The alcohol prohibition throughout history and the expansion of Islam.


However, alcohol occupies a special place in Arab-Muslim culture and its consumption has apparently never completely disappeared, especially in the wealthy classes[1]. The khamriyya or bachic poetry (khamr = wine, fermented drink) bears witness to this. The poets were "clients" of the powerful families holding power, at the court of Baghdad, Cairo or in Persia after the conquest of the Sassanid empire by the Caliphate in 651. They lived by their generosity, had to please their protectors and and rhyme their praise, but also affirm the freedom of their inspiration and thought. The respect of religious principles with regard to alcohol was always a matter of debate.

At the beginning of the 13th century, Omar ibn al-Farid proclaimed in Cairo in a famous poem that he had never drunk a single drop of fermented drink, in accordance with his religion, but that he had never experienced the intoxication that enlightens the mind and puts the soul back in its primordial state, in contact with the divine essence. Sufism will give the soul's "straying" in its search for God an unprecedented magnitude. This search will, in respect of Islam, have to use material means other than alcohol (dance, music, psalmody, extreme deprivation, psychotropic drugs, etc.). Mysticism flows through these introductory verses:

« In memory of the beloved, we drank a wine; we were drunk with it before creation of the vine.
The full moon its glass, the wine a sun circled by a crescent; when it is mixed, how stars would look !
If not for its flagrance, I would not have found its tavern; if not for its flashing gleam, how could imagination picture it ?
» (Ode to Wine)


In its triumphant march towards Asia, Islam meets Buddhism and other Indian schools that have already been advancing towards the west for several centuries. These religious schools also banned, at least for monks, the consumption of alcohol (Buddhism and alcohol). They favour the liberation of the mind through the discipline of the body. In contrast to the early Christian Church moulded in the Roman Empire and its European territorial expansion, the Islamic world expanded towards Central Asia and the East, shaped by the vast empire of the Sassanids.

For Muslim poets in the Caliphate of Baghdad and Persia, the balance between political power, religious prescriptions and poetic investigations is subtle and dangerous. Those who claim the freedom to drink will be both celebrated as inspired men - speech, fine words are highly valued in Arab culture - and marginalised[2]. Many will pay with their lives for their freedom or misconduct. One of the most famous, Abû-Nuwâs (c. 747-815) was born in Khuzestân (western Iran) to an Arab father, a soldier who accompanied the Muslim expansion into the Iranian and Indian world, and a weaver's mother from Sindh (southern Pakistan). He reminds us that several fermented beverages were common at that time in the Caliphate of Baghdad: grape wine, date wine and mead.

« It comes not from the palm-tree, or the vine :
But it is mead itself.
It's honey of the bee in hives populated,
Which are its home in summer as in winter.

His poem ends up with a recipe for mead :

« When the day is hiding, the time has finally come
to harvest the honey which perchs upon the combs.
It is decanted, mixed with water from the Nile,
in a wide as low cauldron,
When the light givers have removed the foam
And the fire has purified the honey provided.
They settle it in tarred jars
Brown, dull, dusty, carefully.
Mead goes to rest under the cap
clay, after having raved and scolded.
» [3]

The evocation of the Nile suggests that this poem dates from the exile of Abû-Nuwâs in Egypt, when he had to flee around 805-807 from the wrath of the Caliph Hârûn ar-Rashîd. The manufacturing process is elaborate: cooking of the must, skimming, fermentation and keeping in clogged jars. That of the date wine is given in another poem which sings the land of Mûdar, on the banks of the Euphrates and Obolla rivers :

« The latest fruits are multicoloured, black and red. We can pick them and I send my people
With their hooks. We put them in jars as high as a man, sticky tarred.
Soon, we hasten to beat the dates with braided whips,
[made] with the mane taken from the nurturing palm.
Whipped, the fruits are roaring like a male camel.
Finally, the date wine has enough fermented to be judged ready to be consumed.
I can clog the jar, braiding a turban of clay, well wetted, well made ​​and solid,
which will protect it, in the night, from the air time.
It is then said: "The wine is ripe", and the turban is removed, which reveals a radiant face.
 ». (Monteil 1979, 66).

Same technical principles, less the heating, more the ripening of the dates and their beating (whipping with the fibres of the palm tree) to burst the fruit (pulp) and extract the pits.

No trace of beer in the poems of Abû-Nuwâs ! He lives in the great Iraqi plain, close to the brilliant city of Baghdad and the court that surrounds the Caliph. He frequents taverns run by Jews or Christians (only the members of the communities under the islamic protection are allowed to trade in fermented beverages when paying special taxes) and Christian monasteries.

Yet the oriental and pre-Islamic African world knows all about beer. It is drunk in Egypt, Anatolia and the Sassanid Empire. In other words, the first caliphate is surrounded by regions and peoples who drink beer. But almost everywhere, its status has regressed, leaving wine as an elite beverage. In palaces, temples, in the richest houses, wine is drunk. The Greeks led by Alexander, the Romans and then the Persians all planted vines, promoted wine and encouraged its trade. It is therefore among the small people of the farmers that beer is to be found. Its conversion to Islam is much slower.

After the fall of the Sassanid Empire (642-674), Muslim armies penetrated India, in the Sindh (711-712). They came into contact with people who drank beers brewed from rice, millet and wheat. The Arab merchants had already been frequenting the coasts of the Indian Ocean for a long time. Their trading posts were established in Sindh (Indus delta) and Kerala. These conquests changed the court life in conquered Persia, but not the application of the Koran. One keeps track of the presence of rice beer that came to Mesopotamia with Indian brewers married to Muslim soldiers. Abû-Nuwâs' parents offer such an example. His mother was Indian, a female weaver, not a brewer.


[1] Chebel 2008, Anthologie du Vin et de L'Ivresse en Islam.

[2] Ibn Kutaiba, Al-Mughira, al-Tharwani, Abu Nuwas, Omar al-Khayyam, Ibn Sayhan, etc.

[3] Monteil Vincent 1979, Abû-Nuwâs. Le vin, le vent, la vie. Poèmes traduits et présentés par Vincent Monteil. Sindbad, p. 64.

18/06/2012  Christian Berger