For more than a thousand years now, ulemas, or Islamic scholars, and, consequently, the absolute majority of Muslims have held firm the belief that alcoholic beverages have been declared haram, or forbidden, by Allah (God). I am interested in the reason for the existence of such a prohibition.
The Qur’an speaks of alcoholic beverages in the context of a prohibition three times. However, there are also occasional mentions of khamar as one of the perks of al-jannah, or paradise. Why would alcohol be banned on earth and become one of the heavenly rewards later on? The fact that alcohol has been singled out in this way has puzzled me for a long time. That is why I tried to understand the position of the Qur’an, not only what it says, but also why it might say it. I shall also attempt to make a distinction between its words and their application. I must add that I shall limit myself to the Qur’an and not include the hadith because that would raise a lot of extra issues concerning the historicity, validity and universality of the hadith in question.
The occurrences of the revealed passages
As said above, there are three verses dealing with and limiting the use of alcoholic beverages. I shall now present them according to the chronological order in which they were revealed (including the so-called asbaab al-nozool).
يَسْأَلُونَكَ عَنِ الْخَمْرِ وَالْمَيْسِرِ ۖ قُلْ فِيهِمَا إِثْمٌ كَبِيرٌ وَمَنَافِعُ لِلنَّاسِ وَإِثْمُهُمَا أَكْبَرُ مِن نَّفْعِهِمَا ۗ وَيَسْأَلُونَكَ مَاذَا يُنفِقُونَ قُلِ الْعَفْوَ ۗ كَذَٰلِكَ يُبَيِّنُ اللَّهُ لَكُمُ الْآيَاتِ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَفَكَّرُونَ (Surat l-baqarah, 2:219) .
‘They ask you about khamar and gambling. Say, “In them is great sin and [yet, some] benefit for people. But their sin is greater than their benefit.’ (Surat l-baqarah, 2:219).
The ‘Sahih international’ translation that I have chosen to use for this verse is rather peculiar. The author has inserted the words ’yet, some’ in brackets, which limits the power of the word ‘benefits’. Translators often do this. For example, this is seen in the translations of sensitive verses such as al-Nisaa’4:34 (about hitting, beating or scourging a wife ‘lightly,’ as Yusuf Ali puts it).
The narrations about the time inform us that the contemporaries of the Prophet would indulge in drinking khamar as often as an opportunity would present itself, this would then lead to drunkenness, often becoming a cause of scandal, and of indulgence in gambling, which was of course not their first preference, since they also used to hold orgies before the advent of Islam.
This verse explicitly expresses the idea that alcohol is both good and bad in its effects. Actually, this statement can be made about almost everything we consume or come by on a daily basis, from food items to lifesaving drugs and from fire to wind. By the way, this is said not only of alcohol, but also of gambling.
This initial statement is immediately followed by a caution or warning regarding the nature of the substance: it might lead to more harm than gain.
Common sense suggests that the benefits in alcohol turn into a problem when people’s intake of it becomes excessive, i.e. in cases of substance abuse. Allah’s stride against abuse in any and all areas is a common theme in the Qur’an: ‘He likes not those who commit excess’ (Surah l-araaf, 7:31).
There are those who might want to disagree with this explanation and argue that alcohol has an intrinsic negative dimension, irrespective of its use. However, that would be in direct conflict with the words and work of contemporary physicians who maintain that a glass of wine a day is beneficial for the body due to the antioxidants in it. And, as Ibn Rushdi wrote, when science conflicts with the Qur’an, it is not the Qur’an that is wrong but its tafsir, or interpretation. Furthermore, the Qur’an names alcohol amongst Allah’s blessings upon humankind: ‘And from the fruits of the palm trees and grapevines you take intoxicant and good provision.’ (Surah al-Nahl, 16:67). Surely, God would not name it amongst His blessings if the substance were intrinsically evil.
Listening to contemporary Muslim scholars and preachers, one could almost conclude that they are somewhat disappointed in God since they suggest that this verse was revealed before the actual prohibition. They would appear to be oblivious of the fact that the later prohibition did not change the beneficial properties of the substance.
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لَا تَقْرَبُوا الصَّلَاةَ وَأَنتُمْ سُكَارَىٰ حَتَّىٰ تَعْلَمُوا مَا تَقُولُونَ وَلَا جُنُبًا إِلَّا عَابِرِي سَبِيلٍ حَتَّىٰ تَغْتَسِلُوا ۚ وَإِن كُنتُم مَّرْضَىٰ أَوْ عَلَىٰ سَفَرٍ أَوْ جَاءَ أَحَدٌ مِّنكُم مِّنَ الْغَائِطِ أَوْ لَامَسْتُمُ النِّسَاءَ فَلَمْ تَجِدُوا مَاءً فَتَيَمَّمُوا صَعِيدًا طَيِّبًا فَامْسَحُوا بِوُجُوهِكُمْ وَأَيْدِيكُمْ ۗ إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ عَفُوًّا غَفُورًا (Surah al-Nisaa, 4:43)
‘’O you who have believed, do not approach prayer while you are intoxicated until you know what you are saying or in a state of janabah, except those passing through.’ (Surah al-Nisaa, 4:43).
The literature on the asbaab al-Nuzool tells us that this verse was revealed to address the issue of people turning up at the mosque (place of prayer) in a drunken state, and the propensity to drink too much in general. It had become habitual for some to drink outside the mosque whilst waiting on the call for congregational prayer. This practice would quite frequently result in indecent behavior (mispronouncing of the verses, dozing off, disarray of the rows of worshippers, etc.). In short, it had become a nuisance for the sober. As a result, Allah banned the bad habit.
Interestingly, the verse dictates that one may not approach prayer or the place of prayer until he is in his senses (‘until you know what you are saying’). This clearly implicates that the problem is not the substance in itself, but rather the state of those who misuse it.
In spirit, this is quite similar to the law against driving whilst drunk. One may not drive after having exceeded the safe limit (which is calculated by a breath test). If an accident is caused in such an event, one can hardly blame the alcohol, the car or even the person’s driving license. The person alone will be prosecuted for his/her actions. Nowadays, western societies do not place a ban on alcohol as such, or on issuing driving licenses to people who occasionally drink alcohol. Contemporary, western legislation addresses the subject who chose to transgress the bounds of sound drinking.
أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا إِنَّمَا الْخَمْرُ وَالْمَيْسِرُ وَالْأَنصَابُ وَالْأَزْلَامُ رِجْسٌ مِّنْ عَمَلِ الشَّيْطَانِ فَاجْتَنِبُوهُ لَعَلَّكُمْ تُفْلِحُونَ .إِنَّمَا يُرِيدُ الشَّيْطَانُ أَن يُوقِعَ بَيْنَكُمُ الْعَدَاوَةَ وَالْبَغْضَاءَ فِي الْخَمْرِ وَالْمَيْسِرِ وَيَصُدَّكُمْ عَن ذِكْرِ اللَّهِ وَعَنِ الصَّلَاةِ ۖ فَهَلْ أَنتُم مُّنتَهُون (Surah al-Maidah, 5:90-91) .
‘O you who have believed, indeed, intoxicants, gambling, [sacrificing on] stone alters [to other than Allah], and divining arrows are but defilement from the work of Satan, so avoid it that you may be successful. Satan only wants to cause between you animosity and hatred through intoxicants and gambling and to avert you from the remembrance of Allah and from prayer. So will you not desist?’ (Surah al-Maidah, 5:90-91).
The Prophet’s (pbuh) companions would frequently hold ritual parties in which khamar was served, and their drunken state would often lead them to indulge in heated arguments/fights, and they also continued to commit faults in prayers.
In light of the latest events, it had become evidently clear that the early warnings were not enough for the people, since they had not changed their ways. They simply could not drink without falling into drunkenness. They were clearly not a folk to be reasoned with. Self-restraint and morality did not come naturally to them. Therefore, the Qur’an goes on to an explicit prohibition.
It could still be argued, however, that the word ‘avoid’ and the question ‘(…) will you not desist?’ do not constitute an outright qur’anic prohibition but a very strong exhortation not to abuse alcohol.
If one were to take the contextual clues seriously, one would have to acknowledge that these passages were specifically aimed at the immediate Arabs surrounding the Prophet (pbuh), as well as their culture and traditional practices. Therefore, only people who completely identify with those Arabs would actually take these verses as having been addressed to them and, hence, still applicable without further considerations.
It would be foolish and untrue (unjust to the message even) to argue that every single verse in the Qur’an directly addresses every single person born since. The very fact that the Qur’an is an Arabic text cast in one particular socio-historical variant of the language makes direct reference to a well-delineated historical context. Qur’anic statements —especially those with a legal dimension— ought, consequently, to be understood first of all as referring to the Prophet’s more immediate setting (unless they are clearly apocalyptic or non-contextual).
Besides its language, one can also mention the Qur’an’s dependence upon its context in questions concerning war, prisoners of war, slave girls and slaves in general, the clothes of women, etc. The most unequivocal proof of the fact that the Message is context specific and fashioned specifically for the Arabs, is that when the book of instructions speaks of rewards for those who remain observant of truth, it paints repeatedly of a place with gardens, shade, water, khamar, honey, fruits, trees, rivers, crystal cups, raised seating, silver cups, silk garments with gold embroidery, silver wear, banana trees, and khamar (Surah Muhammad, 47:15, al-Insan, 76:12-21, al-Waqiah, 56:10-38, Yasin, 36:55-58, and al-Sajdah, 32:17). These idyllic elements would have spoken to the imagination of Hijazi Arabs, but they will not necessarily do so in the case of people living in tropical countries or even Scandinavia.
That God’s Message was revealed to a people completely dissimilar from the modern, educated men and women that we know and are these days. Hijazi Arabs were least well educated of the Arabs of the time, and they lived in harsh geographic and social conditions. They used to sell and buy not only camels but also women. If we are to believe the Qur’an, they even killed their female infants at birth (burying them alive in some cases). They owned and traded in slaves (sex slaves, both boys and girls), raped the women of the people they defeated at war and shed blood as if it had been an everyday affair. It would, therefore, be foolish to assume that God would address us in a way or language similar to the one used for them. In one sentence, the letter was specifically for the Arabs, while the spirit of the Message is the heart of the Revelation for the whole of humanity till the Day of Judgment.
One only needs to study the history of the first decades after the death of the Prophet (pbuh) to realize what kind of community had been given the Revelation. It would be a great lack of truthfulness and common sense to say that those people and us are the same. Therefore, even though the Revealed Words remain the same, it would be illogical and historically incorrect to assume that legal injunctions given to Hijazi Arabs from the 7th century must be seen as universally valid in exactly the same way across time and space.
History is littered with the bad examples of the Prophet’s Companions and Followers. I have refrained from mentioning any names here to encourage others to investigate these events themselves.
In short, the Qur’anic general position remains valid: ‘They ask you about khamar and gambling. Say, “In them there are both great sin and benefits for people’ (Surah al-Baqarah, 2:219). The ‘sinfulness’ of human behavior in relation to alcohol (and gambling) becomes great when they are abused either in terms of the quantity of the intake, and the place and the activity which drunken people desecrate because of their intoxication.