May 24 2013

Farid ud-Din Attar – The Lover

Published by at 7:53 am under Poetry

The Lover
by Farid ud-Din Attar

English version by Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis

‘A lover’, said the hoopoe, now their guide,
‘Is one in whom all thoughts of self have died;
Those who renounce the self deserve that name;
Righteous or sinful, they are all the same!
Your heart is thwarted by the self’s control;
Destroy its hold on you and reach your goal.
Give up this hindrance, give up mortal sight,
For only then can you approach the light.
If you are told: “Renounce our Faith,” obey!
The self and Faith must both be tossed away;
Blasphemers call such action blasphemy —
Tell them that love exceeds mere piety.
Love has no time for blasphemy or faith,
Nor lovers for the self, that feeble wraith.

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

/ Photo by Infinite705 /

Here Attar’s spiritual guide, the hoopoe, tells us how to become a true lover of God, that we may successfully journey along the spiritual path.

“A lover,” he tells us, “Is one in whom all thoughts of self have died.” Often statements like this by spiritual teachers are interpreted as meaning that we should think of the well-being of others before our own. That can be a profound approach to life, one that awakens both compassion and lessens the stranglehold of the little self, but there is more to be understood…

The start is to challenge the small self’s hold upon the awareness (“Your heart is thwarted by the self’s control; / Destroy its hold on you and reach your goal.”), but the end is when we see there has never been anything there to struggle against (“Give up this hindrance, give up mortal sight, / For only then can you approach the light.”)

When we can truly say that “all thoughts of self have died,” it is not that we work hard to control the self, it is when the very notion of a self is seen to be illusory (a “feeble wraith”) and not a real or lasting thing at all.

Attar’s hoopoe proclaims something even more shocking: “If you are told: ‘Renounce our Faith,’ obey!” For traditionalist societies, this sounds like blasphemy. How then can Attar throw the accusation back in his critics’ faces by stating, “Blasphemers call such action blasphemy”?

For Attar and most deep mystics, “love exceeds mere piety.” In other words, when, naked, free from self, we truly encounter Love, that is the heart of all religion. Theologies, rituals, and traditions are meant to lead us to that foundational ground, that encounter with Love. Would you give up the destination for the map? Nonsense! Merely following the rules of religion without understanding their purpose only leads to rigidity and a hard heart. People who do so, imagining themselves pious, are the true blasphemers.

Love simply is. And It is everywhere, encompassing all opposites. It is not concerned with the religious dualities of “blasphemy or faith,” “righteous or sinful.” These are human distinctions. When we carefully examine them, we discover that at a certain point in spiritual development these distinctions can reinforce the ego-self. Don’t misunderstand me: They help along the way, by strengthening those essential aspects of the self required for the journey. But they too eventually become traps for the ego, allowing you to assert, “I am righteous and others are not.” It becomes a form of pride, a buttress for the false vision of separation, a way to reinforce the blocks to all-embracing Love.

When we excavate beneath piety and spiritual practice, in the process losing separation and self, that’s when we may just discover the secret wellspring of Love. Returning to those rising waters again and again, we finally know what real worship is. Then we can truly say we have become “a lover.”

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

4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Farid ud-Din Attar – The Lover”

  1. marrobon 24 May 2013 at 1:15 pm

    Tell them that love exceeds mere piety.

    I love that line.

    And I appreciate how you explain the
    meaning of that. How getting ‘stuck’
    in pretensions can cause rigidity in
    the heart.
    A world where love exceeds piety.
    Now, wouldn’t that be something.

    Thanks, as ever for the insights ….
    now, the challenge to live them!

  2. Therese Monaghan O.P.on 25 May 2013 at 6:44 am

    Attar’s lines:
    “If you are told renounce our faith obey
    the self and faith must be tossed away” reminded me of the well-known Japanese novelist, Endo who wrote about the moral ambiguity of renouncing one’s faith in his novel, Silence.
    A Jesuit who was tortured in the 17th cent persecution of Christians in Japan apostatized. I think the suffering Christ appeared to him to help him make that decision. I’m not quite sure. I have to go back to the book. It is very moving. I hear Scorsese is going to film it with Daniel Day Lewis.

    Tossing self has such deep implications.
    Thank you, Ivan, for this provocative poem.

  3. ebrahimon 27 May 2013 at 11:49 am

    Wonderful poetry and equally wonderful commentary. I have had gaith stripped from me before I begun in this way, and have founded it so again ending this way. God will not share the heart with anything. His jealousy will not permit something other than himself. The heart is the throne. Only one king can occupy it. Be seated on it. Exercise authority, command and control from it. For whoever his jealousy is aroused, that one he sets on fire to burn p everything other so that nothing remains except him, who cannot be extuingshed.

    Blessing to all.

  4. ebrahimon 27 May 2013 at 12:17 pm

    Apologies for the errors. I had neglected the golden rule of double checking something written before releasing it to others to read. Gaith should be faith and p should be up. Extuingshed should be extinguished.

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