“An iota of love is better than all the worlds.”
-from Sholeh Wolpé’s translation
Before we dive in: I finally secured a copy of Peter Avery’s translation, recommended by Omid Safi, which includes an extensive commentary.
After the hoopoe shoots down the birds’ excuses and tells them they are worthy to make the journey, they are excited to find the Great Simorgh, their beloved king.
The hoopoe explains that the only way to make the journey is to entirely surrender the ego. Attar makes it clear that this isn’t about self-abasement or asceticism. One should even be willing to surrender religion itself in service to God. He illustrates this with another parable, the longest in the poem: the parable of Sheikh San’an and the Christian girl.
This parable might appear quite obscure, even offensive, especially to a Christian audience! But notes from Sholeh Wolpé and the second episode of Omid Safi’s two-part podcast series give us some tools to help enter into this deeply radical story.
To begin, Safi explains that Sufi love stories are unlike modern love stories. In a Sufi love story, the first response from a beloved to a lover is a rebuff, which comes across as dismissive, even cruel. Safi says that if the stories ended here, they would be stories of abuse, not love. But they don’t end there. Instead, they switch places. Lover becomes beloved, and vice-versa.
In the parable, a deeply pious and devout sheikh, or spiritual teacher, lives in Mecca with a large flock of disciples. He notices that he is having a recurring dream of bowing to an idol in Rûm, or Constantinople. He decides the best way to understand its meaning is to go to Rûm, and brings with him his many disciples.
As he walks through town, he spies a Christian girl and becomes so taken with her exquisite beauty that he lies down at her door in the dust and won’t move. His disciples try their best to remind him of his true calling in life, but he rebuffs them all.
“Another one said, ‘Have you no regret? Not a moment have you of longing for Islam?’
He replied, ‘No one’s been more remorseful than I because of this:
Why was I not a lover before this?’”
The Christian girl appears at the doorstep, asking the sheikh what all the fuss is about. He proclaims his love, but she rejects him, laughing. She is young and unmarried; thousands of suitors could be hers. Why would she settle for this old man lying in the dust? He presses her so hard, though, that she finally says she will consider becoming his wife if he performs certain tasks, all of which are blasphemous to a Muslim, including drinking wine and burning the Qur’an.
It’s important to note here that the Christian girl should not be understood in a literal sense. Sholeh Wolpé writes,
According to scholar Leonard Lewisohn, the girl lives in the world of spiritual beings and represents “the higher iconic reality that sustains the idol’s appearance.” Lewisohn suggests, “The child is here, in fact, the elder, the master (pir)…an incarnation of the higher consciousness of the mystic.””
Part of why this story is so radical is the way it undermines traditional narratives of holiness. The sheikh, once seen as righteous, discovers a love that makes him throw away everything that once mattered to him. In this, there are shades of Jesus’s disciples who left behind their boats and families to follow, as well as St. Francis, who removed his clothing to stand naked in court as though reborn in his love for Christ.
This story also has a lot of parallels to the famous love story of Majnun and Layla, which recounts the tale of a poet who falls so deeply in love with a woman that he goes crazy. Sufis use this story as an allegory for the soul's longing for God. Attar was surely aware of it, and one of its most famous renderings, by Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi, was composed during his lifetime.
The sheikh’s disciples are horrified, but the sheikh accepts wine, which makes him drunk. He begs his disciples to return to Mecca and tell everyone what has happened to him. Distressed and after much arguing, they leave him behind.
Once the sheikh has become drunk, he attempts to touch the girl’s neck. She says he cannot until he proves himself further, and he is given a zonnár, a traditional rope belt that Christians wore to distinguish themselves from Muslims in Constantinople.
“When the Shaikh entered within the zonnár’s ring,
He flung his dervish cloak into the fire and began business:
His heart from his own religion he freed;
He remembered neither the Ka’ab nor shaikhliness.”
This is deeply symbolic: in the Mevlevi Sufi tradition, “burning one’s cloak” is a phrase used to symbolize a heart on fire for God. Again we see that this parable is about adopting a mystical love for God unconcerned with dogma or ritual.
The sheikh tries again to convince the girl to marry him, and she says she will do it if he herds her pigs for a year, since he has no money for a bride price. Pigs are, of course, unclean animals to Muslims, but he accepts gladly.
Upon returning to Mecca, the sheikh’s disciples meet with a close friend of his and tell the whole sad story. The friend is enraged, but not because of the sheikh’s infidelity. Rather he is angry at the disciples, and tells them that if they had really loved him, they would have accepted wine and zonnár too!
The friend then commands them all to pray for his return, and they get right down to it, praying and fasting for forty days and nights, until the angels, normally dressed in sacred green, don the blue of mourning.
Finally, the friend receives a vision of the Prophet Muhammad who tells him the sheikh has been released from his obsession and is ready to come home. They race back to Rûm and find him in a flood of tears, having cast aside the zonnár and the bells he used in swineherding. They comfort him and tell him all of his sins are forgiven, give him a new dervish cloak, and prepare to make the journey home.
On their way, something amazing happens:
“After this the Christian girl saw in a dream,
That into her arms the sun had fallen.
The sun then loosened its tongue
To say, ‘Go at once after your Shaikh.
Adopt his religion and be his dust;
O you who made him sullied, be cleanly his.
Since he unfeignedly came into your rite,
You in truthfulness take up his.’”
Beloved becomes lover. The mystical love that demands we surrender everything will surrender itself to us.
This is the essence of the story we are getting ready to tell as Holy Week approaches: the story of the God who came to earth to call us to take up our crosses and follow, who demanded we leave behind careers, safety, and families and subject ourselves to suspicion and mockery - but did the same for us, and more.
The girl rushes after the sheikh and becomes lost in the desert, collapsing from heat exhaustion. The sheikh hears a voice within telling him the girl is seeking him, and he runs back to her, even as his disciples chase him, fearful that he is once again abandoning the faith. When they find her, however, they realize that she has come in penitence, and feel pity. The sheikh holds her and she asks him to teach her about his faith. The beauty of the teachings then affects her so deeply that she dies in his arms.
It seems like a sad story, but Peter Avery once again gives us a hint that the girl’s death proves her higher understanding of spiritual truths:
“She had been a drop in this sea of fantasy;
She went back to the sea of Reality.”
“Reality” is often used as shorthand for God or divine truth in Sufi discourse. Where the sheikh was able to return to his earthly piety, although with a deeper wisdom than he had once had, the girl has pierced the veil between lover and beloved, just as Jesus does for us at Easter.