Serving the Guest: A Sufi Cookbook
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Good Food in Good Company

In the Qur'an guidelines are offered on appropriate foods for humanity:

Detail from Barbad Playing Music to Khusraw, attributed to Mirza 'Ali. Persian, 16th century. Click for complete painting.
O you who have attained to faith!
Partake of the good things which We have provided for you as sustenance, and render thanks unto God...
He has forbidden to you only carrion, and blood, and the flesh of swine, and that over which any name other than God's has been invoked;
but if one is driven by necessity neither coveting it nor exceeding his immediate need no sin shall be upon him, for, behold, God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace...
Lawful to you is all water-game, and what the sea brings forth....
And be conscious of God, unto whom you shall be gathered...
And of the cattle reared for work and for the sake of their flesh, eat whatever God has provided for you as sustenance...
Eat, then, of that over which God's name has been pronounced, if you truly believe in His messages.

Muhammad established the practice of uttering "Bismillah, Allahu Akbar" — "In the name of God, God is most Great" — over an animal to be slaughtered for food. This act serves as a consecration and purification, preparing animal flesh for its transformation into human substance capable of conscious awareness of God. It is an affirmation that the taking of life is a serious matter, occurring only by Divine permission. The process also mirrors that process through which a human being must pass to arrive at a state of submission to Divine will.

When an animal's throat is lawfully cut,
the throat of man grows from it, and it becomes exalted.
The cut throat drinks Divine ambrosia,
but only one that has been delivered from No and dies in Yes.
Detail from The Banquet of the Physicians, Syria, 672/1273. Click for complete painting.

The concept of purity extends beyond food itself, to the source of livelihood that enables it to be brought to the table. All actions and decisions that lead to a meal are links in a chain, each made whole and strong by remembrance of creation's utter dependence on the Creator.

Mehmet II was both a dervish (a member of a Sufi order) and the Ottoman sultan who conquered Constantinople. One evening Mehmet was sitting with his Shaikh, and they were eating rice from one plate. His Shaikh said to him, "My Sultan, what you are eating is haram, it is unlawful," even though they were eating from the same plate. The Sultan asked, "How is this? We are eating from the same plate. You must be eating unlawful food, too." The Shaikh said, "No, what is on my side is halal, it is permissible; what is on your side is unlawful." So the sultan said, "Look over there!" and when the Shaikh looked away from the plate, the sultan turned the dish around. Then they continued to eat. After a while the sultan told the Shaikh what he had done and said, "Now, see, what you are eating is haram." But the Shaikh said, "No! What you eat is haram because you have taken it by force, from a conquered country."

In cases of necessity, food from questionable sources can be consecrated at the table. When queried by people who had received gifts of meat but did not know how the animals had been slaughtered, Muhammad told them, "Mention the name of Allah over it and eat it." Conversely, Rumi warned that the most impeccable food may be spoiled upon being consumed by a person himself consumed by anger, envy, resentment, or pride.

When pure food turns foul in your stomach,
lock your throat and hide the key.
But the one in whom that morsel is transformed into the light of God,
can eat anything he wants — all is lawful to him.
This one eats and only stinginess and envy result.
While that one eats and there is but the light of the One.
This one eats and only impurity comes about.
While that one eats and all becomes the Light of God.

Muhammad performed ablutions before and after meals, a reminder of the divine origin of all sustenance, which creates a mindful and receptive attitude and enables nourishment to completely reach us. Centuries later, the North African Sufi master Ibn Ata'illah hinted at the correspondence between the physical and the spiritual in this regard.

Detail from AThe Progress of the Prophet, Turkey, 16th century. Click for complete painting.
The arrival of sustenance is in accordance with receptivity,
while the raying-out of lights is in accordance with the purity of the innermost being.

The quality of food influences the inner life, either polishing or clouding the mirror of the heart. The "Greatest Shaikh," Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi, and Bahauddin Veled, a mystic and scholar who was the father of Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi, each expressed strong opinions on this matter.

Be sure that the morsel of bread that you put in your mouth is lawful. Lawful sustenance, the lawfulness of all you enjoy in this world, is the foundation of your faith.
Lawful food is the provision for the road to the world to come; unlawful is that you should stay behind and not travel that road... Whosoever eats unlawful food, his heart dies, and his religion becomes threadbare, and his faith grows weak, and his worship faints, and his prayer is denied. A morsel of food is like a seed; your eating is the sowing of that seed in the soil of your body. Consider well then what its income and its profit may be, and what its fruit. If these be what we have described, know that you have eaten unlawful food; if you perceive the opposite of this, then know that you have eaten lawful food.

Many early Sufis were particularly assiduous about the earthly source of their meals.

Sufis eat only food whose source they know.
They avoid eating the food of unjust and sinful people.
The Physician Andromakhos watches agricultural activities, Northern Iraq, 1199. Click for complete painting.

When the name of Junayd of Baghdad's teacher was mentioned to a prominent Imam, the Imam responded: "Oh, you mean the Shaikh who is well-known for his scrupulousness about food?" There is more than legalism involved in such concern. According to the 10th century "Brethren of Purity," the Ikhwan-al-Safa, beneficial or detrimental qualities of members of the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms are inherent in those creatures, and are transmitted to those that eat them. This transfer affects body and soul.

The morsel is the seed, and thoughts its fruits.
A lawful morsel in the mouth gives birth to drive to serve God,
and the resolve to go to His world.

Abu Yazid al-Bestami was an early Sufi master of the passionate or "drunken" sort who lived during the ninth century CE in northeastern Persia. It is said that he was so sensitive to the effects of questionable food that, while in the womb, whenever his mother put a doubtful morsel in her mouth, he would kick and turn until she had taken it out. Another tale of Bestami has to do with a loaf of bread given to him by a friend. Although the friend said that he had made the bread with water from the well of Zemzem, in Mecca, Abu Yazid would not eat the bread because he did not know from what seed the grain had been sowed.

The great mystic Rabi'a al-Adawiyya was known for her utter reliance upon and trust in God — tawakkul — and for her uncompromising (and cantankerous) character. This attitude caused her to scrutinize even the most apparently providential offerings.

One day Rabi'a's servant girl was making an onion stew; for it was some days since they had cooked any food. Finding that she needed some onions, she said, "I will ask of next door." "Forty years now," Rabia replied, "I have had a covenant with Almighty God not to ask for aught of any but He. Never mind the onions." Immediately a bird swooped down from the air with peeled onions in its beak and dropped them into the pan. "I am not sure this is not a trick," Rabi'a commented. And she left the onion pulp alone, and ate nothing but bread.
Detail from A Prince and a Princess Seated on a Carpet in a Golden Landscape, Persian, 1558. Click for complete painting.

Other Sufis took a different perspective. Whenever food was presented to Ma'ruf al-Kharki as a gift he always accepted and ate it. Someone said to him, "Your brother Bishr ibn al-Harith always refuses such food," and Ma'ruf replied, "Abstaining causes my brother's hands to be tied, whilst Gnosis causes my hands to be stretched forth. I am only a guest in the house of my Lord... when He feeds me, I eat; when He does not, I have to be patient. I have neither objection nor choice."

All things with physical existence eat that which also has life.

And Thou bringest forth the living out of that which is dead,
and Thou bringest forth the dead out of that which is alive.
Everything in creation is eating and being eaten.

Hence, every creature has its role in the interplay of creation. In his analysis of the writings of the Ikhwan-al-Safa, the contemporary scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr writes of the relationship between humans and the other creatures of God that serve as food:

As minerals serve plants and plants animals, so do animals in turn serve man, who therefore comes to this world later than all of them, since each has come after the kingdom upon which it depends [...] Man's evolution is [...] inward; God does not create something after man as he created man after the animals, because man, by virtue of being able to return to his origin, fulfills the purpose of the whole of creation. All other orders of beings were created in order that this final stage of reunion might take place.

Man is the link between the three kingdoms and the heavens and therefore the channel of grace for the terrestrial environment; the three kingdoms depend upon him, and man in turn has the right to make use of them [...In] the end, the only point which justifies the domination of man over the animal kingdom is that among men there are a few who become angels on earth.

Rumi described a similar dynamic in poetic terms.

Bread on the table is lifeless,
but within the body, it becomes the spirit of joy.
Its transmutation takes place not on the table,
but within a soul born in paradise.
O good reader, this is the strength of the human soul —
what must be the strength of the soul within the soul!

The quality of dinner companions has also been given much attention by Sufi teachers, for in the sharing of food there is the creation of community, sharing of tangible and subtle substance, and identification with one another.

Eating together is like being nursed together,
so you should carefully consider the persons with whom you eat.

It has been said that a person must be no less discerning in this matter than in the choice of a spiritual guide.

The heart takes a certain nourishment from every companion,
the heart is purified by every increase in understanding.
Feed your heart in conversation
with one who is harmonious with your heart.
Seek spiritual guidance from one who has traveled that path.

The question, "With whom should one share food?" challenged even Abraham, the most generous Prophet, raising the issue of balance between the qualities of compassion and discernment.

Blessed Abraham would only eat in the company of guests. Once, after three days had passed without either a guest or a meal, a man appeared at his door. When Abraham learned that he was a fire-worshipper, he refused to give him anything to eat. God reproached him on this account, saying: "Will you not give even a piece of bread to one whom I have nourished for seventy years?"
Detail from Indian miniature. Click for larger image.

Muhammad did not offer simple solutions to the matter, either. Relevant Traditions (that is, quotes and eyewitness accounts from the life of Muhammad) provide plenty of opportunity for debate.

Shaikh Nizamuddin (Auliya, of the Chishti Order) spoke of food, quoting a Tradition to the effect that, "the food one eats should come from a devout person and the one to whom one distributes food should also be devout!" Then the master observed, "One can make every possible effort to eat the food of a devout person but as for restricting the distribution of food to those who are devout, that is very difficult. If, for example, ten guests come, how is the host to know who are the devout among them?" Then he added, "I have found another Tradition in the Mashariq, and it is more hopeful. It goes as follows, "Give food to everyone, to those you do not know as well as to those you do know, that is to say, to all comers known and unknown."

Many early Sufis discouraged association with wealthy and powerful people, or from accepting food or gifts from them.

Kabir, keep the company of Saints.
For even if you must live on dry bread,
Their company is still more precious than anything else.
Nothing but evil springs from the company of worldly people
So even if rich banquets are spread out before you,
Be sure to run far from them and taste them not.

Such convictions, however, were not universally shared, and could lead to diplomatic crises. The great mystic and philosopher Ibn 'Arabi was once brought to court over a dispute over the lawfulness of a gift of food from the Almohad Sultan. 'Ibn Arabi neither accepted nor refused the gift, and did not express his opinion that it was not appropriate to eat until prompted to do so. Another who had chosen to eat the food claimed that Ibn 'Arabi had impugned his honor, and should therefore be punished. Ibn 'Arabi responded to the charge with honesty and tact, and was ultimately acquitted of any wrongdoing. Such tact involves caution in criticizing the actions of others, for the true inner state of any person is known only to God.

Portrait of a Turkman, drawing by Sadki-beg. Click for larger image.
The invitation of a dervish should not be refused, and the invitation of a rich man should not be accepted... Much wealth, however, does not make a man "rich" nor does little wealth make him "poor." No one who acknowledges that poverty is better than riches is "rich," even though he be a king; and anyone who disbelieves in poverty is "rich," even though he be reduced to want.
Is not God the most just of judges?