The Conference of the Birds

The Conference of the Birds
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Farid-ud-din Attar being one of the pillars of Persian Sufism poetry, wrote the masterpiece “the conference of the birds.” The content revolves around the meeting of the birds led by the hoopoe for the quest to find a righteous sovereign. Throughout the poem, there were many anecdotes and parables narrated to address the primary concerns of an individual on his way to eternity. Hoopoe has been an integral motif in Eastern Mediterranean literature and folklore. Due to its solar symbolism, it used to be associated with piety, wisdom, and kingship. Hoopoe has found notable prominence in the medieval Muslim world, due to the inclusion of the bird in the Quranic narration of the prophet Solomon. Hoopoe was beloved of the prophet Solomon and accompanied him in travelling; during the deluge, it searched for land and, as a dignified friend carried the message of the prophet to Queen of Sheba (Quran 27:20-28). This magnificent appearance of the hoopoe from the ancient to the modern times can be traced in Farid-al-din Attar’s poem under discussion: “the conference of the birds (Mantiq al-Tayr).” Hoopoe is the first bird introduced in the poem as a leader to quench the thirst of other birds for finding a king. The core of this masterpiece, written in Persian, is Sufism: the quest of the soul to find God. At the start, the plot builds up with the union of the birds in a quest to find their leader. After negotiation with hoopoe, they all come up to the point of choosing Simurgh as their leader. Simurgh is another benevolent bird of Iranian cosmogeny and possesses all the qualities to be the birds’ rightful sovereign. The allegory can be seen evidently in the choice of each character as the birds yearned to find sovereignty, as a Sufi yearned for finding God. The Simurgh used to live beyond the unidentified Kaf’s mountain peak, thus, in this manner, he was always near but was transcendent. According to hoopoe, Simurgh was the righteous choice as He was omnipotent, unfathomable by reason, and incomprehensible. Hoopoe explained to the other birds out of his intellect that the journey towards Simurgh is not going to be easy, and the birds ought to cover seven valleys; this signifies the steps a Sufi has to follow on his quest to find God. The very first valley is the valley “quest” (Talab), where traveller decides to sit aboard and free himself from the dogma and disbelief. Then comes the second valley of “love” (Ishq), where the reason is abandoned for the sake of love. The third valley is of “knowledge” (Ma’refat), where the mundane knowledge and worldly apprehensions become useless. Fourth is the valley of “detachment” (Isteghnâ); all the human desires for mundane things are gone. Then comes the valley of unity (Tawhid), where the traveller comes to know that everything is connected. The traveller further realizes that Beloved is the force behind every harmony, multiplicity, and eternity. Then the second last valley is of “bewilderment” (Hayrat), where travellers, fascinated by the beauty of the Beloved, understand that in reality, they’ve never understood anything. Then comes the last valley: the valley of “poverty and annihilation” (Faqr and Fana), where the traveller disappears and becomes a unified part of the universe as a timeless entity.

When the discussion opens, nightingale first comes forward and puts his concerns. He used his voice as a medium to portray his emotions and poured his sentiments into every single note of his song. And for the wiser, there were secrets in every single word he uttered as he said, “The secrets of all love are known to me.” the amorous nightingale told that he keeps on repeating his love songs throughout the night. Further, he claimed that the sweet wailing of the flute was by dint of him and the lamenting of a lute. He proceeded as he created a tumult in the lover’s heart and the rose. The notable thing was the elaboration of the deep love of the nightingale for the rose. He expressed that when his love overpowers him, the sadness drips through his songs. Elaborating his situation to the hoopoe, nightingale refused to set off on the quest for Simorgh, as he said that If he is parted from his rose, he will be desolate. As he used to sing for the rose, so this separation will also cease his singing, and the mysteries he knew will be kept veiled. Nightingale was so in deep love with the rose that he said his life was nothing beyond the rose and corals of her petals. And to love the rose was the sole purpose of his life; he was so immersed in the beauty of the rose that he could not think about his existence. He further told the birds that it was for him that rose flowers with her petals. He was so profoundly captivated by the love for the rose that he thought that the rose blooms and smiles only for him, and when she unveils her face, it’s also only meant for him. That was his life, and he has never thought of anything beyond this. Although the purpose of finding the sovereign as told by the hoopoe was undoubtedly magnificent. Still, he poses a question in front of the birds that, with all the due love, how can he remain deprived of the love of the enchantress even for a single day? The speciality of the poem is that it has many short didactic stories that are gradually woven into the main storyline. Each bird symbolizes a human sin; the nightingale embodies amorous passions. The Hoopoe was a symbolic representation of the “Sheikh”: the instructor to guide the traveller on the spiritual path. Path to Simurgh was the path to God. At last, the love for the rose was the allegory for the love of worldly desires.

The choice of the two characters in a particular situation has a specific significance in Sufism literature, as the vivid comparison of the two personality traits makes one of the characters exhibit human nature. At the same time, the other embodies the virtues of God. When nightingale put his concerns and shortcomings forwards, the wise hoopoe narrated a parable to address his problem. The parable was about a dervish and a beautiful princess. The princess was as beautiful as the moon, passions used to awake by the intoxication of her presence. Her face was white as camphor, and he musk-black hair used to enchant everyone. While the dervish was a pious person, by the will of destiny, he caught a glimpse of her enchanting beauty. That mere sight made him deprived of life; for years, he wept and wept in remembrance of her smile. That frantic love made him forget about himself, and he ended up living on the streets with stray dogs. At last, the princess spoke to him about how dare he could yearn for her; she asked her to go by himself rather than been killed by her men. Dervish replied that he had already lost his life, but he wondered, princess, a simple question why did you smile at me? The princess replied mockingly that she smiled from pity. Thus the dervish here was symbolism for a weak human who fell prey to these worldly desires. The princess was the symbol of the unfaithful world. The controlling theme of the often we are obscured by the enchantment of the human passions and seek eternity and fidelity in them as the dervish and nightingale saw in the princess and the rose. Still, both were massively mistaken as they yearned for those worldly desires.

Finding delight within these deluding attachments can block the path of the soul from God’s way. If the enchanting beauty of the world arises the desires, then it signifies the weak connection of the self with the soul and gradually fills life with lamentations. The fading of beauty is the complete justification for the impermanence of the world. The soul is eternal, and it ought to be subjected to a journey towards eternity. One who seeks self-realization should not fall prey to this passing love and set the soul on quenching a bigger thirst: the yearning for God. The hoopoe advised the nightingale to look beyond the perspective of superficial love based on the outward show of things. He further urged him to renounce the delusion and to use his wings for a greater quest, as no matter how pure the love of the rose Is, its beauty will be bygone quickly. In contrast, set yourself on the journey to yourself, and eventually, after seeking true love, the love of the rose (the love for the world) will be nothing more than fleeting turbulence.

Thus, with the right mix of parable and allegory use, Farid-ud-din Attar has conveyed the message in a much more elaborate way and has left the analysis to the reader. The rhetorical appeal of the parable was directed in a way that the outer narrative appeared to be simple. However, the parable is assumed to share a communal truth, but perhaps people have set it aside or forgotten it. In contrast, allegory emphasizes the thematic content and ideas rather than events.

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