Saturday, 26 September 2015

The Conference of The Birds (Maqāmāt-uṭ-Ṭuyūr) by Farid ud-Din Attar- Book Review

'The first stage is the Valley of the Quest;
Then Love's wide valley is our second test;
The third is Insight into Mystery,
The fourth, Detachment and Serenity-
The fifth is Unity; The sixth is Awe,
A deep Bewilderment unknown before,
The seventh Poverty and Nothingness-
And there you are suspended,motionless,
Till you are drawn- the impulse is not yours-
A drop absorbed in seas that have no shores.'

I heard about this book when it was mentioned during a lecture by Wayne Dyer. He said that it was a fable about the birds who set forth to meet God but when they got to their destination after a violent journey, they found nothing but a mirror, reflecting who they had become during the journey. The knower and the known became one by virtue of that journey. That description intrigued me so I decided to read the book. Before I started reading, I was expecting the description of the journey to be the main chunk of the book. I was wrong. and I am glad that I was wrong. And the reason for not describing the journey in detail, Attar explains in the description of the valley of Bewilderment, is that each of the birds had to travel their own journey that is different from the rest. I saw Rumi in that explanation who once said,' Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground.'Sure enough, I found during my research that Attar was a major inspiration for Rumi. Some even claim that Rumi met Attar but it is disputed. They might have not met physically, but you can see the spiritual union if you read both of them.

'The Conference of the Birds' can be looked upon as an epic that accurately describes the Sufi tradition in South Asia. The birds (disciples) need a guide Hoopoe ( spiritual master) if they were to reach Simurgh (God) by traveling through seven valleys (Trials). According to the Sufi tradition, no one can reach God with out a teacher. That teacher holds unquestionable authority and the disciple has to obey everything, even if the instruction goes directly against the teachings of the faith. The spiritual masters teach that this is the only way to overcome ego or nafs as they call it in Persian.

Before the journey starts, the Hoopoe has to convince the other birds to make the journey. So he lets them pour out their deepest fears regarding the journey and then answers the inherent questions in those insecurities through fables. The symbolize another popular tradition is Sufism, that is teaching through fables and stories. The same tradition was found in the West, an example of whom is Canterbury Tales. In fact, there were stark similarities as well as differences between The Conference of The Birds and Canterbury Tales which might as well symbolize the similarities and differences between East and the West. The epic was a form of instruction in both East and The West but what was instructed is something very interesting to observe in both cases.

The end of the epic again is something very significant. It speaks of the presence of God in each of us. Access to that presence is denied to us because of the false self that we have created, that dictates us about who we are and who we are not. That false self or ego is the mirror reflection of the customs and traditions of the society. That ego has fears and subsequently the pride which is used to cover those fears. Most of the fables included in this book are directed towards showing the falsehood of these integral parts of the ego. The way to overcome these twin forces is something upon which both the East and the West agrees. Love. To be more precise from the Eastern side; the journey of love, towards love, with love. 'Love Conquers All' as Chaucer said. If I reflect upon my life, I find that what stops us from setting out on a journey is fear and pride in unequal proportions. But what annihilates that mixture is the force of love about whom Attar says, 'the impulse in not yours'. If the impulse is not ours, then I would say that the presence of God makes itself felt through that impulse. The end seems to signify that we don't reach our Beloved. We become that Beloved during our reaching.