The birds set out to seek their king, who was called Simorgh but whom none had seen. They passed through seven valleys, and only thirty survived till the end where, when the curtains were at last lifted, they saw thirty mirrors placed in front of them. Since si means thirty in Persian, and morgh means bird, Simorgh was practically each one of them seeing a reflection of themselves at the same time. However, the whole was more than the sum of its parts – “I am from you but still I am more than you,” said Simorgh and the voice came from each bird simultaneously. They united with the whole.
This is the gist of The Conference of the Birds by the twelfth century Sufi poet Sheikh Fariddun Attar, who became an inspiration for Rumi in the next generation.
Precisely what did he mean by Simorgh? Interpretations differ. It is quite evident that the seven valleys were symbolic and profound descriptions of the seven states available to an ego in the course of its development. However, it can be disputed whether Attar meant Simorgh to represent the Ultimate Ego, i.e. God, as was understood by most commentators in the subsequent centuries.
The great nineteenth century thinker Sir Syed Ahmad Khan seemed to be offering an alternate interpretation when he wrote ‘Time Bygone’ (‘Guzra Hua Zamana’) in 1873. In that short story, an old man reviews his past life with remorse as he observes that all his good deeds appear wasted – mosques, wells, soup kitchens which he helped to be built all lie in ruins. A houri, surrounded by a halo, descends from the night sky and tells him, “I am the spirit of all human beings. I am the virtue that never dies. Therefore, whoever wishes to win me should work for the common good of humanity, or at least for the benefit of his nation.”
The old man despairs of winning her, and faints. It turns out to be a dream: he is a mere boy who was dreaming about old age. Rather than being the last night of the year, as in the dream, it was the New Year morning. His mother advises him to do as his “bride” had told him.
The concept of “the spirit of all human beings” was not unknown to Sufis. They had written about it at great length, often calling it “the Perfect Human Being”, or Insaan-i-Kamil. However, to personify it as something which an entire society, or perhaps the whole humankind, can achieve collectively was an ingenuous interpretation brought by Sir Syed a little before Nietzsche started dreaming about Superman.
Syed did more than just describing it. It seems that he believed that the apparition presented in his fantasy was in fact a real being: the collective ego of humankind might be existing in reality, or could be in the making. Syed took two practical steps for achieving it.