The symbolism of wine in the spiritual life has a long and distinguished history. The use of bread and wine as ‘species’ for the Christian Holy Eucharist harks back to the ‘sacrament’ of Melchizedec, the ‘shaykh’ of the prophet Abraham; they may be taken, among other things, as emblems of the union of Truth and Life, of Knowledge and Love, or of the states of Sobriety and Intoxication described by the Sufis. And Anacreon, the great celebrator of wine among the Greeks, though his poetry was unabashedly pagan and earthy, yet provided symbols and metaphors that in other hands were capable of the greatest sublimation:

Bring me the winebowl, come my boy
To drink in one long swallow back
Ten cups of water, five of wine,
And do me proud before its god….

Eros the blacksmith
Hammers me again,
Striking while I’m hot
And thrusts me sizzling
In the ice-cold stream.

Who can fail to recognise, in these verses dedicated to Dionysus, the wine-god, and Eros, the god of love, backward echoes of the poetry of the Persian Sufis, with their celebration of the Saki, the Cupbearer, and their passionate exaltation and lament at the states of Expansion (bast) and Contraction (qabd) sent by God the Beloved, Giver of al-Jamal, Beauty, and al-Jalal, Rigor and Majesty? From Zeus’ cupbearer Ganymede, to Christ, bearer of the cup that was later to become the Holy Grail—and the Catholic or Orthodox priest who stands in for him at Mass or Divine Liturgy—to the representation, in the tradition of Tasawwuf, of the Sufi shaykh—or else of Allah Himself—as the Saki, wine and the wine-steward have long been associated, in one way or another, with the merciful Grace and devastating Beauty of the Divinity.

The rest of this article is only available to subscribers.

Access our entire archive of 350+ articles from the world's leading writers on Islam.
Only £3.30/month, cancel anytime.

Already subscribed? Log in here.

Not convinced? Read this: why should I subscribe to Critical Muslim?


Elsewhere on Critical Muslim: