Recently here in Texas Representative David Simpson a tea partier and conservative Christian published a blog post entitled: The Christian Case for Drug Law Reform in concert with his filing of a bill that would strike the word “Marihuana” from the Texas Criminal code. That inspired me to cover the same topic in Islam which I have been pondering for at least well basically for the entire time that I have been practicing Islam. Here goes:
The Muslim approach to this issue would begin with an examination of the sacred text for believers-the Qur’an. Since the revelation of any religious text cannot occur in a vacuum it is useful to examine the historical context and cultural milieu in which it was revealed. After examining the textual basis for the jurisprudence a consideration of the real world application of the text by the religion’s exemplar would be dispositive.
The spice trade began in the Middle East over 4,000 years ago and was initially facilitated mostly by camel caravans over land routes. The Silk Road connected the source of the spices in Asia to the Mediterranean world, including North Africa and Europe. Who were the traders who controlled this industry? Arab merchants. Over 1,400 years ago when the Qur’an was first revealed to the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, peace be upon him, the spice trade in Arabia had been going on for almost 2,500 years.
Muslims know that Muhammad’s career before he became a prophet was that of a caravan trader. One of these trade routes comes from what is modern day Yemen where it becomes the so called Incense Road that runs up through Mecca and Medina in to modern day Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey and Syria. Even before he became a trader himself, Muhammad went on a caravan trip to Syria with his uncle when he was 12 years old. He was a caravan trader, with his wife as his boss, for at least 15 years before his prophethood.
Muslims call this age before the advent of Islam the age of ignorance and it was plagued with endless cycles of internecine tribal warfare sustained by blood feuds and ever escalating revenge. At a place known as Ukaz, a great annual fair used to be held with dancing girls, gaming tables, drunken orgies, poetic contests and shows of prowess ending frequently in brawls and bloodshed. It could be fair to say that the people’s misuse of alcohol was an enabler and contributor to the already poor social reality.
Now to examine the text. There are five major verses in the Qur’an that deal with alcohol and they can be examined in sequential order based upon the date on which they were revealed. The first verse is: “They question you about strong drink and games of chance. Say: In both is great abuse and usefulness for mankind; but the abusive side of them is greater than their usefulness.” (2:219). This verse provides guidance and understanding rather than proscription and punishment.
The second verse advises the followers of Islam not to perform their prayers when they are under the excessive influence of alcohol. The Qur’anic text is: “O you who believe! Draw not near unto prayer when you are drunken, till you know that which you utter,. ….” (4:43). This appears on its face to be further useful advice in that when engaged in prayer which is designed to effectuate a closer communication with and a deeper connection to God that being drunk could inhibit or limit that process.
The third verse correlates alcoholic drinks as “an infamy of Satan’s handiwork” and advises to the believer that to succeed in life, it is recommended to avoid alcohol. The Qur’anic text is: “O you who believe! Strong drink and games of chance and idols and divining arrows are only an infamy of Satan’s handiwork. Leave it aside in order that ye may succeed.” (5: 90). God continues, “Satan only wants to sow hostility and hatred among you with wine and gambling, and to hinder you from the remembrance of God, and from prayer, so will you refrain?” (5: 91). [Emphasis added]
The fourth verse relates to food and drink in general including alcohol, and assures the believers not to be too concerned about what specific substances they consume, as long as they do ‘good work’. The phrase ‘good work’ has been emphasized repeatedly. The verse states: “There shall be no sin unto those who believe and do good works for what they may have consumed. So be mindful of your duty and do good works; and again: be mindful of your duty, and believe; and once again: be mindful of your duty, and do right. Allah loveth the good.” (5:93).
The fifth verse mentions alcoholic drinks but again there is no proscription or punishment. The Qur’an reads: “And of the fruits of the date-palm, and grapes, whence you derive strong drink and good nourishment. Lo! Therein is indeed a portent for people who have sense.” (16:67)
Based upon these five verses it is totally reasonable to arrive at the conclusion that even though alcohol has some benefits, it can also be abused. However, it is not expressly nor strictly prohibited and therefore has no prescribed punishment for its consumption, but that like a loving parent God coaches Muslims to avoid alcohol to be successful. God asks if Muslims will refrain from alcohol consumption when he could have easily said you must refrain it otherwise there will be specific consequences and/or punishment. It appears quite difficult to argue based upon the text on its face that alcohol is haram (unlawful).
The argument against this position of course comes from the hadith or oral traditions of Islam which claim that the above verses actually do expressly prohibit the consumption of alcohol and that when the verses prohibiting alcohol were revealed to Muhammad (which specific verses that actually do the prohibiting are never identified) that he shared this prohibitive verse and everyone in Medina upon hearing this poured out any alcohol that they had in their possession. Taking this story at face value a colorable argument can be made that Muhammad chose to lead by example and followed and applied to his community the verse to “Leave it [alcohol] aside in order that ye may succeed.”
However this still does not make alcohol haram but instead makes avoiding it Sunnah, which the imitation of the prophet in his actions, to please God and live a good life which is strongly encouraged but in no way required of an individual Muslim. So left with the reality that alcohol became culturally disfavored in the nascent Muslim community of Medina without a specific Quranic textual proscription, what is the legal standing of other substances that are psychoactive?
This pouring out the homemade hooch story if taken at face value actually sabotages the position that all inebriants are unlawful in Islam, which is claimed by many Muslims especially today in our era of modern drug propaganda and the continuing pharmacratic inquisition. Muhammad had been a caravan trader for 25 years and the caravan trade carrying spices through Mecca and Medina had been going on for at least 2,500 years prior. Unless one take the untenable position that none of these spices ever stayed in Mecca or Medina, why was there no order or example to throw out all the cannabis incense/perfume/essential oils that existed in Medina at the time or any other psychoactive substance for that matter? Where was the prophetic imperative that Muslims would no longer participate in any part of the spice trade that trafficked in psychoactive merchandise? Why were the frankincense and myrrh and other aromatic herbs and essential oils which can all have psychoactive effects not dumped in the streets as well?
Some Muslims will argue that the hadith provide the proscription on intoxicants otherwise not contained in the Qur’an. This is problematic because the Qur’an claims to be self-validating and complete in its message and guidance. Why would God not explicitly and categorically prohibit alcohol and specifically address other inebriants after mentioning the subject at least five different times in his holy book? Because God wants us to use our free will and engage our critical thinking and its contextual application. So God chose the option not to over proscribe but to under proscribe in this case. If only our doctors and politicians could take the same approach today with harmful drugs and laws we would be far better off.
Some Muslims will then argue that since alcohol intoxicates and is in their belief forbidden (haram) then by logical reasoning other psychoactives that intoxicate are also forbidden. The problem with this position is that it contradicts science and rational analysis. Muslims are rightfully proud of their preservation of Greek and Eastern knowledge including medicine during Europe’s Dark Ages that was later transferred to kick start the Renaissance and Enlightenment in Europe. Cannabis was an integral part of Islamic Medicine. Avicenna, Maimonides (Jewish but an Islamic Medicine practitioner), Al-Kindi, Ibn Washtya, and Al Razi all wrote extensive treatises on cannabis. Islamic doctors actually created the first inhalational anesthesia containing cannabis and opium. So clearly the pillars of Islamic medicine all believed that cannabis was not haram.
Then these same Muslims will resort to the position again based up on oral traditions that anything that intoxicates is forbidden whether in small or large amount. The problem is that this position is overturned by modern science which to be fair only first discovered these neurotransmitter receptor systems in the human body in the past 100 years and the most recent the endocannabinoid system less than 30 years ago.
Humans, all vertebrates and some invertebrates have an endocannabinoid (endogenous cannabinoids-meaning naturally produced by the body) system which is the largest receptor system in the body and its main purpose to is provide homeostasis by reducing the body’s natural inflammation, over stimulus, over excitation and stress/anxiety response. There are phyto-(or plant based) cannabinoids in the cannabis plant which when consumed act at the same receptor sites as the endocannabinoids. These receptors are located in the central nervous system including the brain and also other organs. Additionally they are in the immune system and virtually all tissue in the body.
Human breast milk is an abundant source of endocannabinoids that basically teaches a newborn child how to eat by stimulating the suckling process. So a mother suckling her child is giving the baby the “munchies” and enhancing the already pleasurable experience of nursing and bonding with the mother. Sorry to disappoint as well, but while on the subject, mother’s milk contains trace amounts of alcohol. Any sugar, like that found in milk, existing in our body will immediately begin to be converted to alcohol by the bacteria and yeast already living in and on the human biome as a byproduct of metabolism.
The final nail in the coffin to the alcohol forbidden since it intoxicates therefore all psychoactives are forbidden position is a substance called DMT (N,N Dimethyltryptamine). This substance is a schedule 1 drug in the current regulatory scheme in the US, which means that according to the authority of the US government DMT is addictive without any medical value. DMT is found (amongst many other preparations) in the psychoactive healing brew Ayahusaca from the Amazon Basin used for thousands of years by New World shamans. The problem is that DMT is also a naturally occurring neurotransmitter in the human brain produced by the pineal gland or so called third eye. This means that every single human being in the United States is guilty of drug possession and creates the insane cognitive dissonance that exogenous (produced outside the body) DMT including the over hundreds of plant species (acacias especially), all mammals, some fungi and many other creatures that contain DMT is illegal but endogenous DMT (produced inside the body-think endorphins (endogenous morphines)) is legal? From the Islamic perspective DMT definitely inebriates, but how can Nature be made haram when we are part of Nature and our own bodies are making these substance and God created all of Nature?
One of Islam’s reasons for success has been it flexibility in usage and application much like open source software in modern parlance. This means it has sufficient guidance for humans to be good, without excessive proscription to make us robots or computers simply compiling the Divine Source Code. This allows Muslims to apply its universal principles across various times, cultures and geographies and still be useful and beneficial. This is why throughout Islamic history you have the overwhelmingly non-illegalized consumption of betel nut, kratom, tobacco, khat, coffee, opium, tea and nutmeg which are all clearly psychoactive.
The final irony of the fundamentalist view is that what intoxicates is somehow not expanded to cover pharmaceuticals. We end up with a nature that intoxicates and is already inside you that is forbidden but pills that can kill are perfectly legitimate. This is the logic that delivers a modern position where opium is categorized as haram, but if a doctor prescribes one any of the semi-synthetic opioids in the same chemical family-hydrocodone, oxycodone, hydrocodone, fentanyl, Vicodin, etc. it is halal and therefore permitted.
Did God make a mistake as others have rightly asked or maybe in the alternative was he not clear enough in his guidance? God does not make mistakes nor does he let us wander about without sufficient guidance. However the missing piece is the honest heart and independent reasoning (ijtihad) by the individual human being as opposed to blind following (taqlid) of the interpretations of others. This blind following is to be condemned in religion because it is tantamount to idolatry by following other human beings instead of God Almighty. In the Qur’an this was the excuse used by those would justify their actions and beliefs by saying that they are just doing and believing what those who came before them did. To those who blindly follow others and just parrot their propaganda I say “Who is worse than he who invents a lie against God without legitimate proof to support his positon? Are you not prohibiting things God has not?”
In Sura 55:11-14 I have provided the fourth mentioned plant with various English translations [God provided the Earth where] “Therein are fruits, date-palms producing sheathed fruit-stalks (enclosing dates) and grain having husks and scented plants, scented herbs, sweet-smelling plants, fragrance, sweet-scented plants, aromatic herbs, fragrant herbs.” [God then immediately asks for the first time in the chapter and then asks over and over again-30 times] “Then which of the Blessings of your Lord will you deny?”
Thomas Jefferson has two pieces of good advice for us on the subject. “If the people let government decide what foods they eat and what medicines they take, their bodies will soon be in as sorry a state as are the souls of those who live under tyranny.” “The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.”
I believe that it is time to declare a Pharmastice in the War on Drugs and take full advantage of the peace dividend.
Ian Benouis is an attorney, West Point graduate, Combat Veteran and former Blackhawk helicopter pilot. He has been working to end the drug war for over 20 years and is currently part of Veterans for Entheogenic Therapy (VET) healing veterans with PTSD one plant at a time.
I leveraged the excellent article by Mesbahuddin Faruq on Alcohol in the Qur’an from Discover True Islam on Free-Minds.org for the five verses in the Qur’an on alcohol.