Jun 04 2014

Farid ud-Din Attar – A slave’s freedom

Published by at 9:20 am under Poetry

A slave’s freedom
by Farid ud-Din Attar

English version by Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis

Loghman of Sarrakhs cried: “Dear God, behold
Your faithful servant, poor, bewildered, old–
An old slave is permitted to go free;
I’ve spent my life in patient loyalty,
I’m bent with grief, my black hair’s turned to snow;
Grant manumission, Lord, and let me go.”
A voice replied: “When you have gained release
from mind and thought, your slavery will cease;
You will be free when these two disappear.”
He said: “Lord, it is You whom I revere;
What are the mind and all its ways to me?”
And left them there and then — in ecstasy
He danced and clapped his hands and boldly cried:
“Who am I now? The slave I was has died;
What’s freedom, servitude, and where are they?
Both happiness and grief have fled away;
I neither own nor lack all qualities;
My blindness looks on secret mysteries –
I know not whether You are I, I You;
I lose myself in You, there is no two.”

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


/ Photo by Lucas Incas /

This paints a striking image, doesn’t it? An old man, a slave all his life, bent, worn, prays to God for his freedom.

My first question: Whom is the old man slave to? He is not begging some human master for freedom. He is asking God. So does that mean he is God’s slave? Perhaps. A lot of religious language — Muslim, Christian, Hindu — refers to the faithful as slaves or servants of God. But that imagery can also make us uncomfortable. It can conjure images of a cruel and arbitrary God. It does, however, convey the absolute dedication of the servant, a willingness to merge the personal will with the Divine.

Another way of look at the old man’s servitude is that he has been a slave to the world. Remember that “the world” is not reality, it is consensus reality, a false and limited idea of reality. The world is reality hidden by the heavy blanket of our mental projections. At best, the world gives us only a rough idea of the contours of reality in its fulness… that is, until we stop perceiving through the imperfect filter of the mind under the control of the nafs (the ego).

He [the slave] said: “Lord, it is You whom I revere;
What are the mind and all its ways to me?”

Having spent himself totally in the immense labor of his life, the old slave has little reason left to cling to the false images of the mind. So he lets that old habit fall away and “in ecstasy / He danced and clapped his hands…” This one act of exhausted courage is all he needs for liberation.

Attachment to the mind and its ways is the fundamental attachment. Every other attachment, every desire and hatred, every habit, every disharmonious pattern stems from that fundamental attachment. True renunciation does not necessarily require monk’s robes or retreating to a mountain cave. It only requires dropping that fundamental attachment to mind, freeing the full awareness from mind’s filters and stickiness. Whether we are a solitary desert dervish or a career person with a large family, that’s the one act of renunciation we all must accomplish to find our freedom.

Notice also that freedom was always available to the slave. He could have had his freedom at any time, at any point in his long life. But the reality is that we often don’t find the courage, or even think to ask the questions that lead us there, until we’ve worn ourselves out in the endless efforts of slavery. This is why I sometimes say that the purpose of spiritual practice is to wear yourself out. We need to come to a point when we grow weary of our own patterns and compulsive ways of seeing ourselves that we finally, wearily give ourselves permission to take that single step beyond the mind’s clutches. The rigors of life alone will do that just fine, but it can be a slow, grinding process and we have to walk our path with open awareness and open heart, which is not easy amidst the onslaught of daily challenges. Spiritual practices allow us to internalize that intensity while imbuing it with a purpose that encourages us to keep heart and awareness open.

But all that’s really needed is that one step.

Then, free from that chained sense of reality, all sense of effort falls away. Even the sense of self falls away. All that remains is the blissful sense of melting with divine reality.

“Who am I now? The slave I was has died;
What’s freedom, servitude, and where are they?
Both happiness and grief have fled away;
I neither own nor lack all qualities;
My blindness looks on secret mysteries –
I know not whether You are I, I You;
I lose myself in You, there is no two.”

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 what is today 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. (The profession can also carry implications of being an alchemist.) 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 – A slave’s freedom”

  1. Elliott Mellichampon 04 Jun 2014 at 9:38 pm

    This poem touches me. Maybe I am ready, and the teacher is here. Sometimes I realize that I had been thinking with my heart ~ rather than with my mind. They are becoming distinct from each other. A life long major weakness was to “over analyze,” to break everything down, and to calculate all potential outcomes. So I have set the intention to “think with my heart more.” Now this poem comes along. I feel it. I am thinking with my heart. I almost float with it. Then I became aware that I was “thinking” about the poem with my mind, analyzing it, describing my interpretation with words. The flowing with the poem stopped and I was again a slave.

    Seems like we can not talk about such poems, for when we do, we are then slave to the mind.

  2. Barbon 05 Jun 2014 at 2:54 am

    I love the poem but I love your commentary more.
    I am ‘always inspired by the gift of your sharing, Ivan,
    and I thank you.

    My practice and the practice of those I have the privilege to meet
    with is …..to try to live in the Sacred NOW, to be ONE POINTED,
    and monitor the thoughts.

    this poem is another affirmation of the importance of that practice.

  3. ebrahimon 05 Jun 2014 at 8:06 am

    The mind has a commentator, an interpreter. And in this it is an articulate teacher too. so long as the mind receives information the interpreter/commentator comes into play in action. But the knowledge it brings is not from the mind itself, rather it is knowledge from the greater mind, the mind all knowing. Its continuous and constant commentary can drive one crazy too and that is when one simply has to step away from it, but by no means and ways can one ever silence it; except of course with death. This also tells us that our knowledge is not really our knowledge for it is not really from ourselves. We merely echo it.

    Today i have entered the field of truth where there is no falsehood. And i was wondering that when all is true what is one to do and when all is real how is one to be? Outwardly that entire false illusory world is now a true real world. The tree is still the tree and still the wind blows. Nothing outwardly has really changed, but inwardly the rose has opened and the butterfly has emerged from the old worn out cocoon. But this rose and butterfly is like god: one cannot find it to touch it. meanwhile the crunch in financial means simply does not abate, and it is the one thing i simply cannot find any enlightenment in. So while everything has changed, nothing has changed.

    In truth – i am me and he is he
    slave to master there must be
    if god were me than there would be no need for god
    and if i were god there would be no need for me

    how do i exist in my own right when he is the right of my existence
    to say that i too am god would be hearsay
    and blasphemy it would be to say that he is the mortal me
    so i must say that i am as he is

  4. Pegon 05 Jun 2014 at 12:05 pm

    Yes, exactly Ebrahim!

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