Attar: A Master Among the History Books
by Hussain Azarmer
Khurasan is the largest province in Iran and is also the riches. It is located to the north-east of the country and expands to the western border of Afghanistan, towards the Oxus River (Amu-Darya) in the north, and to the Barren and Salst Deserts (Dasht-e lut and Dasht-e Kavir) in the south. The Kavir (Salt Desert) is a large expanse of infertile land, a little larger than England. The top layer of soil consists of salty sediments and residues which remain from the ancient ocean of Tethys.
Some scientist believe that amoebae, the first single-celled creatures on earth, came into existence about two hundred million year ago on the fringes of Tethys and that from there, life went on to spread throughout the world. Today, no animal can service in the heart of the Kavir since the vital requirements for life are not available: there are no water, trees, shrubs nor any trace of human race. During more recent history, within the last three thousand years or so, a few towns dared to encroach on the Kavir’s borders. Sabzevar is one of them, which forms part of Khurasan province. It has been known historically as one of the centres of the Shi’ite movements in the Islamic world.
In 1221 AD, Genghis Khan, the famous Mongol warrior, captured the history land of Iran. He established the Ilkhanid dynasty in the country which remained there for more than hundred years. Genghis’ early attacks on Iran started from Khurasan. He first captured Nishapur, the most populated town of the province, the Sabzevar and gradually other parts of the country.
Historians recount the story of a people who were mass murdered by Genghis’ troops in Khurasan. Soldiers killed about two million in Nishapur alone, which was no exaggeration. They did not event show mercy to cats, doges or other domesticated animals. A commander rode his horse to a mosque, a historian reports, and asked what that place was for. A clergyman who ha d been reading the holy book, the Qur’an, stood up, crossed his forearms respectfully and replied that this the house of God and that the book he ware reading was His word. The commander instantly beheaded him with his sword, and his hungry horse preceded to eat the leaves of the holy book. Farid-od-Din ‘Attar was one of the great Sufi poets of history. He was born in 1120 in Nishapur and was martyred by a Mongol soldier during a massacre following Mongol attacks on Khurasan.
The attacks of Genghis Khan and the establishment of his offspring in Iran were a great misfortune which left the towns devastated for a long period of time. Even after a hundred years the new generations of inhabitants could not recover form the damage. Another historian narrates that after the massacre conducted by Genghis Khan and his followers, a group of survivors fled to the Alborz mountain range, where they lived in a cave. They used to come out at night to find something to eat, and would feed on any sort of animal flesh, dead or alive, including rats, jackals, birds and mice.
It was from such a background that some people in Sabzevar came together and organised a new movement which was based on Islamic values and a spirit of nationalism. They stood up against the autocratic rulers of the time and eventually succeeded in overthrowing the Ilkhanid government which was being run by Genghis” offspring. They called themselves the Sarbedaran. They established and independent ruling state with some democratic ideas. They were the first self-ruled government after the collapse of the last pre-Islamic kingdom in Persia.
The Sarbedaran family temporarily overcame their difficulties. They ruled the country from Sabzevar any means for 53 years. They were finally overthrown by another attacker from the north side of Oxus River, called Tamerlane (Timur). He also had a blood-thirsty appetite which he had obviously inherited from his mother who was a descendant of Genghis Khan’s dynasty.
The Sarbedaran’s ruling power finished to all intends and purposed in the year 1390 AD, with the death of Khaja Najm-Din. They could not resist the power of Tamerland. The Sarbedaran family dispersed around the borders of the Kavir, finally vanishing completely. These incidents have been recorded in historical documents.
‘Attar’s writings are one of the major works of literature to have survived from that time. He is most renowned for a poetry book called The Conference of the Birds, which has been translated into various European languages. The story is about thirty different kinds of birds that fly together tin search of the reality of life. The dialogue between their leader, Hoopoe, with each of ht other s in turn is most interesting. To cite a few lines by way of example, the Owl came forward and in bewilderment said:
“I was chosen because of dwellings,
Is the confusing and I am nothing.
He who wished to be peaces giving
Must be familiar to ruinous living.
I know is some hidden corners
Were definitely kept valuable treasures,
Which are to me all accessible.
I am full of love but so feeble.
The following is an extract from the Encyclopaedia Britannica about ‘Attar’s life and work:
“Farid od-Din ‘Attar as a young man travelled widely, visiting Egypt, Syria, Arabia, India and Central Asia, finally settling in his native town, Nishapur, in north-eastern Persia, where he spent many years collecting the verses and sayings of famous Sufis (Muslim mystics). His name, ‘Attar, may indicate that either he, his father, or his grandfather was an apothecary, physician or perfumer. In modern Sufi circles the name of ‘Attar has a Kabbalistic or initiatory significance. There is much controversy among scholars concerning the exact details of his life and death as well as the authenticity of may of the literary works attributed to him.
“The greatest of his works is his well-known, Manteq ot-teyr (Eng. Trans. The Conference of the Birds, 1995). This is an allegorical poem describing the quest of the birds (i.e. Sufis) for the mystical Simorgh, or Phoenix, whom they wish to make their king (i.e., God). They choose as their leader in the search the celebrated hoopoe, a bird who, according to tradition, had guided King Solomon across the desert to the Queen of Sheab. The hoopoe describes the long and hazardous journey they must undertake through seven valleys (representing the seven stage of Sufism). Many of the birds make excuses, for they do not wish to continue, and eh excuses symbolise those made by men for not pursuing spiritual perfection. Of those who had begun the pilgrimage only 30 birds (si morgh) succeed in entering the presence of the Simorgh.
“In the final scene the 30 birds approach the throne contemplating their reflections in the mirror-like countenance of the Simorgh, only to realise that they (si morgh) and the Simorgh are one. In this way the poet allegorises the final stage of the Sufi’s progress: union with God.
“From the point of view of ideas, literary themes, and style, ‘Attar’s influence was strongly felt not only in Persian literature but also in other Islamic literature.”
A Story from Attar
“This, Too, Will Pass”
A powerful king, ruler of many domains, was in a position of such magnificence that wise men were his mere employees. And yet one day he felt himself confused and called the sages to him.
‘I do not know the cause, but something impels me to seek a certain ring, one that will enable me to stablise my state.
‘I must have such a ring. And this ring must be one which, when I am unhappy, will make me joyful. At the same time, if I am happy and look upon it, I must be made sad.’
The wise men consulted one another, and threw themselves into deep contemplation, and finally they came to a decision as to the character of this ring which would suit their king.
The ring which they devised was one upon which was inscribed the legend:
THIS, TOO, WILL PASS