The Quranic Teaching on Wine and Strong Drink
Satan's Handiwork in Allah's Garden?


Most Westerners are at least passingly familiar with the Islamic belief concerning alcoholic beverages. In conservative Muslim countries which have instituted some form of shari'a law, the production and consumption of alcholic drinks is absolutely forbidden, upon pain of death or some other unpleasant form of punishment. The reason for this type of law stems from the Qur'an, presumably the basis of Islamic jurisprudence. The Qur'an has some very strong language with respect to alcohol:

"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." (Surah 5:90, Yusuf Ali)

"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." They ask thee how much they are to spend; Say: "What is beyond your needs." Thus doth Allah Make clear to you His Signs: In order that ye may consider." (Surah 2:219, Yusuf Ali)

This seems pretty straightforward. Alcohol is a sin, it is Satan's handiwork. It is something to be avoided by all good Muslims. Yet, we see that the Qur'an then teaches that "Satan's handiwork" will appear in the Paradise which Allah is said to prepare for faithful Muslims,

"(Here is) a Parable of the Garden which the righteous are promised: in it are rivers of water incorruptible; rivers of milk of which the taste never changes; rivers of wine, 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)?" (Surah 47:15, Yusuf Ali)

There certainly seems to be a disconnect in the message presented by the Qur'an on this topic. After all, Surahs 2:219 and 5:90 speak against wine, yet this same beverage flows in Allah's garden as a river! On the surface this appears to be a basic contradiction in the Qur'an.

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. However, a cross-referential argument is advanced, as well. Many Muslims point to Surah 37:40-47 as proof for the claim of "dryness" in the wine of Paradise:

"But the sincere (and devoted) Servants of Allah,- For them is a Sustenance determined, Fruits (Delights); and they (shall enjoy) honour and dignity, In Gardens of Felicity, Facing each other on Thrones (of Dignity): Round will be passed to them a Cup from a clear-flowing fountain, Crystal-white, of a taste delicious to those who drink (thereof), Free from headiness; nor will they suffer intoxication therefrom."

Thus, the cup from the clear-flowing fountain is a drink which does not produce drunkenness. Therefore, the river of wine in Paradise is non-alcoholic! Unfortunately for the apologists, this argument is based upon some unsound premises. To begin with, it should be noted that the connexion made between Surahs 47:15 and 37:45ff is tenuous, at best. The argument is arbitrary - A is a drink, and B is a drink, thus A must equal B. Yet, 47:15 refers to a flowing river of wine, while 37:45 refers to a cup of unspecified beverage. These are not necessarily the same thing. However, much Muslim exposition on this subject tends to assume just this connexion. While commenting on 47:15, Yusuf Ali discusses the river of wine, one of the four flowing rivers in Paradise:

"...(3) wine, not like any wine on earth, for it leaves no headaches behind, and causes no intoxication, which is a kind of madness or poison, but is ever a joy to drink..."1

His otherwise unqualified statement appears to be drawn from the points in 37:45 about the beverage in the cup from the clear-flowing fountain not causing intoxication. Yet, it must again be noted that it is never specified what the drink from the clear-flowing fountain is! In fact, the description of the fountain and the liquid in the cup as "clear" and "crystal-white" would seem to argue against this beverage being wine. Wine, even white wine, is not white in colour nor entirely free from turbidity. Even white wines have a yellowish tint due to the presence of aromatic compounds2, and there will always be some cloudiness due to the presence of fermentation impurities. Further, the very fact that the Qur'an specifically details that the liquid from the fountain does not produce intoxication (37:47) would seem to argue that the author did not have wine (which does produce intoxication) in mind.

Most importantly, however, we should note that the Arabic behind the Quranic statement about wine flowing in rivers in Paradise supports the contention that this wine is alcoholic. Hearkening back to 47:15 earlier, look at the clause "rivers of wine, a joy to those who drink", which in Arabic (transliterated) says - "...waanhaarun min khamrin laththatin lilshshaaribeena..."3. The word translated as "wine" (khamrin) in this passage is from the root khmr. This is a root which has the general meaning of fermentation or leavening; it can denote both the fermentation of juices to produce wine, and it can also denote the rising of bread due to yeast action. Some examples of its use with respect to wine:

l-'islaam harram l-khamir - "Islam declared wine unlawful"

'itha khammar 'asiir l-'inab ma yinshirib - "If grape juice ferments, it will not be drinkable"

In both of the above examples, the khmr root is used to denote either the process of fermentation, or the result of that process - wine. Clearly, when one speaks of khmr in the drinking sense, one is speaking of a fermented beverage produced from grape or other types of fruit juice.

The khmr root is completely absent from the passage in 37:40-47, which would seem to suggest that the Qur'an is not speaking of wine or other fermented beverages in that portion. Likewise, due to the absence, it seems highly unlikely that the liquid in 37:45 is the same as in 47:15, where it is explicitly specified as being wine, khamrin.

Thus, despite the oft-times question-begging claims made by Muslim apologists about this contradiction in the Qur'an, there is not a good textual or contextual reason to believe that the wine presented in 47:15 as flowing in a river in Allah's Paradise is non-alcoholic. Rather, it is described using a word in Arabic which specifically refers to fermented, alcoholic beverages and to the process which makes them that way. Thus, we find that the Qur'an is double-minded on the issue of alcoholic drinks. While wine is dangerous and sinful for Muslims, the product of Satan himself, this drink is yet flowing in great abundance in Allah's Paradise.

End Notes

(1) - 'Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Meaning of the Holy Qur'an, p. 1318, Note #4833
(2) - Note: The term is here used chemically, not in reference to its odour
(3) - the information for transliteration of Quranic passages in this article come from
http://www.usc.edu/dept/MSA/quran/