Be drunk!

Drinking is a perilous activity. One can lose a lot of one’s self and belongings in the process of getting drunk. However, as Baudelaire will urge, be drunk. That’s all there is to it – it’s the only way… But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.

Getting drunk on poetry and virtue is not that easy. It requires preparation, patience and perseverance. Getting drunk on wine is relatively straightforward. A few glasses of wine and one can start to get tipsy.

As I sit down to finish this piece, I’m thinking of having some whiskey, in order to do justice to the title of the post. How can one ever write about being drunk without experiencing drunkenness? One can and one may write about drunkenness in a stone-cold sober state. However, one really needs to experience intoxication if one is to ever write effectively about it.

Anyway, coming to the main topic of this post, Islam has a complex relationship with drunkenness and it’s hard to exhort the virtues of being drunk in light of Islam.

Puritanical Islam sees drunkenness as a major vice. There are a couple of verses in the Qur’an that explicitly forbid the consumption of alcohol. The actual Arabic word used in the Qur’an is خمر, which is transliterated as khamr.

As with many Arabic words (about which I have blogged earlier), there is no definite consensus on how to translate it into English. The following table provides six different English translations of the word as it appears in the 219th verse of the 2nd chapter of the Qu’ran.

Translator Translation
Sahih International Wine
Muhsin Khan Alcoholic Drink
Pickthall Strong Drink
Yusuf Ali Wine
Shakir Intoxicants
Dr. Ghali Wine

Three out of six translations say that khamr is wine whereas one calls it alcoholic drink probably encompassing other drinks such as beer, whiskey, vodka and rum, to name a few. Pickthall translates khamr as strong drink. This, in my opinion, can be interpreted as any drink that is strong but may not necessarily be alcoholic such a coffee, tea or, maybe, Ayahuasca brew. Shakir is the only one, who translated khamr as intoxicants, which could possibly include other narcotics such as tobacco, marijuana, heroin, acid, so on and so forth.

Like many times before, Qur’an’s actual message – being in Arabic – is shrouded in mystery for us non-Arabs. Since I see no consensus in defining the word khamr, and also being an agnostic, I choose to get drunk on whiskey. And when I do that, what do I see?

!اپنی ہی ذات میں اپنا ہی تماشا دیکھا
(I saw my own spectacle in my own self!)

The following thoughts race through my mind when drunk:

Lose one’s self in the mercy of Allah The Most Merciful. If there is an Allah out there, why is this pain and suffering? Why this intellectual discomfort? Why this concealment behind a thousand veils? As if life wasn’t already difficult, why this yearning and subsequent wild goose-chase to find You? Why all this tamasha in the first place? Nested deep within the complexities of Nature, within the strings of string theory, the genes of genetics, where is the evidence that can free us of doubt? Where is the Absolute Certainty of the Absolute Truth? Where, oh where, Allah Almighty?

Hāfez-e Shīrāzī: The Persian poet who “laud[ed] the joys of love and wine [but] also targeted religious hypocrisy.”

The yearning and quest for God does not seem to come to an end. Every possible lead turns out to be a red-herring and every powerful experience turns out to be a delusion. Is God really a figment of our imaginations or is there a reality beyond our mundane realities that grounds all existence and provides room for the actualization of possibilities? Maybe such a reality is not beyond our existence but is imbued in our very being, the very essence of being human, all too human. And whether we choose to call it The Human Potential or The Divine Spark is irrelevant. It is, after all, a linguistic construct, a name. What’s in a name?

God, much like the human potential, is a unity of antimonies. Once we realize this fact, our lives might become simpler. Our speech and behavior are erratic and contradictory much like the antithetical qualities of God. For example, God is Creator and the Destroyer. Can He create a stone He cannot destroy? There are logical ways out of this problem but point here is that one should not be perturbed by these logical inconsistencies.

Rather than rejecting the notion of God due its paradoxical properties, one should embrace contradictions as an essential part of nature. A true seeker of God, in my opinion, will learn to reject the superficial differences that separate the saint from the sinner.

So, being drunk to find God might not be an exercise in futility after all. To quote a passage from the chapter on Sufism in Reza Aslan‘s book, “No god but God”:

It is precisely this theistic monism that leads Sufis to reject traditional dualities, not because they eschew morally correct behavior, but because they accept only “the Existence of Oneness”: that is, Divine Unity. Admittedly, this concept has led to a great deal of confusion about the true teachings of Sufism, especially in light of the actions of the so-called Drunken Sufis who blatantly violated Islamic law by publicly drinking, gambling, and womanizing as a means of overcoming the external aspects of religion. The nonexistence of traditional dualities is, however, usually demonstrated through metaphor. And the most common metaphor for doing so is that of drunkenness and debauchery, both of which have become dominant symbols in Sufi poetry for this self-annihilating and intoxicating love… So says Hafiz: “Piety and moral goodness have naught to do with ecstasy; stain your prayer rug with wine!”

Defining Islam

In an earlier post, I talked about what I see as polarization in the Islamic world. This post is just a continuation of this rather half-baked theory. Sometime back, I came across this interesting talk show featuring many prominent Indian Muslims, discussing various aspects of being Muslim.

15 minutes into the video, the interviewer asks Dr. Zakir Naik, a renowned Muslim public speaker, about the origins of the ‘construct of the [Muslim] image’ that a lot of people of this modern generation ‘find offensive’ (such a sporting a large mane, wearing a skull-cap, etc). To this question, Dr. Zakir Naik said that ‘first we need to understand what we mean by a Muslim.’ According to Dr. Naik, a ‘Muslim is a person who submits his will to Almighty God.’ Dr. Naik further goes on to say that ‘to understand Islam, don’t look at the Muslims… go to the original scriptures.’

Islam is what is written in the Qur’an and Ahadith (Sayings and Actions of Prophet Muhammad). That’s it. Whatever Muslims believe in or however they choose to act is irrelevant. It’s like Islam is a car and Muslims are drivers. You should not judge the car itself based on the ability of the driver. In fact, it was Zakir Naik himself who has given this driver-car analogy in one of his public lectures.

Kabir Khan, the film director, on the other hand, finds Dr. Naik’s views as ‘too narrow a definition of Islam.’ Khan rejects all rituals. But Islam is a part of his culture and ethos. He is as proud a Muslim as anybody else and does not believe that he needs to wear it on his sleeve. Therefore, according to Khan, Islam is not just confined to Qur’an and Ahadith but the whole spectrum of socio-cultural values and norms fostered under the aegis of Muslim societies.

This, in my opinion, is the fundamental difference between liberal and orthodox Muslims. Whereas orthodox Muslim scholars would insist on defining Islam purely on the basis of and derivative from Islamic scriptures, liberal Muslims see scriptures as just one aspect of Islam and not the whole of it.

This is also very similar to what Ghamidi said while analyzing the works of Karen Armstrong. He says that there are two ways to do research on Islam. One approach is to gather information on how Islam is practiced in different parts of the world, what has its history been so far and what do the sacred Islamic texts say. Once one has acquired all the information, one can basically form any logical narrative and present a certain picture of Islam.

The other approach, according to Ghamidi, is to start with the most important aspect of Islam, which is the Qur’an itself. The Qur’an should be used as a base reference, as a point of departure for understanding Islam. This difference of approach, along with other factors, on how Islam is defined and subsequently practiced, sows the seeds of polarization.

In 2008, a book was published titled “Who Speaks For Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think?”. A discussion about this book is available on YouTube.

Around 11:13 in the video, Reza Aslan says that ‘the simple answer to this question of who speaks for Islam is nobody speaks for Islam.’

The interesting point to note here is that since no one speaks for Islam, no one who claims to speak for Islam and all of Muslims should be taken seriously, according to Aslan’s statement. This condition for Muslims is, therefore, both a blessing and a bane. The good news is that there is no final, authoritative word on Islam and it’s a constantly evolving religion, with myriad beliefs and practices centered around perhaps some vague core concepts. The bad news is that lack of authority makes Islam somewhat anarchist. Anything goes, basically. The result is that on one hand, we have Al-Qaeda and ISIS and on the other we have LGBT-supporting Muslims.

The future of Islam is uncertain. However, that certain interpretations of Islam breed violence is certain. What also seems fairly certain is that violent Muslims will not compromise on their politco-religious ideology. And anyone who disagrees with them will have to face dire consequences.

I, therefore, believe that it is important to carry on critiquing the fundamentals of Islam, in a hope that more people see the problems with Islam and less people adopt the rigid, fundamentalist ideology of the extremists.