ALCOHOLIC DRINKS IN THE ARAB-MUSLIM WORLD
Islam prohibits the consumption of alcohol. The attitude towards this prohibition varies from place to place and individual to individual, but is generally treated with greater leniency than the prohibition on pork. A lot of Muslims drink but many are either very secretive about it or just do it occasionally. In Muslim countries that have alcohol prohibitions alcoholic drinks are generally available at hotels with Western customers. Alcoholic drinks have traditionally been supplied by the Christian community.
The government of Saudi Arabia, guardians of the holy Muslim cities of Mecca and Medina, imposes some of the strictest rules on alcohol. The sale of alcoholic beverages is forbidden. Beer and wine are not even available in the upscale hotels, which is often the case in other strict Islamic countries. Some foreigners drink alcoholic smuggled in or brew their own hootch but the penalties if you get caught doing this can be severe. Saudi champagne is apple juice mixed with fizzy mineral water. Non-alcoholic beer is also available.
Even though most Arabs are Muslims who generally don't drink, Arabs gave us the word alcohol. “ Al kohl” is Arabic for "a powder for painting the eyelids." Kohl had been used since ancient times as an eyeliner. Later it came to mean exotic substance. Also, ironically, Arabs developed the technology of distillation—a way of making the alcohol content in beverages higher. The technology was introduced to Europe in Middle Ages.
Websites and Resources: Islam Islam.com islam.com ; Islamic City islamicity.com ; Islam 101 islam101.net ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/islam ; BBC article bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam ; Patheos Library – Islam patheos.com/Library/Islam ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts web.archive.org ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam britannica.com ; Islam at Project Gutenberg gutenberg.org ; Islam from UCB Libraries GovPubs web.archive.org ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary pbs.org frontline ; Discover Islam dislam.org; Sharia (Islamic Law): Oxford Dictionary of Islam oxfordislamicstudies.com ; Encyclopædia Britannica britannica.com ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Sharia by Knut S. Vikør, Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics web.archive.org ; Law by Norman Calder, Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World oxfordislamicstudies.com ; Sharia Law in the International Legal Sphere – Yale University web.archive.org ; 'Recognizing Sharia' in Britain, anthropologist John R. Bowen discusses Britain's sharia courts bostonreview.net ; "The Reward of the Omnipotent" late 19th Arabic manuscript about Sharia wdl.org ;
Arabs: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Who Is an Arab? africa.upenn.edu ; Encyclopædia Britannica article britannica.com ; Arab Cultural Awareness fas.org/irp/agency/army ; Arab Cultural Center arabculturalcenter.org ; 'Face' Among the Arabs, CIA cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence ; Arab American Institute aaiusa.org/arts-and-culture ; Introduction to the Arabic Language al-bab.com/arabic-language ; Wikipedia article on the Arabic language Wikipedia
See Central Asia. Indonesia, Malaysia
Islamic Prohibition on Alcohol and Drugs
The Qur’an explicitly prohibits wine made from grape juice but does not mention other fermented drinks. But if one argues that wine is an analogy for all alcoholic drinks the prohibition on wine can be extended to beer, whiskey, rum, gin and all other drinks that contain alcohol. Muslims are supposed to avoid perfumes, foods and medicines with alcohol. Women are supposed to be especially careful about entering a mosque wearing perfume.
Muhammad said: "Do not drink wine; for it is the root of all evil; abstain from vice; and when pestilence shall pervade mankind, and you shall be amongst them; and cherish your children." He also said: "he is not a good Muslim who committeth adultery or getteth drunk, who stealeth, or plunderth, or who embezzeleth; beware, beware."
But that doesn’t mean there is no locally-produced alcohol. Microbreweries in the Middle East include Carakale, which opened in Jordan in the 2010s, the Taybeh Brewery in the West Bank city of Ramallah and 961 Beer in Beirut.
Some say Islamic law forbids all intoxicants, alcohol, opium, marijuana, but Muslims debate whether the ban on intoxicants, includes only alcohol, or also includes drugs such as opium, hashish, and marijuana. For millenniums people in the Middle East have drunk and eaten hashish, the resin of the marijuana plant's flowering tops. A lot of Arabs smoke hashish but they are very secretive about it. Some argue that cannabis and opium are medicines not intoxicants. One Muslim heroin addict told the New York Times, "The holy Prophet, peace be upon him, did not prohibit drugs. He prohibited intoxicants, and by that he meant only liquor." Even so, even in places where there is extreme poverty you don't see many alcoholics or drug addicts because the religions ban on alcohol and drugs.
Alcoholic Drinks in Saudi Arabia
The penalties for consuming alcohol in Saudi Arabia include flogging, jail time and deportation for foreigners. Even so, drinking is done quietly. Those who have money can buy smuggled alcohol for several hundred dollars a bottle. Those who are of more modest means brew their own. Foreign embassies are allowed to serve alcohol on their grounds.
In the expatriate community there are stories of wealthy Saudis who have well-stocked bars. Some foreign compounds have quasi bars with named like Celtic Corner or Empire Club. Saudi authorities usually look the other way but periodically there are crack downs.
The black-market for alcohol beverages is a multi-million dollar business in both the expatriate and Saudi communities. The business is so lucrative and fiercely competitive that a series of car bombings which killed several Westerners was regarded not as the work of terrorists but the work of rivals in the illegal alcohol trade. In 2000 and 2001, two Britons and a German was killed and a Briton and American had their hands blow off in five separate incidents in which bombs were placed in cars or letters. Six Westerners were arrested for the attacked and forced to confess on television. Two were given death sentences and four were sentenced to 18 years in prison.
Alcohol in Turkey
Turks can be surprisingly big drinkers. They arguably drink more than other Muslims. In Istanbul and other cities and tourist it seems that more Turks drink than don’t. In the countryside and conservatives neighborhoods you will find plenty of Turks who don’t drink and frown upon drinking. Even in places like this you find beer and alcoholic drinks for sale in restaurants and shops.
The beverage of choice is “rakı”, or raki, a licorice flavored drink similar to Greek ouzo or anisette. Rakı is very strong (45 percent alcohol) and when it is mixed with ice and water—the most common way of drinking it—it turns from a clear liquid into a milky white one. The Turks drink rakı at most social gathering and they prefer to drink it with food, preferably fish, seafood or mezes, to lessen the likelihood of a hangover.
Turkish beer and local wines are reasonably good. Turkish beer has a higher alcohol content than American beer. "Efes" is the best beer. A fermented Albanian beverage made from mashed and cooked wheat berries and sugar called “boz” is consumed. Turkish white wines are preferable to red ones. Imported alcohol is slapped with high duties and is prohibitively expensive.
Drinking is a ritual that has traditionally been done at homes, restaurants and hotels rather than in a bar. Bars are usually at hotels. Many restaurants take on a bar-like atmosphere late at night. There are few nightclubs, discos and casinos.
When Istanbul Turks are asked why they drink openly when citizens from other Muslim countries consider it a sin, they point out they live in a secular not a Islamist state, and that Muslims in other countries drink as well, only they are more secretive about it.
Raki Drinking in Turkey
Tekel, the government cigarette and alcohol monopoly, is the only legal producer of raki. The price is relatively low, around $5 a bottle, so there is little incentive for bootleggers. To this day, Turks and Greeks have bitter argument as to which is better, raki or ouzo. The Turks claim raki is superior because making it is more complex. It is distilled twice in traditional copper vats, one using a concentrate made from seedless grapes and the other from a special kind of anise. [Source: Stephen Kinzer, New York Times, June 28, 2000]
There are three grades of raki: 1) altinbas, the premium grade made with fermented grapes only; 2) kulup, the medium grade made with lower-quality fermented grapes only; and 3) yeni raki, the lowest grade, made partly with pure alcohol. Many Turks say that Yeni raki tastes the best.
Raki is usually consumed in a tall glass. The glass is filled about one third with raki. Water is then poured in. The translucent white color that results is the source of raki’s nickname—lion’s milk. Sometimes ice is added. Raki drinking is mainly a male thing. A Turkish doctor told the New York Times, “A lot of foreign women who live in Istanbul develop a taste for it, but not many Turkish women do. You’ll see 6 or 8 or 10 or 20 guys sitting around a table drinking without a woman in sight.”
One Turk told the New York Times, “You have to drink it like a gentleman, which of course means never drinking too much. All the senses are involved. First you watch the water being poured into the glass and mixing with raki. Then, you pick up the glass and inhale the aroma. When you drink it, you take a small sip, feel the pleasure of it flowing down your throat, take another small sip, then put the glass down...The best part is feeling it go down your throat. A giraffe—that’s an animal ideally made to appreciate raki.”
Raki has been described as “gloriously unique” and a “distillation of the Turkish soul.” One Turk told the New York Times, “Raki civilizes society. That’s very important here, because Turkey is such a huge mess that if we didn’t have something like raki, we’d probably become hopeless and all commit suicide.
History of Raki in Turkey
Raki production in Turkey dates back to the 17th century. There is no tradition of drinking it or a similar drink in Central Asia where the Turks come from, thus it can be fair to deduce that the Turks adopted the drink from one its Mediterranean neighbors, most likely Greece, which has a history of drinking it before the 17th century. [Source: Stephen Kinzer, New York Times, June 28, 2000]
Ataturk — the founding father of modern Turkey — was a big raki drinker. Raki destroyed his liver and caused his early death. According to one story, Ataturk once asked a dinner guest what goes best with raki. The guest replied “leblebi” (a chickpea dish). “Wrong,” Ataturk replied. “The best accompaniment to raki is good conversation.”
Ataturk, who was born in what is now Greece, is credited with popularizing the drink. A raki company manager told the New York Times, “When the Republic was founded, most members of Parliament were very conservative religious figures, and alcohol was illegal. Ataturk used to serve it to his friends at home. They would say to him, ‘Pasha, it’s great that we can drink when we’re with you, but why don’t you make raki legal so we can drink it in our homes? ‘That made sense to him, and after a while the ban was lifted.”
During the 1950s and 60s, interest in raki decreased among Istanbulers who began regarding it as an unsophisticated drink of country bumpkins. They began drinking wine and whiskey. This fashion didn’t long. Raki is now regarded as the national drink of Turkey and Turks are proud to say that is so.
Alcohol in Iran
Iranians can be surprisingly big drinkers but they do most of their drinking discreetly at home. These days vodka is often the drink of choice. It is cheap and smuggled in from Russia and other former Soviet republics. Beer, wine and liquor are also available but they may be prohibitively expensive. Most Iranians know where to purchase it but often foreigners and travelers don’t. It is usually sold by news sellers or at small shops.
The consumption, sale, or production of alcoholic beverages in Iran is strictly forbidden. Don’t travel by plane with any bottles of alcohol in your luggage. There have been reports of people having their alcohol confiscated by authorities and being threatened with arrest and imprisonment until a bribe is paid.
Some of Iran’s non-Muslim minorities are except from the rules. Armenian Christains are allowed to consume alcohol. A lot of vodka and wine that finds its way to the black market originates with them. Some people make wine at home, which they serve at parties. Name brand whiskeys are available but expensive, and sometimes counterfeit. Delster is a nonalcoholic beer that has been described as overly sweet.
Most alcohol is consumed at home or at private parties. Don’t drink openly. In the countryside and conservatives neighborhoods you will find plenty of Iranians who don’t drink and frown upon the practice. If the vice police catch you drinking you could end up in big trouble. People have been publically flogged for drinking alcohol.
Ironically, some of earliest evidence of wine making comes from the Zagros Mountains in Iran about 5,500 years ago. (See Bronze Age). Iran used to be a major wine producers. Omar Khayyam once wrote about “ a glass of wine and thou.” Shiraz grapes were made into a famous red wine.
Alcoholic Drinks in Iraq
Iraqis seem to drink more than Muslims in other countries. Up until the mid-1990s people drank openly. In Baghdad and other cities it often seems that more Iraqis drink than don’t. In the countryside and conservatives neighborhoods you will find plenty of Iraqis who don’t drink and frown upon drinking. To be on the safe side don’t drink openly.
Under pressure from conservative Muslims, Saddam Hussein passed laws in 1994 that forbade the consumption, sale, or production of alcoholic beverages. Bars became cafes. Even so, alcohol is widely available in Baghdad and some other cities, where it can be purchased at hotels, bars and restaurants. After the arrival of the Americans, beer was sold on the streets. When it isn’t available at these places it sold by news sellers or at small shops. Most Iraqis know where to purchase it.
The beverage of choice is “arak”, a licorice-flavored drink made with grapes or dates that similar to Greek ouzo, Turkish raki or anisette. Lebanese arrack is prized. Turkish beer is available. Russian vodka, smuggled in from Russia via Turkey and Iran, is available and often cheap. Some people make wine at home. Name whiskeys are sometimes counterfeit.
Alcoholic beverages found in Saddam palaces included French champagne, Johnny Walker Scotch, Otard cognac, Seguin French brandy, and Tanqueray gin. Saddam reportedly got drunk from time to time. His son Uday was fond of getting loaded on cognac and firing a Kalasinkov into the ceiling of his palaces. After Saddam bowed to pressure from religious clerics and banned public consumption of alcohol in 1994, 10,000 bottles of whisky, 350,000 cans of beer and 700 bottles of wine, classified as “food,” were brought into Iraq each week, in defiance of the economic sanctions, presumably for members of Saddam’s regime to drink.
Alcohol in the Persian Gulf, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria
Although there are many Muslims in Lebanon, alcoholic drinks are widely available. Local beers, Lebanese wine, and imported whiskey and vodka can be purchased in stores, hotels, bars and restaurants. A bottle of a good local brand of beer, such as Laziza or Almaza, costs around a dollar a bottle at a local restaurant and $3 at upscale restaurants. The Dutch beer Amstel is brewed locally and is also cheap. Heineken bought the Almaza Brewery in Lebanon order to produce its own beer locally and avoid paying high duties.
The Ksara, Musar and Kefraya chateaus in Lebanon produce decent red, white and rose wines. Cheaper up and coming producers include Heritage, Massaya, Chateau Nakas, Clos St. Thomas and Domaine Wardy. Lebanese are also fond of drink “arrak”, a licorice- or anise-flavored drink similar to Greek ouzo, Turkish raki. or anisette. There are also nightclubs and discos in Beirut. Beirut In the tourist areas, especially along the Red Sea and there are bars and quasi-bars that allow people to drink alcohol they bought somewhere else.
Beer and other alcoholic drinks are available in Amman and the major tourist areas in Jordan. They can be purchased at hotels, bars and restaurants. During Ramadan alcoholic drinks are harder to come by. Some hotels close their bars but open special suites where their guest can drink.
Alcoholic drinks have traditionally been widely available in Syria. Lebanese wine and beer can be purchased in some stores, hotels, bars and restaurants. A bottle of a Lebanese Laziza or Almaza beer sold for around a dollar a bottle at a local restaurant and $3 at upscale restaurants. As is true with Turks and Lebanese, Syrians are fond of drinking arrak. The duties are very high on imported brands. Consequently a pint of German beer costs $6; French white wine around $40 a bottle. Hard liquor is generally only available at hotel bars. There are bars, nightclubs and discos in Damascus.
In the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) alcohol is technically not supposed to consumed by the local people. Even so, beer, wine and other alcoholic drinks are widely available at certain hotels, hotel restaurants and retail outlets. Alcohol can be brought in duty free stores and carried through customs. Most alcoholic drinks are imported and expensive. The sale of alcohol prohibited in Kuwait. Bahrain is only Gulf State where alcohol can be purchased at retail stores. Many people from Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States, where the Muslim prohibition of alcohol is taken more seriously, come to Bahrain to party and drink alcohol. Most alcoholic drinks are imported but not all that expensive because duties on alcoholic beverages are relatively low, between 10 and 30 percent.
Alcoholic Drinks in Egypt and Northern Africa
Beer and other alcoholic drinks are widely available in Cairo and the major tourist areas. They can be purchased at hotels, bars and restaurants. In Cairo and some other palaces there are liquor stores that sell beer, wine and liquor, most of which are locally made. In some places you go to a special store and get tickets and then exchange the tickets for beer or whatever at a nearby restaurant or bar. Heineken bought the Egyptian drink monopoly Al-Ahram in order to produce its own beer locally and avoid paying high duties.
Stella is most popular brand of local beer. A bottle generally coasts around a dollar at a local restaurant and $3 at upscale restaurants. Egyptians also drink an anise-flavored drink like Greek ouzo or Turkish raki. The locally-made brands of whiskey and rum have names that are similar to Johnnie Walker and Bacardi. The duties are very high on imported brand. There are nightclubs and discos in Cairo. In the tourist areas, especially along the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, there are bars and quasi-bars that allow people to drink alcohol they bought somewhere else.
Alcoholic drinks are widely available in Marrakesh and the major tourist areas in Morocco. They can be purchased at hotels, bars and restaurants. Morocco produces some very good wines. The reds from Meknes are said to be good due the good water, grapes and climate found there. These wines have a fresh smell and fruity taste.
Beer and other alcoholic drinks are widely available in Tunisia. They can be purchased at hotels, bars, restaurants and some shops and supermarkets. Alcohol is not sold on Friday, the Muslim equivalent of Sunday, and is not supposed to consumed outside of hotels. Tunisia produces also some very good wines. Reds known as Magnon, named after an ancient Carthaginian, are said to be good. “Celita “is most popular brand of local beer. It is a light, watery lager A bottle generally coasts around a dollar at a local restaurant. Tunisians also drink “Thibarine, “an orange liqueur similar to Contreau; “bukha”, a dry brandy made from figs; and anise-flavored drinks like Greek ouzo or Turkish raki.
Non-Alcoholic Alcoholic Drinks
Fayrouz, Mousy and Barbican are the leading non-alcoholic drinks in the Middle East. In 1997, France and Britain inventors introduced Nutrivine, a drink made from powdered grape skin extract that was intended to provide the health benefits of red wine but not the alcohol.
Al-Ahram in Egypt makes Fayrouz, a fruit-flavored, malt-beverage, and Birell, a non-alcohol beer. In the early 2000s it sold about 45 million hectoliters of Fayrouz a year and 35 million hectoliters of Birell a year. Fayrouz looks sort of like beer but is sort of cross between beer and a soft drink. It comes in raspberry, mango, apple and pineapple flavors and produces a head when poured in a glass,
Fayrouz drinkers are attracted by the taste, the high sugar content, the purported health benefits of the malt and the fact it is acceptable within their religion. It has been certified as “halal” by the theological college of Al-Azhar University because it uses a production process that avoids fermentation (most non-alcoholic drinks use malt that is fermented and the alcohol is removed).
Mousy is a malt beverage that is also sort of cross between beer and a soft drink. It comes in lemon, strawberry, peach and apple flavors and is made with malt that is fermented and has the alcohol is removed. Its website offers recipes on how to make cocktails with it. Buyers say they like it because of the taste and youthful image in coveys. In the early 2000s, Mousy exported about 30 million hectoliters a year from a small brewery in Switzerland. British-made Barbican is a non-alcoholic drink sold in the Middle East. Anheuser-Busch introduced Bud NA.
Drinking non-alcoholic beer is popular among Muslim yuppies. The companies that sell it go through great lengths to make sure it is not confused with real beer. Non-alcoholic beer is called malt beverage and is literally alcohol free (alcohol-free beers sold in the west typically have 0.5 percent alcohol). Drying the malt without losing flavor and destabilizing the ingredients that produce beer’s head is a challenge, but companies have overcame these difficulties with a special evaporation process. Ads on television and in magazines is banned. Marketing is done with low-key displays at places where it is sold.
The German brewer Hartmannsdorf produces a halal beer called Simcha (“Jo” in Hebrew) that has a Star of David in the label. Heineken from the Netherlands, Anheuserr-Busch and Strohs from the United States and Lion-Nathan from new Zealand have all marketed non-Alcoholic beers in the Muslim countries in the Middle East. Swiss-produced Moussey is the number one brand.
GranMalt produces a non-alcohol beer from granules. It opted for this technology because the product is easier to export and less likely to spoil in the export voyage than a bottled beverage. A spokesman for GranMalt told AFP, “Since their religion forbids alcohol, Arab countries have hardly any breweries so we have decided to move in to fill the gap.”
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except confiscated smuggled beer in Saudi Arabia from Expat Woman
Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; Islam, a Short History by Karen Armstrong; A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2018