Can Muslims Drink? Intoxicating the Anthropology of Islam

23 August 2019

For our focus on food in plural settings in the upcoming two years of the Religious Matters project, I will study “gastro-politics” (Appadurai 1981) in the Netherlands, in particular debates about alcohol consumption and Islam. Shahab Ahmed’s What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic (2016), I believe, challenges us to critically examine whether the anthropology of Islam has been too sober in its approach to Islam as a tangible, human, and historical phenomenon. A preliminary search for academic publications on Islam and alcohol consumption has already pointed to some general patterns, which I will discuss in greater detail in a future article with the same title as this blogpost.

Unsurprisingly, many publications on alcohol and in particular wine drinking refer to Sufism, often written by Islamic studies or philologically inclined scholars. The Encyclopedia of Islam has several such entries, including a long one on wine (Wensinck and Sadan 2012). Whether searching in German, French, Dutch, or English, the association of wine drinking with Sufism and wine poetry is strong, but publications on Muslims actually consuming alcoholic drinks are relatively few in number.

The names of Omar Khayyam and Hafez recur most often. This is remarkable, given the fact that Shahab Ahmed’s magnum opus centers around Hafez, but fails to mention Khayyam even once. Publications about actual drinking traditions in what are now countries like Jordan and Iran do speak of contrasts between Islamic prohibitions and historical realities (e.g., Khalil and Al-Nammari 2000). Especially Iran – an article in the Journal of Wine Research asserts – has one of the most ancient traditions of producing wine, and which persisted in cities such as Shiraz – celebrated in the poetry of Hafez – up until the 20th century (Saedi and Unwin 2004).

In these books and articles, wine consumption is described as a sign of a cosmopolitan mindset, as in a recent volume titled Cosmopolitanisms in Muslim Contexts: Perspectives from the Past, which has a chapter on Iranian wine consumption in the 19th century (Maclean and Ahmed 2013). Other works, however, focus on exclusion, or how otherness is constructed in religious legal traditions, based on what “foreigners” were believed to eat or drink (e.g., Freidenreich 2014). If we look at anthropological research exclusively, there does not seem to be a single publication that explicitly studies Muslims’ drinking behavior, rather than mentioning it in passing. At least, I have not been able to find any until now and would be glad to be informed about such research (please e-mail me at

One wonders, can Muslims drink? And why not study this topic? What does this omission say about how Muslims are conceptualized and studied in the anthropology of Islam? Even a volume that deals with failing to be a pious practicing Muslim (Beekers and Kloos 2018), examines pious failures to pray or to follow religious authorities, but not the obvious case of alcohol consumption. A selection of anthropological literature shows, in other words, a pretty much consistent image: alcohol consumption is not the topic of explicit discussion, it is primarily mentioned as a violation of Islamic law, or it is the local exception to the rule, as in the Berti of Sudan, who are recorded to have accepted drinking beer (Holy 1991: 39-40, 219), or as in the case of Polish Tatar Muslims who thought a prohibition of drinking any kind of alcoholic drink went too far (Górak-Sosnowska and Łyszczarz 2013: 102). Drinking can also be a way to postpone piety, associated with stopping to practice Islam, or even an anti-Islamic act, as suggested in research on Amazigh activism (Silverstein 2012: 340-341). Alcohol, in such uses, is a symbol of subversion, even if it is part of new religiosities such as described by Asef Bayat on Iranian youth in Tehran, “blending the transcendental with the secular, faith with freedom, divine with diversion” (2010: 125). None of these anthropological studies mention wine drinking as something Islamic in the sense of Shahab Ahmed, which places intoxication – to drink, or not to drink – at the heart of what Islam is (the same holds for the well-known works by Saba Mahmood, Magnus Marsden, Samuli Schielke, and others, which I cannot discuss here). In my own approach to Islam and wine drinking, I will explore the extent to which Ahmed’s framework can indeed intoxicate the anthropology of Islam, but also in what ways interlocutors may criticize his ideas in practice.

It should be noted that Ahmed wrote about a vast world he called the Balkan-to-Bengal-Complex, and mostly on the period between the fourteenth and nineteenth century A.D. In recent anthropological literature on the contemporary Western world, drinking is analyzed from a very different angle, namely of nationalistic identity politics vis-à-vis Muslim migrant populations. In a dissertation on North-African Muslim immigrants in Canada and France, for example, Rachel Brown (2016) describes the prevalent idea that one cannot be a good Frenchmen without consuming wine, or at least celebrating wine in speech acts. John Bowen has recorded the same in Great Britain (2016: 4, 208), and the Dutch context is similar. When a Moroccan woman opened a wine bar in Rotterdam in 2014, this was hailed as “integration” into the nation by a Dutch newspaper. Or, last year also in Rotterdam, the municipality tried to compel a Turkish restaurant owner to sell alcohol. Striking is the contrast with Iranian restaurants, Iranians being usually regarded as very secular and therefore very well integrated into Dutch society, and in whose restaurants it’s hard to miss the ostentatious display of whisky bottles and “araq sagi,” a strong drink that can be literally translated as “doggy sweat,” alluding to its impurification effect, since dogs have long been considered najis or impure in Iran.

So, no doubt, there is in the Netherlands a political pressure to “integrate,” which is tied to nationalistic and xenophobic elements, and I will have to rehearse some of this in my forthcoming article. However, exclusive attention for European gastro-nationalisms captures power asymmetries only partially, ignores the diversity within and between Muslim groups, flattens complex transnational interactions, and can underestimate the role of encounter mistranslations when practices such as wine drinking are concerned – these are the very issues that anthropologists are trained to document. To put it otherwise, I think that Shahab Ahmed’s critiques are relevant for the contemporary Western world too. It would be a mistake to judge hastily that because of European xenophobia, the meaning of drinking wine can be reduced to integration pressures alone, or that the meaning of the philosophical and poetic texts described by Ahmed is totally and not partially changed when cited in contemporary settings. Anthropologists should rather study those who drink or do not drink, and identify as Muslim or not in relation to alcohol. Given the fact that globalization is a bizarre process, a more realistic assessment, I hope to show, will demonstrate partial continuities with Ahmed’s world of Islamic wine drinking, memories kept alive, but also various translations, mistranslations, and appropriations. Researching food thus allows us to map changing and competing hegemonies, and to better understand newly reassembled ways of living.


- Ahmed, S. 2016. What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic. Princeton University Press.
- Appadurai, A. 1981. Gastro-politics in Hindu South Asia. American Ethnologist, 8(3): 494-511.
- Bayat, A. 2010. Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East. ISIM: Amsterdam University Press.
- Beekers, D. and Kloos, D. (eds.). 2018. Straying from the Straight Path: How Senses of Failure Invigorate Lived Religion. New York and Oxford: Berghahn.
- Bowen, J. 2016. On British Islam: Religion, Law, and Everyday Practice in Shariʿa Councils. Princeton University Press.
- Brown, R. 2016. Immigration, Integration and Ingestion: The Role of Food and Drink in Transnational Experience for North African Muslim Immigrants in Paris and Montréal. PhD dissertation. Wilfrid Laurier University.
- Freidenreich, D.M. 2013. “Idolaters Who Do Not Engage in Idolatry”: Rabbinic Discourse about Muslims, Christians, and Wine. In Foreigners and Their Food: Constructing Otherness in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Law. University of California Press, 209-226.
- Górak-Sosnowska, K. and Łyszczarz, M. 2013. "Perspectives on Muslim Dress in Poland: A Tatar View." In Islamic Fashion and Anti-Fashion: New Perspectives from Europe and North America, edited by E. Tarlo and A. Moors. London: Bloomsbury, 93-106.
- Holy, L. 1991. Religion and Custom in a Muslim Society: The Berti of Sudan. Cambridge University Press.
- Khalil, L.A. and Al-Nammari, F. 2000. Two Large Wine Presses at Khirbet Yajuz, Jordan. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 318: 41-57.
- Maclean, D.N. and Ahmed, S.K. (eds.). 2013. Cosmopolitanisms in Muslim Contexts: Perspectives from the Past. Edinburgh University Press.
- Saeidi, A. and Unwin, T. 2004. Persian wine tradition and symbolism: Evidence from the medieval poetry of Hafiz. Journal of Wine Research, 15(2): 97-114.
- Silverstein, P. A. 2012. In the name of culture: berber activism and the material politics of “popular islam” in southeastern morocco. Material Religion, 8(3): 330-353.
- Wensinck, A.J. and Sadan, J. 2012. “K̲h̲amr”, in Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, edited by P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W.P. Heinrichs. Consulted online April 30, 2019.