Sunday 19 August 2012

A Hidden Secret

Since my previous post was on one taboo, the consumption of hard drugs in the West, I thought I might as well touch on another, the consumption of alcohol in the East.  My starting point here is a man of magnificent munificence! 

Two years ago Turkish TV broadcast a series centring on the life of Suleiman the Magnificent, the iconic sixteenth century sultan.  It caused a bit of a stir because he was seen quaffing goblets of wine. 

The horror!  The horror! A great social taboo had been broken.  All at once there was a storm in a wine glass.  Halit Ergenc, the actor playing the sultan, received death threats.  The deputy prime minister called for the series to be scrapped.  Islamists protested outside the TV studios. RTUK, the state media watchdog, warned the broadcasters, Show TV, that they are clashing with the “national and moral values of our society.”  In responding to the criticism the producers said that the Great Suleiman was only drinking sherbet, not wine. 

Writing at the time I said that It does not really matter if it was true or not; it does not really matter that Suleiman’s son and successor was such a notorious drunkard that he has gone down in history as Selim the Sot.  Rather, to see a national hero, caliph as well as sultan, breaking a fundamental Muslim commandment against the consumption of alcohol was just a step too far. 

I was reminded of this by an article in the Economist (Tipsy Taboo, 18 August) on the relationship of the Muslim world to the demon drink.  Although alcohol is now generally believed to be forbidden by the Quran and the Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet, this would in fact seem to be a fairly modern puritanical fatwa.  As the Economist article says, debauched nights in the courts of the caliphates were enshrined in the khamriyaat, or odes to wine, by Abu Nuwas, an eighth century poet. 

The picture is highly variable.  When I was in Egypt I could enjoy indifferent cocktails in the hotel bars, though beyond their frontiers this dry land would seem to be mostly dry. In Turkey it’s completely legal, despite the conservative backlash, with many men downing raki, the local spirit.   Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic, as iconic a historical figure as Suleiman, enjoyed it in such quantities that he is thought to have died of cirrhosis of the liver.

It was the rise of political Islam, and the emergence of a stricter interpretation of religious law, that saw the swing towards prohibition in the modern age.  Bans were implemented in places like Pakistan and Iran, with severe penalties for Muslims caught imbibing, eighty lashes in the case of the latter. 

Despite this, and despite moves towards restriction in places like Indonesia and Tunisia, alcohol consumption among the faithful has not disappeared; no, it’s just gone indoors!  Even in places like Libya, where it is completely illegal, there is a flourishing black market in spirits.  Iranians make their own home brew and in Pakistan alcohol can be delivered straight to the door quicker than pizza, at least according to Dr Sadaqat Ali, who runs a chain of clinics set up to treat alcoholics. 

This may be the stuff of ayatollah nightmares but what makes it worse is that the problem is on the rise.  The growth of alcohol sales in Muslim-dominated areas is over twice the global average, a figure not accounted for by tourism alone.  Attempts at prohibition have been no more successful than they were in the United States in the 1920s.  Earlier this summer health officials in Iran issued warnings over the growing number of alcoholics and drunk drivers.  In Pakistan Dr Ali estimates that there are a million alcoholics, only a fraction of whom attend his clinics because of the taboos surrounding drinking. 

Oh, well, maybe it’s all just a misunderstanding; maybe the Muslim world is floating on a sea of sherbet.  You can believe that if you wish.  The problem with bans, prohibitions, interdicts and fatwas is that they tend to have a reverse effect from that intended. 

And time did not leave anything of this wine, only the last breath. As if its disappearance were a hidden secret in the breasts of wise men.


  1. hey, awesome post. not one point that I can disagree with.
    in India we face a similar situation
    the state of Gujarat is the only state with prohibition right now, as it was the birthplace and workplace of father of India Mahatma Gandhi and another great leader Iron man of India Sardar Vallabhai Patel, also from Gujarat wanted prohibition to be implemented all over India.
    as a result now we have liquor mafia and a lot of other associated nuisances. there have been gang wars as this 'business' runs into millions. Liquor is delivered where ever you want. at home, in your office, and this 'service' is completely discreet. Just like how US got its tequila from mexico during prohibition, gujrat gets its alcohol from nearby state Maharashtra or even better from Goa (where tax on alcohol is the least in the country)

    1. Thank you, Sudarshan, for that additional information proving my point! Where there is a demand there will always be a supply.

  2. That is a beautiful couplet. I'd like to read the original poem.

    It is interesting to me how often arguments against psychoactive chemicals turn on the fear of releasing 'inner demons,' and the unpleasant social consequences that might follow. In the UK and US prohibition is still most advocated by religionists of differing stripes, and those who fear the breakdown of public order if inhibitions are relaxed. It's not the chemistry, boys and girls . . . it's the real person inside you fear.

    "In vino veritas," said Pliny the Elder - though the idea did not originate with him. But society cannot deal with too much truth, not if the ruling powers are to continue to rule. Comfortable lies are too much a part of the social armour that protects privilege and maintains the arbitrary rules that determine who will order and who will obey.

    It is hard enough for a secular society to withstand too close examination; for a theocracy, it is doom.

    1. Calvin, I've just checked There are a number of Abu Nuwas anthologies, including one coming in at a hefty $694.77! When not praising wine he clearly had a thing about boys. :-)

      Yes, I can understand why theocracy would be so opposed to the truths that might be revealed in wine.

    2. Hi Ana and Calvin--the fact that wine and theocracy don't mix is a major issue with all the Sufi poets . . . Ana, you may recall that your hero Saladin was responsible for the execution of one of the greatest of the Sufi poets . . . Calvin, I've been fascinated by your disclosures about your early career, but unlike Mademoiselle Fitzgerald-Beaumont, you haven't summed up and concentrated your insights into a pithy sentence or two . . . would you be willing to do so? What, fundamentally, did you learn from all your research and writing for that publication--hints are starting to come out in your follow-up comments to Ana's questions, but it would be great to read your considered reflections, at whatever length . . .

    3. My goodness. I don't usually like to present conclusions without supporting evidence, but give me a little time try to condense some of the ideas, and I'll post them here.

  3. Vices are the result of mental instability.

    1. Hey, Anthony, where would we be without a little vice? :-)

  4. Ana, in the case of my own Protestant church, the [Southern] Baptists, we are also (for the most part) teetotallers.

    But it's not due to any particular theological objection to the consumption of alcohol (after all, Jesus DID convert water into wine for the express purpose of drinking the stuff), it's just that in Colonial America the housewives had had enough of being beaten by drunken husbands.

    Unlike Europe and the urbanized parts of Middle-east (where millennia of human habitation had pretty much contaminated the water supply to the point that the only sanitary beverages were mother's milk, beer, and wine), over here in the Colonies drinking water out of the local streams was a viable option. This was made more palatable after the growth of the great empires brought us ready access to tea, coffee, and various herbs.

    1. CB, abused wives and drunken husbands; yes, very good. This is clearly something that unites Colonial America with the abstinence movements in Europe, often most concerned with the dangers to family life of drunkeness. It's a common theme in all late industrial societies.

  5. The ban on alcohol in Islam is upon drinking it. When the Caliph Umar found out that Khalid bin Walid bathed with salts that included alcoholic content he asked Khalid about it who replied that he did not drink it. There is no taboo against external use of alcohol for medicinal purposes or in scents and cosmetics in which it is widely used.

    1. Thanks, Rehan, a useful additional snippet of information.

  6. OK, here you go:

    I learned from my research that prohibition causes immense harm to individuals and to society.

    I learned that prohibition is about money and power . . . the two most corrupting and addictive things known to humans.

    I learned that prohibition has created a class of human outcasts who can be blamed for every social ill, and be hounded, brutalized, tortured, and killed at will. They are our scapegoat class and no fate is considered to cruel to visit upon them.

    I learned that prohibition had spawned a mountain of lies, and that individuals engaged in the 'virtuous' war against drugs consider any means acceptable: murder, torture, theft . . . anything.

    I learned that the money and power created by prohibition has corrupted politics,, the judiciary, law enforcement, medicine, the military, education, and every other aspect of society it has touched.

    I learned that vast armies of secondary beneficiaries in the anti-drug businesses of prevention, detection, treatment, punishment have made fortunes from the misfortune and mistakes of others, and they will never support any change that might interrupt that flow of wealth.

    I learned that much of the harm caused by the prohibition of drugs was deliberate. Certain elements understood very well the power and the profits alcohol prohibition generated in the 1920s and set about to recreate those same opportunities for themselves.

    I learned that each 'victory' serves only to create a more dangerous and powerful 'enemy' - for the purpose of this war is war without end.

    I learned that, inspite of overwhelming political pressure, propaganda, vicious attacks and brutal abuse, there are still individuals strong enough to stand against the government and the mindless mob, and demand the right to be treated as free humans. And there are kindly souls who do their best to succour and protect and nurse the poor addicts.

    I learned that a large percentage of political and law enforcement professionals remain silent until they retire, then announce that they oppose the nightmare system they helped to sustain during their working lives.

    1. Yes, Drinking alcohol is completely free in Turkey, although alcoholic drinks are quite expensive due to enormous taxes. Turkey (esp. in Izmir -my hometown-) is a serious wine producer and wants to increase its production capacity since people see it as a cultural drink (We know that wine has been invented on Aegean coasts around 4500 B.C). But there were times that it had been forbidden during Ottoman time.

      Here is a true funny story from the movie "Istanbul beneath my wings" ( You can watch full movie here)

      The Sultan IV. Murad usually changes his clothes at nights and wanders around the city just like a usual citizen to see if people obey his laws. Once to be able to pass the Bosporus, he gets on the boat of Bekri Mustafa who is a funny alcohol addicted character from that time. And Bekri offers him a drink in a pot which makes everyone even stronger. Sultan drinks from the pot and tastes the wine and starts yelling at Bekri:
      - You offered me a drink but i see it is a pot of wine which is illegal.
      - Yes says Bekri (not knowing that he is the Sultan)
      - Am i not the one who forbids this poison. Am i not the one who cares about your health?.... etc.
      - Who are you to forbid wine from drinking? Who do you think you are? says Bekri.
      - I am the Sultan IV. Murad
      Bekri gets angry and takes back the pot from Sultan:
      - You took a sip and now you think you are the Sultan. I wonder who you'll become if you drink the whole pot.

    2. Wonderful, Kunday! It's great to see you again. Sorry for taking so long to publish. I've been away. :-)