May 23 2012

Farid ud-Din Attar – The pilgrim sees no form but His

Published by at 9:09 am under Poetry

The pilgrim sees no form but His and knows
by Farid ud-Din Attar

English version by Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis

The pilgrim sees no form but His and knows
That He subsists beneath all passing shows —
The pilgrim comes from Him whom he can see,
Lives in Him, with Him, and beyond all three.
Be lost in Unity’s inclusive span,
Or you are human but not yet a man.
Whoever lives, the wicked and the blessed,
Contains a hidden sun within his breast —
Its light must dawn though dogged by long delay;
The clouds that veil it must be torn away —
Whoever reaches to his hidden sun
Surpasses good and bad and knows the One.
The good and bad are here while you are here;
Surpass yourself and they will disappear.

— from The Conference of the Birds, Translated by Afkham Darbandi / Translated by Dick Davis

/ Photo by AlicePopkorn /

I recently watched a lovely, meditative film called “The Way” about a grieving father’s journey along the ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela.

There is something universal about pilgrimage. Properly approached, pilgrimage is more than a journey to a sacred place. It is a journey to the sacred — at every step along the way. Each leg of the journey is an opportunity to become more clear, more open, more present.

Attar’s masterpiece, The Conference of the Birds, is about a group of birds (souls) who journey to meet their king, the Simurgh (God). It is the pilgrimage we are all on.

Here, Attar is giving us pointers on how to approach the journey:

The pilgrim sees no form but His and knows
That He subsists beneath all passing shows

Be lost in Unity’s inclusive span,
Or you are human but not yet a man.

Whoever lives, the wicked and the blessed,
Contains a hidden sun within his breast

This last, I think, is a particularly important reminder. And it’s not just a nice idea. Every person, wherever they may be on the spiritual path, has the same light shining within them. Some hide it more than others. This doesn’t mean we need to make ourselves vulnerable to harmful individuals, but we must remember what they have forgotten, that they too are bearers of the divine spark.

We can’t overlook the secret message hidden within the name of the Simurgh: While clearly a representative of God, the word Simurgh in Persian can also be translated as “thirty birds.” The Eternal is not some separate being, but found in the unity of all beings. When we exclude anyone from our communities and our hearts, we have created a gap in our vision of God. The Simurg is ALL thirty birds. We can’t see it until we’ve made room in our hearts for everyone.

And then, when we do see the Whole, we no longer see the pieces:

The good and bad are here while you are here;
Surpass yourself and they will disappear.

Buen camino!

Farid ud-Din Attar, Farid ud-Din Attar poetry, Muslim / Sufi poetry Farid ud-Din Attar

Iran/Persia (1120? – 1220?) Timeline
Muslim / Sufi

Farid ud-Din Attar was born in Nishapur, in north-east Iran. There is disagreement over the exact dates of his birth and death but several sources confirm that he lived about 100 years. He is traditionally said to have been killed by Mongol invaders. His tomb can be seen today in Nishapur.

As a younger man, Attar went on pilgrimage to Mecca and traveled extensively, seeking wisdom in Egypt, Damascus, India, and other areas, before finally returning to his home city of Nishapur.

The name Attar means herbalist or druggist, which was his profession. It is said that he saw as many as 500 patients a day in his shop, prescribing herbal remedies which he prepared himself, and he wrote his poetry while attending to his patients.

About thirty works by Attar survive, but his masterpiece is the Mantic at-Tayr (The Conference of the Birds). In this collection, he describes a group of birds (individual human souls) under the leadership of a hoopoe (spiritual master) who determine to search for the legendary Simurgh bird (God). The birds must confront their own individual limitations and fears while journeying through seven valleys before they ultimately find the Simurgh and complete their quest. The 30 birds who ultimately complete the quest discover that they themselves are the Simurgh they sought, playing on a pun in Persian (si and murgh can translate as 30 birds) while giving us an esoteric teaching on the presence of the Divine within us.

Attar’s poetry inspired Rumi and many other Sufi poets. It is said that Rumi actually met Attar when Attar was an old man and Rumi was a boy, though some scholars dispute this possibility.

Farid ud-Din Attar was apparently tried at one point for heresy and exiled from Nishapur, but he eventually returned to his home city and that is where he died.

A traditional story is told about Attar’s death. He was taken prisoner by a Mongol during the invasion of Nishapur. Someone soon came and tried to ransom Attar with a thousand pieces of silver. Attar advised the Mongol not to sell him for that price. The Mongol, thinking to gain an even greater sum of money, refused the silver. Later, another person came, this time offering only a sack of straw to free Attar. Attar then told the Mongol to sell him for that was all he was worth. Outraged at being made a fool, the Mongol cut off Attar’s head.

Whether or not this is literally true isn’t the point. This story is used to teach the mystical insight that the personal self isn’t of much real worth. What is valuable is the Beloved’s presence within us — and that presence isn’t threatened by the death of the body.

More poetry by Farid ud-Din Attar

3 responses so far

3 Responses to “Farid ud-Din Attar – The pilgrim sees no form but His”

  1. Bob Corbinon 23 May 2012 at 4:01 pm

    Although i love the last eight lines of this poem, i struggle with the first six lines.
    This is because i agree that the poem is about inclusion, unity, oneness. Yet i find language in the first lines that suggests, to me, exclusion.

    The pilgrim sees no form but only knows
    that Tao subsists beneath the passing shows–
    The pilgrim comes from it which she can see
    lives in it. with him, beyond all three.
    Be lost in Unity’s inclusive clench
    or you are human, but not yet a Mensch.


  2. Bahri Della Pennaon 24 May 2012 at 5:03 pm

    I love the poem, and recognize its truth, but oh this journey is so very difficult. To embody

    what we know to be the truth means work, work, work, on oneself, and after so many tiny

    failures, we can get pretty discouraged.

    I speak of myself here. I have no choice but to continue the journey until I realize that I

    didn’t have to make the journey in the first place — that all I’ve wanted was right here inside

    me, and under my nose.

    Till then, I’ll continue, and thank God for people like you who help make it easier.

  3. patricia tayloron 29 May 2012 at 9:04 pm

    Having just closed the last page of Ailsa Piper’s Sinning Across Spain, a Walker’s journey from Granada To Galicia, and loving every word from this beautiful poet/writer/ actress/ searcher of truth, I am graced to read this poem of pilrimage. Also must recommend David Whyte’s new book of pilgrim poems especially Finisterre which is the Land’s End of this incredible walk.

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