Living The Quran


From Issue: 990 [Read full issue]

The Prohibition
Al-Baqara (The Cow) Sura 2: Verse 219 (partial)

"They ask you about wine and gambling. Say: 'In them both lies great sin, as well as some benefit for humankind; but the evil that they cause is greater than the benefit which they bring.'"

The Quran repeatedly moves from soaring expressions of spiritual verities to details of mundane human behaviour. A full appreciation of our relationship to God is, as the Quran has been saying from the very beginning, found in how we act upon and live out God consciousness in all the aspects of our daily life. Worship is expressed not just in prayer but also in how we deal with mundane activity. It requires finding the right balance in all our activities, not being intoxicated with our self-interests or passions, but being ever mindful of the need for clear and sober judgement so that we apply the moral and ethical guidance of the Quran as far as we are able in even the smallest aspect of our lives.

Pre-Islamic society in Arabia was into binge drinking. Wines were made in most households, drinking was seen as a sign of high culture, and drunkenness was valued as a sign of wealth and eminence. Gambling was a close second to drinking. Like drinking, gambling too was seen as a source of pride and honour. Given that tribal Arabs valued pride and honour above all, it is not surprising that gambling and drinking led to excess. Both habits contributed to perpetual tribal feuds and constant wars.

The Quran sought to transform Arab society. This verse is the first time the Quran mentions drinking and gambling; and it is worth noting that it acknowledges there is 'some profit' in both. But the social costs are greater: for a society to prosper and progress, drinking and gambling had to be abandoned. The injunction forbidding these comes later, in 5:90, which asks Muslims to shun them in order to be 'successful'. But from the specific example we should draw a more general principle. It is not just wine that is to be avoided on these grounds: all variety of intoxicants are included, from liquor to drugs, hard or soft, that affect the mind and hence the ability to make balanced judgements. Similarly, gambling would include all games of chance—including the national lottery. Both, we learn in 5:91, cause 'enmity and hatred to spring in your mind'; and, as such, thwart the development of genuine prosperity and well-being. The total transformation of Arab society after the emergence of Islam was in significant part due to this prohibition. It allowed the noble aspect of the Arab character, their industrious and intrepid nature, their courage and frankness, to come to the fore.

Compiled From:
"Reading the Qur'an: The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam" - Ziauddin Sardar, pp. 165-166