Islam imposes corporal punishment on drinkers and gamblers. Is this the best policy to help them?
Let’s get started without a long introduction.
The translations are all done by MAS Abdel Haleem, who was educated at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, and Cambridge University, and is now professor of Islamic Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Overall, his translation is excellent, though he occasionally whitewashes some of the harsh wording found throughout his sacred book.
Sayyid Abul A’La Maududi (d. 1979) was an Indo-Pakistani who tried to establish a theocracy in Pakistan through the Jamaat-i Islami Party, but he failed in his political ambitions. Nevertheless, he is a highly regarded commentator on the Quran (The Meaning of the Qur’an), representing traditional Islam.
See his commentary here:
Sayyid Qutb was an Egyptian radical, prolific author, and godfather of an assortment of modern jihadist movements today. He was executed in 1966 for trying to overthrow the Egyptian government. He wrote a valued and sometimes insightful multivolume commentary on the Quran, In the Shade of the Qur’an.
We let these three highly qualified and devout Muslims speak for their own religion and the Quran in this section. We also examine the historical and literary contexts of the Quranic passages in order to get some clarity and to prevent the standard, reflexive “out of context” defense of Muslim apologists (defenders).
First Prohibition (of sorts): yes and no
Maududi says that most of Sura 2 was revealed shortly after Muhammad’s Hijrah (Emigration from Mecca to Medina) in AD 622. The following verse in Sura 2 shows that Muhammad partially or confusedly permitted or condemned drinking and gambling at that time (Maududi, vol. 1, p. 161, note 235).
2:219 They ask you [Prophet] about intoxicants and gambling: say, “There is great sin in both, and some benefit for people: the sin is greater than the benefit.” They ask you what they should give: say, “Give what you can spare.”
In no way is this verse a clear and uncompromising edict on the two personal practices of drinking alcohol and gambling. (Islam teaches that all intoxicants are criminal; cf. Bukhari, Drinks, vol. 7, nos. 5579-5589; Muslim no. 7186.) It seems contradictory to call the two acts mostly sinful but partially beneficial. It may be argued that alcohol is sinful in its morality, but beneficial in its health for the body (e.g. helping digestion). However, Allah will later prohibit it completely, so either it is sinful morally regardless of the year on the Muslim calendar, or it is not.
See Ibn Kathir’s (d. 1373) commentary:
Second Prohibition: only during prayer
According to the historical evidence and the content of Sura 4, Maududi says that the sura was revealed between the timeframe of AD 625 and 627, because various verses indicate different events. For example, vv. 1-28 speak of the Battle of Uhud in AD 625. Verse 102 indicates a military expedition in AD 626 during which Muhammad taught his Muslims how to pray while out on campaign. Verse 43 takes place during another military expedition in AD 627 when he taught his holy military warriors how to perform ablutions (washings) with pure dust if water was not available.
Maududi speculates that the target verse 43 came at the chronological beginning of the entire sura and therefore early in AD 625 because many Muslims showed up intoxicated for public prayers “and made blunders in their recitations” of Quranic passages. So Muhammad had to correct the problem. However, some hadith passages (the hadith is the reports of Muhammad’s words and actions outside of the Quran) say that some Muslim warriors showed up at the Battle of Uhud intoxicated and died, but this was before Allah had prohibited it, so they were not held responsible (Sura 5:93; see Bukhari, Oppressions, vol. 3, no 2463; Jihad, vol. 4, no. 2815; Commentary, vol. 6, nos. 4618, 4620).
Regardless of the exact timeframe, for our purposes all we need to know is that Sura 4 was revealed between Sura 2 (see above) and Sura 5 (see below). Thus, Allah’s “eternal” revelations on the morality of drinking intoxicants are changing according to external circumstances.
4:43 You who believe, do not come anywhere near the prayer if you are intoxicated, until you know what you are saying . . .
Because the Muslims showed up intoxicated for public prayer, “they changed the timings of their drinking so as not to clash with the timings of their prayers,” says Maududi (vol. 1, p. 337, note 65).
So Muhammad prohibited drunkenness only during prayers. This means that Muslims were permitted to drink some alcohol in between the times of prayers, though the number of prayers per day would limit drunkenness. However, this further means that after the nighttime prayer, the final one, Muslims could even get drunk. How were the early Muslims supposed to sort this out? Was alcoholism so bad in the Muslim community that Muhammad had to tell them to stay away from prayers, but not prohibit alcohol? It is one thing if he had told them not to show up for prayers drunk, and then to allow them mild drinking without intoxication. (After all, the Bible distinguishes between mild use of alcohol and drunkenness, as we will see, below.) But he already said in Sura 2:219 that intoxicants have sin in them. Also, Sura 5:90-91 will prohibit intoxicants completely.
Go here for Ibn Kathir’s commentary:
Third Prohibition: final and absolute
Maududi says that Sura 5 was revealed in the timeframe of AD 628 and 629, so it is a late sura (Muhammad dies of a fever in AD 632). It lays down rules for a growing community after the Treaty of Hudaybiyah in AD 628 in which Muslims were promised a free and unmolested pilgrimage to Mecca a year later, which took place. So it was important for Muslims to prepare themselves and to give up all intoxicants. Hence, these two verses came down from Allah:
5:90 You who believe, intoxicants and gambling, idolatrous practices, and [divining with] arrows are repugnant acts—Satan’s doing: shun them so that you may prosper. 91 With intoxicants and gambling, Satan seeks only to incite enmity and hatred among you, and to stop you remembering God and prayer. Will you not give them up?
It must be conceded that these verses have a certain common sense backing them up. A small community getting drunk and gambling in between prayer times would probably suffer from “enmity” and “hatred” against each other. This would happen in any small community whether it were Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, secular, or fill-in-the-blank. So v. 91 is an accurate description. However, a shortcoming has burrowed into the Quran because this description could not be discovered earlier in the ten years Muhammad lived in Medina (AD 622-632), especially when the Muslims showed up drunk for prayer and battle.
Click here for Ibn Kathir’s commentary:
The best expositor and defender of the gradual revelation in the matter of drinking and gambling is Sayyid Qutb, who divides the problem up in four areas in his commentaries on Suras 2:219, 4:43, and 5:90-91, in his volumes 1, 3, and 4, respectively: the theological, the social, psychological, and historical. For each he writes a seemingly plausible explanation for the gradual revelation, but each falls short and contradicts the other.
For more discussion of Qutb, see the earlier post, offsite and written by yours truly and titled Muhammad, the Quran, and Prohibition: Islam’s Punishments for Drinking and Gambling.
To conclude this section, the Quran takes the long route in the sandy desert to decree that intoxicants and gambling are sins. Sura 4:43 seems to imply that a Muslim is allowed to get drunk, but not during forced prayer times. This means that after he says his last prayers in the evening, he can open a container of alcohol. Qutb argues that this shows the wisdom of his sacred book because it gradually imposes divine law on recalcitrant humans, but he fails to factor in historical reality, and he misreads human psychology and society. Theologically, this gradual, changing revelation puts the deity who inspired the Quran in a difficult position. He too misreads human nature. What does this say about Muhammad’s capacity to be rightly guided? It is better to lay down the law immediately so that humans can know where they stand and obey or disobey the standard. It should not float around in the air, confusing people. However, it must be said that Sura 5:90-91 does come down strong, though belatedly, on two potential vices, and that many Christians, especially in the American South, would agree with these two verses.
The hadith are the reports of Muhammad’s words and actions outside of the Quran. The three most reliable hadith collectors and editors are Bukhari (d. 870), Muslim (d. 875), and Abu Dawud (d. 875). The Quran and the hadith are the foundations for later legal rulings. This section deals first with drinking and then with gambling.
Statements on intoxicants are found throughout the hadith. For example, Muhammad announced the prohibition in the mosque, presumably Sura 5:90-91, or perhaps all three Quranic passages at different times (Bukhari, Prayers, vol. 1, no. 459; Sales, vol. 3, no. 2226; Commentary, vol. 6, nos. 4541-4543).
Bukhari’s hadith collection says that in beating a drunk, palm leaf stalks and shoes can be used. But Abu Bakr, a close companion of Muhammad, uses another implement, the lash.
The Prophet beat a drunk with palm-leaf stalks and shoes. And Abu Bakr gave (such a sinner) forty lashes. (Bukhari, Punishments, vol. 8, 6776)
Abu Bakr uses a lash. The words “such a sinner” are not original in Arabic, but are supplied by the translator Muhammad Muhsin Khan and his team. But Islam wrongly punishes the alcoholic as a criminal, even a light drinker who does not get drunk (this is possible).
This poor “criminal” was brought to Muhammad who became angry:
The Prophet felt it hard (was angry) and ordered all those who were present in the house, to beat him [the drunkard dragged into Muhammad’s presence]. (Bukhari, Punishments, nos. 6774-6775)
Next, this passage says that Umar raised the number of lashes from forty to eighty if the drunkard becomes mischievous and disobedient. Along with Abu Bakr, Umar no longer used makeshift instruments like shoes and clothing, but a lash.
. . . We used to strike the drunks with our hands, shoes, and clothes (by twisting it into a rope in the shape of lashes) during the lifetime of the Prophet, Abu Bakr [ruled 632-634] and the early part of Umar’s caliphate [ruled 634-644]. But during the last period of Uthman’s caliphate [ruled 644-656], he used to give the drunk forty lashes; and when drunks became mischievous and disobedient, he used to scourge them eighty lashes (Bukhari, Punishments, no. 6779)
Sometimes the hadith contradict each other. This one misses the fact that Abu Bakr used a lash (see no. 6776, above).
Muslim is the second hadith collector and editor discussed in our analysis.
In the section titled “Prescribed Punishment for (Drinking) Wine,” he begins with the prophet and Abu Bakr whipping a drunkard forty times with two lashes:
He [Muhammad] gave him forty stripes with two lashes, Abu Bakr did that, but when Umar (assumed the responsibilities) of the Caliphate, he consulted people and Abd al-Rahman said: the mildest punishment (for drinking) is eighty (stripes) and Umar prescribed this punishment. (no. 4226)
Finally, Abu Dawud is the third hadith collector and editor.
He agrees with Bukhari and Muslim, so we do not need to repeat his traditions here. However, he does record the decree that if a drunkard repeats his crime four times, Allah will make him drink the “[D]ischarge of wounds flowing from the inhabitants of Hell” in the afterlife (no. 3673). He also says that if a man dies who is addicted to drink, he will not taste wine in Islamic heaven (no. 3671; cf. Bukhari, Drinks, vol. 7. no. 5575). Islamic heavenly wine does not impact the head with inebriation, so apparently the earthly drunkard is missing quite a heavenly treat.
However, Abu Dawud finds the early Muslims raising the penalty to the ultimate degree:
The Apostle of Allah [said]: If they (the people) drink wine, flog them, again if they drink wine, flog them. Again if they drink it, kill them. (no. 4467; cf. 4468-4470)
The translator of Abu Dawud provides a footnote that says this ultimate punishment was abrogated by a tradition recorded by Tirmidhi (d. 892), a student of Bukhari, presumably in a passage like the following from Tirmidhi:
Jabir reported the Prophet as saying: “Beat anyone who drinks wine, and if he does it a fourth time kill him.” He said that after that a man who had drunk wine four times was brought to the Prophet and he beat him, but did not kill him. (Miskhat al-Masabih, trans. James Robson, vol. 1, Punishments, Chapter 4, p. 771.)
According to Abu Dawud’s report, intoxicants are prohibited in even small amounts:
Jabir . . . reported the Apostle of Allah . . . as saying: If a large amount of anything causes intoxication, a small amount of it is prohibited. (no. 3673)
Before leaving this section, we should mention gambling, which the hadith does not deal with in detail, compared to intoxication. Not even the conservative scholar Maududi, who knew Islamic law well, offers us hadith passages or later legal rulings on gambling.
We should note carefully the wording in this hadith edited by Bukhari:
. . . and whoever says to his companions, “Come let me gamble,” then he must give something in charity (as an expiation of such a sin). (Good Manners, vol. 8, no. 6107; cf. Oaths and Vows, vol. 8, no. 6650; Asking Permission, vol. 8, no. 6301, which says, “Come, let us gamble!”)
Muslim repeats Bukhari’s hadith (no. 4041), and Abdul Hamid Siddiqi, the translator of Muslim, adds this footnote, in the context of a man swearing by two Arab gods Lat and Uzza and telling his friends to gamble with him. He must repent in this way:
[He] should give Sadaqa [charitable gift] making amends of the wrong done by him. According to Imam Abu Hanifa [a major jurist; see next section], it is imperative to expiate his sin as laid down in the Shariah by feeding ten poor men, or clothing ten deserving persons or observing three fasts. The other jurists are of the view that Sadaqa is enough, no matter what its amount or measure is. (note 2087)
To sum up this section, Muhammad and his companions in the hadith punished wine drinkers with forty to eighty lashes. At first, hands, shoes, or wound-up clothes were used, but they were quickly replaced with a lash—and perhaps a lash was used at the same time that hands, shoes or clothes were, but lashes or canes seem to be the implement of choice today. Next, Muhammad even decreed that if the drunkard violated the Quran four times or more, he should be killed. Fortunately for wine drinkers in those days (and all of them today), this decree was repealed. The change from the death penalty for alcoholics to whipping them questions Muhammad’s wisdom and capacity to be rightly guided. Finally, the hadith does not detail how to penalize gambling. It says that the gambler should expiate his sins by giving to charity, for merely suggesting that he and his friends should play games of chance, quite apart from actually playing them. How should he be punished if he actually commits this sin? Unclarity, not clarity, rules Islam on this. Consequently, the legal rulings will be sparse and unclear, as well.
For a discussion of Classical Sharia Law and then the Bible, go to the longer original post: Muhammad, the Quran, and Prohibition: Islam’s Punishments for Drinking and Gambling.
Many devout Christians, especially in the American South, believe that drinking and gambling are sins, regardless of the context or the amount. They would have no problem with the Quran in Sura 5:90-91. This is their prerogative. However, no Christian can claim Biblical support for whipping and beating drinkers and gamblers. Instead, these Christians seek to help the needy.
This is the core problem with the example of Muhammad in the hadith and often in the Quran itself. He and his deity seem always to turn to physical punishments to transform society, like chopping off a hand of a male and female thief or cutting off a hand and a foot of a highway robber or flogging someone who even swallows a small amount of alcohol or flogging fornicators and stoning adulterers. It is difficult to find passages that demonstrate Muhammad healing and restoring the sinner without chopping off his hand or bruising his back.
This is not the case with Jesus. In his life he showed his followers how to help the sinner from the inside out. He sends the Spirit into his life to help and restore him. He also provides many Biblical principles in his inspired Word to show his followers how to help someone, not drag him before a court to see him flogged.
But does this mean that society should have no laws governing inebriated persons in public? Of course not. Laws should punish, for example, drunk drivers—but not with flogging. They should pay off their debt to society, for instance, by working alongside the freeway picking up trash, getting their driver’s license revoked, or spending time in rehabilitation programs (or all three).
Whatever the case, Jesus sends his followers into prisons and elsewhere to help them (Matthew 25:31-46).
This post updates the earlier one, offsite and written by yours truly and titled Muhammad, the Quran, and Prohibition: Islam’s Punishments for Drinking and Gambling.