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Islam and Alcohol |
Price of a drink: eighty lashes

Islam and Alcohol is drawn from Chapter Seven, beginning on page 184, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Ask each accused whether wine is lawful or forbidden, ordered the caliph Umar. If he answers forbidden, give him eighty stripes. If he answers lawful, behead him

Islam and Alcohol - Price of a drink: eighty lashes

Islam and Alcohol – Price of a drink: eighty lashes
Although Muhammad had forbidden the consumption of alcohol, taverns–like this one (above) illustrated in Baghdad in 1237–remained a common hangout for Muslim men. A slave, bottom right, is pictured crushing raisins or dates, which when mixed with water made a mildly fermented drink called nabidh. Legal nabidh was no more than two days old. Illegal nabidh was older, and much stronger.

During Muhammad’s mystic overnight journey to Jerusalem, as described by the Prophet, Gabriel brought him two cups–one of milk, the other of wine. Muhammad chose the milk and drank it. The angel congratulated him. Selecting the wine, Gabriel said, would have led his congregation astray.

So goes the story. It meant that Muslims should be prohibited from consuming alcohol altogether, the Prophet decided.1 But if Muslims expected this decree to be easily enforceable, it was in for a most unpleasant disappointment.

Wine and gambling, says Philip K. Hitti, in his History of the Arabs, were “the two indulgences dearest to the Arabian heart”–next, of course, “to women.” Both were abolished by one verse of the Qur’an (Sura 2:219). According to the legal system inspired by the Qur’an, the use of alcohol merits forty to eighty strokes of the lash.

However infallible the Qur’anic prohibition, there is ample evidence that it was not enthusiastically received by the faithful. When Muhammad died, drinking became a major enforcement problem for the caliphate. The records, observes historian William Muir (Annals of the Early Caliphate), are “significantly marked by the frequent notice of punishment for drunkenness.”

Stern as always, the caliph Umar did not shrink from exacting the prescribed punishment. Even so, the drinking problem worsened, particularly at Damascus, where offenses grew so numerous and the penalty was so onerous that the governor was reluctant to impose it. Umar was not so squeamish. Ask each accused whether wine is lawful or forbidden, he ordered. If he answers “forbidden,” give him eighty stripes. If he answers “lawful,” behead him.

Umar did not stop there. A number of governors were themselves fired for drinking, and when one Muslim was discovered bootlegging, the caliph ordered his house set ablaze with the bootlegger locked inside. Another perpetrator was exiled, but escaped and fled into Byzantine territory, where he apostatized from Islam and joined the wine-drinking Christians. When Umar’s own son was accused, the caliph had only one response: eighty lashes.

It was all to no avail. The disorder persisted, particularly in Islam’s foreign postings. Impressionable Muslim youths routinely traveled in the major fleshpots of the new Islamic Empire. There, says Muir, “intemperance and libertinism were rife.” They often succumbed and returned home with a newfound fancy for “voluptuous living.”

Nor was the problem restricted to the young. Khalid, greatest of Islamic generals, was removed from command due to his indulgence in luxury and wine. (See sidebar, page 165.) Again, the caliph Uthman had to deal with his drinking brother. As governor of Kufa, his brother had appalled the faithful by conducting the morning prayers so drunk that he went right on into the noon prayers without realizing it. “The scandal was great,” writes Muir. “The majesty of Islam must be vindicated.” It was. The brother was called home, lashed, and deposed.

With the advent of Yazid in 680, drinking officially became a crisis within the caliphate itself. He reportedly drank daily, sometimes competing with a trained monkey, and was known widely as Yazid of wines. Improvement came slowly. The caliph Malik (685—705) drank only once a month, but then so heavily that he suffered severe bouts of vomiting. His successor, Walid, drank just every second day, and Hisam (724—743) only once every Friday.

But the pattern of slow progress took a turn for the worst in Walid II, caliph for one year after the death of Hisam. The historian Philip Hitti describes Walid II as “an incorrigible libertine, who is said to have gone swimming habitually in a pool of wine, of which he would gulp enough to lower the surface appreciably.” One day, Walid supposedly opened the Qur’an and his eyes fell upon the verse, “And every disobedient ruler will be brought to naught.” Walid disagreed, and shot the sacred book to pieces with a bow and arrow. His reign was an unpopular one, and lasted only a year before he was killed in battle.

There were other problems, not the least of them a kind of theological inconsistency. Muslim martyrs were promised a heaven, not only of eminently seductive black-eyed houris, but also of “generous wine from the springs,” notes Oswald Charles Wood in his History of the Assassins. Skeptics might ask: If wine is so evil, how come they drink it in heaven? Because, counter the Muslims, the wine of heaven does not cause drunkenness, which is the fault of wine on earth.

Fifteen hundred years after Umar and Uthman, the enforcement problem remains. Today, alcohol consumption is illegal in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, and several other Islamic countries. Yet large quantities of liquor are regularly seized by authorities there every year. Lucrative black markets persist, providing bottles of whiskey, for example, at roughly one hundred dollars each.

The spirit of Umar likewise remains. Islamic governments periodically impose an awesome severity. In 2002, a Saudi Arabian court sentenced Gary O’Nison, a London businessman, to eight hundred lashes and eight years in jail for running an illegal drinking club. The following year, in Iran, a man known only as Davoud, who had been twice arrested and once whipped for drinking, was sentenced to death. According to Robert E. Burns (The Wrath of Allah), Muslims convicted of drinking for the third time can be beheaded in Saudi Arabia, despite Muhammad’s proscription that Muslims be executed only for adultery, murdering a fellow Muslim, or deserting Islam.

Finally, there is the problem of Qur’anic literalism. The great book specifically prohibits only a drink called khamr, probably date wine. On the grounds that this was the only kind of alcoholic beverage most Arabs had ever heard of, the prohibition was expanded to include all spirits.2 Backsliding Muslims in Western countries find solace in this. “I resolutely never touch khamr,” says one, “I avoid it like the plague. But I will take the odd Old Crow.”

1. Despite the ban of alcohol, notes Desmond Stewart in Early Islam, Muhammad himself had consumed nabidh, a mild fermented drink made from raisins or dates mixed with water.

2. The word “alcohol” is thought to be derived from the Arabic “al-kuhul,” which is defined as “powdered antimony.” However, a number of Arab scholars claim the word’s origin is “al-kol,” used to describe a spirit or jinn that took one’s mind away. The word “alcohol” may have entered western languages via Sicily, where Christian, Islamic and Byzantine cultures met.

This is the end of the Islam and Alcohol category article drawn from Chapter Seven, beginning on page 184, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam. To continue reading more about Islam and Alcohol from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at