Intoxicants in the Islamic World: A Rich and Telling History

Every society has its own views about drugs. For example, there once was a land—and not in a fairytale—where you could take all the narcotics you wanted but drinking a cup of coffee or smoking a cigarette carried the death penalty. That’s hard for us to conceive of in the US, where many Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are fueled by coffee and cigarettes—neither nicotine nor caffeine is considered a relapse, even though they are drugs. The reality is that throughout history, substances have been demonized not due to any inherent property, intoxicating or otherwise, but, rather, due to social values. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Islamic societies—we’ll look at the Arab Nation, Turkey and Iran—and their richly diverse views of intoxicants over the centuries.

The Arab Nation: from Morocco to Egypt to Iraq

The heyday of the Arab-ruled Islamic empire began with Muhammad’s conquest of Mecca in Saudi Arabia in 630 AD; it lasted through three dynasties spreading out all the way to Spain on the west and Pakistan on the east at the height of its power in the 9th century. The great prophet Muhammad began writing the Qur’an, or Koran—Islam’s central religious text—in 610 and ended with his death in 632. Like the Bible, the work contains many prohibitions on behavior, especially the pleasure-seeking kind, including, of course, intoxicants. Early verses of the Qur’an praise wine: “And from the fruits of the palm trees and grapevines you take intoxicant and good provision. Indeed in that is a sign for a people who reason.” But later verses condemn it: “Satan only wants to cause between you animosity and hatred through intoxicants and gambling and to avert you from the remembrance of Allah and from prayer. So will you not desist?”

Why the contradiction? Many scholars believe that Muhammad saw no need to condemn alcohol in his younger days, but later became so disgusted with one of his uncle’s drunken antics that he reversed course. Oral tradition states that he prohibited alcohol after his conquest of the holy city of Mecca in 620. After his death, rulers of the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750) paid little heed to the prohibition and engaged in drunken debauchery. The next rulers, the Abbasid Caliphate (750-517), took the prohibition more seriously. The oral traditions of the life of Muhammad (known as hadiths), which were first written down by the Abbasids, tell us that anyone drinking wine should be flogged with 40 or 80 lashes; anyone caught drinking wine a fourth time should be put to death.

Muhammad made no mention of opium or cannabis. However, starting in the eighth century, Arabs developed a healthy trade in opium—it was portable, valuable and not perishable—and over the centuries wrote many learned texts on the drug.

Coffee was first discovered in Ethiopia; legend has it that a goatherd found his goats eating some strange berries that made them so lively that he could not catch them. The substance had made its way to the Arab Nation by the 15th century, and in 1511 the first Islamic ban on coffee, by the governor of Mecca, shut down all the coffee houses. But his superior, the sultan of Cairo, soon stepped in and overruled the governor.

– Read the entire article at Substance.