The Approach of Perfection
November 1, 2016 § 4 Comments
I heard of the Manteq al Tair nearly two decades ago, in Jorge Luis Borges’ characteristically brief short story, The Approach to al-Mu’tasim. Borges’ terse summary of the ancient tale blew my mind then, but I wasn’t even sure at first that it was a real book, and not something he invented. It took me all these years to seek and acquire an English translation, and I am glad I did: Darbandi and Davis’ translation, in flawless iambic pentameter, does full justice to the Sufi classic in form and substance.
I have run into Dick Davis before, having read his rather excellent prose translation of Abul Qasim Ferdowsi‘s Shahnameh a few years ago, but I’d like to talk more about the original poem than about the translation (which just tells you what a great translation it is).
Abu Hamid bin Abu Bakr Farid-ud-din “Attar” was born in the twelfth century in the town of Neyshapur, to the north east of Persia. Some say he was among those massacred by Chingiz Khan’s Mongol hordes when they poured into Khorasan in the 1220s. In between, Attar was many things: possibly a seller of perfumes, probably a healer and dealer in herbal remedies, and without doubt one of the greatest mystical poets in the Sufi tradition, and the Manteq al Tair (The Conference of the Birds), an epic allegorical poem, is arguably his best work.
Sufism is the inner, deeply spiritual tradition that permeates Islam, and runs as a powerful undercurrent below more worldly traditions like the Sharia law that we hear so much about. It isn’t a different sect, just a different aspect of Islam, an aspect that it shares with other eastern religions, like Hinduism and Buddhism (which, like all religions, have other less praiseworthy aspects as well). Small wonder that the frame story of the poem is possibly borrowed from one of the sections of the Kalileh wa Dimneh, a 6th century Persian translation of the Indian Panchatantra.
The story of the Conference is easy to relate. There is a kingdom of birds, and it is in crisis. The birds decide they need a king to lead them, a bird more perfect than all of them. One of them, the hoopoe, recalls seeing in his childhood, in China, a feather of the ultimately perfect bird, the Simurgh. He exhorts the rest of the birds to join him on a journey to the distant land where the Simurgh lives, so that they may offer him their crown. Overcoming their many misgivings about the daunting journey ahead, the birds set off in search of the Simurgh. During the quest, they come face to face with their flaws and deepest fears, their vanities, timidity, sentimental attachments, and other weaknesses; many drop out along the way of thirst or weariness. They cross the valley of the Quest, then that of Love, that of Insight into Mystery, then of Detachment, Oneness, Bewilderment, and finally the Valley of Nothingness. The hoopoe is their guide throughout, encouraging them with parables and philosophy, until eventually, ragged and exhausted, a mere thirty of them reach their destination. But where is the Simurgh? It is nowhere to be seen. Someone finally shows them a mirror and in it they see their own reflection, and they realize that they are the Simurgh, that they have become the perfection that they had been seeking so assiduously.
No mythology is an island. How does this story relate to other stories around the world?
To the west of Iran, the mythology around King Arthur’s Knights and the Quest for the Holy Grail was being written down at broadly the same time, by Chretien de Troyes. The knights of the Round Table set off in search of the platter in which Joseph of Arimathea collected Christ’s blood, and it is only the purest among the knights who find it eventually. There are many obvious resemblances, but the biggest difference is that the Christian quest is for something external, the Grail, and Sir Galahad is the purest knight in spirit from the beginning of the tale. The Sufi quest is for something that is initially sought externally but is finally found inside; and it is the process of seeking that purifies the seeker and transforms him into the object he seeks.
To the east of Iran lies Buddhist and Hindu country, where the resonance of Attar’s philosophical message is comprehensive. The different stages that the initiate needs to traverse have their mirrors in Indian philosophy. The repeated calls to scorn wordly attachments, to reduce the self to nothingness, and to merge one’s identity with a higher power, could have come from the Upanishads themselves. There are a dozen parabolic tales woven into the narrative that could fit with extraordinary ease into the repertoire of the rural raconteurs and bards of Indian tradition, without a word needing alteration to suit local tastes.
It was Borges again, I think, who once wrote of an Emperor who commanded a road to be built from one end of his vast empire to the other, with a flag erected at every mile. The flags at any two adjoining milestones differed so imperceptibly in shade from each other, that travelers would swear they were of the same color; yet the flag at the eastern end of the empire was a rich red while that at the other end was a lush green.
And so it is with culture, and world mythology. We can focus on the differences and relative merits and demerits, the reds at the one end and greens at the other, but I prefer to celebrate the contiguous similarities. The Conference of the Birds is our story, as much as the Quest for the Holy Grail, and the Panchatantra.