Farid-ud-din Attār occupies a prominent place in the roll of distinguished Persian poets. His most famous work on Sufism, written eight centuries ago, is the Mantiq-ut-Tayr, or the “Colloquy of the Birds,” an allegorical poem in which the gifted mystic describes the quest of the Birds (symbolising Sufi pilgrims) for the Simurg (the Lord of Creation). A French translation of this great classic by M. Garcin de Tassy was published in Paris in the year 1863, but it has not yet been translated into English.
In the year 1910 a translation of a fragment of the poem, in which the poet describes the seven valleys through which the Sufi pilgrim has to make his way before he reaches the Divine presence, appeared in “The Porch,” and was subsequently issued in leaflet form.
This excerpt, however, gives no idea of the story, nor of the poet’s flights of fancy and the charming imagery that distinguish his poem from all other Sufi works. I was eagerly awaiting a full translation of the poem by one of those English scholars who have rendered such splendid service to the cause of oriental studies by bringing within the reach of the English-speaking people many a gem of Persian literature, but as no such work has appeared and as I had a little leisure during my last voyage from Bombay to Venice, I thought I could apply it to no better purpose than the preparation of an abridged version of this great poem, which, dealing with a subject of perennial interest to mankind, has delighted and inspired successive generations of readers and will continue to do so, as long as divine philosophy kindles in the heart of men the fire of enthusiasm to rise on “stepping stones of their dead selves to higher things.”
I should explain that I have omitted a good deal which I thought would not interest a foreign reader or would tend to obscure rather than illuminate the salient points of the discourse. I have also thought fit to give a free rather than literal translation of the selected passages, so that the work may be of interest to the casual reader as well as to the student of spiritual and mystic lore.
In these days of restless struggle and haste when the thoughts of men are directed towards a practical solution of the bewildering difficulties into which the world has been plunged by the great war, a work on a system of philosophy identified with metaphysical speculation and stagnation calls for a word of explanation, if not of apology. The highest intelligences in all parts of the globe are to-day striving to gain a clear understanding of the terrible unrest that has everywhere unhinged the minds of the people and to devise means for combating the forces of disruption that threaten to overturn the established order of things. The crying need of the hour is virile action, not sterile speculation. We want powerful stimulants to rouse up every individual to do his best for the regeneration of the world, not soothing drafts to induce the slumber of spiritualism and quietism.
What, then, is the justification for a book on Sufism in such stirring times? The justification lies in the fact that mysticism like other systems of religious philosophy has an ideal as well as a practical side. If it leads some to passivity, or lures them to the realms of fancy, it also quickens others to rise above the plane of common life and come in closer touch with the reality of things. The exalted doctrines and high principles for which it stands sustain alike those who long for a life of spiritual peace and those who are ready to face the stern struggles of an active life. Worthless, indeed, would be these tenets and precepts for the ascent of man should they break down when subjected to the pressure of events such as those through which society is now passing.
Self-renunciation is the be-all and end-all of Sufism, but it must not be confounded with renunciation of the world. Sufism does not call upon its initiates to leave the world. It rather exhorts them to plunge themselves in it and in the universe at their gates and to know their mutual relations. This knowledge cannot come from without by comprehension. It can only be attained from within by self-mergence.
Therefore, the Sufi has to go through certain stages of training and preparation. The vital principle of this self-discipline is the purification of the senses and of the will. To purify the senses is to liberate them from the thraldom of egocentric judgment and to make them organs of clear and unclouded perception. This done, the Sufi’s heart becomes a mirror on which the full perfection of Divinity can be reflected. The traveller on the Path then energises upon new planes where he sees more clearly, hears more intensely and feels more vividly than before.
After this it is not a very difficult matter for him to surrender his
“I-hood” and to subjugate his affections and will. He is now the Sikandar (Alexander) of his time, for he has built a solid wall between his pure self and the Gog and Magog of passions and desires. He feels that the rhythm of his life is in tune with the rhythm of the Universal Life, beholds the world from a new angle of vision and discerns eternal beauty and eternal serenity beneath apparent deformity and apparent inhumanity. The dreadful phantoms of passion and prejudice, distrust and discord vanish like mists and new light, new colour, new fragrance, new music thrill every nerve with indescribable joy.
During his journey on the spiritual path a Sufi is apt to lose self-control and to indulge in excesses. Many an ardent pilgrim has gone astray owing to such loss of control, but that is no reason why others should fight shy of the pilgrimage. If some enthusiasts have brought ridicule on themselves and on the cause by pushing the doctrines of abstinence, love and charity to excess, they have at least left to humanity a warning against the perils of the modern tendency towards a preponderance of the opposite qualities of worldliness, selfishness and self-indulgence.
A study of Sufism will thus help us in this materialistic age to steer clear of the arid rocks of egotism while avoiding the engulfing whirlpools of nihilism. The world would indeed be at all times much the better for a little infusion of the exalted devotion of mystics like Mirabai or Muktabai, or of the quietism of Rabi‘ah or Madame Guyon, or the transcendentalism of Maulana Rumi or Schelling, or the ecstatic exultation of Mansur Hallaj or Master Eckhart, or of the mystical compulsion of Joan of Arc or Florence Nightingale.
Another aspect of the study of mysticism should not be lost sight of. There is no branch of Oriental or European thought the study of which promotes a better understanding between East and West than mysticism. It removes many a veil of separation that keeps the different races apart from one another and therefore also apart from God, and makes them realize their essential unity beneath superficial diversity.
It may be hoped, therefore, that a deeper and more widespread knowledge of the attractive philosophy and lofty ideals of Sufism, which is at once the religious philosophy and popular religion of Islam, will not fail to induce that spirit of love and charity which neither fears nor loathes as alien communities of different colour or creed, but knits them in closer bonds of union as sons of the same family and sharers of the same destiny.
Before I conclude, it is my pleasant duty to express my obligations to those to whom I am indebted for this excursion into Sufi philosophy. It revives grateful memories of the late Professor Mirza Hairat of the Elphinstone College, Bombay—poet, scholar and philosopher—at whose feet I took my first lessons in Sufism. My warm acknowledgments are also due to those Persian and English authors whose works have been my constant companions on the mystic path, particularly to Mr. E. R. Whinfield and Dr. Reynold Nicholson.
In giving illustrations from the works of Maulana Rumi, Jami, Shabistari and Hajwari, I have freely availed myself of the excellent English translations of their writings by these learned authors and my readers will, no doubt, agree that I could not have done better.
R. P. MASANI.
15th June 1923.