Sharab, Shayri aur Sufism

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clip_image002This picture sent to me by tweep @sairmir set me thinking about a subject that I had earlier read about extensively.

Ghalib himself always confessed to his weakness for wine and mocked himself for it.

“Yeh Masail-e-Tasawwuf..Yeh tera bayaan Ghalib,

Tujhe hum wali samajhte, jo na baadakhwaar hota”

(These profound philosophies that you propound Ghalib

We would have taken you for a saint if you weren’t a drunkard)

Many uninitiated fans of Urdu/Sufi poetry feel that the poets were living in a drunken stupor and produced their best poetry under the influence of wine. Though many Urdu poets such as Ghalib were very fond of wine, their allusion to wine was also on another plane.

Of course, nowadays wine is mostly used in the sense of alcohol itself.

Sharaab in Urdu comes from the Arabic word Sharb, which simply means a drink and the word sherbet in Urdu and sorbet in English originates from this word as a non-alcoholic drink while sharaab itself becomes any drink containing alcohol.

The Arabic word for wine is khamar from which the Urdu word khumaar or nasha or state of drunkenness originates or Nebidh. In fact the word for “alcohol” has origins in Arabic – الكحول (alkuHuul).

There are two types of sharaab: One is the ‘sharaab’ or wine and the other is Sharaab-e-tahoor or the mythical river of wine that flows in heaven.

From the time that Persian and Urdu poetry took shape, wine was used as a major symbol in it to allude to love/devotion to God. Just as a drunkard loses sense of himself when in the cups, a true worshipper is supposed to lose himself when his soul is intoxicated with God’s love.

There is a very famous story about Majnu, who once lost in his thoughts about Laila, walked in front of a man performing namaaz. The worshipper called out to complain that his prayers were spoilt because Majnu walked in front of him.

Majnu apologised but asked one pertinent question. He said that he was lost in his love for Leila and could not see the namaazi, how was it that a man who should be lost in the love of his maker could see him?

As Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, the Sufi saint said,

“Remember God so much

That you are forgotten.

Let the caller and

The called disappear,

Be lost in the call.”

Such should be the intoxication of love for the Divine and such love can only be explained to the layman in terms of “wine“ or “sharaab.”

Once ‘sharaab’/wine is taken as an allegory for love for the divine, it’s only a natural corollary that other things associated with it also get employed to convey the poet’s message.

So it’s a natural step that the ‘saqi’ or wine dispenser/cup bearer becomes Divine Grace and in some cases the Divine Himself. The cup which is used to pour the wine in thus becomes the drinker’s soul/body and the ‘maikhana’ or tavern becomes the world or worldly trappings of life.

As Ghalib writes:

“Mai’n aur bazm-e-mai se yoo’n tishna kaam aaoo’n,

Gar mai’n ne ki thi tauba, saqi ho Kya hua tha.”

(I and leave the gathering of wine drinkers, thirsty?

If I had given it up, what happened to the Cup Bearer?)

A very clear reference to the quality of Divine Mercy which is promised to all including Sinners.

The drinker then becomes the lover and the Divine becomes the Beloved.

“Mai se garz nishat hai kis roo-seah ko,

Ik gona bekhudi mujhe din raat chaahieye”

(Which black faced scoundrel refers to intoxication of wine?

A cup leading to total unawareness of self is all I want)

One of Ghalib’s finest verses saying that all he wants is the cup which will help him lose himself in the Beloved, the Divine.

Once the relation to the Divine is established it’s a small step to mocking and exposing the hypocrisy of the established religion with its emphasis on rituals and rigidity regarding behavioural norms.

Ghalib wrote some of his best lines at the expense of the Waaiz or preacher and Zaahid or the Abstemious One/teetotaller.

“Waaiz na khud peo, na kisi ko pila sako,

Kya baat hai tumhari sharaab-e-tahoor ki.”

(O Preacher, neither could you drink it, nor could you offer it

What is the use of your Pristine Wine?)

In this verse Ghalib questions the rigid method of reaching God through mindless prayers and rituals, which often drive people away, as opposed to simply losing oneself in His worship.

“kahaan maikhaane ka darwaaza ‘GHalib’ aur kahaan waaiz?

par itana jaante hain kal wo jaata tha ke ham nikle”

(What is the commonality between the door of the tavern, Ghalib and the preacher?

Yet I remember that yesterday he was entering as I came out.)

There are two possible meanings here, one that the Preacher is a hypocrite and in spite of preaching that wine is forbidden, he himself enters it covertly. The other is that while the sinner has already found a way to reach the Divine through losing himself in His love, the Preacher is just discovering this road.

“Zauq jo madrason ke bigre hue hain mulla

unhein maikhane le aao, sanvar jayeinge”

(Zauq those preachers, spoilt by the religious schools

Bring them to the tavern and they will improve)

This verse by Zauq seems to have been written for the present day! Today rigid teachings and narrow thought processes have restricted man’s vision and given rise to all kinds of sectarian conflicts. The ‘quality of mercy’ is indeed strained.

As Daagh Dehalvi, Ghalib’s contemporary says:

“Aashiqi se milega aey zaahid

Bandagi se Khuda nahi’n milta…”

(Oh Abstentious One, it’s through love

And not worship that you will find God)

Challenging the concept that God is confined to mosques, an unknown poet asks:

“Zaahid sharaab piine de masjid men baiTh kar

yaa vo jagah bataa jahaan par Khudaa na ho”

(O Abstentious One let me drink wine in the mosque

Or tell me of a place where God isn’t present!)

“raat pee zamzam pe mai aur subh_dam

dhoye dhab’be jaam-e-’eharaam ke” – Ghalib

(At night I drank wine from the holy Zamzam and at dawn

I washed off the stains from my dress)

(zamzam – a well in Kaaba whose water is considered holy, ‘eharaam – dress for ‘haj’)

Here the allusion is clearly to devotion and the belief that after performing Hajj all sins are supposed to have been washed away.

“meri sharaab ki kyaa qadr tujh ko ai vaaiz

jise main pii ke duaa duun vo jannatii ho jaaye” – Unknown

(O preacher, you do not know the price of my wine

The one whom I bless in a state of intoxication, becomes deserving of Heaven)

“Lutf-e-mai tujh se kya kahu’n, zahid,

Haae kambakht tu ne pi hi nahi’n.”

(How can I explain the pleasures of wine, O Abstentious One

Aah you wretched one, you have never tasted it)

How does one explain the joys of getting intoxicated in the love of the Beloved to one who insists on going by the Book? Asks Daagh Dehalvi

“ye janab-e-sheikh ka falsafa bhi alag hai saare jahan se

jo wahan piyo to halaal hai jo yahan piyo to haraam ha”

(The philosophy of the esteemed Sheikh is indeed different from the rest

If you drink there it’s legitimate, if you drink it here it’s forbidden)

Jigar Moradabadi seems to be questioning the rigidity of religious rituals, which place much importance on time and place as opposed to uninhibited, spontaneous, intoxicating love as a form of worshipping the Divine.

Sufis used qawwali as a form of inducing a state of trance or ‘haal’ or ‘samaa’ and these qawwalis employed sharaab as a symbol of love for the Divine.

Main Sharaabi by Aziz Mian also explains this concept of sharaab as devotion and love of the Divine and infallibles

“Abbas ne dariya pe shaane kata ke pee

Shabeer ne namaaz mein sar kata ke pee”

(*Abbas sacrificed his arms at the river, and drank

Shabbir sacrificed his neck in a state of namaz and drank)

(*Reference to the martyrdom of Hazrat Abbas and Imam Hussain in Karbala)

It is true that Sufis are intoxicated but that intoxication is the heady sense of feeling the presence of One True God, the eternal truth and a union with Him.

“The grapes of my body can only become wine

After the winemaker tramples me.

I surrender my spirit like grapes to his trampling

So my inmost heart can blaze and dance with joy.

Although the grapes go on weeping blood and sobbing

“I cannot bear any more anguish, any more cruelty”

The trampler stuffs cotton in his ears: “I am not working in ignorance

You can deny me if you want, you have every excuse,

But it is I who am the Master of this Work.

And when through my Passion you reach Perfection,

You will never be done praising my name.” – Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi

“Dreaming when Dawn’s Left Hand was in the Sky

I heard a voice within the Tavern cry,

Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup

Before Life’s Liquor in its Cup be dry.” – Omar Khayyam

“In Allah’s garden you gather roses,

Being drunk with divine mysteries:

Hazrat Mehboob-e-Elahi — the beloved of Allah,

O, how I long for the attar of your company.” – Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia

“O Winebringer, throw some of Your best wine in our face,

For it is time to wake up!” – Hafez

“So what if love’s idol is hidden? One’s heart will never be far away.

My guide lives many mountains away, but he is visible before me.

Whoever has one grain of love is drunk without wine.

They are true mystics, Bahu, whose graves are alive.” – Sultan Bahu

NOTE: These sms verses are not by the greats under whose names they are floated around:

2011 Ka Super Hit Msg………

Ghalib Vs Iqbal Vs Faraz Vs Wasi Vs Ayyaz


Ghalib Sharab Peene De Masjid Mein Beth Ker,

Ya Wo Jagah Bata Jahan Khuda Nahi.


Masjid Khuda Ka Ghar Hai Peene Ki Jagah Nahi,

Kafir K Dil Mein Ja Wahan Khuda Nahi.

When I had first started my journey with #shair I was taken in too.

Usman Ghani , asked me, “Apa, why would Ghalib or Iqbal use such language or metre considering their mastery over same!”

Saif Mahmood  when I told him about such shayri floating around the net had only one word to say “Astaghferullah”

So I have a request please check on


For veracity of the verses you are quoting


Note: All translations of Urdu verses done by me. The English translations of the Sufi poets have been sourced from the internet, and the links are mentioned below




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This article first published in Tehelka blogs

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