The Decline of Islamic Hashish Culture

An excerpt from the book Cannabis and the Soma Solution (Pt.2)

By Chris Bennett

..cont. from Cannabis Digest Issue 24

This British agenda in India, fit in well with contemporary medical views about what constituted insanity. In Madness, Cannabis and Colonialism: The ‘Native Only’ Lunatic Asylums of British India, 1857-1900, James Mill’s explains.

The constant reference to the lunatic asylum in British India in discussions of cannabis and cannabis users is the first clue in traces origins of those discussions. Mark Stewart… specifically referred to the asylums in his question to Parliament… ‘The Commissioner has always looked on a ganja-smoker and a bad character as synonymous, and has, in his connection with lunatic asylums in different parts of Bengal, observed that in large numbers of cases insanity has been induced by excessive ganja-smoking.’…

The asylum was important as it was the site of… the categorization and the enumeration of cannabis use as a social problem…

….Through this process at the asylum the use of cannabis substances among the Indian population became crystallized as a category of social problem by the colonial authorities through the invention of the hemp user as a dangerous human type.

….cannabis use by 1871/3 was associated by colonial officials with… immorality, suicide, the murder of Christians, and even the revolt against British authority of 1857. The cannabis user was identified as a human type, seen as unpredictable, [and] violent… (Mills, 2000)

As Nile Green explains: “The genealogy of mental pathology in Victorian British through the ideas of social reform and the earlier Enlightenment ideology of reason lent colonial medicine a complex politico-cultural agenda based on an ingrained bourgeois association between work and morality on the one hand and notions of self-control based on the characteristically British formulation of ‘common sense’ on the other” (Green, 2009). These ideas also fit in well with emerging ideas about external “stimulants” as the source of insanity.

Throughout the nineteenth century medical men in Europe were struggling to assert their authority over the psyche… doctors needed to prove that the brain and its working were properly their concern and not the concern of other professional groups like the clergy who could claim specialists knowledge of the routes to psychological well-being… Indeed the emphasis on an external stimulant as a cause of insanity corresponded neatly with contemporary medical theories that ‘the brain, as a material organ was liable to irritation and inflammation and it was this which produced insanity,’ theories which insisted upon the physiological basis of mental illness in order to assert the jurisdiction of medical men over insanity. Blaming hemp was a simple and plausible way of ascribing the aetiology of mental disease in India which thereby reinforced the medical officer’s claim that he knew what he was talking about. (Mills, 2000)

The European view of “madness” was in clear conflict with long stand- ing and more inclusive Islamic cultural traditions where “madness possessed a wider range of meaning… drawing on a specifically Islamic notion of the soul’s innate ‘attraction’ (jazb) towards the creator, certain expressions of madness could… be interpreted… as… [a]… special intimacy

with God” (Green, 2009). The same could also be said for the consumption of hemp preparations and their effects, as both held a millennia long association with spiritual states in the area as well.

There were two stages by which cannabis use and users became categorized as a social problem in the asylums of colonial India. First, medical officers at the asylum came to believe that cannabis use was linked to insanity and violence in Indians. Second the officers used the asylum as a site where they could observe cannabis users and establish the dis- tinguishing signs which marked them as a distinct human type to be watched over because of their dangerous potential….

The British superintendents of the asylums came to believe that cannabis was linked to insanity and violence as they were told by the policemen who had picked the inmates up that many of the people that they brought to the asylum were there because of excessive use of hemp. Perhaps more importantly, the doctors who received this police information had reasons not to dismiss this information and to note it in their records. (Mills, 2000)

As James Mills explains, “Medical officers… became convinced that they were observing many hemp users at asylums. In fact what they observed were individuals who had only come to their attention in the first place as their behaviour was so visibly disordered or disruptive that the police had felt it necessary to intervene and send them to an asylum. This person’s behaviour had been ascribed to use of cannabis preparations, often by Indian policemen who had very little evidence that this was indeed the case” (Mills, 2000). Views of what constituted madness be- tween colonial and Indo-Islamic medicine not only held considerable differences in its identification and qualification, but also, more importantly, treatment, or the perceived need thereof. “By the second half of the nineteenth century, this conflict of interpretations acquired institutional ramifications. The Indian ‘insane’ were no longer to be left to their own (or their kinsmen’s) devices but could now be forcibly incarcerated in the new institution of the asylum” (Green, 2009). As Green also notes: “Com- bined with the introduction of the work- house for the undeserving (or ‘self-abusing’) and the poor, the threat that the authorities could incarcerate the mad or unruly had a literally sobering effect on public morality. In large part, the days of the raving and intoxicated faqir… were numbered” (Green, 2009).

….among the Indians listed in the ‘native only’ asylums of… Bombay… up to 1900, the predominant occupation recorded was that of “beggar, mendicant, fakir, etc.” ….What these data demonstrates is the use of the asylum in a colonial anti-vagrant policy of clearing the streets of ‘insane’ mendicants…. Caught in the midst of this unof- ficial policy of clearing the streets were considerable numbers of faqirs. What were too many Indians wandering holy men, begging and openly smoking cannabis in accordance with long established custom, were in the gaze of colonial officialdom seen instead as a public nuisance that needed to be controlled. (Green, 2009)

As Nile Gren has clearly documented “the use of cannabis was central to this process” as identified in the “importance lent to ganja and bhang as a purported cause of insanity in asylum reports” (Green, 2009).

…..[C]olonial debates about morality and madness… were… characterized by arguments over the social and psychological effects of cannabis [which was] …suspected for its connection to the moral disintegration through which insanity was widely understood and thence described in asylum reports. Indeed, one of the central preoccupations and connected the asylum policy to debates in parliament in London, was the specific relationship between cannabis and insanity. This was not unique to India. The re-establishment of the Cairo asylum under British supervision in 1894 was accompanied by similar investigations of the effects of cannabis use on the inmates, research which was explicitly framed with regard to the more extensive data drawn from India. The annual reports compiled in India’s native asylum during the last decades of the nineteenth century by the directors of numerous native asylums delineated in fine detail the newly found ‘scientific’ connection between cannabis and madness, drawing conclusions which pointed beyond purely mechanical causality towards the notions of moral corruption that would prove so amenable to political rhetoric… with the rise of the cannabis question over the following decades, the figures recorded [for incarceration in asylums] for the use of charas, bhang and ganja became in- creasingly detailed. By 1891, some fifty-six of the 162 people confined to… [one British run Indian] asylum were classified as being insane due to use of one or other of these preparations of cannabis… some 203 of the 961 persons detained in the native asylums in 1891 were registered as insane through the abuse of drugs or spirits. (Green, 2009)

Further, “the statistics of the asylums were directly responsible for governmental decisions about cannabis use and cannabis users” (Mills, 2000), and this would have a lasting effect on Indian and Arabic cannabis policies to the present. In regards to India’s fakirs and mendicants, as Nile Green concludes, despite “an offi- cial policy of religious toleration, through colonial discourse of insanity and its insti- tutional expression in the asylum,… the faqir’s lifestyle was gradually criminalized by stealth”:

Coupled with wider colonial attitudes towards disparaging the ‘idle’ naked mendicant, such policies carried a clear moral message of self-restraint and sobriety that would also find echo in the new bourgeois religious movements that flourished under colonial rule. While the faqir’s métier would certainly outlive the raj, new limitations on his public role were now established” (Green, 2009).

Although for the most part, but a shadow of its former self, despite these exhaustive attempts at prohibition, the use of hashish with the same spiritual intent as that of the faqirs, sufis, Hashishins and other Islamic groups, has survived into the modern day. Such hashish ingesting devotees in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, who use cannabis products, are practicing a spiritual technique that predates Islam and goes back at least four millennia in those areas. Chris Turner’s 2007 film A Life in Hashistan clearly documents the continuation of these practices with decades worth of fascinating footage. Also showing that the traditions of music filled hashish par- ties, like those held by the naked faqirs, are still in vogue in some regions, more recently, the UK newspaper, The Guardian, ran a story on Pakistan’s ‘heretical’ Muslims, that details such activity:

Pakistan’s ‘heretical’ Muslims Increasingly threatened by religious extremists, Sufis are the inheritors of a tradition that predates Islam in south Asia.

Recently, the shrines of locally revered Sufi mystic saints – where music and dancing are common occurrences – have come under threat following a series of attacks on places used for spiritual practices not tolerated by orthodox sects….

Earlier this summer, a weekly ritual that has taken place for several hundred years at the shrine of a Sufi saint in Lahore was abruptly discontinued due to bomb threats. In an unprecedented move, the police clamped down on the procession, causing a scuffle to break out as the saint’s adherents resisted. The shrine, dedicated to the highly revered Baba Shah Jamal, who lived in the city in the 16th-17th century, is famous for this ritual, which is usually attended by thousands of people. Over the years, the procession, centered on the hypnotic drum-beat of a dhol and dancing mystics and dervishes, has developed a reputation as a den of hashish-smoking and debauchery.

Though it was widely known that hashish and bhang (a cannabis drink) were consumed openly during the ritual, all this was done under the eye of the police, who would respect certain cultural norms. However, the threat from militants made the authorities err on the side of caution by putting an end to the festivities in order to avoid an attack in the crowded area.

….Imagine a suicide bomber amid the thousands of attendees, rubbing shoulders in a haze of smoke across the courtyard and adjacent graveyard of Shah Jamal. Though the would-be bomber and the dervish dancing in intoxication seem diametrically opposed, both are vying for some sort of union with the divine. Their expressions of this desire are vastly different, however. While one is a brutally violent explosion of hatred, the other is an introspective and spiritual dance of love.

Dance is a popular spiritual expression at shrines such as Shah Jamal. Many aspiring fakirs, aided by the hypnotic beats, dance to find a centre within their bodies and an opportunity to connect with the centre of the universe. The symbol of the lover dancing ecstatically in the presence of the beloved expresses musical and bodily harmony.

Physical or emotional intoxication goes hand in hand with the idea of drowning in music, recalling the relation between spiritual ecstasy and in- toxication in Sufi culture and poetry. With regard to the culture of smoking hashish in Sufi shrines, Noman ul-Haq, professor of social sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, says that while intoxicants like hashish have always featured in the rituals in some way, it has always been “a hush-hush affair”. Social anthropologist Lukas Werth recalls one of the adherents claiming that “charas [cannabis] is a bus driver to God”. In this sense, Lukas suggests, the intoxicant is seen as a “method to open the mind for the divine”…. intoxication has been a part of the Sufi discourse for more than 1,000 years…

The culture of shrine visitation predates Islam in south Asia. The Sufi saints who have inspired cult followings were radical poets, social critics, and reformers who travelled to areas such as the Punjab through Persia, often on foot. Their message was simply one of peace, love, tolerance, and of introspection dedicated to exploring the divine within the boundaries of human experience. (Akhtar, 2009).

Indeed, perhaps it was the loss of the faq- irs message of religious ecstasy and spiritual intoxication, a remnant of the more ancient use of Haoma and mang, that has caused so much of that area to become the source of so much fundamentalism, fanaticism and religious intolerance. Salah.