Farid ud-Din Attar was born in Nishapur, in northeast Iran. There is disagreement over the exact dates of his birth and death but several sources confirm that he lived about 100 years. He is traditionally said to have been killed by Mongol invaders. His tomb can be seen today in Nishapur. As a younger man, Attar went on pilgrimage to Mecca and traveled extensively throughout the region, seeking wisdom in Egypt, Damascus, India, and other areas, before finally returning to his home city of Nishapur.
The name Attar means herbalist or druggist, which was his profession. It is said that he saw as many as 500 patients a day in his shop, prescribing herbal remedies which he prepared himself, and he wrote his poetry while attending to his patients.
About thirty works by Attar survive, but his masterpiece is the Mantic at-Tayr (The Conference of the Birds). In this collection, he describes a group of birds (individual human souls) under the leadership of a hoopoe (spiritual master) who determine to search for the legendary Simurgh bird (God). The birds must confront their own individual limitations and fears while journeying through seven valleys before they ultimately find the Simurgh and complete their quest. The 30 birds who ultimately complete the quest discover that they themselves are the Simurgh they sought, playing on a pun in Persian (si and murgh can translate as 30 birds) while giving us an esoteric teaching on the presence of the Divine within us.
Attar's poetry inspired Rumi and many other Sufi poets. It is said that Rumi actually met Attar when Attar was an old man and Rumi was a boy, though some scholars dispute this possibility.
Farid ud-Din Attar was apparently tried at one point for heresy and exiled from Nishapur, but he eventually returned to his home city and that is where he died. A traditional story is told about Attar's death. He was taken prisoner by a Mongol during the invasion of Nishapur. Someone soon came and tried to ransom Attar with a thousand pieces of silver. Attar advised the Mongol not to sell him for that price. The Mongol, thinking to gain an even greater sum of money, refused the silver. Later, another person came, this time offering only a sack of straw to free Attar. Attar then told the Mongol to sell him for that was all he was worth. Outraged at being made a fool, the Mongol cut off Attar's head!
Whether or not this is literally true isn't the point. This story is used to teach the mystical insight that the personal self isn't of much real worth. What is valuable is the Beloved's presence within us—and that presence isn't threatened by the death of the body.
A slave's freedom
Loghman of Sarrakhs cried: "Dear God, behold Your faithful servant, poor, bewildered, old-- An old slave is permitted to go free; I've spent my life in patient loyalty, I'm bent with grief, my black hair's turned to snow; Grant manumission, Lord, and let me go." A voice replied: "When you have gained release from mind and thought, your slavery will cease; You will be free when these two disappear." He said: "Lord, it is You whom I revere; What are the mind and all its ways to me?" And left them there and then -- in ecstasy He danced and clapped his hands and boldly cried: "Who am I now? The slave I was has died; What's freedom, servitude, and where are they? Both happiness and grief have fled away; I neither own nor lack all qualities; My blindness looks on secret mysteries -- I know not whether You are I, I You; I lose myself in You, there is no two."
The Eternal Mirror
Not You but I, have seen and been and wrought. . . . Who in your Fraction of Myself behold Myself within the Mirror Myself hold To see Myself in, and each part of Me That sees himself, though drown'd, shall ever see. Come you lost Atoms to your Centre draw, And be the Eternal Mirror that you saw: Rays that have wander'd into Darkness wide Return, and back into your Sun subside.
How long then will you seek for beauty here?
How long then will you seek for beauty here? Seek the unseen, and beauty will appear. When the last veil is lifted neither men Nor all their glory will be seen again, The universe will fade -- this mighty show In all its majesty and pomp will go, And those who loved appearances will prove Each other's enemies and forfeit love, While those who loved the absent, unseen Friend Will enter that pure love which knows no end.
The Vain Bird
'You see I am vanity personified, Iblis watches over me night and day Thus I'm prescribed by him without a guide. I am torn self from self, I can't find the Way. I'm a finger of the Devil's pride. I cannot resist, I am the Devil tried.' The hoopoe hears the sixth bird out and says: 'You're meat for the dog of desire. The Devil's fool you are, no matter how you shout Your avowals to start again. The devil you acquires With vain conceits that steadily eat your soul As worms quilt the body's fodder which is your end. Unless you realize in heart and mind that as you are You're the Devil's coal ready to burn to ash. No friend Is he who seems to satisfy your whims, you're far From the Way you wish to travel or so you say; Reject the world's blandishments that spin you astray.'