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“Assembly of birds, the Hoopoe spoke,

I am the Messenger Bird for the Visible and the Invisible

I come to you in tune with the Great Almighty,

schooled in the ways of great mysteries.”

-from Sholeh Wolpé’s translation  


Attar begins by welcoming the birds, starting with the hoopoe, who will act as guide.

The hoopoe, pictured above, appears in the Qur’an’s Surah an-Naml (Chapter 27), as a helper to King Solomon, bearing a letter to the Queen of Sheba which convinces her to convert to monotheism from sun worship. For being the messenger of God, Solomon gifts the hoopoe with a beautiful crown of feathers on its head.

The other birds are also encouraged to draw inspiration from a prophetic figure. Some of those figures, like Moses, Abraham, and Jesus, will be familiar to us. Qur’anic figures like Abu Bakr, Salih, and Dhu al-Qarnayn might be less well-known.

The birds then discuss who should be their sovereign, and the hoopoe tells them it should be the Great Simorgh, a mythical bird in Persian folklore sometimes equated with the phoenix. The hoopoe then encourages the birds to journey together to find the Simorgh.

Right away, we know this creature symbolizes God. The hoopoe speaks of it rhapsodically, as any good spiritual leader should, but he also tells the others that he cannot and will not make the journey alone. Even Jesus needed disciples.

Each bird, however, makes an excuse not to go. I’ll highlight three.

The peacock says that he can’t go because of his past sins. In Arabic folklore the peacock is approached by Satan, who offers immortality in exchange for being smuggled into Paradise in his feathers. The peacock takes the offer and Satan seduces Eve. As punishment, the peacock is cast out of Paradise. He claims that the Simorgh would never accept him into court. All he cares about is regaining that lost home in the Garden.

How often do we imagine that God could not love us because of the weight of our sins!

In response, the hoopoe says,

“The Beloved is a grand ocean in which

the Garden of Paradise is but a tiny ball of dew.

If you have the Ocean, you have the drop.

Don’t settle for less, don’t seek anything but the Ocean.”

(Sholeh Wolpé)

Lent begins with the phrase, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But, as the poet Jan Richardson says, do you know what the Holy One can do with dust?

The duck’s excuse is that she is too busy with ritual ablutions – a reference to wudu, washing before prayer. She says,

“I live in water and I cannot go

to places where no streams or rivers flow;

They wash away a world of discontent –

Why should I leave this perfect element?”

(Dick Davis)

This love of water can symbolize the way we cling to ritual over relationship with God. I’m certainly guilty as a priest of sometimes valuing the particularities of worship more than I trust God to act within worship no matter how it turns out! We probably all know (or have been) people who have equated ritual or doctrine with God.

The hoopoe explains to the duck that a drop of water contains thousands of reflections, and some may be of substances hard as iron…but if that drop of water falls, it will still shatter. Our rituals and doctrines may be reflections of God, but we should never confuse them with the real deal.

Finally, the goldfinch says,

“How can a mere finch, helpless bird that I am,

survive such an adventure?

Surely Simorgh has many suitors, so how can I,

such as I am, find a place among them?

No, I can never shelter such hope, so why even begin this impossible trip?”

(Sholeh Wolpé)

Oof. Does this sound familiar? The hoopoe’s response seems brutally harsh. But just as he has earlier confronted the pride of other birds like the hawk, who is content to sit hooded on the arms of kings, so must he confront the toxic shame that keeps us from seeking God. Believing you are worse than everyone else is just as unhealthy for your soul as believing you are better than everyone else.

The hoopoe counters every excuse, and the birds accept his wisdom but say,

“The Beloved is a Solomon, and we, beggar ants –

So great is the distance between us!

How can a ditch-bound ant catch up with a Great Bird?

What has a royal to do with beggars?

Would the Simorgh even bother with weaklings like us?”

(Sholeh Wolpé)

This is a cleverly crafted reference to another story from Chapter 27 of the Qur’an. As Solomon and his army march toward a battle, an ant instructs her fellows to go underground so they won’t be crushed. Solomon finds this amusing, because it’s evidence that animals truly understand who he is (a prophet) while humans do not. Attar’s birds don’t see the good news in that story! It seems hidden – remember how important hiddenness is!

The hoopoe explains that the Simorgh, in flying over the earth, birthed all creatures within its shadow. Shadows cannot be separated from the object that makes them, and nor can reflections in a mirror. He then tells a parable about a king who is so beautiful that his subjects can’t look at his bare face without being annihilated by its splendour. The king’s solution is to fill his palace with mirrors. This is a common theme in Sufism: the notion that the universe was created as a way for God to lovingly behold God’s own Self, within creation.

Christians, of course, see Jesus as the mirror reflecting God’s glory and love. In Lent we’re also invited to recognize ourselves as mortal shadows or reflections of God’s love. As we continue toward Holy Week, however, the dark room in which we grope around for God will have its door thrown open, and in the light which comes through, all that will be left is the Origin of both shadow and reflection.

And we will behold it, face to face.