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'Attar's Divine Tragedy

"Funeral Procession" by Sultan 'Ali al-Mashhadi,

from a 1487 edition of 'Attar's Mantiq al-Tayr

From shi'r and shar' and ‘arsh

—the Poem, the Road, the Throne—

so may three words adorn two worlds

and rise from One. 


As earth takes light from sky,

two worlds of ours glow bright 

from these three words of One:

the shi'r and shar' and 'arsh

Farid al-Din ‘Attar’s Musibat-Namah (which we translate as The Divine Tragedy) is the Persian poet’s attempt to narrate and versify the grief, pain, and suffering that awaits a pilgrim as he sets out upon the mystical path and seeks spiritual union with God. Composed circa 1180 CE, this lengthy poem (some 7500 verses) is also an allegory: as ‘Attar sings of the pilgrim’s travels and trials, ‘Attar also instructs his audience on the annihilation of the rational mind that is essential for mystical union. The suffering pilgrim of ‘Attar’s journey is named Fikrat—or “intellect”—and it is Fikrat’s journey through forty stages of spiritual advancement that serves as the occasion for ‘Attar’s work. Along this path, Fikrat meets various figures—the angel Gabriel, the fallen Satan, the prophet Muhammad—as well as personified cosmological concepts: Fikrat holds a dialogue with Hell, with Heaven, and with the cosmic Pen that records all events that have happened and will happen. This journey is punctuated by Fikrat’s conversations with a Sufi master who uses moral anecdotes, fantastic fables, and even crude illustrations to explain the sublime mystical dialogues that his disciple Fikrat holds along the path.

The poem is also a stunning exploration of how words work. That, in some sense, is the secret second theme of every allegory, for every allegory depends on a stated or unstated theory of how the allegorical language sinks into the world. As the passage above suggests (as does the one below), 'Attar thinks of poetic language—shi'r—as one third of the trinity of God's reality: poetry, cosmology, and revealed law.


My friend and colleague Ahoo Najafian and I are in the process of translating The Divine Tragedy as well as writing a number of articles or a small monograph on 'Attar's theory of allegory.


Perceive the sun, the sky,

majestic paradise, 

the elements of wind and water,

fire and earth:

In them we find the life

that flows in poets too.

And so the cosmos join

the fellowship of song.

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