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Kenneth Anderson Kenneth Anderson

Intoxicants in the Islamic World: A Rich and Telling History


Islamic cultures long had the same drugs as Western societies, but different rules: Imagine coffee carrying a death sentence and opium being entirely accepted. This teaches us some important things.

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Every society has its own views about drugs. For example, there once was a land—and not in a fairytale—where you could take all the narcotics you wanted but drinking a cup of coffee or smoking a cigarette carried the death penalty. That’s hard for us to conceive of in the US, where many Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are fueled by coffee and cigarettes—neither nicotine nor caffeine is considered a relapse, even though they are drugs. The reality is that throughout history, substances have been demonized not due to any inherent property, intoxicating or otherwise, but, rather, due to social values. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Islamic societies—we’ll look at the Arab Nation, Turkey and Iran—and their richly diverse views of intoxicants over the centuries.

The Arab Nation: from Morocco to Egypt to Iraq

"Muhammed Ascending to Paradise," painting, mid-1500s Photo via

Muhammed Ascending to Paradise, painting, mid-1500s Photo via

The heyday of the Arab-ruled Islamic empire began with Muhammad’s conquest of Mecca in Saudi Arabia in 630 AD; it lasted through three dynasties spreading out all the way to Spain on the west and Pakistan on the east at the height of its power in the 9th century. The great prophet Muhammad began writing the Qur’an, or Koran—Islam’s central religious text—in 610 and ended with his death in 632. Like the Bible, the work contains many prohibitions on behavior, especially the pleasure-seeking kind, including, of course, intoxicants. Early verses of the Qur’an praise wine: “And from the fruits of the palm trees and grapevines you take intoxicant and good provision. Indeed in that is a sign for a people who reason.” But later verses condemn it: “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?”

Why the contradiction? Many scholars believe that Muhammad saw no need to condemn alcohol in his younger days, but later became so disgusted with one of his uncle’s drunken antics that he reversed course. Oral tradition states that he prohibited alcohol after his conquest of the holy city of Mecca in 620. After his death, rulers of the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750) paid little heed to the prohibition and engaged in drunken debauchery. The next rulers, the Abbasid Caliphate (750-517), took the prohibition more seriously. The oral traditions of the life of Muhammad (known as hadiths), which were first written down by the Abbasids, tell us that anyone drinking wine should be flogged with 40 or 80 lashes; anyone caught drinking wine a fourth time should be put to death.

Muhammad made no mention of opium or cannabis. However, starting in the eighth century, Arabs developed a healthy trade in opium—it was portable, valuable and not perishable—and over the centuries wrote many learned texts on the drug.

Coffee was first discovered in Ethiopia; legend has it that a goatherd found his goats eating some strange berries that made them so lively that he could not catch them. The substance had made its way to the Arab Nation by the 15th century, and in 1511 the first Islamic ban on coffee, by the governor of Mecca, shut down all the coffee houses. But his superior, the sultan of Cairo, soon stepped in and overruled the governor.

These days all of Islam—both Shia and Sunni—declares that coffee is halal (lawful); it condemns tobacco, illicit drugs, alcohol and even intoxicating quantities of nutmeg as haram (sinful and forbidden). But the reality is different. Some examples: The consumption of alcohol is on the rise, with an increase of some 72% between 2001 and 2011. As for opium and heroin, Afghanistan has around 1 million people with problematic use out of a population of 30 million; Iran has 1.2 million people with problematic use, or 2.26% of the population aged 15 to 64.

The Ottoman Empire: Turkey

Sultan Murad IV, oil painting http://www.ottomanarchives.info/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/526370_204687659690946_1165244320_n.jpg

Sultan Murad IV, oil painting <Photo via

Asia Minor, the home of the modern Republic of Turkey and the geographical bridge between Europe and Asia, has been occupied by a multitude of tribes and empires, including the ancient Greeks and Romans, Byzantine Christians and Ottoman Turks. Records show that all were familiar with wine, opium and cannabis. Coffee was first brought to Istanbul in 1555; tobacco was introduced in 1601. The 16th-century Islamic historian Ibrahim Pecevi wrote of the newly introduced vice of smoking, “Puffing in each other’s faces, they made the streets and markets stink.”

In 1621, Sultan Murad IV ascended to the throne of the Ottoman Empire at the age of 11 during a period of chaos, revolt and anarchy; at age 21, he sought to restore order through that old political standby: a reign of terror. This included a ban on coffee, tobacco and wine: Anyone caught indulging was immediately beheaded, often by Murad himself, who prowled the streets seeking violators of the law. A first offense of operating a coffee shop entailed a severe beating; a second offense resulted in being sewn into a sack and tossed into the river. There was more to this ban than the religious proscription of intoxicants; Murad feared that cafes, wine shops and the like would be used as gathering places to plot rebellion. Nor was piety a motive: Murad himself was a huge drinker.

By stunning contrast, opium and cannabis remained legal during this period when you could lose your head over a good cup of coffee. Their use was such an engrained part of the culture that no one even thought to classify them as a problem. Murad died in 1640 at the age of 27, and it was not long before the bans on coffee, alcohol and tobacco were lifted.

As in most societies, in the Ottoman Empire the guardians of creative expression and the guardians of theological dogma were in opposition: Opium, wine, tobacco and coffee were referred to by the poets of the as the four cushions of the sofa of pleasure, while clerics called them the four ministers of the devil. Cannabis was looked down on as fit for only peasants and Sufis.

Opium remained legal and poppy growing was unregulated for centuries—until a 1971 law banning both was passed in return for US foreign aid. However, this law proved so unpopular with Turkish poppy growers that in 1974 it was replaced with a law allowing for the growth and export of opium poppies for medical use only. Recreational use of any opiates is currently banned in Turkey under the Turkish Penal Code established in 2005. Needle exchange and methadone are not available, but Suboxone is. The UN estimates that Turks consumed 0.8 metric tons of heroin and 9 metric tons of opium in 2008.

Persia: Iran

Tobacco appeared in Persia in around 1600 and was immediately banned by the shah: Light up and you had your lips and nose cut off. However, he later decided that the fiscally responsible policy was to use taxation rather than the sword and greatly enriched his kingdom. But when his son, a great lover of wine and opium, succeeded him, he went all barbaric on tobacco and ordered that smokers be burned at the stake, have molten lead poured in their mouths or again, their lips and noses cut off.

The first Islamic Persian empire was established in 1501 by a band of hard-drinking Persian Sufis founded the Safavid Dynasty. The head of the dynasty was famed for his drinking binges and for his high style: He had a vanquished enemy’s skull made into a wine goblet inlaid with gold and precious stones. At his death in 1524, his son took the throne and, after undergoing a great repentance, gave up wine and other pleasures of the flesh. The dour despot decided that the entire empire should share in his great repentance and outlawed alcohol, cannabis, prostitution, gambling and homosexuality. The only popular “vice” to escape the ban was opium. Taverns, wine shops and brothels were boarded up and the streets were said to run red with wine from broken vessels and blood from slaughtered sinners. One high-ranking official who was caught drinking and consorting with prostitutes was placed in a barrel and thrown from the top of a minaret. Another was publicly hanged with a wine bottle tied around his neck to serve as a warning to others.

This fundamentalist approach ended with the shah’s death in 1576, and what followed was a pattern of prohibition alternating with drunken, orgiastic revelry that repeated itself until the end of the Safavid Dynasty in 1722.

The presence of coffee is recorded in Iran as early as 1597. Coffeehouses were frequently located near mosques where the faithful could socialize over a hookah and cup of joe before and after prayers. However, coffeehouses came to be associated with a wide range of “bad”­—that is, “liberal”—behavior, including mixed dancing, heresy, homosexuality, pederasty, transsexuality, prostitution and political sedition. Boys aged 10 to 16 worked in these coffeehouses, half naked, dressed as girls or wearing gold turbans and belts, serving the sexual needs of the customers. Although coffee itself was not outlawed, a severe crackdown on vice in coffee houses occurred in 1645.

As in Turkey, cannabis was the drug of the “lower-class” peasants and Sufis, who used it to induce mystical experiences.

Opium and Persia have been inseparable ever since the time of Alexander the Great (who ruled from 332 to 323 BC). Despite periodic bans, the use of opium—both eating and, later, smoking—was completely assimilated into Persian society, from Sufi to peasant to shah; only clerics spoke out against it. Mothers were reported to blow opium smoke in the faces of their babes to calm them, much as in Elizabethan England mothers gave their babies beer. The introduction of opium smoking led to significant increases in addiction, which was a recognized social problem. Addicts were called “taryaki,” a derogatory term like drunkard.

The Pahlavi Dynasty (1925 to 1979) placed restrictions on opium in 1928, and the sale of morphine without a prescription was criminalized in the 1930s. Opium prohibition was enacted in 1955 by Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (aka “the Shah of Iran”). The rule of the US-backed shah promoted intensive westernization, often at the expense of traditional Iranian culture. The illicit drugs of choice among the urban elite were alcohol and cannabis; in a stunning switch, opium was shunned as old-fashioned and lower class. The shah’s dictatorship ignored illicit alcohol use but punished illicit opiate use.

The backlash of the rural, traditionalist majority against the westernized, intellectual minority resulted in the Islamic Revolution in 1979, ousting the corrupt and brutal Pahlavi regime and establishing the regime of the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini, which was brutal in its own way. The new theocracy instituted harsh punishments for “western” drugs such as alcohol, cannabis and heroin but gave a pass to opium use as a part of traditional Iranian culture.

People with opium addiction did not get a pass, however. In 1969 a law had been passed to allow limited cultivation of opium for maintenance of registered addicts over the age of 60; by 1972 the number of registered addicts had grown to 100,000. The late 1970s saw the adoption of a western disease model and the growth of methadone maintenance. But treatment dried up under Khomeini; although a number of traffickers were executed, drug users were largely forgotten as Iran became preoccupied with the bloody war with Iraq. But by 1989, over 200,000 drug users had been sent to labor camps, and in that year the death penalty was instituted for those possessing over an ounce of heroin.

In the 1990s a turnaround began in which the nation gradually restored treatment and even harm reduction. Today in Iran, heroin and opium are cheaper than chewing gum and easier to purchase than bread or milk. The government treats users as victims of a disease rather than criminals; clean needle programs and methadone are abundantly available, even in prisons. Yet the majority of users are not addicted, and many use opium to affirm their Persian identity and express rebellion against the law of Islam.

Despite the crackdown on opiate production, Iran became a conduit for the drug produced in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2013, 331 people were executed for drug offenses in Iran. The UN estimates that Iranians consumed 14 metric tons of heroin and 450 metric tons of opium in 2008. It is estimated that 2.8% of Iranians have used illicit opiates in the past year.

What can we learn from all this? The criminalization of a drug has far more to do with properties ascribed to it by society than any inherent properties of the drug itself. The criminalization of opiates and the medicalization of habitual opiate use in Islamic countries in the 20th century has the appearance of a distinctly Western export. The US has pressured the UN to globalize these measures as much as possible, as exemplified in the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961. Yet social deviance is a property ascribed to drug users by a society seeking a scapegoat; it is not inherent in the act of drug use itself. This is another lesson that history teaches us.

Kenneth Anderson is the founder of HAMS Harm Reduction for Alcohol and the author of How to Change Your Drinking: A Harm Reduction Guide to Alcohol. He has a master’s degree in Mental Health and Substance Abuse Counseling from the New School for Social Research and has worked in the field of harm reduction since 2002, including “in the trenches” doing needle exchange in Minneapolis. He served as online director for Moderation Management and as director of development at the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center. He hosts a harm reduction podcast and writes a blog for Psychology Today called Overcoming Addiction. His last piece for Substance.com looked at the media’s distortion of addiction and drug use among senior citizens.