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The Soul – Bird in Persian Sufi Literature

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bird of life by Sheldon Wood via Flickr

By Rupa Abdi

Equating the human soul with a bird is found in myth and mystical literature all over the world. From Hallaj to Sanai and Rumi, Persian mystical poetry has used the symbol of Bird, beautifully. The human soul, like a bird can choose to remain caged in this perishable world or fly towards Liberation.

Ibn Sinna (Avicenna) used this motif and Ghazali wrote the Risalat at-tayr, “Treatise on the Birds”. The nightingale of Sufi poetry, yearning for the rose, singing night and day of its unfulfilled longing and union, suffering without complain the sting of its thorns – is the soul longing for eternal beauty. It is this longing that inspires the soul bird to sing. Longing is the most creative state that the soul can reach.

Rumi often spoke of the soul as a white falcon, exiled amidst the black crows, or a nightingale in the company of ravens. Rumi’s pun on the word falcon or baz, which in Persian also means “to come back”, refers to the baz’s desire to come back to its Lord and Master.

However the symbol of the soul bird’s jouney to is final abode is ingenuously developed by Attar – the master story teller of Iran, in his epic poem, Mantiq u-tayr, “The Birds’ Conversation”, also known as “The Conference of the Birds”. Fariduddin “Attar” (= seller of essence and scents), a druggist by profession, is considered by many as the greatest of the Mathnavi writers of Persian mystical poetry after Rumi. He was born in Nishapur (north-eastern Iran) and died there most likely in 1221 C.E. The idea of traveling and ascension towards the spiritual home, so dear to the mystics of Islam, found its most poetic expression in Attar’s poetry. The Mantiq u-tayr was modeled on the, Risalat ut-Tayr, Treatise on the Birds composed half a century earlier by another Sufi master, Ahmad Ghazali (d. 1126 CE).

“The Conference of the Birds” revolves around the decision of the birds of the world to embark on a journey to seek out their king, the Simurgh – their debilitating doubts and fears, and the knowing counsel of their leader Hoopoe. Each bird falters in turn, whereupon their leader urges them on with parables and exemplary stories, including numerous references to some of the early Muslim mystics such as Rabi’a al-’Adawiyya, Abu Sa’id ibn Abi’l-Khair, Mansur al-Hallaj and Shibli. The different birds represent the different personality types among humans as well as the complex characteristics that make up the human individual.

In these 4500 couplets, Attar speaks to all of us – to our inner being. We are all born with wings, but few of us discover them in our lifetime. Wings to fly back to our home – the abode of the mystical Simurgh – the Lord of all Birds, who lives on the world encircling mountain of Kaf. This journey ultimately is the soul’s progression towards inner perfection.

The different stages along this spiritual journey, which may take a different sequence in different individuals, are symbolized by Attar as seven valleys. Perhaps the series of valleys are used to denote that this journey is not that of a single ascension. It occurs in stages, and once you crossed one valley, you find yourself at the bottom of another. Valleys can be both enchanting and entrapping and the wayfarer may be tempted to linger on or get trapped in one of them. These seven valleys may be interpreted as follows:

The valley of Longing and Searching: The longing and searching of all creatures, who unknown to themselves, long for their original home. It is the strange yearning that overcomes some of us when we listen to beautiful music or behold Natures’ beauty – its mountains and valleys, oceans and springs…… It is this longing that drives us from one desire to another. Not knowing what it is that will quench our thirst once and for all – the Trishna of the Advait yogi.

The valley of Love: The all consuming Love which purifies and the lover is regenerated and altered by it to such an extent that his very being undergoes a change – his every fiber purified, raised to a higher state, resonating to a higher tune. True loving surrender, irrespective of religious tradition, reputation, name or fame, like the Love of Majnu for Laila; like the Love of Sheikh Sanan for a Christian maiden for whom he gave up the rosary for the ‘infidel’s’ girdle, like the Love of Mirabai for her Giridhar Gopal – the Bhakti and Samarpan of Bhakti yoga.

The valley of intuitive Knowledge: Also known as the wisdom of the heart, marifa or gnosis, this is direct revelation of the truth as apposed to ‘ilm‘ or discursive knowledge. This is the Atmagyana or Atmabodh mentioned in Advaita. This revelation leads to detachment from all things perishable (valley of Detachment) and the realization of the unity of all existence (valley of Unity) – of both the phenomenal and the causative world. All opposites melt, everything is renounced and everything is unified. All forms merge into one singular Essence.

According to Jami, ‘ Unification consist in unifying the heart, that is, purifying it and denuding it of all attachment to all things other then “The Truth”, including not only desire and will but also knowledge and intelligence’. These valley or state leads to the valley of Bewilderment, this is the long dark night of the soul, referred to by many Christian Gnostics – a state of perpetual sadness, and consuming desire – the agony of being in Love but not knowing with whom.

Finally in the valley of Poverty and Annihilation, the thirsty birds who undertook the painful journey in the search of Simurgh realize that they themselves – si murgh (= thirty birds in Persian) are the Simurgh. The story thus ends with one of the most inventive puns in Persian mystical poetry. This is the ultimate sought after state of fana – the nullification of the mystic in the divine presence when the seeker finds his way into the ocean of his own soul, all longing ends. However, this is not the end. When the soul has finished its journey to God, the journey in God begins – the state that the Sufis call baqa i.e. the absorption and abiding life in God – the Sat Chit Ananda of Advaita Yoga and the Sahaj state of the Indian mystic poet Kabir. Here the soul traverses ever new depths of the fathomless, divine being – which no tongue can describe. Referring to this state Ghazali says ‘When I saw the rays of that sun, I was swept out of existence. Water flowed back to water’. The water drop finally falls back into the ocean, and the mortal form of the moth is reduced to smoke and ash in his Beloved flame’s embrace. It is the Nirvana and the moksha of the soul-bird which has finally returned Home.

“The Soul – Bird in Persian Sufi Literature” by Rupa Abdi. Some Rights Reserved: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs Creative Commons License

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8 thoughts on “The Soul – Bird in Persian Sufi Literature

  1. thank you for information I am looking for short sufi story if you know of any books or link please let me know
    thank you shara

  2. You can check out books by Idries Shah.One of his books – ‘The way of the Sufi’ has some short stories. His books should be available from amazon books.

  3. Excellent article.
    I would like to get in touch with you regarding another excellent article you have written. If it is possible, please let me know.
    Thanks

  4. Thank you for this article – we linked to you on the Dali Codex Facebook group – anyone with an interest in encoded art and Sufism is welcomed and encouraged to join. Right now we are discussing Carpaccio and his works, and the info contained here is very helpful.

  5. u copied word to word from ” Mystical Dimensions of Islam” by Annamarie Schimel and did not give her any credit.

    • Could you please:

      (a) indicate what parts of this article you believe have been copied, and
      (b) provide relevant page numbers in the work you mention by Schimel? I’d like to resolve this issue ASAP.

      Thank you, MC.

  6. Pingback: Be the Light You want to Be. | CreateWhatYouWant

  7. Michael,
    This is a brilliant post. I enjoyed it thoroughly. :-)

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