Feb 09 2010

The Celestial Drink 5: The Wine of the Sufis

Published by at 12:12 pm under Celestial Drink,Poetry

The cup of wine for us
      is mother’s milk.
If we don’t taste it
      we no longer live.

– Qushayri (d. 1074)

Early Islamic Mysticism: Sufi, Quran, Miraj, Poetic and Theological Writings (Classics of Western Spirituality)
by Michael A. Sells

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. It is on this tension that Sufi poetry thrives.

Go to the Winery and exchange your robe for a drink of wine,
Despite the arrogant pious, drink like a Sufi.

– Moulana Shah Maghsoud (1914 – 1980)

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?

A mystic is one
who passes away —

He abides in the essence
of that which is Real.

Such a person is pure,
clear wine without dregs.

Now whole, he displays
the Most Beautiful Names.

– Binavi Badakshani (13th century)

Love’s Alchemy: Poems from the Sufi Tradition
Translated by David Fideler / Translated by Sabrineh Fideler

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

Is it always understood and practiced this way? No. Sufis often dance in the gap between the forbidden and the promised, and court societal disdain.

Hair disheveled, smiling lips, sweating and tipsy,
garment torn, singing a love song, glass in hand,
picking a quarrel, chanting a spell,
yesterday at midnight she came and sat by my bed.

She lowered her head to my ear, and whispered, sad-voiced,
“My old lover, are you asleep?”
The lover for whom such a nightfarer’s drink is poured
is an unbeliever of love if he does not worship wine.

Come on, hermit, do not blame those who drink to the dregs,
there was no other gift when God announced His Mastery.
The smile of the wineglass, a girl’s tangled tresses,
have broken may penances, as they broke the penance of Hafiz.

– Hafiz (1320 – 1389)

Music of a Distant Drum: Classical Arabic, Persian, Turkish & Hebrew Poems
Translated by Bernard Lewis

Sufis delight in 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.

In the street of wineshops, when
      should I pray? since my
drunkenness and sobriety alike
      are all the same as prayer.
There, no one accepts the coin
      of righteousness, piety and self-denial:
The only good currency in that street
      is beggary.
None but the drunkard knows
      the tavern’s secrets —
how could the sober unveil
      the mysteries of that street?
As soon as I met those
      cunning haunters of the wineshop
I realized that other work than theirs
      is nothing but a fable.
Do you want a guided tour
      of the Mecca of Love?
Come, sit in the tavern, for the trip
      to Arabia is long and tedious.
They refused me entrance at first
      at the wineshop
so I went to the monastery
      and found an open door — but
I heard a voice from within the tavern
      crying, “‘Iraqi!
Open the door for yourself, the gates
      of drunkenness are always agape!”

– Fakhruddin Iraqi (d. 1289)

Fakhruddin Iraqi: Divine Flashes (Classics of Western Spirituality)
by William Chittick / Nasr Seyyed Hossein

Poetic Roots

Islamic poetry has several deep roots. The Quran, the tap root, is itself profoundly poetic, filling the entire Muslim faith with a strong poetic sensibility.

Another important root reaches to pre-Islamic times, to the Arabic ode of the lost beloved. This is a rich poetic form that typically begins with a ruined campsite, the abandoned home of the hero’s beloved. The emptiness of the campsite mirrors the hero’s soul, laid waste by separation from his beloved. The hero recalls his beloved in his mind, the sweetness of the vision adding to his suffering.

/ Photo by Christ0ff /

Su’ad is gone,
      my heart stunned,
lost in her traces,
      shackled, unransomed.

            What was Su’ad
      the morning they went away
            but a faint song,
      languor in the eyes, kohl,

Revealing as she smiled
      side-teeth wet
as a first draught of wine
      or a second,

            Mixed with the hard cold
      of a winding, backsloped,
            gorge-bottom stream, pure,
      cooled in the morning by the north wind,

Filtered through the winds,
      then flooded
with rains of a night traveler,
      flowing white and over.

– Ka’b ibn Zuhayr

Early Islamic Mysticism: Sufi, Quran, Miraj, Poetic and Theological Writings (Classics of Western Spirituality)
by Michael A. Sells

Crushed, the hero wanders into the desert, utterly alone and lost. Finally, he must return to his community. His acceptance of loss, and the solitary wholeness it inspires, inspires a boastful celebrated upon his return… a celebration that often culminates with a wine song.

Sufis and other Muslim poets have elaborated on these traditional themes for centuries, seeing in them important stages of the spiritual journey.

Yunus Emre, Yunus Emre poetry, Muslim / Sufi poetry Yunus Emre

Turkey (1238 – 1320) Timeline
Muslim / Sufi

The drink sent down from Truth,
we drank it, glory be to God.
And we sailed over the Ocean of Power,
glory be to God.

Beyond those hills and oak woods,
beyond those vineyards and gardens,
we passed in health and joy, glory be to God.

We were dry, but we moistened.
We grew wings and became birds,
we married one another and flew,
glory be to God.

To whatever lands we came,
in whatever hearts, in all humanity,
we planted the meanings Taptuk taught us,
glory be to God.

Come here, let’s make peace,
let’s not be strangers to one another.
We have saddled the horse
and trained it, glory be to God.

We became a trickle that grew into a river.
We took flight and drove into the sea,
and then we overflowed, glory be to God.

We became servants at Taptuk’s door.
Poor Yunus, raw and tasteless,
finally got cooked, glory be to God.

– Yunus Emre (1238 – 1320)

The Drop That Became the Sea: Lyric Poems of Yunus Emre
Translated by Kabir Helminski / Translated by Refik Algan

From Morocco to Persia to Indonesia, and increasingly all over the world, Sufis pass around the Celestial Drink, and sing out, “We were dry, but we moistened.”

/ Photo by slipszenko /

Khidr and the Water of Life

Our discussion of Sufism and the sacred drink would not be complete without at least briefly honoring the mysterious figure of Khidr, “the Green One.” Khidr (also Khizr or Khadir) is often identified with the Biblical prophet, Elijah. In Muslim lore, he is said to have discovered the Water of Life. Having drunk from this primal source, Khidr has stepped beyond the duality of life and death and exists in an immortal state. He appears to seekers and pilgrims, often near places of water – wells, rivers, lakes. Since the Water of Life now flows within him, Khidr, like the Celestial Drink itself, acts as secret guide and initiator.

Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi, Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi poetry, Muslim / Sufi poetry Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi

Afghanistan & Turkey (1207 – 1273) Timeline
Muslim / Sufi

One night a man was crying,
Allah! Allah!
His lips grew sweet with the praising,
until a cynic said,
“So! I have heard you
calling out, but have you ever
gotten any response?”

The man had no answer to that.
He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.

He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls,
in a thick, green foliage.
“Why did you stop praising?”
“Because I’ve never heard anything back.”
“This longing
you express is the return message.”

The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.

Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.

Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.

There are love dogs
no one knows the names of.

Give your life
to be one of them.

Jalaluddin Rumi (1207 – 1273)

The Essential Rumi
Translated by Coleman Barks

Serious Drunkenness

Setting the more raucous language aside, for a moment, let’s not forget that “wine” and “drunkenness” are serious esoteric elements of the Sufi path. These themes have inspired Sufi thinkers to profound discussion and extensive enunciation of mystical attainment and spiritual psychology. The early Sufi philosopher Qushayri already had a rich spiritual language of wine to build upon when he wrote,

“Know that waking is in proportion to drunkenness. Whoever is drunk in the real is awake in the real.”
– Qushayri (d. 1074)

Early Islamic Mysticism: Sufi, Quran, Miraj, Poetic and Theological Writings (Classics of Western Spirituality)
by Michael A. Sells

One response so far

One Response to “The Celestial Drink 5: The Wine of the Sufis”

  1. leilaon 09 Feb 2010 at 2:07 pm

    Hi Ivan:)
    I remember when i was a school,we had all poems from persian language poets in our Farsi language subject,in that time it was very difficult !!so many of them!!and in thier poems lots of old words with strange new forms and complicated & hidden meanings,so confusing sometimes!!even in our own language!..specialy Hafef!! He used so many symbols and hidden meanings,difficult words and so on….even now i can not read one of his poems without mistakes,….and what was share in all was they all talk about Wine & beloved! and what teachers told us was this drunkeness is holy drunkenness and beloved is also god…..in that time it was boring for most of kids….
    I’m reading slowly all old text ,they are so beautiful,in form & meaning….
    Maybe they used this way of talking coz of no freedom to talk loadly,some who did it was killed ,like Hallaj…that’s why it became our nature somehow! Farsi is very layer language,not very direct…u can not undrestand easy what is the meaning behind the words people are saying!!seems even ordinary people have thousands of layers,coz of these centuries of hiding what we realy beliveing or thinking…..or even u can not undrestand easy if someone like something or not,want something or not,it became realy a serious problem sometimes!:))
    maybe that’s why i feel realy comfortable to talk and write in English sometimes,plus my limited vocabulary ,it make me feel more clear & open,more simple….


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