The Conference of the Birds (Mantiq at-Tayr, 1177) is a book of poems in Persian by Farid ud-Din Attar of approximately 4500 lines. The poem uses a journey by a group of 30 birds, led by a hoopoe as an allegory of a Sufi sheikh or master leading his pupils to enlightenment.
Besides being one of the most beautiful examples of Persian poetry, this book relies on a clever word play between the words Simorgh — a mysterious bird in Iranian mythology which is a symbol often found in sufi literature, and similar to the phoenix bird — and "si morgh" — meaning "thirty birds" in Persian.
Its most famous section is:
In the 1970s, the poem was adapted into a play by Peter Brook and Jean-Claude Carrière (called The Conference of The Birds), which Brook took touring around the wilds of Africa before presenting two extremely successful productions to a Western audience, one in New York City at La MaMa, E.T.C. and one in Paris.
The story recounts the longing of a group of birds who desire to know the great Simorgh, and who under the guidance of a leader bird start their journey toward the land of Simorgh. One by one, they drop out of the journey, each offering an excuse and unable to endure the journey. Each bird has a special significance, and a corresponding didactic fault. The guiding bird is the hoopoe, while the nightingale symbolizes the lover. The parrot is seeking the fountain of immortality, not god and the peacock symbolizes the "fallen soul" who is in alliance with Satan.
The birds must cross seven valleys in order to find the Simorgh: Aban (Flash), Ishq (Love), Marifat (Gnosis), Istighnah (Detachment), Tawheed (Unity of God), Hayrat (Bewilderment) and, finally, Fuqur and Fana (Selflessness and Oblivion in God). These represent the stations that a Sufi or any individual must pass through to realize the true nature of God.
Within the larger context of the story of the journey of the birds, Attar masterfully tells the reader many didactic short, sweet stories in captivating poetic style. Eventually only thirty birds remain as they finally arrive in the land of Simorgh — all they see there are each other and the reflection of the thirty birds in a lake — not the mythical Simorgh. It is the Sufi doctrine that God is not external or separate from the universe, rather is the totality of existence. The thirty birds seeking the Simorgh realise that Simorgh is nothing more than their transcendent totality. In fact the word "Simorgh" in Persian means thirty birds. The idea of God within is an idea intrinsic to most interpretations of Sufism dating back to the roots of Islam and can be found throughout the Qu'ran. As the birds realize the truth, they now reach the station of Baqa (Subsistence) which sits atop the Mountain Qaf.