Cannabis Use in the Islamic World: Part 5 | How It Became Part of Thriving Cultures

The relationship between marijuana and Islam is complicated, to say the least. Today, it is considered a prohibited substance to the point where its sale and even possession could result in execution in certain Islamic countries. There is no mention of cannabis as a ‘forbidden’ substance in the Qur’an, mainly because it had not yet been discovered by Muslims at the time of Muhammad the Prophet (570 – 632 AD).

Followers of Sufism, a movement within Islam, consume weed openly as part of their ritual practices in a bid to reach a higher state of consciousness. The majority of Islamic religious figures and scholars say that because cannabis is an intoxicating substance, it is ‘haram,’ which means it is prohibited.

However, cannabis was used in Iran and other nations that are now Islamic for at least 1,500 years before the birth of Muhammad. Early Arabic texts mention the use of ‘hashish’, which referred to cannabis resin, flower heads, and dried leaves. The Arabs also made ‘sweetmeat’ with weed, which was eaten rather than smoked.

First Use of Marijuana in Islam

All manner of tales and legends surround Islam’s first encounter with marijuana. It was always likely to happen, because the Arabs rapidly expanded westwards in the 7th and 8th centuries. As well as destroying the Sassanid Empire in 651, the Arabs came close to conquering the Byzantine Empire, only to be halted at the great city of Constantinople, which used Greek Fire to destroy the Arab navy in the 670s. The expansion was only halted at the Battle of Tours in 732.

According to one story, an Indian pilgrim introduced it to the Persians during the reign of Khosrow II (531 – 579). As a result, when the Arabs conquered Persia in the 650s, they would invariably have uncovered weed. Another story claims that a Chinese Buddhist scholar named Huan Tsang visited Punjab in 641 and introduced cannabis to the Arabs. Yet another tale claims that marijuana was unknown to the Muslims until one of their kings, the Ghaznavid King Mahmud, entered the Indian subcontinent in the 11th century.

It is highly unlikely that the Islamic world was not exposed to cannabis until after 1000. After all, weed had been used for medicinal purposes in the region that later became known as the Arab world since Roman times. It was an anesthetic and a painkiller.

Rhazes, also known as Abou Bakr Mohammed ibn Zakariya Ar Razi, was a famous Islamic physician who lived in the 9th century. He is known to have prescribed marijuana as a medicine. His contemporary, a physician called Ibn Wahshiyah, was not as sure about the use of weed in the medical field. In fact, in On Poisons, he wrote that it was deadly when used in large amounts. Both men would have read the translated writings of Hippocrates, Dioscorides, and Galen, Greek scholars who wrote about the herb.

In his 1971 essay, The Herb, Franz Rosenthal wrote that hashish was used as an intoxicant in Islam during the 9th century. He said that religious sects used it and there was minimal cultural opposition because the substance had not been named as a prohibited one in the Qur’an.

It is more likely that cannabis use spread across the Middle East as Islam expanded during the late 7th century. If nothing else, marijuana was certainly widely used by the 11th century for recreational purposes. At that time, the Seljuk Turks, a Turkish people, captured Baghdad in 1055 from the Shia Buyids under a commission from the Abbasid Empire which was little more than a figurehead. The Seljuks didn’t seem to have an issue with weed.

Falsifying a Link Between Weed & Violence

During this era, hashish was popular in the Islamic world. In 1090, Hasan-I-Sabbah, founder of the order called Assassins, allegedly recruited young men to complete dangerous missions such as murdering political opponents. According to legend, he trained them in his fortress, the Alamut, provided beautiful women to sleep with, and gave them a secret potion which emboldened them and gave them the courage to complete their tasks.

According to Silvester de Sacy in 1818, this potion was almost certainly hashish. Not only that, but the Assassins order was actually called the ‘Hashishiyans.’ Unfortunately, anti-marijuana protesters in the 20th century used this false information to link marijuana with violent behavior.

There is no question that the Assassins order committed numerous violent acts. Hasan’s followers, known as the fidai, blindly carried out his orders. For example, they murdered Conrad Marquis de Montferrat, one of the leaders of a Crusade, in the 12th century. An Assassin disguised himself as a monk and infiltrated the Marquis’ camp. Hasan was so feared that even Saladin, the legendary Muslim warrior of lore, decided against his plan to storm the Alamut.

In reality, the only evidence de Sacy used to link weed with violence was an anecdotal account by famed explorer, Marco Polo. According to Polo’s report, a potion was given to the Assassins, but he never named a drug. If Hasan did give the men hashish, it was probably to provide them with the pleasures of the paradise spoken of by Muhammad who said great things awaited men who died in battle.

Religious Use of Marijuana & Its Spread

It is the Sufi sect who have the greatest Islamic association with cannabis. In Part 4 of the series, I spoke about how Haydar founded the Sufis in Kharasan in the late 12th century. A popular legend claimed that Haydar discovered weed one day while out walking and was positively euphoric upon his return to the monastery.

As was the case 2,000 years previously with Hindu priests who had discovered hashish, Haydar swore his followers to secrecy. Although it is likely that the story isn’t true, it is a fact that the Sufis consumed the substance and spread it throughout the Islamic world. They even introduced it to Egypt and Syria. According to some Sufis, marijuana brought peace, insight, and a closeness to God.

If nothing else, the tales of the Assassins and Sufis show that weed was rapidly expanding throughout the Arab world. It is interesting to note that while King al-Afdal banned the sale and production of alcohol in Egypt and Syria towards the end of the 1100s, no such restrictions applied to cannabis.

Initially, cannabis was mainly used for medical purposes in the Islamic world. In the 9th century, a physician called al-Razi wrote about using hemp leaves to help with earaches and flatulence! According to another physician called al-Badri in the 13th century, weed was used to improve the appetite.

The Downfall of Marijuana in the Islamic World

In many ways, it was inevitable that cannabis would eventually be banned in Islam. Although the substance is not named in the Qur’an, intoxicants, called khamr, were expressly forbidden, and weed is certainly an intoxicant – a fact that countless Muslims discovered while using it. The imams pointed out that it was wrong for prayers to be offered to Allah by individuals under the influence of marijuana.

Rosenthal maintains that confirmed cannabis users were classified as poor and low-class individuals with bad moral character. Most evidence suggests that hashish consumers were predominantly the poorest members of society, including unskilled laborers and uneducated peasants. This is primarily because weed was far cheaper than alcohol. Also, it was available on every street corner, and an ounce of weed was far more effective than several pints of wine.

Disapproval towards the drug was abundant in the middle of the 13th century onwards. Matters were not helped when the Mongols captured Baghdad in 1258. These fierce warriors were known for their liberal consumption of alcohol and marijuana. Arab historians such as al-Zarkoshi and Ibn Taymiyah blamed the spread of the herb on the Mongol invaders, even though it had been widely used by Muslims for centuries!

The Sufis were poorly regarded in Islamic society and were even considered a threat to public order. In 1253, Islamic authorities raided a Sufi community in Cairo and burned all their cannabis plants on a pyre. The Sufis paid farmers to continue growing the weed, a compromise which lasted until 1324 when the authorities purged the whole countryside and destroyed every marijuana plant they could find.

In 1378, Soudoun Sheikhouni introduced martial law in Egypt in a bid to wipe out marijuana use. Cannabis crops were burned, and farmers found to be growing the plant were tortured and murdered. Those who were caught using weed had all their teeth pulled out.

Yet these extreme measures failed to stamp out marijuana use, and it was reported that within a few years, it was like Sheikhouni’s measures had never taken place. In actual fact, the use of cannabis expanded even further, to the East and North coasts of Africa and Spain, in the 14th century. In 1393, the Sultan of Baghdad didn’t seem to care about bans as he openly used hashish.

During the 16th century, the Ottomans defeated the Mamluks, which meant Egypt and Syria came under new rule. During the reign of the famed Suleiman the Magnificent, (1520 – 1566), lower, middle, and upper-class Egyptians used the herb. However, it soon became known as “the grass of the poor.”

In the 17th century, traders from Europe introduced tobacco to the Ottomans, a habit they soon considered immoral. People began smoking tobacco and marijuana together, although new strict penalties for using tobacco were introduced.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that further repressive measures to stamp out cannabis use in the Islamic world were tried. In 1877, the Ottoman government in the city of Constantinople finally decreed that all marijuana in Egypt must be destroyed. Two years later, the Khedivate of Egypt banned the importation of weed. In 1890, Sultan Hassan I of Morocco placed strict regulations on the cultivation and trade of marijuana, although he allowed a number of Rif tribes to have special weed privileges.

Final Thoughts on Marijuana Use in the Islamic World

During the Dark and Middle Ages, the Arab world was one of the most advanced on the planet, and marijuana use was rife. While some historians try to link the decline of the Islamic Empire to weed use, it fails to take into account that marvelous mosques and fabulous institutes of learning were created when cannabis use was at its greatest.

When the Arabs were busily expanding in the early days of the empire, weed use was unknown. However, it gradually made its way through all aspects of Muslim society and arguably distracted many from the long-term goal of Muhammad, which was to establish Islam as the true faith throughout the world. In the end, despite Islam’s attitude towards intoxicants, marijuana was a major part of its culture for hundreds of years.