A secular Muslim’s guide to drinking alcohol during Ramadan


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 still 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 drinking 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.

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