Hashish and other psychoactive substances in the Islamic World

CANNABIS CULTURE – While there are a number of local differences, the use of cannabis with a varying intensity has had a time-honored role in many Muslim countries. Mystic use of cannabis continued in Persia through the late Zoroastrian period and into the early Islamic times. The earlier use and its continuation in the early Islamic period is attested to in many texts reviewed here. Its use during the Zoroastrian period was strictly prohibited from anyone but the most elite members of that society and subjected to much secrecy surrounding its use, contributing to misunderstandings. Most of the more mystical branches of Islam adopted the use of cannabis, but this ancient religious use of cannabis use is currently generally met with disbelief and disdain. Colonial control of the Middle East and India by the British imposed their views and norms, punishing Sufis who used cannabis products, further driving this entheogenic substance from practice and public view.

In our modern day people have been executed for smuggling hashish into Islamic countries, and the Koranic bans on alcohol are often interpreted as a religious prohibition on all intoxicants. However this has not always been the case, and in past centuries there have been at times tolerance for cannabis, opium and other intoxicating substances, even embracement.

This can be particularly traced when following the history of cannabis through Islamic culture, especially the history of Hashish, which will be the focus of this essay, although other drugs will come into play as well.

The popular and widely used Arabic term “hashish” is itself a nickname believed to have been derived from a more general word meaning “herb”, and was applied to hemp resin products in the same way the generic “grass” came to refer to cannabis in the 20th century.  “Most likely, it may may be simply ‘the herb’ as distinguished from all other (medicinal) herbs” (Rosenthal, 1971). Translations of other Medieval Islamic names for cannabis products include “the one that cheers”, “little morsel”, “shrub of emotion”, “shrub of understanding”, “peace of mind”, “girlfriend”, “the one that facilitates digestion”, “the pleasing one”, “visit of the green Khidr”, “the one that connects the heart”, “provisions”, “branches of bliss”, “thought morsel”, “the one that lightens the load”, “medicine”, “holy Jerusalem”, “sugary”, “pill”, “the pretty one”, “medicinal powder”, “theriac” (heal-all), “peacocks tail”, “consolation”, “the one that causes good appetite”, “the one that softens the temperaments”, “the one that brings the party together”, “the little agent”, “amber scented” “from Zion”, “emerald mine” (Rosenthal, 1971, pg 41).

This rich variety of epithets bears evidence of the long and magical history of hemp products in the Arab world, and this widespread popularity is due to the fact that cannabis is not explicitly prohibited like alcohol in the Koran. Early Islamic commentators “never failed to remark on the fact that hashish is not mentioned in the Qur’an or the old Prophetic traditions, nor were they able to find any express reference to it in the name of the four legal schools” (Rosenthal, 1971). page 41

While there are a number of local differences, the use of cannabis with a varying intensity has had a time-honoured role in many Muslim countries. This is in contrast to the use of alcohol which, from the religious point of view, became the prime forbidden intoxicant…. There are many reports… that hashish was also used in medical preparations… [It has been] suggested that the interpretation of the Quranic law on intoxicants might have been more tolerant towards the use of drugs such as opium and hashish because of the paucity of means of relieving pain in the medieval Muslim world.  (Palgi, 1975) page 208

As a result of this lack of clarity about the morality of its use, cannabis has been surrounded in controversy and thus a matter of debate in Islamic society since very early times, with devotees of the plant in some areas and periods enjoying the widest freedoms, and other times the severest of penalties for its use. In The Herb: Hashish versus Medieval Muslim Society, Franz Rosenthal discusses a number of medieval Islamic poems and stories regarding Islam and cannabis, some accounts arguing that unlike alcohol its use was condoned by Quranic law and by others, that along with all intoxicants Muhammad condemned it, (Rosenthal, 1971).

Once hashish consumption had become a widespread and debated custom, there was much discussion among Muslim scholars and other interested parties about its history… The theories put forward range from the fanciful to the strong semblance of fact… The samples preserved in literature make us suspect that there was once much more which went unrecorded and that the legal and political struggle over the drug was accompanied by arguments derived from history favouring one side or the other. (Rosenthal, 1971, pg 72)

As Rosenthal explained, it “is even possible that some authorities who denounce the use of drugs in the strongest terms were secret addicts or at least had some actual drug experience that informed their judgement” (Rosenthal, 1971).


At times of the strictest prohibition the user was criminally culpable but not condemned with death, as were those “heretics’ who tried “declared the use of hashish lawful and permissible.” Such figures were to be refused funeral prayers and Muslim burials. “When the government decided to proceed energetically against the use of drugs, severe penalties were demanded and apparently imposed. This included the death penalty. In the thirteenth century, Baybars prohibited the consumption of wine and hashish and invoked the sword as punishment… for it. In the latter part of the fourteenth century, Sudun ash-Shaykhuni punished people accused of making hashish with the extraction of their molars, and many suffered this fate…” (Rosenthal, 1971, pg 128-129).

Despite these harsh attempts at prohibition, in medieval times hashish use was surprisingly widespread. Rosenthal, citing Fuzuli (1483-1556) wrote that in the late medieval period, “Hashish can claim to be the friend of dervishes and to be available in the corner of every mosque and among all kinds of scholars” (Rosenthal, 1971).

When this use entered Islam begs the question….


Some have suggested that Hashish and cannabis were virtually unknown for the first few centuries of the Moslem history, and did not become popular till the 12th century. However, although not known to the masses, there are clear indications that some mystic use of cannabis had continued on in Persia through the late Zoroastrian period and into the early Islamic times, although this needed to be cloaked in secrecy.

Edward G. Browne suggested in A Chapter from the History of Cannabis Indica, that use of hemp preparations in the area extended from Zoroastrian times to the 19th century: “Cannabis Indica… appears to have been known in Persia in very early times, as students of the ancient Zoroastrian scriptures assert, allusion is made to it in the Avesta… At the present day it is extensively used here… as the inspirer of the wildest pantheistic speculations, the most disordered metaphysical phantasies, and the most incredible visions and ecstasies. (Browne, 1897) Browne, 1897;2004, pg. 367

As others have noted, “the use of the intoxicating drugs was already known in pre-Muhammadan times under Khusraw Parwez, [ruled 590-623 A.D.]” (Houtsma, et al., 1936/1993). Khusraw Parwez was a Sassanian King who ruled from 590-628 A.D.. “Mazdean tradition… condemns him as an unjust tyrant, responsible for the decline of the religion and the empire” (Yar-Shater, 1983).The 19th century botanist William Dymock also referred to the Persian tradition regarding the introduction of cannabis during the reign of the Sassanian king, Khusraw, but held the view that the use of cannabis in the area was much more ancient: “According to tradition, the use of hemp as an intoxicant was first made known in Persia by Birarslan, an Indian pilgrim, in the reign of Khusru [sic.] the First… but… its injurious properties appear to have been known long before that date” (Dymock, 1893, pg 321). Thus even in the end period of the Zoroastrian empire, it seems likely that the ancient use of cannabis had continued, and that this was recognized by certain Islamic sources. “Hemp… as an intoxicant… was passed on via Persians, to the Arabs” (Sherratt, 1997).

As Joseph Campbell explained: “It is obvious that in every syllable Islam is a continuation of the Zoroastrian-Jewish-Christian heritage…” (Campbell, 1964). This influence is particularly apparent in Persian Islamic groups such as the Sufis, Ismailis and Assassins, who were all largely influenced by the Zoroastrian tradition, and their use of hashish, and dūḡ-e waḥdat (the dūḡ of annihilation), as shall be discussed is clearly a carry-over of the Persian ritual use of cannabis infusions.

The name Magi, from where we get terms like, ‘magic’ and ‘magician’ is generally associated with ancient Zoroastrianism. As J. Maxwell, wrote over a century and a half ago, in Dwellers on the Threshold: Or, Magic and Magicians, (1865, pg 10) “The Magi appear to have been acquainted with the narcotic properties of opium, hemp, and other substances; and by long fasts, and the administration of these opiates, induced a state of trance or ecstasy, favourable to the conception of visions, and the stimulation of accesses of inspiration. They were accustomed to propitiate the spirits with loud songs and chants, either of triumph or woe, entreaty or indignation.”

In the Zoroastrian texts, where cannabis was known under the names ‘mang” and “bhanga”, more than a mild high was sought. It was used in potent infusions that would leave the imbiber comatose for days in some cases.

In reference to Zoroastrian expeditions into the world of the afterlife, Shaul Shaked noted that “The preparation of this journey was done… by administering to the officiant a dose of mang (hemp), mixed with wine” (Shaked, 1999, pg 74). In the Zoroastrian tale “…the Artak Viraz Namak… Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, the rewards bestowed on the good, and the punishment awaiting the sinner are here described in a vision induced by hashish” (Campbell, 2000). Referring to this same account, van Baaren and Hartman also noted the hero “imbibes an intoxicant composed of wine and hashish and after this his body sleeps for seven days and nights while his soul undertakes the journey” (van Baaren & Hartman,1980, pg 8). 19th century author James Francis Katherinus Hewitt also refers to the “enlightening prophet drug Bangha (Cannabis Indica), the Hashish by which the Zoroastrian priests were inspired” (Hewitt, 1901, pg 171) This was also the view of Nyberg (1938), whose work we have discussed, and the German Iranist, Geo Widengren (1965), as well as more recent researchers.

Zoroaster, the the second millennium BCE founder of the religion Zoroastrianism

The use of bang/mang in the Zoroastrian period was strictly prohibited from anyone but the most elite members of that society. The secrecy surrounding the use of bang/mang is likely largely responsible for much of the confusion surrounding the terms mang and bang. In ‘Quests and Visionary Journeys in Sassanian Iran’, Shaul Shaked notes that the use of mang (which he saw as hemp) for visionary quests, “was not a way open to all”:

It was confined to select individuals, who would have regarded themselves as representative of the community, and who would then reveal to the others what they had been privileged to witness. Even for those people this was not a trivial experience that could be undertaken casually or easily repeated. Such journeys were rare occasions, surrounded by grave risks. The danger lay in the very fact that this was the path trodden by the dead, and would have to be brought back to life. Certain encounters along the way may put the power of endurance of the traveler to the test. (Shaked, et al., 1999, pg 74)

The story has it that Zoroaster wondered the countryside for ten years without winning over the people to his new religious concepts. It was not until he met King Vishtaspa, who converted to Zoroaster’s religion after drinking a cup of mang that the Iranian prophet’s beliefs began to take hold on a wide scale. “Vishtaspa used hemp (bhang) to obtain ecstasy: while his body lay asleep, his soul traveled to paradise” (Eliade 1978, pg. 308). Vishtaspa’s shamanic journey is recorded in Denkird 7.4.83-6 and Pahlavi Rivayat 48.27-32. In the ninth century text the Denkird which was derived from a lost Avestan source, when Vishtaspa drank bhang “he became stard (unconscious) immediately, and they led his soul to paradise and showed him the value of accepting the Religion”:

“To enlighten Vishtasp (and teach him)… and that he would attain a high post, permanent power, riches and food, Ohrmazd the Creator sent at the same time to the house of Vishtasp the yazat [a lesser divine being]Neryosang with a message urging… Arthavist to give to drink to Vishtasp the lightened drink that would grant the eye of whomever took it a glimpse at the spiritual world… And speak to Arthavist: ‘Lord Arthavist! Take the nice plate, the nicest of all that have been made… to take, from us, Hom [Haoma] and mang…” (Denkird 7.4.84-86)

Gherardo Gnoli recorded: “bang was… an ingredient of the ‘illuminating drink’… that allowed Wištāsp to see… the ‘great mystery.’ This mang ī wištāspān (Pahlavi Vd. 15.14…) was mixed with hōm (Dēnkard 7.4.85) or wine (Pahlavi Rivayat 47.27). It was an integral part of the ecstatic practice aimed at opening the ‘eye of the soul’ (gyān čašm….)” (Gnoli, 1979). As Widengren explained:

Hemp and wine or hemp and haoma were mixed in the cup that was passed to Vistaspa….. it is said that Neryosang was sent forth to let Vistaspa drink ‘the eye of the soul’ with the view up above to the forms of existence of the heavenly beings, the illuminating potion thanks to which Vistaspa saw the great lucky splendour and mystery’. The typical expression gyan casm, ‘eye of the soul’, causes problems here. One could be tempted to replace this expression with ‘source of life’, and this in actual fact is how it was translated, which in a pure formal philological sense is completely possible. However the expression can be explained via two points in the Denkart, where, in regards to the enlightenment, it is stated that it is of two types: on the one hand it consists of a view with the eye of the body, tan casm, on the other hand it is a view with the eye of the soul, gyan casm, which is defined as ‘the opening of the eye of the soul to obtain knowledge’.‘The eye of the soul’ means introspection. The visionary sight is conveyed to Kavi Vistaspa using a haoma potion mixed with hemp. With this his soul can repair to Garodman, [Paradise] to view the heavenly existence.(Widengren, 1965)

Zoroaster and Vistaspa

A similar reference to the “eye” is found in the Indian Aitareya Brahmanam, “When.. the Adhvaryu hands over … the Soma cup to drink… to the Hotar, he receives it with the… mantra… (By the words): ‘This is a good which has knowledge; here is a good which has knowledge; in me is a good which has knowledge; ruler of the eye, protect my eye’ the Hotar drinks Soma from the Maitravaruna graha. (Then he repeats): ‘The eye with the mind is called hither.’” Martin Haug in his translation of this passage, noted “This formula resembles very much one of the most sacred prayers of the Parsis… which is particularly repeated when the Zotar priest (the Hotar of the Brahmans) is drinking the Homa (Soma) juice…” (Haug, 1863). In relation, in India the drinking of bhang by devotees is still believed to open up the “eye” of Shiva, i.e the “third-eye.”

However, it would seem after the institution of the Moslem period, when Zoroastrians were either forced out of Persia or forced to convert to Islam, the ritual use of cannabis in the religion declined and eventually seems to have gone underground. Although there is evidence that some use was still in play during the reign of the Sassanian King Khusraw Parvēz (57—628) and in “Azerbaijan, a former centre of the Zoroastrian religion and homeland of the cannabis- using Scythians, medieval manuscripts also record the use of wine infused with a mixture of cannabis, opium and henbane” (Dannaway, Piper & Webster, 2006). It is generally viewed that through these channels the use of cannabis was adopted by the more mystical branches of Islam. From what I have seen in the modern day, any mention of the religions ancient cannabis use to practicing mainstream Zoroastrians is met with disbelief and disdain.

A Zoroastrian influence has been suggested in the account of Muhammad’s ascent to the heavens as described in the Koran and discussed in detail in the Hadith literature. A number of researchers have suggested that this event, as well as the details in it, had been borrowed from the Persian story of Arda Wiraz Namag, and his cannabis induced journey into the after-world (Gray, 1902; Jackson, 1928). The Cinvat Bridge mentioned in the Arda Wiraz Namag was particularly compared with the bridge over Hell as mentioned in the Hadith literature.

In 1905, thinking that in some way it discredited Islam, the Rev. W. St. Clair Tisdall gleefully claimed that the Arda Wiraz Namag was the source of the Prophet’s ascent to the heavens and his witnessing of the denizens of Heaven and Hell. And this view has been echoed by other researchers: “This ascent to heaven (or Miraj in Arabic) can be compared to the account in the Pahlavi text called Arta (or Artay) Viraf written several hundred years before the Muslim era” (Warraq, 1995). “…[T]he ascent of Muhammad to heaven and the passing visit to hell and paradise may be found in Zoroastrian tales dating some four hundred years before the time of Muhammad” (Masood, 2001).

The shamanic event occurs for Muhammad, when he is “suspended between sleep and waking”, which does indicate an altered state of consciousness. This state was induced by “three cups of water from the sacred well of Zemzem”, which enabled him to ride the mythical “Seraph-beast Borak”. This drinking 3 cup is very reminiscent of what we have read in Zoroastrian accounts, where various figures drink a concoction infused with a potent cannabis extract, leaving their bodies comatose, but releasing their souls to travel. In Muhmmad’s case, after a stop over at a sacred temple, Muhammad rode Borak “up to the gates of Paradise and traversed the spheres…” (Gowen, 1924,pg. 438).

Muhammad rides the mythical Borak through the Heavens

Henry Gowen noted the “idea of the Bridge of Judgement, known in Zoroastrian as the Chinvad Pul, and the the Muhammadan as Al-Sirat…” (Gowen, 1924). Gowen saw “plain evidence of borrowing” of this imagery in one Zoroastrian document particularly. “the Pahalwu document known as the Book of Arda Viraf”.

It is… sufficient here to state the the Book of Arda Viraf considerably antedates the earliest literature of Islam. It opens with the lament of the sages over the scepticism of the land since the religion of the pius Zardusht has been destroyed by the “accursed Alexander of Rome.” Then in order to revive the faith of men, it is suggested that a man be chosen who, divesting himself of his body, shall traverse the unseen world and bring back to men a true report as to Heaven and Hell. Out of forty thousand virtuous men Arda Viraf was chosen for this momentous embassy, and on a certain day was given a cup of ‘hallowed wine’, or hashish, according to the prescribed method. Then he lay down on the couch where on his body was to repose…, while the freed spirit, under the guidance of the angel Srosh, journeyed the the Persian Paradiso and Inferno.  On awakening, the sage related to the assembled Dasturs… the adventures… He had crossed the Bridge of Judgment hand in hand with the angel… (Gowen, 1924, pg 441)

Gowen goes onto explain further profound similarities between this account and Muhammed’s, and concludes that those who look into it will find that the “general resemblance of the scheme of Arda Viraf… will be at once apparent, and as there can be no count that it was borrowed by Islam and accommodated to the legend of the night Ride, so there need be no doubt on the connection…” (Gowen, 1924, pg 443).


An intoxicated and unconscious Arda Viraf witnessing scenes of Heaven and Hell in an 1871 Gujarati manuscript of the Zoroastrian Arda Viraf Nameh ‘Book of Arda Viraf’, that copied illustration from a much older, but, unnamed Persian manuscript.  Arda Viraf drinks “three gold cups with wine and ‘Vistaspic’ hemp (in other words hemp extract)… and then falls asleep…  and during this time his soul visits heaven and hell” (Nyberg, 1938). Clearly Islamic groups carried on this tradition, as the poet Al-Is’irdi (1222-1258) noted of Hashish: “It is the secret. In it the spirit ascends to the highest spots on a heavenly ascent of disembodied understanding.”

More recently, in the essay, Celestial Botany Entheogenic Traces in Islamic Mysticism, Frederick Dannaway also suggested that Muhammad’s shamanic flight was “reminiscent of the ascent of Arda Viraf who takes a narcotic and takes a visionary flight through heaven and hell… This… may indicate that regional cults viewed the Islamic revelation through their own shamanic traditions or that Islam retained the ritual heritages of the ancient world. These traditions would be enshrouded in the mysteries of Shia gnosis, alchemy and Sufism…” (Danaway, 2006).

This tale of the Night Ride, is also retold in the later document the Dabestan, which holds an explicit description of Muhammad’s own preparation and use of cannabis as bhang in India.  Muhammad was a merchant from an early age and worked the ancient trade routes between the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean. Undoubtedly as a result of this he would have come under much foreign influence and into contact with the rare commodities traded by other travellers, which we can be sure included cannabis products, as well as the myths of magic which surrounded its consumption.

Amongst the various bits of evidence that has been suggested for Muhammad’s own use of cannabis, probably the most interesting comes from the later medieval period text , The Dabestān-e Mazāheb, “School of Religions”, which was an examination and comparison of South Asian religions and sects of the mid-17th century. The work is written in Persian, and is thought to have been written around 1655 BCE. It has been suggested that the author was an islamic Sufi, and alternatively a practicing Zoroastrian. Thus although written in the 17th century, some of the oral traditions recorded it, can conceivably be from a much earlier date.

The Dabestan records the following fascinating account of Muhammad’s alleged introduction to cannabis, and the association of its use with his hereditary clan, the Hashim:

There is a class among the Hindus who give themselves the term of Musslman-Sofis [Muslim-Sufis] and really agree in several tenets and opinions with the Sufis… they relate that one day the Prophet was taking a pleasure-walk under the guidance of  Jabril [The Muslim angel Gabriel] and came to a place where a great tumult was heard. Jabril said ‘This is the threshold of pleasure; enter into the house.’  The Prophet consented to go in and there he saw sitting forty persons naked as they came from their mother and a band busy serving; but whatever service the Prophet requested them… to do, they did not comply, until the moment to grind bhang arrived. When they had ground it, they had no cloth through which they could strain and purify it; then the Prophet, having taken his turban from his hand, purified through it the juice of bhang, the color [green]of which [the bhang]remained on the turban; whence the garment [heraldry]of the Bini Hashem [Muhammad’s sub-tribe] is green. When the Prophet rendered them this service, they were glad and said among themselves, ‘Let us give to this messenger of God, who is always running to the door of the ignorant, a little of the bhang, that he may obtain the secrets of the Almighty power.’ So they gave the remains of the juice to the Prophet. When he had drunk it he became possessed of the secrets of the Angel of Destiny, and whatever men heard from him came through the means of this bounty. (Dabestan, 1655 A.D.)

Browne, writing in the 19th century noted that in his time one of the secret names of cannabis was “‘Master Seyyid’… from a fancied resemblance between its green color and the green turbans worn by reputed descendants of the Prophet” (Browne, 1897), so this was clearly a lasting tradition.  Although the Dabistan is obviously a late addition to the Muslim tradition, earlier accounts of cannabis use, such as that of the Assassins, Isma’ilis and Sufi groups, gives clear indications that such practices were known very early in the Islamic world and, as the research in this volume has clearly shown, predated Islam by millennia. Moreover, these “heretical” Islamic sects, considered themselves part of an authentic tradition, passed down by the Prophet through his descendants and their closest devotees, in much the same way as heretical Gnostic sects thought of themselves as the authentic “Christians” through association with Mary and other apostolistic figures.

A turban turned green from bhang?

Considering the story of the Dabistan and the association between of bhang with the green colour of Muhammad’s sub-tribe the Bini Hashem, it is interesting to note that the hashish ingesting Isma’ili believed their own esoteric wisdom and some of their leaders came from the hereditary lineage of Muhammad. The Isma’ili are an offshoot of one of the two main factions of Islam, the Shi’a, and the importance of hereditary descent from Muhammad is pivotal in the schism between this group and the other main faction, the Sunnis. It is among the offshoots of the group that formed around this  ‘heretic’ Imam Isma’il, the founder of the Isma’ili, that we find the mystical use of hashish.

There can be no doubt that the use of hemp as an intoxicant was encouraged by the Ismailians in the 8th century, as its effects tended to assist their followers in realizing the tenets of the sect:

    “We’ve quaffed the emerald cup, the mystery we know,

     Who’d dream so weak a plant such mighty power could show!”* (Dymock, 1890)

*[Dymock, offers the Persian version of the text, but failed to include the date and origins.]

As the Isma’ili and related sects were accused of drinking wine and consuming hashish, and the Isma’ili initially arose in Persia – the home of Zoroastrianism, who as noted used them in combination. Alongside Muhammad’s own Zoroastrian like shamanic flight, in comparison to that of Ardu Viraf’s and other Zoroastrian accounts, one is left with the reasonable speculation that the mystical use of hashish was inspired by the preceding Zoroastrian ritual use, and entered into Islam at a very early date.

 Wine was often mixed with cannabis resins in the Islamic world.

As with the Zoroastrian infusions, although seen as particularly heretical, in the medieval Islamic world, the “combination of wine and hashish was quite often attempted…”:

A respectable scholar found nothing wrong in using both wine and hashish on the same occasion. The combination was praised as engendering at the same time “the laziness of hashish and energy of wine.” Similarly, Ibrahim al-Mi’mar (d. 749/1348), called in this connection “master of the craft”… might wonder about the extraordinary effects of wine plus hashish:

He mixed hashish with wine

And died of intoxication and became confused on the spot,

And I asked: what is this unexpected occurrence?

When he was sober (again), he answered me saying;

Be kind to your brother when he mixes.

However, the combination was considered as particularly sinful… (Rosenthal, 1971)

The “death” referred to here was the temporary death of the self, or ego, a state of realization sought out by Mystics. As noted in Chapter 1, the pre-Islamic use of cannabis laced wines in Persia is well established. The 19th century work, The History of Ancient and Modern Wines by Dr. Henderson, indicates that such combinations continued in the Islamic world for some centuries. The 11th century Byszantine Jewish Doctor, Simeon Sethus wrote “the dried leaf, when drunk, as meal, or rather [as dried meal for a drink]produces a hospitable drunkenness and lack of sensation by the eater. For it is crushed or kneaded among the Arabs for wine, and it inebriates”. Centuries later, both Islamic and European authors recorded this combination still in use. “The Jews and Armenians prepare wine on purpose for the Mahomedans, by adding lime, hemp, and other ingredients, to increase its pungency and strength; for the wine that soonest intoxicates is accounted best, and the lighter and delicate kinds are held in no estimation among the adherents of the Prophet” (Henderson, 1824). As Charles Dickens journal All the Year Round,  also noted:

The best vineyards of Persia are situated in the mountainous districts that stretch from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea. Sixty-five kinds of grape are grown there, its cultivation being abandoned to the Ghebers, the Armenians, and the Jews; for, though the Mohammedan part of the population drink wine without scruple, they assert that the infringement of the law of Islam consists in making the wine, not in drinking it—a convenient conclusion, which satisfies their consciences, and enables them to gratify their inclinations. Pure wine, however, is not for the topers of Ispahan and Teheran, the Jewish and Armenian dealers ministering to that fondness for narcotics which tend so greatly to enervate the East, by mixing myrrh, incense, and the juice of the Indian hemp with the finest growths. (Dickens, 1862)

There are also little known references to hashish infused wine, in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

….I will therefore place this hashish in my cup of wine and thus I will strangle the serpent of my grief.

The drinker alone can understand the language of the rose and of the vine, and not the faint-hearted, and the cheap of wit. To those who have no knowledge of hidden things, ignorance is to be pardoned, for the drunkard only is capable of tasting the delights which are an accompaniment thereof.*

*[Translation by (McCarthy, 1889).]

These verses appear in Justin Huntly McCarthy’s 1889 translation of the Khayyam’s works, and not in the more well known interpretations of J.F. Scott Fitzgerald (1859\1889). Khayyam is estimated to have written about 1,200 to 2,000 quatrains, and neither MacCarthy or Fitzgerald attempted to cover all of them. Most admirers of the work are familiar with Fitzgerald’s version, which did not include the hashish verses referred to by McCarthy. When one reads McCarthy’s translation, the idea that Khayyam’s “love of wine is but a cheating cant”, i.e.,  as is now popularly suggested, Khayyam’s wine is simply used to symbolize spiritual devotion, seems to fall by the wayside, and an actual intoxication of the spirit is what is referred too, as can be seen by other verses that refer to hashish.

Art thou full of heaviness? Take thou a morsel of hashish, as large as a grain of barley, or drink but a small measure of rose-coloured wine. Thou art become a sage, truly! Thou mayst not drink this, thou takest not that! Nothing is left to thee but to eat pebbles — go, and eat them then.

And again….

Whenever on this green earth we are affected by joy, like unto the green steed of the sky, then with green youth I eat green hashish on the green sward until I lie below the green of the earth.


“Place it on my tab, O Cupbearer! For life is fleeting, and death is final!  – Omar Khayam.  Peter Lamborn Wilson makes the following comments on the Sufi term, “Saki-Khaneh, ‘House of the Cupbearer’. The saki or wine serving boy is a symbol of the Beloved or the spiritual master in Sufi poetry, but in Pakistan saki-khaneh is a slang term for a tea house that serves charas and bhang ” (Wilson, 1988).

In this regard it is important to note, that Omar Khayyam, (1048–1131), the Persian poet, mathematician and astronomer, was a favoured school chum of the  notorious mystic, Hasan I Sabbah, (1050?- 1124), the original ‘Old Man of the Mountain’, and founder of the Hashishins, or Assassins as they are better known. Khayyam’s reference to placing hashish in wine, is particularly interesting considering what was discussed in Chapter 1 concerning the Zoroastrian use of this combination. Regarding this connection, John Bramhall, in his century old essay on Omar Khayyam, offered some interesting speculation, in regards to how Khayyam may have come about his knowledge of hashish.

…[C]onsider that Khayyam was no Arabian, and much less a Turk, but a Persian whose not very remote ancestors were followers of Zoroaster… And while there is little reason to believe that Khayyam, scholar though he was, had a knowledge of the Sanskrit [? actually, Avestan] of ancient Persia, he had, no doubt, read the History of Tabari, which had been translated into Arabic and was a standard work in all libraries and gave some account of the Avesta. If he had not listened to the recitations of the Parsees, whose bloody persecution at the hands of the Seljuq conquerors he may have witnessed, he must have had some knowledge of their meaning and of the sentiment of the ancient faith of his people. The Gathas, or hymns of Zoroaster, may have arrested his attention, particularly the Haoma Yasht, which might supply a source of the “spiritual wine” of the Sufis, and of the hasheesh of his alleged friend, Hassan ben Sabbah, the chief of the Assassins, as well as offer an excuse, perhaps, for Omar’s devotion to “the cup” … [I]t may be assumed that such an inquiring mind as that of al-Khayyami would have studied every line he could obtain. (Bramhall, 1918)

It should also be noted, that other intoxicating ingredients were also infused into wines, and other preparations sometimes in combination with hashish and sometimes without.

Dādhi, the “mystery plant”

There is an interesting discussion about the identity of the plant indicated by the Arabic word Dādhi, that leads into a discussion about cannabis infused wines, in Nawal Nasrallah’s Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens: Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq’s Tenth-Century Baghdadi Cookbook (2007). Dādhi, when referred to as a beverage, was  a “strong date wine made potent and aromatic by adding dādhi..”  The identity of this dādhi however, is a matter of debate. “A frequent quoted verse reveals its effects upon drinkers, ‘We drank dādhi until we felt/ like we are kings of land and sea’” (Nasrallah, 2007). Physicians warned the elderly may experience headaches from its, use and users might feel slightly stupefied the next day, all potential effects of cannabis, as are some of the medical effects of ingested cannabis, such as aiding in the treatment of intestinal parasites, and hemorrhoids.

Due to its potency, its use was curbed by authorities. In an anecdote, we learn that a governor felt it was his duty to tour around the herbalists’ shops in town and caution them against selling dādhi, the date wine additive…. In lexicons such as Taj al-Arus and Al Muhit, it was defined as ‘the licentious drink of scoundrels’… Al-Rahidi Caliph, ‘Umar bin Khattab (d. 644) called it khamr al-Sind…intoxicating wine that only infidels would drink. Tradition has it that the Propher Muhammad said al-dadhi are seeds brought from India. As for those who imbibed it, he said God would not accept their prayers for full forty years. Evidently, the region knew the drink long before the advent of Islam”(Nasrallah, 2007). This is all very reminiscent of the various pogroms against cannabis that took place in this period.

Nasrallah cites ancient sources that refer to Dādhi, as a “mystery plant”  that was “described as having astringent, tannic, bitter and aromatic qualities, used to enhance date wine… and prevent it from getting sour. This additive is sometimes described as having narcotic properties that intensify the intoxicating effect of the wine upon its drinkers…” (Nasrallah, 2007). It is described as “aromatic as musk” with a “pleasant aroma”, and can “induce sleep”. “The word was also used as an epithet for a playful person, which is a perfect match for the Dionysan nature of the drink” (Nasrallah, 2007). Physical descriptions do bring cannabis flower clusters to mind.

…. It is referred to as shay ‘something,’ a seed, a leaf, a cluster like a bunch of grapes, and a cone. Medieval sources tell us that the best dādhi plants grow in… [the]southern coasts of the Arabian Peninsula… Ibn Jazla specifies the mountain variety, especially the reddish brown… ones that have been recently dried… as being the best… (Nasrallah, 2007).

These are all descriptions that could well fit in with sun dried seeded cannabis buds.

However, the references to dādhi, in medieval sources are somewhat contradictory. The term dādhi may have come to, or was originally used, to identify “a name for a number of wine additives, some of which are preservatives and enhancers with little narcotic substance that help make the wine less bloating. Others are strongly addictive narcotic substances that help preserve the wine” (Nasrallah, 2007). The term cam also to have an association with pinecones, their seeds and pine resin, which was also used to preserve wine, since ancient times. The term goes back to Mesopotamian times and, where al-dādhi, was burnt as an offering to the moon god.

…[A]ssociating pine resin with the moon god of immortality in acknowledgement of its power to preserve dead bodies and prevent them from decaying can be traced further back to the ancient Soma drink in Indian mythology. It was the drink of the gods, first made when the ocean of milk was churned to obtain this divine intoxicating milky liquor. In Sanskrit dādhi may mean any thick viscous substance such as honey, resin, and smooth sour milk. This sacred drink was then personified as the god Soma, a warrior, who later acquired a high rank among the gods—he became the god of water and fertility. Hence, Soma was a form of life sap of the earth or elixir of life. The god Soma became associated with the moon, since after he dropped this elixir of life down to earth (i.e. rain), it mounted to the moon and was drunk out of the moon by the gods who see it as a cup, which waned an waxed as it was emptied and refilled.

Al-Birini says, in Hindi dādhi is tātkan… which can easily read as dād-kan … ‘tree of life,’ if we may break it into dād ‘life’ and kan ‘tree,’ which confirms the rational behind the origins of the word. (Nasrallah, 2007).

These comments are very interesting in relation to what I have been suggesting in regards to cannabis’ identification with Soma. As well, in earlier works I have connected Soma with the Mid Eastern myths of the Tree of Life, and even indicated that the pinecone like objects depicted with the tree of life in various Mesopotamian reliefs, may indicate the pine cone like buds of the same cannabis we know from textual references to qunubu (cannabis) were used in rituals at that time. Importantly, of the various candidates for the term he puts forth for dahdi, Nawal Nasrallah seemed to favour cannabis:

Dādhi is a plant with intoxicating leaves… al Biruni… says, during the early times of the Abbasids, a caravan of travellers happened to rest for a while at a pond in the Sind region (western India) over which a dādhi plant cast its shadow, and shed its leaves into the pond. They drank from the water of the pond and got intoxicated*. When the went back to Baghdad they started the trend of using dādhi in making wine.

The intoxicating plant with its leaves is undoubtedly qinnab Hindi… marijuana, a variety of hemp (cannabis saliva) also called hashisha… The female plant looks like hops, it grows similar cones but its upper leaves and cones contain the gland that produce the potent stuff THC in addition to the preserving and buttering agents. It was this substance that gave it the name sharab al-fusaq… drink of scoundrels, and which… ‘Umar bin al-Khattab called khamr al-Sind… intoxicating wine of India that only infidels drink. Al-Maqrizi says that hashisha was first known in India, but then spread to Bilad al-Shahr in Yemen where it was widely grown. From there it spread to Iraq and Persia.

Now this substance accounts for the more serious effects of dādhi wine described by physicians. Ibn al-Baytar says the drinker feels hot, experiences flushed cheeks and feels stupefied the morning after. Besides, quoting al-Kindi, he says the drink causes dizziness, delirium, and acute sharp intestinal pain… Furthermore, Ibn Sina warns of overindulgence, which might prove fatal. (Nasrallah, 2007).

*[This is likely another mythological explanation of how cannabis came to the Mid East from India, as cannabis effects are not transferable to plain water.]

However, the matter is far from settled, and other psychoactive substances may account for the mysterious dādhi. Another possibility for dādhi possibility has been suggested as wormwood, which can produce thujone when prepared with alcohol, a chemical which goes to the the same receptors in the brain as cannabis. Ibn al Baytar, says it was known as the misk al-jinn, musk of demons’. “The devastating mental effects of dādhi wine such as delirium, hallucinations… might be attributed to the chemical compounds present in wormwood, thujone…” (Nasrallah, 2007). Henbane seeds were also used in wines, and it is impotent to remember that some medieval Moslem authors used the term binj, which was often used for cannabis, as a name for henbane, and this accounts for the deadly effects described for cannabis in some accounts for this period.

Also worth noting is that Rabbi Immanuel Low, referred to a Jewish recipe (Sabb. 14. 3 ed. Urbach, 9th-11th century AD)  that called for wine to be mixed with ground up saffron, Arabic gum and hasisat surur, “I know ‘surur’ solely as a alias for the resin the Cannabis sativa” (Low, 1924). “Although it is known that saffron has psychoactive properties, this aspect of the plant has been only little studied” (Ratsch, 2005). In this respect, it may be worth noting that in the Islamic world  the name “Saffron” was used as slang for “an orange-colored slab of hashish, saffron, and spices” (Abel, 1980). It is unclear how long this slang use of saffron has been in use, although hashish and saffron have been used together since at least medieval Islamic times (Rosenthal, 1972).

The use of known psychoactive compounds with cannabis resins such as mandrake, darnel, opium etc., was verily common in the Arabic world. “One vernacular Arabic name for darnel means ‘horse’s hashish.’ Darnel has been included in the recipes of Middle Eastern intoxicating compounds … usually with cannabis…. The description by Van Linschoten (a sixteenth century traveler in the Near East) of the preparation of bengue, berge, bers (cannabis based compounds of psychoactive plants containing ingredients such as opium, datura, darnel, nux vomica) … includes a mixture of darnel and hemp seeds in water called bosa” (Danaway, et. al., 2007). Such combinations occurred in both edible and drinkable preparations of the drug, and one gets the impression from the literature that this was a rather common thing. In this regard it should be noted that some of the more intense experiences recorded in reference to cannabis in medieval Islamic literature may be due to effects from other substances as well.

Hashish vs. Wine

For the most part, because of the clear prohibition of alcohol in the Koran, hashish and wine were used separately as one could use cannabis without being considered a religious heretic in some times and places of Islamic culture. The preference for the use of hashish vs that of wine led to much poetic debate between Sufi sects. In Scandal: Essays in Islamic Heresy, Peter Lamborn Wilson refers to the Turkish Sufi poet Fuzuli (1483-1556) who “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’” (Wilson, 1988). As the l2th century Sufi poet Ibn al-A’ma wrote in a poem praising hashish over wine (which makes reference to Haydar an 11th century Persian Isma’ili Sufi Sheik, accredited by some sources with introducing the herb to the Sufis):

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’.

Rosenthal notes that in the medieval Islamic literature it is “constantly stressed that wine causes quarrelsomeness, and hashish a kind of languid placidity. It is noteworthy… that no truly violent actions directed against other persons under the influence of hashish are mentioned in any of our stories” (Rosenthal, 1971). As a more recent proponent of this view explained “actual wine, while enjoyable and even spiritually refreshing in moderation, seems only rarely to produce in humans… the true Dionysan ecstasis… but 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 houris and cup boys” (Wilson, 1988).

The Hashish-Takers

The Hashishin, or more popularly, Assassins, were an offshoot of the Ismaili branch of Islam. The origins of the term ‘Hashishin’ has been a matter of much debate. “The etymology of the word ‘Assassin’ is said to come from Hashishin, i.e. hashish-taker. It was transmitted through the Romance language by the Crusaders who in the 12th century, fearful of this sect, associated their daring killings with the power of the drug” (Palgi, 1975). Although some authorities see an origin for the name through “Hashish” an Arabic word thought to mean “grass” or “herbage” others claim the name “Hashashin” is derived from the Persian ‘hassasin’, which holds connotations of “healer” or “herb seller”.  Still others see the origins of the name coming though “followers of Hassan” in reference to a prominent figure in the cult, Hassan-i Sabbah, the notorious childhood friend of the famous Islamic poet Omar Khayyam discussed earlier. Sabbah was known variously as the “Old Man of the Mountain”, “Shiek of Alamut” and “Keeper of Hashish”. Adding to this, as we are dealing with a hereditary cult, one could also speculate that an etymological connection might be found in the name of the tribe Muhammad came from, “Hashim”.

…[T]he nickname, and with it, the drug’s extended use, appear to have surfaced during the late eleventh century, and both may have been promoted by the real or alleged use of cannabis by sectarians who were engaged in spreading a vast network of open and secret influence over the Muslim world… (Rosenthal, 1971)

A Zoroastrian influence on the Assassins was noted early on by Islamic author al-Busti (1029 A.D.), who traced Isma’ilian beliefs to “Iranian dualistic and Zoroastrian origins” (Daftary, 2005). The Nizari “Assassins” represent yet another schism in a chain of Islamic sects that spring from pre-existing cults while still managing to maintain certain Islamic and even pre-Islamic tenets and beliefs. The Nizari Assassins first appeared in the late eleventh century as an offshoot of the Ismaili, a split which was again the result of a hereditary dispute over claim to the title of Imam, with the sect this time forming around the 11th century  heir designate Nizar. They called themselves “Nizaris” or “Fida’i”, meaning the “faithful ones”. But, to other Muslims they were known as the “hashishiyyum”, a derogatory term meaning ‘hashish taker’, which linguistically developed into “Assassin’ as legends of the cult spread to Europe,.

…Muslim historians, mainly from the thirteenth century, …use the term hashishiyya in reference to the Nizaris of Syria (al-Sham); while the Nizaris of Persia are called hashishis in some Caspian Zaydi texts. Evidently the term has only been used once in any known Ismaili source; namely in the second half of the highly polemical epistle issued in the 1120s, by the Fatimid caliph al-Amir against his Nizari adversaries who eventually assassinated him.” (Daftary, 1992)

The Hashishin clearly considered themselves the guardians of sacred knowledge and tradition, and this is evident in some of the other names the sect has been known under such as “Batiniyya”, meaning the “esoterics” and from their detractors, “Malahida”, “the heretics”.  Usually based in mountain fortresses, such as the famous Alamut, between the 11th and 13th centuries the Hashishin spread from Persia into Syria, central Asia and India, using assassination as only one of a number of methods of achieving their aims.

The Assassins stronghold at Alamut fell to the Mongrols around 1256. The Mongrols slaughtered  the inhabitants, destroyed the castles and burnt the libraries, leaving little in the way of historical material regarding the sect’s beliefs. Survivors and supporters made a number of attempts to regain control of the Alamut and other fortifications, but were continually defeated. In following years, like accusations of witchcraft in Europe, the punishment for anyone suspected  of being a hashsishin was death, and it was common for political and social rivals to claim that their enemies were  secret members of the sect. For several centuries after this period, both the Ismaili Imam and their closest devotees travelled in disguise, taking the garb of a tailor, or Sufi mystic master and followers, and it is was through this covert period of the Ismailism that Iranian Sufism received its greatest influence of Ismaili philosophy.

As the legendary and sensationalized 13th century account of the Assassins by Marco Polo recorded, prior to their fall, novices being initiated into the sect were alleged to have been tricked through the being secretly given a potion of hashish and then taken to unconscious to a hidden garden within the Mountain top castle of the Assassins in Alamut. Through this they were said to have been tricked into believing they had received a foretaste of the afterlife Paradise described in the Koran:

The Grand Master of the Assassins, whenever he discovers a young man resolute enough to belong to his murderous legions . . . invites the youth to his table and intoxicates him with the plant “hashish.” Having been secretly transported to the pleasure gardens the young man imagines that he has entered the Paradise of Mahomet.

The girls, lovely as Houris, contribute to the illusion. After he has enjoyed to satiety all the joys promised by the Prophet to his elect, he falls back to the presence of the Grand Master. Here he is informed that he can enjoy perpetually the delights he has just tasted If he will take part in the war of the Infidel as commanded by the Prophet. (Marco Polo, 12th Century)

Old illustrations from Marco Polo’s accounts of the Old Man of the Mountain and the Hashishin’s pleasure garden.

It should be remembered that Marco Polo’s and other European accounts were based on myths and half truths that grew around the Assassins, who were considered heretics by orthodox Islam and Crusaders alike. The Ruins of the Assassins’ castle still exist, and no evidence of a hidden garden as described have been found. Thus Antoine Sylvestre de Sacy in early 19th century account was likely a little closer to the mark:

…[T]here might be some exaggeration in the Venetian travellers account,… rather than believe in the existence of enchanted gardens…, we should reduce all the wonders of that magnificent place to a phantom produced by the exalted imagination of young men intoxicated with hashish, who, from their infancy, had been nursed with this idea of happiness, it would be no less true that we find here the idea of a liquor to deaden the senses, and we cannot forget that its use or abuse is spread throughout a great part of Asia and Africa. At the time of Ismaili power these intoxicating preparations were not yet known in Moslem countries. It was only later that knowledge of them was brought from the eastern regions, perhaps from India, into the Persian provinces. From there it was communicated to the Moslems of Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, Syria, and Egypt. No doubt the Ismailis, whose doctrine had several points of resemblance with those of the Indian, had acquired this knowledge earlier and preserved it as a precious secret, one of  the main sources of their power…. (de Sacy, 1809)

Cannabis has a long and ancient history in many of the places de Sacy refers to as not knowing it and the 19th century scholar was correct in noting that cultural influences likely resulted in the Islamic paradise themed visions of the Assassins, in the same way the mythology of the Zoroastrian religion effected the partakers of mang/bhang.   

In regards to the reputation for assassination, it should be noted that the fida’i were few in number compared to their enemies, so all out war was not a viable option. As the story has it, the Islamic devotees who had been through this form of initiation willingly assassinated enemies of the cult. Like the Terrorists of today, it was believed that the Assassins “were especially threatening due to having no fear of death. Like today’s Islamic terrorists, if they were to die in the execution of their mission, they were to be hailed as martyrs and promised eternal life in a secret garden of paradise. Historically, most of the assassinations they carried out were described as suicide missions, usually committed in public in broad daylight, and with little chance for the Assassin to escape. Such assassinations were said to take place after the devotee had placed himself beyond suspicion, months or even years prior, as a servant or friend of a selected enemy of the cult, eventually unsuspectedly striking at the ideal time. This was seen as an alternative way of striking a specific enemy, rather than going to war and being outnumbered by an army and loosing the lives of many as a result.

As well, secret drugging of potential devotees with hashish as claimed by Marco Polo is discounted by the fact that the “use and effects of hashish were known at the time, as best witnessed by the existence of the name hashishiyya. Therefore the drug could not have been the secret property of the Nizari chiefs…” (Daftary, 1992).  It should also be noted that the hashish was used as an initiatory substance directed at invoking a mystical experience rather than inducing a frenzied state of murderous rage for assassination as has been suggested.;

The drug employed for initiation into the cult was used to obtain a vision of paradise. It did not nerve them up for slaughter, was not used during their missions and did not make them crazy. Quite the contrary, it… gave them at least a fleeting glimpse of an altogether higher order of existence. If anything, political and religious intrigue, not hashish, caused assassination. (Aldrich, 1978)

Hashish, the Holy food of Dervishes and Sufis

In his medieval dissertation on Hashish al-Badri referred to an elaborate hashish eating ritual attributed to a Shaykh Qalandar, which gives us some idea as to the piety and intent of the medieval mystics that were using the drug:

You must know that it behoves the intelligent, educated, virtuous, and sophisticated individual, who wishes to use this drug which has the advantage over wine of being lawful, to cleanse his body of impurity and his garments of stains and adorn himself with the acquisition of the virtues and to discard the commission of the vices. He must ask for it someone who knows its secret and disapproves of keeping it concealed, and eat it in his place and not partake of it in the company of non-users. He must hold it in his right, not in his left, and say:

“In the name of God, the Lord of the last world and the first, who brought forth the pasturage (qur’an 87: 4/4), created and then formed (87: 2/2), provided and gave, destined and guided (87: 3/3), and taught the secret and disclosed (it). May God pray for Muhammad, the prophet of right guidance, and his companions, the leader in piety! (I know) that you have deposited wisdom in Your creatures and created usefulness in the things You have made. You have shown their specific properties to those with whom You are pleased, and revealed their secrets to those whom You have chosen. You have managed this plant with Your wisdom, brought it forth with Your power, and made it a nourishment for many of Your creatures by Your decision, volition, power, and will. Thus I am asking you by Your generosity that encompasses the elite and the common people, to let me succeed in using it in obedience to You and with avoidance of any disobedience to You, that you remove from me desires with their hindrances, the doubts with their consequences, and the troubles with their disturbances, that You let me see the existent things that really are, and that you provide me with the benefits and ward off from me its harmful results, You who has the power over everything and sees every situation!”

He then puts it into his mouth, grinds… it very strongly (with his teeth), drinks (something to go) with it, moves his jaws, and sends it down into his guts. Then he praises God for his kindness. He cleanses his mouth of its remnants, washes his face, and raises his voice in song… for the Creator of beauty, for (beauty) provokes hashish intoxication… and rest. He rubs antimony on his teeth so that coarser souls… will not notice what is the matter with him, and he braids the hair of his beard. Cheerfulness (?) does not leave his mind, and he is restful (?) in the way he walks and in his commands and prohibitions. He uses the most delicate food and the noblest of sweet speech. He gazes at beautiful faces and sits in the most pleasant of places. He stays near where water is murmuring, and keeps company with experienced friends. He turns to reflecting about the cause and the thing caused, about doer and thing done, about event and result, about speaker and thing spoken, and about agent in sweetness (?) and the thing caused by action. In this condition, (enough) of the eternal knowledge of God and His universal grace emanates upon him to let him perceive the views and their meanings and to show him the things with their contents. He notices the heart with the eyes and controls the eyes with the hearts. He seperates from his idea of humanity and joins with the idea of divinity. The name of which the poor are known… becomes lawful for him in reality, and he reaches the degree of divine success… (al-Badri, 1463/Rosenthal, 1971)

Shayk Qalandar warned against the improper use of cannabis and also against revealing its secrets to the common people, “dissimulation was considered necessary to throw the uninitiated off the users scent…” (Rosenthal, 1971).

…[T]here can be little doubt that hashish was rather widely employed by… [Sufis] as a… aid for achieving enlargement of the individual’s… spiritual perceptions. By tasting the “secret” and the “meaning” of hashish, Sufis… hoped to gain… mystic experience… they made… the use of the drug “an act of worship”… (Rosenthal, 1971)

According to legend, hashish was first introduced to the Sufis by the Persian Isma’ili Shayk Haydar (1155-1221) who was discussed earlier for his preference of hashish over wine, although some sources claim he mixed the two.  “A tincture of hemp leaves in wine or spirit seems to have been the favorite formula in which Sheikh Haidar indulged himself” (Pharmacal Advance, 1930). It has also been claimed Haydar was also the source of the penetration of cannabis in the Islamic world (Houtsma, et al., 1936/1993).

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.

As Ahmet Karamustufa notes in his excellent  God’s Unruly Friends: Dervish Groups in the Islamic Later Middle Period, 1200-1550, Sufi groups like that formed around the teachings of Shayk Qalandar and Shayk Haydar were criticized for their traditional pre-Islamic Persian influences.  In 761/1359-60 a decree was issued which “forbade the Qalandars to shave and dress in the manner of Iranians and magi” (Karamustafa, 2006).

In the Syrian and Egyptian cultural spheres, the Qalandariyah appears to have continued throughout the seventh-eighth/thirteenth-fourteenth centuries mostly as an Iranian group… also the Haydariyah… were viewed as foreign, predominantly Iranian, phenomena. (Karamustafa, 2006)

Other sects, however, regarded their traditional use of cannabis, as part of the typically Biblical and Islamic tradition. There is a huge Islamic cannabis tradition based around the prophet Elijah, under the name Khidr, to be discussed shortly, but the fascinating medieval band of musical dervishes known as the Abdals of Rum, believed their own copious use of hashish could be traced back to the earliest of Biblical figures.

…Abdals maintained that the Prophet Adam was their model for many of their practices. When he was expelled from Paradise, Abdals explained, Adam was completely naked except for a fig-leaf that he used to cover his private parts and had to survive on “green leaves” only. Similarly, Abdals wandered around naked except for a tennure symbolizing Adam’s fig-leaf and consumed hashish (“green leaves”) in considerable quantities. Their nudity was a symbol of “tearing the garment of the body” and the nothingness of this world. Hashish was a means to find respite from the unreal phenomena of time and space and to attain the hidden nature of reality.

….They were very fond of food (a long list of dishes is provided). The meals were followed by hashish-taking and musical sessions… They normally slept on the ground and were awakened with the sound of a horn, a symbol of the trumpets of archangel Israfil: thus every morning was likened to resurrection. Abdals were fee from all prescribed religious observances since they were not really in this world at all. (Karamustafa, 2006)

A member of the Abdals of Rum sect of dervishes. From Nicolas de Nicolay Daulphinoys, The Navigations, Peregrinations, and Voyages, Made into Turkie by Nicholas Nicholay Daulphinois, trans. T. Washington the Younger (London: Thomas Dawson, 1585)

The Abdals were also particularly devoted to Muhammad’s son in Law Ali, who we discussed for his influence over Ismaili sects like the Hashishin. “A picture of ‘Ali’s sword was drawn or his name was written on their chests… Their true guide was Ali” (Karamustafa, 2006). That the Abdals use of hashish was done with true Islamic religious intent is amply demonstrated by the contemporary account of the sect by the 16th century writer Giovanni Antonio Menavino:

….After the meal, the chief rises to his feet and the rest do likewise. They say a prayer to God and then all cry out in a loud voice Alacabu Eilege, that is, may God accept this our prayer. Also among them are certain youths called cuccegler, who carry in certain hand-trays a pulverized herb called asseral, [hashish]which, when eaten, makes one merry just as if one had drunk wine. First the chief then all the others in order take this into their hands and eat, and this done, read of the book of the new story. (Menavino, 16th century)

After the story, music and dancing ensued in an ecstatic hashish intoxicated form of medieval worship. The Abduls “were very fond of consuming hashish and wine. They… claim to have completely subdued the animal soul and to have attained the state of ‘death before death’” (Karamustafa, 2006).

Similar practices can be found with the Bektashi Dervishes, and for centuries they have been referred to for smoking “hashish… in a ceremonial way” (Stauth, 2015). “Bektashi poetry speaks eloquently and frequently of hashish and opium as paths to the divine” (Jay, 1999). Opium and hashish were “held by dervishes to secret kaif, or the quintessence of the soul. The Bektashi order was said… to make naked novices, under its influence, take secret vows… Mixed with costly spices it became baharab and took one to paradise” (Goodwin, 2013). Kaygusuz Abdal, was a famous Fifteenth-century Bektashi Dervish poet whose name, Kaygusuz, is a catch word for hashish, and this has been interpreted by some scholars as a pseudonym implying that he was a hashish addict and was reputed to have composed many of his poems in a trance under the herb’s effects. Mark Sedgwick refers to the Giovanni Antonio Menavino’s account of the Bektashi from Trattato dei costumi dei Turchi, published in 1548 in Venice: “The ‘dervishes’ (Bektashis) are ‘very merry people.’ Their use of powdered hashish (asseral) to make them ‘intoxicated’ (imbriaco) is noted but not condemned” (Sedgwick, 2016). “One wonders whether Manavino himself has become a Bektashi, as his detailed knowledge of the Bektashis could hardly have been acquired by means other than participant observation, and the Bektashis were present at the Ottoman court” (Sedgwick, 2016). 

A 19th century illustration of a Bektashi dervish partaking of hashish

In The Dervishes, Or, Oriental Spiritualism, John Porter offers some enlightening insights about the use of Hashish in the Islamic world:

The first intention of Hasheesh was evidently not as a stimulant. It was intended as a “spiritual” soporific, producing that quiescence of soul so dear to Orientals, and known throughout all the regions under Arabian influence by the name of “Kaif.” But this stolid annihilation of ideas was not sufficient for the more exalted natures; these found a higher power in the drug — that of raising the imagination until it attained to a beatified realization of the joys of a future world. (Brown, 1868)

Another 19th century Persian scholar, Edward G. Browne noted in A Chapter from the History of Cannabis Indica,

…It is known generally as hashish – an Arabic word meaning cut grass or dried herbs, – or by its Persian name, bang. Besides these there are special preparations known by special names, such as chars, barsh, [related to barsom?]and hub-i-nishat, or “pills of delight,” of which preparations the first is smoked, the last two eaten… At present as I am informed by one of my Persian friends, the method most fashionable amongst the dervishes of Tehran is to employ the bug-i-wahadat, or “trumpet of unity.” A small piece of paper or cardboard is rolled up into the shape of a funnel, of which the smaller end of the funnel is placed in the mouth. A piece of chars, laid on the lighted end of a cigarette, is then held under the larger end of the funnel, and the smoke of the burning hemp is then inhaled. The effects of the drug are produced much more rapidly when it is smoked than when it is eaten. Subjectively it produces an extraordinary dislocation of the ideas of times, space and personality…it seems that all those present in the assembly are in reality animated by one spirit and that the barricades of personality and individuality are, in some inexplicable way, broken down. It is this sensation or illusion which is specially craved after by the dervishes, who find therein a foretaste of Nirvana, or Absorption into the Universal Spirit, which is the aim of their pantheistic mysticism to attain; and this is the “unity” alluded to in the name of the bug-i-wahadat of which I have spoken. (Browne, 1897)

Edward G. Browne

The sense of ego-obliteration, or what one medieval hashish using poet saw as the “removal from existence in existence,” possible with cannabis preparations, as in the case of the bug-i-wahadatin in the description above, was likened to  a mortal death in medieval literature. This was also true of the use of hashish itself, which had to be sacrificed, i.e. eaten, to have an effect, “puns on the term ‘to kill’ [were]used in connection with the preparation and use of hashish… {A] play upon the ‘killing’ of hashish… is apparently the case in a verse stating that ‘the green one’ is ‘a hashishah that makes every man a hashishi (assassin) unbeknown to himself’ ” (Rosenthal, 1971).

The Green One

Khizr, the Green One, the Patron saint of cannabis in the Islamic world

In medieval Islam a magical saint came to be the personification of hashish. As Franz Rosenthal explains cannabis’ “green color enabled hashish to claim the famous al-Khidr ‘the green one’ as its patron saint” (Rosenthal, 1971). As recorded by the medieval poet Fuzuli, both Hashish and Khizr shared the epithet of the “Green One,” and Sufi Mystics referred to the use of hashish as the “visit of the green Khidr,” (Rosenthal, 1971). As J.M. Campbell recorded of Khizr’s relationship with cannabis in his classic 1894 essay, On the Religion of Hemp:

In his devotion to bhang, with reverence, not with the worship, which is due to Allah alone, the North Indian Mussulman joins hymning to the praise of bhang.  To the follower of the later religion of Islam the holy spirit in bhang is not the spirit of the Almighty, it is the spirit of the great prophet Khizr, or Elijah.  That bhang should be sacred to Khizr is natural, Khizr is the patron saint of water.  Still more 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.”  The prophet Khizr or the green prophet cries “May the drink be pleasing to thee.” (Campbell, 1894)

Drugs in Arabic Magic

Magic in the Islamic world, was a carryover from that of the ancient, as well as from foreign influences and Cannabis and other psychoactive plants held the same profound role in Islamic magic as it did with its predecessors. Numbers of references to their use, can be found up until the modern day in this context. As the tenth century Arabic grimoire Ghayat AlHakim, which prescribed cannabis’ use, along with that of opium, mandrake and other potent psychoactive substances in various recipes, recorded:

“…the Indian cannabis has so many functions and the Indians use it mostly in their incense mixture that is used in the temples and some people prefer it more then the dregs of the wine and Yanbushath said it is also called the Chinese seed.”

Ghayat AlHakim*

*[translation from (Hashem Atallah, 2002) edition]

In the 19th century, Sir Richard Burton noted of the Mid Eastern use of hashish, in relation to the medieval tales of The Arabian Nights “This intoxicant was much used by magicians to produce ecstasy and thus to ‘deify themselves and receive the homage of the genii and nature spirits’” (Burton, 1885). As Robert Lebling notes, in Legends of the Fire Spirits: Jinn and Genies from Arabia to Zanzibar, hashish was associated with Jinn magic well into the 19th century, if not likely in some areas to the present day. Lebling refers to accounts recorded by Abd al-Rahman Isma’il, a “sceptic and rationalist that… believed the Jinn manifestations he described were illusions caused by hashish” (Lebling, 2010).  Isma’il referred to a drug known as Shabhaba, used by an Islamic witch, Sheikha Khadra al-Aswanija al-Sufiya, to aid women in controlling lustfully straying husbands. Black dresses, and black dye on the face and hands, accompanied by ritual incantations as well “a type of incense was burned that included hashish and a medicinal gum called anzarut (sarcocol)” (Lebling, 2010).

With the help of the incense and its effects, the atmosphere darkens and the Sheikha begins her invocation, as recorded by Isma’il:“Good evening to you, oh stars of the evening! Oh, yellow ones like apricots… Oh, Glorious Venus with the wakeful eyes!… Good evening to you, oh Sindas! [Sindas is said to be the name of the god of lust and debauchery]…”* At this point the Sheikha refers to the women’s vagina, and reveals it, beating it seven times with a dandle, causing Sinda to appear., and intones further “Oh, Sindas! You have helpers!Oh, Sindas! Where are your brethren!”*. After some more prayers and invocations, “Oh, whirlwind! Oh, clever one! You have satins with you! Drag him and beat him, and carry him away to the home of this poor woman, and leave him there” a  “ number of ‘Helpers’ — that is, jinn — arrive in various shapes and sizes. They listen to the commands of the Sheikha and then respectfully hurry off to implement them” (Lebling, 2010).

* As quoted in (Lebling, 2010).

Reminiscent of the view of emerging Renaissance Scientists in regards to the medieval witches drug induced night flights to the Sabbath, on “reflection, Isma’il decided that the appearance of jinn and other mystical aspects in the ceremony he described must have been ‘imaginings’ caused by the hashish and other intoxicants” (Lebling, 2010). Isma’il said this act would “stupefy the ‘remnant’ of reason in the Woman” and this allowed for her disturbed vision to imagine the arrival of the various, jinn and deities invoked. “Despite the good doctor’s scepticism and the stern warnings of religious conservatives, jinn-summoning and jinn-propitating rituals have retained their popularity in Egypt, Sudan and other nearby countries” (Lebling, 2010).

Ibn Wahshiya’s 10th century work, the Book of Poisons, describes an interesting ritual where as part of preparation of cannabis, (which was made potentially toxic with the edition of Narcissus) was buried in a “casket” as a sort of symbolic death, and then dug up and resurrected and prepared with various aromatics.

Hashish which grows on the borders of the country of Bajarma  is taken. In Nabatean, it is called shartatha. Description: It grows in austere places where here is neither water nor moisture. Its leaf is like the leaf of the caper tree; its stem is round and has yellowness in it. The tallest of them is a cubit. Its characteristic is that it always seems to be in motion even if there is not a breeze in the air. If the wind blows, it is set into a continuous motion. If there be no wind, it is in a slight motion and swings, little by little. Its odor is like that of the caper and often lighter than it. Some of it is taken, pulverized, and then water drawn from a very deep well is sprinkled on it. Its liquid is then squeezed out and it is very well exhausted. Then a slice of the green bulb of the narcissus is well dried in the sun, pulverized, and moistened with the extract obtained from the hashish. Indeed, a curious thing arises when they are mixed. It is that they become a lethal poison whereas, as simples, they have no effect. The moistening is continued, then dried, so that three times its amount must be absorbed of the hashish extract. Then it is buried in a black lead vessel which is in the shape of a casket with its cover. It remains in its stink for fourteen days; the moon must be with Mars when it is buried. It is then taken out. It must be moist with the extract which you admixed when it was buried. After it is taken out, it is dried well in the sun in the lead vessel. When its drying is completed, it must be pulverized together with the bones of any dead animal in the lead vessel so that it becomes a dust. This is made possible by pulverizing little by little, continuously, and softening very well. Then this is mixed  with musk, ambergris, camphor, any kind of odoriferous substance, or any aromatics; these are sprinkled on it because it soon sticks to everything, especially to that which has even a little moisture. It may also be mixed with any oil; it may be used with a mixture of these. If it reaches the nose, a violent tickle occurs in the nose of this man, then in his face. His face and eyes are affected by an extreme and intensive burning; he does not see anything and cannot say what he wishes. He swoons, then recovers, swoons [again], and recovers [again]. He goes on in this way until he dies. A violent anxiety and fainting goes on until he succumbs, after a day, a day and a half, or more. If it is protracted, it may take two days. For these aromatics, there is no remedy. But if God wills to save him, he may be spared from death by the continuance of vomiting or by another natural reaction.*

*[As translated in (Levy, 1966)]

Seeing the  the use of Hashish among the sufis and dervishes of his day, as  the product of both foreign contamination and demonic influences, al-Badria wrote that while worshiping an idol,  an Indian shaykh, Bir Ratan,  heard the voice of Satan speak from with in it, introducing him to hashish and teaching him the the art of its preparation. al-Badri also decried a similar devilish recipe hashish among the “Anatolians  known as t-f-r-y:

“When at the end of autumn and in winter, one can find only dry leaves of uncultivated whose properties have weakened because of the evaporation of humidity, they add to each nine parts of cultivated hemp, which has been kept fermenting (?) … for a while, one part or more of cow dung to serve as ferment in place of the leaves of uncultivated hemp. They say ‘If we put the cow dung in the mass of fermentation, it comes to light, hot, and very potent… If it does not contain any dung, it comes out heavy, crude, and uneven.’ They then ferment it with urine and soak it in it until it starts to decompose and worms are generated in it. If the worms are slow in coming they squeeze out rags with menstrual blood, and if they do not find any, they take spilled blood… and leave it there for a week until it swarms with worms. They then pulverize it for a complete blending of the parts. Then they sift the mass. Others do not sift it but form it into pills and leave it in the shade until it dries.”  Al-Badri is happy to report that this was also the method recommended by satan to the Indian Bir Ratan. As an additional Satanic trick, he ordered his son and his cohorts to put their urine on all intoxicating plants without people seeing them do it so that hashish was defiled by Satanic human urine openly and by Satanic Jinn urine secretly. (Rosenthal, 1971)

Although this Satanic recipe seems like the medieval Islamic version of ‘reefer madness’, when one reads some of the instructions for the preparation of drugs in the 10th century Islamic grimoire, the Ghayat AlHakim, known in the West as The Picatrix, that include things like human bodily fluids and bodily parts, alongside potent psychoactive plants, such as mandrake, henbane, opium and others, so it can not be completely ruled out as a work of fantasy.

Typically witch drugs of the early medieval period contained substances like Datura, henbane and mandrake, and it is believed by some sources, that these came into European practice via Arabic traditions. These substances are so potent that the safest way to take them was topically as they could easily prove fatal if ingested in too strong a dose.  “Datura… likely came into Europe proper centuries before the Age of Exploration by way of Arabic learners living in Al Andalus (i.e., modern Spain)” (Hatsis, 2015). This Arabic connection to Datura use, was was also noted by Idries Shah , and he felt the same path was followed by Mandrake as well. Noting the use of both plants by certain dervish groups connected with the Brujas of medieval Spain,  he referred to how mandrake and Datura “were reputed to have been used by witches, to induce visions, sensations of flying and in rituals” (Shah, 1964).

In The Sufis, Idries Shaw tells us there is an Arab origin for the European witches: “Who brought the witches to the West?  In the medieval form, from which most of our information derives, undoubtedly the Aniza tribe” (Shah, 1964).  Pointing to evidence like the similarities between the witches circle and the circular dance of the medieval dervishes, Arab words used in witches’ spells, and the use of hallucinogenic plants and ointments in both systems, Shah puts forth a reasonable argument that modern witches can find at least a part of their origin in a group founded by Abu el-Atahiyya (748–828):

His circle of disciples, the Wise Ones, commemorated him in a number of ways after his death.  To signify his tribe, they adopted the goat, cognate with his tribal name (Anz, Aniza).  A torch between goat horns (‘the devil’ in Spain as it later became) symbolized for them the light of illumination from the intellect (head) of the ‘goat,’ the Aniza teacher.  His wasm (tribal brand) was very much like a broad arrow, also called an eagle’s foot.  This sign, known to the witches as the goosefoot, became the mark for their places of meeting.  After Atahiyya’s death before the middle of the ninth century, tradition has it that a group from his school migrated to Spain, which had been under Arab rule for over a century at that time. (Shaw, 1964)

Like the taboos around witch drugs and their devilish associations, the Islamic detractors of cannabis portrayed the herb, as a “devil’s weed”.  In opposition to the praise of the drug by a segment of Sufis and Dervishes, in the mind of some medieval Islamic clergy, the seductive powers of Hashish, garnered the name ‘the huntress’ by “Satan and his cohorts,” and to use it was keeping company with the devil. Moreover “it was food for the devil, as wine was the devil’s drink”  and that to prohibit hashish and wine was to deny “Iblis” (Satan), “of his water and his fodder” (Rosenthal, 1971). As the medieval Islamic Theologian Ibn Taymiyah, (1263-1328) recorded in the  Siyassah: “By God, Iblis [Satan] has never had any joy like the one he has from hashish because he made it appear nice to vile souls so that they considered it lawful and permissible.”*

*As quoted in (Rosenthal, 1971).

The medieval Islamic scholar al-Badri (1443-1489), Seems to have been  particularly incensed against the use of cannabis and its by products. Among the collection of alleged quotations he collected demonizing the drug, we find the following apocryphal statement attributed to Muhammad’s friend and ally, Hudhayfah b. al-Yaman;

“I went together with the Prophet into the countryside. He saw a tree and shook his head. I asked him why he was shaking his head, and he replied: ‘A time will come upon my nation when they will eat from the leaves of this tree and get intoxicated. They are the worst of the worst. They are the bira of my nation, as God has nothing to do with them.’”*

*[As quoted in (Rosenthal, 1971)]

Alchemical connections

Arab Alchemists discussing the art

Geber, the 9th century alchemist is considered by some as ‘the father of chemistry’, a science which of course originated with the occult art of alchemy, and his works particularly have been noted for their Ismaili persuasion, and it has long been suggested that the “Jabirean [Geber] corpus of texts belonged to the… Ismaili movement” (Daftary, 2012). “Jabir [Geber]… was an alchemist… He was a member of the Hashashins,  radical group that took part in political murders, reportedly under the influence of hashish” (Bell, 2008). Geber “has been acknowledged by both the Arab and European alchemists as the patron of the art since the eighth century”(Shah, 1964). Dr. M. Aldrich has commented that “skilled alchemists with pretty classy lab equipment experimented with all kinds of potions; if Geber and others could distill alcohol, they could have made hashish (or even hash oil), and, indeed, Geber included banj among his powerful prescriptions” (Aldrich, 1978).

Ibn Arabai, the Sufi mystic, philosopher and Saint “presented alchemy as a veritable spiritual technique”(Eliade, 1985). The Islamic theologist and polymath al-Taftazani suggested of the mystical  and alchemical writings of Ibn ‘Arabi were “disorderly visions and ravings… instilled in him by his addiction to hashish”  and “apart from being an infidel was also a hashish-eater”(Knysh, 1999).

Like Ibn Arabi, Avicenna saw alchemy as more of a spiritual process and as well shared a deep interest in cannabis. Avicenna, Ibn Sina, (980-1030) is probably best known for his contributions to medicine, and his works, after being translated into Latin became deeply influential in Medieval and renaissance Europe. Avicenna wrote of the inebriating substance ‘hushish’ [hashish], prepared from the plants bruised leaves, as well as the drink made from the plant, under the name ‘banghie’, (Ainslie, 1826). “In his Canon on pharmacology he named over 760 drugs and chemicals, many used by alchemists and physicians (e.g. narcotics such as opium, cannabis, mandragora, and hemlock)… Avicenna was among the first of several medieval skeptics who questioned the transmutations of metals and minerals into gold” (Krebs, 2004).A 1595 edition of  Avicennae Arabum Medicorum Principis Canon Medicinae ex Gerardi Cremonensis versione, etc., ‘Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine, by the Prince of Arab Physicians, according to Gerard of Cremona’s Version, etc.’, holds a number of entries under cannabis, including cannabis and other pulverized herbs infused in wine, as well as an elaborate sounding combination of herbs, including cannabis, poppy and harmaline containing  Syrian rue seeds, under the elaborate sounding name Confectio Cognominata Imperialis (Confection Named Imperial). Avicenna’s connection with cannabis based medicines was strong enough that The Pharmacopoeia of Bauderon written in 1681 refers to “Cannabis ex Avicenna,” in reference to the herb.

“Ibn Sina (Avicenna) introduced neo-Platonism into Islamic philosophy. Neo-Platonic theory of emanation of nature from God especially appealed to the Sufis… the distinction between the individual and the absolute vanished; the Sufi proclaimed himself thus: I am the Truth, I am the Reality. Sometimes this conclusion was reached by artificial means, by adequate dose of hashish.” (Chatterji, 1973).

The Decline of Islamic Hashish Culture

In no small way, European influences on Islamic culture in the 19th century saw considerable decline of the hashish ingesting faqirs, sufis and mendicants that had always played some part in the Islamic community, albeit often as an antinomian force on the fringes of society.

Although, through vows of renunciation and chastity faqirs often owned no more than a few rags, a pipe for hashish and a begging bowl, they were viewed by much of Islamic culture as holy men, “intoxicated” by their closeness to God, who were in a perpetual state of ‘not-of-this earth’, and thus above the religious the laws of the common worshipper. “Such figures were regarded as majzubs, persons whose state of permanent and enraptured ‘closeness’ (qurbat) or attraction (jazb) to God rendered them the ideal intercessors and workers of wonders. As such, their every transgression was permissible, since it was necessarily committed through divine dispensation” (Green, 2009). Cannabis played a clear and prominent role in producing this state of divine intoxications. “Like his Hindu brother the Musalman fakir reveres bhang as the lengthener of life, the freer from the bonds of self. Bhang brings union with the Divine Spirit” (Campbell, 1894).

Despite their abject poverty, many faqirs and sufis were made rich daily in generous food donations by members of the community, These donations of food given to these faqirs were often delicately prepared and shared in large open gatherings that extolled a party like atmosphere. Such dervish figures at the centre of this were a remnant of the ecstatic worship of much more ancient times, and their music filled banquets, with dancing and copious use of hashish, offered a sort of sacred carnival like form of worship as an alternative to the more ascetic and dour practices of the majority of Islamic culture.

When the English and other European countries sought to establish their dominance in the Mid-East and India, they were distressed to find these unruly, half-naked and cannabis intoxicated rebels that were a common and even popular site in many Islamic communities. The British had “culturally protestant notions of what constituted true religion as opposed to superstition and charlantry… the religious forms associated with the faqir …raised the greatest contempt…”(Green, 2009).

….While many senior officials expressed a diplomatic ambivalence towards drug-use (sometimes framed in terms of ganja’s beneficial effects on productivity), in matters of religion the issue was more clear: intoxication played no part in ‘true religion’, whether Muslim or Christian. The drug using faqir was by definition a ‘charlatan’… who clothed his degeneracy in the robes of religion. When combined with the rise of a new class of bourgeois Muslim reformers, this critique was to have tremendous implications in Hyderabad and beyond for the disciplining effects of ‘religion’ reconceived as modern discourse. So successful has this notion of ‘true religion’ been in commercial academic culture that the qualifier (‘true’) is typically implicit in the broader category (‘religion’). This is especially the case with regard to Islam, whose inclusive realm was reduced by the course of colonial history. (Green, 2009)

Further, the envoys of the British and other European countries with Imperialistic ideals were shocked when such intoxicated half naked faqirs publicly cheered and ridiculed them, acting with all the audacity and authority of beggar kings. As George Orwell, who for a time served as a Burmese police officer, wrote, “Every white man’s life in the East was one long struggle not to be laughed at” (Orwell, 1971). It did not take long for shock to grow into boiling anger, as the ‘disrespectful’ antics of these Holy clowns, or ‘wise-guys’ resulted in the laugher and amusement of the common people the Europeans desired to dominate, and such perceived ‘disrespect’ could not long be tolerated. “The faqir, whose religious status and time-honored freedoms lent him a considerable degree of free expression, was emerging as quite literally the voice of the Muslim ‘street’” (Green, 2009).

We can easily imagine the impression made by the drugged and dirty faqirs on the British. In the… 1893 colonial Report on the Cultivation and Use of Ganja, we read how “by means of considerable doses of bhang frequently repeated, [mendicants]induce a condition of frenzy which is supposed to indicate supernatural  ‘possession’”…  Order needed to be maintained: whatever ‘superstitions’ the locals might attach to these figures, the streets where sahibs walked had to be free from the haranguing of intoxicated beggars. (Green, 2009)

British and European anger over the antics and the blatant disrespect of these faqirs, was thus clearly combined with “legal and moral confoundment at this new mode of intoxication, so far detached from the beer and whiskey-soda of the European clubs and barracks in India” (Green, 2009).

The ‘unruly’ political influence of these hashish ingesting faqirs on the common people was but one aspect of European concerns. In Islam and the Army in Colonial India: Sepoy Religion in the Service of Empire, Nile Green discusses the influence of hashish ingesting faqirs and mendicants on Islamic soldiers in service of the British Raj. “In imputing a substitute for the authority of the officer’s rank and the agency of the soldier’s effort, the alternative authority of the miraculous holy man had the potential to undermine the organizational basis of the modern army” (Green, 2009). Many Islamic soldiers were attending the hashish and music fuelled banquets held by the faqirs, and as a result being influenced by their faqirs disrespect and jeering of the European military commanders who ruled over them. But the issues of concern here went far beyond the mere disruption of the military hierarchy, and the faqirs were viewed by the British as rabble rousing resistors to the take-over by the British Raj in India. Further, such ‘political’ resistance of faqirs against Europeans was in no way confined to India.

…[T]he ‘dervish’ army of millenarian  Mahdi of Sudan and the Sufi militia of Naqshhbandi initiates led by Imam Shamil that held at bay Russia’s march into the Caucasus are merely the two most famous examples of organized Muslim ascetic resistance to European empire-building… nineteenth-century travelers to Iran… frequently met with hostility from the faqirs they encountered in the streets, public spaces that the faqirs in  a sense owned as permanent residents of the urban outdoors… faqirs… clown’s freedom served as a role of increasing political importance as both Iranian and Indian elites entered alliances with the European powers.… In James Fairweathers’ memoirs of fighting the rebels of 1857,  he recalled a skirmish… with a group of around 200 mujahadin, noting that ‘many of them were so drugged with bhang that they did not know  whether they were striking with the flat or the edge of their swords’. (Green, 2009)

Such rabble rousing and unruly aspects of Islamic culture, who would not be swayed by the European’s promises of power and riches as were the upper class ruling Islamic elite, were not to go unchallenged, particularly by the British Raj.

….Unable to intervene in religious matters by explicit dint of colonial policy, the British in India… faced the perplexing dilemma in the insulting antics of such figures… taunting them… as they passed in the streets… [I]t was here the new laws on insanity and vagrancy proved useful. For if the faqir’s activities could not be prohibited so long as they were regarded as part of the autonomous sphere of ‘religion’ – which the British were compelled to at least make a show of respect for…  the problem of silencing the faqirs… disappeared if his deeds could instead be classified as those of a madman. (Green, 2009)

Thus, in order to rid these streets of these unruly hashish intoxicated “madmen” new British legislation was drawn up in Colonial India “including legislation on drug use and the incarceration of mendicants in India’s insane asylums” (Green, 2009).

The import of the faqirs reckless jeers, his nakedness and his open drug-use were for these reasons reinterpreted in official policy as signs of his insanity and his ‘anti-social’ character. Given the widespread role of faqirs…, the expanded role of the asylum was therefore one of several ways in which these unruly agitators were controlled. By these means, the social meaning of the faqir was reversed: his activities were no longer evidence of jazb, of sweet intoxication in God’s presence, but proof instead of insanity. (Green, 2009)

This British agenda in India, fit in well with contemporary medical views about what constituted insanity. In Madness, Cannabis and Colonialism: The ‘Native Only’ Lunatic Asylums of British India, 1857-1900, James Mill’s explains.

The constant reference to the lunatic asylum in British India in discussions of cannabis and cannabis users is the first clue in traces origins of those discussions. Mark Stewart… specifically referred to the asylums in his question to Parliament… ‘The Commissioner has always looked on a ganja-smoker and a bad character as synonymous, and has, in his connection with lunatic asylums in different parts of Bengal, observed that in large numbers of cases insanity has been induced by excessive ganja-smoking.’…

The asylum was important as it was the site of… the categorization and the enumeration of cannabis use as a social problem…

….Through this process at the asylum the use of cannabis substances among the Indian population became crystallized as a category of social problem by the colonial authorities through the invention of the hemp user as a dangerous human type.

….cannabis use by 1871/3 was associated by colonial officials with… immorality, suicide, the murder of Christians, and even the revolt against British authority of 1857. The cannabis user was identified as a human type, seen as unpredictable, [and]violent… (Mills, 2000)

As Nile Green explains: “The genealogy of mental pathology in Victorian British through the ideas of social reform and the earlier Enlightenment ideology of reason lent colonial medicine a complex politico-cultural agenda based on an ingrained bourgeois association between work and morality on the one hand and notions of self-control based on the characteristically British formulation of ‘common sense’ on the other” (Green, 2009). These ideas also fit in well with emerging ideas about external “stimulants” as the source of insanity.

Throughout the nineteenth century medical men in Europe were struggling to assert their authority over the psyche… doctors needed to prove that the brain and its working were properly their concern and not the concern of other professional groups like the clergy who could claim specialists knowledge of the routes to psychological well-being… Indeed the emphasis on an external stimulant as a cause of insanity corresponded neatly with contemporary medical theories that ‘the brain, as a material organ was liable to irritation and inflammation and it was this which produced insanity,’ theories which insisted upon the physiological basis of mental illness in order to assert the jurisdiction of medical men over insanity. Blaming hemp was a simple and plausible way of ascribing the aetiology of mental disease in India which thereby reinforced the medical officer’s claim that he knew what he was talking about. (Mills, 2000)

The European view of “madness” was in clear conflict with long standing and more inclusive Islamic cultural traditions where “madness possessed a wider range of meaning… drawing on a specifically Islamic notion of the soul’s innate ‘attraction’ (jazb) towards the creator, certain expressions of madness could… be interpreted… as… [a]… special intimacy with God” (Green, 2009). The same could also be said for the consumption of hemp preparations and their effects, as both held a millennia long association with spiritual states in the area as well.

There were two stages by which cannabis use and users became categorized as a social problem in the asylums of colonial India. First, medical officers at the asylum came to believe that cannabis use was linked to insanity and violence in Indians. Second the officers used the asylum as a site where they could observe cannabis users and establish the distinguishing signs which marked them as a distinct human type to be watched over because of their dangerous potential….

The British superintendents of the asylums came to believe that cannabis was linked to insanity and violence as they were told by the policemen who had picked the inmates up that many of the people that they brought to the asylum were there because of excessive use of hemp. Perhaps more importantly, the doctors who received this police information had reasons not to dismiss this information and to note it in their records. (Mills, 2000)

As James Mills explains, “Medical officers… became convinced that they were observing many hemp users at asylums. In fact what they observed were individuals who had only come to their attention in the first place as their behaviour was so visibly disordered or disruptive that the police had felt it necessary to intervene and send them to an asylum. This person’s behaviour had been ascribed to use of cannabis preparations, often by Indian policemen who had very little evidence that this was indeed the case” (Mills, 2000).

Views of what constituted madness between colonial and Indo-Islamic medicine not only held considerable differences in its identification and qualification, but also, more importantly, treatment, or the perceived need thereof. “By the second half of the nineteenth century, this conflict of interpretations acquired institutional ramifications. The Indian ‘insane’ were no longer to be left to their own (or their kinsmen’s) devices but could now be forcibly incarcerated in the new institution of the asylum” (Green, 2009). As Green also notes: “Combined with the introduction of the workhouse for the undeserving (or ‘self-abusing’) and the poor, the threat that the authorities could incarcerate the mad or unruly had a literally sobering effect on public morality. In large part, the days of the raving and intoxicated faqir… were numbered” (Green, 2009).

….among the Indians listed in the ‘native only’ asylums of… Bombay… up to 1900, the predominant occupation recorded was that of “beggar, mendicant, fakir, etc.” ….What these data demonstrates is the use of the asylum in a colonial anti-vagrant policy of clearing the streets of ‘insane’ mendicants…. Caught in the midst of this unofficial policy of clearing the streets were considerable numbers of faqirs. What were too many Indians wandering holy men, begging and openly smoking cannabis in accordance with long-established custom, were in the gaze of colonial officialdom seen instead as a public nuisance that needed to be controlled. (Green, 2009)

As Nile Green has clearly documented “the use of cannabis was central to this process” as identified in the “importance lent to ganja and bhang as a purported cause of insanity in asylum reports” (Green, 2009).

…..[C]olonial debates about morality and madness… were… characterized by arguments over the social and psychological effects of cannabis [which was]…suspected for its connection to the moral disintegration through which insanity was widely understood and thence described in asylum reports. Indeed, one of the central preoccupations and connected the asylum policy to debates in parliament in London, was the specific relationship between cannabis and insanity. This was not unique to India. The re-establishment of the Cairo asylum under British supervision in 1894 was accompanied by similar investigations of the effects of cannabis use on the inmates, research which was explicitly framed with regard to the more extensive data drawn from India. The annual reports compiled in India’s native asylum during the last decades of the nineteenth century by the directors of numerous native asylums delineated in fine detail the newly found ‘scientific’ connection between cannabis and madness, drawing conclusions which pointed beyond purely mechanical causality towards the notions of moral corruption  that would prove so amenable to political rhetoric… with the rise of the cannabis question over the following decades, the figures recorded  [for incarceration in asylums]for the use of charas, bhang and ganja became increasingly detailed. By 1891, some fifty-six of the 162 people confined to… [one British run Indian]asylum were classified as being insane due to use of one or other of these preparations of cannabis… some 203 of the 961 persons detained in the native asylums in 1891 were registered as insane through the abuse of drugs or spirits. (Green, 2009)

Further, “the statistics of the asylums were directly responsible for governmental decisions about cannabis use and cannabis users” (Mills, 2000), and this would have a lasting effect on Indian and Arabic cannabis policies to the present. In regards to India’s fakirs and mendicants, as Nile Green concludes, despite “an official policy of religious toleration, through colonial discourse of insanity and its institutional expression in the asylum,… the faqir’s lifestyle was gradually criminalized by stealth”:

Coupled with wider colonial attitudes towards disparaging the ‘idle’ naked mendicant, such policies carried a clear moral message of self-restraint and sobriety that would also find echo in the new bourgeois religious movements that flourished under colonial rule. While the faqir’s métier would certainly outlive the raj, new limitations on his public role were now established” (Green, 2009).

Although for the most part, but a shadow of its former self, despite these exhaustive attempts at prohibition, the use of hashish with the same spiritual intent as that of the faqirs, sufis, Hashishins and other Islamic groups, has survived into the modern day. Such hashish ingesting devotees in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, who use cannabis products, are practicing a spiritual technique that predates Islam and goes back at least four millennia in those areas. Chris Turner’s 2007 film A Life in Hashistan clearly documents the continuation of these practices with decades worth of fascinating footage. Also showing that the traditions of music filled hashish parties, like those held by the naked faqirs, are still in vogue in some regions, more recently, the UK newspaper, The Guardian, ran a story on Pakistan’s ‘heretical’ Muslims, that details such activity:

Pakistan’s ‘heretical’ Muslims Increasingly threatened by religious extremists, Sufis are the inheritors of a tradition that predates Islam in south Asia

Recently, the shrines of locally revered Sufi mystic saints – where music and dancing are common occurrences – have come under threat following a series of attacks on places used for spiritual practices not tolerated by orthodox sects….

Earlier this summer, a weekly ritual that has taken place for several hundred years at the shrine of a Sufi saint in Lahore was abruptly discontinued due to bomb threats. In an unprecedented move, the police clamped down on the procession, causing a scuffle to break out as the saint’s adherents resisted. The shrine, dedicated to the highly revered Baba Shah Jamal, who lived in the city in the 16th-17th century, is famous for this ritual, which is usually attended by thousands of people. Over the years, the procession, centered on the hypnotic drum-beat of a dhol and dancing mystics and dervishes, has developed a reputation as a den of hashish-smoking and debauchery.

Though it was widely known that hashish and bhang (a cannabis drink) were consumed openly during the ritual, all this was done under the eye of the police, who would respect certain cultural norms. However, the threat from militants made the authorities err on the side of caution by putting an end to the festivities in order to avoid an attack in the crowded area.

….Imagine a suicide bomber amid the thousands of attendees, rubbing shoulders in a haze of smoke across the courtyard and adjacent graveyard of Shah Jamal. Though the would-be bomber and the dervish dancing in intoxication seem diametrically opposed, both are vying for some sort of union with the divine. Their expressions of this desire are vastly different, however. While one is a brutally violent explosion of hatred, the other is an introspective and spiritual dance of love.

Dance is a popular spiritual expression at shrines such as Shah Jamal. Many aspiring fakirs, aided by the hypnotic beats, dance to find a centre within their bodies and an opportunity to connect with the centre of the universe. The symbol of the lover dancing ecstatically in the presence of the beloved expresses musical and bodily harmony.

Physical or emotional intoxication goes hand in hand with the idea of drowning in music, recalling the relation between spiritual ecstasy and intoxication in Sufi culture and poetry. With regard to the culture of smoking hashish in Sufi shrines, Noman ul-Haq, professor of social sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, says that while intoxicants like hashish have always featured in the rituals in some way, it has always been “a hush-hush affair”. Social anthropologist Lukas Werth recalls one of the adherents claiming that “charas [cannabis]is a bus driver to God”. In this sense, Lukas suggests, the intoxicant is seen as a “method to open the mind for the divine”…. intoxication has been a part of the Sufi discourse for more than 1,000 years…

The culture of shrine visitation predates Islam in south Asia. The Sufi saints who have inspired cult followings were radical poets, social critics, and reformers who travelled to areas such as the Punjab through Persia, often on foot. Their message was simply one of peace, love, tolerance, and of introspection dedicated to exploring the divine within the boundaries of human experience. (Akhtar, 2009).

More recently Hammad Khan wrote in his article ‘Hashish, Sufism and modernity’ about the use of hashish at the shrine of Shah Jamal, indicating just how effective the cultural pogrom against hashish in the 19th century was, in that its effects on the views can still be felt today.

….Sufi shrine culture in Pakistan is multi-faceted and diverse; while hashish does not feature uniformly across cultures of traditional shrines, hashish-smoking is a visible, communal, and conspicuous activity associated with Qalandari shrines in Pakistan.

Paradoxically, it is also one of the least studied phenomena as meaningful in terms of Islam; despite its prominence in Islamic settings, it is frequently dismissed as merely illegal and representative of the degeneration of Islamic ideals….

…In the popular imagination, the use of hashish in Islamic settings, and as an Islamic activity, is explained primarily within two discursive frameworks; it is explored through its legal status in Islam or through the category of “folk” or “popular” Islam.

Deeming hashish to be one form of intoxicant, Islamic legal prohibition of intoxicants is extended to censure the use of hashish.

The illegality of the activity serves as the premise for the “un-Islamic” and irreligious characterisation of hashish-smoking.

When explained in non-legal terms, hashish is described as an aspect of “popular” Islam, or particularly “popular” Sufism, representing the beliefs and practices of non-literate masses belonging to the “lower” social strata.

….Under both rubrics, hashish is characterised as intrinsically “non-religious” and devoid of Islamic normativity.

Because such an understanding of hashish is secular, the affiliation of hashish with Islamic thought and settings is rendered meaningless….

Disruptions in the processual constitution of Islam through colonialism and modernism in the 19th and 20th centuries are reflected in the loss of meanings of hashish, poverty, Qalandariyya, and asceticism in the conceptualisation of modern Islam. (Khan, 2018)

Indeed, perhaps it was the loss of the faqirs message of religious ecstasy and spiritual intoxication, a remnant of the more ancient Persian use of cannabis under the name bang, that has caused so much of that area to become the source of so much fundamentalism, fanaticism and religious intolerance.




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Chris Bennett has been researching the historical role of cannabis in the spiritual life of humanity for more than a quarter of a century. He is co-author of Green Gold the Tree of Life: Marijuana in Magic and Religion (1995); Sex, Drugs, Violence and the Bible (2001); and author of Cannabis and the Soma Solution (2010); and Liber 420: Cannabis, Magickal herbs and the Occult (2018) . He has also contributed chapters on the the historical role of cannabis in spiritual practices in books such as The Pot Book(2010), Entheogens and the Development of Culture (2013), Seeking the Sacred with Psychoactive Substances (2014), One Toke Closer to God (2017), Cannabis and Spirituality (2016) and Psychedelics Reimagined (1999)Bennett’s research has received international attention from the BBC , Guardian, Sunday TimesWashington PostVice and other media sources. He currently resides in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Chris Bennett
Chris Bennett

Chris Bennett has been researching the historical role of cannabis in the spiritual life of humanity for more than a quarter of a century. He is co-author of Green Gold the Tree of Life: Marijuana in Magic and Religion (1995); Sex, Drugs, Violence and the Bible (2001); and author of Cannabis and the Soma Solution (2010); and Liber 420: Cannabis, Magickal herbs and the Occult (2018) . He has also contributed chapters on the the historical role of cannabis in spiritual practices in books such as The Pot Book (2010), Entheogens and the Development of Culture (2013), Seeking the Sacred with Psychoactive Substances (2014), One Toke Closer to God (2017), Cannabis and Spirituality (2016) and Psychedelics Reimagined (1999). Bennett’s research has received international attention from the BBC , Guardian, Sunday Times, Washington Post, Vice and other media sources. He currently resides in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.