By Khaled Diab
Ramadan is the time of year when hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world abstain from food or drink. But one group of fasters suffers a special variety of thirst this time of year: Muslims who drink alcohol.
Thursday 21 June 2018
Although alcohol is considered haram (prohibited or sinful) by the majority of Muslims, a significant minority of Muslims do drink, and those who do often outdrink their Western counterparts. When per-capita alcohol consumption is calculated, Chad and a number of other Muslim-majority countries top the global league. Fewer Muslim women drink than men but when they do, they can drink their western sisters under the table.
During Ramadan, though, many Muslim drinkers do abstain from consuming wine, beer or spirits of their own free will for the duration of the month. It’s the same as how some lapsed Christians will give up a vice for Lent but never set foot in a church except for christenings, weddings and funerals, or some secular Jews who eat bacon still give up bread for Passover [adding since I thought the analogy was apt!].
When I still fasted, I would get together with friends to have one for the road before we embarked on the long, arduous trek through the Ramadan dry lands, until Eid al-Fitr, the festival following Ramadan, made it safe to leap off the wagon once again.
Although I gave up Ramadan, and abandoned every last vestige of faith at the dawn of this millennium, I certainly still drink alcohol. Most Muslim drinkers I have met in my life do view drinking as a minor sin (even though they indulge in it) and thus, if they fast during Ramadan, they abstain for the month. This can lead to some peculiar situations. Last year, at a barbecue organised by European friends in Tunis, I debated, wine glass in hand, with a secular Tunisian, sipping on his fruit juice because had given up alcohol for the holy month, whether or not it was hypocritical and an infringement on personal freedom to ban the sale of alcohol during Ramadan.
Weirdest of all perhaps is the tiny minority of Muslims who fast and then drink at night after they have broken their fast, including a neighbour of mine. This may seem peculiar both to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, but it is not as odd as it appears. From Islam’s very inception, there was a debate about what exactly the vague passages on drinking in the Quran prohibited. Although the majority opinion holds that intoxicants – alcohol itself – are banned, a minority view is that it is intoxication – getting drunk – that is forbidden.
Far more common are Muslim drinkers who do not fast and, hence, wish to continue drinking during Ramadan. Some are lapsed or vague believers who do not practise their faith, while others, like me, are out-and-out atheists or agnostics. For Ramadan drinkers, I know from experience, finding booze can get complicated. Sure, in the United States, Europe or the Muslim countries that allow alcohol sales during Ramadan, the only obstacle is your own conscience. But in many countries, including my native Egypt or in Tunisia, where I live now, which normally have booze in abundance, getting a drink during the fast requires foresight, planning and resourcefulness.
In Tunisia, as in Egypt, alcohol supplies dry up during the holy month, because stores are barred from selling booze and many bars close their doors. That confounded me when I first moved here last year, because drinking is a popular pastime, and Tunisia has a surprisingly wide range of quality local wines.
But humans are nothing if not adaptable. Rather than a forced abstention, as conservatives undoubtedly hoped to instill, drinkers simply build up a strategic stockpile before Ramadan begins. This usually results in a huge pre-Ramadan upsurge in business for alcohol suppliers, visible in the rapidly emptying alcohol aisles at my local supermarket in Tunis.
This stockpiling can make for awkward situations. Just before this Ramadan, we organised a pre-Ramadan party for friends, and when I went to the supermarket to stock up for the party and the next month, I bought what apparently struck non-drinkers as an unsettling amount of alcohol.
The young woman in a hijab at the checkout counter must never have experienced the pre-Ramadan rush on booze: Her face registered a look of mild panic. At one point, she got so confused trying to decipher the different types of wine that she smiled at me and said non-judgementally: “Forgive me, I can’t tell one type of wine from another.”
When it comes to drinking during Ramadan, though, I’m lucky to be a Belgian citizen, not a Tunisian: foreigners here are allowed to order alcoholic beverages at the few licensed restaurants and bars that do stay open during the holy month, but Tunisians generally can’t, though if you look Muslim or your name sounds Muslim, some places may object.
Similar regulations exist in my native Egypt. This always struck me as unfair to Egyptian drinkers, especially for Christians who have no religious restrictions on the consumption of alcohol – and I used to make noise about it, but bar staff would shrug apologetically and say they would love nothing more than to serve me, as Egyptians were their main customers.
I recall the first Ramadan I was in Egypt after I gained my Belgian nationality. I made a point of visiting one of my old watering holes with a mixed group of friends. When I ordered my beer, the waiter asked me discreetly whether I had a foreign passport, I flashed it to him, and his smile said that would do nicely. The staff turned a blind eye to the fact that the orange juices for the Egyptians without foreign passports in our midst had hardly been touched and that the ‘foreigners’ had ordered more drinks than normal.
This attitude of tolerating alcohol 11 months of the year but banning it during Ramadan is conflicted and contradictory, but it’s not unique to Muslim societies. For all the prevalent anti-Muslim sentiment today and fears that “Sharia law” might destroy the American way of life, the United States had a full-blown, Saudi-style total prohibition from 1920 to 1933. Today, alcohol is still banned in hundreds of local counties, representing an area that constitutes an estimated 10 percent of the land mass of the United States.
If it were up to me, I’d do away with all such restrictions. The state shouldn’t get to dictate to citizens how to be good Muslims – or not. This is an individual decision for each believer and non-believer to make. And the temporary ban doesn’t distinguish between Muslims and non-Muslims, which enlists people of other faiths who have no religious obligation to take part in Ramadan in a Muslim ritual.
But still, I’m relieved that I live in Tunisia and not some place where alcohol is banned, such as Saudi Arabia or Iran. Now that Ramadan is over Tunisia has reverted to its normal, laid-back self, just in time for the summer. And drinkers are able, once again, to toast each other in the open.
This article appeared in The Washington Post on 31 May 2018.