IT IS Ramadan, Islam’s holy month of fasting. But even now Suleiman, a Muslim hotel worker in the Turkish town of Antakya, sees no reason not to drink alcohol, widely considered by Muslim believers to be forbidden by the Koran and the Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. “The Koran bans getting drunk, but a beer or two doesn’t hurt,” Suleiman says. “This is a matter between me and Allah.”
Centuries ago many of his co-religionists would have agreed (although not on the need for moderation). Historians believe alcohol originated in the Middle East. Indeed, the word may come from the Arabic al-kohl, eyeliner made by mixing distilled ethanol and antimony salts. Similar substances without the powder soon became popular drinks. Debauched nights in the courts of caliphates were enshrined in the khamriyaat, or odes to wine, by Abu Nuwas, an eighth-century poet.
That has long since changed. Nobody knows exactly when Islamic scholars decided that booze was sinful. In the 1970s political Islam led some countries such as Iran and Pakistan to ban alcohol (see table), although many do not and exceptions are made for non-Muslims. In some countries the punishment for Muslims caught quaffing are severe: 80 lashes in the case of Iran. Things may get more arid yet as Islamist parties from Indonesia to Tunisia moot restrictions on alcohol.
Prohibition has pushed imbibing behind closed doors, but many Muslims still admit to enjoying a tipple. How many people drink varies, but some put the total at 5% of those identifying themselves as Muslim. The black market for spirits flourishes in Libya. Iranians are adept at producing home brew. And in Pakistan “drinks can be ordered to the door quicker than pizza,” says Sadaqat Ali, who runs Willing Ways, a chain of clinics to treat alcoholics.
Drinking may even be on the rise, reckons Humphrey Serjeantson of IWSR, a London-based market-research firm. Between 2001 and 2011 sales of alcohol in the Middle East, where Muslims dominate, grew by 72%, against a global average of 30%. That rise is unlikely to be accounted for by non-Muslims and foreigners alone.
In some Muslim circles drinking is about status. Secular-minded Beirutis like to boast of Lebanon’s wineries. In the Gulf rich people serve imported spirits to impress their guests. Emulating the rich and famous—as well as coping with stress—accounts for a burgeoning drinking culture in Pakistan, says Dr Ali.
Could Islam become more tolerant of drinking? A handful of scholars permit alcohol as long as it is not made from grapes and dates, because these are specifically mentioned in the Koran. But nobody dares open the debate. “No religious scholar is ready to accept the consequences of a fatwa by now saying that beer, spirits, vodka are halal,” says Anas Aboshady, a scholar at the influential al-Azhar University in Cairo.
What is more, since the scrutiny of Islam in the wake of the September 11th 2001 attacks, piety has risen in some quarters. “For many Muslims, alcohol is a question of identity,” says Sami Zubaida, a sociologist at Birkbeck College in London. “Not drinking has become part of a backlash to decadence in the West, where alcohol is associated with loose living.”
Yet Muslim countries will have to face reality. In June health officials in Iran warned of rising numbers of alcoholics and drink-drivers. Since Dr Ali set up Willing Ways in 1980, he has treated hundreds of the 1m Pakistanis he estimates are alcoholics, including judges, politicians and sportsmen. “Most aren’t keen to seek treatment because drinking is still taboo,” he says. “We need to change that.”