Cannabis has a tradition of use in the Near East that stretches back farther than recorded history, and it has served the Arab people as an initiator and healing medicine for at least six millennia.
Unlike alcohol, cannabis was not prohibited by Mohammed (570-632 AD). Many Moslems have used and praised marijuana over the centuries, and coffeehouses that served the drug were at one time commonplace. Some have even suggested that Mohammed himself was a secret imbiber of the herb, noting the prophet’s shamanistic out of body flight to Mecca.
In his 1988 book Essays in Islamic Heresy, Peter Wilson writes how “cannabis inspires some of its devotees with precisely the sort of ‘state’ which the Koran appears to associate with paradisal wine, which ’causes no headaches,’ and enhances the play of love with houris and cup-boys.”
In his 1987 book The Assassins; Holy Killers of Islam, Edward Burman writes that “hashish has an ancient and accepted importance in the history of Persian mysticism, where it has traditionally been used not as a stimulant but as a spiritual soporific, producing a quiescence of the soul which is known as keyf or kaif, which translates as intoxication, carouse or placid enjoyment…”
Although it is generally prohibited in Islamic countries today, at different times many Moslems have seen cannabis as a holy plant. Medieval Arab doctors considered cannabis a useful medicine, calling it kannab among other names. Yet like the establishment of today, the ancient Arab elite viewed marijuana with suspicion, seeing it as a subversive element that usurped the work ethic and seduced the youth away from their orthodox heritage.
As early as the 13th century, government troops in Cairo were sent into battle against cannabis, eradicating fields and punishing offenders, in some cases extracting the teeth of users and putting dealers to death. Yet despite these harsh reforms, the public refused to give up their beloved keyf, and through intervening centuries it became somewhat culturally accepted.
Part of the reason for cannabis’ eventual prohibition in some Moslem countries had to do with the drug’s association with certain heretical sects that existed on the fringes of Islam. The Sufis were one such group they originated in the 8th century and are referred to by cannabis historian Ernest Abel as “the hippies of the Arab world.” The Sufis used hashish, along with wine and coffee, to stimulate mystical consciousness and appreciation of the nature of Allah.
(The Sufis are actually considered to be the inventors of the drink coffee, which they would consume in potent brews that enabled them to stay up for hours singing and chanting. An Arabic story records how a wandering Sufi revealed the drink’s preparation to a Moslem woman, brewing a pot over his hash-filled hookah.)
Cannabis was made into a chewy medicinal confection called ma’joun, and to the Sufis eating hashish was an act of worship. The benefits they claimed from their use of hashish included otherwise unattainable insights into themselves, as well as laughter, happiness, reduced anxiety, reduced worry, and increased music appreciation. But most importantly, as the Sufi al-Is’irdi noted, was the “secret” of the drug, which permits “the spirit to ascend to the highest points in a heavenly ascension of disembodied understanding.” It was for this reason that many of the more mystically inclined of the Sufi preferred cannabis over wine.
In Essays in Islamic Heresy, Wilson explains that “The Turkish Sufi poet Fuzuli… wrote a treatise on Bang and Wine in which he claimed that wine is merely ‘an eager disciple setting the world afire,’ but hashish is the Sufi master himself. Wine shows the way to the hermitage of the Shaykh of Love… but hashish is the refuge itself. Once a certain Sufi of Basra began to consume hashish regularly, his shaykh realized this meant he had reached the ultimate degree of perfection, and no longer stood in need of guidance. This (says Fuzuli) ‘proves that hashish is the perfect being, sought after by mankind with great eagerness. It may not be the perfect being for everybody, but it most certainly is for the seeker of mystical experience.’”
According to legend, hashish was first introduced to the Sufis by Shayk Haydar, (1155-1221), the Persian founder of one of their religious sects. The story has it that after years of silent recluse, Haydar one day decided to leave his monastery. While walking in the desert, he noticed a plant that seemed to sparkle and shiver as it basked in the still desert heat. Wondering what this mysterious plant was, he felt compelled to taste of its leaves and flowers.
Usually a reserved and silent man, when he returned to his monastery afterwards his disciples were amazed at how talkative and animated he seemed. Cajoling Haydar into telling them what he had done to make himself so happy, his disciples ran off into the desert to try the magical plant for themselves.
Upon the return of the plant’s new devotees, Haydar made them take an oath to refrain from revealing the mystery of the herb, telling them “God has granted you the privilege of knowing the secret of these leaves. Thus when you eat it, your dense worries may disappear and your exalted minds may become polished.”
After living another ten years as the Sufi’s psychedelic shaykh, subsisting mainly on cannabis preparations, Haydar passed on, leaving the request that seeds of his holy plant be sown around his tomb, so that even in death he might enjoy the shade of its leaves and scent of its flowers.
The Green Prophet
With this history, it is not surprising to find that cannabis had its own mythical prophet in the Arab world, as noted by Joseph Campbell over a century ago, in his epic 1894 study for the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission, On The Religion of Hemp: “To the follower of Islam the holy spirit in bhang… is the spirit of the great prophet Khizr, or Elijah.” That bhang should be sacred to Khizr is natural, as Khizr means green, the revered color of the cooling water of bhang. So the Urdu poet sings “When I quaff fresh bhang I liken its color to the fresh light down of thy youthful beard.”
Islam inherited Khizr from many earlier myths, as can be seen from stories that associate him with such luminary figures as Moses and Alexander the Great.
By medieval times he came to represent the type of esoteric knowledge which breaks the trance of everyday existence through shock, usually in the form of outrage, laughter, or both at once.
Wilson explains that Khizr was seen as “the initiator of Sufis who have no human master.” In the 1990 book Green Man, William Anderson describes Khizr as “the voice of inspiration to the true aspirant and committed artist. He can come as a white light or the gleam of a blade of grass, but more often as an inner mood. The sign of his presence is the ability to work or experience with tireless enthusiasm beyond one’s normal capacities.”
In his 1993 book Sacred Drift, Essays on the Margins of Islam, Peter Wilson writes “When you say the name of Khezr in company you should always add the greeting Salaam aliekum! since he may be there… immortal and anonymous, engaged on some karmic errand. Perhaps he’ll hint of his identity by wearing green, or by revealing knowledge of the occult and hidden. But he’s something of a spy, and if you have no need to know he’s unlikely to tell you. Still, one of his functions is to convince skeptics of the existence of the Marvelous, to rescue those who are lost in deserts of doubt and dryness. So he’s needed now more than ever, and surely still moves among us playing his great game.”
Originally a sort of vegetation spirit in whose footprints plants and flowers were said to magically sprout, Wilson explains that “nowadays Khezr might well be induced to reappear as the patron of modern militant eco-environmentalism? Khadirian Environmentalism would rejoice simultaneously both in [Nature’s] utter wildness and its ‘meaningfulness.’ Nature as tajalli (the ‘shining through’ of the divine into creation; the manifestation of each thing as divine light), Nature as an aesthetic of realization.”
With the wealth of esoteric lore, environmental products and medicines sprouting from the renaissance of his beloved cannabis, it seems that Khizr is once again trying to communicate to humanity through his most holy of plants.
Interestingly, there are legends of Khizr in which he is dismembered and reborn. As well, certain prophecies connect him with the end of time and the revealing of esoteric truths.
The Green Prophet Khizr’s feast day is April 23. On April 23, 1993, when Vancouver experienced its first major smoke-in since the 1971 Grasstown Police Riot, the organizers of the event had absolutely no idea that this was the feast day of the patron saint of cannabis.
On April 23, 1997, when the Senate of Canada proudly released an announcement stating: “Senator Lorna Milne… today praised the Senate Finance committee for persuading the government to expedite regulations permitting the
cultivation of hemp in Canada,” the politicians were unaware of the implications of this most auspicious day.
On April 23, 1999, a government-appointed panel in Switzerland officially recommended that the government legalize the sale and use of Khizr’s sacred plant.
Another curiously synchronistic example is found in the works of pot-smoking gnostic guru Robert Anton Wilson. In Wilson’s newest Illuminatus book, Bride of the Illuminatus, he has an event take place in Vancouver, BC, on April 23, 2003, that leads to North America splitting into Christian and Non-Christian States.
Perhaps in these coincidences one can see the handy work of Khizr, the spirit of keyf working behind the scenes and speaking through his holy plant on his sacred day? So this April 23, why not take a moment to plant a seed, or light a sacred spliff in honour of pot’s patron saint?
Salaam aliekum Khizr, wherever you are!
-|-Haydar’s Emerald cup
Give up wine and drink from the wine of Haydar,
Amber scented, green the color of emerald.
It is presented to you by a Turkish gazelle, slender,
Swaying like a willow bough, delicate.
In his hand, you would think, as he turns it,
It is like the traces of down on a rosy cheek.
The slightest breeze makes it reel,
And it flutters toward the coolness of the continuing breeze.
The grayish pigeons coo upon its branches in the morning.
And the cadences of the warbling doves cause it emotion.
It has many meanings the like of which are unknown to wine.
Therefore do not listen with respect to it to the words of the old censor.
It is virginal, not deflowered by rain,
Nor has it ever been squeezed by feet or hands,
No Christian priest has ever played around with a cup containing it,
Nor have they ever communion from its cask to any heretic’s soul…
Nothing has been said expressly from Malik to declare it unlawful,
Nor is the hadd penalty for its use… prescribed…
Thus take it with the sharp edge of steel.
Stay the hands of worry with kyff and achieve joyful repose.
Do not lightly postpone the day of joy till tomorrow.
‘The days will show you what you were ignorant of,
And someone for who you did not provide (to serve as your
messenger) will bring you the news’
– medieval Sufi poet, Ibn al-A’ma