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A Glimpse Inside The Tavern Of Ruin by Padmavajra

by Padmavajra

... wondrous tilted cap, o wondrous tormentor.
Do not reveal the Truth; in this world blasphemy prevails, Khusrau:
O wondrous Source of mystery, o wondrous Knower of secrets.1
Chashm-e-maste ’ajabe follows the great tradition of Persian Sufi poetry, with its abundant use of
imagery celebrating all that is forbidden by the shariah of orthodox Islam. Although Amir Khusrau does
not employ the image, the setting for Chashm-e-maste ’ajabe is the Tavern of Ruin. Much, if not all,
Persian Sufi poetry takes place in this strange and wonderful place. The tavern (kharabat in Persian) is
a seedy cabaret and drinking den, situated in a disreputable part of town. In its dim, candlelit interior,
you quaff the musky wine brought by the flirtatious saki (cup bearer), gamble your fortune and lie
back, while ghazals – the songs of love – are sung by minstrels.2
1 Regula Burckhardt Qureshi, Sufi music of India and Pakistan: Sound, Context and Meaning in Qawwali (Chicago and
London: The University of Chicago Press, 1995).
2 For an excellent discussion of the Tavern of Ruin see Leonard Lewisohn, Beyond Faith and Infidelity: The Sufi Poetry and
Teachings of Mahmud Shabistari (Richmond, Surrey: The Curzon Press, 1995).
thebuddhistcentre.com: triratna writing
In Chashm-e-maste ’ajabe, Khusrau sings to the beautiful young saki. The saki– a beardless youth,
with ‘wondrous ecstatic eyes’, beautiful, down-covered face and long, glossy black locks, teasing,
mischievous and flirtatious in his tilted cap – is for the Persian Sufi tradition, the very embodiment of
perfect human beauty. Such a celebration of all that is forbidden by the shariah – drinking wine,
gambling and homo-eroticism – would be profoundly shocking to the orthodox Muslim. (It is probably
shocking to followers of other religions as well!) It is even more shocking to discover that in Persian
Sufi poetry, within a single poem, sacred language is employed alongside the imagery of the Tavern of
Ruin.
Thus, in Chashm-e-maste ’ajabe, we find mention not only of the wonderfully beguiling, wine-
worshipping beloved, but also of prostration, submission and sacrifice, of divine benevolence and
protection. The boldness of the contrast would be clear to a Farsi speaker, although English
translations rarely succeed in conveying it. There is even mention of the Truth (haq), which is
equivalent to mention of Allah. Sacred and profane language and imagery clash with one another, and
through a strange alchemy we are ushered into a new dimension – a strange world that stands above
the literalism of both rigid orthodoxy and hedonism. We are in a twilit realm, where nothing is what it
seems; a strange light has endowed everything with mystery and significance. It is a realm of symbols,
in which sensual images have become spiritualised, and transcendent realities have taken palpable
form. The Tavern of Ruin is the realm of archetypal meanings (’alam-i-ma’na).
To ‘understand’ Persian Sufi poetry we need to enter into this symbolic realm. Amir Khusrau himself
constantly invokes mystery and wonder in chashm-e-maste through the constant repetition of the
word ’ajabe, which means ‘strangely wonderful’. The tune of Chashm-e-maste ’ajabe adds to this
sense of strange wonder. Indeed, as I am not a Farsi speaker, it was the tune of Chashm-e-maste
’ajabe that attracted me to the song, even before I knew the meaning of its words.3 Amir Khusrau
sings from the Tavern of Ruin, the realm of archetypal meanings.
This world of mysterious symbols has opened up because the creative power of the heart has been
activated by the fire of divine love. It is this fire that illuminates the Tavern of Ruin with a strange light. It
is a fire that cannot be contrived: it flares up through a direct vision of the divine beloved. The Sixth
Shiite Imam, Ja ’far al-Sadiq, describes such love as ‘fire that unexpectedly invades the depths of the
heart and consumes all that is not the beloved object’.4 Such love compels one to leave behind both
worldly and religious ambition. Numerous stories in Sufi tradition tell of men who have become highly
successful in the religious life, attracting numerous followers (and enjoying all the safety, security and
comfort that goes with success) – men who then encounter someone who sparks off in them a raging
fire of love. This fire compels them to leave their comfort and security to live a more intense spiritual
life. Often this results in criticism, ridicule, scorn (and worse) from conventional society.
3 I first heard Chashm-e-maste ’ajabe on the CD that accompanies Qureshi 1995. Ms Qureshi provides two extracts from
live performances of the song by two different qawwali performers. The extract from the performance by Aziz Khan Warsi
with its ecstatic repetitions (and the sounds of fervent appreciation from the audience) is particularly stirring. A complete per-
formance of the song is to be found on Qawwali Warsi Brothers Volume Two issued on cassette by Music Today, New Delhi.
The live performances I heard at Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya certainly evoked a sense of wonder and mystery.
4 Henry Corbin, Temple and Contemplation (London: KPI, 1986)
thebuddhistcentre.com: triratna writing
A favourite story of mine is that of Fakruddin Iraqi. As a young man, Iraqi became a famous Muslim
preacher. One day a band of qalandars (wandering Sufi holy men) passed through his town. Iraqi fell
in love with one of their number and joined the band on their journey to India. However, perhaps the
most well known example is the story of Jallaludin Rumi and his friendship with the qalandar Shams of
Tabriz – a friendship that eventually led to Shams’ death, probably at the hands of Rumi’s more
conventional associates, outraged at their master’s seeming infatuation with the disreputable
qalandar. Translations of Rumi’s poetry have become extremely popular in recent years (apparently he
is the most popular poet in the United States). Most contemporary translations of Rumi turn his
writings into ineffectual and sentimental love poems. In fact, many of his poems were written for
Shams, his wild Master and Friend, and they describe intense spiritual practice and experience in the
context of fearless renunciation. Most contemporary translations and presentations of Rumi
domesticate him.
The profane language of the tavern in Persian Sufi poetry seeks to describe the effects of being one of
‘the people of love’. The poetry – strange as it might seem – is really an attack on worldliness and the
desire for the approval of the worldly. In the Islamic world, to actually go to a tavern and mix with the
disreputable people who frequent it, would destroy one’s reputation in ‘good society’. In its
employment of the imagery of the tavern, Persian Sufi poetry appears to follow the early Sufi tradition
of the malamatiya (‘the people of blame’). The malamatiya would deliberately and publicly offend
against the injunctions of the shariah in order to invoke blame from the society around them. This was
undertaken as a practice in order to strengthen the individual’s reliance on Allah – the Transcendent.
An even more important tradition for Persian Sufi poetry, is that of the qalandar. The qalandar has
some similarities to the malamati, but tended to be even more ostentatious in his disavowal of the
shariah. A qalandar tended to be a mystic who, filled with the wine of love, would freely wander,
singing his songs of unfettered ecstasy.
Obviously, traditions like this can be used as a rationalisation for all kinds of questionable behaviour
and weakness. Sufism has known its charlatans, but the best Sufi tradition treats the language of the
Tavern of Ruin entirely symbolically. As far as I know, none of the very great Sufi masters have actually
spent time hanging around in bars getting drunk! They did not need to do so in order to court the
disapproval of society. Just being a Sufi (even if they followed the shariah) would bring upon them, at
certain times and in certain places, not just blame but persecution and even execution. The list of Sufi
martyrs is a long one. The most famous Sufi martyr is Mansur al Hallaj of Baghdad, who proclaimed ‘I
am the Truth’. The life and martyrdom of Al Hallaj is a very popular subject in Sufi literature. In recent
times too, Sufis in orthodox Islamic societies have suffered terrible persecution. Just being a Sufi can
mean that one has automatically ‘entered the tavern’: one’s reputation, as far as the wider society is
concerned, is finished.
To really enter the Tavern of Ruin then, means renouncing all worldly (and religio-worldly) ambition. In
fact, entering the Tavern of Ruin refers to the ultimate renunciation: the complete loss of selfhood. The
great Sufi Master (and martyr) ’Ayn al Qudat Hammadani says:
A sign of love it is to throw away both soul and heart,

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