Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Journey to the King

"By far the most famous parable describing the Sufi Way and the stations that a disciple must pass through on the journey toward self-annihilation was composed by the twelfth-century Iranian perfumer and alchemist, Farid ad-Din Attar (d. 1230). In Attar's epic masterpiece, The Conference of the Birds, the birds of the world have gathered around the hoopoe (a mythical bird), who has been chosen by lot to guide them on a journey to see the Simurgh: King of the Birds. Before they can begin their journey, however, the birds must first declare their absolute obedience to the hoopoe, promising that

Whatever he commands along the Way
We must, without recalcitrance, obey.

The oath is necessary, the hoopoe explains, because the journey will be perilious and fraught with physical and emotional adversity, and only he knows the Way. Consequently, he must be followed without question, regardless of what he demands.

To reach the Simurgh, the birds will have to traverse seven treacherous valleys, each representing a station along the Way. The first is the Valley of the Quest, in which the birds must "renounce the world", and repent of their sins. This is followed by the Valley of Love, where each bird will be plunged into seas of fire "until his very being is enflamed." Next is the Valley of Mystery, where every bird must take a different path, for "There are so many roads, and each is fit/For that pilgrim who must follow it." In the Valley of Detachment, "all claims, all lust for meaning disappear," while in the Valley of Unity, the many are merged into one: "The oneness of diversity/Not oneness locked in singularity."

Upon reaching the sixth valley, the Valley of Bewilderment, the birds - weary and perplexed - break through the veil of traditional dualities and are suddenly confronted with the emptiness of their being. "I have no certain knowledge anymore," they weep in confusion.

I doubt my doubt, doubt itself is unsure,
I love, but who is it for whom I sigh?
Not Muslim, yet not heathen, who am I?

Finally, at the end of the journey, the birds arrive at the Valley of Nothingness, in which, stripped of their egos, they "put on the cloak that signifies oblivion" and become consumed by the spirit of the universe. Only when all seven valleys have been traversed, when the birds have learned to "destroy the mountain of the Self" and "give up the intellect for love," are they allowed to continue to the throne of the Simurgh.

Of the thousands of birds who began the journey with the hoopoe, only thirty make it to the end. With "hopeless hearts and tattered, trailing wings," these thirty birds are led into the presence of the Simurgh. Yet when they finally set their eyes upon him, they are astonished to see not the King of Birds they had expected, but rather themselves. Simurgh is the Persian word for "thirty birds"; and it is here, at the end of the Way, that the birds are confronted with the reality that although they have "struggled, wandered, traveled far," it is "themselves they sought" and "themselves they are." "I am the mirror set before your eyes," the Simurgh says. "And all who come before my splendor see/Themselves, their own unique reality.""

- Reza Aslan, "No god but God"

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