Risalat Al- Tayr -Treatise of the birds-

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A. Treatise of the birds
Risalat Al- Tayr (TREATISE OF THE BIRDS)
This work originally written by Ibn Sina and was translated and restated by suhrawardi into Persian. It discloses a number of esoteric doctrines through the language of the birds which suhrawardi, Attar and Ahmad Ghazzali had also used before him. The story is about the fate of a group of birds, who , having fallen into the trap of hunters, describe how their attempt to free themselves is faced with a number of setbacks and how the birds over come such obstacles. This work depicts the spiritual journal of man from his original about into the world of from and how the attachments of the material world can obstruct one’s desire to reunite with his spiritual origin.

1. Ibn sina in “Treatise of the birds”
This work originally written by Ibn Sina and was translated and restated by suhrawardi into Persian. It discloses a number of esoteric doctrines through the language of the birds which suhrawardi, Attar and Ahmad Ghazzali had also used before him. The story is about the fate of a group of birds, who , having fallen into the trap of hunters, describe how their attempt to free themselves is faced with a number of setbacks and how the birds over come such obstacles. This work depicts the spiritual journal of man from his original about into the world of from and how the attachments of the material world can obstruct one’s desire to reunite with his spiritual origin.

2. The dangers of the mystical path
In this work, suhrawardi alludes to how human faculties that are directed to the sensible world obstruct the soul from its spiritual journey and the attainment of illumination. Suhrawardi describes the dangers of the mystical path as follows: Oh, brothers in truth, shed your skin as a snake does and walk as an ant walks so the sound of your footsteps cannot be heard. Be as a scorpion whose weapon is on his back since Stan comes from behind. Drink poison so you may be born. Fly continuously and do not choose a nest, for all birds are takes from their nests, and if you have no wings crawl on the ground…..Be like an ostrich who eats warm sand and vultures who eat hard bones. Like a salamander, be in the middle of fire so no harm can upon tomorrow. Be like a moth who remains hidden by day so he may remain safe from the enemy.

Suhrawardi uses the above symbols to offer a set of practical instructions for those who are on the Sufi path. For example, the shedding of one’s skin refers to the abandoning of one’s ego, and walking like an ant alludes to the way one ought to walk on the path of the truth so that no one will know it. Drinking poison symbolically indicates the endurance of the pains and frustrations which one is to experience on the spiritual path. By using the prophetic hadith “love death so you may live, Suhrawardi refers to the spiritual death. The Sufi concept of annihilation is the death and rebirth the Suhrawardi himself describes in a poem:

If thou die before death.
Thou hast placed thyself in eternal bliss.
Thou who didst not set foot on this path.
Shame be upon three that broughtest suffering upon thyself.

Suhrawardi illustrates various hardships of the path by alluding to them as the eating of hot sand by the ostrich or the eating of sharp bones by the vultures. Enduring such pain is necessary if one is to progress and achieve any station on the spiritual path. Suhrawardi’s use of a salamander has different levels of interpretation. The Salamander is the symbol of gold in alchemy and gold is the symbol of Divine Intellect. He could be referring not only to Abraham who was thrown into fire, but also to the fire within man. The popular myth maintains that if a Salamander goes through fire, and does not burn, it becomes resistant to everything. Therefore, those who are consumed by divine love, which burns like fire, have cast their impurities into the fire. They have swallowed this fire and become purified.

Finally, Suhrawardi’s tells us that we ought to be like a moth that flies at night and remains hidden by day. Night represents the esoteric, the hidden aspect, and day the exoteric. In this way Suhrawardi uses the symbols of traditional Sufi literature with night symbolizing the esoteric and the spiritual milieu, providing the sacred space which allows man to fly.

3. The Spiritual journey of men and the Tale of birds
In the Risalat al-tayr Suhrawardi describes the spiritual journey of man by recounting the tale the of number of birds who were “flying freely” but fell in the trap of the hunters. “Flying freely” here symbolizes the condition in which man lived in the eternal state prior to creation, and falling into the trap denotes coming into the domain of material existence. This change signifies the transition from the formless to the world of forms. Having become prisoners of the material world, often identified in Persian literature as the “ prison of the body,” those who are conscious of this imprisonment can begin their journey towards their origin.

The bird who finds himself a prisoner symbolizes the worldly man. However, because of the forgetfulness of human nature he becomes used to the attachments of the material world. This adaptation and the acceptance of the condition is the greatest danger in one’s spiritual journey, according to Suhrawardi. In the language of the birds, Suhrawardi states:

We focused our attention on how we could free ourselves. We were in that condition for a while until our first principle was forgotten (freedom) and settled with these chains, giving in to the tightness of the cage.

Suhrawardi’s description of the spiritual journey in the “Treatise of the Birds” continues with the flight of the birds when they free themselves from some of the bondages. To translate this into Sufi language, it can be said that men who have fallen into the world of forms can party free themselves through their will power, however, to remove all the chains of attachments they would need the guidance of a master. While the potentiality for man to become illuminated exists, the process will not take place without the inner yearning and the will to make the journey. This point becomes clear when the main character of the story begs the others birds to show him how they freed themselves.

Having pursued the path of asceticism and endured hardship, the birds arrive at different states and stations of the path where they think it is time to rest. Suhrawardi warns us against the desire to rest in one place, although the beauties of the path which he describes as the “attractions that remove the mind (Aql) from the body” are extremely tempting. Finally, their desire to stay is overcome by divine grace, exemplified as a voice calling upon them to continue. Suhrawardi then describes their encounter with God, whose presence he describes as a blinding light. The light of light’s tells the birds that he who has placed the chains must remove them as well and God sends a messenger to oversee the remover of these chains.

4. Inferred Principles from Risalat Al- Tayr
The following principles can be inferred from the Risalat at-tayr.
1. The earthly human state is a prison for the human soul.
2. There is a necessity for the soul to journey towards the Light of Lights.
3. The grace that is attained through such an experience helps the Salik to remove the final attachments to this world.
4. The experience of the light of lights can be achieved if one is able to free himself the prison of the material world.

It is important to treat Suhrawardi’s narratives and their peculiar literary style as part and parcel of the ishraqi doctrine. Whereas in The Philosophy of Illumination he offers the doctrinal analysis of ishraqi thought, in this Persian writings he is disclosing the practical aspect of his ishraqi doctrine, without which his theosophical system would not be complete. Suhrawardi’s epistemological system ultimately relies on the type of wisdom that is attained through practicing the ishraqi doctrine and that is precisely what he is trying to demonstrate in his mystical narratives. In fact, his instructions for the attainment of truth in some of his other works are even more direct and specific.

Sources

suhrawardi and illumination school

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