Bread and Salt

Al-Harith and his companions. From Serving the Guest: A Sufi Cookbook
Kathleen Seide, 1999

Bread & Salt: The Common Bond

Bread signifies all God given provisions, the abundance in simplicity, the Giver and gift of life in its continuous flow, first things in the day, essential priorities.

A traveler on the mystic path
is content with a loaf of bread;
By its light he may be turned
towards the Light of God.
— Rumi

Aish, “life,” is one ancient Arabic term for bread; accordingly, it is treated with reverence throughout the Muslim world. Before kneading dough, the baker blesses it with “Bismillah,” and again before putting it in the oven. Mistreatment of bread is a sign of disrespect toward the Source of all sustenance. If a piece of bread is found on the ground, little time will pass before someone picks it up, kisses it, says “Bismillah,” and sets it in a safe, clean place. In most homes bread is served at every meal, and is used to scoop up food; dunk into soup, stew or tea; or roll up with cheese, olives or herbs.

Mevlana describes a journey that begins with death and ends in Love:

Buried in the earth, a kernel of wheat
is transformed into tall stalks of grain.
Crushed in the mill, its value increases and it becomes bread, invigorating to the soul.
Ground in the teeth, it becomes spirit, mind, and the understanding of reason;
Lost in Love, that spirit delights the sowers after the sowing.
— Rumi

Fermentation is the catalyst for dough’s ultimate transformation — wheat dies and is brought to life by the breath of the yeast, as all creatures die and are brought to life by the grace and breath of God. This process of transformation of wheat into bread is a microcosm of the process of spiritual development in the Sufi tradition — inshallah, the death of concern with individual desires, resulting in the alignment of human will with Divine will, and the evolution of a human life into one well capable of consciously fulfilling its purpose of service to creation.

Salt is one of the most ancient preservatives, signifying incorruptibility, perpetuity, and purification; it is an emblem of the intention which gives significance to action.

The lovers of God go into the salt and are made entirely pure —
This spiritual salt made Muhammad more refined than all others…
This salt survives in his heritage; his heirs are with you. Seek them!
— Rumi
When the dead ass fell into the salt-mine,
it left behind its asininity and mortality.
— Rumi
Free will is the salt of devotion; otherwise, it would have no merit.
— Rumi

The symbolic significance of salt runs deep in the traditions of the People of the Book. The covenant between God and the Jews was a covenant of salt, ritually remembered with salt.

All the holy offerings which the children of Israel offer unto the Lord, I have given thee, and thy sons and thy daughters with thee, by a statute for ever: it is a covenant of salt for ever before the Lord…
— Numbers 18:19
Thou shalt not suffer the salt of the covenant of thy God to be lacking from thy meat offering: with all thine offerings thou shalt offer salt.
— Leviticus 2:13

On the road from Galilee to Jerusalem, Jesus reprimanded his argumentative disciples, invoking the metaphor of salt:

For every one shall be salted with fire, and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt. Salt is good: but if the salt have lost his saltiness, wherewith will ye season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace one with another.
— Mark 9:49-50

Until recently, salt has been a precious commodity, rare and irreplaceable. Retrieved from the sea and from the depths of the earth, only a little is needed to transform and bring life to the flavor of food. No more than a little salt is needed to keep a living organism alive — and that little is absolutely necessary. Water constitutes close to 75% of the human body, salt less than 1%. That salt carries an electrical charge that maintains homeostasis, the fluid balance of the cells. Without it, water would flow through cell membranes uncontrolled, and they would burst.

This microcosm of cellular life reflects a subtler reality. All creatures are emanations of the creative power of God, the boundless ocean of Unity. The salt that we share with the earth — physical existence — gives rise to the compelling illusion of separation which the Sufi seeks to overcome, yet at the same time it is a gift, a mercy, and a creation of God. It is the boundary without which we cannot be whole in the physical world or in our human interactions.

And He it is who has given freedom of movement to the two great bodies of water — the one sweet and thirst-allaying, and the other salty and bitter — and yet has wrought between them a barrier and a forbidding ban.
And He it is who out of this very water has created man…
— Surah 25:53-54

…I am the drop that contains the ocean.
Its waves are amazing. It’s beautiful to be a sea
hidden within an infinite drop.
— Yunus Emre

Mountains and streams. Persian, 1398.

Together, Mother bread and Father salt encompass the work of civilization — sowing, harvesting, milling; leavening and baking of grain; seeking and gathering salt from the sea and earth; trade and commerce in salt. Together they symbolize effort, creativity, intelligence and wisdom, and the cooperation that is necessary to bring them to the table and to keep peace in the world.

Islamic traditions of the esoteric bonding power of bread and salt date back to the early days of the Qur’anic revelation. It is said that a shared mouthful of bread was the meal shared by disciples of Jesus, in answer to their prayer for a sign of God’s acceptance of their faith.

And, lo, the white-garbed ones said: “O Jesus, son of Mary!
Could thy Sustainer send down unto us a repast from heaven?”
Jesus answered: “Be conscious of God, if you are truly believers.!”
Said they: “We desire to partake thereof, so that our hearts might be set fully at rest, and that we might know that thou hast spoken the truth to us, and that we might be of those who bear witness thereto!”

Said Jesus, the son of Mary: “O God, our Sustainer! Send down upon us a repast from heaven: it shall be an ever-recurring feast for us — for the first and last of us
and a sign from Thee.
And provide us our sustenance, for Thou art the best of providers!”
— Surah 5:112-114

The hadith al-luqma was a tradition in which the knowledge of God was transmitted by means of a mouthful of bread, passed from Hasan al-Basri through a line of early Sufis down to Mansur al-Hallaj:

I entered the house of my shaikh who gave me a mouthful, saying I entered the house of my shaikh who gave me a mouthful, saying I entered the house of my shaikh who gave me a mouthful… Eat this which we give you for your well-being, for we may have partaken of the meal of the holy people, the custodians of graces; we have therefore shared in this blessing; you share, too, therefore, in their blessing.
— Mansur al-Hallaj

At the second trial of Hallaj for heresy, testimony was offered that a piece of miraculously preserved bread found in a basket belonging to him was, in fact, the holy luqma of that tradition. It is said that Muinuddin Chishti received his initiation in the same manner.

One day Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti was attending his Shaikh, Ibrahim Qandozi, and offered him the choicest bunch of grapes from his garden. The Shaikh ate them and with the most profound affection took out a piece of bread from his wallet, chewed it and gave it to Khwaja Muinuddin. No sooner had Muinuddin eaten the bread than his heart was filled with divine illumination. This bread imparted to him, in an instant, all spiritual knowledge, and he at once resolved to renounce all his worldly possessions.
— Chishti tradition

Such traditions are a symbolic basis for the sacred regard given shared meals in the dervish orders, and for the reputation of bread as fundamentally consecrated food. They are echoed in the Mevlevi initiation rituals described by the 17th century traveler Evliya Efendi.

The principles and statutes of all the orders are traced back to the Prophet, and from the Prophet through Gabriel to God. The regulation given by the Prophet is, that when any one is found worthy of being received into an order, all the elders assemble, eat the morsel lokma, and examine the candidate, who is to be directed in the ways of God… If he is found not to be ripe, all the Sheikhs speak the truth about it, and he is obliged to undergo a service of a thousand and one days as a trial, by which he is to be ripened into perfection… Among the instructions of initiation, the candidate is told, “Do not betray the rights of salt and bread.” After the ceremony, the novice advances towards the kitchen, where all the Elders bring to him the sweetmeat called risalokmassi, the morsel of resignation.
— Evliya Efendi

Evliya himself was blessed with a lokma when he was an infant.

The Sheikh of the convent of the Mevlevis at Kassem-;pasha, named Abdi Dedeh, took a bit of bread out of his venerable mouth, and put it in mine, saying, “May he be fostered with the morsels of the fakirs.”
— Evliya Efendi

Due to its consecrated nature, bread traditionally carries with it the blessing power of baraka, particularly when, as above, it is offered by one of exceptional spiritual merit. The traveler Ibn Jubair described a scene from 12th century Damascus:

When the pilgrims returned to the city, a vast concourse of men and women went forth to meet them, shaking their hands and touching them, giving dinars to the poor amongst them, and offering them food. One who witnessed it told me that many women met pilgrims and gave them bread which if they bit the women would snatch from their hands and hasten to eat it in order that they might be blessed in the pilgrims’ having tasted it.
— Ibn Jubair

Baraka can also be conveyed through bread, or any other food, that has been prepared in a sacred place.

Four parasangs north of Mecca is a place called Je’rana, where Mohammad was with his army. On the 16th of Dhu’l Qa’da, he donned the ehram and came from there to Mecca to make a minor pilgrimage. There are two wells there, one called Bir al-Rasul (the Well of the Apostle) and the other Bir ‘Ali ebn Abi-Taleb (Ali’s Well)… Nearby is a small hill with bowl-like depressions in the rock. It is said that the Prophet kneaded dough with his own hands in those depressions. For this reason people go there and knead dough with water from those wells. Kindling is gathered from the many trees about, and bread is baked to be taken back home as a blessing.

Whenever Nizamuddin Auliya was asked for a token of baraka, he offered morsels of the bread baked in the kitchen of his khanqah; such bread came to acquire a phenomenal reputation. It is said that when Qazi Muhiyuddin Kashani was imprisoned, he sent the Shaikh a message asking him to pray for his release. The Shaikh sent him three loaves of bread, instructing him to eat one each day. On the third day, Muhiyuddin was released from the prison.

The sharing of bread and salt is a traditional basis of hospitality, a rite of friendship which nullifies antagonism and creates an indissoluble mutual obligation of protection.

In gratitude for your bread and salt,
I must preserve you from all danger.
— Rumi

In one of Mevlana’s stories, Pharaoh invoked the bond of bread and salt to defend himself against Moses’ painful criticism. In another story from the Mathnawi, a guest, surprised at a servant’s anger toward him, asks:

…Did he not share bread and salt with us?
Every hostility must have its cause; otherwise, our shared humanity would call for faithfulness in friendship.
— Rumi

Hujwiri, in his writings on adab, stated dervishes “should not eat alone […] and should begin by saying ‘Bismillah,’ and should dip the first mouthful in salt.”

Turkish Sufis of the 14th and 15th centuries drank salted water as a ritual of initiation. The bond of salt established in the Mevlevi initiation was reaffirmed with each communal meal in the tekke, which began and ended with each dervish taking a taste of salt from a common dish. The Nimatullahi Order’s adab of the sofreh (an eating cloth) requires that salt be the first thing placed on the sofreh, followed by bread, then the rest of the meal; the meal begins and ends with a bite of salt.

There is a large stone bowl at the head of the tomb of Ateshbaz-i-Veli, Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi’s personal cook. The bowl is filled with salt, and visitors to the tomb traditionally carry away a handful. Brought home to their own kitchens and tables, the salt is a sign of spiritual power and a reminder that human beings share spiritual and material substance and sustenance not only with their contemporaries, but with the companions and teachers who came before them.


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2 thoughts on “Bread and Salt

  1. thesevenminds December 5, 2014 at 9:46 pm Reply

    Interesting article, but I do not have the time to research it anytime soon. I will do some esoteric Islam next year, if it adds up it could make the list.

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