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Abu Hamid bin Abu Bakr Ibrahim (1145 – 1221), more commonly known by his pennames Farid-ud-Din and Attar of Nishapur, was a Persian poet and Sufi mystic who significantly influenced Persian poetry and Sufism. He was also less known for being a hagiographer, or someone who writes biographies or literary narratives about holy people. In Attar's case, it was writing about earlier Sufi saints, their sayings, and their supposed miracles.
Not much is known about Attar, and much of his life has been reduced to myths and legends. What we do know, however, is that he was the son of a prosperous pharmacist, and received a strong education in medicine, Arabic, and theosophy. He worked at his father's pharmacy, helping prepare essential oils and herbal remedies; and when his father passed away, he took over his shop, often writing poetry while attending to his clients. In fact, his pen-name "Attar" means apothecary, pharmacist or perfumer in Farsi.
It is through his profession that he came into regular contact with people from all walks of life and their daily struggles, especially poverty, which is believed to have affected him deeply. One narrative relates a fakir, or Muslim ascetic, visiting Attar's shop and marveling at the opulence of the store. The fakir's astonishment made the pharmacist uncomfortable, and he ordered the beggar to leave. The fakir then pointed at his ragged cloak and said, "I have no problem leaving with just this; but how are you planning to leave with all this [pointing at the store]?"
This experience moved Attar immensely, and he eventually left his pharmacy and traveled across the Asian continent, meeting with Sufi Sheikhs, or scholars, who influenced him greatly, before returning back home. When he returned, he reopened his pharmacy, and began contributing to Sufi thought, beginning with a prose work called Tadhkirat al-Auliya (Farsi: "Memorial of the Saints"), in which he compiled verses, sayings, and biographical accounts from previous Sufi poets, mystics, and saints, many of whom may have simply been forgotten in history had it not been for Attar's work.
Attar wrote both short lyric poems as well as longer, epic poems which contained highly symbolic stories conveying themes of enlightenment, Oneness, union, separation, and Divine Love. His most famous work is Mantiq ut-Tayr (Farsi: "The Conference of the Birds"), which is an epic spiritual poem containing thousands of verses that narrate the story of personified birds ("humans") who, with the guidance of the hoopoe bird ("spiritual master"), go on a quest in search of the legendary Simurgh bird ("God"). They travel through seven "valleys," or stages in their spiritual journey, overcoming many personal obstacles along the way. Of the 200 birds that start the journey, only 30 end up annihilating their ego to reach the home of the Simurgh. When they arrive, however, they learn that the Simurgh is "not there," and that they, in fact, are the Simurgh themselves, with the words "Si" and "Murgh" meaning "30" and "birds" in Farsi, respectively, demonstrating the Divine within all of us.
Many of his teachings can be simplified to express that the body-bound soul waiting for release and reunion with Source in the afterlife can experience this reunion in this present life through journeying inward and purifying their heart.
He is said to have died a violent death, and the legend goes that when the Mongols invaded Nishapur in 1221, he was taken prisoner by a Mongol. When someone tried to ransom Attar with a thousand pieces of silver, Attar advised the Mongol not to sell him at that price. The Mongol got excited thinking he could earn even more money. Later, another person came offering just a stack of straw in exchange for Attar. The mystic and poet told the Mongol to sell him for that price, for that was all he was worth. Angered by this, the Mongol then beheaded Attar.
The story itself is hard to verify, but it illustrates an important point: the body and the individual self, or the ego, is of little worth. What should be prized and is priceless is the Divinity inside us, which can never be killed or destroyed.
Though not relatively famous in his own time, Attar's popularity grew over the centuries and he is said to have made an indelible impression on an even more famous Sufi poet and mystic: Rumi.
Some sources say that the young Rumi, born when Attar was well in his 60s, actually met the elder mystic on his way to Konya, Turkey with his family, and was given one of his books, the Asrar Nama (Farsi: "the Book of Secrets"), which shaped Rumi's own outlook on life, and later, his poetry.
Rumi even mentions in one of his poems:
"Attar has roamed through the seven cities of love, while we have barely turned down the first street."
"Let love lead your soul. Make it a place to retire to, a kind of monastery cave, a retreat for the deepest core of your being." ~ Attar of Nishapur
A gem is but a stone, so abandon the quarries.
Mine your own soul for a glimpse of the Beloved's face.
Gem-seeker, turn your heart away from jewels.
Go seek the Great Jeweler instead.
From The Conference of the Birds
Translated by Sholeh Wolpe
We are busy with the luxury of things.
Their number and multiple faces bring
to us confusion we call knowledge. Say:
God created the world, pinned night to day,
made mountains to weigh it down, seas
to wash its face, living creatures with pleas
(The ancestors of prayers) seeking a place
in this mystery that floats in endless space.
God set the earth on the back of a bull,
the bull on a fish dancing on a spool
of silver light so fine it is like air;
that in turn rests on nothing there
but nothing that nothing can share.
All things are but masks at God's beck and call,
they are symbols that instruct us that God is all.
"To seek death is death's only cure." ~ Attar of Nishapur
ای دل اگر عاشقی
درپی دلدار باش
بر در دل روز و شب
منتظر یار باش
O Heart, if you are in love,
At the foot of the Beloved, stay near.
Sit by this hidden door day and night,
and await for the Beloved to appear.
Original translation by Najim Mostamand
"Had I known how listening is superior to speaking, I would not have wasted my life preaching." ~ Attar of Nishapur
Moths gathered in a fluttering throng one night
To learn the truth about the candle light,
And they decided one of them should go
To gather news of the elusive glow.
One flew till in the distance he discerned
A palace window where a candle burned --
And went no nearer: back again he flew
To tell the others what he thought he knew.
The mentor of the moths dismissed his claim,
Remarking: "He knows nothing of the flame."
A moth more eager than the one before
Set out and passed beyond the palace door.
He hovered in the aura of the fire,
A trembling blur of timorous desire,
Then headed back to say how far he'd been,
And how much he had undergone and seen.
The mentor said: "You do not bear the signs
Of one who's fathomed how the candle shines."
Another moth flew out -- his dizzy flight
Turned to an ardent wooing of the light;
He dipped and soared, and in his frenzied trance
Both self and fire were mingled by his dance --
The flame engulfed his wing-tips, body, head,
His being glowed a fierce translucent red;
And when the mentor saw that sudden blaze,
The moth's form lost within the glowing rays,
He said: "He knows, he knows the truth we seek,
That hidden truth of which we cannot speak."
To go beyond all knowledge is to find
That comprehension which eludes the mind,
And you can never gain the longed-for goal
Until you first outsoar both flesh and soul;
But should one part remain, a single hair
Will drag you back and plunge you in despair --
No creature's self can be admitted here,
Where all identity must disappear.
From The Conference of the Birds
An Ancient Parable on Finding God