Spiritual Flight, from Persian Poem to Children’s Challenges
As the tiny finch sits trembling with fear, the wise hoopoe says:
Deep in the darkness of the storm
Heaven will see you through,
We all have the strength we need,
Including little you!
The finch is only one in a flock of birds who, lamenting that they have no king to guide them, have gathered together for a journey to King Simorgh. Leading them to this great meeting is the hoopoe, a bird with a sacred prayer inscribed upon his beak, Aquila-Style reported.
The very first version of this story, which symbolises the human journey to God, was written by Shaykh Ahmad al-Ghazali, brother to the great writer Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. A hundred years later in 1177, this work inspired Persian poet Farid al-Din Attar to pen the poem Mantiq al-Tayr, or The Conference of the Birds. Centuries later it was told in theatrical plays, where it still appears today. Deeply moved by this epic tale, Alexis York Lumbard could not resist adapting it into a book for a younger, more contemporary audience.
So do not let your many doubts
Destroy this golden chance.
Release their hold upon you now,
And to your King advance!
Alexis began by choosing the obstacles or vices each bird would have to overcome. After choosing obstacles children could relate to, the birds themselves were selected. ‘I based this decision on whether or not their appearance personified their inner weakness’, she says.
The duck, which waddles about uninterested in its pond, faces the hurdle of laziness. The hawk carries the burden of pride; it appears glorious and untouchable in the same way the nafs (ego) sees itself.
The Conference of the Birds conveys to children the complexities of the human ego and the struggles we encounter on our spiritual journeys. Using the timeless symbolism of birds, the story touches on the Islamic concept of ihsan, or purification of the heart. Birds, as Dr Seyyed Hossein Nasr of George Washington University writes in his foreword, have been symbolic of spiritual journeys across cultures and traditions. For parents and educators alike, this is a book of ideas and poetry to entertain and enlighten the young.
A visual delight, this book was illustrated by Demi, author and illustrator of dozens of children’s books including Muhammad, named a Best Illustrated Book by The New York Times. Her drawings are inspired by Persian and Asian miniature paintings. In addition to the hoopoe and all the other birds in the story, Demi has depicted backgrounds of the sky and clouds with a sense of surrealism and sacredness.
The cover of The Conference of the Birds
The Conference of the Birds is an answer for parents seeking children’s books of spiritual significance. Alexis suggests that parents should explore stories from different cultures and traditions: ‘The entire genre of folktales – from Aesop’s fables to Native American legends – is full of stories which celebrate and demonstrate the power of virtue, beauty and truth.’
Alexis’ next venture is a book app, The Story of Muhammad, about the Prophet’s (Peace Be Upon Him) prophetic mission. It is written as a lyrical ballad for ages four and above. She hopes it will help children develop an understanding and love for the Prophet (PBUH) and his journey.
And now that everyone of us
Has shed sin’s mighty hold
Of inner faults and outer flaws,
Prepare yourselves! Behold!
Children’s book author Alexis York Lumbard was born on a military base in North Carolina in the United States and spent her childhood on the road. While doing her degree in religious studies at George Washington University she met her husband. She joined him in the Middle East, where she continued her travels. Inspired by the places she visited and the love of stories with their timeless truths, she produced her first children’s book, The Conference of the Birds. Learn more about Alexis at her website