Why would Farid al-Din ‘Attar, one of the most pious and moralistic Persian poets, call himself essentially the biggest scalawag of them all?
The answer lies in the themes explored in the sonnet I’ve translated here for you. ‘Attar, Rumi, and other followers of the Sufi or Islamic Mystic tradition were really concerned with what happens when a pious person gains way too much recognition for their pious deeds. They had issues with any ostentatious display of piety they thought was really a way to garner fame and boost the ego. As a result of this concern, some Sufis had issues with zuhd, an ascetic movement focused on renunciation of worldly pleasures and feats of spiritual athleticism, like fasting, staying up all night to pray, celibacy, and so forth. To be fair, Sufi practices really aren’t all that different on the outside. Externally they look the same. But it is all about the intention with which these actions are performed, and the way that Sufis try to avoid all credit or acknowledgment for their gains on the spiritual path.
Some people of a mystical/ascetic inclination took this idea one step further, and thought it was necessary not only to conceal one’s piety, but also to incite blame and hatred from the people so that their ego was thoroughly crushed. These people initially called themselves the Malāmatiyya (the People of Blame), and their lines of thought were co-opted into later mystical movements, like Sufism (taṣavvof) that we consider ‘Attar and Rumi to have been a part of. See if you can spot all the references to self-blame and paradoxical conceits in ‘Attar’s sonnet 487:
Last night, I found a Magian cloister within the monastery.
I found the cloister guide to be a devout elder.
When I entered upon the elder, he was in a trance.
I found him at night, drunk off the wine of love.
After I’d sat for a while, waiting for my request,
I received a glass of strong Magian wine straight from the elder’s hand.
No sooner had I drunk the wine than a great wave arose from my heart,
[So that] I found a torrent flowing from my bleeding eyes.
Though I was the Imam of [doctrinal] religion, once I entered the cloister,
There, in the heart of it, I found myself to be the reprobate of the age.
Screaming, I ran outside and burned my robe and prayer mat.
I found my obedience and austerity lacking.
Having annihilated the self, my heart took refuge in that cloister,
I found my soul’s [true] enemy in the depths of that house.
Bereft of religious guidance, I became the epitome of unbelief.
I became a scoundrel and a knave; I found asceticism to be a myth.
When the mirror of existence suddenly showed me my face,
In every last atom, I saw the signs of [divine] love reflected.
In both worlds, the lover and beloved are forever only He.
Thus I found the human image of water and clay to be a pretext [for loving God.]
I prescribed no cure for the pain of separation,
Nor did I find an end to the long path of love.
How can I traverse the path of love when it is an endless road?
Especially since there are pitfalls and setbacks every step of the way.
Though in love you may be the Jesus of your age, Farid,
Don’t boast, for even a needle and comb can lead you astray.
دوش درون صومعه، دیر مغانه یافتم
راهنمای دیر را، پیر یگانه یافتم
چون بر پیر در شدم، پیر ز خویش رفته بود
کز می عشق پیر را، مست شبانه یافتم
از طلبی که داشتم، چون بنشستم اندکی
از کف پیر میکده، درد مغانه یافتم
راست که درد خورده شد، موج بخاست از دلم
تا ز دو چشم خون فشان، سیل روانه یافتم
گرچه امام دین بدم، تا که به دیر در شدم
در بن دیر خویش را، رند زمانه یافتم
نعرهزنان برون شدم، دلق و سجاده سوختم
طاعت و زاهدی خود، زیر میانه یافتم
چون دل من به نیستی، حلقه نشین دیر شد
دشمن جان خویش را، در بن خانه یافتم
بی سر و سروری شدم، قبلهٔ کافری شدم
رند و قلندری شدم، زهد فسانهٔافتم
چون بنمود ناگهم، آینهٔ وجود روی
ذره به ذره را درو، عشق نشانه یافتم
عاشق و یار دایما، در دو جهان هموست بس
زانکه خیال آب و گل، جمله بهانه یافتم
نه الم فراق را، هیچ دوا رقم زدم
نه ره دور عشق را، هیچ کرانه یافتم
در ره عشق چون روم، چون ره بی نهایت است
خاصه که پیش هر قدم، چاه و ستانه یافتم
گر تو به عشق فیالمثل، عیسی وقتی ای فرید
لاف مزن چو رهزنت، سوزن و شانه یافتم