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“Look carefully!

This world, that world,

are all Him!  


There is nothing other than Him.

and if there was,

even that is also Him!”

-from the introduction, translated by Omid Safi  


We begin at the beginning – or rather, not quite! For Dick Davis and Sholeh Wolpé both forego translating Attar’s introduction to The Conference of the Birds, instead shooting right into the story itself.

I don’t know why Wolpé left it out, but in this episode of Omid Safi’s lovely Sufi Heart podcast, Safi tells us that Davis leaves it out because it’s “too religious,” and Davis is only interested in matters of literature. Safi, with characteristic playfulness, adds, “Some of us can be both!”

These types of introductions, which are often long and lovely devotions to God, are standard for works like this; Rumi’s Masnavi includes one as well. They provide important context which ground the work and authors in their Muslim faith, something often minimized or erased by many contemporary translators who seek to universalize Sufi poets for the New Age and self-help set. It’s true that mysticism pushes at the boundaries of denomination and doctrine, but these works are greatly impoverished when divorced from their connection to Islam, the Prophet, and the Qur’an.

Since I don’t have a full translation of the introduction in front of me, I can’t comment on it at great length, but a few things are really important to highlight. All of the following quotes from this introduction are translations from the Persian by Omid Safi.

First, Attar introduces us to a very important theme in The Conference of the Birds, which is hiddenness. The shimmering truth of the poem is foreshadowed in this beautiful quote: “The soul is hidden in the body and You (God) are hidden in the soul, O Hidden within the Hidden!” Hold onto this quote, friends! It will be important as we embark!

Another thing is a beautiful story which reminded me of another mystic, born about a hundred and twenty years after Attar’s death: St. Julian of Norwich. Julian, a 14th century English anchorite who wrote the masterful Revelations of Divine Love while walled up in a monastic cell, writes with tenderness about Jesus as a nursing mother:

“The mother may give her child suck of her milk, but our precious Mother, Jesus, He may feed us with Himself, and doeth it, full courteously and full tenderly, with the Blessed Sacrament that is precious food of my life; and with all the sweet Sacraments He sustaineth us full mercifully and graciously.” (tr. Grace Warrack, 2016)

Likewise, Attar tells a parable about a mother giving milk to her baby, and asks the Prophet Muhammad (upon whom be peace), “O Messenger of God, nurse me, suckle me through your breast of compassion and tenderness and generosity.”

Here both Attar and Julian play with the gender norms of their respective time periods to create a picture of intimacy with Jesus and the Prophet Muhammad.

They are not the only ones who engage in this type of subversion! It’s very common among other mystics! It’s inspiring to read as a queer and nonbinary person.

The true beauty of mysticism is its synchronicity, even across time, tradition, and culture. As we continue on in this journey with Attar and his birds, be on the lookout for other images and turns of phrase that remind you of things you’ve heard in the Bible and other sacred texts and spiritual teachers you’ve encountered in your life. You might be surprised at how much is familiar to you!