In a rare instance of the dictatorial and brutally oppressive regime in Saudi Arabia manifesting some compassion and common sense, a British grandfather called Karl Andree (no relation, I promise) has been released from prison without having to suffer 350 lashes for making wine in a nation state where the consumption of alcohol is forbidden. That thousands of Saudi Muslims (the great majority of whom are male) consume alcohol (and illegal recreational drugs) when living or holidaying outside Saudi Arabia is another matter altogether, of course, but that they do consume alcohol (and illegal recreational drugs) suggests hypocrisy, at the very least.
The case of Karl Andree inevitably raises the question, “What does the Qur’an actually say about alcohol consumption?” Mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims insist that the Qur’an forbids the consumption of alcohol, and this assumption about the Qur’an underscores the punitive line that many nation states with Muslim majorities take in relation to the manufacture and consumption of intoxicating drinks. It will surprise no one that what the Qur’an says is far more interesting and sophisticated than this, thereby confirming once again that Muslims have a very shaky grasp of what the Qur’an actually says.
Below is one of the best analyses of the (most) relevant qur’anic verses that I have found in recent times. I have slightly edited it, but only in the most cosmetic manner to ensure it is accessible to a literate audience, or to emphasise a point that the original fails to do.
Does Islam really define alcohol as haram, or forbidden? Let us examine the evidence in the Qur’an and keep the Hadith out of the equation (this is sensible, given that the content of the Qur’an always takes precedent over the content of the Hadith).
Things identified as haram (forbidden or prohibited) in the Qur’an usually begin with the expression “forbidden for/unto you”. Sometimes the Qur’an warns that those who ignore such injunctions will suffer in hell or hellfire. Consequently, in relation to the injunction not to consume pig meat, the Quran says, “Forbidden unto you are carrion and blood and swine flesh (5:3)”, and in relation to the injunction not to murder (“a believer of set purpose”, whatever that may mean. I assume the phrase refers to Muslims alone), the Qur’an says, “Whosoever slayeth a believer of set purpose, his reward is hell (or hellfire) forever (4:93).”
There are five qur’anic verses (I have found a sixth and refer to it later) that deal directly or indirectly with alcohol. Selected in the order in which they appear in the Qur’an, the first verse probably contains the most interesting ideas, but it will be addressed at the end of the commentary.
The second verse (4:43) advises Muslims not to engage in prayer when they are under the influence of alcohol. The verse says, “O you who believe! Draw not near unto prayer when you are drunken, till you know that which you utter.” The expression “forbidden for/unto you” is not found anywhere in or near the verse; nor is the threat of hell or hellfire. You are told merely to avoid prayer when intoxicated because, when intoxicated, you may not know what you are saying.
The third verse (5:90) defines alcohol as “an infamy of Satan’s handiwork” and indicates to the believer that, to succeed in life, it is advisable to stay away from it. The verse says, “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 (? them?) aside in order that you may succeed.”
Again, the verse does not say that alcohol is forbidden or that those who consume it will endure hell or hellfire. More to the point, the advice to “leave it aside” is provided to ensure nothing more ambitious than success in this life. In other words, the Qur’an suggests that a thing such as career success will be impaired or impeded because of the consumption of “strong drink (I interpret “strong drink” to mean wines or spirits)”. This, of course, is something most people would agree with (scripture so often deals with the obvious and fails to tell us anything we did not already know). But the verse can hardly be quoted as evidence that alcohol is haram, that it is forbidden, that it will lead to hell or hellfire, or that it should never be consumed (I sense here a warning that regular and excessive consumption of “strong drink” will impair or impede success, not the occasional glass of whisky or rum). Moreover, what of weak drink, or drink with low alcohol content such as most beers? Consumption of such drink would appear to be acceptable, if the verse is interpreted simply as it is written..
The fourth verse (5:93) relates to food and drink in general and assures believers that they should not to be too concerned about what they consume provided they do “good works”. The verse says, “There shall be no sin unto those who believe and do good works for what they may have consumed in the past. 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.” Yet again, the suggestion that alcohol is forbidden, or that hell or hellfire awaits those who consume it, does not exist. More to the point, those who do “good works” can consume whatever they wish (carrion, blood and pig meat excepted, I would imagine) without being regarded as sinful.
Because the fifth verse (16:67) says that alcohol provides “good nourishment” or “wholesome drink”, it is difficult to interpret alcohol in any way other than being beneficial. Yusuf Ali translates the verse as, “And from the fruit of the palm and the grapes, you get out wholesome drink and food: behold, in this also is a sign for those who are wise.” Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall translates the verse as, “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.” I suspect that this verse must have been a major inspiration for Omar Khayyam’s eternally popular “Rubaiyat”.
Now we come to the verse (2:219) that we skipped at the beginning. Here, Allah speaks to Muhammad and says, “They question you about strong drink and games of chance. Say: In both is great abuse and usefulness for humankind; but the abusive side of them is greater than their usefulness.” In this verse the Qur’an acknowledges (the very obvious point) that alcohol has detrimental as well as beneficial characteristics, but that the detrimental outweigh the beneficial, which is something that most people would immediately agree with. Nonetheless, yet again there is no indication that alcohol is haram or that hell or hellfire awaits those who consume it.
There have been occasions when Muslims have translated the above to read, “In both is great sin and usefulness for humankind”, but “abuse” and “usefulness” are intended as opposites and “sin” is not a word that comes to mind as the opposite to “usefulness”. Pickthall falls into this trap when he renders this part of the verse as, “In both is great sin and utility for men; but the sin of them is greater than their usefulness.”
Conclusion? Although the Qur’an recognises that alcohol in general, and “strong drink” in particular, can have detrimental effects on those who consume it, there is nothing that conclusively says it is haram or that it will result in those who consume it suffering forever in hell or hellfire. Moreover, if people have consumed alcohol in the past but engage in “good works”, the consumption of alcohol is not regarded as sinful. We also have the problem that weak drink with low alcohol content such as most beers does not seem to cause as much anxiety as “strong drink” with high alcohol content. Such ambiguity may help to explain why so many mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims (and probably a majority of other Muslims) consume alcohol at home and abroad. But such scriptural ambiguity makes it utterly ridiculous that a nation state such as Saudi Arabia should co-opt the Qur’an as justification for outlawing the consumption of alcohol. Because the Qur’an is as confused as most people today about what to do about the consumption of alcohol, decisions about the legal framework as it applies to alcohol should be shaped by scientific and medical knowledge alone, and not by the ambiguous and contradictory ramblings ascribed to a god called Allah.
Prohibitions on the consumption of alcohol have more to do with traditions that have emerged within Islam than injunctions deriving from the Qur’an, and more to do with people who acquire leadership roles in Muslim societies misleading Muslims less well educated than they are about the content of the Qur’an. However, given that every Muslim is urged to engage regularly with the content of the Qur’an, one is compelled to ask, Why have millions of ordinary Muslims not questioned the traditions that have grown up around the issue of alcohol consumption? And why do millions of ordinary Muslims not celebrate more enthusiastically one of the world’s most famous pieces of literature, Omar Khayyam”s “Rubaiyat”, which, among other things, explores the pleasures associated with responsible consumption of alcohol?
P.S. There is one additional qur’anic verse that relates to the matter. 5:91 says, “Satan seeketh only to cast among you enmity and hatred by means of strong drink and games of chance, and to turn you from remembrance of Allah and from worship. Will you then have done?” As always, there is no indication that alcohol is haram or that hell or hellfire awaits those who consume it, and, as always, the problem seems to lie with “strong drink” alone. Moreover, there is a lot of evidence that many Muslims have extreme levels of “enmity and hatred”, not least for fellow Muslims, even without “strong drink” or “games of chance” contributing to both. Note how Muslims engaged in war with fellow Muslims has caused the death of 200,000 Syrians, the displacement from their homes of millions of other Syrians, and the destruction of substantial areas of almost every major and many minor Syrian population centre. Muslim “enmity and hatred” for fellow Muslims in Syria has destroyed vast swathes of what was once perhaps the Middle East’s most interesting and beautiful nation state. As for the uncounted millions who have been murdered past and present because of the ludicrous division between Sunni and Shia Muslims, one can only ask, How is it that Muslims can allege that Islam is, at its heart, a religion of peace? A substantial body of evidence past and present suggests that Islam is more akin to a religion of war and conflict, and, without question, a religion that discriminates against and persecutes people who differ from whichever Muslim group dominates power. In other words, it is a religion inspired more by the lesser than the greater jihad.
But I stray from the main thrust of the post, which is to establish why Islam prohibits the consumption of alcohol. Clearly, the prohibition is not predicated on the content of the Qur’an. Instead, the prohibition is predicated on particular Hadith (statements or stories attributed to Muhammad and his closest companions, but statements or stories attributed to Muhammad and his companions long after their death, which makes them of doubtful reliability) and, more specifically, particular Sunnah (practices attributed to Muhammad, again, invariably long after his death, said to have found favour among his closest companions). The Hadith and the Sunnah are therefore at best attempts by mere human beings to give expression to what they believed Allah requires of them. But we are constantly told by Muslims that everything Allah requires of humankind is to be found in the Qur’an. We are also told by informed Muslims that the Hadith and the Sunnah can never be more than mere interpretations of what Allah wants. Such interpretations can never usurp the primacy of the Qur’an itself.
In Islam, the prohibition on the consumption of alcohol is at best nothing more than a tradition associated with Muhammad and his closest companions. Allah does not prohibit the consumption of alcohol. Alcohol can be harmful, of that there is no question, but under certain circumstances the Qur’an indicates that its consumption is acceptable and beneficial.
My thanks to some of the many Muslims who have written about this matter in an informed and informative manner. I have found their discussions invaluable while completing the post.