Non-Islamic Beer

Once when in Iran I wanted a beer with my food. Contrary to what most people would expect, you can legally drink beer there, it’s just that it’s beer without alcohol. If you’re ever there: avoid the lemonade-with-beer-taste made in the Netherlands, but go for the Iranian beers. The Iranians don’t desperately try to make it taste like real beer, and come up with remarkably buvables drinks. Iranian beers are called “Islamic beer” in English. But this time I wanted to practice my Persian, so I asked for ab-ju, not knowing that this refers to the alcoholic kind.

“Oh no, we don’t serve that!” the girls behind the counter answered, and they looked genuinely shocked. Since my Persian was not good enough to resolve this situation, I reverted to English. That move was a bit to quick. I confused “non-alcoholic beer” and “Islamic beer” and said: “No no, I mean non-Islamic beer!” Fortunately, they realised I was confused and everyone laughed.

Now there’s even more confusion in the Islamic world, and they didn’t even need me for it. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian working for al-Jazeera in Qatar, has issued a fatwa that seems to allow Muslims to drink alcohol, albeit in very, very small quantities. His reasoning makes sense by all standards: natural fermentation takes place in any beverage, resulting in tiny quantities of alcohol. An absolute ban on drinking even one molecule of it, would make nearly every drink (except tea or coffee maybe) haram. Considering that natural fermentation results in a tiny amount -say 0,5%- that would be a reasonable standard for Muslims.

It seems reactions are mixed. Some Muslims are glad, like this guy from Pakistan, who gives a nice comparison to Muslim practice in the past and nowadays. But controversy is rife and abundant. It’s a classic debate between two kinds of people. First there are the legally-minded people, whose primary interest is in unequivocal rules, rules that can be formulated in such a way that they can be checked anytime anywhere and that never lead to confusion. ‘Clarity’ seems to be the magic word and loss of control their primary fear. The second group are goal-oriented people, who’d first ask “Why is there a ban on alcohol anyway?” start from there and come up with a rule that serves that goal. Loss of meaning is their main anxiety and ‘intention’ their magic word.

Most of Shari’a law isn’t based on the qur’an, but on hadith: anecdotes about the life and times of the prophet and his closest companions (I blogged about them before). These were collected in the first three centuries of Islam and came to serve as a second source of revelation: if the qur’an couldn’t settle an issue, maybe the example of the prophet could. It seems the goal-oriented people have the best papers. The most often quoted hadith when it comes to drinking alcohol doesn’t refer to controllable quantities, but to its effect: inebriation:

“Every intoxicant is prohibited.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, vol 9, book 89 no 284)

Seems the prophet himself was a goal-oriented man, very much on Qaradawi’s side…

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