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The Edible Metaphor
The Eastern Isle, from the Maqamat of al-Hariri, Baghdad, 1237. Click for larger image.
What is the spice of speech? Meaning and metaphor —
and yours is a cook's garden of poetic herbs.
Repetitive? Yes, but one need not fear repetition
in poetry which can only improve the more we read.

God seasons the pot of earth with tastes, smells, colours — apples, oranges, walnuts, quince and pomegranate;
the grapes of the vine never clog your palate
even if they taste the same as last year's
or the year before...

Sufi teachings and literature abound with metaphorical references to food and eating. Ibn 'Arabi identifies lubb, or kernel, as knowledge protected from hearts tied to the world. Lubb al-lubb, "the kernel of the kernel," is the substance of divine light. Simsimah, a sesame seed, is a realization too subtle for expression; and dhawq, or taste, is a human being's direct experience of Divine grace and unity.

Of dhawq and its companion shurb (drinking), Hujwiri wrote:

The Sufis call the sweetness of piety and the delight of miraculous grace and the pleasure of intimacy shurb — drinking — and they can do nothing without the delight of shurb. As the body's drink is of water, so the heart's drink is of spiritual pleasure and sweetness. Dhawq resembles shurb, but shurb is used solely in reference to pleasures, whereas dhawq is applied to pleasure and pain alike. One says dhuqtu'l-halawat, "I tasted sweetness," and dhuqtu'l-bala, "I tasted affliction;" but of shurb they say, sharibtu bi-ka'si'l-wasl, "I drank the cup of union," and sharibtu bi-ka'si'l-wudd, "I drank the cup of love," and so forth.

More than eight centuries later, a Turkish Bektashi teacher expounded on the same subject:

One can go to the dictionary to learn what sugar is and how it is used. That is the shariat Gateway to knowledge. One feels the inadequacy of that once one sees and handles sugar. That represents the tariqat Gateway to knowledge. To actually taste sugar and to have it enter into oneself is to go a step deeper into appreciation of its nature, and that is what is meant by marifat. Should one go still further and become one with sugar so that one could say, "I am sugar," that and that alone would be knowledge of sugar. That is the haqiqat Gateway.

In another application of food as metaphor, the Bektashi poet Yunus Emre wrote, somewhat cryptically:

I climbed into the plum tree
and ate the grapes I found there.
The owner of the garden called to me,
"Why are you eating my walnuts?"

The Helveti Shaikh Niyazi Misri offered this interpretation:

Mosaic pavement, Khirbat al-Mafjar, near Jericho, c. 740. Click for complete image.
Every tree of deeds has a special fruit. In the external world every fruit has a tree of its own; every deed has a means by which it can be reached... Yunus hints with "prune," "grape," and "nut" at the Divine law, sharia; the mystical path, tariqa; and the Divine Reality, haqiqa. For one eats the outside of the prune, but not its interior. The prune corresponds to outward actions. The grape is eaten, and many delicious things are made of it; but since a few kernels of hypocrisy, fame, vanity and ostentation remain, the grape refers to "interior acts," but not "Reality." The nut is a complete symbol of Reality: its interior is completely edible, and for how many illnesses is it a remedy! The master of the garden is the perfect mystical leader. One can discern the different fruits only with his help and eventually reach reality.

The transforming power of love and gratitude is illustrated in Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi's tale of Luqman. Though born a slave, Luqman "was the master of himself, and free from sensual desire." His master recognized his qualities, and sought to emulate him as a dervish might seek to emulate the Shaikh. Whatever food was brought to the master, he would first send to Luqman to eat; the master would then eat Luqman's leavings, and be overcome with rapture. If the slave rejected a food, his master would also refuse it or not enjoy it — "This is the sign of affinity without end." Given a melon, Luqman ate with pleasure all but the last slice. When the master tasted that slice, he was overwhelmed by its sourness. To the question, "How could you have eaten this poison?" Luqman replied:

I have eaten so much from your generous hand
that I am bent over in shame.
How could I refuse even one bitter thing from you?
If I were to complain of bitterness,
I should be engulfed in the dust of a hundred roads!
Your sugar-scattering hand gave that melon its grace —
how could any bitterness be left in it?
By love the bitter is made sweet.

Food also plays a part in legends of the saints. Tales of miraculous feedings enrich the biographies of many Sufis and mirror similar stories from the life of Muhammad. Images of material abundance manifested by those of spiritual attainment are emblems of the potential of each human being to manifest Divine grace in his or her life.

A Prince Prostrates Himself before a Holy Man. Persian, 1470. Click for larger image.