Attar—Sufi Teachings on Higher Love

On Attar of Nishapur, the 12th century Persian mystical poet, best known in the West for his ‘Conference of the Birds’

The one great theme of Attar’s poetry is how to purify the heart so that one can see God everywhere. Though he has much to tell us on this theme, both from his own experience and from the traditions he industriously gathered, nevertheless, like almost all the great mystics, he professes his own ineptitude and prays to God for light. He addresses God with the following prayer:

I am bewildered and confused over your true nature.
I am drowned deep in the ocean of your attributes.
I am seeking there the pearl of proximity with you in love.
I am imprisoned in the waters of this ocean.
I fell into it all of a sudden.
I have nowhere to go except to you.
Show me the way that I may find the pearl of loving proximity with you,
Hidden as it is in the depths of the ocean of your majesty.

The spiritual life depends on efforts and grace both. We know the Prophet’s reply to the person who asked: ‘Should I tie up my camel at night, or just trust in God?’ It was ‘Trust in God and tie up your camel’.

The paradox holds that any service we are able to do in a spirit of service to God itself depends on his grace. This is illustrated by an old legend that turns up in a work to which Attar’s name is attached, even though he probably didn’t write it. The legend speaks of a worshipper of God who lived 500 years on a small mountainous island ringed by the sea, worshipping God. When he did die, God said to his angels: ‘Take him to Paradise through my compassion.’ But the worshipper said: ‘No, I’ll be going on account of my own efforts.’ Then God called him back for a bit of reckoning up. It was worked out that the gift from God of sight through the eyes continued for 500 years was equal to the merit of 500 years of worship, and that left out of account the gift of all the other powers of action and apprehension through the senses. So, like an appeal court ordering a severer sentence, God ordered him to be taken down to hell. The worshipper said: ‘Lord, take me up into paradise through your compassion.’ The Lord granted this, but reminded him that all the energy for his 500 years’ worship had been granted to him in compassion. It arose from the spring of water and the pomegranate tree on the island. He owed that to God’s compassion, not to his own efforts.

In truth, there is nothing we can give to God, and therefore whatever He gives to us, He gives free. A Sufi in Baghdad heard a man in the street saying he had some honey and was selling it cheap. The Sufi said: ‘Can you give it to me for nothing?’ The man replied, ‘Are you mad?’ Then the Sufi heard a divine voice in the sky saying: ‘Come to Us, We give you everything for nothing.’ Another Muslim mystic has said, ‘Today I counted 14,000 benefits that I received of God in one day, and that only in a single aspect, not counting the others.’ He was asked how he arrived at that calculation and said, ‘I counted my breaths and they came to 14,000.’

But if Islam draws attention to God’s grace, that does not mean that it will come to us in a spiritually effective form unless we, so to speak, actually make use of it. Islam does not have that tradition that has grown up in institutional Christianity according to which a Saviour has deliberately died in horrible circumstances that his followers might be redeemed from their sins and saved if they joined the church and believed. In Islam, we are told, the first concern of the believer is to earn forgiveness, for sins both of commission and omission, and also to demonstrate active obedience. We are given our short life and our allotment of breaths, and left free to use it or waste it.

Not only that, we are given reason, which the animals do not have. It is natural and understandable, says Attar, if sheep allow themselves to be led quite happily to the slaughterhouse, as they do not have reason. What is strange, he says, is that the human beings who carry out the slaughter can sit down in relaxation, even though they know that their own turn must come. He insists that we have to choose between remaining asleep in the life devoted to worldly pleasures, or trying to wake up through seeking for God behind the veil of the world with all its beauties and horrors. You have to choose between pursuit of God and untrammelled pursuit of worldly joy. Attar quotes an image conveying this point that he attributes to an Indian sage. You can’t follow both God and the world. If you have two donkeys to drive through a town, the proper procedure is to sit on one of them and lead the other by a tether. If you try to sit on both at the same time, you are in for a fall.

One of the snags of devotion to sensual pleasures is that they intoxicate and confuse the mind so that it becomes deaf to the spiritual teaching which is the only source of our true joy. Attar illustrates this with the story of the man who worked cleaning the town drains. One day on his way home he happened to pass a perfumery, and an odour of delicious musk went up his nostrils, as a result of which he became overcome by musk and fainted. The perfume-seller came to him with various delicious perfumes in the hope of bringing him round, but they had exactly the opposite effect. No sooner had he begun to come round than the perfume-seller would give him some superb perfume which only caused him to faint again. Fortunately, a fellow-worker in the drains soon passed and he went to the drains and scooped up some rubbish and held it under the first worker’s nose and brought him round in no time. The moral of this tale is that if we just let things slide, a sort of miasma of interest in worldly things closes in upon us and we lose all interest and taste for spiritual teachings.

It is not the case that we have to live in the world as ascetics if we wish to pursue the spiritual life. We have to live in the world but not of it. Once a holy man in the East was passing a market. A confectioner, out of the sincerity of his heart, approached him and asked him to sit in his shop for a bit so that he could have the benefit of his company. The holy man agreed, and the confectioner set a dish of honey in front of him, as a mark of hospitality. The holy man did not touch it, and as a result, as anyone who has been in the East can imagine, it was very soon covered with a mass of flies. Some of them were round the edge of the dish, and some in the middle. The confectioner took a cloth and whisked them away. Those on the edge flew off, but those in the middle were unable to free themselves and were caught and crushed by the cloth. On beholding this sight, the holy man fell into a short ecstatic trance. When he emerged from it, he said: ‘It is an image of the world. When you come to this world, the only right way to live in it is to live on the edge of it and content yourself with little. If you become wholly enmeshed in the bitter-sweet of the world, you lose the higher aspirations and idealism and creative living which enable you to make something of your life.’

The faculty in us which enables us to keep in touch with the higher ideals whilst living in the world is the faculty of love. It is precisely because of this dynamic quality in love in particular, its power to engender changes in the lover, that it is impossible to define it. The definition would entirely depend on what stage the sensibility of the lover had reached. There is a well-known distinction in Islam between what is figuratively called love, ‘ishq-e-majazi’, and true love, ‘ishq-e- haqiqi’. The various forms of worldly love fall into the category of what is figuratively called love; true love is the exclusive love of God. Worldly love is not dismissed as useless by all Islamic mystical authors. It is true that Maulana Rumi is disparaging when he speaks of desire for the body of a person as desire for a phantom, and yet he likens that ‘desire for a phantom’ to a ‘wing’. He says: ‘When you have indulged a lust, your wing drops off; you become lame, and that phantom flees from you. Preserve the wing, and do not indulge in such lust, to the end that the wing of desire may bear you to Paradise.’

There is already a faint suggestion here that earthly love may be regarded as the first step in the ladder to love of God. Another Islamic theologian writes: ‘Earthly love is the touchstone for the validity of one’s claim to be a true lover. God plagues the seeker with an earthly love that he may learn the right way to love, and become acquainted with the sufferings and sorrows of love, and thereby train himself to bear the burdens of divine love. In this, God’s action is like that of a father who puts a wooden sword into the hand of his son, so that he can begin to learn how to handle a real sword.’

Another Islamic teacher uses the example of Majnun and Leila, who might roughly be compared to Romeo and Juliet, to show how worldly love is sometimes sent to pave the way for love of God. This teacher uses a poetic image to compare Majnun’s character to a thoroughbred steed, so fine that it was chosen for the king’s mount. The king in this imagery is the love of the eternal, love of God. Majnun, in the image, because of his high character, is singled out to be the mount to bear the burden of the king. But they would not take a thoroughbred, as it were, straight from the paddock and expect the king to ride it on ceremonial and other occasions. First it is ridden and broken in by some horsemen of the stables. Thus Majnun, in order to become fit for the love of God, first undergoes earthly love, love of Leila, and in this earthly love he is broken in and trained for the love of God, the real love which is to follow.

Attar uses traditions about earthly lovers to help bring home to us what love of God really implies. As Kabir has said, it is not just a journey to the house of the maternal aunt. Today we live in an age when many people in India and West dress themselves up as Swamis and spiritual teachers when the prime object of love is still their own reputation. There are genuine lovers of God, but they are rare and do not draw attention to themselves. The following passage from Attar will help give us a criterion for judging what is implied if we are to think of a person as a lover of God. A lover, he says, was sleeping on the ground. The loved one came by, seeing his lover asleep, he wrote the following note and left it by the lover’s pillow. It said: ‘If you are a merchant, get up and go off and do some work to earn money. If you are an ascetic, stay up at night and watch and pray. But if you are a lover, then be ashamed of yourself and don’t give out lies about your love for me. A lover who sleeps—except in a shroud—is no doubt a lover, but only a lover of himself. You have engaged in love without the slightest idea of what it is about. Sleep well. You are unworthy.’

I think it is safe to say that Attar did not mean to urge that no-one who had not totally conquered the need for sleep could be accounted a lover of God. The contexts shows, rather, that he wished to say that an earthly lover in the height of his passion will hardly be able to sleep in the absence of his beloved, and that the intensity of love is an illustration of the intensity of the love of God of the true lover. As for the earthly lover, the passion will change and hopefully develop into something more mature.

The spirit that has to be cultivated is expressed in another tradition. It is a spirit of continual readiness for service. One winter’s day the tent of the king Mali shah became snowed up. The king was curious to know what the guard were doing in such bitter cold. He went out of his tent and found that only one guard was at his post, despite the cold. The king asked him who he was and where he came from. The soldier replied, ‘I am a stranger without a home. I have no other home except the king’s tent. As long as I live, my head will be at the feet of the king where they are.’ When you are one who remains present at the tent of the king, come what may, says the poet, you will be one of those who attain proximity with the king.

Let us here pause a minute to consider results so far. The theme of Attar’s poetry is how to purify the heart so that one can see God everywhere. Success on this path arises partly from the efforts of the student and partly from grace. Attar does not teach either sense-indulgence or flight from the world, but rather living in the world but not of it. The dynamic factor which brings about change for the better in pursuit of the spiritual path is the love of God. Attar speaks much of human love, particularly romantic love, and remarking that human earthly love can sometimes be a training ground for divine love.

The goal, then, is extrication from love of the world and cultivation of the love of God. Let us turn to consider some of Attar’s practical prescriptions in this regard. Renouncing the world is not a question of retiring to a monastery—except in the case of those who have a special calling for that kind of life. It is a question of remaining in the world and dealing with its objects, pleasurable and otherwise, in a new way. Maulana Rumi has said: ‘This world is a prison and we are the prisoners. Dig a hole in the prison and let yourself out. What is this world? To be forgetful of God; it is not merchandise and silver and weighing scales and women.’

Attar comes up with a simple image to illustrate the thesis that we are free when we are without hope and slaves when we have desires and hopes. Two schoolboys were having a lunch-break. One had dry bread, the other had a delicious cake. The one with the dry bread asked the other to give him a bit of cake. The reply was: ‘All right, but only if I tie a string round your neck and you follow me on a lead like a dog and do whatever I say.’ The boy agreed and got his cake at the expense of being pulled about and ordered about like a dog. A grown-up who observed the whole performance told him afterwards that he would really have been better off if he had just stuck to his bread.

And this is not a bad image of what so easily happens to us in the world. All we need is bread, but the sight of cake in the possession of someone else makes us feel that we also must have cake and this is what leads us into a humiliating slavery as we strive for things we don’t really need. An Islamic story about Jesus well illustrates this aspect of slavery. Two men were quarrelling about a piece of land and went to Jesus to adjudicate. One said, ‘This land is mine’, the other said, ‘No, it is mine.’ Jesus said, ‘Well, but the land itself says something different. It says, “Both these two are mine!”’

We are reminded of the image of the world produced by Maulana Rumi, as a cunning tailor, snipping away with his scissors day and night at the stock of satin that constitutes our life, and telling us comic stories the while, so that we don’t notice. When we become preoccupied with the world we forget God—it is two sides of the same process. But though we may forget God, God does not forget us. Attar recounts a tale in which a woman singer at a king’s court received a sharp reminder of this. One night she had finished her work in the court and retired to her tent. The king had a handsome cup-bearer, and that night the king happened to wake up in the middle of the night and notice that the cup-bearer was not at his proper post. The suspicion crossed his mind that something might be going on between the singer and the cup-bearer, and he drew his sword and went outside her tent, and sure enough he could see them, and heard her singing a song which went: ‘Tonight I must spin for others, but in the morning I will enfold you in my arms on the edge of the cornfield.’ The king had enough self-control not to go in and slaughter them then and there, he merely impressed the words of the song in his memory and went back to bed.

Ten days later a great banquet was held at the court, and the singer was present, fulfilling her public duties. In the middle of her programme, the king ordered her to sing the song which began: ‘Tonight I must spin for others.’ On hearing this, the harp slipped from her fingers, and she fell down and fainted. The king then felt a tremendous tenderness for the singer and came and bent over her and roused her from her fainting fit with rosewater from his own hands. The king said: ‘Do not be afraid, I am not going to harm you.’ But she said: ‘It is not the fate of my body that frightens me. I know now that you were listening to me without my being aware of it. Now you may reject me or keep me. Even if you reject me, I know that your heart will later prompt you to take me back. Even if you kill me, you will have delivered me from this wretched life. What has terrified me is something different. When I discovered that you had been observing me unawares, it suddenly brought home to me that God was observing me unawares day and night, and that some of my acts don’t bear repeating.’

The image is balanced with a completely different one which emphasises God’s kindness and forgiveness, provided we are alert to the advantages of them. According to a certain myth there is a bird living on the cliff-edge of a distant Syrian mountain who lays eggs only once a year, takes forty days to do it, and then flies off and abandons them when laid. A different bird comes, broods over the eggs and feeds the fledglings till they can fly. As soon as this has happened, the mother-bird comes back, perches on a lower peak and gives vent to the characteristic cry of its species. As soon as they hear this cry, the fledglings abandon their foster-mother and hurry off to their true mother. And then by one of those sudden unexpected twists of interpretation so common in the Iranian poets, Attar remarks: ‘If Satan takes you under his wing for a few days, all is not lost so long as you return as soon as you receive the call from God.’

The fable indicates a recognition that one may expect relapses on the spiritual path, but should not allow oneself to be so depressed by them that one gives up.

Another important point about the spiritual path is that any piety there is should be for God and not for show. Attar illustrates this with the comic case of a fellow who was praying rather self-consciously in the mosque at night-fall. He heard the noise of someone coming in behind him, and redoubled his efforts when he thought he was under observation by another person praying. As he didn’t hear the other person going out, he felt he had to keep up his efforts going the whole night. When the dawn came, he was greatly disappointed to discover that all that had happened was that a big dog had come into the mosque to sleep for the night. All that effort had just been for the sake of a dog, for sincere worship of God had hardly come into it.

Many stories warn against self-admiration. Indeed, we will fail ultimately on the path if any element of self-seeking comes in. A king had a spoilt hound which he used for hunting. He bought the dog a coat of silk, a necklace of jewels, golden anklets, and it was led on a silken lead. One day, as the king was taking the dogs on a lead to the hunt, the dog saw a bone, stood stock still over it and refused to move. The king let go the lead in anger and said: ‘Let the unmannerly animal go free.’ The huntsman thought it would be right to remove the animal’s finery, but the king said: ‘No, let him go off as he is. Perhaps he will one day see it and come to remember that he once had our friendship and has severed himself from such a king as myself.’ The poet gave this as an example of ingratitude for favours received. And he addresses the reader and warns him against lightly and carelessly throwing away any relationship with God he may have attained.

It is not only that we should not forget God’s favours. One has to accept with equanimity any blow one may receive while following the path. Attar wrote a long well-known prose work on traditions about the saints. Hasan and other early Sufi saints of Basra were in conversation with the lady saint Rabia. Hasan said: ‘No one is honest in his claim to love God, who does not endure with patience the blows inflicted by his master.’ Rabia said: ‘There is an odour of egoism about that.’ Another person said: ‘No one is honest in his claim to love God who does not enjoy the blows he receives from his master.’ Rabia said: ‘No, there’s more to it.’ So they said: ‘Well, you have your say.’ And Rabia said: ‘No one is honest in his claim to love God who does not, upon seeing his master, forget any blows that he may have received. There is nothing extraordinary in that. For it is well known that the women of Potiphar’s household felt no pain when they cut their fingers instead of the oranges they were cutting when stupefied by the beautiful appearance of Joseph. How much more will it be the case with those who behold the Creator of the world—all sense of pain and suffering will vanish in the vision of splendour.’

Love is ordinarily thought of as a feeling-state of a person in regard to something or someone outside himself. But in its deepest manifestations, love passes over into recognition of identity with the loved object, which then ceases to be an object. Love at this level is not unlike the knowledge taught in the Upanishads, and the similarities between aspects of Islamic mysticism and the Upanishadic teaching have often been recognised. This passage from Attar might well remind us of the metaphysical wisdom of the Upanishads:

If you purify your heart, you find you are one with the Creator. A perfected one said to a stranger: ‘Make your house into a cistern, thrown out the earth. When you get rid of the dark earth, water will spring up out of the cistern. The water is near, if you go a short way you find it. What you are seeking for, you already have within. You die thirsty, and there was a lake underneath you all the time. You have your feet on a treasure and you go about begging. So many angels sought the treasure in vain and with great trouble, and all the time they were standing on it. Until Adam’s soul appeared, they did not know the way to God. When Adam appeared, the key to the two worlds of earth and heaven appeared with him.

Again, you are a king, but are squint-eyed, victim of a veil of illusion. You see what is one as two, two you see as a hundred. What do one, two and a hundred mean? You yourself are all. A master had a squint-eyed pupil. He sent him to fetch a bottle of oil standing in another room. The pupil saw two bottles and asked which he should take. Break one of them, said the teacher angrily, and bring the other here.

When the pupil broke the one pot that there was to break, naturally he could no longer see the other one either. The poet concludes: ‘If you see anything as other than yourself, you are squint-eyed.’

As an image of a liberated person, Attar quotes the example of Luqman, the African slave, freed by his master in old age. He lost his reason in the worldly sense of that term. He went about dancing and shouting and clapping his hands and saying, ‘I no longer know who I am. I am no longer a slave. What am I? Slavery has disappeared and also freedom. There is no more grief or joy in my heart. I am without attributes and yet not without attributes. I know God and yet I have no knowledge of anything. I do not know if I am You or You are me. I am dissolved in You and duality has disappeared.’

This article is from the Summer 2016 issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.