The Conference of the Birds

“All the birds of the world, known and unknown, were assembled together. They said: ‘No country in the world is without a king. How comes it, then, that the kingdom of the birds is without a ruler! This state of things cannot last. We must make effort together and search for one; for no country can have a good administration and a good organization without a king.’

“So they began to consider how to set out on their quest. The Hoopoe, excited and full of hope, came forward and placed herself in the middle of the assembled birds. On her breast was the ornament which symbolized that she had entered the way of spiritual knowledge; the crest on her head was as the crown of truth and she had knowledge of both good and evil.

“‘Dear Birds,’ she began, ‘I am one who is engaged in divine warfare, and I am a messenger of the world invisible. I have knowledge of God and of the secrets of creation. When one carried on his beak, as I do, the name of God, Bismillah, it follows that one must have knowledge of many hidden things. Yet my days pass restlessly and I am concerned with no person for I am wholly occupied by love for the King. I can find water by instinct and I know many other secrets. I talk with Solomon and am the foremost of his followers. It is as astonishing that he neither asked nor sought for those who were absent from his kingdom, yet when I was away from him for a day he sent his messengers everywhere, and, since he could not be without me for a moment my worth is established forever. I carried his letters, and I was his confidential companion. The bird who is sought after by the prophet Solomon, merits a crown for his head. The bird who is well spoken of by God, how can he trail his feathers in the dust? For years I have travelled by sea and land, over mountains and valleys, I covered an immense space in the time of the deluge; I accompanied Solomon on his journeys, and I have measured the bounds of the world.

“‘I know well my King, but alone I cannot set out to find him. Abandon your timidity, your self-conceit and your unbelief, for he who makes light of his own life is delivered from good and evil in the way of his beloved. Be generous with your life. Set your feet upon the earth and step out joyfully for the court of the king. We have a true king, he lives behind the mountains called Kaf. His name is Simurgh and he is the king of birds. He is close to us, but we are far from him. The place where he dwells is inaccessible and no tongue is able to utter his name before him hang a hundred thousand veils of light and darkness, and in the two worlds no one has power to dispute his kingdom. He is the Sovran lord and is bathed in the perfection of his majesty. He does not manifest himself completely even in the place of his dwelling, and to this no knowledge or intelligence can attain. The way is unknown, and no one has the steadfastness to seek it, though thousands of creatures spend their lives in longing. Even the purest soul cannot describe him, neither can the reason comprehend: these two eyes are blind. The wise cannot discover his perfection nor can the man of understanding perceive his beauty. All creatures have wished to attain to this perfection and beauty by imagination. But how can you tread that path with thought? How measure the moon from the fish? So, thousands of heads go here and there, like the ball in polo, and only lamentations and sighs of longing are heard. Many lands and seas are on the way. Do not imagine that the journey is short; and one must have the heart of a lion to follow this unusual road, for it is very long and the sea is deep. One plods along in a state of amazement, sometimes smiling sometimes weeping. As for me, I shall be happy to discover even a trace of him. That would indeed be something, but to live without him would be a reproach. A man must not keep his soul from the beloved but must be in a fitting state to lead his soul to the court of the King. Wash your hands of this life if you would be called a man of action. For your beloved, renounce this dear life of yours, as worthy men. If you submit with grace, the beloved will give his life for you.’

“An astonishing thing! The first manifestation of the Simurgh took place in China in the middle of the night. One of his feathers fell on China and his reputation filled the world. Everyone made a picture of this feather, and from it formed his own system of ideas, and so fell into a turmoil. This feather is still in the picture-gallery of that country; hence the saying, ‘Seek knowledge, even in China!’

“‘But for his manifestation there would not have been so much noise in the world concerning this mysterious Being. This sign of his existence is a token of his glory. All souls carry an impression of the image of his feather. Since the description of it has neither head nor tail, beginning nor end, it is not necessary to say more about it. Now, any of you who are for this road, prepare yourselves, and put your feet on the Way.’

“When the Hoopoe had finished the birds began excitedly to discuss the glory of this king, and seized with longing to have him for their own sovereign they were all impatient to be off. They resolved to go together; each became a friend to the other and an enemy to himself. But when they began to realize how long and painful their journey was to be, they hesitated, and in spite of their apparent good-will began to excuse themselves, each according to his type.

“The amorous Nightingale first came forward almost beside himself with passion. He poured emotion into each of the thousand notes of his song; and in each was to be found a world of secrets. When he sang of these mysteries the birds became silent. ‘The secrets of love are known to me,’ he said. ‘All night I repeat my songs of love. Is there no unhappy David to whom I can sing the yearning psalms of love? The flute’s sweet wailing is because of me, and the lamenting of the lute. I create a tumult among the roses as well as in the hearts of lovers. Always I teach new mysteries at each instant I repeat new songs of sadness. When love overpowers my soul my singing is as the sighing sea. Who hears me forsakes his reason, though he be among the wise. If I am parted from my dear Rose I am desolate, I cease my singing and tell my secrets to none. My secrets are not known to everyone; only to the Rose are they known with certainty. So deep in love am I with the Rose that I do not even think of my own existence; but only of the Rose and the coral of her petals. The journey to the Simurgh is beyond my strength; the love of the Rose is enough for the Nightingale. It is for me that she flowers with her hundred petals; what more then can I wish! The Rose which blooms today is full of longing, and for me smiles joyously. When she shows her face under the veil I know that it is for me. How then can the Nightingale remain a single night deprived of the love of this enchantress?’

“The Hoopoe replied: O Nightingale, you who would stay behind dazzled by the exterior form of things, cease to delight in an attachment so deluding. The love of the Rose has many thorns; it has disturbed and dominated you. Although the Rose is fair, her beauty is soon gone. One who seeks self-perfection should not become the slave of a love so passing. If the smile of the Rose arouses your desire it will only fill your days and nights with lamentations. For sake the Rose and blush for yourself: for she laughs at you with each new Spring and then she smiles no more.’ And then the Hoopoe tells the story of the princess and the dervish.

“A king had a daughter as beautiful as the moon, who was loved by everyone. Passion was awakened by her sleepy eyes and by the sweet intoxication of her presence. Her face was white as camphor, her hair musk-black. Jealousy of her lips dried up a ruby of the finest water, while sugar melted in them for shame.

“By the will of destiny a dervish caught sight of her, and the bread he held dropped from his hand. She passed him like a flame, and as she passed, she laughed. At this the dervish fell in the dust almost deprived of life. He could rest neither by day nor night and wept continually. When he thought of her smile he shed tears as a cloud drops rain. This frantic love went on for seven years, the while he lived in the street with dogs. At last her attendants resolved to put an end to him. But the princess spoke to him in secret and said: ‘How is it possible for there to be intimate relations between you and me?’ Go at once, or you will be killed: don’t stay any longer at my door, but get up and go. The poor dervish replied: ‘The day I fell in love with you I washed my hands of life. Thousands such as I sacrifice themselves to your beauty. Since your men are bent on killing me unjustly, answer one simple question. On the day you became the cause of my death, why did you smile at me?’ ‘O you fool’, she said, ‘when I saw that you were about to humiliate yourself, I smiled from pity. I am permitted to smile from pity but not from mockery.’ So saying, she vanished like a wisp of smoke, leaving the dervish desolate.

The above excerpt is from a book comprising around 4500 lines
Written by Farid ud Din Attar
Published in London by Routledge & Kegan Paul in a934

A Brief about Farid ud Din Attar

“Born in Nishapur, in northeastern Persia around 1142 AD. He traveled widely, Tehran, Egypt, Damascus, Mecca and Turkistan, then settled in Nishapur. He worked as a healer and saw patients in his shop where he prescribed herbal remedies. Farid ud Din Attar is considered one of the greatest Sufi mystic poets. His work inspired Rumi and many others. His greatest work “Mantiq al-Tair” (The Conference of the Birds) is a symbolic story of the soul’s search for truth and one of the definitive masterpieces of Persian literature. He died around 1220-30 AD. His tomb is in Niashapur.


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