When morning arose

by Qushayri

English version by Michael A. Sells
Original Language Persian/Farsi

When morning arose
     on the star of a strong wine,
drunkenness and soberness
     were the same to me.

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

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

Just a few simple lines here. Wine and star, drunkenness and soberness. Can they mean anything of spiritual significance?

First, we are given the image of dawn and a "star of strong wine." In Sufi poetry, in particular, we often have the pairing of wine with a star. Imagine for a moment that you are outside at night, holding up a glass of wine, and a single bright star reflects off the edge of the glass. You've got the deep red of the wine, the lit rim of the glass, and the sharp point of starlight at one edge... Does this image remind you of anything? Yes, the crescent and the star that is the sacred symbol of Islam.

But Qushayri and other Sufi poets using this image are not making some superficial reference to their religious allegiance.

One way to understand this symbol is that the circle represents the world, or perhaps the individual soul. But, to be spiritually awakened, that circle must be broken open. That edge, which is the wall of separation, is broken open by the star -- the light of God, enlightenment. The crescent and the star of Islam for Muslim mystics is a succinct expression of the proper relationship between the human or the worldly with the divine reality.

Turning the crescent of Islam into the edge of a glass of wine has particular meaning to Sufi mystics who often play with the illicit imagery of wine and drunkenness.

Mystics of all world traditions describe an experience of drinking a subtle, sweet, liquid-like substance in deep communion. It is variously named wine, milk, honey, amrita, ambrosia... And drinking this celestial liquid imparts a blissful ecstasy, pure contentment, giddiness, joy, loss of inhibition, physical warmth, trembling, sometimes falling unconscious, It is no wonder this state is referred to as drunkenness. This is the mystic's drunkenness, and it doesn't come from a bottle.

And what is wine at its most basic level? It is fermented juice. It is juice with life in it. Without fermentation the wine is just juice. Fermentation is the fiery, alchemical process that invites life into the liquid. It is not the liquid but the alchemical life hidden within the liquid that imparts the ecstasy of drunkenness.

The unfermented juice represents the unenlightened mind, the unenlightened world. The star is the fiery life that enters into the juice, transforming it into a drink of sacred ecstasy. Most people lose too much time gathering juice, drinking juice, forcing their juice on others, when what everyone truly thirst for is the spark of fermentation.

A mystic understands that one can have lifelong sobriety while experiencing drunkenness every day, while it's equally possible to lose a lifetime in the bottle and never once encounter that true spark of life. Knowing this, drunkenness and soberness, what do they mean...?

...I say all this as someone who doesn't drink alcohol. :)

Recommended Books: Qushayri

Early Islamic Mysticism: Sufi, Quran, Miraj, Poetic and Theological Writings (Classics of Western Spirituality) Principles of Sufism

When morning arose