A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread — and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness —
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
As a bunch of gun-toting religious maniacs tear apart the Middle East, I’ve been thinking about this verse. It’s from Edward FitzGerald’s 19th-century translation of the 12th-century Persian poet-philosopher-mathematician Omar Khayyam’s quatrain. There have been a few rather different translations, but they seem largely to address the same thing: being with the person you love, singing songs and drinking wine.
That’s the image I tend to associate with an Islamic caliphate, although there is some argument over whether or not Khayyam was a religious Muslim: he is described as a Sufi, a member of a spiritual branch of Islam, but also as a hedonist and agnostic. But according to Remi Hauman, a Khayyam scholar, a version of that verse goes even further back, to an actual Umayyad caliph, Walîd Ibn Yazîd, who ruled briefly in AD 743 to 744:
Leave me, Sulaymâ, wine, a singing girl, and a cup. I don’t need any more possessions.
When life is pleasant in Ramlat ‘Alij, and I hold Salmâ in my arms, I would not change places with anyone.
I’ve been thinking about this because the Sunni fanatics of Isis have now called the little territory they’ve carved for themselves on the Iraq-Syria border a new Islamic State, and in fact a “caliphate”. Isis believe that Shias are heretics who should be killed, demand that all Muslims worldwide pledge allegiance to their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who they call the Caliph, and wish to impose an especially brutal form of Sharia.
“They want to build a caliphate,” says Tom Holland, the author of In the Shadow of the Sword, “and that raises the question of what they mean by that.” The original caliphate was the Islamic Arab empire that arose in the years after Mohammed’s death. And, like the Roman empire and the British empire, says Holland, it evolved over centuries – and then “invented its own backstory”, created a tale in which it was set up in the way that Mohammed was instructed by God to set up an empire. “Caliph” means “successor”: the caliphs were supposed to be the successors of the Prophet.
The Sunni/Shia divide, incidentally, stems from a disagreement over whether the caliph should be chosen by the Muslim people, as the Sunnis believe, or appointed by God.
Anyway. As the Khayyam poem suggests, the caliphates were not always what Isis would think of as Islamic. The Caliph al-Mutawakkil, we are told, was murdered by his guard after a night of heavy drinking. As well as the wine, at least one caliph, Al-Hakam II, the Caliph of Cordoba, was openly homosexual, and had a harem of boys; he only bore an heir by having a female concubine dress up in male clothes and take a male name, Jafar. According to the Encyclopedia of Medieval Iberia, in the final centuries of Islamic Spain:
…because of Christian opposition to it and because of immigration and conversion of those who were sympathetic, homosexuality took on a greater ideological role. It had an important place in Islamic mysticism and monasticism; the contemplation of the beardless youth was “an act of worship”, the contemplation of God in human form.
And the harems, the world of Scheherazade and the 1,001 Arabian Nights:
The girls sat around me, and when night came, five of them rose and set up a banquet with plenty of nuts and fragrant herbs. Then they brought the wine vessels and we sat to drink.
With the girls sitting all around me, some singing, some playing the flute, the psalter, the lute, and all other musical instruments, while the bowls and cups went round. I was so happy that I forgot every sorrow in the world, saying to myself, ‘This is the life; alas, that it is fleeting’. Then they said to me, ‘O our lord, choose from among us whomever you wish to spend this night with you’.
Of course this wouldn’t have been the whole story of an Islamic caliphate. But this is part of the story; the caliphates were not, always, harsh puritanical places, but places of learning, places of sybaritic pleasure, places of wine and song.
But, says Tom Holland, Isis aren’t interested in the historical realities as they try to make their own “Caliphate”. “They’re not interested in Omar Khayyam, they’re not interested in the real caliphates: they want to bring to light God’s plan, to restore the civilisation they believe Mohammed built in Medina.” Their image of that civilisation has no basis in historical reality, and they wouldn’t care if it did. But the real story of the caliphates is both more interesting and more complex than their simplistic, brutal vision.
No doubt it would do no good at all. But I wish someone would read Omar Khayyam to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.