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Perspectives Inspiration

Seeking Unity with the Divine

“It’s a world that’s designed to please the eye and please the soul.”

Oct 6, 2022


Listen to the conversation, or read the full transcript below.

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Detail of the Conference of the Birds folio

“Conference of the Birds” from Mantiq al-Tayr (Language of the Birds)

ca. 1600

This painting depicts a scene from Language of the Birds, a mystical Sufi poem by Farid al-Din ‘Attar. Birds gather around their leader, the hoopoe—a small brown, bird with a crown of feathers at right—to find unity with the divine Simorgh. Painted by late sixteenth- to early seventeenth-century artist Habiballah of Sava, this particular illustration was added about a century after the folio was first produced.

Read more about the artwork


Leili Anvar: I’m Leili Anvar and I’m a junior professor of Persian language and literature at the Institute of Oriental Civilizations and Languages in Paris where I teach both Persian texts and the history of Persian literature.

Maryam Ekhtiar: I’m Maryam Ekhtiar, I’m curator in the Department of Islamic Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Ekhtiar: This is one of the Museum’s great treasures. It’s not only the most luxurious illustrated copy of the Mantiq al-Tayr, The Conference of the Birds or The Canticle of the Birds by the poet Attar of Nishapur, but one of the most refined manuscripts produced in the Persianate world. It brings poetry, art, Sufism together both verbally and visually in an extraordinary way. And draws the viewer or the reader into a world of allegory and symbolism showing this idea of the quest for unity with the divine.

This manuscript consists of sixty-six folios, four fifteenth-century illustrations, and four seventeenth-century illustrations. Leili, can you say a few words about what this manuscript is illustrating about the poetry?

Anvar: Yes, of course. The Canticle of the Birds tells a story, the heroes of which are the birds, who gather and their problem is that they’re looking for the majesty of the birds, and they don’t know who that majesty is and where to go to find the majesty. And the hoopoe—the bird that accompanied King Solomon in all these journeys and wars—comes and tells them the name of the majesty is Simorgh who is an ambivalent bird, by the way, because it’s both a motherly bird and a dangerous bird that can devour those who go too close to her.

And the whole story is the story of the birds giving excuses not to do the journey. And the hoopoe patiently answers all their objections, questions, excuses, difficulties by telling them long tales in which there is always spiritual teaching. And, in so doing, the hoopoe ends up convincing the birds to go. And from the thousands of birds that started the journey, only thirty reach, actually, the throne of Simorgh. And it’s very important that only thirty of them remain because in Persian, to say thirty birds you say si morgh. So when they arrive, actually they realize the Simorgh is but a mirror in which they behold themselves.

Ekhtiar: Usually these mythical creatures are referred to as male, but Simorgh is a female?

Anvar: Well, Simorgh is ambivalent. The Simorgh has been said in the beginning of the story to be the origin, the womb of the universe. And from the womb of Simorgh all the creatures have been created.

And I can’t refrain from thinking that the Qu’ran itself starts with Rahman and Rahim the two attributes of God, the generous, the one who forgives, the forgiver. But the root of that word is rahim, which means the womb. So even in Islam god as a womb, as an original womb, is omnipresent in the Qu’ran.

Ekhtiar: It seems like gender plays a really important role in Attar’s poetry and in these paintings.

In earlier periods of Persian art you have this gender ambiguity, where you have the princely couple and it’s very difficult to see which one of them is the male and which one of them is the female. With the exception of a few tresses or braids, they almost look identical. The world of manuscript illustration and miniature painting is an idealized world. These are not portraits. The images, often, they’re abstract in a way.

It’s a world that’s designed to please the eye and please the soul. It’s like a fairytale world.

Anvar: In The Canticle of the Birds you have a prince loving a princess, a king loving a slave, a man loving a young man, a man loving a young woman, a woman loving a young man. You don’t have two women. But, otherwise, you have all the possible combinations, socially and gender-wise, within love stories. And I think this is quite interesting to note and it shows that the question of these love stories is not to know if it’s homoerotic or not. It is that the soul engaged in the process of loving is engaged in the process of loving. And love goes absolutely beyond gender questions.

These things have been forgotten even in the Sufi and Islamic world themselves. And it’s very important that, through the presentation of such manuscripts, we should awaken those who are primarily concerned to these realities that are within the tradition of Islam.

Ekhtiar: People also have misconceptions about representation in Islamic art, that it’s forbidden, for example, to have figures and living creatures represented. This is not correct. In fact, if you walk through the galleries at The Metropolitan Museum of Art you will see so many figures because there is a division between the secular and the religious. You don’t have images of living beings, humans or animals, in a Mosque, let’s say, or in a religious school, or in a tomb. But you do have it in the private sphere of somebody’s library, the palace, the court.

Anvar: Yet, I think what is prohibited is making idols—images or sculptures—anything that you make an idol of is prohibited. Even the law itself, even the Qur’an itself, but at the same time what is absolutely not prohibited, and on the contrary is very much encouraged, is showing the beauty of God’s creation. And I think that is what the poets, those at least who are connected to the Islamic tradition, have tried to do.

I’m looking at this image that represents in The Canticle of the Birds the story of Shaikh San’an who fell in love with the Christian maid. You can see that just in front of her there is a tree, and that tree is a jasmine tree. And of course it represents beauty but it also represents visually what cannot be seen, that is the perfume of the beloved.

And that is also what Attar does. And the pen name that he has chosen for himself, Attar, which means both the apothecary and the perfume-maker. And he himself says that his poetry will spread in the universe the perfume of love and the perfume of the beloved. And the painters have not forgotten that, and that is why they represent, always, the beloved with a tree, a flower, a series of flowers that evoke that which cannot be seen but is made visible through their art. That is the perfume of love and the perfume of beauty. And so, it’s all our senses are mobilized when we contemplate these images.


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About the contributors

Maryam Ekhtiar

Patti Cadby Birch Curator, Department of Islamic Art

Professor of Persian language and literature, The National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations


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