Marijuana and the Muslims

By Ellen Komp • March 27, 2006


"There is always a need for intoxication: China has opium, Islam has hashish, the West has woman."
--André Malraux, from Man's Fate

Or, it could read, "the West has liquor."

Last November 23, six members of Your Black Muslim Bakery allegedly smashed liquor bottles at two stores in Oakland, California while chastising Islamic store owners for selling liquor to fellow Muslims. Groups such as the Islamic Society of the East Bay, Muslims for Healthy Communities and Masjidul Waritheen mosque participated in a rally and march just after the incident, when members stopped at three liquor stores in Oakland to more peacefully express their concerns.

It has been suggested that one of the reasons Muhammad instructed his followers to forgo liquor was to help distinguish them from the wine-loving Christians. The intoxicant use of cannabis may have permeated Islamic culture in part because alcohol was forbidden to adherents of Islam. Marijuana, which thrives in hot, arid climates, has a long history of use in the Muslim and Hindu worlds and is relatively new to the West.

CNN correspondent Peter Bergen wrote in his book Holy War, Inc., "The weed grows in profusion in Islamabad, even outside the headquarters of Pakistan's drug police." Bergen compares al-Qaeda to the infamous Assassins, founded as an Ismailian sect in what was then Persia in 1090. Supposedly under the influence of hashish, the Assassins brought death and destruction on Christian Crusaders for upwards of two hundred years. Bergen noted that Osama bin Laden signed his August 23, 1996 manifesto, "From the Peaks Hindu Kush," the region where cannabis originated.

But Ernest Abel, in his book Marijuana: The First 12,000 Years, contends that Marco Polo never identified hashish as the drug used to trick the Assassins into their murderous ways, and that the Arab world doesn't equate hashish with violence. That didn't stop our first drug "czar" Harry Anslinger from using the legend to help bring about the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which effectively made marijuana illegal in the US. Headlines like "Hashish Goads Users to Blood Lust" ran in Hearst newspapers and these stories were accepted as Congressional testimony at the time.

Recorded use of cannabis goes back to 1200 - 800 in the Hindu sacred text Atharva veda and the Zoroastrian Zend-Avesta, a Persian religious text circa 600 BCE, refers to bhang as Zoroaster's "good narcotic." Marijuana's use as an intoxicant was clearly established in the Arab and Mediterranean worlds by the tenth century A.D., generating many references in Arabian literature, such as one of the stories in The Thousand and One Nights, known as the Arabian Nights (1000-1400AD).

According to legend, Haydar, the Persian monk who founded the Sufi order, discovered a cannabis plant while taking a walk in 1155 A.D. Eating some of the leaves, he found it lifted his depression and he praised its euphoric properties to his disciples, making them promise not to reveal the secret plant to anyone but Sufis (the poorer classes, who wore wool or "Suf" instead of cotton). The Sufis' religion included direct communion with God, using cannabis as a sacrament, and like today's pot-smoking hippies, they "dropped out" of the prevailing economic model and lived communally.

Perhaps the first European experiments in cross-cultural understanding took place in mid 19th-century France, a few decades after Napoleon's troops discovered hashish while invading Egypt. "Le Club des Hashishins," which met from about 1844-49, was founded by Theophile Gautier, and included painter Eugene Delacroix, writers Alexander Dumas, Victor Hugo, Honore de Balzac, Charles Baudelaire and many others. This lofty group would gather in Arabian dress and partake of hashish syrup blended into strong Arabic coffee. The fanciful descriptions of their experiences they left behind has intrigued and inspired several generations of explorers.

In 1894, the British Government published The Indian Hemp Drug Commission Report. Comprising some seven volumes and 3,281 pages, is by far the most complete and systematic study of marijuana undertaken to date. J.M. Campbell, a customs officer, contributed a treatise "On the Religion of Hemp," quoted here in part:

"To forbid or even seriously to restrict the use of so gracious an herb as hemp would cause widespread suffering and annoyance and to large bands of worshipped ascetics, deep-seated anger. It would rob the people of a solace in discomfort, of a cure in sickness, of a guardian whose gracious protection saves them from the attacks of evil influences, and whose mighty power makes the devotee of the Victorious, overcoming the demons of hunger and thirst, of panic, fear, of the glamour of Maya or matter, and of madness, able in rest to brood on the Eternal, till the Eternal, possessing him body and soul, frees him from the haunting of self and receives him into the Ocean of Being. These beliefs the Musalman devotee shares to the full. Like his Hindu brother, the Musalman fakir reveres bhang as the lengthener of life, the freer from the bonds of self. Bhang brings union with the Divine spirit."

Alfred R. Lindesmith, the first modern academic in the US to challenge the drug laws, wrote that Hindu society roughly reverses the status of marijuana in relation to alcohol seen in the West, and "it would be rash indeed to believe that it would be to India's advantage to outlaw marihuana and encourage the use of alcohol." A 1951 study by George Morris Carstairs found that the warrior class of India, the Rajputs, used alcohol to stay warlike but the more respected Brahmins eschewed it and preferred the gentle herb instead as a means to enlightenment.

A fascinating new book, Orgies of the Hemp Eaters (Autonomedia, 2004) further distinguishes between marijuana smokers and those who consume the plant instead, such as those who drink bhang to worship Shiva. Novelist, poet and composer Paul Bowles, who made a great study of "kif" during his time spent in Morocco, is quoted in the book saying, "One of the first things you must accept when you join the grown-ups' club [of the 20th century] is that fact that the Judaeo-Christains approve of only one out of all the substances capable of effecting a quick psychic change in the human organism -- and that one is alcohol. . . And so the last strongholds fashioned around the use of substances other than alcohol are being flushed out, to make everything clean and in readiness for the great alcoholic future."

If there was ever a time to address these issues and heal the schism between the sons of Abraham, it is now.

Activist and journalist Ellen Komp manages the website www.VeryImportantPotheads.com

Author's note: This is mainly a background piece, I welcome any and all comments at ellen@veryimportantpotheads.com

Copyright 2006

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