Alcohol in Shari'ah

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The following is taken from Alcohol in Islam by Ustadz William Voller, on the 26th August 2014.

Perhaps one of the biggest barriers for Muslims to integrate into British culture is alcohol.  This article examines the history of drinking, its ruling in Islamic law and the effects of alcohol abuse.  It concludes with identifying a more nuanced approach to alcohol that is both compatible with Islam but sensitive to the deeply embedded cultural habits of the British.

People have used alcoholic drinks for many different reasons for millennia.  The earliest written account comes from the Mesopotamian tale The Epic of Gilgamesh, some four thousand years old.  It describes the half man / half beast Enkidu-being tamed, symbolically cultured, with ‘the custom of the land’ of drinking beer, which he drank becoming ‘expansive and sang with joy.’  He became aware of himself through intoxication; an awareness brought on by a changed mental state.  This association of cognitive awareness with intoxication has a long association with many spiritual traditions to aid meditation.

The Greeks drank watered down wine or more correctly wined down water, approximately 3%, regularly like a food, viewing it as healthy and a safe way to drink water.  Being drunk was seen as uncivilised and shameful, the drunkard often being the object of mockery in plays.  In fact, the Greek word for a drunken party; a komodia, forms the root for the English word ‘comedy’.  In a play by Eubulus, Dionysus demarcated responsible drinking: “three kraters only do I propose for sensible men, one for health, the second for love and pleasure and the third for sleep; when this has been drunk up, wise guests make for home.  The forth krater is mine no longer, but belongs to the hubris; the fifth to shouting; the sixth to revel; the seventh to black eyes; the eighth to summonses; the ninth to bile; and the tenth to madness and people tossing the furniture about.”  A krater is a shallow wine vessel.  Most cultures, likewise, have an ambivalent view of alcohol and have formed their own limits for socially acceptable drinking patterns.

Southern European cultures continue to drink wine daily, in moderation, as part of their diet, whereas Northern European cultures tend to binge drink possibly because the native ales and meads could not be so easily stored, historically alcohol being used more for celebration and ceremony.  In the epic poem, Beowulf, circa 520 CE, the king’s mead hall is a sign of authority and alcohol is used as a symbol of kinship; Beowulf pledging his support to Hrothgar to slay the monster, Grendel by ‘accepting the cup.’  This tradition of kinship continues with the toast at a wedding ceremony; the word, ‘bride’ coming from Old English, ‘brydealo’ meaning marriage feast where she would disseminate the ‘bridal ale’, cementing her husband’s leadership.  Alcohol also continues to play an important role in celebrations throughout Northern Europe.  For example, the word ‘honeymoon’ comes from a medieval tradition of a lunar month’s worth of mead, made from honey, being given to the newlyweds for fertility.  Ales also served as an important food; low alcohol ales known as small beers, with below 3% alcoholic content, were necessary to consume water safely, provide much needed calories and vitamin B, unlike modern filtered lagers, and to make an otherwise dry diet palatable.

The temperance, meaning moderation rather than avoidance, movement which saw the prohibition of alcohol in the US during the 1920’s was more a reaction to the availability of cheap high proof spirits and its disastrous effect on society rather than disdain for traditional ales and wines.  The Prohibition fuelled both extremes of abstinence and excess that are still evident today.  Approximately 30% of Americans presently abstain from drinking, which is the highest of any nation outside of Muslim majority countries.  Prohibition also created a cocktail and nightlife culture that romanticised drinking.  The advent of widespread distillation shifted alcohol in the US and beyond from benign food to a coveted and dangerous drug.  The enforced legal age limits have done little to discourage youth binge drinking, instead turning alcohol into a ‘rite of passage’ to adulthood.  The UK presently follows America’s lead as one of the worst binge drinking nations in Europe.  Research published by the health charity Developing Patient Partnerships found that 24% of Britons sometimes drink just to ‘get drunk,’ the figure is even higher in young people with 59% of 18-24 year olds and 43% of 25-34 year olds drinking to get drunk.

Alcohol is a highly sociable drug often signifying status.  It allows for social interactions that other drugs do not; whilst the heroin user may sit with others in the shooting gallery, they do not socialise, and cannabis smokers tend to focus more on response to a stimuli such as music rather than the back and forth banter enjoyed by alcohol users.  Unlike other psychotropic drugs, its effects are also predictably dose dependent, being fairly easy to self-regulate and so regularly produces a desired result.  Not all people drink alcohol as a drug, of course.  Many simply enjoy the flavour of such drinks and see them more in the sense of food.

Alcohol is believed to derive from the Arabic ‘al-kuhl’, meaning a finely crushed powder, which the fledgling 17th century science of chemistry in Europe, termed the intoxicating essence of wine obtained by distillation.  It may possibly derive from al-ghawl, from the verse describing the ‘wine’ of paradise causing no headiness, ghawlun, or intoxication.

Free from headiness; nor will they suffer intoxication therefrom. (Surah asw-Swaffat:47)

In modern chemistry, alcohol refers to an organic compound of a carbon atom bound to a hydroxyl, OH-, group.  When we speak of alcohol in beverages, we are normally referring to ethanol, C2H5OH, as other forms of alcohol are far too toxic for human ingestion.  Therefore, any further reference to alcohol is referring to ethanol specifically.

The word used in the Qur’an relating to alcoholic beverages is khamr, which derives from the root kha-mim-ra’, meaning, “to mix or cover.”  “Khamr” can mean “any intoxicating thing that clouds, or covers the intellect,” as per Lisan al-‘Arab, such as when ‘Umar (r.a.) said that the Prophet (s.a.w.), said, “Khamr is that which mixes up the mind.”  Here, ‘mixes up’ is ‘khamarah’.  This is found in the Shaykhayn.  Khamr can refer to wine from grapes; in particular, pressing grapes, khamran; and dates.

… Said one of them, “I see myself (in a dream) pressing wine.” … (Surah Yusuf:36)

As recorded in Swahih Muslim, the Prophet (s.a.w.) said, “Khamr is from these two trees,” while pointing to grapevines and date palms.  Linguistically, however, khamr is most likely referring to the intoxicating characteristic of beverages rather than the substance of wine in particular, since the general word for grapes is “‘inab.”  Another more general word used for intoxicating drink is “sakar.”

Gradualism in legislation, tanjim, is an important principle of Islamic law, the wisdom of which a wise father explained to his son, “Do not deal with matters hastily, son.  God Almighty despised drinking alcohol twice in the Qur’an and did not declare it forbidden but in the third time.  I am afraid that if I enjoined the right on people at one stroke, they would give it up all at once, which might lead to sedition.”  This is from al-Muwafaqat fi Uswul ash-Shari’ah by Imam Ibrahim ibn Musa ash-Shathibi (r.a.).

The first verse was of disapproval, but did not forbid drinking.

They ask thee concerning wine and gambling.  Say, “In them is great sin, and some profit for men; but the sin is greater than the profit.” ... ― (Surah al-Baqarah:219)

The second Revelation made it haram to approach swalah in a state of intoxication.

O ye who believe!  Approach not prayers with a mind befogged, until ye can understand all that ye say … (Surah an-Nisa’:43)

And finally, Revelation came down making it haram.

O ye who believe!  Intoxicants and gambling, (dedication of) stones, and (divination by) arrows, are an abomination ― of Satan’s handiwork: eschew such (abomination), that ye may prosper. (Surah al-Ma’idah:90)

The companions drank right up until the last verse was Revealed near the end of the Prophet’s (s.a.w.) life; ‘Abbas ibn Malik (r.a.) said, “I was serving drinks to people in the home of Abu Thalhah on the day that wine was prohibited, and they were drinking nothing but date wine.  Suddenly someone called out, ‘Come out and see!’  So we did so and someone called out: ‘Verily, wine has been Prohibited!’  It was flowing through the streets of Madina.  Abu Thalhah said to me, ‘Take it outside and pour it out.’  So I did so.”  This is recorded in the Shaykhayn.

By consensus, ijma’, khamr, in the sense of wine from dates and grapes, is a sin and a crime to drink in small or large amounts for Muslims - even in ‘Muslim’ lands, non-Muslims are allowed to drink at home or in designated areas.  This is based on unequivocal texts from the Qur’an and mass transmitted, mutawatir, ahadits, thus making the prohibition of drinking khamr something ‘necessarily known’, such that to believe otherwise is disbelief, kufr.  Other types of substance that intoxicate not from grapes and dates are not as unequivocally prohibited.

The two primary colleges of Islam in the Hijaz and Iraq, which were the forerunners to the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanbali, differed as to what it is that is prohibited.  The Hijazis went with the substance of the intoxicating liquor, the Iraqis went with the intoxicant in the liquor.  This is a subtle but important difference.

The Hijazis used, “Any drink that intoxicates is prohibited,” from the Shaykhayn, and, “Whatever intoxicates in a greater quantity is also unlawful in its smaller quantity,” as recorded by Imam at-Tirmidzi (r.a.), Imam Abu Dawud (r.a.) and Imam ibn Majah (r.a.), to justify that the whole substance is prohibited.  They understood khamr in the general sense of intoxicant, using, “Every intoxicant is khamr and every intoxicant is prohibited,” as recorded in Swahih Muslim; and, “From grapes, khamr is made, from dried dates, khamr is made, from honey, khamr is made, from wheat khamr is made, from barley, khamr is made,” as recorded by Imam Abu Dawud (r.a.).

The Iraqis argue it is the intoxicant, sakar, that is prohibited rather than the substance, since the substance has been described as a “good provision” in the Qur’an:

And from the fruit of the date palm and the vine, ye get out wholesome drink, and food: behold in this also is a Sign for those who are wise. (Surah an-Nahl:67)

They further argue that the underlying cause for the prohibition is that it prevents remembrance of God and causes enmity as mentioned in Surah al-Ma’idah:90 above, implying the prohibition of the intoxicating effect rather than the general substance.  Some Iraqi scholars, most notably Imam an-Nakha’i (r.a.), are believed to have thought all drinks other than grape and date wine are permissible below an intoxicating level, using the hadits as recorded by Imam ath-Thahawi (r.a.), where he was asked, “O Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.), there are two beverages there [Yemen] that they make from wheat and barley.  One of them is called mizr [beer] and the other is called bitha’ [mead].  Which should we drink?”

He replied, “Drink both but do not become intoxicated.”

However, the consensus is that the scholars who held this position were mistaken.

Imam ibn Rushd (r.a.) wrote in Bidayat al-Mujtahid that there had been extensive disagreement, such that both colleges are considered correct.  However, he put forward his own argument in favour of the Hijazi position since the Qur’an only ever refers to khamr in a general sense rather than to a specific quantity.

There are two issues with alcoholic beverages; that of intoxication and that of ritual impurity, najasah.  Alcoholic solids are not considered impure by agreement, ijma’, although it is impermissible to eat such food if it has the capacity to intoxicate, thereby allowing things with naturally occurring traces of alcohol such as: levied bread, fruits, and such.  Khamr is said to be impure by consensus, ijma’, although this does not appear to have a textual source.  The verse in Surah al-Ma’idah:90 above, is sometimes cited as evidence since khamr is described as filth, rij’sun, however the use of rijs, filth, cannot be thought of in a literal sense as referring to an unclean substance, since non-substance concepts such as idolatry, divination and gambling are described likewise.  Imam al-Ghazali (r.a.) stated, on khamr, “It takes the ruling of being impure to emphasise its unlawfulness and to discourage it.”  This is also mentioned by Imam an-Nawawi (r.a.), in his al-Majmu'.

The Hanafi school only holds khamr, wine, from grapes and dates as impure, najasah; other alcoholic substances are considered pure, thahir.  As such, non-wine intoxicants may be permissible to consume providing it is not consumed to an intoxicating level.  However, if it is used in the same way that wine is used, it likewise becomes impermissible even in small amounts; modern lagers, for example, would be completely impermissible to drink although pure.  Generally speaking, the Hanafis rule the same as the other schools, but the subtle difference is that substances that are not normally used as intoxicating drinks are permissible to use, such as synthetic alcohol in food, cosmetics, medicine, and deodorants.

There is agreement, ijma’, that should grapes be left to ferment further so that it turns into vinegar, it becomes pure, thahir, and there is no blame in using it.  This based on the hadits recorded in Swahih Muslim, “What a good food is vinegar.”  Although there is some disagreement between the jurists whether wine that has been actively changed into vinegar by adding a chemical is permissible, based on a other hadits from Swahih Muslim where the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.) was asked whether wine could be changed to be used as vinegar.  He answered, “No.”  Interestingly when wine changes to vinegar, chemically speaking, the ethanol turns to acetic acid, CH3COOH, which may identify the underlying cause of prohibition as ethanol content rather than anything else.

Scholars award a fixed penalty, hadd, to a sane adult Muslim witnessed drinking khamr by two upright people, and he has the smell still on him or is inebriated.  There is consensus on this due to the narration, “If a person drinks khamr, subject him to stripes; if he repeats it, subject him to stripes.”  Most jurists set the punishment at eighty strikes although Imam ash-Shafi'i (r.a.) stated forty owing to how a hadits from Abu Sa’id al-Khudri (r.a.) could be understood: “The Messenger of Allah awarded forty strikes with two shoes.”  The Hanafi school differs in only applying the uppermost hadd penalty for wine from dates or grapes, other intoxicants are punished only for inebriation.  Inebriation is described as someone whom under the influence “does not understand speech, whether less or more, and he cannot distinguish between a man or a woman,” as stated by Imam al-Marghinani (r.a.), in al-Hidayah.

There are a number of ahadits that prohibit sitting with people who are drinking: “He who believes in Allah and the Last Day must not sit at a cloth [table or gathering] where wine is being circulated,” as reported by Imam at-Tirmidzi (r.a.).  This is understood to be a prohibition of ‘means’ rather than ‘objectives,’ that is, sitting with those who drink is not a sin in of itself, but it is feared it will lead to sin.  Generally it is considered disliked, makruh, such that there is no blame if one has a need, hajat, but sinful if it becomes habitual.

It is commonly known that excessive consumption of alcohol is a health risk, but what is not commonly known is, “in terms of cost to [UK] society, alcohol causes the biggest harm,” even more than heroin or crack.  Prof. D. Nutter’s landmark research by the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs published in the Lancet showed that alcohol was more dangerous to the user and others than any other drug, one of the key factors being availability.  Alcoholism is directly proportional to accessibility; the highest risk occupations understandably being publicans, barmen and barmaids.  Along with the familiar health risks of gastroenteritis, cardio-vascular and liver damage, among others, are the less familiar psychiatric and social morbidities that make it so dangerous to others.  Heavy drinking can greatly affect mood such that the risk of suicide is fifty times more than the national average.  Alcohol often plays a part in crimes such as arson, sexual assault and murder.  “Social costs of excessive alcohol consumption are very high and include... breakdown of relationships, marriages and families.  This may be the result of mood changes, personality deterioration, verbal abuse, physical violence, psychosexual disorders, pathological jealousy and associated gambling and other psychoactive substance use...  Furthermore, the children of such broken families may suffer emotionally in years to come from the trauma of having lived with a parent or parents who drank heavily.”.

Those that have a good prognosis to alcohol problems have a good insight into their problem, a strong motivation, a place to live and good social and family support.  Those that do not, suffer from: emotional states like depression, interpersonal conflicts and social pressures.  A Chinese proverb states, “First the man takes a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes the man.”  This boundary between responsible and dangerous drinking habits has been the concern of many cultures. The question arises where exactly is the boundary in Islam?  Generally, Muslims have successfully implemented an absolute prohibition and as such, “excessive’ alcohol consumption is relatively rare in Islamic countries because the sale and drinking of alcoholic beverages is strictly limited in public.”  Despite the threat of punitive action, this success has been due to religious motivation; the Qur'an clearly prohibiting the use of khamr to avoid its connected social problems and the numbing of one's spiritual capacity.

Why was the word ‘khamr’ specifically used?  Although it can inclusively mean any intoxicating substance, it is especially connected to alcoholic beverages and wine specifically.  The social damage of excessive drinking above other intoxicants has been well documented.  Khamr in the sense of wine is more potent than beer because the higher sugar content of fruits over grain produces proportionally more ethanol during the fermentation process.  Chemistry has identified the intoxicating component of an alcoholic beverages as ethanol.  Ethanol naturally occurs in all manner of useful substances and renders all but the Hanafi position somewhat unsatisfactory because the same substance is deemed both permissible and impermissible somewhat incoherently.  Perhaps the prohibition is less to do with ethanol per se and more to do with the intoxicating effect, drunkenness and that which leads to alcoholism.  This underlying cause of intoxication is why other drugs such as cocaine, marijuana, or heroin are impermissible by analogy.  Generally speaking, we could say substances that have the ‘potential’ to intoxicate are impermissible.

What is meant by intoxication?  Generally, the texts are silent on this, saying things like that which takes the senses, but perhaps ‘Umar’s (r.a.) words that it mixes up or confuses, khamarah, the mind is the clearest explanation.  Research would be needed to see where ethanol starts to adversely affect brain function.  There has been much research into safe drinking limits for driving, currently set at 80 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood.  However, this is difficult to gauge in terms of the number of drinks since it is completely dependent on the person; a larger person can drink more than a smaller for example.  This complexity may explain the silence of the scholars on this point.  Generally speaking, we might say that an average male would be able to drink one pint of lower strength lager, no more than 4% alcohol, and be just below the limit.  However we could not drink this as a Muslim as in larger quantities, a bucketful as the hadits suggests, we would certainly be over the limit, so it would have to be much lower; perhaps around 1% or even 2%.  The UK government has reduced duty on drinks below 2.8% to encourage brewers to produce and consumers to buy lower alcohol beers, which should be seen as a welcome step towards responsible drinking.

Alcohol has a long history in Britain; the pub serving as a socially neutral space that transcended class and status.  Communication often breaks down when communities talk past each other; non-Muslims focusing on the benefits and Muslims focusing on the harms exclusively, yet the Qur’an Acknowledges both.  We may as one whole community benefit from understanding and promoting the view that the wrong in them is greater than the benefit.


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