I realise that I’ve been talking about wines from the western part of the world often, and for good reason: In places like Europe, the Americas, and Australia/New Zealand, winemaking is an established industry that An abundance of literature and resource (and wine!) is readily available to be able to equip oneself with sufficient information for the academic or economic pursuit of wine, or even learn enough to impress friends in a wine dinner (ahem, this blog).
What I never thought to think about was the existence of wine beyond the traditional western culture (which is arguably the “longest and most continuous” in terms of winemaking traditions)… It does exist, and speaking of resources, I managed to get ahold of a pretty nifty book called “Wine, A Cultural History” by John Varriano. It contains a great chapter that explores wine traditions from outside the west, and I want to share some pretty interesting things I’ve learned in this post (and surprise, surprise: I discovered so much amazing, rich poetry).
- While wine is known in ancient India, China, and Japan, they’re mostly made of rice, not the vitis vinifera grapes we are accustomed to associate with the word wine.
- Wine was held in a mythological context in early Islamic lands. Modern Islam, due to the lack of visual records (both Sunni and Shi’ite) both fail to concisely convey how wine really was in the “early Muslim imagination,” but the overwhelming amount of literature insinuates a certain ambivalence with alcohol.
- Despite our (non-Muslims) misconception that the Qur’an prohibits alcohol to the point of eliminating it from the book, it does contain verses on wine (the khamr), and intoxicants or intoxication (sakar, sakra, sukara, and sakkara). Wine is in the same vein as gambling, idol-worship, and divination as evil, and a Satanic “abomination.”
- The best thing the Qur’an mentions about wine is in the context of being the main reward in the Garden of Repose (how I interpret it, and I’m allowed to be wrong, is that it’s the Christian concept of heaven). In the Garden of Repose, there are “rivers of wine” that are “a joy to those who drink” is a reward to the “elect”, while the damned will be left to consume “a boiling water so hot it cuts the bowels to pieces.”
- Supplementing the Qur’an is the Hadith, which contains accounts of the sayings and doings of Muhammad. In it, it doesn’t explicitly say that the Prophet prohibits wine, but does condemn wine and other intoxicants. What strikes me though is the mention of wine drinking, even intoxication, of the people of Mecca and Medina. It mentions Muhammad’s companions holding frequent drinking parties that disrupted prayer, and even an uncle that mutilated camels while drunk.
- Later Muslim scholars arranged the Qur’an’s remarks on wine to suggest a sequential progression that led to the condemnation of drink.
As I’ve mentioned, however, I’m largely blown away by the poems that explore the line between what’s allowed and what’s prohibited, from the pre-Islamic (Jahilya) to the post-Muhammad (Abbasid) times. An example cited in the book included the Rubáiyát by Omar Khayamm, which insinuated that wine is pleasurable and a sound means to provide escape:
“Drink wine, to make thee unaware
Of all the griefs that vex the mind,
And bring thy foeman, who designed
Thy utmost ruin, to despair.”
“Tonight, I will make a tun of wine,
Set myself up with two bowls of it;
First, I will divorce absolutely reason and religion,
Then take to wife the daughter of the vine.”
The Persian philosopher Avicenna recommended drinking while working (something I can intimately relate to):
“At night I return home, and occupy muself with reading and writing. Whenever I felt drowsy or weak I would turn aside to drink a cup of wine to regain my strength, and then go back to my reading.”
The aptly named Hafiz of Shiraz* wrote:
“Fill, fill the cup with sparkling wine,
Deep let me drink the juice divine,
To soothe my tortured heart;
For Love, who seem’d at first so mild,
So gently look’d, so gaily smil’d,
Here deep has plung’d his dart.”
The book mentions “Sufi poets of the 13th century expressed their love of God through the language of intoxication.” Ibn al-Farid’s Dīwān made use of wine and intoxication as a metaphor to “signal the transcendental power of Divine Love.” He wonderfully described his “ideal wine” as “pure, but not water; subtle, but not as the air; luminous, but not as fire; spit, but not embodied.” He went on to mention wine’s capacity to mystically work miracles, raise the dead, heal the sick and disabled, return one’s ability to smell, protect against snakebite, and prevent madness (amongst other things).
“Joyless in this world is he that lives sober,
And he that dies not drunk will miss the path of wisdom.
Let him weep for himself – whose life is wasted
without part or lot in wine”
Rumi contrasts the worldly and unworldly (being simply drunk versus the “ecstatic effects of Drunken Love”) through his poem that makes the difference between two kinds of wine:
“Know that in this world the drunkenness of sensuality
is despicable compared to the angels’ intoxication.
Their intoxication dwarfs this intoxication –
how should they pay any regard to sensuality?
Until you have drunk fresh water, briny water is as sweet to you
as light in the eyes.
A single drop of heaven’s wine will tear your spirit away
from all these wines and sakis.”
To end this entry, I’m not claiming to be an expert on the Islamic culture, practices, or traditions. I’m simply sharing what I’ve learned and how much I loved the beautifully written texts on something I am passionate about (wine) from a perspective I have never considered to explore. In the spirit of education, I welcome additional literature that further promotes the understanding of wine outside the contexts we’re used to. 😉 Cheers!
*Shiraz is a city in Iran which is known as the city of poets, literature, and wine (source: Wikipedia)
Some quotes in the article are taken directly from Wine, A Cultural History by John Varriano