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Farid al-Din 'Attar

Greatest Sufi poet, Farid al-Din 'Attar, was born in Nishapur, in northeastern Iran, in 1142 (/1119/1120/1136).His father was pharmacist and he received an excellent education in medicine, Arabic, and theosophy at amadrasah attached to the shrine of Imam Reza at Mashhad. According to his ownMosibat Nameh (Book of Afflictions), as a youth, he worked in his father's pharmacy where he prepared drugs and attended patients. Upon his father's death, he became the owner of his own store (1).
Work in the pharmacy was difficult for young 'Attar. People from all walks of life visited the shop and shared their troubles with him. Their poverty, it seems, impacted the young poet the most. One day, it is related, an unsightly fakir visited the shop. The way he marveled at the opulence of the store made 'Attar uneasy; he ordered the fakir to leave. Looking the owner and the well-stocked shop over, the fakir said, "I have no difficulty with this- pointing to his ragged cloak- to leave; but you, how are you, with all this, planning to leave!" The fakir's response affected 'Attar deeply. He pondered the fakir's reply for many days and, eventually, decided to give up his shop and join the circle of Shaykh Rukn al-Din Akkaf of the Kubraviyyah order.

His new life was one of travel and exploration, very much like the fakir who had inspired him. For a long time, he traveled to Ray, Kufa, Mecca, Damascus, Turkistan, and India, meeting with Sufi shaykhs, learning about thetariqah, and experiencing life in thekhaniqahs. When finally he felt he had achieved what he had been seeking in travel, 'Attar returned to Nishapur, settled, and reopened his pharmacy. He also began to contribute to the promotion of Sufi thought.In modern Sufi circles the name of 'Attar has a Kabbalistic or initiatory significance.

Different stories are told about the death of Attar. One common story is as follow: He was captured by a Mongol(2). One day someone came along and offered a thousand pieces of silver for him. Attar told the Mongol not to sell him for that price since the price was not right. The Mongol accepted Attar's words and did not sell him. Later someone else comes along and offers a sack of straw for him. Attar counsels the Mongol to sell him because that is how much he is worth. The Mongol soldier becomes very angry and cuts off Attar's head so he dies to teach a lesson.

His Works

Regarding the poetic output of 'Attar there are conflicting reports both with respect to the number of books that he might have written and the number of distichs he might have composed. For instance, Reza Gholikhan Hedayat reports the number of books to be 190 and the number of distichs to be 100,000. Firdowsi'sShahname contains only 60,000bayts. Another tradition puts the number of books to be the same as the number of the Surahs (verses) of theQur'an, i.e., 114. More realistic studies consider the number of his books to have been between 9 to 12 volumes.

'Attar's works fall within three categories. First are those works in which mysticism is in perfect balance with a finished, story-teller's art. The second group  are those in which a pantheistic zeal gains the upper hand over literary interest. The third are those in which the aging poet idolizes the saint Ali. During this period there is no trace of ordered thoughts and descriptive skills.

And now, some of his works:

1-Asrar Nameh (Book of Secrets), about Sufi ideas. In this book he uses a collection of small stories to elevate the spiritual state of the reader

2-Elahi Nameh(Divine book), about asceticism. In this book he describes six human capacities and abilities: ego, imagination, intellect, thirst for knowledge, thirst for detachment, and thirst for unity.

3-Manteq al-Tayr(Conference of the birds).In this book, Attar explains seven valleys (veils) which the "Bird of the Sky" goes through and passes to meet Simorgh.This is an allegorical poem describing the quest of the birds (i.e. Sufis) for the mystical Simorgh, or Phoenix, whom they wish to make their king (i.e., God). They choose as their leader in the search the celebrated hoopoe, a bird who, according to tradition, had guided King Solomon across the desert to the Queen of Sheba. The hoopoe describes the long and hazardous journey they must undertake through seven valleys (representing the seven stage of Sufism). Many of the birds make excuses, for they do not wish to continue, and eh excuses symbolize those made by men for not pursuing spiritual perfection. Of those who had begun the pilgrimage only 30 birds (si morgh) succeed in entering the presence of the Simorgh.

"In the final scene the 30 birds approach the throne contemplating their reflections in the mirror-like countenance of the Simorgh, only to realize that they (si morgh) and the Simorgh are one. In this way the poet allegorizes the final stage of the Sufi's progress: union with God (3).

4-His grand book of Tazkirat-ul-Awlia`(Biographies of the Saints), is a prose work about the early Sufis.


1- There is much controversy among scholars concerning the exact details of his life and death as well as the authenticity of many of the literary works attributed to him.

2-In 1221 AD, Genghis Khan, the famous Mongol warrior, captured the history land of Iran. He established the Ilkhanid dynasty in the country which remained there for more than hundred years. Genghis' early attacks on Iran started from Khurasan. He first captured Nishapur, the most populated town of the province, the Sabzevar and gradually other parts of the country.

Historians recount the story of a people who were mass murdered by Genghis' troops in Khurasan. Soldiers killed about two million in Nishapur alone, which was no exaggeration. They did not event show mercy to cats, doges or other domesticated animals. The attacks of Genghis Khan and the establishment of his offspring in Iran were a great misfortune which left the towns devastated for a long period of time.

3-You can read the story, translated by C.S.Nott in: http://www.angelfire.com/rnb/bashiri/Poets/Attar.html

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