An Arab Meas

by

Forester Nigel FitzMaurice

    The Muslim attitude toward alcoholic spirits is well known, and of old date. Proscriptions in the Qur’an against the imbibing of wine occur several times in very specific and uncompromising terms. Therefore, I was greatly surprised and interested to unearth in  the course of research into early cordials a Muslim recipe for what is clearly a variety of mead (or, more properly, a sort of sack pyment).
    The recipe occurs in the Aqrabadhin of Al-Kindi, a medicinal formulary of the 9th century CE, written by an eminent Baghdad philosopher, Abu Yusuf Ya'qub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi (c. 800-870). Al-Kindi wrote a great many treatises on a wide variety of topics; from sorcery, astrology and medicine, to cooking, mathematics and swordsmithing, to name just a few. The Aqrabadhin itself has survived intact, and has been copied and distributed widely throughout the Middle East; its influence has been great in Medieval medical practice, both in the Levant and in Europe.
    What follows is a redaction of the recipe. What has been modified are the measurements, which have been recast into modern equivalents. Additionally, some of the ingredients have been simplified (e.g., the original recipe calls for .11 oz. of cardamom and .11 oz. of lesser cardamom, and specifies Ceylonese as the variety of cinnamon referred to).

  Five gallons of the best juice from pulp of the grape is taken. It is cooked over a low fire until its foam disappears. Then eight pounds of the best genuine honey is put in. It is boiled over a low fire until its foam also disappears. One half of it evaporates. Then .22 ounce is taken of…

Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum)

             and .10 ounce each of…

Cinnamon (Cinnamomum  zeylanicum)
Clove (Caryophyllus aromaticus)
Long pepper (Piper retrofractum)

   (They are)  well pulverized and put into a fine linen cloth. Then it is thrown into the decoction after the froth has been removed. When the cooking is over, it is possible to introduce the hand into it. The powder is macerated into it strongly. It is taken out and .33 ounce of Saffron put into (the liquid). It is put into flasks and the tops are stoppered. After a little sun is allowed on it, one may use it. The older it gets, the better, Allah willing.

    I'm not surprised that "the older it gets, the better", the real question in my mind is why he doesn't warn that the flasks would likely explode after a few days. Perhaps if one did not tightly seal the stoppers, fermentation gasses could escape without violence. The point to all of this is that grape pulp is an excellent source of natural yeast and, under the conditions as described in the recipe, fermentation of the honey would be a likely, though not absolutely certain,  result. The only thing that would prevent it, in fact, would be the boiling process. But that is described as from a “low fire”, and it is not unreasonable that enough yeast would survive to take advantage of conditions afterward.
    What this describes, therefore, is a type of mead that technically would be a sack pyment. Pyments are meads utilizing grape juice as a base. (Other varieties are Braggot, a combination of a grain base such as ale with honey; Cyser, a blend of apple and honey; Melomel, a blend of fruit juices other than apple, grape, or mulberry with honey; Metheglin, an herbal mead; and Morat, a mulberry-honey mix). A variety is called a “Sack” if it contains an extra amount of honey or other sweetener; eight pounds of honey to five gallons of grape juice certainly qualifies this as a sack.
    The significance in all this, aside from the value and interest in the recipe itself, is the light it sheds on the Muslim attitude toward intoxicants. It is generally assumed that because of the Qur’an’s strongly negative stance, that intoxicants of all sorts are banned, or at minimum heavily restricted. To a large extent this is accurate. Yet, the above recipe shows that the situation is considerably more ambiguous than what is seen at first glance. Within the sphere of medicine, a great deal more leeway can be drawn on than permitted in general society. Further evidence of this can be seen in other Muslim medicinal formularies which comment on sakanjubin (known in the West as oxymel), a compound of vinegar, honey, and any of a variety of herbs, spices,  or other flavoring agents. Sakanjubins have been used for a very long time in the Near East as tonics, restoratives, and elements in more complex medicines. I assumed when I first approached the subject that the vinegars prescribed would be non-alcoholic in source, but that turned out not to be the case. Almost invariably, vinegar used for manufacturing sakanjubin is described as “wine vinegar”.
    What the Qur’an prohibits is khamt, which is normally translated as “wine”. In the three verses of the Qur’an in which the word occurs, it is always linked to a similar prohibition against gambling. The clear implication is that what is being thundered against is drunken, riotous behavior. Therefore, a devout Muslim could utilize the above recipe with at least two valid excuses. The first being that it isn’t khamt, for it is made from honey; and the second being that it is a tonic, and not being used to get drunk with or as an adjunct to a gambling session. Similarly, wine vinegar can be used, since it isn’t khamt either, it is vinegar. It may go through a wine-like stage in manufacture, but it ends up as something else.
 If all this seems like egregious hair-splitting, well, you’re right, it is. But it’s the sort of casuistry that people have performed over and over again in order to make life a bit more tolerable.

Addenda:

    This brief paper has garnered by far the most correspondence of the five I have on the Web (the other for are linked to below). Most response has been positive, or at least curious, some has been critical. The critics, one and all, object to the presentation of material which might seem to suggest that Muslims used alcohol; further, there are objections that the recipe wouldn't produce alcohol because the process would kill off any yeast.
    Well, let me clarify a bit. I do not suggest in the paper, nor would I say now, that this is a deliberate attempt to produce a honey-based alcoholic beverage. Any fermentation that took place would be accidental and unintentional. I do understand that boiling would likely kill off any yeast, but I'd like to point out that the verb translated as "boil" can also be used for "simmer", especially when used in conjunction with a "low fire" - some yeast, I contend, might survive; it'd only take one. Also, there is a period of time after preparation but before sealing in which ambient yeast could drift in. The possibility, however rare, exists; and if yeast did contaminate such a preparation, a meadlike liquid would quickly develop.
    The paper is intended as a slightly light-hearted glance at a recipe which, I feel, has a potential to ferment under admittedly rare circumstances. I use this as a vehicle to highlight the fact that Quranic thunderings against alcohol are rather a bit more ambiguous than is generally recognized, and the concomitant point that there will always be a bit of dissonance between formal doctrine and everyday practice. That is all, really, and concerns that I am suggesting that Muslim civilizations produced mead in bulk quantities, or that I am not very well aware of the physics of fermentation and brewing in regards yeast-friendly or yeast-hostile environments, are misplaced.

Sources:

Gayre, G. Robert and Charlie Papazian. Brewing Mead. Brewers Publications, Boulder, Colorado, 1986. A combined text which includes Gayre’s Wassail! In Mazers of Mead  (first published in 1948), a history and description of honey-based beverages, and Papazian’s Brewing Mead, a recipe pamphlet on several basic sorts of mead.

The Holy Qur’an (commentaries by Maulana Muhammed Ali). Ahmadiyyah Anjuman Isha’at Islam, Lahore, Pakistan, 1973. A bilingual edition of the Qur’an, giving the English version in one column with the original Arabic in the other column; with extensive commentaries and an index.

Levey, Martin. The Medical Formulary, or Aqrabadhin, of Al-Kindi. Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1966. This version contains, aside from explanatory notes and indices of materia and foreign terms, the complete text of the original. A translation is presented on each page, and the facing page contains a photograph of the original document, showing the Arabic.

Levey, Martin and Noury al-Khaledy. The Medical Formulary of Al-Samarqandi. Philadelphia, Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1967. A translation of a medical formulary written in the early 13th century CE, which devotes a chapter to sakanjubins, syrups, and the like.

Lust, John. The Herb Book. Bantam Books, New York. 1974. A detailed reference guide to a wide  variety of medicinal herbs and botanicals.

Renfrow, Cindy. A Sip Through Time (privately published) 1997. A very useful guide and recipe collection to a wide variety of alcoholic preparations.

Read similar papers:

Five Arabic Elixers A short paper on several 9th century Iraqi medicinal preparations which could easily be the basis for basic cordials. This is the same formulary noted in the above paper, and contains that recipe, with the original measuring units given.
Precious Waters: A Miscellany of Early Cordials A longer paper detailing a number of 14th century English medicinal recipes that have cordial-like characteristics. Includes one very explicit recipe for Aqua Vite, with directions on how to distill it.
A Recipe for Spiced Wine A brief commentary on a claree recipe found in a late-13th century Anglo-Norman manuscript.
Sakanjubins and Oxymels A short review of these non-alcoholic preparations found throughout the Middle East. This paper is the basis for a class I teach on the topic.

Contact the author? obsidian@raex.com.
Here is his SCA Homepage.