Chapter Two: The Cow (Al Baqara)
They ask you about intoxicants and gambling: say, ‘There is great sin in both, and some benefit for people: the sin is greater than the benefit.’ They ask you what they should give: say, ‘Give what you can spare.’ In this way, God makes His messages clear to you, so that you may re?ect (Chapter 2: Verse 219)
The word ‘intoxicants’ –sometimes translated to ‘alcoholic drinks’- is derived from Arabic origin ‘Khamr.’ The word ‘Khamr’ has in its origin the meaning of ‘to hide’ or ‘to conceal.’ The word ‘khimar’ refers to a type of headscarf worn by Muslim women to cover their hair. So do drugs, intoxicants, and alcoholic drinks, they cover the mind in a haze and conceal intelligence.
Drinking and gambling were very popular in the pre-Islamic era, along with their associated personal and societal problems. When Islam came to fix the prevailing systems, it confronted the pagan society in two ways. First, in matters related to creed, such as polytheism the worship of idols, Islam addressed things head-on with no compromise or leniency. From day one, the banner of: "There is no deity but God and Muhammad is His Messenger” was raised to deal with the issue of polytheism at its roots. Second, Islam dealt with common social and personal habits gradually and with leniency. It began by raising awareness that such habits are unsuitable for a healthy society.
One of those habits was the use of alcoholic drinks and intoxicants. As explained, such substances cover the mind and cloud one’s judgment, and at higher doses, may cause one to lose consciousness. Allah created us as the caretakers on earth and honoured us with intellect and thought. Allah loves and cares for His creation. Thus He does not want you to waste the gift of intelligence even for a short period of time. Being drunk or high on drugs is a rejection of God’s gift. Those who drink alcohol or abuse substance justify their actions by saying that they want to forget their worldly problems. We ask: will ignoring the problems make them go away? Or will it make them worse? God invites you to live through your worries so you can face them with the best tool you have: your thoughtful mind. Islam does not want you to forget your problems; rather it encourages you to confornt and solve them. Thus, it is necessary to keep your mind alert at all times.
How about problems and calamities beyond your control, you may ask? How about issues that cannot be solved? We answer that in such matters, God wants you to know that you can rely on Him; He takes care of His creation. In matters that are out of your control, you can relax your mind and leave things to the One always in control.
Let’s look at how Islam wisely and gradually handled the issues of intoxicants. God says:
And from the fruit of the date-palm and the grape-vine, you derive both intoxicants and wholesome provision. There is certainly a Sign in that for people who use their intellect. (16:67)
Take note that when God mentioned ‘intoxicants,’ he passed by it without comment. But when ‘provision’ was mentioned, the Almighty described it as ‘wholesome.’ Through this verse, God paved the way for a future position on alcohol and intoxicants in Islam. The subtle omission of good and wholesome as descriptions indicated that once fruits and other healthy provisions are used to make intoxicants, they can no longer be described as good. There is a difference between using grapes as a source of nutrition and fermenting them to drink.
Another matter to note in the verse is the difference between legislation and advice. When you advise someone about a matter, you would often say: ‘I will tell you the advantages and disadvantages, and then you are free to take my advice or leave it.’ But when a ruling is issued, you order the person to do as you say and it is no longer an option. Both verses –the one in chapter 16 and the one under study- are advice and reminders of the harms of intoxicants; the final judgment was left to the believers at that time. God says: ‘They ask you about intoxicants and gambling: say, ‘There is great sin in both, and some benefit for people: the sin is greater than the benefit.’
Had God not pointed out the benefits of alcohol and gambling, some people would have objected and said: ‘We reap so many economic benefits from alcohol and gambling; we earn a good living; people have fun and forget their troubles.’ These are undeniable benefits, but Allah –the All Wise, All Knowledgeable- explains that the damage to families and societies outweighs any benefits. That is a fair assessment. Again, at this point, the verse only intended to advise and guide, not to rule or prohibit.
The phrase "the sin is greater than the benefit" was another step in the gradual process of addressing and ultimately prohibiting intoxicants. It is the best approach to tackle entrenched social and economic habits. Habits are hard to break, and changing such habits always elicits emotional agitation. Thus, it is better to address the issue gradually.
The process of prohibiting intoxicants began when one of the Muslim men came to the mosque to pray while he was drunk. He had slurred speech and misquoted the Quran. He said: “say, O disbelievers, I worship what you worship;” while the verse actually says: ‘say, O disbelievers, I worship not what you worship.’ Soon after, the following was revealed:
You who believe, do not come anywhere near the prayer if you are intoxicated, not until you know what you are saying; nor if you are in a state of major ritual impurity- though you may pass through the mosque- not until you have bathed; if you are ill, on a journey, have relieved yourselves, or had intercourse, and cannot find any water, then find some clean sand and wipe your faces and hands with it. God is always ready to pardon and forgive. (04:43)
This verse was a command to those who were accustomed to drinking to stay away from prayers and places of worship while drunk. By dissociating prayer from drinking, a person waking up in the morning cannot drink because he or she has to offer the Fajr morning prayer; He or she cannot get drunk because soon the time for the Zuhr midday, and Asr afternoon prayer will be due. So is the case for the Maghrib sunset and Isha night prayers. This only leaves the person with night-time after Isha prayer to drink and get drunk. Hopefully, after drinking a glass or two, he or she will fall asleep. In this manner, God made the time a believer abstains from alcohol longer than the time he or she drinks. Another step on the way to prohibition was completed.
During this time, some differences and problems arose among the companions regarding intoxicants which prompted them to ask prophet Muhammad to clarify things. At that time, the following verses were revealed:
You who believe, intoxicants and gambling, idolatrous practices, and divining with arrows are repugnant acts- Satan’s doing- shun them so that you may prosper. With intoxicants and gambling, Satan seeks only to incite enmity and hatred among you, and to stop you remembering God and prayer. Will you not give them up? (05:90-91)
The companions replied: we have ceased our Lord. Hence, with prohibition, Allah protected the minds of people, the integrity of society, and preserved the intellectual ability of men and women at all times.