Which is the worst deed: to kill a man, to rape a woman, or to get drunk? Drunkenness is the worst because the drunkard will commit both rape and murder.
- Islamic saying (Aziz Omrane, personal communication, Tunis 1992)
Given the vast literature of books and journals specialized in the study of alcohol, the existing scholarship on Islam and alcohol seems small. It consists of a modest number of publications about alcohol-related attitudes and behaviors of Muslims and about alcohol in Islamic doctrine - the former from a social science perspective and the latter from a religious doctrinal perspective. Since Muslims constitute about a fifth of the world's population - about 1.3 billion people - this would appear to be an underdeveloped area within alcohol studies. The paucity of research in this subfield is in a way not surprising because alcohol is forbidden in Islam and Muslim countries tend to have low rates of alcohol consumption. Yet the topic is important, in part because alcohol abuse among Muslims is a significant social problem, both in Muslim countries and among Muslims in countries where they are a minority, but also because of other considerations besides social pathology that make alcohol and Islam a timely topic.
This article offers an overview of the topic of alcohol and Islam, addressing such questions as: What are the patterns of alcohol consumption in Muslim countries? What does the social science literature teach us about alcohol and Muslims? What normative behaviors with regard to alcohol are prescribed by Islamic textual sources and how did these norms evolve? What is the range of practice of Muslims with regard to alcohol consumption in different parts of the world today, in both Islamic majority countries and in countries in which Muslims are a minority? What happens when Muslims emigrate from a country where alcohol is discouraged to a country where alcohol is permitted and even positively valued? Since Islam forbids alcohol, how do Muslims who drink explain their behavior? We conclude with an agenda for suggested future studies of alcohol-related beliefs and behaviors of Muslims.
Alcohol and Islam in history
Paradoxically, it was Muslim chemists who were responsible for developing distillation to a high level of sophistication and transmitting it to Europe via Spain. Although distillation is a process which arose independently in different places in the world, Muslims greatly improved distillation technology. In the eighth century Muslims developed that distinctively shaped apparatus which is a staple of every chemistry laboratory - the alembic - for the efficient collection of distillate through a descending condensation tube. The words "alembic" and "alcohol" both came into English from Arabic (al- is the prefix "the" in Arabic). The word "alcohol" comes from alkuhul, Arabic for "powdered antimony," or "a fine powder," later "essence," and still later alcool vini,, shortened in the nineteenth century to "alcohol." Muslims also developed and introduced into Europe the cultivation of sugar cane and an efficient process for sugar extraction which, combined with distillation technology, gave birth to the production of rum.
Despite its formal religious prohibition, the consumption of alcohol has never been eradicated under Islam. The continuing importance of alcohol can be seen through the literatures of the areas to which Islam spread. In both Arabic and Persian poetry the consumption of alcohol remained an important theme, even after the introduction of Islam. In the Arab world this is attested by the flourishing genre of khamriyya (wine, or bacchic) poetry and the work of the ibahi (licentious) poets. Abu Nuwas is perhaps the most famous of these early poets who glorified wine and drunkenness. Wine also figures prominently in the work of Hispano- Arabic poets of the tenth to the fifteenth centuries, such as the Cordobán zajal poet Ibn Quzman, the satirical muwashshahat poet al-Abyad (who was crucified by the Almoravid governor of Cordoba), Ibn Bajja of Saragossa, and Ibn Zuhr (the latter two both were poisoned). …