Sufis, Drugs, Terrorism, and Prohibition

Report by Terry Gotham

After the horrible attack on a mosque in Egypt, in which more than 300 Sufi Muslims lost their lives at the hands of Daesh, I decided it was time to explain the connection between Sufism, drugs, spirituality, rebellion, and of course, prohibition. We’d like to think that drug use in the classical Islamic period of 700 AD doesn’t have anything to do with the attack last week by almost 30 ISIS militants, but history paints a different story. Many members of Sufi orders throughout history have been persecuted for their substance use, especially as a pretext by conservative rulers to shutter coffee houses, opium dens, brothels, bars, and other meeting places of potential insurrectionists.

Muslims invented the coffee house as we now know it, and were responsible for coffee finding its way into Christian Europe. But when coffee first made its way from Ethiopia into Yemen and up the Arabian Peninsula, some Muslims challenged its appropriateness. It was clear to early observers that coffee had an effect on people, but legal thinkers had to decide whether these effects qualified as intoxication. More threatening than coffee’s impact on the body, however, was the drink’s social consequence. Like wine drinkers, coffee drinkers tended to assemble in groups. Could the coffee house invite the same troublesome activities that surrounded taverns? Moreover, coffee appeared to assist Sufis in their all-night gatherings, leading some to consider that prohibiting coffee would also aid in the suppression of controversial religious practices and subversive teachings.
~Confession of a Muslim Psychedelic Tea Drinker, Michael Muhammad Knight (

This has led to some intense swings in legality, with rulers either obliterating market economies that developed over decades, or throwing the doors to a kingdom open to new intoxicants, disrupting traditional power structures:

In 1621, Sultan Murad IV ascended to the throne of the Ottoman Empire at the age of 11 during a period of chaos, revolt and anarchy; at age 21, he sought to restore order through that old political standby: a reign of terror. This included a ban on coffee, tobacco and wine: Anyone caught indulging was immediately beheaded, often by Murad himself, who prowled the streets seeking violators of the law. A first offense of operating a coffee shop entailed a severe beating; a second offense resulted in being sewn into a sack and tossed into the river. There was more to this ban than the religious proscription of intoxicants; Murad feared that cafes, wine shops and the like would be used as gathering places to plot rebellion. Nor was piety a motive: Murad himself was a huge drinker. By stunning contrast, opium and cannabis remained legal during this period when you could lose your head over a good cup of coffee. Their use was such an engrained part of the culture that no one even thought to classify them as a problem.
~Intoxicants in the Islamic World, Kenneth Anderson (

That’s right, even today, a very strong case can be made that nutmeg is “haram”, which given the lineage of spice trading and caravan time the tribes that eventually became Muslim had, you can see why this would be a problem for them and not the suburban kids tooling around in grandma’s medicine cabinet. Along with nutmeg, cannabis, coffee, win,e and tobacco were hugely problematic for one monarchy or another, especially because some of the Sufi orders littered among the rapidly shifting empires within the Middle East and Northern Africa over the last 1500 years.

To clarify, Sufi isn’t a sect of Islam, like Shia or Sunni. Sufism can be seen as “Islamic Spirituality” (Tasawwuf in Arabic), which focuses on the spiritual development of Muhammad, as opposed to the Muhammad the General/Statesman, or the bureaucracy of Islam the religion. Concretely, this translates into Muslims shifting their religious to do list, as it were. Some do small things, like focusing on certain parts of the Koran, or praying more often, to more drastic changes, like engaging in pilgrimages, or building a direct spiritual experience such as the Whirling Dervishes.

Also, while Rumi is loved by hippies world over, and the ecstasy of Qalandar can be seen as the Muslim equivalent of Woodstock, Sufi spiritual orders (Tariqat) are founded and run by Muslims of many stripes, not all of them peaceful. When Americans pretend that the Sufis are locked in this eternal struggle with jihadis, Saudis or terrorists, it cheapens and oversimplifies the plurality of Sufi orders and practices, spread across 3 continents.  Even the name “Sufi” was a term used by British Historians who wanted to separate out the fun Rumi-quote/spinny stuff from the “Not Christian, Not Your Worldview” stuff. As Shadi Hamid of The Atlantic reminds us:

Some of this may have to do with the fact that someone had to lead rebellions against foreign invasions; Sufi orders were popular and enjoyed considerable legitimacy. If they didn’t take charge, who would? Still, this would only mean that the fundamental “peacefulness” of Sufis is mostly circumstantial and has little to do with opposing jihad, as such, or rejecting violence more generally. Today, in countries like Syria, some prominent Sufi sheikhs have been vocal defenders of state violence, with Ahmed Kuftaro, the grand mufti until his death in 2004, supporting the Baath regime. (Without doing so, he wouldn’t have remained grand mufti).
~Misunderstanding the victims of the Sinai Massacre, Shadi Hamid,

Some see this and believe that Sufis aren’t more tolerant or less militant than Islamists, but that misses the forest for the trees. The potential ability to modulate your consciousness, using drugs, dancing, more modern gender roles, and less rigid practices aren’t the actions of people who are more peace-loving or jihad-opposing, they are the ACTIONS that make people more peace-loving and jihad imposing. While it’s possible that these practices allow for rebellious thought or anti-establishment murmurs, it’s not a causal/direct link from Sufism to anti-jihadist tendencies, as the practices vary so widely from order to order. This is problematic from a state control perspective, which is why we’ve seen repeated examples of Sufi Muslims being persecuted.

Pakistan’s role in the international drug trade is well known, while use of alcohol by citizens remains deeply unacceptable. Hashish use however, within the walls of Sufi shrines, is generally tolerated. Karachi is awash in hash, opium & lightly regulated cough syrup, while alcohol remains impossible to find. The drugs are flagged as illegal, but they get their hash the same way that Brooklyn hipsters get their gluten-free pot cookies. Delivery, or access in very restricted open air environments. In New York, it’s the “Brooklyn warehouse,” in Karachi, it’s the Shrine at the Abdullah Shah Gazi Mausoleum. Men use it (with women segregated and unallowed to enter without niqabs), while the youth of Karachi sneak onto rooftops, into basements or hide the smell of their hash cigarettes and opium pipes as best as they can.

Here’s a story of a Sufi being murdered in Bangladesh last year, and some context provided by the New York Times on why ISIS targets Sufis. ISIS destroyed three major Sufi shrines in the same month that the attack on the Benghazi embassy occurred, but I bet that didn’t hit your filters. Essentially, all non-Daesh approved Islamic practice is seen as heretical, with many Shrines being seen as polytheistic and worshiping of the dead. This is called “Shirk” by the Islamic State’s clerics. Whether it’s Hookah & Hash in Egypt, Cannabis in Morocco, Khat in Somalia, or even Captagon by ISIS fighters (whoops), drugs are exploding across the Middle East, whether the Islamists like it or not. And that’s creating a lot of dependent users, to the tune of 1 million in Afghanistan (total population: 34.6 million) alone.

Sufis have partnered with substance abuse professionals to create the first therapeutic community that is built with Islamic principles. This might seem like a small point, but when you study any 12 step method book, you’ll notice a lot of covert, sometimes overt or aggressive references to Christianity. It’s kind of hard to get buy in from a client, when you’re telling them they’re the wrong religion. This is the most important part. Rehabilitation principles can be generalized across borders, provided some cultural competency and dedication is applied before they’re used to handle people in different countries. On the other hand, Drug criminalization is based on the society and the values that the rulers of that society wish to suppress, not inherent harm. Sounds familiar yet? Substance use within a community very often goes hand in hand with poverty, lack of opportunity, and lack of respect for authority in dozens of countries in Africa, the Middle East & Southeast Asia. Just as Nixon repeatedly decried when deploying the first iteration of the War on Drugs. This isn’t an accident, it’s a tool used the world over.

What can we learn from all this? The criminalization of a drug has far more to do with properties ascribed to it by society than any inherent properties of the drug itself. The criminalization of opiates and the medicalization of habitual opiate use in Islamic countries in the 20th century has the appearance of a distinctly Western export. The US has pressured the UN to globalize these measures as much as possible, as exemplified in the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961. Yet social deviance is a property ascribed to drug users by a society seeking a scapegoat; it is not inherent in the act of drug use itself.
~Intoxicants in the Islamic World, Kenneth Anderson (

One comment on “Sufis, Drugs, Terrorism, and Prohibition

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