The Koran and the fermented beverages.


In the pre-Islamic Arabian Peninsula many fermented beverages are drunk: wine of busr, tamr, fadikh, zahw (kind of dates to get nabid[1]), barley and wheat beers.

Verses from 4 different surahs evoke in the Koran (which has 114 surahs in all) the question of the behaviour of men and believers with regard to fermented beverages. The Divine Word was revealed to the Prophet according to an order and a temporal progression which conditions the scope of the surahs, some of which take up the same subjects[2]. This is the case for fermented beverages. The text and the meaning of a surah can profoundly modify that of a earlier surah in the time of revelation. The surah called "The Table Served" prescribes the abstention of fermented beverages for every believer, and modifies the contents of the two surahs "The Bees" and "The Cow" which enjoined every believer to keep away from alcoholic products without formally proscribing them. The oldest surah (The Bees) praises fermented beverages, at least as pleasant beverages and foodstuffs made from the fruits, palm trees and vines offered to mankind by the Almighty Creator (List of Surahs).

Here are the verses extracted from these 4 surahs in the chronological order of their revelation from the year 610 onwards:


Surah 16 known as an-Naḥl (The Bees) (Mecca before emigration) :

(v. 69) « Then, eat of all fruits, and follow the ways of your Lord made easy (for you)." There comes forth from their bellies, a drink of varying colour wherein is healing for men. Verily, in this is indeed a sign for people who think ... ».


Surah 2 known as al-Baq̈arah (The Cow) (Medina/Yathrib, after 622) :

(v. 216-219) « They ask you (O Muhammad) concerning alcoholic beverage and gambling. Say: "In them is a great sin, and (some) benefit for men, but the sin of them is greater than their benefit" [...] ».


Surah 4 known as an-Nisāʾ (Women) (Return to Mecca after 630) :

(v. 46) « O you who believe! Approach not As-Salat (the prayer) when you are in a drunken state until you know (the meaning) of what you utter, nor when you are in a state of Janaba, (i.e. in a state of sexual impurity and have not yet taken a bath) except when travelling on the road (without enough water, or just passing through a mosque), till you wash your whole body. ».


Surah 5 known as al-Māʾidah (The Provided Table) (the 112th surah according to tradition, or even the last and 114th according to R. Blachère) :

(v. 90-91) « O you who believe! Intoxicants (all kinds of alcoholic drinks), gambling, Al-Ansab, and Al-Azlam (arrows for seeking luck or decision) are an abomination of Shaitan's (Satan) handiwork. So avoid (strictly all) that (abomination) in order that you may be successful.
Shaitan (Satan) wants only to excite enmity and hatred between you with intoxicants (alcoholic drinks) and gambling, and hinder you from the remembrance of Allah and from As-Salat (the prayer). So, will you not then abstain?


According to the principle of abrogation which governs the reception and application of the Qur'an, Surah 5, chronologically the last on the subject of fermented beverages, applies and rectifies the verses of the surahs previously revealed on the same subject. According to Surah 5, there is only one rule that should guide the conduct of a Muslim: refrain from drinking fermented beverages. He must also stay away from them, i.e. not participate in their manufacture or sale, even if he does not consume them himself.


[1] The nabib (نبيد) is a palm wine, a stronger variant of the ordinary palm wine sharbut ( شربوت ) made nowadays in Sudan, especially in the Dar al-Manasir. But the nabib also refers to a beer made with freshly sprouted sorghum grains, dried and then soaked with dates. The fruit of the date tree triggers the alcoholic fermentation, thanks to the wild yeasts that cover the dates. The nabib is a mixed fermented beverage, half sorghum beer, half date wine.

[2] The reading of the Koran becomes a little more complicated if we know that the surahs were ordered according to the length of each one, from the longest to the shortest (except for the first one), and not according to the chronological order of their revelation. The first reference texts, after the death of Mohammed, do not separate the verses. The first recitation of the Prophet's words dates from 633, requested one year after his death by the Caliph Abû Bakr. The Caliph Uthmân (644-656) commissioned a written version of the Recitation of the Surah (qara'a = read, recite, hence the Qur'an) from the community of the Prophet's companions, a version he wanted to make official to avoid discrepancies. He had it copied and placed in the great cities of the time (Medina, Basrah, Kufa, Damascus) and ordered the destruction of the other written versions, even that of Ibn Mas'oud, Muhammad's companion. In 750, the Umayyad dynasty introduced additional written signs (diacritics) to help the newly converted non-Arabic speaking peoples read the Koran, especially the pronunciation of vowels. In 934, Ibn Moujâhid officializes 7 different and authorized readings of the Koran corresponding to the readings of 7 doctors of the 8th century. Nowadays, 2 readings are the most common: that of Nâfi' in Africa and that of Âsim, the basis of the Egyptian edition of 1923. This Egyptian recension divides the Koran into 114 surahs and 6226 verses in this way: the surah Fâtiha, introductory prayer, the surahs revealed in Medina, then those revealed in Mecca. The surahs of Medina set out the social rules and behaviour that Muslims should adopt. Among them are the 4 surahs, some of whose verses deal with fermented beverages as quoted in this page.

18/06/2012  Christian Berger