In memory of the beloved (from The Wine Ode (al-Khamriyah))

by Umar Ibn al-Farid

English version by Th. Emil Homerin
Original Language Arabic

In memory of the beloved
     we drank a wine;
          we were drunk with it
     before creation of the vine.

The full moon its glass, the wine
     a sun circled by a crescent;
          when it is mixed,
     how many stars appear!

If not for its bouquet,
     I would not have found its tavern;
          if not for its flashing gleam,
     how could imagination picture it?

Time preserved nothing of it
     save one last breath,
          concealed like a secret
     in the breasts of wise men.

But if it is recalled among the tribe,
     the worthy ones
          are drunk by morn
     without shame or sin.

-- from Umar Ibn al-Farid: Sufi Verses, Saintly Life, Translated by Th. Emil Homerin

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

Mystics of every tradition use the language of wine and drunkenness to describe states of enlightenment. It sounds like a taunting, illicit metaphor, and it is. But it is more than that. This wine, though subtle, is real, and can be experienced in a profound, very physical manner.

In memory of the beloved
     we drank a wine;
          we were drunk with it
     before creation of the vine.


A flowing substance is felt upon the palette, with a taste of ethereal sweetness that can be compared with wine or honey. There is a sensation of drinking and a warming of the heart. The attention blissfully turns inward, the eyelids grow pleasantly heavy and the gaze may become unfocused. A giddy smile naturally blooms for no apparent reason. When the ecstasy comes on strongly, the body can tremble, sometimes the consciousness even leaves the body.

With these experiences, it not only makes sense for mystics to use the language of wine, observers sometimes mistake this state for actual drunkenness.

The full moon its glass, the wine
     a sun circled by a crescent;
          when it is mixed,
     how many stars appear!


In just these few lines, Umar ibn al-Farid implies layers of meaning. Let's build the image in our minds, layer by layer.

How, and in what way, is the full moon like a wine glass? In esoteric language, the full moon is often used as a symbol for the awakened awareness, the awakened heart, the awakened soul. That is the only suitable container for this sacred wine.

Next, even more surprisingly, he describes the wine as "a sun." That suggests wine is made of fire, a source of light, the opposite of the dark liquid image we normally associate with wine. Wine is closer to water than fire in our normal conception. Not so for the mystic. The wine is the marriage of water and fire. It is the water transformed by fire into something wholly new.

We can think of the water is the psyche, the individual awareness. The fire is the fermentation. Neither water nor juice alone make men drunk. You need the fermentation. You need the hidden alchemical work of the bacteria. You need life! Wine is alive, and it is the fermentation process that infuses it with life. Fermentation is the working of spiritual practice until the psyche sparks into life.

When the still water is lit up by that initiating fire or fermentation, the heavenly night sky is reflected upon its calm face. When the mind is utterly still and lit with the fire of illumination, then the awareness reflects the heavenly expanse -- and you find yourself imbibing the Celestial Drink! You find that the water of the normal psyche has been miraculously transformed into the glowing, life-filled wine!

What is important in the wine is its fire!

When we put these two images together -- a moon glass holding the sun wine -- we have an evocation of the Muslim symbol of the star and crescent. Picture in your mind the rim of a glass catching the light -- that is the crescent -- and within it is held the star or sun. One way Sufis understand this symbol is that the star is the dawning light of enlightenment, and the crescent is the rim of the glass of bliss-bestowing wine. The crescent is the rim of the sky, the open boundaries of the awakened mind, the open heart... giving us enlightenment within the individual soul and within the world of being. And reflected on the surface of this enlightenment, the illuminated night sky; we see all of creation as a map of light.

If not for its bouquet,
     I would not have found its tavern;
          if not for its flashing gleam,
     how could imagination picture it?


In addition to a nectar-like sweetness, many mystics experience a scent that can be rapturously overwhelming or tantalizingly subtle. The aroma is the intoxicating scent of the wine. But this blissful scent can also be understood as the perfume worn by the Beloved that awakens sacred ardor upon the spiritual journey.

And, of course, perfume is scented oil, oil being the substance used to anoint and initiate.

Time preserved nothing of it
     save one last breath,
          concealed like a secret
     in the breasts of wise men.


This circles back to the opening verse. Umar ibn al-Farid is saying we were all drunk on the sacred drink "before the creation of the vine," that is, before the manifestation of the physical universe. That drunkenness, that ecstasy of spiritual union, is the primordial state... our natural state.

But now, in the world of physical being, only "one last breath" of that primordial wine is preserved "like a secret / in the breasts of wise men." In the midst of the bewildering kaleidoscope of manifest reality, this eternal drink is no longer apparent. One must go to the wise to find it and discover if it is real or not. Better yet, become one of the wise and erase all doubt.

But if it is recalled among the tribe,
     the worthy ones
          are drunk by morn
     without shame or sin.


The drunkenness of the wise has nothing to do with alcohol and everything to do with the giddy, fiery touch of the Beloved.



Recommended Books: Umar Ibn al-Farid

Umar Ibn al-Farid: Sufi Verses, Saintly Life Sufi Poems: A Mediaeval Anthology From Arab Poet to Muslim Saint: Ibn Al-Farid, His Verse, and His Shrine The Wine of Love and Life: Ibn Al-Farid's Al-Khamriyah and Al-Qaysari's Quest for Meaning





In memory of the