Ramadan began almost three weeks ago, and hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world are now spending the long summer days abstaining from food and drink. Even water is forbidden from dawn to dusk for observers of the fast.
But one group of Muslims suffers a special variety of thirst this time of year: Muslims who drink alcohol.
Although alcohol is considered haram (prohibited or sinful) by the majority of Muslims, a significant minority drinks, and those who do often outdrink their Western counterparts. Among drinkers, Chad and a number of other Muslim-majority countries top the global ranking for alcohol consumption.
During Ramadan, though, many Muslim drinkers abstain from consuming wine, beer or spirits of their own free will for the duration of the month — just as some lapsed Christians give up a vice for Lent but never set foot in a church except for christenings, weddings and funerals, or some secular Jews who eat bacon still avoid bread at Passover. It’s a relatively straightforward way to keep a link with tradition and heritage in these rapidly changing times, which helps explain why Ramadan is so important in largely secular Muslim nations like Tunisia. When I still fasted, I would get together with friends to have one for the road before the long, arduous trek through the Ramadan dry lands, until Eid al-Fitr, the celebration of the end of the holy month, made it safe to leap off the bandwagon once again.
I gave up Ramadan and abandoned every last vestige of faith at the dawn of this millennium, and now I certainly drink alcohol during the fast. But most Muslim drinkers I’ve met view imbibing as a minor sin (even though they indulge in it), and thus, if they fast during Ramadan, they abstain for the month. This can lead to some peculiar situations. Last year, at a barbecue organized by European friends in Tunis, I debated, wine glass in hand, with a secular Tunisian — sipping on fruit juice because, even though he wasn’t fasting, he had given up alcohol for the holy month — whether it was hypocritical and an infringement on personal freedom to ban the sale of alcohol during Ramadan.
Weirdest of all, perhaps, is the tiny minority of Muslims who fast and then drink at night after they have broken their fast. This may seem discordant, but it’s not as odd as it appears. From Islam’s very inception, there has been a debate about what exactly the Koran’s vague passages on drinking prohibit. Although the majority opinion holds that the intoxicant — alcohol itself — is banned, a minority view is that it is intoxication — getting drunk — that is forbidden.
Far more common are Muslim drinkers who do not fast and, hence, wish to continue drinking during Ramadan. Some are lapsed or vague believers who do not practice their faith, while others, like me, are out-and-out atheists or agnostics. For Ramadan drinkers, as I know from experience, finding booze can get complicated. Sure, in the United States, Europe or the Muslim countries that allow alcohol sales during Ramadan, the only obstacle is your own conscience. But in countries that normally have booze in abundance, including my native Egypt or Tunisia, where I live now, getting a drink during the fast requires foresight, planning and resourcefulness.
In Tunisia, as in Egypt, alcohol supplies dry up during the holy month, because stores are barred from selling booze, and many bars close their doors. That confounded me when I moved last year, because drinking is a popular pastime here, and Tunisia has a surprisingly wide range of quality local wines.
But humans are nothing if not adaptable. Rather than being forced to abstain, as conservatives undoubtedly hope , drinkers simply build up strategic stockpiles before Ramadan begins. This usually results in a huge pre-Ramadan surge in business for alcohol suppliers, visible in the rapidly emptying alcohol aisles at my local supermarket in Tunis.
Stockpiling can sometimes be awkward. This year, my wife and I organized a pre-Ramadan get-together for friends (last year, I spent the weeks before Ramadan writing the chapter on alcohol for my book about Islam). When I went to the supermarket to stock up for the party and the following month, the young woman in a hijab at the checkout counter looked on with barely concealed dismay as I unloaded what apparently struck her as an unsettling amount of alcohol — about two dozen bottles of wine and a couple of crates of beer.
She must never have experienced the pre-Ramadan rush on booze: Her face registered a look of mild panic. At one point, she got so confused trying to decipher the different types of wine to ring them up that she smiled at me and said nonjudgmentally, “Forgive me, I can’t tell one type of wine from another.”
When it comes to drinking during Ramadan, though, I’m lucky to be a Belgian citizen, not a Tunisian: Foreigners here are allowed to order alcoholic beverages at the few licensed restaurants and bars that stay open during the holy month, but Tunisians generally can’t. Merely looking Arab or possessing a Muslim-sounding name may lead a server to object.
Similar regulations exist in my native Egypt. Although the difficulty in finding booze during Ramadan is hardly the greatest injustice in a country where many thousands are languishing behind bars, the rules did always strike me as unfair to Egyptian drinkers — especially Christians, who generally have no religious restrictions on the consumption of alcohol. I used to make noise about it, but bar staff would shrug apologetically and say they would love nothing more than to serve me.
I recall the first Ramadan I was in Egypt after I gained my Belgian citizenship. I made a point of visiting one of my old watering holes with a mixed group of friends. When I ordered my beer, the waiter asked discreetly whether I had a foreign passport. I flashed it to him, and his smile said that would do nicely. The staff turned a blind eye to the fact that the orange juices for the Egyptians without foreign passports in our midst had hardly been touched and that the “foreigners” had ordered more alcohol than we were likely to drink.
This attitude of tolerating alcohol 11 months of the year but banning it during Ramadan is conflicted and contradictory, but it’s not unique to Muslim societies. For all the anti-Muslim sentiment today and fears that “sharia law” might destroy the American way of life, the United States had a full-blown, Saudi-style total prohibition on alcohol from 1920 to 1933. Today, it is still banned in hundreds of local counties, representing an estimated 10 percent of the land mass of the United States.
If it were up to me, I’d do away with all such restrictions. The state shouldn’t get to dictate to citizens how to be good Muslims. This is an individual decision for each believer and nonbeliever to make. And the temporary bans don’t distinguish between Muslims and non-Muslims, enlisting people of other faiths in a Muslim ritual.
Still, I’m relieved that I live in Tunisia and not some place where alcohol is banned year-round, such as Saudi Arabia or Iran. In a couple of weeks, Tunisia will revert to its normal, laid-back self, just in time for summer. And drinkers will be able, once again, to toast each other in the open.