by Michael Isenberg.
Readers of my novel The Thread of Reason, set in the world of medieval Islam, often tell me how surprised they are to find widespread wine drinking in the book. “Isn’t wine prohibited in Islam?” they ask me.
It certainly is. The Quran bans it in numerous places, for example Chapter 5, Verse 90: “O ye who believe! verily, wine, and [games of chance], and statues, and divining arrows are only an abomination of Satan's work; avoid them then that haply ye may prosper .”
The Hadith, the collected sayings of Muhammad and his Companions, which together with the Quran form the basis of Muslim law, is even more strict. It tells us that the penalty for drinking was set by Muhammad and his successor, the caliph Abu Bakr, to forty lashes. But Abu Bakr’s successor, the caliph Omar, raised it to eighty . And it wasn’t merely drinking that was forbidden: also buying it, selling it, transporting it, serving it, and sitting at a table where it is served .
Despite these prohibitions, wine was widely enjoyed in the Muslim world during the Middle Ages. We know this from numerous sources. In this post, I’ll share what some of the literature of the time had to say. The poems and stories handed down to us through the centuries may be fictional, but they reflect the attitudes of the writers, and in my opinion they're far better sources for details about daily life than a formal history, which, in the words of Jean Henri Fabre, "records the names of royal bastards, but cannot tell us the origin of wheat." So I'll cover the literature here and, in the next installment, get into more traditional types of historical evidence.
Wine was a favorite topic of poets, especially those in the Sufi tradition such as Rumi and Hafiz. Omar Khayyam, the astronomer and author of The Rubaiyat (and the hero of The Thread of Reason), was obsessed with wine. The oldest collection of his poems we have is the Ouseley Manuscript in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, transcribed in 1460. Out of the 158 verses that appear there, 90 of them, by my count, or 57%, are about wine, including the one from which I took the title of this post:
Every draught that the Cup-bearer scatters upon the earth
quenches the fire of anguish in some afflicted eye.
Praise be to God! thou realizest that wine
is a juice that frees thy heart from a hundred pains .
There is some debate as to whether the wine that is so highly praised in Muslim poetry is supposed to be taken literally, or whether it is a symbol for something more spiritual—wisdom, or mystic communion with Allah, for example. The debate is especially controversial in Omar Khayyam’s case; I’ll discuss that in detail in a future post.
While the symbolism of poetry can be hard to interpret, there is no room for interpretation concerning the wine that pours so freely in the prose stories of the time. It symbolizes wine. For instance, liberal imbibing appears in the Maqamat, by Qasim Hariri of Basra. Hariri will be familiar to readers of The Thread of Reason as the spy sent to “take care of” Omar Khayyam during his travels. One story in the Maqamat, for example, concerns a party of travelers who wish to journey from Damascus to Anah, in western Iraq. They are reluctant to set out, however, because they do not have a guard to travel with them and protect them from bandits as they cross the Syrian desert. The problem is solved when a holy man presents himself and promises to keep them safe by means of magic incantations. This unlikely expedient works like, well, like magic, and the party arrives in Anah without incident. They pay the holy man generously, and he scampers off, leaving them wondering where he went:
And we ceased not to seek him in every assembly, and to ask news of him from each that might mislead or guide.—Until it was said, "Since he entered 'Anah he has not quitted the tavern."—Then the foulness of this report set me on to test it, and to walk in a path to which I belonged not.— So I went by night to the wine-hall in disguised habit; and there was the old man in a gay-coloured dress amid casks and wine vats;—And about him were cupbearers surpassing in beauty, and lights that glittered, and the myrtle and the jasmine, and the pipe and the lute.—And at one time he bade broach the wine casks, and at another he called the lutes to give utterance; and now he inhaled the perfumes, and now he courted the gazelles .
The "holy man" was in fact a con man. And there’s no doubt from the context wine means wine. Certainly the thirteenth century artist who drew this illustration of the scene for an illuminated manuscript thought so. The guy in the lower right stomping the grapes clinches it.
The characters in the Maqamat were practically teetotalers compared to those in the most famous collection of stories from the medieval Muslim world, The Thousand and One Nights. I ran a search on the Richard Burton translation and found 783 instances of the word wine (okay, that includes the footnotes, but I think I made my point). While the narrator of the The Maqamat considered the consumption of alcohol to be “foulness,” the drinking parties in the Nights are presented very matter-of-factly, as if they were a perfectly normal part of life. You’d be surprised at who would show up:
Now the warmth of wine having mounted to their heads they called for musical instruments; and the portress brought them a tambourine of Mosul, and a lute of Irak, and a Persian harp; and each mendicant took one and tuned it; this the tambourine and those the lute and the harp, and struck up a merry tune while the ladies sang so lustily that there was a great noise. And whilst they were carrying on, behold, some one knocked at the gate, and the portress went to see what was the matter there. Now the cause of that knocking, O King (quoth Shahrazad) was this, the Caliph, Harun al-Rashid, had gone forth from the palace, as was his wont now and then, to solace himself in the city that night, and to see and hear what new thing was stirring; he was in merchant’s gear [i.e. traveling in disguise], and he was attended by Ja’afar [ibn Barmak], his Wazir [prime minister], and by Masrur his Sworder of Vengeance. As they walked about the city, their way led them towards the house of the three ladies; where they heard the loud noise of musical instruments and singing and merriment; so quoth the Caliph to Ja’afar, “I long to enter this house and hear those songs and see who sing them.” Quoth Ja’afar, “O Prince of the Faithful; these folk are surely drunken with wine, and I fear some mischief betide us if we get amongst them.” “There is no help but that I go in there,” replied the Caliph.
Harun al-Rashid is considered by many to be the greatest caliph of all time. And although he didn’t drink on this occasion—he excused himself on the grounds of “vows of pilgrimage”—he sure didn’t mind that everyone around him partook, especially considering that he was the leader of the Muslim world, responsible for the enforcement of shari’ah. As for Ja’afar, he’s presented as somewhat more strict, attempting to keep himself and the caliph away from a place where wine was being served. But the Thousand and One Nights is a work of fiction. Harun al-Rashid and Ja’afar ibn Barmak’s real-life carousing was considerably more wild. I’ll tell you about that in the next installment.
|Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com|