Tuesday, September 24, 2019

A Loaf of Bread, a Jug of Wine, and Thou

Did Muslims drink wine in the Middle Ages?
Part IV—Omar Khayyam.
by Michael Isenberg.

Omar Khayyam was a towering figure in the Muslim World at the turn of the 12th century. We in the West know him mainly as a poet, author of the Rubaiyat, but he was also a scientist, a philosopher, a mathematician, the physician of princes, and the companion of sultans.

As the Royal Astronomer, he developed the Jalali calendar, which, with modifications, is still in use in Iran today, and is accurate to one day in 5,000 years. To put that in perspective, the Gregorian calendar we use in the West is accurate to only one day in 3,000 years.

But Omar’s learning was not limited to the physical sciences. His insights into the Quran and the Hadith were well-respected by scholars of Shari’ah such as Abu Hamid Ghazali. To this day, Ghazali is one of the most influential thinkers in Islam. We have a story about him and Omar from the historian Abu’l-Hasan Bayhaqi (d. 1169). Bayhaqi knew Omar; while still a teenager, his dad took him to visit the aging polymath in his hometown of Nishapur, Iran. According to Bayhaqi, Omar once explained some point “concerning a certain verse” (presumably of the Quran) to a group of people, including Ghazali. Ghazali was not an easy man to please, and didn’t always get along with Omar, but on this occasion he exclaimed, “May God increase such learned ones as you; consider me as one of your followers!” Granted, being something of dick, Ghazali then felt compelled to add that he did not expect such a stellar analysis from a scientist [1].

Needless to say, Muslims in general, and Iranians in particular, are proud to have such a brilliant and pious scholar and poet among their numbers. Omar’s beautiful mausoleum in Nishapur was rebuilt in the last century. It is set amid tall pine trees and colorful gardens in what is otherwise a brown and dusty town surrounded by brown and dusty farmland. The park rather stands out on the satellite image. Nearby are the Khayyam Planetarium and Khayyam Boulevard.

And yet, there’s a fly in the ointment: Wine. The oldest collection of Omar’s 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—something prohibited in Islam.

I began this series on Islam and wine by citing some of the verses in the Muslim scripture that prohibit the use of alcohol, but I also observed that the literature of the Middle Ages suggests that the prohibition was not very well enforced. In Part II, I backed that up with examples from the history books. Religious hardliners like Ghazali were not happy with wine shops all over town and drinking parties in the palaces. In Part III I wrote about how they struck back, with some success. Since I appropriated Omar Khayyam as the hero of my latest novel, The Thread of Reason, it seems fitting to wrap up the series with a question that has occupied biographers and historians for centuries: Did he drink?

For such an esteemed personage as Omar Khayyam to be as obsessed with wine as his poetry shows him to be is something of an embarrassment to Muslims.

Some condemned his verses. The historian Abu’l-Hasan al-Qifti (d. 1248) wrote that Omar’s poems “are inwardly like snakes who bite the Shari’ah.” [2]

But others attempted to explain them away, and these attempts began almost the moment Omar drew his final breath. The wine in the Rubaiyat, they said, should be interpreted symbolically. Numerous theories have been proposed as to what exactly it symbolizes, but the most common is that it symbolizes the joy of mystic communion with Allah. According to this theory, Omar was an adherent of the Islamic esoteric movement known as Sufism, and the wine in his poetry should be understood in that light, as it is for other prominent Sufi poets such as Rumi and Hafiz. Thus, the question of what wine symbolizes in the Rubaiyat cannot be separated from the question of whether Omar Khayyam was a Sufi.

The theory is not entirely without merit. There are certainly many verses in the Rubaiyat where this interpretation would make sense. Consider one of the most famous:

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou
          Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow! [3]

It’s certainly plausible, but by no means certain, that all the elements of Sufism are there. The wilderness is the dwelling of the holy man. Ishmael, Moses, Jesus—they all found Allah in the desert. The loaf of bread is the simple diet of the Sufi. The book of verses is his song. As for the jug of wine, it’s the ecstasy of communion with Allah, the ‘Thou,’ singing beside the ‘me.’

Further, Ahmad Ghazali (d. ca. 1123), who probably knew Omar, wrote in his letters that Omar was in fact a Sufi, and offered some Sufic interpretations of his verses [4]. Ahmad was the brother of the aforementioned Abu Hamid Ghazali and a prominent Sufi himself.

But there is little corroboration of Ahmad’s claims, and certainly nothing from Omar himself, unless you count Abbas Kayvan Qazwini’s claim that the ghost of Omar Khayyam visited him in a dream and told him it was so [5]. Indeed, it is unusual for someone who has dedicated his life to rational pursuits such as astronomy and mathematics to go in for mysticism. In the same passage where he compares the Rubaiyat to snakes, al-Qifti also tells us that even though “Sufis understood his poems outwardly and considered them to be part of their tradition,” when Omar “arrived in Baghdad, members of [a Sufi] tradition and believers in primary science came to him and began to socialize with him. He did not accept them.”

The debate continues into our own time. Robert Graves, better known as the author of I, Claudius, threw his hat into the ring when he agreed to collaborate with Omar Ali-Shah to publish The Original Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1968), based on a manuscript that had allegedly been in the Shah family for many generations and supported the Sufic interpretation. Alas, Shah never produced the original manuscript, and it is now widely believed that the whole thing was a hoax—of which Graves himself was the greatest victim.

Mehdi Aminrazavi of the University of Mary Washington took on the question in The Wine of Wisdom (2005), unquestionably the best Khayyam biography out there, and an indispensable help to me in writing both The Thread of Reason and this article. On the question of Omar Khayyam and Sufism, Dr. Aminrazavi concludes, “None of his biographers have alluded to his Sufi affiliation, and the one exception I have mentioned previously asserts that Sufis misunderstood his Ruba’iyyat and interpreted them as they wished,” i.e., the al-Qifti passage, cited above. Further, “For all we know, Khayyam neither had a Sufi master nor was he initiated into a Sufi tradition.” Both transmission of knowledge from a master and the initiation ritual are of great importance in Sufism, so their absence in Omar’s case is highly significant.

Although he doesn’t accept that Omar was a Sufi, and therefore the notion that wine in the Rubaiyat represents Sufic communion, Dr. Aminrazavi nevertheless argues for a symbolic interpretation, and indeed he took the title of his book from it: “Khayyam’s use of the concept of wine is as the ‘wine of wisdom,’ a philosophical image which enables one to come to terms with the merciless forces of nature through an all-too-human-wisdom.” Aminrazavi cites a number of verses in support of the wine of wisdom symbolism, including this one:

The mystery is great and the answers are rare
Wise men have searched but you should not care
          Make thy own heaven here with this moment and wine
For the heaven is a fairy tale, nothing but Air.

With all due respect to Dr. Aminrazavi, I disagree with the wine of wisdom metaphor, along with the Sufic metaphor. I believe that when Omar talks about wine in the Rubaiyat, what it symbolizes is…wine. I have two reasons for that. Regarding the first, consider the following, somewhat humorous verses from the Ouseley manuscript: #38,

I drink wine; my Enemies, high and low,
Say—“Do not drink it; ‘tis Religion’s Foe.’
          When I learned wine was a Foe, I answered—
“’Tis permitted to drink the Foe’s Blood, you know.” [6]

And #75,

I drink wine, and every one drinks who like me is worthy of it;
my wine-drinking is but a small thing to Him;
          God knew, on the Day of Creation, that I should drink wine;
if I do not drink wine, God’s knowledge was ignorance. [7]

In these verses, we see that Omar clearly views wine drinking as a sin. He knows it’s prohibited, but he drinks it anyway. He can’t help it. It’s foreordained. Fortunately, Allah is a loving god, and won’t judge him too harshly.

This notion that wine is weakness and sin recurs in seven other verses (#45, 62, 64, 78, 99, 104, and 118). It’s not consistent with the view that wine symbolizes mystic communion—which is not a sin (or at least a Sufi wouldn't say it was). I haven’t run across this angle in the poetry of known Sufis like Rumi. Nor is it consistent with the wine of wisdom—also not a sin in a religion which puts as high a premium on scholarship as Islam does. But wine equals sin makes perfect sense if it’s to be understood as simply plain old tavern-variety fermented grape juice.

The second reason I believe that wine means wine is not based on quite so scholarly an analysis. I’m rather fond of wine myself, and have some experience with it. Reading the Rubaiyat, I just get the gut feeling that Omar knows what he’s talking about.

Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon (and wine) and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, featuring Omar Khayyam, 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

Photo credit(s): touriar.com, Google Maps


[1] Bayhaqi, Abu’l-Hasan, Tatimah siwan al-Hikmah, Lahore (1351 AH), pp. 116-17 [2] Qifti, Abu’l-Hasan al-, Tarikh al-Qifti (History of the Scholars), Leipzig (1903), pp. 243-44. [3] Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, 3rd ed. (1872), Edward Fitzgerald, tr., xii. Fitzgerald’s translations tend to be a little loose, and this is actually a composite of #149 and 155 in the Ouseley manuscript, but the Sufic elements I allude to are all there in the original. [4] Ghazzali, Ahmad, Risalah maw’izah, Tehran (1371 AH) Nourbakhsh, ed. [5] Qazwini, A.K. Sharh-i ruba’iyyat-i Khayyam, Tehran (1379 AH), M.R.M. Chahardehi, ed., p. 19. [6] Adapted by me from the translation in The Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam, Boston: L.C. Page & Co. (1898), Edward Heron-Allen, tr. [7] Heron-Allen translation, loc. cit.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The Saudi Oil Facility Attacks: What the US Should Do Now

It will take more than tweets for President Trump to show the Iranians that they will not benefit from attacking the world’s energy supply.

by Michael Isenberg.

The video was quite dramatic. Mountains of white-orange flame dwarfing the buildings and lighting up the sky. Billows of red smoke trailing off into the night.

The attacks on the Saudi oil facilities, believed to be from a combination of cruise missiles and drones, struck the Abqaiq processing plant and the Khurais oil field at 4 AM Saturday morning. The Saudi government reported that there were no fatalities or injuries, fortunately, but the Abqaiq facility will be offline for an undetermined period of time. The facility removes sulfur from some 5 to 7 million barrels of oil a day, about half of Saudi Arabia’s production, and around 5% of the world’s oil supply.

Now that the fires are, if not exactly out, at least “under control,” the question for those of us in the US is what, if anything should we do about it? And that question can’t be separated from the questions of who was responsible for the attacks and what were their motives.

Who did it?

Within hours of the attacks, a spokesman for the Houthi rebels in Yemen appeared on their al-Masirah news channel and claimed responsibility. The Houthi, based in the country's western hills, have been at war with their government since March of 2015, in what has been called “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” The war has been a stalemate, with little change in the territories subject to government and Houthi control. Almost from the beginning, the Saudi military intervened on the government side, conducting a massive air campaign, but with little effect. In retaliation, the Houthis have launched drone and missile attacks against defense and oil facilities within Saudi Arabia, but none of these earlier attacks were as damaging as Abqaiq and Khurais.

It’s about 550 miles from Abqaiq to Houthi-held territories in Yemen, within the 930 mile range of the most advanced Houthi drone, the UAV-X. Nevertheless, there is some reason for skepticism whether the Houthis were actually responsible. An anonymous US military source has claimed that the damage to the facilities were on the west-north-west sides, suggesting a direction of attack from Iran, or possibly Iraq, where there are many Iran-backed militias. Indeed, as the map shows, both Iran and Iraq are much closer to the targets.

In a tweet on Saturday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called out Iran explicitly for the “unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply,” adding, “There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, in turn, accused Pompeo of lying. “Having failed at ‘max pressure,’” he tweeted, “@SecPompeo's turning to ‘max deceit.’”

In my mind, the bottom line as to whether the Abqaiq and Khurais attacks came from the Houthis or the Iranians is: I don’t care. The Houthis are Iranian clients. We know this because of the various Iranian arms shipments to the Houthis, sometimes accompanied by trainers, that have been observed over the years, and sometimes intercepted, most notably the capture of the Jihan One by the Yemeni government in 2013. As far as I’m concerned, Iran is responsible, regardless of where the drones took off from.

What was their motive?

Iran’s defenders insist that the Islamic Republic has no motive for carrying out such an attack. I disagree. When it comes to motive, there are numerous possibilities; an embarrassment of riches. Any one of them could fill a blog post by itself. In the interest of space (and not boring you), I will merely list some here, without going into their details and relative merits:

  • Start with Iran’s domestic politics. We often talk about the country as if it’s a single entity with a single motive. But Iran and its government are deeply fractured. In particular, there is conflict between the religious hardliners on the one hand, led by Ayatollah Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard, and the civilian government on the other, led by President Rouhani. The biggest area of disagreement is engagement with the West. Rouhani got re-elected promising that such engagement would grow the country’s economy, while the hardliners still view the West as the Great Satan. By stirring up conflict with the West, the Revolutionary Guard is causing Rouhani’s policies to fail, thereby undermining him. An all out war would give them a pretext to remove Rouhani from power all together.
  • Iran has other domestic problems. Contrary to Rouhani’s plans, the economy is tanking, thanks to President Trump’s decision to pull out of the 2015 nuclear deal and re-impose economic sanctions. Iran is desperate to get the sanctions lifted, and by threatening the world’s oil supplies, it hopes to pressure the US to give in.
  • In addition to economic disaster, the government of Iran faces a population that is sick and tired of living under shari’ah, and is fighting back. An unending series of foreign policy crises can distract the population from these issues (I actually did fill a blog post about this. From last July: “Rouhani Wags the Dog: Behind the Trump/Rouhani war of words”).
  • Then there’s US domestic politics. The 2020 election, unfortunately, will touch on every major event for the next 14 months (An aside: when the presidential election touches every major event, the presidency has too much damn power). Even if Trump doesn’t lift the sanctions, by dragging him into an unpopular Middle Eastern quagmire, Iran hopes to cost him enough votes for him to lose what promises to be a close election. A Democrat in the White House will be far easier for them to hoodwink, as they learned from their experience with Mr. Obama.
  • As for regional politics, Iran is locked in a battle with Saudi Arabia to dominate the Middle East. Shutting down half of Saudi oil production harms its rival substantially.
  • Finally, the Iranian government is run by Islamists, who are inspired by the Quran and the Hadith--which say that Allah has commanded them to wage jihad against the unbeliever (the West) and bring death to the apostate (Saudi Arabia).

    What should the United States do?

    First of all, here’s what I don’t think we should do just now: attack Iran militarily. Abqaiq and Khurais were not directed against the United States and none of our citizens were hurt. A military response would be disproportionate. Not to mention, as I noted above, the Revolutionary Guard wants a confrontation with the US, so we shouldn’t give them one.

    But just because I don't want a military confrontation with Iran doesn't mean I think we should sit on our collective ass and do nothing. That’s what we’ve been doing and it’s not working.

    A lot of the discussion about Iran revolves around the false alternative, "Go to war" or "Do nothing." In fact, there are numerous lesser measures we could take. Indeed, if history teaches us anything, it's that the best way to create a situation where we have to go to war someday is to do nothing, rather than take those lesser measures while we still can.

    It would be irresponsible to do nothing. The Iranians have threatened to shut down shipping in the Straits of Hormuz and have taken numerous steps to make good on that threat. Yes, they deny mining the MT Front Altair and the Kokuka Courageous oil tankers and the evidence against them is sketchy. But there's no doubt they shot down a US drone and seized the Stena Impero oil tanker and its crew (which they’re still holding). Furthermore, they delivered the cargo of the Grace One tanker to Assad’s Syria, in violation of EU sanctions and their own promises, and they’ve imprisoned some dozen or so western citizens, mostly on dubious spying accusations. No responsible government can sit idly by in the face of this many attacks on the liberty and property of its citizens.

    And yet, the response of the US and its allies has been virtually non-existent. President Trump posted some threatening tweets and added Ayatollah Khamanei and Foreign Minister Zarif to the list of sanctioned individuals, thereby freezing any assets they have in the United States. This did nothing but prompt mockery from Mr. Zarif who tweeted, “It has no effect on me or my family, as I have no property or interests outside of Iran. Thank you for considering me such a huge threat to your agenda.”

    Clearly, Iran is not impressed, and, like all bullies, it has merely been emboldened by the weak response to engage in ever more aggressive provocation. It will continue destroying property and kidnapping people until the West puts some measures with real teeth in place, on top of the US sanctions already in existence.

    As I’ve argued previously, US policy should not be based on knee-jerk reactions to the latest event. Rather, the US should act according to an overarching strategy for Saudi Arabia and Iran, neither of whom is a friend to the US or US values. Specifically the US should learn from the successes of the Nixon Administration during the Cold War and follow a two-prong strategy based on (1) linkage—tying the things Iran and Saudi Arabia want to their good behavior, and (2) triangular diplomacy—playing them off against each other.

    There is not much we can do right now by way of triangular diplomacy. Ideally we would expand military and diplomatic aid to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and thereby show the Iranians that this kind of attack only benefits its rival. But there’s not much opportunity, given that President Trump—despite Congressional opposition—is already giving them everything they want. Might want to rethink that policy.

    There’s a clear path on the linkage side, however. We already know the US sanctions are hurting. If President Trump persuaded our European allies to join the US, it would make a big difference in showing Iran that aggression will not get the sanctions lifted, but instead will have the opposite effect. We've heard about President Trump's spectacular negotiating skills often enough. It’s time for him to put them to work.

    UPDATE 9/18--Since I posted this, there have been reports that US officials claim the reason Saudi air defenses were ineffective is that the radars were all pointed to the south, toward Yemen, where an attack was expected from, rather than the north, toward Iran. If true, then this is evidence that the attack actually was launched from Iran. It also suggests that there's something we can do for the Saudis at this point, and thereby send the message to Iran that bad behavior will only benefit its rival: sell them some more Patriot missile batteries for their northern perimeter.

    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

    Photo credit(s): BBC, WhatsNew2Day.com, twitter