Its relatively well known that religious practices and beliefs in Islam forbid Muslim people to consume Alcohol. Historically however, the very foundation of distilled beverages can largely be attributed to the advancements of Muslim alchemists and chemists dating back to the 700s.
There are many anomalies in said area of the world, but specifically, how can it be that Persian Gulf countries make up a concentrated sales area for liquor and one of the largest markets for a brand portfolio with a global monopoly; Diageo, the world largest spirits company.
Within the Qur’an (the sacred religious text of Islam) can be found an evolution of the suggested forbiddance of Alcohol (al-kohl is the Arabic word denoting fermented beverages, however within the Qur’an “Khamr” is the word used for fermented drinks.)
In an early verse, praying while drunk is forbidden, in a later verse, intoxicants are said to be both good and evil, but mostly evil. And finally, in another verse consuming alcohol is stated as “an abomination of Satan’s handiwork”.
The prophet Muhammad, considered by Muslims to be a messenger of God, also warned his followers against the consumption of alcohol, as stated in the Hadith.
“If it intoxicates in a large amount, it is forbidden even in a small amount.”
Many argue that the references to alcohol within the Qur’an are not literal, and rather refer to one specific form of drink, or a category of drinks, but not alcohol altogether.
A simple explanation from about.com tell us “the word for ‘intoxicated’ is sukara which is derived from the word ‘sugar’ and means drunk or intoxicated…the word which is often translated as ‘wine’ or ‘intoxicants’ is al-khamr, which is related to the verb ‘to ferment’. This word could be used to describe other intoxicants such as beer, although wine is the most common understanding of the word.”
It’s also difficult to historically pin point the time when the prohibition began, or why these said passages were interpreted to mean complete abstinence.
But the most fascinating piece to the whole prohibitive puzzle is that distillation was pioneered by early Islam. Elephant head pot stills were being used by Greeks living in Egypt during the first century A.D. Arabs, post Egyptian conquest of the 600s, adopted this form and put it to use, making significant chemical advancements.
In the 8th century, Muslim chemist Geber mastered the Alembic still and through pure distillation, turned crude oil into gasoline. Kerosene from petroleum came next, followed by tar, which made Baghdad the first city in the world to have paved streets.
A multitude of medicinal advancements, as well as perfume, also came from the mastering of distillation. Geber, along with Avicenna and many other chemists and alchemists documented their work which can still be read today.
Even under the Islamic rule, wine production and consumption flourished. But who was drinking it? Khalifas (Muslim political leaders) drank alcohol during their private meetings. Evokes images of Nucky Thompson sipping on Irish fire water out of cut crystal in his suite at the Ritz-Carlton, doesn’t it?
In our present day and time, alcohol is most definitely consumed in territories of Muslim majority, however the policies vary from country to country. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia strictly forbid it while other countries like Qatar, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi have more flexible laws permitting the sale of alcohol in 5 star hotels and clubs, duty free shops, or available for purchase by non Muslims.
These, and other bordering Arab states of the Persian Gulf are full of expatriates and a growing youth population that has become a large target market for companies like Diageo, which according to an article on Al Arabiya News, opened a “luxury spirits, fine wine and champagne sampling area” in the Dubai International Airport.
Think Persians and Arabs living in the United States love Johnny Walker? Think again. According to the article, in 2010 “the Gulf Arab region alone accounted for 44 percent of Diageo’s total sales in the Middle East and North Africa, with United Arab Emirates and Lebanon being its two largest markets.” Explains why Johnny Walker Black is currently the 3rd top selling spirit brand in the world.
Even with policy variations on the availability and sales of Alcohol, it is still dangerous for not only Muslims, but tourists and anyone living in the gulf countries. Drinking illegally is a punishable offense, period.
So next time you sit down to your favorite drink made by a great bartender, or walk off the Memphis BBQ you just ate with a cold beer in hand, or stroll through New Orleans with a Hurricane, be grateful for the freedoms you have.