Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.

Islam & alcohol

Published:  23 July, 2008

Imam Shahid was born and grew up in London. He attended state primary and secondary schools, and then at the age of 13 decided, with the support of his parents, to undertake theological studies and to become an Imam. During the nine years following this decision, he attended an Islamic seminary in West Yorkshire for five years, followed by periods of study in Pakistan, Syria and Saudi Arabia. After his graduation in 1998, he served as a junior Imam in Croydon Mosque and Kingston Mosque in Surrey. He is currently Muslim chaplin at St Mary's Hospital and Kingston Hospital, and is the head of the interfaith department at the Regent's Park Mosque.

Alyaa Ebbiary: In my experience alcohol is not an issue until you get to your late teens. It is at the end of secondary school that people begin going out and clubbing, and want to know why you can't join them. For me it really became an issue when I came to university. A lot of university students feel that alcohol is central to their social life, so I found myself having to turn down invitations.

Amina Fersia: I moved to the UK from Algeria when I was 17, and I must admit it was a bit scary at first seeing drunk people, because I had never seen them before in my life. But then you get used to it, and you don't have to go anywhere if you don't want to, so it is not really an issue anyway. It has not been an issue for me. Once I contributed 1 towards buying a present for a friend. I later found out that it went towards a bottle of wine, but in my mind I told myself it went on the card.

Hassan Izzidien: There was more of an emphasis on alcohol when I was doing my A-levels. My friends would go and drink in pubs and things like that, but when I came to university I found it easier to socialise with my non-Muslim friends. It is easier for me in university than it was in school.

Romaissa: I read an article that said if Muslims want to integrate into English society they must be less strict, but this is not possible. For example, if you work in a company and everyone goes for a drink after work, obviously you cannot go, so you will always be isolated from the rest, because you are different.

Alyaa Ebbiary: Sometimes you have a supermarket or a restaurant where they serve alcohol. A lot of people find that it creates a social obstacle. A lot of work colleagues socialise in the pub or the bar, especially in journalism and banking and PR. A lot of important work stuff is discussed over alcohol, and they miss it. If they can get to a high enough position in their organisations, then perhaps they can effect where people socialise. There are not that many alcohol-free places where people can go to socialise.

Romaissa: English people are quite understanding: if we explain, they understand. For example, in our student union one sister a few years ago had to go to regular meetings, which were all in a bar, and she was successful in passing a motion so that meetings were held elsewhere.

Ahmed Aldouri: I think that there is scope for understanding about these issues at universities. There is open-mindedness towards other points of views, though the social strain does manifest itself in certain situations, such as at the beginning of the year, when it's normal for clubs and societies to go on a pub crawl. I play on a football team with the medical society and I do find it a bit difficult to integrate with people afterwards, when the expectation is to go out drinking, and it can be difficult to relate to that. But it is a good opportunity for people to get the other point of view for what it's like for us as Muslims. Our student union at the University of Southampton also recognised that there are certain people who would prefer not to have alcohol, so there is a quota of events at which alcohol cannot be served.

Alyaa Ebbiary: I feel a bit more sorry for the guys than the girls, because in our culture the guys tend to go out to pubs. Girls tend to go clubbing. I've had endless invitations. People say, Come and don't drink', but I explain that I can't because it is an alcoholic atmosphere. And they say, Well, we'll go to the bit where there is no alcohol.' I'm like, There are other issues, like men and woman dancing who are not related, and it's considered not a very modest environment in which to conduct yourself.' I'm a home student, so I've grown up being Muslim in Britain and I'm used to it, but what I've noticed from international students, from the continent and Africa and Asia, is that they're surprised about how dependent English culture is on alcohol for socialising. Even some of the non-Muslim students, such as Chinese students, are raising their voices to have non-alcoholic socialising spaces on campuses.

Me and my brother like to watch the World Cup football matches somewhere public because the atmosphere is better - you, like, cheer together, grieve together. Somewhere like Manchester they have a lot of public spaces with big, big screens that are alcohol free, but outside the big cities - I actually live in Preston, which is smaller - the only places they put up screens are in pubs and bars, so we have had a lot of trouble finding somewhere. There are a lot of people who want to watch and cheer on but who don't want the beer.

Ahmed Aldouri: I am sure that if you look around the table, none of us feels that we are missing out. I guess the message is that you can enjoy yourself without drinking. We as Muslims don't feel that we're missing anything by not drinking. So long as it is within what is acceptable Islamically, or halal, we go out, we socialise, we go the cinema, we go bowling.

Alyaa Ebbiary: That's a very good point. I often give talks to teenagers in schools, as a guest speaker in RE classes, about what it's like to be a Muslim. Some of them are really shocked that I've never had alcohol, and find it really hard to get their head around the fact that you can not drink and still have fun. I have to explain to them that I can have fun without a substance. I am happy to introduce them to the idea, because I feel that you can have fun without drinking. I do feel that there is too much of an emphasis in English culture about needing alcohol to have a good time. I would like to see more warnings about the dangers of alcohol and messages that abstention - or at least moderation - is not uncool or boring.

Romaissa: At the end of the day, alcohol does harm. Alcohol causes many social problems. I work in a hospital and see alcohol-related accidents all the time. We need to advise not just Muslims about the risks of alcohol consumption. It makes the society suffer a lot. You can imagine in a family if the father drinks heavily, how much the family suffers.

Alyaa Ebbiary: A few months ago I went to a talk by Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, one of the leading scholars on the Muslim world. He comes from a Greek Orthodox family and converted to Islam. He said that when he was growing up, every day at the dinner table there was wine, and even as a child he would be given a little bit. But there were no alcoholics in his family - everybody was moderate in their alcohol consumption. But he said that the reason Islam bans alcohol is for the good of the whole population. There could be one family that doesn't abuse alcohol, and they're quite happy to give their kids a bit of wine at the dinner table, but often in Islamic practice you find that one thing is banned for the benefit of everybody.

Amina Fersia: Alcohol is an issue - it's an important issue - but you can always have non-Muslim people around you. Once I invited a girl over and she brought over a bottle of Shloer, a non-alcoholic grape soft drink, which was really nice because it helps us feel integrated into society.

Alyaa Ebbiary: I've noticed Shloer being marketed more in Muslim magazines and at events. It's being marketed as a grown-up soft drink. I've seen it at Muslim weddings and its becoming really popular.

Hassan Izzidien: Recently at my medical school I saw something quite nice. There was a non-drinking day, and there was a talk about drinking in moderation and understanding the medical risks of drinking. Unfortunately, it was restricted to the medical students, but I think something on a wider scale would have a positive benefit. It was nice that the emphasis was on people who don't drink in general, rather than just on Muslims.

Alyaa Ebbiary: That's a good point. The Christian friends I have, they don't do the same things that I don't do.

Hassan Izzidien: The problem you have is that all around universities there are signs for cheap alcohol and events. I remember when I was a fresher, the first week almost everything that was said was based around getting drunk, which doesn't help in terms of propagating information about the risks involved. I mean if you're going to drink, fine, but you should know about the risks. The problem is that when you have an initiative about the risks involved, there are 10 other initiatives going against you.

Alyaa Ebbiary: I think there is a culture of hedonism on campus, an emphasis on going mad and losing yourself. Generally, there is an emphasis on alcohol in English culture, but I think that is even more true in universities. This is something that students from other religious backgrounds want to avoid.

Amina Fersia: But even from a non-religious point of view, I think universities should be more associated with education.

Romaissa: In England there have been so many different problems with alcohol, and the government has been trying to control it, setting up rules like no drinking after 11pm. But they don't work. Every time you set a rule people will find a way to get round it. For example, if they say there is to be no drinking after 11pm, people will drink, drink, drink before 11pm and get very drunk. I think, personally, there is no way to solve this problem.

Alyaa Ebbiary: I think you're right, because it's so universal to human culture. Even in Egypt, where my dad's from, you'll find bars. A lot of people think it's just for tourists, but there are Muslims who go to bars as well, trust me.

Amina Fersia: A message that I would like to convey is that even though we are Muslims and we love our religion, and we want to practise it anywhere in the world, that doesn't mean that we are not approachable, that we aren't open-minded, that we don't want to have non-Muslim friends. It's totally the opposite. We always find solutions to the alcohol issues and to the differences in cultures and traditions. It's not a big obstacle; it's not a reason to think that we are aliens.