The Conference of the Birds, by Farid ud-Din Attar, with Rafiq Abdulla
It was only after I read this book--introduction and all--that I figured out that it's really selections from a longer poem. It's only mentioned in one spot that I nearly missed! So now I feel kind of dumb, but I did enjoy the poetry and maybe someday I'll find the whole thing. I have no idea how long it is.
The Conference of the Birds is a Sufi poem, a sort of allegory of humanity's journey to God. All the birds of the world meet together, and the hoopoe encourages them all to look for the Simurgh, the King of Birds--that is, God. The hoopoe is their spiritual leader, wiser than the rest, and he tells them that the journey is long and difficult, but nothing else is worthwhile.
The birds are at first happy enough to look for the Simurgh, but when they realize how arduous the quest will be, they start dropping out and giving excuses. The sparrow is afraid, the owl doesn't have the energy, the duck finds satisfaction enough in his water, the nightingale is a romantic more interested in poetry and roses than religion. Each has a common failing, and the hoopoe sees through every one of them and tells them what they need to hear. There are also birds who honestly dedicate themselves to the journey from the start, and a large group sets out.
It's a long trip. Some birds die along the way. There are seven allegorical hazardous valleys to cross, and I don't really get how exactly they work (Sufi steps to enlightenment, I suppose), but they are Love, Understanding, Detachment, Unity, Bewilderment, Deprivation and Death. Those that cross all the valleys--only a few out of the many that started--get to the Simurgh's palace....where at first they are denied entrance. Only when they insist that they will never leave are they allowed to enter and become one with their Beloved.
Though I'm not a Sufi, there is plenty here for anybody to think about and the poem is a stirring one as well as great literature. The volume of selections I read is lavishly illustrated with illustrations from illuminated manuscripts held by the British Library, which was neat. I enjoyed the artwork.