Excerpt from Farid ud-din Attar’s Conference of the Birds, translated by Afham Darbandi and Dick Davis, London: Penguin, 1984
A bird complains of his sinfulness
Another bird complained: ‘Sin stains my soul; How can the wicked ever reach our goal? How can a soul unclean as noisome flies Toward the Simorgh’s mountains hope to rise? When sinners leave the path, what power can bring Such stragglers to the presence of our king?
And the hoopoe answers him
The answer came: ‘You speak from ignorance; Do not despair of His benevolence. Seek mercy from Him; throw away your shield, And by submission gain the longed-for field. The gate stands open to contrition’s way —
If you have sinned, squeeze through it while you may, And if you travel with an honest heart, You too will play the victor’s glorious part.
Shame forced a vicious sinner to repent. Once more his strength returned, once more he went Down his old paths of wickedness and lust; Leaving the Way, he wallowed in his dust. But pain welled in his heart, his life became — A second time — the source of bitter shame. Since sin had brought him nothing but despair, He wanted to repent, but did not dare; His looks betrayed more agitation than Ripe corn grains jumping in a heated pan — His heart was racked by grief and warring fears; The highway’s dust was laid by his sad tears. But in the dawn he heard a voice: ‘The Lord Was merciful when first you pledged your word.
You broke it and again I gave you time, Asking no payment for this newer crime; Poor fool — would you repent once more? My gate Stands open always; patiently I wait.’
Gabriel and the unbeliever
One night in paradise good Gabriel heard The Lord say: ‘I am here’, and at His word There came another voice which wept and prayed — ‘Who knows whose voice this is?’ the angel said. ‘It comes from one, of this at least I’m sure, Who has subdued the Self, whose heart is pure.’ But no one in the heavens knew the man, And Gabriel swooped toward the earth to scan The deserts, seas and mountains — far and wide He searched, without success, until he cried For God to lead his steps. ‘Seek him in Rome,’ God said. ‘A pagan temple is his home.’ There Gabriel went and saw the man in tears — A worthless idol ruled his hopes and fears. Astonished, Gabriel turned and said: ‘Tell me, Dear Lord, the meaning of this mystery; You answer with Your kindness one who prays Before a senseless idol all his days!’ And God replied: ‘He does not know our Way; Mere ignorance has led this man astray — I understand the cause of his disgrace And will not coldly turn aside My face; I shall admit him to My sanctuary Where kindness will convert his blasphemy’.”
The hoopoe paused and raised his voice in prayer, Then said: “This man for whom God showed such care Was one like you — and if you cannot bring Great virtues to the presence of our king, Do not alarm yourself; the Lord will bless The saint’s devotion and your nothingness.