“If you see the Beloved in everything,
you’ll know nothing but the Beloved.
You are in the Beloved,
from the Beloved,
with the Beloved,
of the Beloved,
and outside the Beloved too.”
(from Sholeh Wolpé’s translation)
The birds are now prepared for a new part of the journey: what most English translators refer to as The Seven Valleys. Peter Avery clarifies that Attar actually calls them The Seven Wádis, a word you may remember hearing in the Bible.
Avery defines wádi as:
“water-courses or boulder-strewn riverbeds that in lands of little rain are more often than not dry and without shelter from trees, although at certain seasons hosts to flash-floods when water rushes down from melting snow or after a sudden thunderstorm on upland heights. Travellers might often, especially in narrow gorges or where tracks are difficult, have to make their way through these dry river-and-torrent-beds, in which the going is hard.”
Here Attar adds more Sufi theology to his story, tying each valley to a step in the Sufi path.
The hoopoe explains to the birds what awaits them within each valley or wádi, the first of which is the Valley of the Quest, or Seeking. The illustrative parables that immediately follow are among Attar’s most radical. I found them profoundly moving, particularly the first one of Iblís, which requires a bit of background information.
In Islam, the story of Satan’s fall goes that, once God had created humanity, all of the angels were commanded to bow before the human creature. Satan (also known as Iblís) in pride, refused, and was thereby cursed. Muslims see him as a malevolent force, and in fact, before reciting any part of the Qur’an, will utter a prayer seeking refuge from him.
Iblís is a more complicated figure for Attar, who imparts an incredibly radical motive for his refusal to bow. It wasn’t out of pride, but out of the desire to see God breathing Spirit into Adam. That was supposed to be a secret, a “treasure.”
When God realizes Iblís has seen this, God is ready to obliterate him, explaining that anyone hiding treasure would kill witnesses to the hiding place. Iblís begs for forgiveness, and while God does relent somewhat, still says Iblís will be cursed forever.
Iblís welcomes this, saying,
“Since I know about that pure treasure, how can I then fear a curse? … If damnation is my lot, I have no fear. …When I saw the whole of creation begging for your mercy, I insolently reached for your damnation. The recipient of your mercy is no better than the one who receives your curse, for both come from you.”
This leads to the next parable about the Sufi master Sheblí, who, near death, is weeping and mourning in the dust, wearing a zonnár, just as the nameless sheikh from this post wore for his Christian beloved. Peter Avery calls it “the zonnár of consternation,” and a translation note shows that ‘consternation’ is ḥairat, the name of the second-to-last valley on the journey! Attar is hinting to us that wisdom is afoot here, not blasphemy.
Sheblí’s odd behaviour causes someone to ask what he is doing, and he responds,
“I am burning. How else can I put up with it? What can I do?
Since out of jealousy I am melting, how should I act?
My soul, that has sealed the eye against both the two worlds,
Now out of jealousy of Iblís is enflamed.
Since he alone was visited by malediction,
My distress is because the award goes to someone else:
Shiblí’s left with a melting and thirsty heart.
He to someone else gives something extra.”
This is the heart of the mystic: so wildly in love with God that even Satan is a figure of whom to be envious!
It occurred to me as I read that perhaps the Church in her wisdom created the season of Lent as a season for us to explore this Valley of Seeking. I came to this thought as I read what is probably one of my favourite passages thus far. All three translations are gorgeously rendered, but I find Sholeh Wolpé’s especially evocative:
“All parts of existence, above and below, are Jacob-particles looking for their lost Joseph. Pain and hope are inevitable in the Beloved’s Path, and if your eyes can’t find their goal, don’t give up – persist. Even though lovers have no patience, search with patience until you find your Beloved.”
This heart-breaking image of Jacob seeking Joseph put me in mind of another image which I might offer up as an additional parable: Are not all atoms in the universe also like Mary Magdalene, seeking the body of her beloved Teacher? With patience and persistence, she asked everyone where he had been taken: disciples, angels, and mysterious Gardeners. And of course, her patience and persistence were rewarded. So too shall ours be as we journey through the seeking season of Lent.
After the Valley of Seeking comes the Valley of Love. Describing it, Attar (through Sholeh Wolpé) says:
“Walk here and drown in fire,
for in this valley only fire lives.
If you are not a lover of fire,
because a true lover is one with fire;
a true lover ignites, burns, and flares like fire.”
This valley’s parables show us stories of wild, unhinged acts of love. A man falls in love with a wine-seller and sells all his possessions to buy the seller’s wine – and when he is destitute, he sells the bread he begs from others for more wine. A pauper falls in love with a king’s slave so desperately that he charges into an active polo game the slave is playing. Abraham refuses to yield to Azrael, the angel of death, because Abraham will not allow anything to stand between him and God.
Most poignant for us, perhaps, is the story of the wild lover Majnun, mentioned in the same earlier post. Majnun, in search as always of his beloved Layla but forbidden from associating with her, asks a shepherd if he can borrow a sheepskin (another symbol of the Sufi path) so that he may get close to her disguised as a sheep. He gets close enough to catch a whiff of her alluring fragrance, and becomes so enraptured that he needs to be carried off and doused with water! Later, someone asks him if he would like something pleasant to wear. Majnun, who is either naked or still clad in the sheepskin depending on which translation you read, responds,
“Not all clothing is worthy of the friend:
No garment is better for me than the wool-skin.
… In a coat of wool I have smelt the scent of my friend:
How might I reach for any covering but a skin?”
Is this not how Jesus chose to come among us – in disguise, wearing our own flesh, in order to get close, and even refusing to discard it once he returned in resurrection!
Many more valleys follow, including the Valley of Knowledge, where the seeker is adjured to stay awake; the Valley of Detachment, where a sort of sacred apathy falls upon the seeker and they recognize the futility of the mortal world; the Valley of Unity, where the seeker loses the ability to distinguish between the Beloved and all else, even the self; the Valley of Wonderment, where the seeker loses all sense of…well, everything; and finally the Valley of Poverty and Annihilation, where the soul achieves ultimate union with the divine.
This last valley is a metaphor for the Sufi concept of fanāʾ, sometimes described as “to die before one dies.” For many Sufis, including Rumi, fanāʾ is the ultimate goal of the path of Sufism. Some compare it to the Buddhist concept of samadhi, or the Eastern Orthodox concept of theosis, but neither of these are quite the same, and there is disagreement even among Sufis over what it really is.
In this moment, of course, on the threshold of Holy Week, we can see the parallels between this journey through the valleys and the journey of Jesus’s life as the Christ. May we, shy goldfinches that we are, have the strength to bear witness to the story once again as we turn our eyes toward Jerusalem in the week to come, in the last post of this series.