Home Culture Conference of the Birds: a Sufi poem for our times

Conference of the Birds: a Sufi poem for our times

“The ocean can be yours; why should you stop  
Beguiled by dreams of evanescent dew?
The secrets of the sun are yours, but you
Content yourself with motes trapped in beams.”

With these words, the Hoopoe encouraged the Peacock, to look at the bigger picture and aspire for the higher goals; explaining that the quest for ultimate wisdom must not be limited by oneself or the system! 

‘MANTIQ – UT – TAYR’ (Conference of the Birds) is a Persian poem by Sufi poet Farid-ud-din Attar. Composed in the twelfth century in north-eastern Iran, this poem is among his most loved works, and a significant contribution to Persian literature. 

Spanning over 5000-lines the allegorical poem is a powerful work of literature highlighting the human struggle to attain enlightenment. While it is a beautiful way to introduce Sufi thought and teachings, it is a poem with many lessons for our times. 

The Birds attend a Conference

The poem begins with an elaborate welcome of each bird, highlighting their achievements and flaws. Attending birds include the Hoopoe, the Finch, the Parrot, the Partridge, the Falcon, the Francolin, the Nightingale, the Peacock, the Cock pheasant, the Pigeon, the Turtle-Dove, the Hawk, and the Goldfinch. Take a look at this painting – perhaps you can spot them! 

Conference of Birds Paintings
“The Concourse of the Birds”, Folio 11r from a Mantiq al-tair (Language of the Birds)ca. 1600
Painting by Habiballah of Sava. | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Dear hoopoe, welcome! You will be our guide:
It was on you King Solomon relied
To carry secret messages between
His court and distant Sheba’s lovely queen.
He knew your language and you knew his heart.

The Hoopoe plays a central role in the poem – as a ‘spiritual guide’ and leader of the pilgrim-birds. 

hoopoe bird painting india miniature
The Hoopoe, ca. 1610. Jahangir Period | Chazen Museum of Art

And so began the conference. The Hoopoe (King Solomon’s favoured bird) steps up and recommends that the birds embark on a journey to meet ‘the Simurgh’. The Simurgh, claims the Hoopoe, is the ‘King’ they all seek. But to meet the Simurgh, the birds must travel to the Mount Qaf (a mythical mountain wrapped around the world – appearing in different religious books) – can they do it? 

What is the Simurgh ?

Amidst the many influences and cultural legacies that Iran has bestowed upon the world, the fascinating mythical bird, Simurgh is one. It features prominently in Persian visual culture – including architectural landmarks and art too!

mosaic simurgh uzbekistan
Mosaic on the Nadir Divan-begi Madrasa in Bukhara (Uzbekistan).

Conference of the Birds : we have our earthly priorities and flaws

As the birds are introduced, you realise that each one of them represents a human flaw that prevents us from attaining ‘enlightenment’.  These include false notions, attachment, greed, pride, etc.

When the Hoopoe urges them to travel the distance, the birds come up with their own excuses. Their present situation doesn’t seem so bad to them anymore.

  • The Nightingale refuses to undertake the journey on account of the deep love he shares with the rose.
  • The Parrot, always having lived in a cage dreams of immortality – and refuses to take a journey where it might perish! 
  • The Peacock, proud of it’s external beauty wishes to return to paradise (from where he was banished) instead of finding the Simurgh
  • The Partridge is attached to earthly treasures & jewels and must refrain from flying to protect these
  • The duck is too attached to the water; where it keeps performing ablations. It trusts only the water for life’s salvation 
  • The Hawk is too conscious and proud of his social-status as a companion to Kings & Royals. 
  • The Heron is too enamoured by the ocean to leave it’s side
  • The Finch claims to be too frail for the journey

A large part of the poem is filled with one-on-one stories with the Hoopoe addressing each bird’s concern and excuse. What makes the Hoopoe’s responses even more insightful are the anecdotes and stories that follow each each piece of advice. These stories have references to history, and even folklore.

The Nightingale is warned of superficial and delusive love, the parrot of false immortality, the duck of frivolous attachments, the Heron of misguided longing and so on.

ducks
“The Concourse of the Birds”, Folio 11r from a Mantiq al-tair (Language of the Birds) ca. 1600
Painting by Habiballah of Sava | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

To the Partridge, The Hoopoe tells the story of Solomon’s ring. Through the ring, Solomon is believed to have commanded power over the earth, demons, and could converse with animals. The Hoopoe reminds the Partridge that even with all that power, nobody remains on earth for eternity.

“Although the power it brought the king was real,
Possession of this gem meant that delay
Dogged his advance along the spirit’s Way —
The other prophets entered paradise
Five hundred years before the king. This price
A jewel extracted from great Solomon,
How would it hinder such a dizzy one
As you, dear partridge? Rise above this greed;
The Simorgh is the only jewel you need.”

And so, through the voice of the Hoopoe, Attar implores his readers to undertake this fascinating journey.

“The Concourse of the Birds”, Folio 11r from a Mantiq al-tair (Language of the Birds) ca. 1600
Painting by Habiballah of Sava | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Conference of the Birds is followed by the Journey : we are together, but on our own!

Like any other journey, or quest-narrative, there are hurdles in this one too. There are 7 stages (valleys) the birds must cross before they reach the Simurgh:

  1. the Valley of Quest [only the journey matters – all material possessions and the superficial sense of power must be renounced]
  2. the Valley of Love [requires enormous commitment, unfettered by logic ]
  3. the Valley of Knowledge [ no journey is same any two birds! this valley requires the embracing of one’s individual insight; all worldly knowledge fails]
  4. the Valley of Detachment [ is meant for the birds to realise their insignificance in comparison to the divine; curiosity & desire vanish here] 
  5. the Valley of Unity [requires the merging of the self with the divine – like a drop of rain that merges with the ocean ] 
  6. the Valley of Bewilderment
  7. the Valley of Poverty and Nothingness. 

Each valley is more difficult than the other, and the birds start to perish as they proceed. Some fall prey to temptations, some protest about going further: 

One of the birds let out a helpless squeak: ‘I can’t go on this journey, I’m too weak. Dear guide, I know I can’t fly anymore; I’ve never tried a feat like this before”.

As the bird goes on, ready to give up and unwilling to take the risk any further, many readers will identify with the bird’s moment of self-doubt. The Hoopoe once again steps in with words of encouragement and wisdom. The Hoopoe reminds us that life is short, and if not now, then when? 

“I’d rather die deceived by dreams than give
My heart to home and trade and never live”

The Hoopoe

The Hoopoe continues to narrate anecdotes at every stage. While crossing the Valley of Detachment, the Hoopoe narrates a beautiful story about the moth & flame. A moth that has come close to the candle light, can share his experience with others; one that has drawn close enough to the heat of the candle too, can tell its story. It is however the moth, that has embraced the flame of the Candle, intoxicated by love – one that unites with the flame – that can never live to tell the tale.

While crossing the Valley of Unity, the Hoopoe narrates an anecdote about the lovers who have become “one”. 

“…When you are me and I am wholly you,
What use is it to talk of us as two?”
All talk of two implies plurality –
When two has gone there will be Unity.”

As Sufism prescribes, the soul’s search for meaning is about overcoming feelings that control us (greed, anger, envy, ego etc), and a complete acceptance of the divine. 

Just like the birds – each of us is different, and so while it would be a flight we undertake together, our journeys to the divine would always be unique. 

Conference of the Birds : we are what we seek

Only 30 birds make it till the end. When the birds finally reach their destination, Attar’s pun on the word ‘Simurgh’ becomes clear. In Persian, Si=30 and murgh=birds. The seekers were what they sought – in that explanation, Attar simplifies the core of Sufism:

God doesn’t exist in the form of some external substance or separately from the universe, He is reflected in the summation of all that exists.

Parliament of birds. ‘Attar, Mantiq al-Tayr (Conference of the Birds), dated AH 898 (1493-94 CE). Bodleian Library MS Elliott 246, fol. 25v

And thus concludes this magnificent tale of timeless wisdom.

If you are a fan of allegories, symbolism, and witty humour, the Conference of the Birds is a must-read. Who knows what you might end up discovering about yourself!

Here are some translations:

Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis [Penguin Books]

Sholeh Wolpé

R.P Masani

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