Attar and the Mystic Quest

Dr F. Biria, M.Sc., B.Sc., D.E.S.L., Paris

Mohammad ebn-e Ebrahim (born in 1120 A.D.) was a highly successful attar, or pharmacist, in Nishabur. In the 12th century, Nishabur, also the native land of the famous Omar Khayyam, was one of the most important cultural centres in north eastern Persia. Like all pharmacists of that time, Mohammad was simultaneously a doctor and a perfumer. As well, and by his own admission, he had more than 500 pulses to observe daily.

One day a dervish, in passing, looked into his shop, and smelling the sweet perfumes, heaved a sigh and began to weep. Mohammad, thinking that this dervish was trying to arouse his pity, asked him to go away. The dervish replied, 'Yes, there is nothing to prevent me leaving your busy shop and saying farewell to this world. All I have is my worn out mantle. But I am grieving for you. How will you ever turn your mind to death and renounce all these worldly goods?' Mohammad asked the dervish, 'How will you leave this world?' The dervish replied, 'Like this,' and thereupon he lay down and gave up the ghost. This incident profoundly affected Mohammad - so much so that he left his shop and, becoming a disciple of Sheikh Rakn-od-din, began to practise the Tasawuf (traditional school of sufism).

He was then called Farid-od-din Attar-e Nishaburi (the unit in the faith, the pharmacist-perfumer of Nishabur). After finishing his stay with his master, he travelled for the next 39 years, studying in many khanegah-s (sufi ashrams) and collecting the writings of devout sufis, together with legends and stories from many different countries. He finally returned to Nishabur where he lived for the remainder of his life and resumed his practice as an attar. However, he was not only a physician of the body, but also the attar of the soul (attar-e jan) and a silent physician (tabib-e kha-moosh, a sufi master).

In his old age, Attar was visited by the family of Jallal-od-din-e Rumi and recognising that this seven year old child was destined to be a spiritual giant, he presented the young Jallal-od-din with one of his important treatises - Asrar-nameh (The Book of Secrets).

His true value

When Ghengiz Khan arrived in Iran, the Mongols ransacked and set fire to the city of Nishabur. In 1230 the old master, who was now over 100 years, was captured by a Mongol warrior. A man who knew Attar told the Mongol, 'Don't kill him, I'll give you a thousand pieces of silver for him.' But Attar quickly advised his captor, 'Wait, don't sell me yet! You will get a much better price for me from someone else.' Shortly after, another man arrived and offered the Mongol a quantity of straw for his prisoner. Attar jumped up, 'Sell me now; this is my true value.' Whereupon he was killed by the angry Mongol.

It was said that Attar had the deepest understanding of Tasawuf of anyone of his time. He was probably the greatest master preceding Rumi, who calls him 'the soul of Tasawuf', saying:

'Attar was the spirit
Sanai his eyes twain And in time thereafter
Came we in their train.'

(This verse refers to Sanai-ye Ghaznavi - a great sufi master and poet.)

Another sufi has written: "Rumi attained the heights of perfection like an eagle in the twinkling of an eye. Attar reached the same place by creeping like an ant."

Attar composed about 200,000 verses under more than 100 titles as well as an important and valuable treatise on the biographies of Muslim saints and mystics, entitled Tazkerat-ol-Aulia (The Memorial of Friends of God). His numerous books in poem include three of first-rate importance - the Asrar-namah (Book of Secrets) on general sufi principles, the Elahi-namah (Divine Book) on mystical love, and his highly esteemed inspirational work, which is probably the most important, the Manteq-ot-Teir (Speech of Birds). This last text is a treatise on the mystic quest and its different stages, composed in a splendid allegorical form. It is one of the most important manuals of the sufi school, and in some orders its passages are still recited during initiation. Rumi, referring to the value of this important work and its author, says: 'Attar has traversed the seven cities of love While we have not yet finished the first street.'