samedi 26 février 2011

Ibn al-Farid’s “Khamriyya" LaKhamriyya d'Ibn al-Faridh

Ibn al-Farid’s “Khamriyya” – or “Ode on Wine”

A critical introduction, translation and analysis.
by George Nicolas El-Hage, P.h.D. Columbia University

Sufism has been defined as both “the apprehension of divine realities and as a universal message of love, brotherhood, and unity of man.” (1) Although R.A. Nicholson writes that Sufism is at once “the religious philosophy and the popular religion of Islam” (2), nevertheless it must not be understood that Sufism is a type of organized or conventional religion. It is not a religion, nor does it claim to create another sect, but it attempts to eliminate hatred and conflicts and to gather people in brotherhood. In his book, Sufism: Message of Brotherhood, Harmony, and Hope, Nasrolla S. Fatemi says that the elements common to Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam can best be appreciated in Sufism. To the Sufi, only the moment of ecstasy can cleanse the soul of all its earthly concerns and elevate it to a joyful reunion with its creator. The soul, anxious to partake in divine love, will become ready to behold the truth and embrace the light and the beauty.

Alexander Sefi, who considers “love and integrity” to be the basis of Sufism, maintains that it derives its name from the Greek sophos, meaning “wise.” A master Sufi is likewise called al-‘Ârif, or “knower,” which is equivalent to the Greek “Gnostic.” Some Muslims, however, make the derivation of the name from sûf, Arabic for “wool.” This, Sefi says, is “a vulgar interpretation of a noble term.” (3)

In Arabic literature and philosophy, mysticism is one of the most significant traditions. The fountainhead of Sufism in Islam is still a debatable issue. Clement Huart, in his History of Arabic Literature, states that the development of mysticism in the Muslim world was aided by influences of Persian origin. Other sources suggest that Islamic mysticism originated in India, or in Greece, or with Syrian monks. With all this controversy, the origin remains uncertain. The men who have been called the “Saints of Islam” were mystics, known in the East as Sufis: “Men clad in wool, or, as we should say, in fustian. Originally they were ascetics, after the fashion of the Christian monks.” (4)

In addition to the above-mentioned origins of mysticism in Islam, Professor Browne, in his Literary History of Persia, has suggested Neo-Platonism as an important influence. Perhaps the speculations of the Dutch scholar Dozy remain the most radical. Dozy totally rejects the idea that the origin of mysticism is purely Islamic. He argues that it is more natural to accept that mysticism came from Persia saturated with Indian influences and that it neither has Arabic nor an Islamic beginning. Accordingly, he claims that the Arabs imported the whole idea from Persia and India. (5) Reynold A. Nicholson argues that the origin and growth of mysticism in Islam “ultimately depended on general causes and conditions, not on external circumstances… [These conditions included] the political anarchy of the Umayyad period, the skeptical tendencies of the early ‘Abbasid age, and particularly the dry formalism of Moslem theology…” (6) All these elements, Nicholson says, contributed to the growth of Islamic mysticism. He goes on to say that, although Sufism was not called into being by any impulse from without, the external influences have largely contributed to make it what it is and have colored it so deeply that no student of the history of Sufism can afford to neglect them.

In a letter to Arthur J. Arberry, Nicholson re-defines his views on the origin of and influences on Sufism. (7) He clearly states that Greek philosophy is not the only important source from which Sufism was derived. Although the “elements working within” remain of extreme importance, Nicholson names the Hellenistic ideas as another major factor of considerable influence. He summarizes his views on the subject in nine points which are essentially convincing but need not be repeated here. (8) What was at first a form of religion adopted by individuals and practiced in small circles gradually developed into a “monastic system,” a “school of saints,” as Nicholson calls it. It established a fixed discipline and rules which the novice (the murid) learned from his supervisor in faith to whose wisdom he usually submitted completely.

As time passed from the third century on, this movement flourished and acquired an independent and influential presence. The Sufi was no longer a solitary worshipper avoiding people, but he became a respected sheikh whose appearance on ceremonial occasions was highly honored. He was accompanied on these occasions by a huge train of devoted followers. The miracles of Awliya’ filled the hearts and minds of the people and inspired many volumes to be written about these saints.

The Persians had many famous mystic poets. Arabic literature has only one great mystical poet of pure Arabic descent worthy to stand next to the Persian masters: Sharaf ad-Din ‘Umar Ibn ‘Ali as-Sa’di, known as Ibn al-Farid, or the Notary’s Son (1181-1253), who was born in Cairo. (9) He was dedicated from early manhood to the mystic’s method of withdrawal from the world. He was utterly satisfied in later life to remember with ecstatic pleasure the pilgrimage he had made to Mecca, and to meditate upon the union with the spirit of the prophet which he had then experienced. (10)

Professor Nicholson explains the reason why the Arabic heritage of mysticism is poor and meager compared with the abundance and “genius” of their Persian contemporaries. It is not the Arab’s lack of poets, he writes, but rather their subjective and limited perception of universal ideals. This theory did not originate with him, and he does not bear the sole responsibility for popularizing its content. What is particularly surprising in this matter is the fact that a great scholar and an avant garde Orientalist like Nicholson does not refrain from building his study on racial bases, or what he prefers to term as “racial endowment.” (11) The Arab poet, he claims, shares with the rest of his race “the Semitic peoples” a lack in the totality of their views of the universe. The Semites, he argues, are absolutely incapable of harmonizing the individual facts into an elaborate system of thought. That is why, for example, they are inferior to the Aryan race, the Hindu-Europeans and ultimately, to the Anglo-American peoples. Nicholson is satisfied to compare the Arabs with the Persians and Indians only to demonstrate the superiority of the latter two. Based on this theory, Nicholson advances his explanation as to why Arabic poetry remained essentially lyrical in form, and a poem composed of independent fragments rather than a unified whole. Not only “convention” governs the structure of a poem, but even “nature keeps Arabian poetry within definite bounds.” (12) Because Professor Nicholson is speaking here in his full capacity as an “Orientalist”, and because this is not the proper place to argue the case of “Orientalism”, therefore, instead of furthering an argument, I would like to refer the reader to a much more detailed discussion of such theories, Professor Edward Said’s book Orientalism. (13)

Ibn al-Farid’s Diwan of mystical odes, which was first collected by his grandson, is small in comparison with similar works of Persian mystics. The poet’s style is attractive and extremely stimulating. His easy flow of versification is unmistakable; his playing with ideas and images, and his intelligent use of figures of speech to serve his meaning, and to reach his goal, shows his mastery of the Arabic language. At the same time, his Diwan demonstrates his sensitive appreciation of the poetic tradition which he inherited and his sincere and absolute devotion as a great mystic.

The longest poem in the Diwan is a hymn of divine love entitles “Nazmu’l Suluk.” Nicholson renders it in English as “Poem on the Mystic’s Progress.” This piece is often called “Al-Ta’ iya al-Kubra,” the Greater Ode rhyming in “T.” “On account of this poem, the author was accused of favoring the doctrine of hulul, (14) or the incarnation of God in human beings. Nicholson describes this ode as a unique masterpiece of Arabic poetry and recommends it to every student of mysticism.

The Diwan could be viewed as a collection of homogeneous poems expressing the ecstasy and longing of a devoted lover to become one with his beloved. Union with the beloved was, as we know, and as A.J. Arberry mentions in his introduction to the English translation of Ibn al-Farid’s mystical poems, a favorite theme of the ‘Udhri poets of the seventh century. But, being a mystical poet, Ibn al-Farid aims towards pure abstract images and elevates his ideas to harmonize his language with the meanings it has to convey. Not only the words become transparent, but also the poet spiritualizes the traditional theme in order to express the mystic’s yearning for reunion with Muhammad’s spirit and with God—the beloved - himself. The poet draws to a large extent on the poetic tradition which he had inherited. He makes “free use” of themes and quotations from non-mystical poets. Certain poems of al-Mutanabbi, al-Buhturi, Abu-Nuwas, Ibn abi Rabi’a, to mention a few, are recalled at times in the Diwan.

I believe that the Diwan as a whole does not represent a definite and clear image of the poet’s personality. Still, some critics argue that there remains a certain doubt as to whether Ibn al-Farid was sincere in his poems. Michele Ghurayyib finds a great inconsistency between the poet’s life (at least in his early stages) and what he tries to portray to us in his poetry. Ghurayyib goes as far as suspecting Ibn al-Farid’s honesty as a mystic poet. Perhaps, he surmises, the poet wanted to mislead us, to have us believe that he really followed the path of those great mystics like al-Hallaj, Ibn al-‘Arabi etc. This doubt, he explains, stems from three important factors:

1) the poet’s clear contradiction in his two opposite views that form his concept of love: sensual and divine. 2) His excessive and many times unsuccessful use of figures of speech and embellishment. 3) The strange legends and many conflicting opinions about his alleged behavior and personal life. (15)

As a mystic, Ibn al-Farid was able to maintain a middle-man position, Ghurayyib says. The poet was neither a traditionalist saying that the Creator is a Supreme Being independent of His creation, nor did he believe that God is re-incarnated in the universe and that He is a transcendent reality of which the material universe and man are but mere manifestations. The poet believed that the relationship between God and the world is one of “mutual love”, consequently, the universe is united with its Creator in a bond of ecstatic love. God needs the world to help reflect His supreme beauty and perfection. At the same time, the world needs God to come out of its nebulous state and thus regulate, organize and retain its continuity of existence.16 Perhaps, Ghurayyib argues, the poet tried to Islamize the doctrines of Plato and Plotinus for he also believed that the soul has existed in the world of ideals before it descended to be imprisoned in the body. The soul constantly yearns to return to its first existence, to re-unite with the pre-eternal.

Professor M.M. Hilmi refutes the argument that Ibn al-Farid was a pantheist. He suggests that the poet’s inclination was rather towards ittihad, which according to Hilmi, is the center of his philosophy. (17) In dealing with this same basic issue, Nicholson admits that reaching a decision in this case, e.g. whether the poet was a pantheist or an orthodox mystic, is “not easy to answer definitively.” (18) Logically, Nicholson adds, the mystical doctrine of ittihad would lead to the pantheistic monism of Ibn al-‘Arabi. However, does this mean that Ibn al-Farid was a believer in Pantheism? My inclination is that he was not, at least consciously. If his poetry conveys to us otherwise, it is because “in the permanent unitive state which he describes himself as having attained, he cannot speak otherwise than pantheistically.” (19)

It would be credible to believe that as a mystic of strange and at times abnormal ways, the poet assumed a peculiar manner when composing his poetry. (20) A careful reading of his Diwan would by no means give the impression that his poems were carelessly written or orally dictated at those moments when he was just recovering from a state of mystical ecstasy where he would be oblivious, or unconscious of himself and his surroundings. His meticulous style and selected vocabulary and rhymes clearly suggest that the man was a craftsman and an artist who labored over his poems and chose his images with care. The poems, in general, prove to be the creation of a skilled poet rather than being the immediate and spontaneous dictation of a flying moment of inspiration.

Dealing with this important issue, Nicholson states that the history of mysticism offers many examples of this kind – to compose in an abnormal manner – He names William Blake, St. Catherine of Siena and Jalalu ‘l–Din al-Rumi as examples. Nicholson goes on to argue that since the form of “such automatic composition” will broadly draw on materials stored in the poet’s brain, and on a tradition and “literary models” with which he is already acquainted, then, it is not strange if those “visions and revelations sometimes find spontaneous utterance in an elaborately artificial style.” (21)

This is only partially true. For in the case of Blake, for instance, we know that although he said that he was drunk with “intellectual vision” whenever he took a pencil in his hand, Blake was an extremely conscious poet and very sensitive to the function of “individual” words and their place in every sentence. Blake also said that his poetry was “dictated” to him, and that he only recorded it while the real authors are in eternity. (22) What we have to understand is that Blake only wrote when he was inspired, and that by no means did he completely eliminate the conscious effort of the poet to re-organize or re-discover his poem after it has been written down. (23) In “Plate 3” of “Jerusalem”, Blake writes:

“When this verse was first dictated to me, I consider’d a Monotonous Cadence, like that used by Milton & Shakespeare & all writers of English Blank Verse, derived from the modern bondage of Rhyming, to be a necessary and indispensable part of Verse. But I soon found that in the mouth of a true Orator such monotony was not only awkward, but as much a bondage as rhyme itself. I therefore have produced a variety in every line, both of cadence & number of syllabus. Every word and every letter is studied and put into its fit place; the terrific numbers are reserved for the terrific parts, the mild & gentle for the mild & gentle parts. And the prosaic for inferior parts; all are necessary to each other…” (24)

In this passage, I lay much importance on the words “produced” and “Every word and every letter is studied and put into its fit place.” Nothing has been left to chance. It is not only inspiration or “moments of deep ecstatic trance” which make a great poem, but also the culture and craftsmanship of the poet which supplement and “produce” the poem in its final totality. Such, I believe, was the case with Ibn al-Farid and with many great mystic poets whose writings endured. It is beyond any doubt that those poets firmly believed in inspiration and meant the word “dictated” literally. Although I can accept the statement that they “may have written…while not under the influence of ecstasy…” but I have to agree with Nicholson that it is “incredible” to believe that they “wrote…in cold blood, for the sake of those who might enjoy sharpening their wits…” (25)

It would be unfair to condemn Ibn al-Farid for the duality of emotions which he displayed in his Diwan. After all, we cannot expect him to have been a mystic “Saint” from his early beginnings. His ascendance to that higher state has developed and evolved. Those who condemn his fluctuating tendencies between human and divine love as his early poetry, or his “sira”, biography, suggest, are simply overlooking the fact that he was a young handsome poet with flaming human emotions and strong desire for beauty. It is equally conspicuous to assume that with the exception of the “Khamriyya” and “The Poem of the Way”, the bulk of Ibn al-Farid’s Diwan should be read simply as love poetry void of any mystical and spiritual overtones. In the mean time, it would equally be an exaggeration to adopt Nabulsi’s argument which maintains that Ibn al-Farid did not harbor a thought without spiritual implications. Commenting on the Diwan, al-Nabulsi writes: “In every erotic description, whether the subject thereof be male or female, and in all imagery of gardens, flowers, rivers, birds and the like, he refers to the divine reality manifested in phenomena, and not to those phenomena themselves.” (26) Here, I think, lies one of the important points which contribute to the poet’s fame and endurance, for he could, at the same time, satisfy both critics: those who recognize him purely as a mystical poet, and those who see him as a great love poet, perhaps the greatest “Sultan al-‘ashiqin”. No two critics would disagree that “The odes retain the form, conventions, topics, and images of ordinary love poetry…” (27) which tremendously appealed to his contemporaries and made his poems not only accessible to them but also agreeable to their taste. This was, and still is, a major element in popularizing his poetry. The fact that his poetry was not understood entirely-in the East- in a spiritual sense, made him more popular. (28)

Ibn al-Farid’s Diwan may well be considered “a miracle of literary accomplishments.” (29) If all critics seem to agree that “al-Ta’iyyatu’l-Kubra” is his masterpiece, we can safely say that the “Khamriyya” is the second “jewel” in the collection. It is a masterpiece in its own right, and one of the longest poems after “The Poem of the Way”. In this piece, every word is transparent. Every word is a world bathing in tradition, carrying two meanings or more. The symbolism of “Khamriyya” is not to be found in any other poem of the poet’s collection. Though the language is conventional and the imagery is that of the “Bacchic poets” –especially Abu Nuwas—the poem remains a masterpiece of mystical poetry in which we recognize mysticism in every line beyond the apparent meaning of each sentence. The symbolism of the “Khamriyya” and its message are so peculiar that any commentary on it becomes risky and debatable. It is equally an ambitious enterprise to translate it from the original Arabic which I believe is nothing less than a “Quixotic” attempt. Poetry in general and mystical poetry in particular, writes Nicholson”…suggests more than it says, and means all that it may suggest.”

This discussion will approach the “Khamriyya” through the analysis and commentary of each line individually. The translation of the lines into English is my own. (30)

1. We have drunk upon the mention of the beloved a wine by which we were intoxicated, before the creation of the vine.

This poem does not start with the theme used by traditional poets: al-Wuquf ‘ala’l Atlaal. Ibn al-Farid begins directly with the main subject. The poet and his companions in the mystical circle are drunk with a divine wine (divine love) before the creation of the vine (the “physical universe.”) This mystical wine is the “love of God manifested in his creation, and indwelling in the human soul.” (31) This coincides with the Christian view that the Almighty wanted to be known, so he created man and the world. Al-Burini, in the Arabic commentary, (32) suggests that “beloved” stands for the prophet, or the pre-eternal creator. The second possibility is more likely because it harmonizes with the general theme of the poem. Since pure love inspired this act of creation, God is the lover and the beloved. Wine is man’s knowledge of God and his yearning for the pre-eternal one. Al-Nabulsi (33) explains that the word “mention,” or “remembrance,” could be spoken by the tongue in hymns, or by the heart in silence. According to him, “intoxication” is the spiritual ecstasy wherein the mystic loses consciousness of everything around him except the eternal truth.

2. The full moon was its cup, it itself was a sun, that a crescent moon passes around, and numerous stars shine around when this wine is mixed,

The moon, the sun, and the crescent in this line, if taken literally, do not reveal the hidden meaning of the poet. Here they are but symbols. The moon, symbol of the “radiant spirit of Muhammad,” (34) or the pre-eternal creator, is the corporeal cup from which this “sun-like” wine is poured. This cup of divine wisdom is passed around in the circle of the devoted mystics by the crescent—the new Mohammedan revelation or spiritual enlightenment. The wine, mixed with the souls of the worshippers, sparkles to reveal the many mystics shining like stars in their illuminated longing.

According to al-Burini, wine is the divine knowledge, while the crescent is the novice of the older Sheikh. In al-Nabulsi’s interpretation, the full moon is the perfect man, full of wisdom. To distribute the wine is to spread its name and attributes.

3. And without its fragrance, I would never have been guided to its tavern, and without its illuminating rays, the mind’s eye would not have imagined it.

The first reading of this line brings to memory Ibn Abi Rabi’a’s famous verse:

Fadalla ‘alayha’l qalba rayyan ‘araftuha

Laha wa hawa ‘l nafsi ‘l ladhi kada yazharu

Only the sweet fragrance of Nu’m led ‘Umar to her tent. The wine in this third line, the divine secret revealed only to the devoted worshippers, did not mislead the poet. To him, it is not a secret. He is an ‘Arif who can smell the illuminated beauty of the beloved. The tavern is the mystic circle, the place where the beloved is seen and the imaginary becomes real because the rays of the divine love and wisdom are penetrating the veils enabling the imagination to behold the eternal truth.
Al-Nabulsi notes that fragrance symbolizes the spiritual world. Sanaha, or its “illuminating rays” are the sparkling of the spiritual lightening; this wine in itself has no corporeal existence.

4. And time did not leave anything of this wine, only the last breath.
As if its disappearance were a hidden secret in the breasts of wise men

Those who still possess the divine secret that leads to wisdom and prosperous reason are but a few. Though time – or the course of change – has left nothing of it (the wine) except the last breath, it is still carefully kept within the hearts of those faithful few. Similarly, wasn’t the Holy Qur’an memorized in the hearts and minds of the devoted few? Al-Nabulsi comments on this line saying that material and mortal time, which offers but empty pleasures, did not leave in the hearts of the people any spiritual remnant.

5. If it is only mentioned among the tribe, the people become intoxicated,
but with no shame or crime.

Even though the win has vanished and nothing has remained except its name, the mentioning of the name is enough to fill the souls of the devoted mystics with spiritual ecstasy. Contrary to what Islam had preached about wine, the drinkers of this particular wine are innocent of any guilt. This is not a contradiction. The mystics yearn for the spiritual fountain of the eternal truth. Al-Nabulsi understands the word asbaha (to become) to refer to al-Sabah, (the dawn) of divine enlightenment which scatters away the clouds of ignorance and evil.

16 From the very heart of the wine jug it has risen and nothing has been left of it but a name

Again, this line must not be taken literally. The meaning here is related to that of the previous verse. The name of the wine or “Divine Love” alone is sufficient to intoxicate the mystics. It is important here to notice the abstraction and to compare the rising of the wine from the jug to the rising of the soul from the body.

7. Yet if someday it occurred to a man’s mind, incomparable happiness would abide in him, and all distress would be banished.

Abu Nuwas, the Bacchic poet, readily comes to mind here. His famous line about wine and its effect illustrates that Abu Nuwas too was not addressing the wine that people drink “the daughter of the vine” but a special type of wine which can work miracles:

Safra’u la tanzilu ‘l ahzanu sahataha

Lau massaha hajarun massathu sarra’u

The very thought of this wine, this divine love, is enough to fill the heart of the murid and the ‘arif with joy, the joy of reunion with the beloved. Happiness here is but the holy revelation, the removing of thick veils to allow the heart’s eye to witness the pre-eternal truth. Sorrow and distress are banished. Al-Burini explains that the “man” in this line is meant to be a sick man. The very thought of this wine will cure him.

8. And had the drinking companions viewed but the seal of its jug that
would have intoxicated them, without ever drinking the wine itself.

The meaning of this verse has been indicated in the previous lines. The remembrance of the wine was enough to intoxicate the mystics. Next, its name was given and now merely to behold the seal of its vessel, the material veil which contains the transparent wine, suffices to intoxicate the beholders. Since this wine is holy, its vessel and its seal are also holy. Would that seal be the cover of the Qur’an? Or the” Seal of the Prophets” as Professor Bell told me? The act of seeing is in itself important here, for the eye of the sufi should be trained to penetrate veils in order to reach the hidden secret revealed only to those worthy of it. To Al-Nabulsi, the vessel means the human soul, while the seal is the divine revelation possessing the heart.

9. And had they moistened with it the dust of a dead man’s tomb, his soul would have returned to him, and his body would have revived at once.

From line nine to line twenty, the power of this wine, if tested, would show not only extraordinary qualities but miracles made possible only for prophets and saints. A dead man had still the chance to be brought back to life. This wine, the spiritual authority of the pre-eternal father, can re-construct the elements, awaken the soul of a dead sinner, and revive his body just like Christ did, as he talked to the soul of the dead Lazarus and woke him up from his eternal sleep. The dust here may symbolize the heavy and unforgivable sins of a sinner, a man who is spiritually dead. Only the spiritual power is capable of performing miracles. According to Al-Nabulsi, “they” in line nine refers to the drinking companions of line eight. The line in general refers to Christ’s miraculous revival of the dead. It shows an awareness of a Christian spiritual heritage.

10. And had they but heaved in the shade of the fence wherein its vine grows a sick man on the verge of exhaustion, he would have felt his sickness depart.

This line continues the previous series of divine miracles already mentioned. The name, the remembrance, and the seal of the wine have wrought miracles. Now its vine heals the sick and revives the soul. The sickness here is not necessarily a bodily illness. It may also mean Kufr, a spiritual indulgence in sin. The act of will plays a very important part here. Those who were cured by Christ or by other saints have truly willed and believed in the power given those who cured them. Al-Nabulsi says that “they” refers here, once again, to the drinking companions. The shade is man’s world of imagination. Its fence, or wall, is the material world as perceived by the five senses and the mind. This wall stands between man’s material world and that spiritual world to come. For Al-Nabulsi, the human body is the wall which we cross in dying.

11. And had they brought near to its tavern a paralyzed man, he would have walked again, and more, the mute would have spoken upon the mention of its taste.

In harmony with the mystical tradition, the poet is emphasizing the effect of divine love upon the devoted mystic. Ibn al-Farid draws heavily on the Christian tradition as well. The miracles performed by Jesus are recalled here: making the crippled walk and the dumb speak. Again, the act of will is important here. The sick man must believe in, and will, the spiritual power to which he goes for help. (35) If it were impossible for a mystic to reach the tavern (the circle of saints), it would suffice him to remember God in the silence of his soul; his faith would save him. Al-Nabulsi says that the tavern is the circle of devoted worshippers. The paralyzed is the sick man whose knowledge of God is weakened by his worldly interests and lusts. To walk is to release one ’s self from all illusions and lusts. The dumb is the man who is forbidden to see the absolute truth.

12. And were the breeze of its fragrance spread in the East, and in the West a man’s “nostrils were stopped” (36)

This spiritual ethereal fragrance, capable of opening the heart, can figuratively restore the sense of smell to a man who is willing to be cured. This is another link in the chain of divine miracles. The fragrance is the heavenly revelation revealed in the East. The “stopped-up nostrils” are a metaphor for a locked heart or a blinded vision: blinded to the news of the beloved. Al-Nabulsi interprets the East as the eastern countries from which the saints of Iraq came. The “East” could also refer to the heart of a perfect man. The perfume is the divine revelation which could not be perceived by a man who had lost his spiritual sense of smell.

13. And had the hand of one who touched it been stained by the henna of its cup, he would not have lost his way in the darkness of the night, holding such a star in his hand.

The “one who touched it” is the man in need of heavenly aid. This holy touch will color his hand with grace. The image of darkness here is the path of spiritual loss and sin. The last part of the second hemistich is beautiful in its original imagery. The star is the grace of enlightenment and hope. The stain, or the dye, according to Al-Burini, is the ray shining from the sparkling wine. A man who merely touches the cup of this wine will no longer live in darkness. His night will turn into daylight. Al-Nabulsi says that the first hemistich should not be taken literally. He explains that the poet refers to the sincere “Murid” putting his hand in the hand of the perfect master who can lead him to the Muhammadan truth. Shaking hands, exchanging greetings, or touching one’s garment in a special way are Islamic traditions meant to pay homage after the conclusion of a contract or in pledging allegiances. By shaking hands with or touching the garment of the perfect Sheikh, the sincere Murid enters into a spiritual allegiance with him. Thus the Murid, in surrendering his soul to God’s will, earns the right to learn the eternal truth. Al-Nabulsi adds that the “star” stands for the spiritual provisions which the Murid obtained by shaking hands with the enlightened Sheikh. The commentator draws attention to the Prophetic tradition “my companions are stars.”

14. And were it secretly revealed to one blind from birth, he would regain his sight, “and the deaf would hear at the sound of its filtering.” (37)

Hearing and sight are strongly emphasized here. The secret revelation or “unveiling” is the divine revelation and vision accompanied by what the Sufi would hear at such moments. Usually, Prophet’s Muhammad’s visions were accompanied by the sounds of ringing bells. The “blind” man here could refer to the impossibility of witnessing this vision. The word “deaf” could stand for inability to hear the heavenly or angelic voice heralding the “good news.” In order to “see” and “hear”, the Murid must remove the material veils through an act of absolute will and with the help of a heavenly power. Al-Nabulsi plays on the meaning of the Arabic word “ghada” which can also mean “to be in the morning” or “to go out in the morning.” He takes it to mean the dawn of heavenly knowledge. For him, the “filtering” refers to the process of the human mind, (the mind of al-Insan al-Kamil – the perfect man) or “Reason.” (38)

15. And should a caravan set forward towards its native soil, and among the horsemen one were bitten by a snake, the poison would not affect him.

These horsemen, journeying across a distance of suffering and painful longing, are the devoted mystics yearning to unite with the beloved, the pre-eternal one. The poison is material pleasure, a poisonous hindrance which could only affect weak and sinful souls. Even those souls bitten by this spiritual disease could hope for salvation if they willed to journey towards the heavenly father. Al-Nabulsi says that the “poisoned man” here is the lover (‘ashiq), one who has been bitten by the snake of lust, “hayyat al-hawa”.

16. And had the magician drawn the letters of its name on the forehead of a man afflicted with madness, this drawing would have cured him.

This line calls to mind the traditional belief in the evil eye. The enchanter was always the physician of the tribe or the great sheikh holding spiritual authority. He practiced his white magic with prayers and herbs to cure those possessed by evil spirits. The first word with which the enchanter would begin his special prayer is the name of Allah.
Al-Nabulsi says that the “enchanter” is the perfect man, or the guiding sheikh. The “letters of the (Wine’s) name” are the wrong interpretation of heavenly revelation which the worshipper imagines at the time these letters are revealed to him. The madman is the person from whom the divine secrets are concealed. Thus, he is guided by his passions and wicked thoughts. The enchanter draws the letters on the madman’s forehead so that, once cured from his sickness, the madman will always remember God’s grace.

18. It improves the manners of the drinking companions and, with its help; he who had no resolution will be guided to a firm determination.

The first and most important fact which the poet emphasizes in this line is the positive effect of the wine. Its power is completely opposite to that of any other wine that ordinary people drink. As in all previous lines, Ibn al-Farid stresses here the point that the wine he describes is not ordinary wine. He reassures us that Islam had forbidden drinking, that moral law had prohibited wine, because it causes drunkenness and distortion of the mind. This mystical wine, however, has a different effect. It elevates the soul, educates the manners and brings firm determination. Al-Nabulsi explains that the “drinking companions” are the devoted worshippers following the right path. “Resolution” is goodness deprived of all evil intentions. Man, al-Nabulsi says, can reach this absolute goodness by drinking from this special wine. Professor Joseph Bell comments that this line “seems to oppose the view of some mystics that the sufi could commit any immoral act and still be obeying the will of God.” (39)

21. They say to me: Describe that wine, for you know well enough about its attributes. In fact I do have some knowledge of its qualities.

This is the first line in the poem in which Ibn al-Farid refers to himself directly. (40) As a sufi, the poet is perfectly aware that he belongs to an organized and elite group of companions. He is one of many in the circle of mystics. His companions seek the right path. Since he is advanced in the sufi’s teachings, he is responsible for helping his friends if possible. Though the journey always depends on the will and yearning of the Murid, the guiding sheikh still plays a necessary role. The poet’s answer is modest and responsible. He does not claim what is not true; he has “some knowledge”, he says, but does not know everything. Perhaps he has in mind the famous line of Abu Nuwas addressing al-Nadhdham, the Mu’tazilite sheikh:

Fa-qul li-man yadda’i fi ‘l –‘ilmi ma’rifatan

Hafizta shay’an wa-ghabat ‘anka ashya’u.

The heavenly vision of the mystic could never be put in words or be fully described.
Al-Burini and al-Nabulsi do not precisely agree about who is asking the question in this line. Al-Buruni explains that the poet is asked by those who seek the right path (of the wine) which leads to dignity. He adds that the poet is to describe that wine and show its way to those willing to follow it. Ibn al-Farid answers that he does have some knowledge and experience of the wine’s qualities, but that the beloved spirit is far away and difficult to apprehend. Al-Burini suggests another possibility. The poet might have wanted to say “Yes, I have great knowledge of its qualities. My deep awareness of the wine is equal to the wine’s greatness and sublimity.” According to al-Nabulsi, the question has been asked by those who want to learn about the qualities of the wine. Those who wish to obtain this powerful knowledge think they can do so by merely hearing about it as they perceive and comprehend ordinary existence. But divine visions are not to be revealed in this way.

22. “Purity (yet it’s not watered), subtlety (yet not as with air), light (and no fire there burning), spirit (not clothed in body). (41)

This is a very important and interesting line. Ibn al-Farid here embraces a whole generation of poetic tradition. He bases his verse on a philosophic background giving it new dimensions. The purity of wine in his poetry brings to mind the famous line of Abu-Nuwas:

Raqqat ‘ani ‘l-ma’i hatta ma yula’imuha

Latafatan wa-jafa ‘an shakliha ‘l ma’u.

The other qualities in the line evoke Ibn al-Rumi’s well known description of wine in his poetry:

Wa-mudamatin ka-hashashati ‘l- nafsi

Raqqat ‘ani ‘l- idraki wa-l hissi

La-nasimuha fi qalbi sharibiha

Ruhu ‘l- raja’I wa-rahatu’l –ya’si

And another verse from abu Nuwas:

Fa-lau mazajta biha nuran la-mazajaha

Hatta tawallada anwarun wa-adwa’u

These three lines are perhaps summarized in Ibn al-Farid’s one verse. A.J Arberry comments that the attributes of the wine are those of the four elements without their materiality. Three of the four elements: water, air, and fire are used to describe the qualities of the wine. Only “earth” is excluded; it cannot match the ethereal qualities of the wine which has no corporeal existence. Al-Nabulsi comments that this wine, though pure, does not have the density of water; though subtle, it does not have the density of air; and though compared to light, it does not have the density of fire. It is a spirit free from any bodily substance. The commentator concludes that the wine was revealed to the poet as pure, subtle, and radiant spirit. It is a spirit free from the density of the four elements, even if it does sometimes become visible clothed in a component body.

23. Its “tale” preceded in eternal time all the existing beings, ere there ever was a shape or anything that resembles it. (42)

This line again implies the Neo-Platonic theory of the soul. The wine is pre-eternal; it existed before time began, before any corporeal matter took its final shape. The wine was at one with the pre-eternal soul of the Almighty when all souls existed before time and space. It is not clear in the Arabic text whether the commentary is al-Burini or al-Nabulsi, though the style and analysis seem to be al-Burini’s. Referring to the word “tale”, the commentator says that God’s eternal attribute of speech is not to be confused with sounds and letters, he adds that “preceded” here does not mean temporal but essential priority. Time in itself is a created thing. The “shape” and “thing” mentioned in this line did not exist with the pre-eternal, since they were created by the pre-eternal.

24. Through it, the existence of all things was made possible, in accordance with a divine wisdom, and it was veiled from any one who did not understand its purpose.

Here, “it” refers back to the wine and may also stand for “the eternal, God’s love which is the cause of creation.” The pre-eternal one is a necessity, a cause; from Him all beings take their existence. In the beginning, the wine was at one with the pre-eternal. Here, this line from Ibn Sina’s famous poem about the soul comes to mind:

Mahjubatun ‘an kulli muqlati ‘arifin

Wa-hiya ‘l lati safarat wa-lam tatabalqa’i.

In this line, too, the divine soul, the eternal truth, is veiled from anyone who does not have an understanding mind. This veil had been placed in accordance with a divine wisdom. The truth could only be revealed to those who deserve grace.
Again, the Arabic text does not specify who is commenting on this line. The analysis seems to be al-Nabulsi. The commentator says “wisdom” here, means “justice.” Those from whom the divine secret is veiled are unworthy of knowing this secret; they cannot comprehend its purpose. They deny the reality and existence of what they do not understand. They deny the Sufis their knowledge and understanding, accusing them of blaspheming God. Bell comments on the “wisdom” and “justice” suggested by the Arabic commentary, he says “This refers to the problem of why God created. Was it for a “purpose” (gharad)? If so, God is in need of something and is not perfect. So, instead, they say for “wisdom”. (43)

28. In reality, the division has truly occurred, yet the whole is one; our spirits being the wine and our bodies the vine. (44)

The meaning here coincided with the previous description of the wine. The poet compares the wine to the soul and the vine to the body. The relation between the wine and the vine is very important to Ibn al-Farid; according to him, the two are basically the same. Although the soul existed pre-eternally, Christ preached that the body is the temple of the soul. This temple, of course, should be kept pure. (45) Al-Nabulsi adds that “our spirits” refers to the spirits given by the pre-eternal one through the mediation of the great Muhammandan spirit. Professor Bell’s commentary adds a new dimension to the meaning of this line. Bell explains: “I think this line means, or can mean: our spirits are part of the divine essence (khamr = mudama = love = attribute of God. Our spirits = wine = love), while our bodies are created matter and nothing more.” (46)

The lines up to number thirty five repeat the main ideas dealt with previously. But it will be helpful to introduce a gist of them aided by Arberry’s summary.

The wine about which the poem speaks existed before time began, and through it all living things existed from the beginning in a unification of spirit with spirit. The fatherhood of Adam relates only to the sensual soul; the eternal spirit is the offspring of the wine, being an epiphany of the love of God. This spirit informs the body with its own etherealness, while the body extends the spirit’s domain of the material world, the vine in which the wine is continually renewed. However, the wine itself existed from all eternity, being the seal set before creation throughout all subsequent ages. To drink of this wine, is no sin, rather, it is the unforgivable sin not to taste of it. The Christian, though never drank of this wine, yet recognized it and so experienced a part of its ecstasy. Ibn al-Farid himself, being Muslim by birth, has always been, and will always be, intoxicated by it. He invites his listener to drink it pure or, if mixed, then only colored with the sparkling moisture of the beloved’s mouth, the teachings of the Prophet. This wine is to be found in the mystic circle, accompanied by music and chanting. It banishes all sorrow and harmonizes the mystic partaking of it in a sense of transcending time even for the brief space of his holy bliss. (47)

39. Be thy intoxication with that wine only an hour’s duration, time itself becomes your obedient slave, and its command in your hand.

Joseph Bell argues that this line must refer to the mystical controversy over the duration of the union with God (wisaal) as opposed to (fanaa’) annihilation. Some said it was brief and followed by (baqaa’) abiding or endurance, while others claimed that this union was permanent and only God endured. According to Bell, Ibn al-Farid seems to take the former view: (temporary union). This spiritual moment of divine intoxication, the moment of reunion with the pre-eternal self, elevates the soul and purifies its aim. A moment of such ecstasy brings one closer to God. At least temporarily, man becomes the master of time and of his soul. This line harkens back to Abu Nuwas again:

Darat ‘ala fityatin dana ‘l-zamanu lahum

Fa-ma yusibuhum illa bi-ma sha’u

And from another of his poems:

Fa-ma ‘l-ghibnu illa an taraniya sahiyan

Wa-ma ‘l ‘ayshu illa an yuta’ti’ani ‘l sukru.

Al-Nabulsi says that Ibn al-Farid here is addressing the Murid who is about to leave all worldly pleasures and follow the right path.

We have accompanied Ibn al-Farid through his mystical journey, and we have appreciated the taste of his wine and the sincerity of his poetry. We must agree with Mr. Sefi that Sufism has given the world some of its most exquisite poetry. This poem and other mystical poems are free from all worldly motives. The sufi poets are called ‘ushshaaq or “passionate lovers”. All the poetry of Ibn al-Farid is lyrical and monorhymed. Besides the mystical images and concepts, Ibn al-Farid combines not only the best selected lines of the greatest bacchic poet of Arabic literature, Abu Nuwas, but also lines from the two major schools of love, the platonic and the profane and their best known representatives: Jamil bin Mu’ammir and ‘Umar bin abi Rabi’a.

In his chapter on “Affinity, Beneficence, and Beauty”, from his study of Love Theory in later Hanbalite Islam, Professor Bell discusses Ibn al-Qayyim’s opinion of love. He shows that Ibn al-Qayyim agrees with the mystics on at least one point, concluding that the true definition of love always escapes the lover: “No attempt to express the meaning of love in words, therefore, can reveal its real nature”48. This statement supports what was previously said in analyzing the poem at hand: the mystic cannot put into words his divine vision. This vision can only be understood through experience and practice, because its definition is its very existence.

According to Professor Bell, love for Ibn al-Qayyim is like a point on a line and can be described only in terms of what lies on either side of it. Again, words can never be a substitute for personal experience of love. Ibn al-Qayyim maintains that it is indeed necessary to distinguish between the man who merely knows about love and the man who has actually experienced it. The latter is, of course, preferable to the former. “But still more to be preferred is the one who both experiences love and also gives guidance concerning it to the community.” (49) This is basically the same point Ibn al-Farid makes in his poem: he has experienced love yet, he still wants to describe it to his drinking companions. Love between God and man is one of Ibn al-Farid’s major concerns in his poem. Affinity was considered the primary cause of love, constituting one of the most basic and widely accepted elements of love not only in Ibn al-Qayyim’s “Rawda”, but throughout the Middle Ages (as Professor Bell writes). This affinity with which writers on love have so long been concerned, can be seen “either as a relationship of similarity or as one of complementarity.” (23)

The most celebrated writer of Arabic literature, al-Jahiz, supports this idea when he writes that “mutual loves are most often based on similarity.” (50) According to al-Jahiz, lovers usually share some affinity of resemblance between them. This corresponds to Ibn al-Farid’s belief that the ‘Ashiq-sufi reaches a point where he becomes at one with the beloved. At moments of delirium and supreme ecstasy, the original affinity takes over and it becomes impossible to differentiate the lover from the beloved, because of their absolute similarity. Of course, this viewpoint has its opponents. Ibn Taymiya, for example, observes that certain theologians, including al-Juwayni, and the Hanbalite Ibn ‘Aqil, denied that men could love God or experience pleasure in the beatific vision because there is no affinity between the eternal and the originated.

On the other hand, al-Ghazali says that “Although man knows only the names and attributes of God, he may experience longing for him in the same way that a man who never seen a woman would feel desire upon hearing one described.” (51) Ibn al-‘Arabi notes that man enjoys only that with which he has an affinity. He adds that the resemblance between God and man, though it is merely of “form or image”, is closer to perfection than that between a man and a youth or a woman. Ibn Hazm too, Professor Bell says, stresses that affinity is more fundamental for love than beauty or mere agreement in character. ‘Ishq according to him, can end only with death.
Ibn al-Qayyim opposes the idea that the soul has an existence prior to that of the body. His argument is diametrically opposed to the theory advanced in the “Khamriyya.” He concludes, supported by a saying of the Prophet, that after a certain degree of development of the fetus, God sends an angel to produce in man his spirit. Thus, “The angel is not said to bring with him a pre-existing spirit which he places in the body, but rather to ‘breathe’ the spirit into it…” (52) Ibn al-Qayyim’s argument best explains the sufi’s yearning for the beloved. He believes that since the beauty of the divine attributes is limitless, there can be no end, even in paradise, to man’s longing to perceive it in all its possible aspects.

Professor Bell’s chapter on “Glances, Gazing, and the vision” is also fundamental for understanding not only the “Khamriyya” of Ibn al-Farid, but also the whole theological background of the medieval tradition. Accompanying the gaze, he writes, there must be admiration, for unless the object is deemed beautiful or good, no love can result. To the sufi, God is absolute beauty and absolute goodness. His longing for the beloved is pure admiration; any devoted mystic acknowledges this fact. If the heart is preoccupied with more material things, no spiritual attachment will occur.

Ibn al-Farid’s heart was filled with mystical ecstasy. He was totally obsessed with love for God. He was deeply influenced by the belief that it is possible to establish a direct relation with God. God is not to be regarded as a distant and all powerful ruler of the destinies of mankind, but rather a friend and as the beloved of the soul. Along with other mystics, Ibn al-Farid desired to know God so that he might love Him. All mystics believed that the soul can receive a revelation of God through a direct religious experience - not through the senses or the intellect – (53) and by this means, can enter into a fellowship with Him. Love is the “wine of life”; the “Khamriyya” dedicated to this divine wine, stands in its own right as an incomparable masterpiece in the history of Arabic mystical poetry.


1 Nosralla S. Fatemi, et al. Sufism: Message of Brotherhood, Harmony, and Hope. (New York:A.S. Barnes, 1976), P.13.

2 R. A. Nicholson, Studies in Islamic Mysticism (London: Cambridge, At the University Press, 1921), P. 65.

3 Alexander Sefi, The Khamriyya, ed. Leonard Chalmers-Hunt (London: Simpkin Marshall, 1923), P. V.

4 Clement Huart, A History of Arabic Literature (London: Heineman, 1903) P. 270.

5 A.J. Arberry, trans; The Poem of the Way of Ibn al-Farid (London: Emery Walker, 1952), P. 25.

6 Reynold A. Nicholson, A Literary History of the Arabs ( Cambridge University Press, 1962), P. 385

7 Arberry, The Poem of the Way of Ibn al-Farid, P. xx.

8 Arberry, The Poem of the Way of Ibn al-Farid, PP. 44 – 45.

9 For a detailed account of the poet’s life and the milieu in which he lived, see Muhammad Mustafa Hilmi, Ibn al-Farid wa ‘l –Hubb ‘l- Ilahi ( Cairo: Dar ‘l- Ma’arif bi-Misr, 1971), PP. 21 – 81.

10 Arberry, The Poem of the Way of Ibn al-Farid, P. 5.
11 Nicholson, Studies in Islamic Mysticism, P. 163.

12 Nicholson, Studies in Islamic Mysticism, p. 163.

13 Edward Said, Orientalism, First edition, Pantheon Books, New York, 1978.

14 Arberry, The Poem of the Way of Ibn al-Farid, P. 5.

15 Michal Ghurayyib, ‘Umar Bin al-Farid min khilal Shi’rihi (Beirut: Dar Maktabat al-Hayat, 1965) P. 96.

16 Ghurayyib, P. 153.

17 Hilmi, P. 316.

18 Nicholson, Studies in Islamic Mysticism, P. 193.

19 Nicholson, Studies in Islamic Mysticism, P. 194

20 Nicholson, Studies in Islamic Mysticism, P. 167.

21 Nicholson, Studies in Islamic Mysticism, P. 167.

22 Geoffrey Keynes, ed., Blake, Complete Writings with Variant Readings (London: Oxford University Press, 1972), P. 802.

23 For a detailed analysis of the relationship of poetry to poetic vision and inspiration and the role of the “consciousness” in the process of poetic creativity, see my study on William Blake and Kahlil Gibran: Poets of Prophetic Vision (Notre Dame University Press, Louaize, Lebanon, First Edition, 2002.

24 Geoffrey Keynes, P. 621.

25 Nicholson, Studies in Islamic Mysticism, P. 168.

26 Nicholson, Studies in Islamic Mysticism, P. 168.

27 Nicholson, Studies in Islamic Mysticism, P. 168.

28 Nicholson, Studies in Islamic Mysticism, P. 168.

29 Nicholson, Studies in Islamic Mysticism, P. 175.

30 As basic texts, The books used in this study are the following: Karam al-Bustani, Diwan Ibn al-Farid (Beirut: Dar Sadir, 1962), PP. 140 – 43; A. J. Arberry, trans., The Mystical Poems of Ibn al-Farid ( Dublin: Emery Walker Cirland, 1956), PP. 81 – 90; Al-Shaykh Hasan al-Burini, al-Shaykh ‘Abdul – Ghani al-Nabulsi, Sharh Diwan Ibn al-Farid ( Marsiliya: Suk Kanipir, Arnud Press, No. 10, 1853), PP. 472 – 500.

31 Arberry, The Mystical Poems of Ibn al-Farid, P. 85.

32 See note 30: (C).

33 See note 30: (C)

34 Arberry, The Mystical Poems of Ibn al-Farid, P. 85.

35 George Nicolas El-Hage, William Blake and Kahlil Gibran: Poets of Prophetic Vision, Chapter III, pp 59-86

38 Nicholson, Studies in Islamic Mysticism, P. 77.

39 Personal communication from Professor Joseph Bell. May 11, 1978. SUNY Binghamton.

40 About the omitted lines: I have left out line No: (17) to avoid repetition of an obvious interpretation. This line really belongs to the series of lines starting with (Walaw…), (And had…), to demonstrate the powerful and divine impact of the wine. Also lines (19 – 20) imply the same positive and miraculous effect of the wine. Lines (25 – 6 – 7) are included in the brief summary I give in the pages ahead. I added a digest of these lines to lines (29 – 41) either because the meaning is obvious or because I have already explained it; except line No. 39. You can also consult Nicholson’s brief commentary in Studies in Islamic Mysticism, PP. 187 – 88.

41. Arberry, The Mystical Poems of Ibn al-Farid, P. 83. The line is unchanged from Arberry’s translation.

42 In Arberry’s English translation, this line is numbered (25). However, it appears in the Diwan as number (23).Nicholson also lists this line under No. (23). He adds that the lines (23 – 30) are wanting in the commentary of al-Burini, and that they may have been inserted in the poem by a copyist. See Nicholson, Studies in Islamic Mysticism, P. 186.

43 Personal communication from Professor Bell, May, 11, 1978. SUNY Binghamton.

44 In Arberry’s English edition, this line is No. (30), while Nicholson lists it under No. (28).

45 Other mystics and poets of mystical / spiritual beliefs, also share Ibn al-Farid’s concept. For example Blake in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”, and Gibran in Sand and Foam, firmly state that “Man has no body distinct from his soul.”

46 Personal communication from Professor Bell.

47 Arberry, The Mystical Poems of Ibn al-Farid, P. 85.

48 Joseph Norment Bell, Love Theory in Later Hanbalite Islam (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1979), P. 105.

49 Bell, Love Theory in Later Hanbalite Islam, P. 107.

50 Bell, Love Theory in Later Hanbalite Islam, P. 109. See also in the same chapter, Bell’s translation of Rasa’il al-Jahiz to support this argument.

51 Bell, Love Theory in Later Hanbalite Islam, P. 110.

52 Bell, Love Theory in Later Hanbalite Islam, P. 117.

53 George N. El-Hage, P.126

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