Q. Recent medical studies indicate that wine reduces the death rate from some causes. What is the Islamic position on alcohol taking into consideration the "purported benefits" of wine?

A. The Qur'an never denies the good of wine, saying that: "In them (also gambling) there is some good for humankind… but their evil outdoes their good…" (See Q2:219 and 5:90,91 for more information). The Qur'an does not ever specify that intoxicants are forbidden solely for their state of being intoxicant. Rather, in what is known as ratio legis, or illa, it states that the reason is the drunken behavior, enmity, and disruption that result from such intoxicants. The Muslim jurists, however, stated that "even a drop" is forbidden, which unwittingly denied the little good that Allah has stated is to be found in them. God, who wants good for us, could not have done so. If one says that wine is addictive, then that takes on a different perspective.

There is a story that Ali invited some people and served them wine, and when they got drunk, he punished them. The rationale was that the Qur'an does not prohibit drinking, it prohibits getting drunk. Whether the story is true or not is beside the point, the reality is that it is in line with the Qur'an. Even if one makes the case that the story was fabricated, the people who created it did so to show that a companion understood the verses differently. The fact that the athar should find itself in the records is unique, for it shows that credibility was paid to it. It also shows that in the early days of Islam, there was much liberal room given for interpretation, and it is only later thought that caused the stringency that we find.

The prohibition in the Qur'an is general, for when one speaks of the use of intoxicants, the connotation is such usage that results in the obvious effects of inebriation, addiction, etc. Therefore, the modern medical findings do not in any way contradict what the Qur'an says, but then one must ask about Muslims who live in the Himalayan regions, and are known for their longevity without the so-called benefits of wine. Because of the passage of time, having accepted the rulings of the jurists, it would be unnatural for a Muslim to drink even a glass of wine, albeit without getting drunk. It should be noted that the total eschewal of wine is deemed a part of the "shi'aar" of Islam -- one of the obvious signs of a person being Muslim.

Certain questions arise too from those who push the alleged medical good of wine drinking: that it is healthy for some, but then one looks at what it has done to the native North American Indian population. How can one be so sure that s/he will not cross that line between healthy consumption and addiction? One must keep in mind that alcoholic drinks, including wine, are addictive by nature. Is wine the only answer to providing this health factor? If one's use of wine will alienate him from fellow Muslims, does he give precedence to the brotherhood, or his personal and questionable benefit that may be derived from wine drinking? Certainly in this case, the enmity that the Qur'an forbids would have been achieved not by dint of the inebriating quality of the intoxicant, but rather because of wine qua perceived forbidden item.

There are some people who have approached me arguing for the "social drink," which is the most ridiculous argument. This is the oddest reason to drink, for it is generally within the social context that one gets drunk for the first time, and it is within this social context that the enmity starts and endures. My advice is to eschew even a sip of alcohol, taking it only if a doctor decides that there is no substitute that can provide its supposed medical benefits. It should be noted too that the medical finding is with respect to wine, and this is just one specific type of intoxicant. There are other types such as cocaine and hard drugs, in which the only good is for anesthesia and such conditions as deemed exigent by the medical specialists. And Allah knows best.

Posted September 16, 1999