One of eight major works that can reliably be ascribed to Attar, Ilahi-Nama (Book of God or, sometimes, Divine Book) has, according to Encyclopedia Iranica, been translated once into English, by John A. Boyle in 1976, and once into French, by F. Rouhani in 1961. Four of Attar’s eight works—Ilahi-Nama is part of this subset — are mystical narratives, each one dealing with a different aspect of Sufi thought and experience. Ilahi-Nama’s subject is zuhd, or asceticism, which Sufis understand to mean a disciplined stance of detachment and indifference towards one’s desires so that one will not be ruled by them. This focus on the interior world of human emotion differentiates Ilahi-Nama from the other of Attar’s poems with which it is often compared, Manteq al-tayr (Conference of the Birds), his best known work in English. The two poems are similar in form (they are each frame stories) and message (the key to enlightenment exists within each human being, not in the external world), but the framing narrative of Manteq al-tayr, an allegory about a group of birds in search of a king, is essentially a critique of people’s need to find a master who will lead them on the path to true understanding. Ilahi-Nama, on the other hand, is about learning to master oneself.
The framing narrative of Ilahi-Nama is about a caliph who asks his six sons what they desire most. The first son says he wants the daughter of the king of the peris (faeries); the second wants to learn the art of magic; the third son desires Jamshid’s cup because it will reveal to him the secrets of the world; the fourth seeks the water of life; the fifth son covets the ring Solomon used to control demons; and the sixth son wants to master alchemy. As each son gives his answer, the father tells stories to illustrate, first, how shallow and materialistic the son is for wanting what he wants and, second, how the son should understand his desire so he can use it on the path to enlightenment. None of the sons, however, accept their father’s lessons at face value, arguing that he has misunderstood their desires and that the lessons he wants them to learn, therefore, are misguided. When the father tells his first son what has come to be known as “The Tale of Marjuma,” for example — about a beautiful and righteous woman who, after her husband leaves on pilgrimage to Mecca, must fend off a series of men who are so overcome with lust when they glimpse her beauty that they will stop at nothing to have her — the son accuses his father of wanting to eliminate sex. “God forbid[!]” the father replies, explaining that “The Tale of Marjuma” illustrates how sex, properly comprehended and entered into, is a first step on the path to enlightenment:
But when your desire achieves apotheosis,
sex gives birth to a love without limits;
and when this love is pushed by passion to the edge
of its strength, spiritual love emerges; and when
spiritual love can grow no further, your soul
will vanish into the Beloved’s endlessness. (My translation)
Given that the surface of the narrative in “The Tale of Marjuma” feels more like a Perils-of-Pauline-type story in which the depraved and debauched men get their comeuppance than one about the spiritual nature of sexuality, the son’s misreading of the tale is an easy one to fall into. Such a reading, however, fails to account for, among other things, the fact that not all the men who try to possess the woman give in to their desires without a struggle. They are, in other words, neither evil nor merely slaves to their desires; they are human and flawed and, more to the point, they are, in the end, able and willing to repent. Indeed, they must repent, for God has punished them with a paralysis from which — in an irony that is at the core of the story’s meaning — they can be healed only by confessing to the woman everything they did to her.
Her experience — how she came to be the confessor and healer of the men who abused her — is the one that the father talks about in the lines I quoted above, and it is also her experience that he uses to frame the tale in the first place:
The father replied, “Beware of lust, for lust
has made you very drunk. When a man locks
his heart in pursuit of sexual pleasure, he’ll pay
until the last penny of his being is gone.
A woman, however, whose conduct is like a man’s,
does not know such lust. I will tell you of one
who became in God’s court a leader of men
after she was left without her husband.”
It is, in other words, the woman from whom the father wants his son to learn. For in fending off the men who tried to rape her outright — most of whom die when God answers her prayers and saves her from them — and in refusing the men whose desire was not initially violent, who could have “comforted” her in her husband’s absence, the woman’s love and desire for her husband become a deeply spiritual love and desire for God that moves her to choose the life of a religious recluse. So pure is her devotion that God grants her the power of healing, which is why the men stricken with paralysis must seek her out. In the end, the woman is reunited with her husband, but she chooses to remain a recluse, making clear that she has left the world of her marriage, of merely carnal love, behind.
Nowhere, however — and here is another detail the son overlooks when he accuses his father of wanting to do away with sex — does the story suggest that the newly healed men should similarly disavow their sexual desire, even though it was their desire that got them into so much trouble. Rather, the story is an exhortation for the son to behave “like a man” in response to his own sexual feelings, the irony being, of course, that the character who models this behavior is a woman. In other words, while the depiction of sexuality in “The Tale of Marjuma” is entirely conventional — male heterosexuality is “active;” female heterosexuality is “passive” — there is an element of gender bending, implying that Attar does not see the sexual characteristics he is exploring as exclusively the purview of either men or women, though it does seem clear that he defines them as either male or female. Indeed, by the time this first “Discourse” between father and son is over, Attar has reframed the son’s desire for a beautiful woman as the desire for his own purified soul, suggesting that, in the realm of the spirit, a wholeness that embodies both male and female should be the goal.
Each of the “Discourses” in Ilahi-Nama plays with conventional expectations in similar ways. The magic the second son desires to master, for example, is reframed as the ability to turn the devil he carries in himself into a Muslim. Solomon’s ring, which the fourth son covets, becomes the capacity for being content with what one has. In each case, the frame story and the tales told within it command attention both for the sophistication of Attar’s narrative technique and the depths at which he is able to reveal the workings of the social and spiritual values at stake in the sons’ desires. Whether or not one shares Attar’s spirituality, in other words, there is a lot to learn from what he wrote, not only about Iran’s history and culture, and about the possibilities of narrative, but also about ourselves and how we make meaning in the world — all of which makes a new translation of this little-known work both desirable and necessary.