By: Sadruddin Noorani, Chicago, USA
During our lifetime, we make some life altering decisions – such as choice of careers, places where we will live, the person we will spend our life with, and other such decisions. There is another important decision that is personal, subtle, and yet life altering – that is our spiritual well-being. It is the journey of a lifetime, a voyage to the very core of our existence and to the outer boundaries of the universe: an expedition into the deepest reaches of our innermost being.
Sometimes, we feel the urge to take this journey because of a deep feeling of loneliness or because of a lack of fulfillment in our worldly lives. Some of us, through our lives, have developed an intimacy with our Creator already, but have neglected, or forsaken, our spiritual practices because of other pressing obligations and demands such as family, school, or work.
All of us receive the Call in our lives, even if we don’t recognize it. The Call to the Divine is the beginning of a Quest that many of us will undertake at some point in our lives. This inner journey to God is the subject of many writings by Muslims. Many have found that the best way to express the inexpressible is through poetry and story. One of the most beautiful renditions of this Quest is by Farid al-Din Attar the 13th Century Persian poet and writer.
His epic poem, “The Conference of the Birds.” is about the journey of the world’s birds – in all their species and forms – to find their Supreme King. Through seven valleys and countless trials they venture in search of their Beloved in hopes of finding true love and ultimate happiness.
Recognizing the Calling and embarking on the Quest
We don’t always know how to recognize the Call from the Divine. For some it shows itself through a single event or a moment in our lives. For others, it can unfold over time through a series of realizations or encounters. And for many, we can lose our determination, especially if we meditate or spend time in conversation with our Creator and we feel that He does not respond to us. There is a story in the Mathnawi, the poem by Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi, in which he relates:
All night, a man called “Ya Allah”. In a vision, the Devil appeared to him and said, “How come you’ve been calling God all night? He never once replied with “Here I Am!” Why are you calling when there is no reply?”
The man felt discouraged and abandoned as the realization dawned on him. Depressed, he fell into a deep sleep. In a dream, he saw Prophet Ebrahim (a.s.) ask “Why are you regretting praising Allah?”
The man said, “I called and called but Allah never replied, ‘Here I Am!'”
Hazrat Ebrahim (a.s.) explained, “Allah has said, ‘Your calling my name is My reply. Your longing for Me is My message to you. All your attempts to reach Me are in reality My attempts to reach you. Your fear and love are a noose to catch Me. In the silence surrounding every ‘Ya Allah’ waits a thousand replies of ‘Here I Am.
While reciting tasbih or dhikr, engaging in acts of ibadat and meditating are some ways in which we can engage with the Divine, there are also many others. It is up to each one of us to find that path which speaks to us the most. Let us take a step to reflect upon our own spiritual lives and to re-ignite the journeys we have started, or to take that first step in search of our own Beloved.
The concept of Spiritual Journey
Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan lll (a.s.) has said:
“Islam is fundamentally, in its very nature, a natural Religion.
Throughout the Quran, God’s signs (ayats) are referred to as the natural phenomenon…”
As we reflect on the signs around us, we learn lessons from them, which can be applied in our day to day lives. There are several Sufi stories, which allow us to reflect on some of the necessary steps we need to undertake as we search and strive on our spiritual journey. One such story is, as mentioned earlier, ‘The Conference of the Birds’ by Farid al-Din Attar. The allegory of this story with some reflections is briefly summarized here.
In order to explain the meaning of Search, Attar describes how all the birds of the world come together to find their King, whose symbolic name is Simurgh. In order to embark on the journey to find Simurgh, the birds need a leader who could guide them on their journey and lead them to their destination. Let us explore an analogy to understand why a guide is required. When we travel, we require directions and we obtain them through maps, GPS, Google, or we can talk to someone who has traveled on that path. We also get some do’s and don’ts of destinations that we are unfamiliar with, especially exotic vacation spots.
In the story, the birds choose Hoopoe bird as their guide for their journey. Hoopoe warns them that the journey to their symbolic king, Simurgh, is a long and difficult one. This is similar to the idea of messengers of Allah, who came as warners, to human beings on following the straight path (sirat al-mustaqim).
Upon hearing about the difficulty of this journey, many birds started to make excuses. For example, the Nightingale said he cannot go because he is in love with the rose. The Duck said that he cannot go because he cannot leave the comfort of water. One after another many birds started to back out on their commitment to search for their King, which represents their final destination. Hoopoe, their guide, explains to them that a rose does not last forever and will wilt someday, whereas Simurgh is an eternal rose that lasts forever. Water can only clean your face but Simurgh will clean and purify your heart as well.
We can all think of different excuses to avoid taking on a challenge or striving on the path of spirituality. We like the comfort of this world, and forget to maintain a balance between spiritual and material responsibilities.
Eventually, Hoopoe, the guide, convinces all the birds that the journey is well worth the effort. Along the way to see Simurgh, the birds would have to pass seven valleys each with its unique challenges and difficulties. What are these valleys? What happens to these birds? Do they continue their journey amidst the challenges and difficulties to find Simurgh, their final destination?
The Valley of Selfless Love
We began by exploring the first stage in the spiritual Quest: Calling to God and the Quest. Allah says to us, in Verse 16 of Surat al-Qaf in the Quran, that He is closer to us than our jugular vein. But that doesn’t mean our journey to discover God is any shorter or any less difficult because of His nearness to us.
Continuing with the mystical poem, The Conference of the Birds, the birds start their Quest to seek the Supreme King and they travel from the Valley of the Quest to the Valley of Love, which is from the first to the second stage of our personal search. While we have all experienced human love – what would it be like to experience love directed from or to the Divine?
Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah has spoken of the beauty of human love and its ability to prepare us for our relationship with the Divine. In his Memoirs, Imam Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah has said:
“…all that fame, wealth and health can bring are nothing beside the happiness which is created and sustained by the love of one human being for another… but as the joys of human love surpass all that riches and power may bring a man, so does that greater spiritual love and enlightenment, the fruit of that sublime experience of the direct vision of reality which is God’s gift and grace, surpass all that the finest, truest human love can offer.”
This thirst for Divine Love is touchingly revealed in the life and actions of one of the greatest female mystics, Rabia of Basra, who lived in the 8th century. One day, she was seen running with fire in one hand and water in the other. The townspeople asked her why she was doing this and where she was going. She replied, “I am running to light a fire in Heaven and to pour water on the flames of Hell, so that both veils which hide God’s Face disappear forever.” She often prayed to God and said, “If I worship you for your own sake, do not deprive me of your eternal beauty.”
Rabia’s goal was not the physical reward of Paradise, but rather closeness to Allah Himself. But, as we know, yearning is often not enough to be able to experience the love of the beloved. Desire can only be pure if we let go of our ego and base instincts, a concept that is often referred to, in Arabic, as nafs.
Composers of the ginans talk about the need and thirst for this Love in various ways. In the ginan, Hu(n) re piyasi tere darshan ki, Sayyid Khan uses the metaphor of a fish in the ocean, which struggles when it is out of the water. The water can be understood as God’s Love for us. When we temporarily leave the ocean, we gasp for air and move frantically, realizing that we are incomplete and lacking. To truly love God, we must not just be content in swimming with the tide but aim to become the flow of the water itself. One way in which we can do this and tame our base instincts is to make a commitment to listen to and obey our Beloved Creator. Another way is to make sure that we develop our virtues by acting ethically and morally and try not to continue feeding the vices we have in our lives. In these ways, we are reciprocating God’s love for us; a love which can be amplified through prayer and obedience to Him.
The Valley of Understanding and Knowledge
In the Conference of the Birds, the birds are continuing their journey to get to the Supreme King after having passed through the Valley of Selfless Love. Traveling eagerly through the dark and seemingly endless Valley, the birds arrive at a fortress where a soldier stands on guard. He does not sleep, constantly searching around him. When the birds ask him why, he replies, “I am searching for the knowledge which shows us the inner meaning of things.” The birds are told that if they search, they too can find that knowledge. And so, the birds, each taking their own individual paths at their own pace, also begin to search. After much time and effort, each bird begins to see the darkness disappear. Their hearts fill with joy upon seeing the light and gaining knowledge of the Truth. The birds have arrived in the Valley of Understanding and Knowledge.
As Murids, how can we get even closer to Allah and reach the stage of marifat, a state of knowledge and understanding where God’s true nature is revealed to us? It is neither easy nor quick and only comes when we tirelessly seek to know God. Like the birds, we too must be persistent in our search. We must not give up even though it seems that we have not found what we are looking for, because that light will eventually appear, when each of us is spiritually ready. In the same way that the birds each took their own path through the Valley of Understanding and Knowledge, each of our journeys is our own as no two journeys are alike.
Let us reflect on what we can do to successfully reach our own personal Valley of Understanding and Knowledge. If we let go of our egos, accept God’s love for us, and gain knowledge of God’s true nature through his many good names (attributes), then we can increase our own understanding and love for our Creator.
The Valley of Separation and Detachment
In each of these valleys in our quest of the Divine, we learn a different lesson and remind ourselves that we must take a series of actions that brings us closer to our goal. Now we approach the Valley of Separation and Detachment or istignah in the Quest towards becoming closer to Allah and focusing on the growth and development of our soul.
The Valley of Separation and Detachment may be one of the most difficult stages for an individual to experience. In Attar’s Conference of the Birds, the birds are separated from one another. They are confused and scared of being alone. It is cold, windy, and unfamiliar. The birds keep getting lost and are confused many times, but each of them persists. They have faith and courage that if they continue to try, they will reach the end and eventually find their King. After much struggle, they reach the end of the valley and are united with each other, feeling safe again and one step closer to their King. By letting go of our exclusive focus on our secular lives, we make time for and room in our lives to improve our souls. This is the importance of this valley. Our Imam has said many times that our physical bodies are temporary but our souls are eternal. We spend so much time and effort working on improving our worldly (material) lives but do not do the same for our spiritual lives.
One day, our time here on Earth will end, and when that happens, we need to be prepared spiritually to enter the next world. It is, therefore, critical that we realize the importance of our spiritual lives and our souls and learn to value them and have them as constants in our thoughts just as we do for our material well-being.
The Spiritual Journey Through the Valley of Unity and the Concept of Tawheed
After travelling through the Valley of Separation and Detachment in Attar’s Conference of the Birds, the birds reach a valley where everything in their journey begins to make sense. They come upon a palm tree made of wax and composed of many colors. A woman comes along and begins to squeeze the tree, mixing the colors until they disappear and only the colorless wax remains. The birds ask themselves whether this would happen to them too. If they all looked within themselves would there be something at their core that might unite them? The birds engage in a personal search and eventually discover that their individual differences were not so important, that inside, they were all the same and united as one, as part of their King’s creation.
As Muslims, we all affirm the shahadah, La ilaha ‘illallah, Muhammad ur-rasulu-llah. This means “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God.” The central concept in this declaration and belief is the notion of tawheed that there is only one God. But we must ask ourselves, what does that mean? How do we understand our relationship to Allah when we accept the Oneness of God? How do we accept it? When reciting the shahadah, are we able to understand what the Oneness of Allah means? It is in this part of one’s Quest, the individual gains an understanding of the significance of Oneness of God and what it means in relation to our souls.
There is a reference in the Quran, in Surah Al-Anam, Ayat 98, where Allah says:
“And it is He who has produced you from a single soul and given you a temporary dwelling and a permanent abode. We have explained the Signs in detail for people who understand.”
Here, we are clearly told that Allah has created us from one soul and given us individual lives. One day, we will return to Allah and be reunited with the souls of all creation. Those of us on the Quest, who devote ourselves to searching out a more intimate relationship with Allah, will be in the position to understand this unity of the universe and tawheed.
We are reminded by Pir Shams in the ginan ‘Sri Islam Shah Amne…’ about how we need to look within ourselves to find this connection to Allah. He shares with us:
Oh Brother! Pir Sadardin says: Consider your Lord as ever-present. This eternal and exalted position can be attained when you will see the light in your heart.
The Quest that the individual has been on, so far, has not been easy. Many of the attachments one holds and paths that seem easier have been given up. But now, in the Valley of Unity, our focus is learning how we are all united and belong to one another and to Allah. We have learned that tawheed is an important part of understanding what unity means. Tawheed is knowing that there is only one God and that it is from Him we come, to Him we will return, and that His presence is everywhere.
The Valley of Annihilation
The last and most difficult journey on the path is arriving at the Valley of (Fana) Annihilation. Fana or fanafillah means losing ourselves entirely in God, so that our essence is indistinguishable from His. In the same way that one cannot tell the raindrop from the ocean, there should not be any separation between our own souls and that of the Divine Essence. Nasir al-Din Tusi, the Persian Ismaili philosopher, when describing Fana said: “Whoever becomes a hair in search of his beloved, doubtless becomes one of the hairs of the beloved.”
The bird becomes a symbol for our own souls who yearn to escape the shackles and bonds of the material world and to become close to God. The mystic Rabia is attributed as saying, “Die before you die” and others have said, “Men are asleep and when they die, they wake up.”
This death is not a physical death but the death of the ego and the rebirth of the self completely immersed in God. In the Conference of the Birds, after flying through all the valleys and overcoming the seemingly impossible trials, the birds approach Mount Qaf, the home of the King of Birds. There are only 30 birds remaining from the thousands that had begun the journey. While some refused to embark on the quest altogether, others didn’t have the will or fortitude to move from one valley to another.
To their utter disappointment and dismay, when they arrive, they are turned away. Only after much persistence, they are given permission to enter the dark cave. When they finally entered the chamber, what lay before them was not the King, but a mirror. They were confused, but when they looked inside it, what they saw was not the Simurgh, the name they called their Lord, but instead a different kind of Si-Murgh, for the Persian term, “Si” means 30 and “Murgh” means birds. In this way, they realized that the Si-Murgh was none other than a reflection of themselves, and it was only the mirror that allowed them to recognize that.
In the same way, we also need to discover our own mirror that will allow us to look inside our own selves, so that we too may reach the Valley of Fana.
The Final Valley
We have embarked on the first steps of a personal spiritual journey that any one of us can take. Following the stages set out by the Persian mystic Farid al-Din Attar in his Conference of the Birds, we have traveled through a number of Valleys, each mirroring the inner Quest that each of us can potentially take in our lifetimes. Having the courage to embark upon one’s own Quest can be an intimidating task that hopefully, has become easier to approach with the lessons learned.
Each Valley is associated with a particular stage of the nafs (soul). In the first Valley of the Calling and the Quest, the soul is still entrapped in worldly pursuits. If and when one becomes aware of his/her state, one can move onto the next state. Most people are stuck here, struggling, and suffering in the service of their instincts, but always holding others responsible for their continuing unhappiness.
In the next stage, the Valley of Selfless Love, they encounter the accusing soul. At this stage, there is self-blame instead of blaming others. In one way, it is the opposite of the previous Valley. But from here, one starts the journey to inner purification.
In the next Valley – that of Understanding and Knowledge, one experiences the true meaning of the word ‘Islam,’ or ‘Submission. Those who have made it this far possess and display patience and humility. The world feels new and full of inspiration. Many people who reach this stage feel an urge to stay here, losing the will or courage to go further. That is why, as beautiful and blessed as the Valley of Understanding and Knowledge is, it can be a trap for one who aims higher.
As Ismaili Muslims, we are fortunate to have a living Imam-e-Zaman to guide us and remind us that our lives are made up of two elements: the spiritual and the material. He constantly tells us not to forsake our souls.
Let us pray that we have the courage and wisdom to embark upon the Quest and to take notice of the Calling. And that one day in our lives we too will be blessed and will experience the true meaning of As-Sirat al-Mustaqim (the straight path).
Some of the best articles read in my life so far. Extremely informative, thought provoking and takes me to other spiritual dimensions. It has energised my feelings. Thank you Noorani Sahib.
Wonderful article! It did give me spiritual vibes. Each stage encouraged me to reflect on my past, present, and prepare for the future. The soul’s journey and the Divine unity at the very last stage reminds me of our beloved Imam’s farmaan which highlights that wherever we look, we see a soul – a friend, and that he who has known himself has known the Almighty. The Divine’s essence is in each of us. It is how the love (the constant frequency and tendency) of it brings the pull to come closer to Him and become One (Fana Fil-laah).
Overall, after reading the article, I felt as if I’d drank a potion of Divine love, and the desire to quench thirst of Divine love and His essence has begun🙏