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Gradation in Islamic Legislation (Series)

How Islam Prohibited Intoxicants

Realism is one of the characteristics of Islamic Shari`ah. One of the proofs of realism in Islamic Shari`ah is considering the law of gradation in legislation, which is regarded as one of the basic factors of facilitation in Islam.

When the `Ibadat (i.e. acts of worship) such as salah (i.e. prayer) and siyam (i.e. fasting) were ordained, they were prescribed gradually and on a step-by-step process until they reached their final present form.

In the same vein, knowing how the souls and minds of the new-comers to Islam were attached to some unlawful practices, Allah Almighty did not declare them as forbidden all of a sudden. Instead, a gradual process of declaring them unlawful was applied.

Allah, the All-Wise, knew it would not have been effective to wean people away from these prohibited practices through direct orders or absolute non-caring ordinances.

Rather, it would be better to get those people ready and to prepare them psychologically and mentally to accept such ordinances through a gradual process of legislation.

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In so doing, they would be fully prepared to receive the final decisive order and only then they would say: “We have heard; we have obeyed!”

Perhaps the remarkable real-life example on this was the prohibition of intoxicants as is well known in the history of Islamic legislation. When the final and decisive ayahs (i.e. verses) of surat Al-Ma’idah were revealed with the following interrogative conclusion, {So will you desist?}. (Al-Ma’idah 5:91) The Believers replied with all known resolve and determination, “We have verily desisted, oh, our Lord!”

Before we take up the nature of this gradation and how it prepared the believers for the total abstention from drinking intoxicants, let us take a thorough look at a modern-history attempt to create the same effect; namely, the prohibition of intoxicants. The incident recalled here is that of the United States of America and its attempt to prohibit all forms of intoxicants early in the last century.

In so doing, we can see how humans try to solve their serious problems that affect their societies and human gatherings and the impacts of depending only on the power of law. Let us take a look at that attempt and then compare it to what Islam, the true religion of Allah, offered to solve the same problem in earlier times.


The US and prohibiting intoxicants

Early in the twentieth century, intoxicants of all kinds were widespread in the United States. Drunkenness was rampant and brought about various evil consequences on individuals, families and the whole society that the US authorities were convinced to pass a law prohibiting alcohol from 1920 to 1933. In fact,

“Effective enforcement of the alcohol ban during the Prohibition Era proved to be very difficult and led to widespread flouting of the law.

The lack of a solid popular consensus for the ban resulted in the growth of vast criminal organizations, including the modern American Mafia, and various other criminal cliques. Widespread disregard of the law also generated rampant corruption among politicians and within police forces.” (Wikipedia: Prohibition in the United States)

 Interestingly, the prohibition was not enacted by means of a royal decree or an imperial order or a dictatorial command ignoring the rights of individual citizens and groups. Rather, it was a law passed by an elected parliament in a free constitutional and democratic country that could enact whatever they deem right for their people and country.

“The ban was mandated by the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, and the Volstead Act set down the rules for enforcing the ban and defined the types of alcoholic beverages that were prohibited.” (ibid.)

All the country’s possible means as well as huge potentials were employed to put that ban into effect just as follows:

  1. The US Navy was deployed to monitor all American coasts to prevent smuggling.
  2. The US Air Forces kept an eye on the sky.
  3. All government apparatuses were mobilized and all propaganda as well asmedia means were manipulated to raise people’s awareness through explaining the damages intoxicants may inflect. Magazines, newspapers, books, advertisements, bulletins, pictures, cinemas, lectures and speeches were used to that end and to reinforce the alcohol ban.

Concerned experts estimated what has been spent on the campaign during the Prohibition Era as follows: [1]

  • $60 million dollars;
  • 10 billion pages were published in the form of books and bulletins;
  • $250 million dollars as the cost of enforcing the law for about 14 years;
  • 300 persons were executed during the Prohibition Era;
  • 352.335 persons were imprisoned during that Era;
  • $16 million dollars as fines paid by individuals; and
  • $ 404 million dollars as the cost of confiscated properties.

Having said that, all these increased Americans nothing but stubbornness and passion for intoxicants until the government was obliged to end the prohibition with the ratification of the Twenty-First Amendment, which repealed the Eighteenth Amendment, on December 5, 1933.

That was just a historical brief of the whole constitutional tragedy that was given the name “The Prohibition Era” in the modern history of the United States of America where the law failed, the authority fell short, and all apparatuses of a mighty country were unable to fight intoxicants and erase their malignant effects from society.


Islam and the prohibition of intoxicants

Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) was sent to humanity while drinking intoxicants was widespread among Arabs as almost none of them could prevent himself from drinking. However, there were few people from the pre-Islamic society who loathed drinking wine or intoxicants out of their sense of honor and social dignity such as Zayd ibn `Amr ibn An-Nufail.

The pre-Islamic Arabs adored wine; cherished its different substances; and they even composed poetry in its praise. They gave wine many names as an indication of its honor and importance to their lives. No doubt, it was a booming and lucrative trade to them.

When Imri’u al-Qais, the late well-known Arab poet, was told about his father’s murder he could not give up the wine he was drinking or leave his drinking companions and uttered his famous word, “Wine today, business tomorrow.”

As an indication of the Arabs’ fondness of and passion for wine, many companions of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) continued to drink even after the first two relatd ayahs (representing first two stages of wine prohibition) were revealed. They took adantage of the fact that complete prohibition was not imposed yet. Only when the third and final ayah was revealed, they knew it was the total and absolute prohibition thereof and only then they gave up drinking.


Prohibition on three stages

On the way of prohibiting intoxicants, the first following ayah was revealed. The ayah reads,

{They ask you about wine and gambling. Say, “In them is great sin and [yet, some] benefit for people. But their sin is greater than their benefit.”} (Al-Baqarah 2:219)

Linguistically speaking, the Arabic word “khamr” (i.e. wine) is “literally understood to mean the fermented juice of the grape; applied by analogy to all fermented liquor, and by further analogy to any intoxicating liquor or drug.”[2]

In the above ayah, there is an indication that there may possibly be some benefit in wine, but the harm is greater than the benefit.

It also refers to a well-established Qur’anic method of educating and disciplining, that is, they should take whatever is best only and not to ever indulge in anything that may incur on inflect harm on them.

Then, the following second ayah was revealed; it reads,

{O you who believed, do not approach prayer while you are intoxicated until you know what you are saying}. (Al-Nisa’ 4:43)

It was at least unbecoming that people should come to salah in such a state. For salah requires one’s collecting whole mind and approaching Allah in a spirit of reverence.

Complying with such a Divine ordinance, i.e., not to approachsalah while in a state of intoxication, means that one will abstain from drinking most of the daytime and part of the night to be able to perform salah on time and in an appropriate manner as taught by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him).

Then the following third Qur’anic ayahs were revealed:

{O you who have believed, indeed, intoxicants, gambling, [sacrificing on] stone alters [to other than Allah], and divining arrows are but defilement from the work of Satan, so avoid it that you may be successful.

Satan only wants to cause between you animosity and hatred through intoxicants and gambling and to avert you from the remembrance of Allah and from Prayer. So will you desist?} (Al Ma’idah 5:90-91)

Indeed, the prohibition understood from the word “avoid” is stronger than if Allah the Almighty had merely said, “Abstain.” The former requires distancing oneself from anything remotely related to these practices. This ayah denotes the total and complete prohibition of drinking intoxicants.

In addition, Daryabadi states in his The Glorious Qur’an,

The close relationship of alcoholism and crime is well established. ‘There is universal testimony as to the close relationship between excessive drinking and breaches of the moral law and the laws of the state. This is a direct consequence of the paralyses of the higher faculties, intellectual and moral, and the resulting free play given to the lower inclinations’

‘Alcohol belongs to a family of poisonous chemicals. Its theoretic food-value is of no use in practical dietetics. It is never a stimulant. It has a sedative drug-action in moderate doses, and a narcotic poison-action in excess. Its use as a beverage is physiologically unsound, economically disastrous, socially disruptive, and materially poisonous!’ [3]

Only then, following the revelation of these last two ayahs fromsurat Al-Ma’idah, amazing scenes were witnessed. One could see the Prophet’s Companions breaking their drinking glasses, pouring out their wine vessels and containers on the road until the roads of Madinah overflew with the wine they had then. As evidence for this, the following Prophetic hadiths can be cited:

Abu Sa`id al-Khudri (May Allah be pleased with him) reported: “I heard Allah’s Messenger (Peace and blessings be upon him) addressing in Madinah. He said:

‘O people, Allah is giving an indication (of the prohibition) of wine. And He is probably soon going to give an order about it. So he who has anything of it with him should sell that, and derive benefit out of it.’

He (the narrator) said: ‘We waited for some time that Allah’s Apostle (Peace and blessings be upon him) said: ‘Verily Allah, the Exalted, has forbidden wine. So who hears this verse and he has anything of it with him, he should neither drink it nor sell it.’

He (the narrator) said: ‘The people then brought whatever they had of it with them on the streets of Madinah and spilt that.’” (Muslim)

In another hadith, Anas ibn Malik reported:

“I was serving drink to Abu `Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah, Abu Talhah and Ubayy ibn Ka`b prepared from unripe dates and fresh dates when a visitor came and he said: ‘Verily, liquor has been prohibited.’

Thereupon, Abu Talhah said: ‘Anas, stand up and break this pitcher.’ I stood up and (took hold) of a pointed stone and struck the pitcher with its lower part until it broke into pieces.” (Muslim)

Has humanity ever seen anything like this? Has it ever seen such an overwhelming victory over one’s self? Has it ever seen such quick responsiveness? Has it ever seen such resolution on obeying Allah’s ordinance despite its contradiction with one’s habits and clash with one’s lusts?!


A final word

This shows that gradation in carrying out and achieving something is far better than attempting to force it in the name of law or legislation even if it were issued by a body elected by the free will of people.

To implement any drastic change in society, it has become clear that those in charge should first do their best to train the people and get them psychologically, intellectually, socially and morally ready to such a change or legislation.

Attempting to impose anything on people without such preparation may result in failure to abide by the law. Moreover, it may ignite resistance and even attempts to go around it as could be seen in the United States case  mentioned above.

That was one of the methods the Ever-Glorious Qur’an as well as Prophet Muhammad (Peace and blessings be upon him) adopted in educating the Companions, correcting their wrongs, reaffirming the moral ethics as well as extending Islam’s beams of eternal light into the depths of the hearts and the remote corners of the souls before giving them any instructions or burdening them with any legislations or laws.

Next time, we will deal with the gradation of Islamic Shari`ah  in terms of abolishing slavery. Till then insha’ Allah!


[1] These statistics are mentioned in Nadwi’s Islam and the World: The Rise and Decline of Muslims and Its Effect on the World.

[2] The Holy Qur’an: English Translation of the Meanings and Commentary. Revised and edited by the Presidency of Islamic Researches, IFTA, Call and Guidance. King Fahd Holy Qur’an Printing Complex. P. 93, Footnote 240.

[3] Daryabadi, Abdul Majid. The Glorious Qur’an: Text, Translation and Commentary. The Islamic Foundation. Revised Edition 2002. UK. P. 237, Footnote 312.

About Dr. Ali Al-Halawani
Dr. Ali Al-Halawani is Assistant Professor of Linguistics and Translation Studies. He is an author, translator, and writer based in Canada. To date, Al-Halawani authored over 400 original articles on Islam and Muslims, most of which can be accessed on and other famous websites. He has recently started to self-publish his articles and new books, which are available on Amazon and Kindle. You can reach him at [email protected].