In this story of a search for the ideal, spiritual king Simorgh, Attar utilizes a number of literary tools to illustrate Sufi goals. Being an allegory, each of the birds are seen as devotees, the hoopoe as the sheikh, and Simorgh as Allah. Yet in the midst of the lessons and often reprimands that are given by the hoopoe, lessons are demonstrated through stories of other common characters in Sufi literature, such as Majnun, al-Bistami, Rabia, and Shah Mahmoud and Ayaz. These stock characters allow readers to relate to the material through previous knowledge that they may already have.
Shah Mahmoud falls amongst the many kings, either with or without names, which are used to exemplify various lessons through the actions that they commit. Oftentimes, the kings are portrayed as lovers or beloveds, with Attar’s compassion being shown through his tone. One can categorize the kings being paralleled into different stages of the Sufi path, going from the lost devotee to Allah Himself. Yet in this social and religious commentary, Attar portrays kings as tyrants, paralleling them to Allah in order to show the relationship between the devotee and God.
With such a spiritual and complex issue at hand, categorizations don’t always work perfectly. In order to understand and link the various stories together, a reader may attempt to fit into perspective who represents God and who represents the devotee. Midway through the story, however, one’s mind may change as to who’s who, thus causing confusion. While many of the symbols are very blunt and can be classified, Attar intentionally causes this confusion to demonstrate the path full of hardship that one must go through to reach God.
The seven valleys each contain obstacles that one must overcome – the spiritual path being exemplified by the written word. Through the illustration of themes of awakening the heart, ridding the Self, and preparing for death via the stories, the main objective remains to show one’s relationship with God and how one can be closer to Him. No matter the confusion of labeling that may occur, the reader should keep this in mind when reading so that the focus of the book is above any tangent point.
While each story may have its smaller lesson to be learned, one should analyze the stories in terms of evaluating the relationship, especially when looking at the stories of Kings. One such story to be looked at in terms of relationship is the one that closes the poem, “The king who ordered his lover to be killed. ” This story becomes very complex in terms of labeling because the characters do seem to contrast the stock traits of God and devotee. The king represents God while the boy is the devotee – this metaphor is clear in the beginning of the story.
When the king sees that the boy has another lover, he is sentenced to death. This was for two reasons: the boy committed adultery (sex outside marriage), and his love was given to another when it should have been focused on the king. Narrowing down the relationship between God and devotee, God asks for one thing: to worship Him. There are methods to do so as outlined in the Quran, but this key message must follow one’s daily activities. If a devotee was to not obey such a key concept, punishment is needed to rectify the devotee’s mistakes.
What becomes confusing in this relationship is that God is usually seen as all merciful and all forgiving. If the above metaphor was to stick, then the king/God breaks out of this image and becomes a tyrant that is very harsh, killing a human being. Yet one cannot assume that God is all merciful. The one unforgivable sin is shirk, and with a stretch, the boy/devotee can be seen committing such a crime by loving another as dearly as he loved God, thus associating another being alongside God.
The king mentions in this specific story, “Then hang him upside-down until he’s dead -/And then those chosen for my love will see/Their eyes should glance at no one else but me” (225). Therefore, this tyrannical representation of both kings and God does not seem to be an exaggeration or a misconstrued view in any way when taking all aspects into consideration. One’s heart should be devoted to God and God only; putting other superfluous loves aside was a theme throughout the poem. Once again, elements become murky when the king is seen as drunk and addressing his own “Lord” (228).
How can God become intoxicated and commit any mistakes if He is the idea of perfection? The key emphasis is the relationship between the God and devotee – in a relationship, both sides learn from mistakes that they commit. The boy/devotee goes through a process of realizing that his love should remain only towards king/God, who in turn comprehends that errors may occur along the Way. He says, “You loved me and you died for me; what fool/Would smash, as I did, his most precious jewel? ” (227).
Referring to the devotee/boy as his “precious jewel,” the king/God comes to recognize that the love still exists. The devotee may have wandered from the Way, but it was a temporary deviation which was remedied. The king says, “It was myself I killed” (227). By killing one of his own, he kills a part of himself. This correlates to the idea of all are a part of God, a common notion in Sufism (even though it has been argued to go against the principle of tawhid). The tyrannical role is transformed into a lost lover status where he wishes to correct his own sin by killing himself.
Yet when seeing the devotee/boy once again, “There were no words that could express his joy” and “The absence that the king endured was gone/And they withdrew, united now as one” (229). This is a reference of the Valley of Unity, but moreover, closes the book by showing an explicit metaphor the birds coming upon Simorgh, who arrive to only see a reflection of themselves. Since they are a reflection of God, they “see/Themselves, their own unique reality” (219) just as the devotee/boy has become a part of God.
While throwing the reader off balance and keeping one guessing, the complexity of Attar’s symbolism becomes clear with a deeper analysis and amalgamation of themes. “A pauper in love with the king of Egypt” is another story that portrays a king/God in a tyrannical manner. The differences with this story are amongst the level of confusion that the reader may experience: the characters are easier to label having the knowledge of the previous analysis in mind. If one assumes that God can be tyrannical and harsh if the crime was to fit the punishment, then this story is a clear example of God performing the proper punishment.
In this story, a pauper chooses to be exiled after falling in love with a King, who sentences him to death for false love. In context, this story goes with the lesson of a bird who complains of being “Imprisoned by conflicting needs and dreams” or losing focus on his objective. With the king being God and the pauper being the devotee, God only wishes for true devotion to Him; with anything less than that, the Self needs to be sacrificed to come to the true love: “He did not really love … If he were valiant in love he would/have chosen death here as the highest good” (95).
The lesson here is simple: never lose focus on God, and if such was to happen, then do not claim false love. One must be ready to sacrifice the Self for God; this is the true test to one’s faith. While He may seem tyrannical or not merciful, there is a larger picture as His action is to bring the lessons of obedience and focused love to all. Many Sufi principles have “intoxicated mysticism” weaved throughout, and it is not a surprise that God’s response would be similar in severity (harsh response for a harsh crime).
Thus, the intensity of the relationship between God and devotee is illustrated through the actions that the pauper/devotee takes and the tyrannical king’s/God’s response. Within these two stories, the king has been portrayed as a tyrant, but one who punishes the fitting crimes. Such a portrait paints various pictures: the lesson is illustrated from the hoopoe, a reader can digest the information in a story format by making metaphorical comparisons, and most importantly, the lesson between devotee (who the reader most likely would be) and God is clearly shown.
This also paints a harsh reality as to what God may do according to the actions that one takes, but at the same time, gives the viewpoint that God can be forgiving if one can rectify his or her mistakes. The complexity of the relationship is shown through Attar’s speech and often confusing labels that one attempts, but the simplicity is drawn through the lessons learned and the actions taken by each person in the bond. Through this amazing allegory, Attar has given the Sufi world a new light of a “king” that wishes for obedience and worship only.