This collection of papers comprises selected papers from the proceedings of the international conference entitled ‘Farid al-Din ‘Attar and the Persian Sufi Tradition’ organised in 2002 in collaboration with The Iran Heritage Foundation, The Institute of Ismaili Studies and The Centre of Near and Middle Eastern Studies (now incorporated into The London Middle East Institute) at The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), The University of London. The conference, convened by Leonard Lewisohn and Christopher Shackle, was the centrepiece of a number of musical, poetic and artistic events in London to celebrate Persian mysticism and the literary contributions of Farid al-Din ‘Attar.
Farid al-Din ‘Attar (d. 1221 CE) was the principal Muslim mystic poet of the second half of the 12th century, whose formative influence was acknowledged by his great successor Jalal al-Din Rumi. Best known for his often-translated masterpiece Mantiq al-tayr or The Conference of the Birds, his verse is still considered to be the finest example of Sufi poetry in the Persian language after that of Rumi. Distinguished for his provocative and radical theology of love, many lines of ‘Attar’s epics and lyrics are cited independently of their poems as maxims in their own right. These pithy, paradoxical statements are still known by heart and sung by minstrels throughout Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and wherever Persian is spoken or understood, such as in the lands of the Indo-Pakistani Subcontinent.
‘Attar composed six important works of poetry and one major prose work. His great prose work comprises the monumental compendium in Persian of biographies of famous Sufis, called Tadhkirat al-awliya’, or Memoirs of the Saints. If his least known poem is the Book of Mysteries (Asrar-namah), which strings together a series of unconnected episodic stories, his most famous epic poem is the Conference of the Birds (Mantiq al-tayr), which is consecrated to the tale of the spiritual quest of thirty birds to find their supreme sovereign, the Simurgh. This work was modelled on the Treatise on the Birds composed half a century earlier by another Sufi master, Ahmad Ghazali (d. 1126 CE), founder of the ‘school of love’ in Sufism. This epic masterpiece (to which five essays in chapter two of the present volume are devoted) has also enjoyed several musical and theatrical adaptations in the West, while its stories are common subjects of illustration in Persian miniature painting. ‘Attar’s Book of Adversity (Musibat-namah) recounts the Sufi path in other terms, following the voyage of the contemplative wayfarer or ‘Pilgrim of Thought’ (salik-i fikrat) through the mineral, vegetable, animal, human, and angelic realms. Asking questions along the way, he appeals in turn to forty different cosmic or mythical beings for help, until at last he is directed to the Prophet Muhammad, who gives him the answers he needs to set him on the right road.
‘Attar’s Divine Book (Ilahi-namah) relates the story of a king who asks his six sons what they most desire. They all ask for worldly things, and the king exposes their vanity in a series of anecdotes. The Book of Selections (Mukhtar-namah) is a collection of over 2,000 quatrains (ruba‘i) arranged in 50 chapters according to various mystical themes, and his Collected Poems (Diwan) contains some 10,000 couplets which are notable for their depiction of visionary landscapes and heart-rending evocations of the agonies and ecstasies of the via mystica. These poems are notable not only for their thematic unity, with usually just one mystical idea, or a series of related concepts from first verse to last line being elaborated progressively, but also for their esoteric hermeticism and unconventional religious values. The attribution of the Book of Khusraw (Khusraw-namah, a romance of the love between a Byzantine princess and a Persian prince, with almost no mystical content) to the poet has been rejected, on convincing stylistic, linguistic and historical grounds, as spurious.
‘Attar’s works had such an impact on both the Sufi community and the literate public at large that his fame soared soon after his death. He became rapidly imitated, so that today there are some twenty-three works falsely attributed to ‘Attar, proven by modern scholars to be spurious or of doubtful authenticity. If we take merely the works that are unquestionably his, comprising a good 45,000 lines, the achievement is monumental.
However, the most important aspect of ‘Attar’s thought lies in the fact that all of his works are devoted to Sufism (tasawwuf) and throughout all of his genuine collected works, there does not exist even one single verse without a mystical colouring; in fact, ‘Attar dedicated his entire literary existence to Sufism. The wide range of papers included in this collection is itself testimony to the stature of ‘Attar as one of the greatest figures in the glorious tradition of Persian Sufi poetry. Bringing together for the first time the work of both senior and younger scholars from three continents, the volume offers a stimulating overview of ‘Attar and his extraordinarily varied literary creations from a whole series of different viewpoints, which build on the findings of earlier scholarship to offer many novel perspectives.
Designed to take its place alongside The Ocean of the Soul, the classic study of ‘Attar by Hellmut Ritter, this volume is a comprehensive survey and study of ‘Attar’s literary works and mystical doctrine to date, situating his poetry and prose within the wider context of the Persian Sufi tradition, upon which his writings wielded such a tremendous formative influence. The essays in this volume, grouped in three sections which deal respectively with ‘Attar and the Persian Sufi tradition, with The Conference of the Birds, and with ‘Attar’s lyrical and epic poetry, feature contributions by sixteen scholars from North America, Europe and Iran written from a variety of critical perspectives that attempt to illustrate the full range of ‘Attar’s monumental achievement.