Wine and Vinegar

Basic Concepts of Sufis - Part I

By: Lynn Wilcox, Ph.D.

Sufi stories, references to Sufism, and Sufi quotations, particularly from Rumi, are frequently found in the literature of humanistic and transpersonal psychology. However, they are taken out of context, and the basic teaching underlying their use is not presented. The result is a pleasant but superficial appreciation lacking the basis for any real depth of understanding. Such use is intellectually entertaining, but also misleading. Sufism is “strong medicine,” not the pablum of extracted tales, and readers should be educated as to the source.

Sufism has provided thousands of volumes of poetry and prose over a 1400-year period, and extracting a few lines does not do justice to the underlying reality. Any writing regarding Sufism is paradoxical, for a basic lesson in Sufism is that words do not and cannot convey the meaning.1... Words are simply signs for things; they are not the thing itself. For example, reading a road sign saying, “Paris,” is completely different from the actual experience of being in Paris. If you are extremely thirsty, try printing the word “water” on a piece of paper and see how well it assuages your thirst. The thirsty person needs real water. Sufism can only be learned through experience, not through the ideas, words, or books of others. Words are the veils of Truth.

Academic analysis of Sufism is like trying to learn how to swim by analysis of the neuroelectrical impulses to muscles during swimming. We learn nothing about how to swim. A more subtle examination of an oft-repeated Rumi story illustrates this, as well as the contrast between acceptance of cultural constructs and the freedom of letting go of such earthly attachments, which is an integral part of the Way of Sufism. In the story, a salek (truth-seeker) is told by his Sufi Master to bring him a bottle of wine. The salek is afraid that the townspeople will attack him when they see him, supposedly a devout Muslim, coming through town with a bottle of wine. The Master tells him to bring the wine, nevertheless. The fearful salek buys the wine, and sure enough, the townspeople attack him, at first verbally, then physically. At that point, the bottle is broken, and found to contain vinegar, not wine, and the salek is “saved” from the townspeople, but ashamed before his Master. 2

The story, as any real Sufi story, is written in the ancient technical vocabulary of Sufism developed in the ninth century, and may be understood at many levels. Also, as any real Sufi story, it may be considered mythic, in that it has the symbolic function of “discovering” and revealing the bond between man and the sacred. On a simple literal level, it may be translated as a story about how things are not what they seem; or as the story of a minor miracle worked by the Sufi Master, of the same class as the Biblical story in which Jesus turns water into wine. On a different level, psychotherapists might label this an example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. A neuropsychologist might state that fear turned the wine to vinegar by triggering adrenal gland secretions which raised body temperature. With the bottle clutched close, and the known phenomena of the effect of temperature on wine, the salek’s own physiological reaction could have turned the wine to vinegar. Such explanations satisfy most people, but are all grossly inadequate.

All such interpretations ignore the significance of the symbolism of the wine with which the literature of Sufism is replete. The goal of Sufism is cognition – of one’s own innermost being, and ultimately of God. “He, who knows himself, knows his creator.” Through the centuries, this quest has been symbolically expressed in many forms, such as “Union with the Beloved,” “Abide in me, and I in you,” “Dissolving in the Sea of Existence,” or attaining “Absolute Annihilation in Allah.” The symbolism of wine is often used to refer to the living Presence of the Divine. In Al-Rasa’el, Molana al Moazam Hazrat Shah Maghsoud Sadegh Angha, in discussing the solouk or journey toward the sixth goal of the States of Enlightenment, describes: “At this time, for the esteemed and the chosen, the soul’s cup is filled solely with the clearest, purifying, divine wine, the eternal wine of His glorious Presence, blessed by the touch of His Magnificent Countenance, the ever eternal wine of blissful Light for the circle of those yearning for the Face and Eyes of the Bearer of Wine. As he has promised us the promise of God: ‘And their Lord will give to them to drink of a wine pure and Holy.'”3

To achieve the desired goal, to unite with the Beloved, it is necessary that the salek become pure, let go of earthly attachments, and remove the veils which cover knowledge and prevent one from seeing Truth. To lose oneself in the Beloved necessitates total freedom from cultural constraints. Law for the salek is the Law of God, learned through individual experience, not through the words or dictates of others. The Way of Sufism is The Way of the Prophets, and the Prophets, in both Holy Books, The Qur’an and the Bible, are quite clear and specific in stating the necessity of letting go of all familial, cultural and social ties to follow the Prophet, whether the Prophet be Jesus or Mohammad. The Holy Qur’an (9:24) states: “Say: if it be that your fathers, your sons, your brothers, your mates, or your kindred; the wealth that you have gained; the commerce in which ye fear a decline; or the dwellings in which he delight—are dearer to you than God, or His Apostle, or the striving in His cause—then wait until God brings about His decision: And God guides not the rebellious.”4 ...The Holy Bible states in Matthew 10:35-37: “For I am come to set a man at variance with his father and the daughter against her mother and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”3... Sura 39:29 states: “God puts forth a Parable—A man belonging to many partners at variance with each other and a man belonging entirely to one Master: Are those two equal in comparison: Praise be to God! But most of them have no knowledge.”5... Matthew 24 and Luke 16:13 state: “No man can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon.”6

The parallel is clear, and the message is the same. To follow the way of the Prophets requires that one let go of social and cultural ties. This is a crucially important, powerful message, with enormous implications for any aspiring individual. As we know, and contrary to the ideas of those who believe that religion is a social product, religions were not created by the influence and demands of societies. Moses, Jesus and Mohammad are clear examples. All were liberating revolutionaries. All openly challenged and spoke out against the societies in which they lived, and were attacked by powerful members of these cultures.

1. Molana Salaheddin Ali Nader Angha (1987). Unpublished manuscript.
2. Molana Shahmaghsoud Sadegh Angha, Al Rasa’el (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1986)
3. The Bible: new Oxford annotated, revised standard version. (NY: Oxford University Press, 1973)
4. The Holy Qur’an. A. Yusuf Ali translation. (Brentwood, MD: Amana Corp., 1983)
5. Orwell, G., 1984 (NY: New American Library, 1949)
6. Rumi, J., The Mathnavi of Jalalu’ddin Rumi (Cambridge: E.J.W. Gibb Memorial Trust, 1926)