How a 12th century Persian poem offers comfort for us today

The 12th-century Persian poem, The Conference of the Birds, tells the story of a group of birds setting out in search of God, only to realize after much hardship that God was always within. This episode was produced in collaboration with Soulpepper Theatre Company and their audio drama series Around the World in 80 Plays.

The Parliament of the Birds is part of Soulpepper Theatre Company's series, Around the World in 80 Plays

In his poem, The Conference of the Birds, Farīd ud-Dīn Attar tells the story of a group of birds in search of sovereignty — but what they find is enlightenment. Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company has adapted Attar's poem into a play called The Parliament of the Birds. (Getty/Soulpepper Theatre Company)

* Originally published on May 26, 2021.

Mantiq ut-Tayr, or The Conference of the Birds, is a 12th-century Persian poem telling the story of a group of birds setting out to find God and enlightenment. They journey through seven valleys, each of which requires the birds to confront some inner weakness, some moral failing. At the end of their travels, they shed their blinders and can see the truth for what it is.

The poem has been taken up by artists and writers and poets again and again, adapted and re-adapted to speak to new times and needs. 

The Conference of the Birds was written by the Sufi poet Attar, who was born, lived and died in Nishapur, in what is now northeastern Iran. He was embedded in the long Persian tradition of mystical poetry that served both to express the wonder and joy of the spiritual path but also to offer guidance to the seeker on how to do the hard work of opening one's heart to the divine. 

Soheil Parsa, artistic director of Modern Times Stage Company in Toronto, directed a stage adaptation of the poem written by Guillermo Verdechhia, which then had to be re-adapted as an audio drama due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That production was released May 26, 2021 as part of Soulpepper Theatre Company's Around the World in 80 Plays series.

Parsa says the allegorical story offers some concrete lessons.

"The piece accentuates the independent investigation of truth. And it rejects the notion of blindly following a belief system inherited from our ancestors," he said. 

"These elements, this concept of search, has always fascinated me as an artist because as an artist, I've never stopped searching for meaning, for self, for truth and beauty. That's where I really connect with the poem."

'Love-based mysticism'

Omid Safi, a professor of Islamic studies at Duke University, teaches a course on Attar and his most famous poem. He says Attar was a pivotal figure in the long history of Islamic spirituality and was a teacher of perhaps the most well-known Muslim mystic in the West, Rumi.

Attar differed from his contemporaries in that he wasn't a courtly poet and didn't have his work underwritten by a benefactor. He had a job as an attar, hence the name, selling perfumes and incense. He was an independent poet at a time when that was not the norm. 

"Before the time of Attar, you had mystics — people that, as a shorthand, we would call Sufis. [They] are devoted to the love of God and the love of humanity," said Safi.

He explained that there was a separate tradition of poets, many of whom tended to be people who would write in a courtly context, working as official poets for royalty. 

"What is so distinctive about Attar is that he blends these two together," he said.

Since Attar, says Safi, the two traditions of poetry and love-based mysticism have always been intertwined in the Persian tradition — in modern-day Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia, and South Asia.

"Virtually every mystic worth her or his salt would write poetry," he said. "And 90 per cent of their poetry has a mystical orientation as well."

Circa 1600, a page from a manuscript of Mantiq ut-Tayr (Conference of the Birds) written by Persian poet ʿAṭṭār of Nishapur, also known by his pen-name Farīd ud-Dīn. (Wikimedia)

Unlike later poets, such as Rumi or Hafez, Attar did not have a large following in his time, nor did he lead spiritual groups.

Kaveh Bassiri, a writer, translator and PhD student at the University of Arkansas, points out that the story of birds on a journey to enlightenment is not a new one. He says the story itself predates Islam's arrival in Persia and was also used by much earlier Muslim philosophers like Ibn Sina and Al-Ghazali in their work on spirituality.

"What Attar's attempt does is it provides a much more dramatic story, a much more coherent story, and adds this twist at the end which culminates in a version that then becomes the central story everybody gets to read," said Bassiri.

A hero's journey

Despite being a retelling of an old story, Attar's The Conference of the Birds does stand apart in some ways.

Safi says one of those key differences is Attar's framing of the story as a hero's journey.

"Whether it's Hercules in the Greek tradition or Rostam in the Persian tradition or Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, [the heroes] go through a number of trials and tribulations in Attar's valleys," he said.

At the beginning of the poem, readers learn that by the end of the story, the birds will meet the Phoenix, the king of the birds — or God. He compares that journey to the one the character Aragorn takes in Lord of the Rings.

Circa 1750, Hercules slaying a dragon while taking the three Golden Apples from the Garden of the Hesperides, one of his twelve labours. ( Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"In the beginning, he's just this not very confident, petty little officer. And yet he is destined to be the king, and we have to watch him grow to become what he's already been. And it's like that with the birds."

Safi says Attar's poem is a work of art in its own right, embedded in a long tradition of Persian mystical love poetry and Islamic spirituality. But there is also a universal message in the work that lends itself to being taken up outside of traditional constituencies: it's key to understand that all the characters in the poem and all the valleys they traverse and the trials they face are all contained within us.

Guests in this episode:

Soheil Parsa is the artistic director of Modern Times Stage Company and the director of The Parliament of the Birds, a Soulpepper Theatre Company production. 

Omid Safi is a professor of Islamic studies at Duke University.

Kaveh Bassiri is a writer, translator, and PhD student at the University of Arkansas.

Persian recitation of Attar's The Conference of the Birds: Negean Mashayekhi

Find the full production credits for the Soulpepper Theatre Company production here

* This episode was produced by Naheed Mustafa.

Around The World in 80 Plays is an audio drama series mounted by Soulpepper Theatre Company that takes listeners on a trip around the world. IDEAS will be your guide on that journey with radio documentaries exploring the cultural and historical context from these countries. Find more episodes from this series here.

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