In this article I aim to explore a question which may have occurred to many when reading the Baha’i Writings: why are the terms “wine” and “intoxication” used if drinking alcohol is strictly forbidden to Baha’is? (If you’d like to read more about this topic, this Baha’i Blog article offers a medical perspective on why Baha’is don’t drink alcohol and this article discusses the social implications of this law.)
My question has actually been clearly and concisely answered in a letter of the Guardian written in 1926:
The wine mentioned in the Tablets has undoubtedly a spiritual meaning for in the book of Aqdas we are definitely forbidden to take not only wine, but every thing that deranges the mind. In poetry as a whole wine is taken to have a different connotation than the ordinary intoxicating liquid. We see it thus used by the Persian Poets such as Sa’di and Umar Khayam and Hafiz to mean that element which nears man to his divine beloved, which makes him forget his material self so as better to seek his spiritual desires. It is very necessary to tell the children what this wine means so that they may not confuse it with the ordinary wine.1
Inspired by this quotation, I think an exploration of this answer can be a fruitful exercise. To do this I will attempt to provide some historical context to the terms as used in the Writings (although it must be noted I lack the academic background to provide more than the cursory explanation of a layman), and to look at the symbolic meanings of the terms via some quotations from the Writings themselves.
In his masterfully written historical work The Revelation of Baha’u’llah, Adib Taherzadeh records that many Tablets of Baha’u’llah were revealed for members of Sufi orders (Sufism being a Islamic mystic movement). Taherzadeh notes that while Sufism itself is not wholly compatible to the Faith on a conceptual level Baha’u’llah does use Sufi terminology so that those He was addressing could understand His Writings.2 Bearing this in mind I think one can look to what the symbolism of the term “intoxication” mens in the context of Sufism.
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World defines the term intoxication (sukr) as being overcome with the presence of God and losing the ability to distinguish things, and states that often in Sufi writing it is contrasted with sobriety (sahw) which refers to the sensation of God being distant and beyond human concerns.3 John Renard’s The A to Z of Sufism describes wine as a metaphorical term for the beauty of God which leads to “intoxication”.4
With this background information in mind, I think that in the Writings the term intoxication is used to refer to a spiritual state reached through consideration of God, rather than a material intoxication due to a dulling of the physical senses, and likewise wine is a metaphor for spiritual qualities which lead to this spiritual state. As such I believe there is no conflict between the symbolic use of these terms and their prohibition in a material sense.
While the historical context is interesting, it is only one half of the picture, as I think one can also look at the context of the terms in the Writings and I will attempt to do this with a few examples. The first is the use of both terms in a prayer revealed by Abdu’l-Baha:
O my God! O my God! This, Thy servant, hath advanced towards Thee, is passionately wandering in the desert of Thy love, walking in the path of Thy service, anticipating Thy favors, hoping for Thy bounty, relying upon Thy kingdom, and intoxicated by the wine of Thy gift. O my God! Increase the fervor of his affection for Thee, the constancy of his praise of Thee, and the ardor of his love for Thee.
Verily, Thou art the Most Generous, the Lord of grace abounding. There is no other God but Thee, the Forgiving, the Merciful.5
My understanding of this prayer is that it is a request for spiritual insight, and as such I see the term intoxication as referring to the state of possessing that spiritual insight, and the term wine as referring to that which would enable one to enter that state.
An example I believe is very helpful when considering wine as a metaphorical term is in a passage in Some Answered Questions where Abdu’l-Baha expounds upon some of the symbolism of the Bible:
… it is said in the 35th verse: ‘And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to Me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on Me shall never thirst.’
Notice that “coming to Him” He expresses as eating, and “belief in Him” as drinking. Then it is evident and established that the celestial food is the divine bounties, the spiritual splendors, the heavenly teachings, the universal meaning of Christ. To eat is to draw near to Him, and to drink is to believe in Him.6
While Abdu’l-Baha does not explicitly refer to wine here I think that drinking as a metaphorical means for spiritual understanding very closely echoes the way in which wine is used in a Sufi context.
The meaning of the symbolism is slightly less clear to me in this passage from the Kitab-i-Aqdas:
By My life! He who hath drunk the choice wine of fairness from the hands of My bountiful favour will circle around My commandments that shine above the Dayspring of My creation.
Think not that We have revealed unto you a mere code of laws. Nay, rather, We have unsealed the choice Wine with the fingers of might and power.7
When I first read this passage I was quite confused as to why wine was being referred to, as I do not think the spiritual significance is immediately evident on a superficial reading, however upon reading on the greater context discussed in this article, I think I now have some level of understanding. I think that here wine is being used as a symbol for something which imbues spiritual insight. In the first sentence spiritual insight is being referred to as something which will lead to following the laws of the Baha’i Faith, and in the second sentence the laws themselves are being described as something which will offer spiritual insight.
These interpretations of passages from the Writings are only my own thoughts, however I hope this article will inspire the reader to engage in their own personal study of the symbolic significance of these, and other, terms found in the Writings and draw their own conclusions.
In closing I’d like to include a quotation of former member of the Universal House of Justice Ian Semple which I think offers an invaluable formula with which we can engage in personal study of the Writings:
So, in trying to educate ourselves in the Revelation, we need to study three meanings in each text we read: the meaning of the words themselves; the meaning they will have had for the particular person or persons that the Manifestation was addressing; and also the new meaning or meanings that He will be trying to convey. In other words, we must avoid three pitfalls: one is that of ignoring the obvious meaning of the words (in the past people were sometimes so keen on extracting the esoteric significance of a text that they were blind to the clear meaning of the words); the second pitfall is that of taking the words out of their historical and social contexts; the third is that of thinking that the social and historical contexts will, in themselves, give us an understanding of the obvious meaning and of what the Manifestation is saying.8
- Shoghi Effendi, The Light of Divine Guidance: Volume 2, Baha’i Publishing Trust of Germany, pp 9-10 [↩]
- Adib Taherzadeh, Revelation of Baha’u’llah: Volume II, London: Baha’i Publishing Trust, pp 25-26 [↩]
- John Voll, Kazuo Ohtsuka, Sufism, Oxford Islamic Studies Online: http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t236/e0759 accessed 24 Jun 2019 [↩]
- John Renard, The A to Z of Sufism, Plymouth: The Scarecrow Press Inc., pp 122-123 [↩]
- Baha’i Prayers: A Selection of Prayers Revealed by Baha’u’llah, the Bab and Abdu’l-Baha, US Baha’i Publishing Trust, p 153 [↩]
- Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, US Baha’i Publishing Trust, p 98 [↩]
- Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, Baha’i World Centre, p 21 [↩]
- Ian C. Semple, ‘Interpretation and the Guardianship’, Lights of Irfan 6, p 204 [↩]