Abū Hamīd bin Abū Bakr Ibrāhīm (1120 - c. 1229), much better known by his pen-names Farīd ud-Dīn (Persian: فریدالدین) and ‘Attār (Persian: عطار—"the pharmacist"), was a Persian and Muslim poet, Sufi, theoretician of mysticism, and hagiographer. Comparatively few details are known for certain about his life. He spent several years traveling and studying at some of the leading schools in the Muslim world at the time before returning home. `Attar supported his writing by practicing as a physician or druggist; he was not interested in attracting a patron. `Attar's work preserves many of the sayings of previous Sufi saints; we are indebted to him for information about their lives. On the one hand, historical data is scanty in his writing. On the other, his aim was not to write conventional biography but through the lives of the saints to encourage people to renounce worldly ambition for love of God, love of humanity and selfless service.
His most famous work, The Conference of the Birds, rejoices in the loss of egotism and the realization that all people are equally loved by God. This work has been compared with Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and with his Parliament of Fowls. `Attar challenges humans to abandon all "us and them polarities," such as those of race, religion, and social class. He affirms human solidarity. His poetry expounds the teachings of Islamic mysticism in universal language, inviting one to live for the sake of others, to prize what has eternal, not ephemeral values.
Information about `Attar's life is rare. He is mentioned by only two of his contemporaries, `Awfi and Khadja Nasir ud-Din Tusi. However, all sources confirm that he was from Nishapur, a major city of medieval Khorasan (now located in the northeast of Iran), and according to `Awfi, he was a poet of the Seljuq period. Davis cites 1120 as his possible birth date, commenting that sources indicate a date between 1120 and 1157. It seems that he was not well known as a poet in his own lifetime, except at his home town, and his greatness as a mystic, a poet, and a master of narrative was not discovered until the fifteenth century.
`Attar was probably the son of a prosperous chemist, receiving an excellent education in various fields. He is said to have attended "the theological school attached to the shrine of Imam Reza at Mashhad." While his works say little else about his life, they suggest that he practiced the profession of pharmacy and personally attended to a very large number of customers. The people he helped in the pharmacy used to confide their troubles in `Attar, which affected him deeply. Eventually, he abandoned his pharmacy store and traveled widely—to Kufa, Mecca, Damascus, Turkistan, and India, meeting with Sufi Shaykhs—then returned, promoting Sufi ideas. Such travel in search of knowledge was not uncommon for Sufi practitioners at the time.
On the one hand, `Attar is renowned as a Sufi thinker and writer, on the other hand his exact relationship with any Sufi teacher or order is vague. It is not known for certain which Sufi master instructed him. Possibly, his teacher was Majd ad-Din al-Baghdadi (d. 1219) although Baghdadi may have taught him medicine not theology. A tradition "first mentioned by Rumi has it that he "had no teacher and was instructed in the Way by the spirit of Mansur al-Hallaj, the Sufi martyr who had been executed in Baghdad in 922 and who appeared to him in a dream." Or, he may have joined a Sufi order then received a "confirmatory dream in which Hallaj appeared to him." Darbandi and Davis suggest that reference to the spirit of Hallaj may be a "dramatic symbol of his scholarly pre-occupation with the lives of dead saints."
It can, though, be taken for granted that from childhood onward `Attar, encouraged by his father, was interested in the Sufis and their sayings and way of life, and regarded their saints as his spiritual guides. `Attar "boasted that he had never sought a king's favor or stooped to writing a panegyric" which "alone would make him worthy of note among Persian poets." He appears to have regarded rulers as "capricious and cruel" suggesting that "it is best to have nothing to do with them." This attitude may have been due to an ascetic tendency; love of wealth, power and fame have no place in his worldview. He narrates many stories suggesting that material wealth is often irreconcilable with spiritual health. "If all the world is yours" he wrote, "it will pass by as swiftly as the blinking of an eye." Attar probably supported himself from his work as a chemist or physician. `Attar means herbalist, druggist and perfumist, and during his lifetime in Persia, much of medicine and drugs were based on herbs. He says that he "composed his poems in his daru-khane" which means "a chemist's shop or drug-store, but which has suggestions of a dispensary or even a doctor's surgery." It is probable that he "combined the selling of drugs and perfumes with the practice of medicine."
`Attar reached an age of over 70 (some sources mention 110) and died a violent death in the massacre which the Mongols inflicted on Nishabur in April 1229 although possible death dates range from 1193 to 1235. His mausoleum, built by Ali-Shir Nava'i in the sixteenth century, is located in Nishapur.
Like many aspects of his life, his death, too, is blended with legends and speculation. A well-known story regarding his death goes as follows:
During the invasion of Persia by Jenghis Khan (1229 C.E.) when `Attar had reached the age of 110, he was taken prisoner by the Mongols. One of them was about to kill him, when another said "let the old man live; I will give a thousand pieces of silver as his ransom. His captor was about to close with the bargain, but `Attar said, "Don't sell me as cheaply; you will find someone willing to give more." Subsequently, another man came up and offered a bag of straw for him. "Sell me to him," said `Attar, "for that is all I am worth." The Mongol, irritated at the loss of the first offer, slew him, who thus found the death he desired.
The thought-world depicted in `Attar's works reflects the whole evolution of the Sufi movement. The starting point is the idea that the body-bound soul's awaited release and return to its source in the other world can be experienced during the present life in mystic union attainable through inward purification. By explaining his thoughts, the material uses is not only from specifically Sufi but also from older ascetic legacies. Although his heroes are for the most part Sufis and ascetics, he also introduces stories from historical chronicles, collections of anecdotes, and all types of high-esteemed literature. His talent for perception of deeper meanings behind outward appearances enables him to turn details of everyday life into illustrations of his thoughts. The idiosyncrasy of `Attar's presentations invalidates his works as sources for study of the historical persons whom he introduces. As sources on the hagiology and phenomenology of Sufism, however, his works have immense value.
Judging from `Attar's writings, he viewed philosophy with skepticism and dislike. He wrote, "No one is farther from the Arabian prophet than the philosopher. Know that philosophy (falsafa) is the wont and way of Zoroaster, for philosophy is to turn your back on all religious law." Interestingly, he did not want to uncover the secrets of nature. This is particularly remarkable in the case of medicine, which fell within the scope of his profession. He obviously had no motive for showing off his secular knowledge in the manner customary among court panegyrists, whose type of poetry he despised and never practiced. Such knowledge is only brought into his works in contexts where the theme of a story touches on a branch of natural science.
`Attar speaks of his own poetry in various contexts including the epilogues of his long narrative poems. He confirms the guess likely to be made by every reader that he possessed an inexhaustible fund of thematic and verbal inspiration. He writes that when he composed his poems, more ideas came into his mind than he could possibly use.
Like his contemporary Khaqani, `Attar was not only convinced that his poetry had far surpassed all previous poetry, but that it was to be intrinsically unsurpassable at any time in the future, seeing himself as the “seal of the poets” and his poetry as the “seal of speech.” Since he had "expressed all poetic thought," he asked, "what still remains for others?" Incidentally, he wrote of Muhammad's appreciation of poetry, which somewhat contradicts the stereotype that Muhammad did not like poets; "God," said the Prophet, "possesses many treasures that are hidden under the tongues of poets." What Muhammad objected to was the charge that the Qur'an was a poem composed by himself.
The question whether all the works that have been ascribed to him are really from his pen, has not been solved. This is due to two facts that have been observed in his works:
Classification of the various works by these two criteria yields virtually identical results. The German orientalist Hellmut Ritter at first thought that the problem could be explained by a spiritual evolution of the poet. He distinguished three phases of `Attar's creativity:
Phrase three may be coincidental with a conversion to Shi'a Islam. However, in 1941, the Persian scholar Nafisi was able to prove that the works of the third phase in Ritter's classification were written by another `Attar who lived about two hundred and fifty years later at Mashhad and was a native of Tun. Ritter accepted this finding in the main, but doubted whether Nafisi was right in attributing the works of the second group also to this `Attar of Tun. One of Ritter's arguments is that the principal figure in the second group is not Ali, as in the third group, but Hallaj, and that there is nothing in the explicit content of the second group to indicate a Shi'a allegiance of the author. Another is the important chronological point that a manuscript of the Jawhar al-Dāt, the chief work in the second group, bears the date 735 A.H. (= 1334-35 C.E.). While `Attar of Tun's authorship of the second group is untenable, Nafisi was probably right in concluding that the style difference (already observed by Ritter) between the works in the first group and those in the second group is too great to be explained by a spiritual evolution of the author. The authorship of the second group remains an unsolved problem.
He appears to have destroyed some of his own writing.
His authentic works are taken as:
Led by the hoopoe (in the Qur'an, the hoopoe acts as messenger between Solomon, who could communicate with birds, and the Queen of Sheba) the birds of the world set forth in search of their king, Simurgh. Their quest takes them through seven valleys in the first of which a hundred difficulties assail them. They undergo many trials as they try to free themselves of what is precious to them and change their state. Once successful and filled with longing, they ask for wine to dull the effects of dogma, belief, and unbelief on their lives. In the second valley, the birds give up reason for love and, with a thousand hearts to sacrifice, continue their quest for discovering the Simurgh. The third valley confounds the birds, especially when they discover that their worldly knowledge has become completely useless and their understanding has become ambivalent. There are different ways of crossing this Valley, and all birds do not fly alike. Understanding can be arrived at variously—some have found the Mihrab, others the idol. The narrative is organized around the birds' objections to the journey and the hoopoes' responses. Each section begins with a question, followed by the response which usually included several stories. Although at first sight these may seem obscure, this is because logic is being "deliberately flouted so that we are, as it were, teased or goaded … into understanding."
The fourth valley is introduced as the valley of detachment, that is, detachment from desire to possess and the wish to discover. The birds begin to feel that they have become part of a universe that is detached from their physical recognizable reality. In their new world, the planets are as minute as sparks of dust and elephants are not distinguishable from ants. It is not until they enter the fifth valley that they realize that unity and multiplicity are the same. And as they have become entities in a vacuum with no sense of eternity. More importantly, they realize that God is beyond unity, multiplicity, and eternity. Stepping into the sixth valley, the birds become astonished at the beauty of the Beloved. Experiencing extreme sadness and dejection, they feel that they know nothing, understand nothing. They are not even aware of themselves. Only thirty birds reach the abode of the Simurgh. But there is no Simurgh anywhere to see. Simurgh's chamberlain keeps them waiting for Simurgh long enough for the birds to figure out that they themselves are the si (thirty) murgh (bird). The seventh valley is the valley of deprivation, forgetfulness, dumbness, deafness, and death. The present and future lives of the thirty successful birds become shadows chased by the celestial Sun. And themselves, lost in the Sea of His existence, are the Simurgh.
Darbandi and Davis highlight similarities between Manteq al-Tayr and Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales as well as his Parliament of Fowls. For example, "multi-layered allegory" combined with "structure" lead us "from a crowded, random-world, described with a great poet's relish for language and observation, to the ineffable realm of the Absolute." Use of a journey, or pilgrimage and of story is, they remark, close in both "tone and technique" to "medieval European classics."
Each valley can be understood as one of the seven heavens; as we journey into our own souls, we also journey through the heavens into the divine presence because at the center of our soul lies the divine itself.
`Attar's only known prose work which he worked on throughout much of his life and which was available publicly before his death, is a biography of Muslim saints and mystics. In what is considered the most compelling entry in this book, `Attar relates the story of the execution of Hallaj, the mystic who had uttered the words “I am the Truth” in a state of ecstatic contemplation. The book is also a major source of information on Islam's premier woman Sufi, Rabia Basri. of whom `Attar said that if it "proper to derive two-thirds of our religion from A'esha" (citing a saying of Muhammad "surely it is permissible to take religious instruction from a handmaid of Allah." `Attar wanted to make the saying of the masters available in Persian and to revive their memory.
`Attar is one of the most famous mystic poets of Iran. His works were the inspiration of Rumi and many other mystic poets. `Attar, along with Sanai were two of the greatest influences on Rumi in his Sufi views. Rumi has mentioned both of them with the highest esteem several times in his poetry. Rumi praises `Attar: "Attar roamed the seven cities of love—We are still just in one alley".
"Attar was the spirit, and Sanai its two eyes. We come after Sanai and Attar."
Rumi is said to have met Attar during his childhood, who gave him a copy of Asrar Nameh and "dandled him on his knee."
Arberry describes `Attar as a "literary genius" among "the greatest poets of Persia." The most detailed study of `Attar is Ritter's The Ocean of the Soul, which translator John O'Kane describes as "not only the definitive work on `Attar" but "the greatest interpretive study of any literary figure in Islamic civilization."
One of the attractions of `Attar's writing is the comparative simplicity of his metaphor, which he uses quite sparingly; he writes to enlighten not to confuse. Darbandi and Davis comment that while in common with other Persian poets he uses hyperbole, on the other hand "most of his metaphors are stock comparisons." The Conference of the Birds remains one of the most popular works of the imagination in Persian. Although imbued with Sufi doctrine and in many respects an exposition of the Sufi path, the Conference's message speaks across faith-divides and can be appreciated by any reader who is interested in destroying their ego and in serving humanity. Of all Sufi themes, two are central to this work; "destroying the self" and "love." The latter, for `Attar, leads to the former. Most examples of this fly "in the face of either social or sexual or religious convention." This could be love between people from different social classes, religions and even between people of the same sex. One story tells of a Muslim who is put to shame by an infidel; the former's "false piety" was worth less than the latter's "loyalty." When people genuinely love another, they place their happiness before one's own. People sacrifice personal advantage for their sake; serving others, too, results from loving others more than ourselves. "We seek," he wrote, "the way of perfect unity, where no one counts his own prosperity"
Fatima Mernissi, the prominent Muslim feminist scholar and human rights activist, describes `Attar as her "favorite of the Sufis." She champions the Conference as an invitation to embrace the Other, whatever their faith or culture as equally human; "Attar sang," she writes, "of that Sufi Islam that is totally unknown to the Western media." This type of imagination "will probably be the only successful challenger to the electronic agenda, for it offers something the latter can never threaten or replace; the spirituality that gives wings, opening you up to the other like a flower."
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