Apr 03 2013

Umar ibn al-Farid – In memory of the beloved (from The Wine Ode (al-Khamriyah))

Published by at 8:54 am under Poetry

In memory of the beloved (from The Wine Ode (al-Khamriyah))
by Umar Ibn al-Farid

English version by Th. Emil Homerin

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


/ Photo by quacktaculous /

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, 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 to find out 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.






Umar Ibn al-Farid

Egypt (1181 – 1235) Timeline
Muslim / Sufi

The poetry of Shaykh Umar Ibn al-Farid is considered by many to be the pinnacle of Arabic mystical verse, though surprisingly he is not widely known in the West. (Rumi and Hafiz, probably the best known in the West among the great Sufi poets, both wrote primarily in Persian, not Arabic.) Ibn al-Farid’s two masterpieces are The Wine Ode, a beautiful meditation on the “wine” of divine bliss, and The Poem of the Sufi Way, a profound exploration of spiritual experience along the Sufi Path and perhaps the longest mystical poem composed in Arabic. Both poems have inspired in-depth spiritual commentaries throughout the centuries, and they are still reverently memorized by Sufis and other devout Muslims today.

Ibn al-Farid’s father was a judge and important government official in Cairo.

When he was a young man Ibn al-Farid would go on extended spiritual retreats among the oases outside of Cairo, but he eventually felt that he was not making deep enough spiritual progress. He abandoned his spiritual wanderings and entered law school.

One day Ibn al-Farid saw a greengrocer performing the ritual Muslim washing outside the door of the law school, but the man was doing them out of the prescribed order. When Ibn al-Farid tried to correct him, the man looked at him and said, “Umar! You will not be enlightened in Egypt. You will be enlightened only in Mecca…”

Umar Ibn al-Farid was stunned by this statement, seeing that this simple greengrocer was no ordinary man. But he argued that he couldn’t possibly make the trip to Mecca right away. Then the man gave Ibn al-Farid a vision, in that very moment, of Mecca. Ibn al-Farid was so transfixed by this experience that he left immediately for Mecca and, in his own words, “Then as I entered it, enlightenment came to me wave after wave and never left.”

Shaykh Umar Ibn al-Farid stayed many years in Mecca, but eventually returned to Cairo. He became a scholar of Muslim law, a teacher of the hadith (the traditions surrounding the sayings and life of the prophet Muhammed), and a teacher of poetry. Unlike many other respected poets of the age, Ibn al-Farid refused the patronage of wealthy governmental figures which would have required him to produce poetry for propaganda, preferring the relatively humble life of a teacher that allowed him to compose his poetry of enlightenment unhampered.

More poetry by Umar Ibn al-Farid

5 responses so far

5 Responses to “Umar ibn al-Farid – In memory of the beloved (from The Wine Ode (al-Khamriyah))”

  1. maryann moonon 03 Apr 2013 at 11:03 am

    Dear Ivan,

    Todays poem “In Memory of the Beloved” reminds us that there is truly no shortage of happiness here on Earth. It takes a change of attitude, for no matter what seems to be filled with shadows and sorrow, we can get our holy Spirits up, and make good sense of relishing happiness. It is available to us, tho’ we have somehow become very accustomed to the shadows and the seeming tragedies. Let’s choose to take the Hand of God now
    and let HIM ease us out of the shadows and into the lingering light of the sun. This mystical
    Sun is the wine of Divine Bliss. What delicious words Umar Ibn Al Fareed uses when he says “As I entered enlightenment, it came to me in wave after wave, and never left” !!

    Thanks, as always , for this glorious poem for today.

  2. Carolon 03 Apr 2013 at 6:15 pm

    Thank you Ivan – what a wonderful commentary. Helped me understand much
    more of the poem. And I also love the history of the poet. So much to learn. . .

  3. Virginia (Ginny) DeMerson 04 Apr 2013 at 6:05 am

    This one reminds me of Emily Dickinson’s “I taste a liquor never brewed / from tankards scooped in pearl . . .” I’ve been reading The Conference of the Birds–by another Persian mystic in the sufi tradition. And it’s full of these kinds of metaphors, especially the erotically charged notion of crazy love for the “Friend”.

    Beautiful sentiments. Like Dickinson’s this one throws me back into the intoxicating experience of cosmic beauty: sun, moon and stars–or petals and nectars of flowers. Just to look up and abandon ourselves to the beauty is to approach the throne of God.

    Thanks. Ginny *(*

  4. Pegon 04 Apr 2013 at 6:33 am

    I feel Homerin’s translation of the second stanza is poorly done. However, Ivan did a great job breaking it down and developing the imagery. I did not know about the meaning of the crescent and the star.

    I’ve gotten into viewing the stars more and there are times when certain planet’s are located by their nearness to the crescent moon. My guess there is significance in which planet’s and the time of year.

    Also, the Bible story of Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding is the same alchemical process.

    Peace

  5. ebrahimon 04 Apr 2013 at 2:20 pm

    The beloved is the one who brews the wine and matures it
    By and through his fiery passionate love he crashes and ferments it
    This does he to fill the wine goblet that it may be joyously drunk
    But say – who would the drunkard be – licking the last drop brimming over the top?

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply