The History of Alcohol in Islam

Muslims are prohibited from drinking alcohol. But why? In objectively reviewing for the ban in the Koran, one can only leave bewildered. Occasional passages that do not refer to alcohol as it is known today is interpreted as being a complete prohibition on alcohol consumption, without exception.

The Koran has a few sections that cryptically refer to alcohol. In 4:43, Muslims are forbidden to attend to prayers while intoxicated; in 2:219, intoxicants are said to contain good and evil, but the evil is greater than the good. In these two sections, the word for “intoxicated” is sukara which is derived from the word “sugar” and means drunk or intoxicated. In 5:90, “intoxicants” are called “abominations of Satan’s handiwork” intended to turn people away from God and prayer, and Muslims are therefore ordered to abstain. Here, the word is al-khamr, which is related to the verb “to ferment,” and probably refers to fermented sugar drinks. This word could be used to describe other intoxicants such as the Roman era wine.

Yet these stern words from the prophet didn’t stop the keen chemists of the early Islamic world from vigrously involving themselves in the developing alcohol. Indeed, they pioneered it! Distilling alcohol as a pure compound was first achieved by Muslim chemists in the 8th century, and like the English words algebra and alchemy, the word alcohol comes from Arabic. Persian scientists later mastered distillation, which was introduced to Europe in the 12th century by various European authors who translated and popularized the discoveries of the Muslim world.

Exactly when alcohol became banned in the Arab world and the Muslim world beyond is unclear, and it is all but impossible to find any objective history of the topic. All that is known is that Islamic scientists. But the debate lasted for many, many centuries, and the case of coffee shows an interesting example of compromise. Coffee from Ethiopia developed into a popular drink in Islam in the 15th century, but due to its intoxicating effect, it was banned in Egypt and Mecca in the 16th century for several decades. The ban, however, could not overcome the popularity of the drink and after several decades, the religious leaders of both Egypt and Mecca gave up on trying to ban the drink. Today, drinking and talking over cups of concentrated Arabic coffee is one of the most popular social activities among the Bedou of the Arabian peninsula.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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11 Responses to The History of Alcohol in Islam

  1. Let’s not forget khat. Not sure what the imams have to say about that, but it’s very popular in Somalia and Yemen. The Islamic Courts Union in Somalia banned the plant for a brief amount of time, but have since been overrun by Ethiopian-backed forces, and as far as I understand nobody on Somalia has tried to ban it again.

  2. Peter says:

    It sounds like the Koran doesn’t prohibit alcohol any moreso than the Bible.

  3. Curzon says:

    Stephen — indeed, I think that’s yet another example where social pressure has overwhelmed more conservative elements. Khat accounts for some absurd amount of the Yemen economy as well, as it happens.

  4. Muscovite says:

    “In objectively reviewing for the ban in the Korea, one can only leave bewildered.”
    – Small typo there… Alcohol is not banned in Korea.
    I remeber reading on this topic in http://books.google.com/books?id=BqsQC9DDc5cC&lpg=PA30&ots=OtjUWa6GZb&dq=arab%20wine%20merchant%20flag&pg=PA01#v=onepage

  5. Stanley Davis says:

    Much of the impetus for the ban comes from the Hadith and Sunna (the Sayings and the Way) of the Prophet Mohammed. In Islam, these end up carrying almost as much (if not more) weight than the Qur’an.

  6. Faisal says:

    You have been Spittooned (a good thing)!
    http://www.spittoon.org/archives/7083

  7. TheReviewer says:

    No beer. No air conditioning. No wonder they’re pissed off all the time.

  8. Pingback: Where is the Game?

  9. Purpleslog says:

    My Persian/Shia relatives don’t seem to have problems drinking! They say it really isn’t an Islam thing. It is kind of funny. They drink to excess, while I the Catholic have maybe a beer or two a year.

  10. Roy Berman says:

    The Muslims we drank with in Xinjiang and Kazakhstan, and the one’s I’ve met from Indonesia, certainly have no trouble with alcohol.

  11. Steve Bodio says:

    Eastern Turkics like the Kazakhs (who I know from Mongolia and Kazakhstan) and I suspect the Uighurs, have a form of Sufi- based Islam that is layered over and possibly originating in or hybridized with old animism and shamanism, which has quietly survived both orthodox Islam and the Soviet Union. They drink and their women ride, even in the back country, and they have stories of ancient warrior queens.

    My best Kazakh friend in western Mongolia, who I have known more than ten years, told me: “After the Change [the fall of the USSR], Saudi mullahs came and said they would build us a mosque, but we must give up vodka and veil our women. We sent them back to Arabia.We love Allah, but I do not love mullahs”.

    Another time he took us to visit a “seer”, a woman who had been struck by lightning and crippled but told fortunes (and though Kazakh, had two Tuvan sub- seeresses).

    I teased him a bit and asked if the young (Kazakh) imam with the falcon would approve. He is a sophisticated man- he looked at me deadpan and said: “They drink together at the Red Door Bar”.

    I think some of the trouble between Kyrgiz and Uzbek is rooted in this– Kazakh & Kyrgiz are extremely similar, almost a colonial division, like Navajo and Apache– nomadic, eclectic and syncretic in religion, “free”– while Uzbeks are settled, devout, and fertile for Islamist doctrine. Or as my cowgirl vet here in the old west put it when we were discussing the subject, Uzbeks are “farmers and city people with organized religion”…