Saturday, May 30, 2009

Attar's Perfumed Wisdom

O son,

This is one wonderful tale I would love to read with you - a story by Farid al-Din Attar (1145 - 1221 CE).

A dervish who had traveled long and hard through the desert finally came to a civilization after a long journey. The village was called Sandy Hills, and it was dry and hot. Except for the hay feed and some shrubs, not much greenery was to be found. Cattle were the main means of livelihood for the people of Sandy Hills; had the condition of soil been different, they might have been able to engage in agriculture as well. The dervish politely asked a passerby if there was some place where he could find food and lodging for the night. "Well," said the man, scratching his head, "we don't have such a place in our village, but I am sure Shakir would be happy to provide for you tonight." Then the man gave directions to the ranch owned by Shakir, whose name means 'one who thanks the Lord constantly."

On his way to the ranch, the dervish stopped by a small group of old men who were smoking pipes, to reconfirm his directions. From them he found that Shakir was the richest man in the area. One of the men said Shakir owned more than a thousand cattle - "And this is more than the wealth of Haddad, who lives in the neighboring village." A short while later, the dervish was standing in front of Shakir's home, admiring it. As it turned out, Shakir was a very hospitable and kind person. He insisted that the dervish stay a couple of days in his house. Shakir's wife and daughters were just as kind and considerate as he was and provided the dervish with the best. At the end of his stay, they even supplied him with plenty of food and water for his journey.

On his way back into the desert, the dervish could not help puzzling over the meaning of Shakir's last word at the time of farewell. The dervish had said, "Thank God that you are well off." "But dervish," Shakir had replied, "don't be fooled by appearances, for this too shall pass."

During his years on the Sufi path the dervish had come to understand that anything he heard or saw during his journey offered a lesson to be learned and thus was worthy of contemplation. In fact, that was the reason he had undertaken the journey in the first place - to learn more. The words of Shakir occupied his thoughts, and he was not sure if he fully understood their import.

As he sat under the shade of a single tree to pray and meditate, he recalled from his Sufi training that if he kept silent and did not rush to any conclusions, he would eventually find the answer. For he had been taught to be silent and not ask questions; when it was time for him to be enlightened, he would be. Therefore, he shut the door on his thoughts and drowned his soul in deep meditative state.

And so he passed five more years of traveling to different lands, meeting new people and learning from his experiences along the way. Every adventure offered a new lesson to be learned. Meanwhile, as Sufi custom required, he remained quiet, concentrating on the instructions of his heart.

One day, the dervish found himself returning to Sandy Hills, the same village at which he had stopped a few years before. He remembered his friend Shakir and asked after him. "He lives in the neighboring village, ten miles from here. He now works for Haddad," a villager answered. The surprised dervish remembered that Haddad was another wealthy man in the region. Happy at the prospect of seeing Shakir again, he rushed toward the neighboring village.

At Haddad's marvelous home, the dervish was welcomed by Shakir, who looked much older now and was dressed in rags. "What happened to you?" the dervish wanted to know. Shakir replied that a flood three years previously had left him with no cattle and no house. So he and his family had become servants of Haddad, who had survived the flood and now enjoyed the status of wealthiest man in that area. This turn of fortune, however, had not changed the kind and friendly manner of Shakir and his family. They graciously took care of the dervish in their cottage for a couple of days, and gave him food and water before he left.

As he was leaving, the dervish said, 'I am sorry for what has happened to you and your family. I know that God has a reason for what He does." "Oh, but remember, this too shall pass." Shakir's voice kept echoing in the dervish's ears. The man's smiling face and calm spirit never left his mind. "What in the world does he mean by that statement this time?" The dervish now knew that Shakir's final words on his previous visit had anticipated the changes that had occurred. But this time, he wondered what could justify such an optimistic remark. So, again, he let it pass, preferring to wait for the answer.

Months and years passed, and the dervish, who was getting on in years, kept on traveling without any thought of retiring. Strangely enough, the patterns of his journeys always brought him back to the village where Shakir lived. This time it took seven years before he got back to Sandy Hills, and by this time Shakir had become rich again. He now lived in the main building of Haddad's compound instead of in the small cottage. "Haddad died a couple of years ago," Shakir explained, "and since he had no heir, he decided to leave me his wealth as a reward for my loyal services."

As the visit drew to a close, the dervish prepared for his greatest journey: he would cross Saudi Arabia for the pilgrimage to Mecca on foot, a long standing tradition among his colleagues. His farewell with his old friend was no diffrent from the others. Shakir repeated his favorite saying, "This too shall pass."

After the pilgrimage, the dervish traveled to India. Upon returning to his motherland, Persia, he decided to visit Shakir one more time to find out what had become of him. So once again he set out for the village of Sandy Hills. But instead of finding his friend Shakir there, he was shown a modest grave with the inscription "This too shall pass." He was more surprised at this than he had been on any of the occasions when Shakir himself had spoken those words. "Riches come and riches go," thought the dervish to himself, "but how can a tomb change?"

From that time on, the dervish made it a point to visit the tomb of his friend every year, when he would spend a few hours meditating at Shakir's abode. However, on one of his visits, he found the cemetery and the grave gone, washed away by a flood. Now the old dervish had lost the only traces left of a man who had marked the experiences of his life so exceptionally. The dervish stayed at the ruins of the cemetery for hours, staring at the ground. Finally he lifted his head to the sky and then, as if discovering a greater meaning, nodded his head as a sign of confirmation and said, "This too shall pass."

When the dervish had finally become too old to travel, he decided to settle down and live the rest of his life in peace and quiet. Years passed by, and the old man spent his time helping those who came to him for advice and sharing his experiences with the young. People from all over to have the benefit of his wisdom. Eventually his fame spread to the king's great advisor, who happened to be looking for someone with great wisdom.

The fact was, the king desired a ring be made for him. The ring was to be a special one: it was to carry an inscription such that if the king was sad, he could look at the ring and it would make him happy, and if he was happy, he could look at the ring and it would make him sad.

The best jewellers were hired, and many men and women came forward with suggestions for the ring but the king liked none of them. So the advisor wrote to the dervish explaining the situation asking for help, and inviting him to the palace. Without leaving home, the dervish sent back his reply.

A few days later, an emerald ring was made and presented to the king. The king who had been depressed for days, reluctantly put the ring on his finger and glanced at it with disappointed sigh. Then he started to smile, and a few moments later, he was laughing loudly. On the ring were inscribed the words, "This too shall pass."

"All I have said about the truth, I have learned from Attar."
- Jalaluddin Rumi


  1. Very nice story....this to shall pass, on from generation to generation.........

  2. Salam Nas,
    I'm sure Attar's wisdom will live on. Ameen to your du'a.

  3. truth shows itself in our living..masha Allaah