They say to me: "Do describe it (from The Wine Ode (al-Khamriyah))

by Umar Ibn al-Farid

English version by Th. Emil Homerin
Original Language Arabic

They say to me: "Do describe it,
     for you know its character well!"
          Indeed, I have word
     of its attributes:

Purity not water,
     subtlety not air,
          light but not fire,
     spirit without body,

Lovely features guiding
     those describing it to praise;
          how find their prose and poetry
     on wine.

One who never knew it
     is moved by its memory,
          just as one longing for Nu'm
     is stirred when she is recalled.

But they said: "You've drunk sin!"
     No, indeed, I drank only
          that whose abstention
     is sin to me.

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

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

A meditation on wine today...

(So it doesn't sound as if I am encouraging everyone to stock up at the corner liquor store, I will mention that I don't drink alcohol myself, and I never have. Much to the surprise of my friends and family, I chose not to drink from an early age. I don't, however, think there is anything wrong with drinking in moderation. But the wine we are contemplating here is of an entirely different sort...)

--

While sacred wine imagery occurs all over the world, the theme is perhaps most fully developed by the great Sufi poets.

This is especially interesting because of the complex relationship Islam has with wine. In Christianity, wine is the sacramental drink of the Eucharist, but in traditional Muslim observation, wine is forbidden. Yet, surprisingly, wine is promised to devout Muslims in heaven. Sufi poetry thrives on this tension.

But they said: "You've drunk sin!"
     No, indeed, I drank only
          that whose abstention
     is sin to me.


The forbidden worldly drink is also the sacred drink. That which is most profane is somehow transformed to become that which is most sacred. What is the difference? What changes the forbidden into the most holy of substances?

The mystically inclined might understand the paradox in this way: As a spiritual practice, alcoholic beverages are to be avoided, along with anything that fogs the awareness. This prepares the awareness to receive the infinitely more delightful wine of heaven.

Is it always understood and practiced this way? No. Sufis often dance in the gap between the forbidden and the promised, turning religious formalism on its head. Amidst sober orthodoxy, Sufis sing drunkenly of wine, wine, red wine! This allows authoritarians to dismiss them as drunkards and fools, leaving true seekers free from the snares of societal approval in order to continue their outlaw love affair with the Divine.

Bliss is sweet -- literally. When you relax deeply into it, it becomes physical as well as transcendental. Not only is bliss an internal realization of wholeness and at-one-ness, it is also perceived through the external senses as the purest delight each sense can comprehend.

For many mystics, the sense of taste is pronounced, and bliss is experienced as a sublime, fulfilling sweetness resting upon the tongue while it warms the heart. Tasting this rarified substance is intoxicating; you feel giddy, smiling for no reason. You are no longer yourself. You may tremble and shake. You appear to all the world as if you are drunk -- and so mystics speak of drunkenness and wine.

Often accompanying the experience is a feeling of deep purity, a sense of etheric subtlety, and the vision of all-pervading light--

Purity not water,
     subtlety not air,
          light but not fire,
     spirit without body


Ibn al-Farid gives us an interesting statement that implies drinking the sacred wine inspires words and poetry:

Lovely features guiding
     those describing it to praise;
          how find their prose and poetry
     on wine.


Many esoteric traditions formulate this link: the secret drink = poetry = prophecy. Here spirituality and art overlap.

When the mystic becomes conscious of first tasting the initiate's wine, the awareness of supreme unity that underlies the apparent variety of creation is so profound that you begin to exist in the primal state of metaphor. Metaphor ceases to be a literary device or a dramatic mode of expression; it is seen as the true nature of reality.

The heavenly wine also brings the awareness into stillness, free from inner dialog. -- Silence -- Yet, curiously, many mystics find that from that silence words flow freely. Or, more generally, you can say that your natural expression is unstopped. With some that natural expression comes through words, for others music, for others imagery. It is as if expression is no longer hindered by your own mind. From silence, expression flows generously.

This is how Sufis "find their prose and poetry on wine."


Have a beautiful full-moon weekend!

Ivan


PS - I hope you will join me in sending healing blessings to the region of Israel/Palestine. The current status quo is untenable so, sadly, further violence from all sides is unavoidable until a more livable balance is found. For that reason, the blessings I send are not so much to quell the immediate chaos as to comfort those who suffer and to inspire wisdom and empathy among those in positions to redirect the situation in order to create a more livable future for the region. All the people in this holy land are in my heart.



Recommended Books: Umar Ibn al-Farid

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






They say to me: "Do