways of crossing this Valley, and all birds do not fly alike. Understanding can be arrived at variously—some have found the Mihrab, others the idol.
The fourth valley is introduced as the valley of detachment, i.e., detachment from desire to possess and the wish to discover. The birds begin to feel that they have become part of a universe that is detached from their physical recognizable reality. In their new world, the planets are as minute as sparks of dust and elephants are not distinguishable from ants. It is not until they enter the fifth valley that they realize that unity and multiplicity are the same. And as they have become entities in a vacuum with no sense of eternity. More importantly, they realize that God is beyond unity, multiplicity, and eternity. Stepping into the sixth valley, the birds become astonished at the beauty of the Beloved. Experiencing extreme sadness and dejection, they feel that they know nothing, understand nothing. They are not even aware of themselves. Only thirty birds reach the abode of the Simurgh. But there is no Simurgh anywhere to see. Simurgh's chamberlain keeps them waiting for Simurgh long enough for the birds to figure out that they themselves are the si (thirty) murgh (bird). The seventh valley is the valley of deprivation, forgetfulness, dumbness, deafness, and death. The present and future lives of the thirty successful birds become shadows chased by the celestial Sun. And themselves, lost in the Sea of His existence, are the Simurgh.
Attar's only known prose work which he worked on throughout much of his life and which was available publicly before his death, is a biography of Muslim saints and mystics. In what is considered the most compelling entry in this book, `Attar relates the story of the execution of Hallaj, the mystic who had uttered the words "I am the Truth" in a state of ecstatic contemplation.
The Ilahi-Nama (Persian: الهی نامه) is another famous poetic work of Attar consisting of 6500 verses. In terms of form and content, it has some similarities with Bird Parliament. The story is about a king who is confronted with the materialistic and worldly demands of his six sons. The King tries to show the temporary and senseless desires of his six son by retelling them a large number of spiritual stories. The first son asks for the daughter of the king of fairies (Pariyaan).
Mokhtar-Nama (Persian: مختار نامه), a wide-ranging collection of quatrains (2088 in number). In the Mokhtar-nama, a coherent group of mystical and religious subjects is outlined (search for union, sense of uniqueness, distancing from the world, annihilation, amazement, pain, awareness of death, etc.), and an equally rich group of themes typical of lyrical poetry of erotic inspiration adopted by mystical literature (the torment of love, impossible union, beauty of the loved one, stereotypes of the love story as weakness, crying, separation).
The Divan (Persian: دیوان عطار) of Attar consists almost entirely of poems in the Ghazal ("lyric") form, as he collected his Ruba'i ("quatrains") in a separate work called the Mokhtar-nama. There are also some Qasida ("Odes"), but they amount to less than one-seventh of the Divan. His Qasidas expound upon mystical and ethical themes and moral precepts. They are sometimes modeled after Sanai. The Ghazals often seem from their outward vocabulary just to be love and wine songs with a predilection for libertine imagery, but generally imply spiritual experiences in the familiar symbolic language of classical Islamic Sufism. Attar's lyrics express the same ideas that are elaborated in his epics. His lyric poetry does not significantly differ from that of his narrative poetry, and the same may be said of the rhetoric and imagery.
Influence on Rumi
`Attar is one of the most famous mystic poets of Iran. His works were the inspiration of Rumi and many other mystic poets. `Attar, along with Sanai were two of the greatest influences on Rumi in his Sufi views. Rumi has mentioned both of them with the highest esteem several times in his poetry. Rumi praises `Attar as follows:
Attar has roamed through the seven cities of love while we have barely turned down the first street.
As a pharmacist
`Attar was a pen-name which he took for his occupation. `Attar means herbalist, druggist, perfumist or alchemist, and during his lifetime in Persia, much of medicine and drugs were based on herbs. Therefore, by profession he was similar to a modern-day town doctor and pharmacist.
In popular culture
Several musical artists have albums or songs which share the name of his most famous work, Conference of the Birds, as well as the themes of enlightenment contained therein. Notably, jazz bassist David Holland's album, which was written as a metaphor for his own enlightenment, and Om's Conference of the Birds, which deals with extremely esoteric themes often connected with metaphors of flight, inward vision, destruction of self, and oneness with the cosmos
Farīd ud-Dīn Attar Abū Hamīd bin Abū Bakr Ibrāhīm's Works:
The Conference of the Birds
- All Pervading Consciousness
- Conference of the Birds
- Illahi Nama (Book of God)
- In the Dead of night
- Intoxicated by the Wine of Love
- Looking for your own face
- Mystic Silence
- The Triumph of the Soul
- Why was Adam
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We are busy with the luxury of things.
Their number and multiple faces bring
To us confusion we call knowledge. Say:
God created the world, pinned night to day,
Made mountains to weigh it down, seas
To wash its face, living creatures with pleas
(The ancestors of prayers) seeking a place
In this mystery that floats in endless space.