Why are we surprised that, while Islam forbids wine, Muslims have been known to imbibe? Doesn’t Christianity prohibit adultery? In Angels Tapping at the Wine-shop Door, Rudi Mathee explores the contradiction between the formal ban on alcohol and the essential cultural role of wine in Muslims societies over the ages.
At first glance, the prohibition of wine appears straightforward. Islam’s scriptures consider wine impure, drunkenness improper, and drunkards excluded from heavenly rewards. But historically practices were more complicated. As long as drinking did not disturb the social order, eg tippling in private, religion tended to turn a blind eye. Drinking without getting drunk had the approval of the Hanafi school of jurisprudence, dominant in Ottoman lands. Other traditions argued that only grapes were to be avoided, allowing for date and fig wine, especially the distilled versions. Still others taught that distillation removed impurities from grape wine, making raki a particularly favored drink in Turkey. Scientists like Avicenna recommended wine for medicinal purposes, turning it into an oft-sought after remedy. Many Muslims societies tolerated drinking, along with other transgressive behaviors, for young men, with the expectation that age 40 would bring repentance and sobriety.
Tolerated or excused on the basis of manifold justifications, wine remained “integral … to Islamic culture … putting it at the center of Islam, making it almost its defining issue,” writes Mathee. This centrality resulted from three fundamental cultural factors.
Islam arose and spread in a wine-drinking culture. The ancient Arab poets celebrated wine. In the first lands conquered by Islam, Syria, Egypt and Iran, vineyards could be found everywhere. For centuries the Muslims were a minority within the Muslim empire. They shared wine with their Christian, Zoroastrian and Jewish neighbors. Later, as more people converted to Islam, they did not necessarily give up the bottle. This is especially true in the Balkans and in the Caucasus. Even in Turkey, the Alevi sect is known for combining religious rituals with imbibing, perhaps as part of a pre-Islamic practice.
This points to another important factor: wine itself enhanced religious experiences. Not just piety and asceticism brought believers closer to the Godhead, but also intoxication. Wine was frequently associated with love-making, which many Muslim poets and philosophers characterized as training wheels for the mystical journey. For Hafez and many other Persian poets, wine provided temporary and temporal ecstasy, while also acting as a potent metaphor of mystical union with God. It “opens a universe beyond good and evil, unlocking the treasure box of eternal wisdom and truth.” Mathee’s discussion of the role of wine in poetry and mysticism moves beyond the cliched formulation of wine being either real or metaphorical, arguing it is simultaneously both.
More prosaically, wine-soaked sociability oiled the gears of society. Kings and their courtiers frequently got drunk together, ensuring frankness and trust up and down the hierarchy. Many East Asian cultures still use alcohol in this way. Mathee speculates that the Islam’s medieval Turco-Mongol overlords brought with them the habits of the steppe nomads whose drinking bouts attained epic proportions. Most of Tamerlane’s descendants, for example, died from drinking. An exception was Babur, who had the hardest time giving it up while establishing the Mughal empire.
Despite the Ottomans, Timurids and Safavids belonging to a tradition of hard-riding and hard-drinking horsemen, as they grew in dignity and orthodoxy, several sultans and shahs tried to ban alcohol. More often they died of cirrhosis. The doctors of religion had a point about drinking: it brought down more than one ruler. The problem became more acute when the realms of Islam were menaced by the imperialists powers. It’s not as if the Russians, French and British didn’t drink. But their leaders tended not to spend the whole day in a drunken stupor.
Modernizing critics attacked this feckless ruling class of pashas, mirzas and nawabs, trying to rein in the centuries-old drinking culture. They were increasingly joined by fundamentalists, who reminded everyone that Islam had forbidden wine in the first place. Rejection of alcohol became an excuse for imposing a rigorist version of Islam. As a result, a certain amount of civility has been lost. As Mathee puts it, “Modern Muslim fundamentalists exclusively focus on the textual dimensions of Islam, as if they had inherited colonialism’s ignorance of the religion’s history of diversity and tolerance.” Some of his most poignant observations concern recent history in Turkey, Iran and Pakistan, where ostentatious liquor bans have not reduced alcoholism, but simply driven it underground.
Much of this book is a romp through 1,400 years of history and across 3,000 miles of territory. This provides an element of exhaustivity that is exhausting, rather like an endless pub crawl. The real interest of Mathee’s survey is his sensitive and nuanced exploration of the inner lives of people with whom, though remote in time and place from us, we would have enjoyed sharing a drink.