True Crime News Weekly looks at the long history of cannabis within Muslim cultures after the FBI claimed that Islam prohibits and outlaws the use of nature’s herb.
A few weeks ago the Trump administration loudly announced the arrest of its first Islamic terrorist suspect apparently planning an attack on the United States. 25-year-old Robert Lorenzo Hester of Columbia, Missouri, was a recent Muslim convert and former US Army enlistee who had been having trouble in his relationship with his wife and had been arrested last October over an argument with her and others at a grocery store during which he tried to pull out a 9mm handgun from a diaper bag.
Forced to serve a 10-day stint in jail over the offences, the day after he was released Mr Hester was contacted by undercover FBI agents who had been tipped off about some of his recent social media posts calling for the “FBI to burn in hell” and for a militia to be set up to protect Muslims from “rednecks”. And so began a months-long process some such as The Intercept have suggested was akin to entrapment before Mr Hester was arrested over terrorism charges in late February of this year. Interestingly enough though Mr Hester was also a ‘stoner’. And this is where our interest comes into it.
According to the court testimony of one of the FBI agents who arrested Mr Hester, the volatile 25-year-old soon-to-be father of three had failed a court-ordered drugs test in January. He had cannabis present in his urine. The FBI agent testified that during one of his meetings with Mr Hester that month that: “Throughout the conversation, Hester repeatedly denied smoking marijuana. I know from my training and experience that smoking is forbidden under Islamic law and custom”.
But is that really the case? Is cannabis ‘haram’ for Muslims? Or, is it ‘halal’?
A look at the Koran and history of Muslim cultures would show that there is no clear directive against the use of cannabis or hash-hish unlike alcohol. The Arabic term شرب الخمر or Khamr which loosely translates to “intoxicants” is usually used to refer to alcohol especially in times of the prophet Muhammad from about 609 CE (Common Era). The Arabic verb تخمر also refers to fermentation, suggesting something that is processed like alcohol. In the Koran, the prophet Muhammad says:
“Allah has cursed Khamr – the one who drinks it, the one who pours it for others, the one who sells it, the one who buys it, the one who makes it, the one who it is made for, the one who carries it, the one who it is carried to and the one who consumes the money from its sale.”
With cannabis plants flourising naturally, one could also add that cannabis itself does not need to be bought or sold as it can be grown so easily. Islamic law also allows the use of drugs for medicinal reasons. Something which the Islamic scholars in the centuries after the Koran was written knew cannabis possessed as they had been busy poring over the scientific, mathematical and medicinal texts of the Ancient Greeks and Romans while Europe was in the Dark Ages and far removed from its own Renaissance.
Soon enough, cannabis or hash would take a central role in Muslim cultures despite also never being quite officially sanctioned. It would be smoked by many an Ottoman sultan and their artists and artisans. It would find a home across vast parts of the Islamic empires stretching from Northern Africa to India. With the Islamic tradition banning the depiction of prophets or Gods within its houses of worship unlike Christianity, artists in the Islamic world also had to use great powers of imagination to depict transcendence. A walkthrough of Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace where the Sultans were based contains many a floral symbol that a cannabis toker has dreamt of and the same goes for many a mosque.
The Sufi strain of Islam much like the Rastafarians of Jamaica also used hash to help reach transcendence through singing and dancing. There’s also the Western myth about well-trained Persian hit-men known in the English language as “assassins” being regular imbibers of the herb to keep them focused on their task. What is important here, is not whether it was true but that Europeans had accepted that hash had a central role in the Muslim world.
It’s also likely that ‘stoner comedy’ was largely invented by Muslim cultures. Hash makes plenty of appearances in old Islamic folk stories stretching from 1001 Arabian nights – where hash is referred to as that “hilarious herb” – to the wise Turkish comedic sage Nasrettin Hoca, who in one story tries hash-hish before visiting a Turkish bath and then leaves stark naked without his towel because he is too high to remember it. It’s like many a modern stoner who has misplaced their keys.
Another Turkish folk tale involves a hash house in central Istanbul that would draw scores of people every day. When people would question why these stoners would be wasting their time smoking hash, they would reply that it was part of their nature. According to the story, a fire occurs at the hash house one evening. While some flee the building, others remain inside with the fire. When yelled at what they are still doing inside, they reply, “We’re waiting for the fire to light our hash”. Thus proving that for some people, cannabis is a real part of their identity, even when faced with death.
And before there was Cheech and Chong or The Mighty Boosh, there was Karagoz and Hacivat – a comedy duo puppet show which appealed to the working class of the Ottoman world and mocked both the high and low cultures of the time. One of the recurring characters along with the wise hustler and urbane idiot was, yep, you guessed it – a stoner.
The tough prohibitions in the Muslim world against cannabis are largely a recent development from the outside. It was spurred on by first the colonial conquest of Egypt by Napoleon and then the the War on Drugs which the supposed enlightened United States dragged the rest of the world into in the early 20th century under the threat of loss of trade.
And despite those tough laws, visit a Muslim country today and although you may not be able to source alcohol easily, you will be able to find hash or cannabis without too much trouble. It’s hard sometimes to lose our traditions. Even if we have to be a little quiet about it now.
This article first appeared in a shortened version in Dopamine Magazine, Australia’s leading cannabis and psychedelics publication.