When a man takes a drink

First the man takes a drink;
then the drink takes a drink;
then the drink takes the man….

Just like Algebra or Alkali, the word Alcohol comes from Arabic. “Al” in Arabic is the definite article like “the” in English. “Alkuhl” in Arabic is a chemical term which means “essence”, a substance produced by the process of heating a substance to a gaseous state and then recooling it. Distillation was developed with the invention of the alembic by Islamic alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan in around 800 AD. His chemical apparatus and processes are still in use today. A beverage in Arabic is called “sharab” or “mashroob”. The process of fermentation of juices to produce an alcoholic beverage like wine or rising of bread to produce yeast are called the “Khamr” in Arabic. There is much confusion in the Arabic world, as most of the times, the word “sharab” is used in place of “khamr”. I think its the persian influence on the meaning of the sharab. “Drinking” in English may be used as a synonym for consuming alcoholic beverages also. Additionally, having “thirst” or being “thirsty” sometimes expresses a desire for drinking alcohol. “Drinking and driving” does not mean driving after drinking water or an energy drink.

Alcohol in English language, was first recorded in 1543 using the same Arabic chemical sense. Chemically, Alcohol is a member of a class of organic compounds composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. They can be considered as hydroxyl derivatives of hydrocarbons produced by the replacement of one or more hydrogens by one or more hydroxyl (SOH) groups. Alcohols are derived either from natural-product processing, such as the fermentation of carbohydrates and the reductive cleavage of natural fats and oils, or by chemical synthesis based on the hydrocarbons derived from petroleum or the synthesis gas (syngas) from coal. Alcohol beverages are produced by fermentation of sugars and starches many types of fruits, plants or grains like berries, grapes, potatoes, apples, cherries, dandelions, elder-berries, palm, and rice. The simplest and most commonly used alcohols are methanol (common name methyl alcohol) and ethanol (ethyl alcohol). The only alcohol suitable for drinking is ethyl alcohol, produced by distilling the fermented juice of fruits or grains. Grapes remains the only fruit that can ferment completely without the addition of extra materials and that is because of its chemistry. Grapes are around 80% water and 20% sugar. So once the sugar is fermented during the wine making process, you end up with water, alcohol, and flavorings.

I want to talk about alcohol, which is nothing but something made out of things like fruits and grains that are consumed by us regularly. Yet we find drinking alcohol a taboo in many cultures and religions. Eating a grape is alright, but if you crush it and let it ferment and let it sit for a while, then its wrong. Human body produces its own supply of alcohol naturally on a continuous basis, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The natural process is called endogenous ethanol production and the volume of alcohol produced depends to some degree on what foods have been eaten. Some people even have a “Auto-Brewery Syndrome” where the self production of alcohol has to be treated with antibiotics. It is believed to originate from the microbial fermentation of the carbohydrates in the gastro-intestinal tract. Because of the low concentrations of endogenous ethanol, which reaches 0.39 ± 0.45 µg/ml (0.039 mg/dl) or almost and one ounce of absolute or pure alcohol each day, in the blood of sober people, as compared to concentrations produced by orally consumed exogenous ethanol, ethanol presence in the blood of abstaining people is not receiving any significant attention. This is understandable if endogenous ethanol is presumed to be synthesized by microbes. Such ethanol is not a truly endogenous substance of human cells, but enters them from the blood, as does ingested exogenous alcohol. Yet alcohol has been the most widely used psychoactive agent in the world. It has been a fundamentally important social, economic, political, and religious artifact for millennia. Many alcoholic beverages have stories of being invented by religious circles. While there wasn’t any cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, or pumpkin pie to eat at the first Thanksgiving, there was beer, brandy, gin, and wine to drink. Yet alcohol drinking has been prohibited in many cultures. Many religions don’t allow it. The relationship between religious preferences and drinking practices has been considered at length by researchers in several cultures.

A famous Japanese proverb says, “First the man takes a drink; then the drink takes a drink; then the drink takes the man”. Some say the saying belongs to an American Author F. Scott Fitzgerald (September 24, 1896 – December 21, 1940). Bible says, no drunkard will enter into the kingdom of heaven (I Corinthians 6:9-10). But still many believe that Jesus (RA) turned water into alcoholic wine on the request of his mother to entertain the guests, at a wedding in Cana. Today, many continue to fight for its inclusion in today’s modern christian religious society. Was Jesus (RA) contradicting tons of scripture in the Old and New Testament regarding this subject. Some think that in Biblical days, a little microscopic wine was added to water to preserve the purity of water. Also it is assumed that wine in those days was just a freshly squeezed grape juice with no alcoholic content. It was customary to keep adding more water to the punch bowl watering it down to entertain late arrivals or demanding guests. Some say that the best wine was served in the begining of a party, and later it was either watered down or cheap wine was served under the impression that people already drunk wont know the difference. All the clarifications are done now a days, to support that wine was prohibited then and should be prohibited now or otherwise. But the truth, if the wine was being drunk, or allowed, or created with a miracle, or served, or condemned or prohibited or even existed can not be proved. The proof in the existence of “wine” is still stronger than its non existence. To say that wine meant something different then and means some thing different now, makes me think when did the change in the meaning happen. Who let it happen or was it meant to happen. If it was about to happen, then knowing that humans would tilt towards the fun part of it, why was it not stopped. On the contrary, someone even suggested that “Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities.” Again, I am not sure of the wine being suggested was alcoholic or not. Have we been confused between the “v” and the “w” all this time.

The history of making alcoholic beverages dates back at least eight thousand years; for example, beer was made from cereal mashes in Mesopotamia in 6000 B.C.E. and wine in Egypt in 3700 B.C.E. Wine is among the oldest of humanity’s agricultural creations. Multiple opinions that are apparently contradictory exist in post christian era. I have heard it said that human beings first discovered how to make beer and then set out to develop farming as a way of assuring a steady supply. It may be that this is what is reflected in the biblical story of how Noah (RA) leaves the ark and immediately plants a vineyard, makes wine, and gets drunk. Another story of Lot and his daughters, believing that they were the only surviving people in the world after the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, they get their father drunk so that he will consent to produce a new generation for the world. While some rabbis have attempted to create lists of non-negotiable beliefs to which one must subscribe in order to be a Jew, none of these has ever been adopted as authoritative. The approach of the Jewish rabbinic tradition is to encourage the moderate use of alcohol, particularly wine, within the frameworks provided by existing commandments which require one to be happy in their fulfillment. Wine is an important part of Sabbath and holiday observances, life cycle celebrations, and the holiday of Purim. In Hasidism, a small amount of vodka is a legitimate preparation for listening to the teachings of the rabbi and, in oral traditions, a measured amount of alcohol on a regular basis is considered good for one’s health. On the contrary, an alcoholic is not an acceptable witness, cannot be a judge, or lead the community in prayer according to the rabbanic tradition. According to Genesis Rabbah (37:7), Wine has two characteristics, one opposite the other. A little is good and a lot is hard. Wine will make a person’s heart happy. A little wine opens the heart to Torah and too much leads to sin and idolatry. About this, it is taught that wine should not enter too deeply into any feast which is not obligated by the observance of a commandment. Wine should only be part of the supernal divine, for the sake of a commandment such as the comforting of mourners and, even there, one should drink only a little.

Having sensed that drinking alcoholic beverages is acceptable to varying degrees in many religions, I intend to concentrate now on Islam, where such a habit has the impression of being a “Satan’s handiwork”. The Islamic Law, referred to as “Sharia”, establishes certain limits, referred to as “Hudood”. These limits are to establish boundaries of acceptable behavior and to ascertain the punishments for offenses violating these boundaries. According to the Quranic text, punishments for only five offenses have been laid out, First is intentional Murder and, the second is offence against public security are punished by execution of the criminal. Third is theft not prompted by starvation is punished by amputation of the hand. Fourth is adultery and, fifth is calumnious accusation of adultery which are punished by stoning of flogging. It is widely believed that punishments in Islam are more of a functional nature, to regulate and deter. Some punishments are called the “claims of Allah” for which the ruler of the state is responsible to implement the punishments. Other offenses are defined as “claims of [His] servants,” and responsibility for prosecution rests on the victim. This includes murder, which was treated as a private dispute between the murderer and the victim’s heirs. The heirs had the right to compensation and to demand execution of the murderer, but they could also choose to forgive. The point to be noted is that Quran does not establish a punishment for Alcohol consumption, thus no punishment for a drunkard was fixed during the period of the Holy Prophet, Muhammad PBUH. Some people used to flail the drinker with anything that came to hand – a piece of cloth, a shoe, a stick to show their disagreement.

According to the Islamic penal system, where the divine texts establish that certain activities are prohibited but make no mention of a prescribed punishment – in these cases the punishment is to be determined by the political authority in light of the indications given by the prescribed punishments for other crimes. It is believed that the incidents of drinking increased during the Caliphate of Umar (RA), he suggested that a punishment be set for the drunkard according to the Quranic text. It is to be noted the Caliph Umar was feared by many muslims of those times as of too fiery and tirascible temper, and when nominated by his predecessor to lead the Muslims, many complained by saying that he might not be able to show moderation so necessary for the Head of the Community. So when he ordered to pass the bill against alcohal, no punishment was found in the Quran or the Sunnah – “The way or deeds of the prophet”.

I searched for the words, Khamr (fermentation) and Sakaran (intoxication) in Quran and found that the first Qur’anic verse (chronologically) to deal with alcohol was revealed in Mecca before the Prophets migration to Madinah. In fact much of the controversy concerning the chronology of the Qur’an can be blamed on the fact that he was not around to verify its final collation:

“And from the fruit of the date-palm and the vine ye get out wholesome (Sakaran) drink and food: behold in this also is a Sign for those who are wise.” (Al-Qur’an 16:67, Shakir).

After this verse, some Muslims started to wonder about the correctness of taking khamr. Revealed in Madinah a few years later, was this verse:

“They ask thee concerning wine and gambling, say: “In them is great sin, and some profit, for men; but the sin is greater than the profit…”(Al-Qur’an 2:219).

The third mention of alcohol by Allah in the Qur’an occurred as:

“O ye who believe! Approach not prayers with a mind befogged, until ye can understand all that ye say,- nor in a state of ceremonial impurity (Except when travelling on the road), until after washing your whole body. If ye are ill, or on a journey, or one of you cometh from offices of nature, or ye have been in contact with women, and ye find no water, then take for yourselves clean sand or earth, and rub therewith your faces and hands. For Allah doth blot out sins and forgive again and again. ” (Al-Qur’an 4:43, An-Nisa). It seems that the intensity changed with the passage of time.

“…The devil wants only to cast among you enmity and hatred by means of strong drink and games of chance and to turn you from remembering Allah and from prayer. Will you then desist.” (Al-Qur’an 5:90-91).

“O ye who believe! Intoxicants and gambling, (dedication of) stones, and (divination by) arrows, are an abomination,- of Satan’s handwork: eschew such (abomination), that ye may prosper. Satan’s plan is (but) to excite enmity and hatred between you, with intoxicants and gambling, and hinder you from the remembrance of Allah, and from prayer: will ye not then abstain?” (Al Quran 5:90-91).

Despite all of above, there were no punishments prescribed in the Quran and people drank during the days of the Islamic prophet. The prophet said, “”if it intoxicates in a large amount, it is forbidden even in a small amount.” Still I dont see any punishments. Yet “Satan’s handiwork” will appear in the Paradise which Allah has prepared for faithful Muslims, “(Here is) a Parable of the Garden (heaven) which the righteous are promised: in it are rivers of water incorruptible; rivers of milk of which the taste never changes; rivers of wine (here the arabic word khamr has been used), a joy to those who drink; and rivers of honey pure and clear. In it there are for them all kinds of fruits; and Grace from their Lord. (Can those in such Bliss) be compared to such as shall dwell for ever in the Fire, and be given, to drink, boiling water, so that it cuts up their bowels (to pieces)?” (Al-Quran 47:15). Muslim apologists typically rebut by remarking that the wine found in the rivers of Paradise is non-alcoholic. Much of this argument rests on a pragmatic, rather than textual or contextual foundation. “Even though wine is the work of Satan, if it appears in Paradise, then in that place it must be non-alcoholic”, so the argument generally runs. But all these verses are written far apart, delivered at various times, using different words for the matter in question, and ask a persons mind to put two and two togather, almost favouring both directions.

Ali (RA) said: “I think that drinking will make a person lose his mind and consequently start abusing others, uttering false accusations against them. So I think he deserves the same punishment for a person who falsely accuses other persons, that is 80 lashes.” All the companions of the prophet unanimously agreed upon this proposal. Hence forward, the same punishment was fixed for a drunkard. It is worth mentioning that Ali (RA) had a bad experience once in the past, when his camel was slaughtered by the prophet’s unlce without his permission. When the uncle was asked to clarify his position, he with nothing good to say in his defense, the guilt-ridden, drunken uncle blurted out to his nephew: “You and your father are my slaves!” The Prophet’s only response to the blasphemous outburst was to exclaim: “Truly, alcohol is the mother of every evil!”

Here, I provide myself as an example, and state that I have used alcohol a few times and never lost my mind and never started abusing others or have given false evidence while under the influence. Probably I consumed just a little, which was not enough to effect my senses or the ability to reason, and so I was not capable of committing offenses that could indicate to offenses with prescribed punishments. Probably I never crossed the limit. I never drove after drinking. I never stood on the witness stand. I never started a fight or entered into an argument. I was under control and like many others believe that alcohol has different effects on different people and it all depends on their body chemistry at the time of consumption. I do not want to exclude the possibility that all humans are not like me – the example under consideration. All humans do not have the same reaction to different levels of alcohol consumption. All humans may not be subjected to the possibility of committing offenses that could indicate or relate to the offenses with prescribed punishments. In most modern societies, there is a limit set for alcohol in the blood and only if proven below that limit a person is allowed to perform certain activities. A person under the influence of a certain level of alcohol can not drive, or can not enter into a contract etc. In light of the above, I find it hard to digest and consider alcohol consumption punishable by 80 lashes, because one might do something, even if another might not do the same, under a set of similar of varying circumstances and under the influence of similar or varying degrees of alcohol consumption. Once upon a time, a woman invited a good man to bad deeds. The man, fearing God, flatly refused. But, determined not to let her prey escape, the woman offered him one of three choices, each one more dastardly than the other: to consume alcohol, to commit adultery, or to murder her child from a previous marriage. If the man refused, she would cry rape. So, after having pondered his predicament, the pious man chose what he reckoned to be the lesser of the three evils. However, upon taking the alcohol, the man became drunk and then, under the influence of his brain-killing beverage, he killed the child and committed adultery with the wicked woman.

Its worth mentioning as a distant analogy that smoking tobacco, an invention since the last two centuries, is considered an toxicant now, and was never a common practice in the older times, so no punishment was prescribed by any religion. Today it is left to the moral sense of the person. Some governments of today are restricting smoking in areas of public activity, or under the roof or in enclosed spaces. The preservation of life has always been of common interest to the mankind of all times. Sometimes I think, some day, the political authorities might be convinced to consider smoking as a suicidal attempt in light of the indications given by the prescribed offences and related punishments and establish a punishment like they did for alcohol some thousand years ago.

“O God, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains! That we should with joy, pleasance, revel, and applause transform ourselves into beasts!” (Cassio, in William Shakespeare’s Othello, act 2, scene 3). The last great revival America had started in the late 1800s and lasted into the early 1900s. It was so powerful that it lead Congress to pass a national law known as “Prohibition” that prohibited the sale of alcohol. It’s not even debated why “Prohibition” came about. Some say the Women’s Temperance movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s played a large role in the legal prohibition of alcohol in the U.S. This organization was considered the “moral watchdog” of the nation. It wasn’t a social issue it was a spiritual issue. The Virginia legislature asked two University of Virginia pharmacology professors to review the research evidence and produce an overview report on alcohol’s affects on the human body. The legislature had hoped to demonstrate the need for the state’s public schools to teach that alcohol is a poison and that its use is harmful behavior to be avoided. The two scientists’ report contained language to the effect that moderate drinking was unharmful, temperance organizations in the state immediately rallied and deluged the legislature and the governor’s office with cries of objection. The legislature then voted to have the report, all one-thousand copies, burned — unread! The National Institutes of Health in the USA much later funded a study that found moderate drinkers to be less likely to suffer heart disease, but refused to allow the Harvard researchers to publish the results because it considered them “socially undesirable.” Still many scientists believe that alcohol can cause breast cancer, high blood pressure, brain damage, deposition of fatty deposits in liver, liver cancer, hepatitis, cirrhoses, gastritis, inflamation of pancreas, cancer of mouth, cancer of voice box, neural numbness, feutual damages in pregnant women etc.

The period of prohibition in the U.S. was short-lived. Smugglers brought vast quantities of illegal alcohol across lakes and up rivers concealed in many ways to bypass the law enforcing authorities. Soon the government realized that private demand for alcohol outweighed public demand to ban it. An enormous and well-funded anti-alcohol industry exists in the U.S even today. It consists of a large number of interrelated organizations, groups and individual activists who are opposed in some way to alcohol and its consumption. Some want to return to Prohibition whereas most want to continuously reduce average consumption to lower and lower levels: “Less alcohol is always too much alcohol.” The believe that the substance of alcohol is, in and of itself, the cause of all drinking problems. The availability of alcohol causes people to drink. The amount of alcohol consumed (rather than the speed with which it is consumed, the purpose for which it is consumed, the social environment in which it is consumed, etc.) determines the extent of drinking problems. Alcohol education should focus on the problems that excessive alcohol consumption can cause and should promote abstinence. They the neo-prohibitionists of today, neo-drys, or neo-Victorians are suggesting that the governments should impose heavier taxes on alcoholic beverages just like cigarettes, in addition to other similar prohibitive measures. RJWF, Robert Wood Johnson foundation, spends billion of dollars attempting to stigmatize alcohol, de-legitimize drinking, and marginalize drinkers. The American Medical Association (AMA) first passed a resolution supporting abstinence from alcohol even before National Prohibition was imposed in 1920 and continues to support it to this day. MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Driving was created in 1980 to reduce drunk driving and the death and injury that it can cause. Over time, temperance forces have gained control of MADD and it has largely become anti-alcohol rather than anti-drunk driving. There are some activists who have gone as far as promoting the idea that the effects of alcohol on men (no level of consumption indicated) are that the hormone levels change, causing lower sex drive and enlarged breasts. Most of these organisations believe that if you can’t say something bad about alcohol, don’t say anything!