Opinion: Alcohol and the Modern-Day Muslim

ByJo Arrem. by Aquila Style

The use of alcohol, whether within Muslim societies or not, cannot continue to be swept under the carpet if solutions are to be found.

Arak, daru, sharaab, alcohol. The names may vary by language, but the essence is the same. Depending on which side of the fence you sit, these words may conjure up the romance of a Hafiz poem or the sternness of a lecture at the mosque condemning their evils.

Some in Muslim societies view drinking alcohol as a terrible sin and a symbol of evil. Others feel it is merely a fun indulgence. Some indulge in secret, others openly. Still others worry incessantly that they might inadvertently sin while using alcohol-based handrub or mouthwash. This latter category of Muslims dominates the discourse around alcohol in Muslim circles. The ones who do drink usually avoid these discussions, privately hoping to be kept out of this controversial, emotionally charged debate. The intensity of emotion surrounding this issue makes it one of the most polarising in Muslim communities. So polarising, in fact, that most are loath even to bring it up.

Government policies on alcohol consumption by Muslims are equally diverse, with laws of varying strictness. In some countries, one hears of people being sentenced to jail or lashes for drinking. In others, alcohol is freely available and even government officials are unabashed about being seen holding a drink.

Either way, the fact is that many Muslims do drink. And anecdotal evidence suggests that the numbers are increasing. In most secular countries, alcohol is widely available. So Muslims, whether visiting, studying or residing there, will have easy access to it at school, friends’ houses, restaurants, bars and nightclubs. In most Islamic countries, alcohol is ostensibly banned. But insiders know how to get it, and they do. From blatantly opened bottles in swish Dubai nightclubs to glasses, wrapped in content-concealing serviettes, held in Lahore, the contents being imbibed and enjoyed are essentially the same.

Yet the restrictions on alcohol remain one of the more prominent aspects of the Muslim identity. So, how do Muslims who drink reconcile their drinking with their faith?

But in societies where the taboo of admitting to alcohol use is high, the opportunities for education, discussion and guidance around drinking are low

Some are comfortable with their choice, as 20-year-old Abdul from Egypt argues. ‘I don’t believe that by drinking in moderation I am harming anyone. I think the essence of Islam or any other religion is about not doing things that harm you or others around you. Moderate drinking falls into that category.’

In Jakarta, 38-year-old Mely finds solace in the fact that society largely accepts it. ‘Society approves of me drinking, so I don’t feel guilty, even though it is a sin according to the Qur’an. I know hijab-wearing women who go as far as removing their headscarves and wearing wigs to go clubbing and drinking. They still want to be part of the in-crowd.’

Despite the acceptance of their choices, some retain the sentiment that drinking alcohol is a sin or shameful. ‘I’m fine with it, even though I know my society does not approve,’ confides Zara, a 26-year-old Muslim studying in Australia. ‘I would do it openly, except in small circles where this may cause shame to my parents.’

Rahman, 30, in Malaysia says simply, ‘I feel that it is a sin that I have chosen to commit.’

The larger question for Muslim communities regarding alcohol use is whether the issue can be discussed without further widening the divide between those who drink and those who don’t. All societies – Muslim or not – have to grapple with the issue of alcohol use. Aside from religious teachings, societies must educate drinkers to manage alcohol use responsibly. Alcohol is a substance that, if not properly managed, can cause serious harm — directly, by health problems, and indirectly, such as by drink-driving collisions. But in societies where the taboo of admitting to alcohol use is high, the opportunities for education, discussion and guidance around drinking are low. This may make Muslims who drink – particularly the young – more vulnerable to the negative effects of alcohol use compared with others who are able to have a frank discussion about drinking with their parents or community leaders.

The challenge for those who worry about this is creating safe spaces, where young Muslims in particular can engage their parents, religious leaders and other elders in this discussion without fear of criticism or marginalisation. This engagement needs to be done without resorting to fatwas or other forms of condemnation.

In many Muslim societies, parents and teachers believe that simply talking about alcohol would be seen as permitting its use. Thus the subject is never brought up except in highly dismissive or judgmental ways. Often though, this only serves to further drive the issue underground. In societies where alcohol use is common, public education campaigns and the involvement of parents, schools and even religious institutions have played a positive role in empowering young people to manage their alcohol intake responsibly. Surely it is better that teenagers feel safe in being able to admit to their parents that they did not drive the car home because they were drinking, rather than being so afraid of getting into trouble that they risk their lives by driving home anyway.

This is, of course, easier said than done. A negative perception about the character of people who drink alcohol is hard-wired into the psyche of mainstream Muslims. This is often coupled with strong cultural conceptions of family honour that are protected against shameful behaviour at almost any cost. Nevertheless, it is imperative that leaders of Muslim communities address the realities of these issues and allow them to be discussed, however difficult and uncomfortable they may be.