An Allegorical Epistle by Abū ʿAlī ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) Describing His Arrival at True Knowledge.

“Conference of the Birds.”
(Image courtesy of

Editor’s Introduction.

A Synchronous Discovery.

Having occasion one day several months ago to look at the manuscript with shelfmark MS. Pococke 263 in the Bodleian Libraries’ collections, I discovered that the last few folios of that manuscript contained a copy of a short allegorical treatise by Abū ʿAlī ibn Sīnā  (Avicenna, 980-1037) named Risālah Marmūzah, also known as Risālat al-Ṭayr or the Epistle of the Birds.

I say ‘discovered’ because I wasn’t expecting to find such a thing since it wasn’t mentioned in any of the printed catalogues of the Bodleian’s Arabic manuscripts, the earliest being the Latin catalogue compiled by Johannes Uri and published by the Clarendon Press in 1787. The treatise was copied in Muḥarram 703 / August 1303 making it an early and important copy which, due to it remaining uncatalogued for more than 300 years since its acquisition by the Library in 1692, the year after Edward Pococke’s death, was invisible to those who have made editions of the text such as the Danish Orientalist August Ferdinand Mehren (1822–1907). Mehren’s 1889 Leiden edition relied on four copies – two from the British Museum (now British Library), and a further two from Leiden, one of which had belonged to Jacob Golius.

Both of the British Library copies are from the same manuscript containing many works by Avicenna which was copied in the 18th century, so rather late. At least one of the Leiden copies should be earlier than this, Golius having died at Leiden in 1667. I have seen scans of the Golius copy and it is undated. The other edition of the text was made by Louis Cheikho (1859–1927), and published in the al-Mashriq journal in the early 20th century. Mehren provided a paraphrase in French of the treatise, and Henry Corbin made a later French translation based on a Persian version of the text. Corbin’s version in turn was translated into English by W. Trask.

In 1992, Peter Heath offered an English translation based on Mehren’s edition with some alternative readings taken from Cheikho, as well as putting forward an interpretation of the allegorical and symbolic meanings behind the text. I feel justified in making this Arabic edition and English translation of the ‘invisible’ copy available to readers as it provides some valuable and interesting alternative readings, and solves some of the minor difficulties of the Leiden edition.

Risālah Marmūzah or Risālat al-Ṭayr. the Name of God, The Universally Merciful, The Particularly Merciful. And may God bless and salute our master Muḥammad and his family.

An allegorical epistle by the foremost teacher, Abū ʿAlī ibn Sīnā of Bukhārā, describing his arrival at true knowledge.

Abū ʿAlī ibn Sīnā, may God’s mercy be upon him, said: Is there any one of my fellows who will lend me so much of his ears that may I relate to him some portion of my sorrows, haply he may, in sharing them, relieve me of some of their burden? For the true friend cannot guide his fellow away from heedlessness while he does not appear free from vexation to his mirror.[1]

But where may one find a sincere friend now that friendship has become a kind of commerce resorted to only when a need calls for a friend, and friendship is disrespected when there is no need for it? And so, companions are not visited unless there is occasion to do so, and confidants are not remembered unless a wish comes to mind.

Except for the fellows who are gathered together by godly relationships and are brought close by sublime neighbourliness and have glimpsed the realities with the eye of insight and have polished the detritus of doubt from their innermost-beings. They will be brought together by God’s herald.

Woe unto you, fellows of the reality! You have been called, so come together and join one another. And let each one of you reveal to his fellow his pure intention, and let each of you examine the other, and let each of you perfect the other.

Woe unto you, fellows of the reality! Mask yourselves as hedgehogs mask themselves, and reveal your inner-selves and conceal your outer-selves, for I swear that what is manifest is for your inner-selves and what is hidden is for your outer-selves.

Woe unto you, fellows of the reality! Shed your skins like snakes and crawl like worms, and be scorpions whose weapons are in their tails, for Satan only tricks man from behind. And swallow venom and you will survive, and prefer death and you will live. And fly; and do not take for yourselves a nest you resort to, for the traps of birds are their nests. And if you are prevented for want of wings then seek requital and you will fly. For the best of heralds are those which are able to fly.

Be ostriches who swallow scorching rocks. Be vipers who gulp down solid bones. Be salamanders who throw themselves onto the flames in confidence. Be bats who do not emerge in daylight, for the best of birds are bats.

Woe unto you, fellows of the reality! The most incapable of people are those who dare to challenge the morrow, and the worst failures are those who neglect their mortality.

Woe unto you, fellows of the reality! It is no wonder that an angel might avoid evil, or that a beast might commit an indecency; rather it is a wonder that man should oppose his lusts when he is by nature prone to them; but also a wonder that he should give obedience to them when his being has been enlightened by the intellect.

I swear that an angel is not above a man who remains firm when battling his lusts and whose foot does not slip from its foothold therein. Nor is any human who does not do all in his power to repel a lust which summons him any more than an animal.

I return to the subject and say: I passed by a group hunting who had set up snares and arranged nets and prepared bait and retreated to the grass, while I was in a company of birds. They saw us and whistled calling us. We sensed an abundance and companions and no doubts entered our breasts nor did any qualms prevent us from our goal. So we quickly went towards them and landed amongst the snares. Suddenly the rings were about our necks and the nets cleft to our wings and the snares attached themselves to our legs. We tried to move but this only increased our difficulty. So we resigned ourselves to perishing, and each one of us became occupied with his own particular woes without concern for the fate of his fellow. So we went about seeking ways to escape for a time until we came to forget our state of affairs and we became used to the nets and content with the cages.

One day, I looked out from the nets and noticed a group of birds who had brought their heads and wings out from the nets and had emerged from their cages and were flying. On their legs were the vestiges of the snares which did not hamper them so that they could not escape, but did not free them completely so that life would be sweet.

They reminded me of what I had come to forget, and made me loathe what I had become used to and I nearly fell apart from sorrow and my soul was nearly plucked out from grief. So I called to them from within the cage: ‘Come closer, so that you may teach me the way out for it escapes me.’ But they remembered the guile of the hunters and only increased in their aversion. So I adjured them by our old friendship and our bonds of love and our preserved covenant so that their hearts became confident and doubt was expelled from their breasts. So they came to me and I asked about their condition and they said that they had been afflicted as I had been afflicted and they had resigned themselves and become used to tribulation.

Then they took hold of me and the snare was taken from my neck and the net from my wings and the door of the cage was opened and I was told to seize the opportunity to escape. I requested that they release my foot from the ring but they said: ‘Had we been able we would have begun by freeing our own feet. How can a sick man cure you?’ Then I sprang from the cage and flew.

Then I was told: ‘Before you are places the dangers of which you are not safe from unless you cross them all at once. So follow our traces and we will keep you safe and lead you to the straight path.’

We flew between the two sides of a mountain in a valley which was neither herbaceous nor fertile but rather arid and barren until we had left it behind and passed it by. Then we came to the summit of the mountain and suddenly before us there were eight towering peaks whose extent was too far to be beheld. We said to one another: ‘Be swift and do not spend the night on a sanctuary before we have passed them and are safe.’ So we garnered our efforts and summoned our strength until we had passed by six of those lofty heights.

When we reached the seventh we said to one another: ‘How about a rest, for we are weakened by fatigue and there is a great distance between us and our enemy?’ So we saw fit to dedicate a portion to rest our bodies, for flight after repose is more guided than being cut off. So we ascended to the summit and there we were in verdant and well-inhabited gardens with fruiting trees and running streams whose bounties let the eyes feast on sights of astonishing and bewildering splendour.

One could hear delightful music and entertaining lyrics and smell scents to which dewy musk or fresh amber come nowhere near. So we ate from the fruits and drank from the streams and remained there while we shed our burdens.

Then we said to one another: ‘Nothing is as deceptive as security, and nothing is safer than caution, and there is no fortress stronger than circumspection. Long have we tarried in this place on the verge of heedlessness. Our enemies are behind us following our footsteps and seeking our place out. So come, let us wrest ourselves out and leave this place even though it is a good abode, for there is no physician like salvation.’

So we agreed to continue our journey and left that location and descended upon the eighth mountain and lo, it was a towering peak whose top swam in the clouds upon whose sides lived birds with sweeter voices and more beautiful colours and more delightful forms and were better company than any I had ever come across before.

When we landed beside them they showed us such kindness and generosity and companionship that we would not have been able to return in kind even the simplest of it.

When openness was established between us all, we told them of what had befallen us and they showed their compassion and concern and they mentioned that beyond the mountain was a city which was the seat of the greatest king, and that anyone who has been wronged who appeals to him and relies upon him will have his wrong removed by his power and aid. So we accepted their advice and set out for the city of the king until we landed in his courtyard awaiting his permission. Then the order was issued that those who approached are granted permission so we were allowed to enter his palace.

We found ourselves in a court whose expanse defies description and when we had crossed it the veil was lifted and we were in another wide glittering court which made the previous one seem narrow, even small. When the veil was lifted and our eyes glimpsed the king in all his beauty, our hearts attached themselves to him and we were so astounded that we were unable to make our complaint. He understood that we were overcome and returned our senses to us by his generosity so that we had the courage to address him and we explained our case before him. He said: ‘Only those who set the snares will be able to remove them. I will send a messenger to them and demand that they give you satisfaction and remove all harm from you, so go in happiness.’

And now here we are on the way with the messenger. But my fellows cling to me asking me to relate to them the splendour of the king before them. So I will describe it in brief and say that he is the king whom you will encounter whenever there comes to your mind beauty which is not admixed with ugliness, and perfection which is not sullied by imperfection. All perfection in reality belongs to him, and all imperfection, even metaphorical, is negated of him because of the beauty of his face and the generosity of his hand. Whoever serves him has gained the ultimate bliss, and whoever ignores him has lost this world and the next.

But how many a fellow who comes to hear this story of mine and says: ‘I see that something has touched your mind, or that you are somewhat deranged. I swear you did not fly but your mind flew and you were not caught but your wits were caught. How can a man fly and birds talk? It seems that bile has overcome your humours and dryness has taken hold of your brain. The only course for you is to drink a decoction of epithymum, and take regular baths in luke-warm fresh water, and inhale nymphaea oil, and eat rich foods, and avoid wakefulness at night, and minimise thinking, for previously we had regarded you as a man of intelligence. And God is well aware of our consciences, and ours are concerned for you, and since your condition is somewhat out of balance, ours are out of balance.

How much is said and how little is of benefit! And the worst of speech is that which is lost. And from God we seek aid and from people we are free. Whoever believes other than this is at a loss. And those who do wrong will come to know what will be their fate.[2]


[1] Cf. The prophetic tradition that the believer is the mirror of the believer.

[2] This last sentence is a quotation from the Qurʾān, Q: 26:227.


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6 responses to “An Allegorical Epistle by Abū ʿAlī ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) Describing His Arrival at True Knowledge.

  1. Gyöngyösi Csilla

    May I ask is this the whole risala, or a part of it?

  2. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vol: #44 | Whewell's Ghost

  3. Pingback: Ibn Sina Risalat al-Tayr – Göttinger Datenbank der klassischen und nachklassischen Pädagogik

  4. Pingback: Ibn Sina: Risalat al-tayr – Göttinger Datenbank der klassischen und nachklassischen Pädagogik

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