The Decline of Islamic Hashish Culture

An excerpt from the forthcoming book Cannabis and the Soma Solution (Pt.1)

By Chris Bennett

Current Canadian and European Government attempts to link cannabis with schizophrenia through funded studies, have their historical predecessors in nineteenth century India and the Mid East, when Britain and other European countries tried to demonize the effects of indigenous cannabis use with the new label of “insanity” in order to disguise their purely moral agenda with a façade of science. Stephen Harper’s handing over of a $500k grant to former Evangelical Minister Chris Summerville for a Canadian cannabis/schizophrenia study, is a clear cut example of how little things have changed.

The Decline of Islamic Hashish Culture

In no small way, European influences on Islamic culture in the 19th century saw considerable decline of the hashish ingesting faqirs, sufis and mendicants that had always played some part in the Islamic community, albeit often as an antinomian force on the fringes of society.

Although, through vows of renunciation and chastity faqirs often owned no more than a few rags, a pipe for hashish and a begging bowl, they were viewed by much of Islamic culture as holy men, “intoxicated” by their closeness to God, who were in a perpetual state of ‘not-of-this earth’, and thus above the religious the laws of the common worshipper. “Such figures were regarded as majzubs, persons whose state of permanent and enraptured ‘closeness’ (qurbat) or attraction (jazb) to God rendered them the ideal intercessors and workers of wonders. As such, their every transgression was permissible, since it was necessarily committed through divine dis- pensation” (Green, 2009). Cannabis played a clear and prominent role in producing this state of divine intoxications. “Like his Hindu brother the Musalman fakir reveres bhang as the lengthener of life, the freer from the bonds of self. Bhang brings union with the Divine Spirit” (Campbell, 1894).

Despite their abject poverty, many faqirs and sufis were made rich daily in generous food donations by members of the community, These donations of food given to these faqirs were often delicately prepared and shared in large open gatherings that extolled a party like atmosphere. Such dervish figures at the center of this were a remnant of the ecstatic worship of much more ancient times, and their music filled banquets, with dancing and copious use of hashish, offered a sort of sacred car- nival like form of worship as an alternative to the more ascetic and dour practices of the majority of Islamic culture.

When the English and other European countries sought to establish their dominance in the Mid-East and India, they were distressed to find these unruly, half-naked and cannabis intoxicated rebels that were a common and even popular site in many Islamic communities. The British had “culturally protestant notions of what constituted true religion as opposed to su- perstition and charlantry… the religious forms associated with the faqir …raised the greatest contempt…”(Green, 2009).

….While many senior officials expressed a diplomatic ambivalence towards drug-use (sometimes framed in terms of ganja’s beneficial ef- fects on productivity), in matters of religion the issue was more clear: intoxication played no part in ‘true religion’, whether Muslim or Christian. The drug using faqir was by definition a ‘charlatan’… who clothed his degeneracy in the robes of religion. When combined with the rise of a new class of bourgeois Muslim reformers, this critique was to have tremendous implications in Hyderabad and beyond for the disciplining effects of ‘religion’ reconceived as modern discourse. So successful has this notion of ‘true religion’ been in commercial academic culture that the qualifier (‘true’) is typically implicit in the broader category (‘religion’). This is especially the case with regard to Islam, whose inclusive realm was reduced by the course of colonial history. (Green, 2009)

Further, the envoys of the British and other European countries with Imperialistic ideals were shocked when such intoxicated half naked faqirs publicly cheered and ridiculed them, acting with all the au- dacity and authority of beggar kings. As George Orwell, who for a time served as a Burmese police officer, wrote, “Every white man’s life in the East was one long struggle not to be laughed at” (Orwell, 1971).1 It did not take long for shock to grow into boiling anger, as the ‘disrespectful’ antics of these Holy clowns, or ‘wise-guys’ resulted in the laughter and amusement of the common people the Europeans desired to dominate, and such perceived ‘disrespect’ could not long be tolerated. “The faqir, whose religious status and time-honored freedoms lent him a considerable degree of free expression, was emerging as quite literally the voice of the Muslim ‘street’” (Green, 2009).

We can easily imagine the impression made by the drugged and dirty faqirs on the British. In the… 1893 colonial Report on the Cultivation and Use of Ganja, we read how “by means of considerable doses of bhang frequently repeat- ed, [mendicants] induce a condition of frenzy which is supposed to indicate supernatural ‘possession’”… Order needed to be maintained: whatever ‘superstitions’ the locals might attach to these figures, the streets where sahibs walked had to be free from the haranguing of intoxicated beggars. (Green, 2009)

British and European anger over the antics and the blatant disrespect of these faqirs, was thus clearly combined with “legal and moral confoundment at this new mode of intoxication, so far detached from the beer and whiskey-soda of the European clubs and barracks in India” (Green, 2009).

The ‘unruly’ political influence of these hashish ingesting faqirs on the common people was but one aspect of European concerns. In Islam and the Army in Colonial India: Sepoy Religion in the Service of Empire, Nile Green discusses the influence of hashish ingesting faqirs and mendicants on Islamic soldiers in service of the British Raj. “In imputing a substitute for the authority of the officer’s rank and the agency of the soldier’s effort, the alternative authority of the miraculous holy man had the potential to undermine the organizational basis of the modern army” (Green, 2009). Many Islamic soldiers were attending the hashish and music fuelled banquets held by the faqirs, and as a result being influenced by their faqirs disrespect and jeering of the European military commanders who ruled over them. But the is- sues of concern here went far beyond the mere disruption of the military hierarchy, and the faqirs were viewed by the British as rabble rousing resistors to the take-over by the British Raj in India. Further, such ‘political’ resistance of faqirs against Euro- peans was in no way confined to India.

…[T]he ‘dervish’ army of millenarian Mahdi of Sudan and the Sufi militia of Naqshhbandi initiates led by Imam Shamil that held at bay Russia’s march into the Caucasus are merely the two most famous examples of organized Muslim ascetic resistance to European empire-building… nineteenth-century travelers to Iran… frequently met with hostility from the faqirs they encountered in the streets, public spaces that the faqirs in a sense owned as permanent residents of the urban outdoors… faqirs… clown’s freedom served as a role of increasing political importance as both Iranian and Indian elites entered alliances with the European powers…. In James Fairweathers memoirs of fighting the rebels of 1857, he recalled a skirmish… with a group of around 200 mujahadin, noting that ‘many of them were so drugged with bhang that they did not know whether they were striking with the flat or the edge of their swords’. (Green, 2009)

Such rabble rousing and unruly aspects of Islamic culture, who would not be swayed by the European’s promises of power and riches as were the upper class ruling Islamic elite, were not to go unchallenged, particularly by the British Raj.

….Unable to intervene in religious matters by explicit dint of colonial policy, the British in India… faced the perplexing dilemma in the insulting antics of such figures… taunting them… as they passed in the streets… [I]t was here the new laws on insanity and vagrancy proved useful. For if the faqir’s activities could not be prohibited so long as they were regarded as part of the autonomous sphere of ‘religion’ – which the British were compelled to at least make a show of respect for… the problem of silencing the faqirs… disappeared if his deeds could instead be classified as those of a madman. (Green, 2009)

Thus, in order to rid these streets of these unruly hashish intoxicated “madmen” new British legislation was drawn up in Colonial India “including legislation on drug use and the incarceration of mendicants in India’s insane asylums” (Green, 2009).

The import of the faqirs reckless jeers, his nakedness and his open drug-use were for these reasons reinterpreted in official policy as signs of his insanity and his ‘anti-social’ character. Given the widespread role of faqirs…, the expanded role of the asylum was therefore one of several ways in which these unruly agitators were controlled. By these means, the social meaning of the faqir was reversed: his activities were no longer evidence of jazb, of sweet intoxication in God’s presence, but proof instead of insanity. (Green, 2009)

…continued next issue.