Attar—Sufi Teachings on Higher Love
On Attar of Nishapur, the 12th century Persian mystical poet, best known in the West for his ‘Conference of the Birds’
The one great theme of Attar’s poetry is how to purify the heart so that one can see God everywhere. Though he has much to tell us on this theme, both from his own experience and from the traditions he industriously gathered, nevertheless, like almost all the great mystics, he professes his own ineptitude and prays to God for light. He addresses God with the following prayer:
I am bewildered and confused over your true nature.
I am drowned deep in the ocean of your attributes.
I am seeking there the pearl of proximity with you in love.
I am imprisoned in the waters of this ocean.
I fell into it all of a sudden.
I have nowhere to go except to you.
Show me the way that I may find the pearl of loving proximity with you,
Hidden as it is in the depths of the ocean of your majesty.
The spiritual life depends on efforts and grace both. We know the Prophet’s reply to the person who asked: ‘Should I tie up my camel at night, or just trust in God?’ It was ‘Trust in God and tie up your camel’.
The paradox holds that any service we are able to do in a spirit of service to God itself depends on his grace. This is illustrated by an old legend that turns up in a work to which Attar’s name is attached, even though he probably didn’t write it. The legend speaks of a worshipper of God who lived 500 years on a small mountainous island ringed by the sea, worshipping God. When he did die, God said to his angels: ‘Take him to Paradise through my compassion.’ But the worshipper said: ‘No, I’ll be going on account of my own efforts.’ Then God called him back for a bit of reckoning up. It was worked out that the gift from God of sight through the eyes continued for 500 years was equal to the merit of 500 years of worship, and that left out of account the gift of all the other powers of action and apprehension through the senses. So, like an appeal court ordering a severer sentence, God ordered him to be taken down to hell. The worshipper said: ‘Lord, take me up into paradise through your compassion.’ The Lord granted this, but reminded him that all the energy for his 500 years’ worship had been granted to him in compassion. It arose from the spring of water and the pomegranate tree on the island. He owed that to God’s compassion, not to his own efforts.
In truth, there is nothing we can give to God, and therefore whatever He gives to us, He gives free. A Sufi in Baghdad heard a man in the street saying he had some honey and was selling it cheap. The Sufi said: ‘Can you give it to me for nothing?’ The man replied, ‘Are you mad?’ Then the Sufi heard a divine voice in the sky saying: ‘Come to Us, We give you everything for nothing.’ Another Muslim mystic has said, ‘Today I counted 14,000 benefits that I received of God in one day, and that only in a single aspect, not counting the others.’ He was asked how he arrived at that calculation and said, ‘I counted my breaths and they came to 14,000.’
But if Islam draws attention to God’s grace, that does not mean that it will come to us in a spiritually effective form unless we, so to speak, actually make use of it. Islam does not have that tradition that has grown up in institutional Christianity according to which a Saviour has deliberately died in horrible circumstances that his followers might be redeemed from their sins and saved if they joined the church and believed. In Islam, we are told, the first concern of the believer is to earn forgiveness, for sins both of commission and omission, and also to demonstrate active obedience. We are given our short life and our allotment of breaths, and left free to use it or waste it.continue reading