James Fleming (RELG 373): Can We Have Intoxication in the Holy Space?


In Islam there is a complex relationship between spirituality, architectural form, and performative prayer. The latter two may seem to be exoteric aspects of the religion, however, as demonstrated in Sufi poetry there are significant mystical aspects to the architecture of mosques and other Islamic structures, as well as relating to aspects such as the direction and the movements of prayer. First one must examine the physical aspects of the structure and the symbolism behind it. The first layer is the dome, which represents the realm of the divine above the worshipers. This is usually followed by an octagonal layer of windows, which represent the eight paths to paradise and the angelic world. Below this is the rest of the space, which lies in the human world and is permeated by the chandelier, a representation of God’s influence on humanity. This form is greatly exemplified by the Islamic Center in Cleveland, which itself is based on Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites of Islam. The architectural and performative aspects of Islam are greatly demonstrated in the spirituality described in the poems Faces of Love by Hafez, Tale 67, A pious man reforms a libertine prince by Sa’di, and the opening of Water’s Footfall by Sohrab Sephri. These poems use symbols of the masjid and prayer to demonstrate feelings of intoxication, ecstasy in appreciation of creation, and the effects that prayer has on the individual and how this is essential to the path of mysticism. This feeling of intoxication in God is represented by wine, a common Sufi metaphor. However, this substance and the state it presents in contrasted between these works.


In Faces of Love, at a first glance Hafez seems to be promoting the use of wine as an intoxicant in daily life, purely for the pleasure of leaving sobriety. Such sentiment seems sacrilegious with statements such as, “And if the wine-seller says wine/ Should dye your prayer-mat . . . dye it!”[1] Basic Shari’a prohibits the use of intoxicants, especially in the context of prayer, as the first prohibition of wine in the Qur’an was for this purpose, “O you who have believed, do not approach prayer while you are intoxicated until you know what you are saying . . .”[2]. However, if examined more closely, it is made visible that Hafez is referring to a spiritual intoxication, of being overwhelmed by the feeling of closeness. Prescriptive performative prayer may not seem to have this quality, but the mandatory salaat is the Shari’a manifestation of dhikr, or divine remembrance; this is keeping God in one’s heart always. The necessity of mundane rituals may give the impression that they distract from the true meaning of prayer, but this ritual of bringing out the prayer mat, making sure to face the qibla, and performing the preordained movements brings the believer into a state of contemplating the divine, as this is repeated many times daily for the singular purpose of remembering God. Ultimately the mystic brings us back to the exoteric, revealing that seeking truth through only esoteric means greatly inflates the ego, as such a pursuit is based on the assumption that knowledge and truth are not attainable from the most fundamental aspects of practice, which everyone has access to. He continues, “Pilgrims should know each stage’s rule/ And seek to satisfy it.”[3] This supplements the idea that each stage is important, including the conscripted aspects. The emphasis on each stage is important. For example when one is in sujood, or full prostration, this is when one is closest to their prayer mat. If there is an intoxicating aroma, such as in Hafez’s verse, then there will be the most profound connection to the divine during the most humbling part of salaat.

In Sa’di’s poem, we see a contrast of the wine metaphor, and the negative aspects of intoxication. As the title suggests, this is a redemption story of a prince, who near the beginning of the poem stumbles drunkenly into the most, disrupting the piety of others. “Into the mosque he came, drunkenly singing,/ Wine in his head and a bumper [full glass] in hand . . .”[4]. In this case intoxication is clearly a violation of the sacred nature of the space in the mosque, where his behavior disrupts others rather than bringing himself to a state of wonder. This contrast is seen in the dyed mat versus the full glass. The mat indicates a set amount of intoxicant with which one is to contemplate God, while the full glass indicates an insatiability of a feeling of non-sobriety, where meaning is sought but never found. The poem further refers to a pious man, presumably the imam, for whom the people seek to listen to, but “Not being learned, nothing less than a listener be!”[5] This demonstrates the importance of the mosque itself as an architectural space to access the divine. The performative aspects are seen in the leadership of the imam and the community present to follow him in a ritual they are already familiar with. The ritual of doing these things together is essential to the spirituality and the performative nature.

Sepehri seems to present a challenge to these conclusions; as in his work he describes the entire creation as part of his masjid. However, on the mystical level it is readily made apparent that his views fall in line with his predecessors. He declares, “I am a Muslim./ The rose is my qibla./ The stream my prayer-rug, the sunlight my clay tablet./My mosque the meadow.”[6] His verse demonstrates a higher level of mysticism. In the beginning it is necessary to have the set rituals and the determined architectural space as a reminder to fully exhibit dhikr. However, as one progresses this ability to remember God and perform these tasks can be transposed to other things, and therefore losing their worldly attachment. This is when mysticism has been fully transformed into a worldview. These metaphors also clearly indicate a deep veneration of God. Facing the rose is beautiful, such as is facing the Ka’ba. The prayer-rug purifies the worshiper, and the mosque brings overwhelming relaxation and tranquility in its simplicity of form.

[1] Davis, Dick, Ḥāfiẓ, Jahān Malik Khātūn, and ʻUbayd Zākānī Niẓām Al-Dīn. Faces of Love, 10.

[2] Quran.com 4:43

[3] Faces of Love, 10.

[4] Saʻdī, and W. M. Thackston. ”A piuous man reforms a libertine prince, ” in The Gulistan, Rose Garden of Sa’di: Bilingual English and Persian Edition with Vocabulary, 335. Bethesda, MD: Ibex Publishers, 2008.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sipihrī, Sohrāb, Kazim Ali, and Mohammad Jaffar Mahallati. Water’s Footfall, 9. Richmond, CA: Omnidawn Pub., 2011.