Popping the Marks

Confession of a Muslim Psychedelic Tea Drinker

By Michael Muhammad Knight

The place of drugs in Islam is much more complicated than most people recognize. Because the Qur’an only speaks specifically of wine, Muslims have had to figure out Islamic positions on other substances. The absence of a Qur’anic verse or authentic statement from the Prophet on weed, for example, allowed for a number of possibilities. Some thinkers used qiyas (analogical reasoning) to make a ruling on weed derived from rulings on alcohol: If wine is intoxicating and forbidden in the Qur’an, then all intoxicants belong in the category of wine. Because wine is haram (prohibited), then so must be hashish (which, lacking our modern distinctions, included pot).

Other Muslims, based on a more literal reading of the Qur’an, argued that no one has a right to forbid what the Qur’an itself does not. They felt that for wine and hashish to share one quality does not mean that they are automatically in the same class of substance. The Qur’an’s silence on weed empowered both the herb’s opponents and defenders.

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.

So there have been times and places in which Islam seemed to be OK with weed, and also contexts in which Islam condemned coffee. The Muslim position on a given substance, therefore, is less about what “Islam” says than the interpretive choices that Muslims make. These histories informed my forthcoming book, Tripping with Allah, in which I attempt to place Islamic tradition in dialogue with ayahuasca, a psychoactive tea made from the Amazon’s Banisteriopsis caapi vine. My friends who drank ayahuasca said that it had healing qualities; the vine is supposed to pull out all the poisonous shit that’s inside of you.

The book’s dialogue takes place within my own self, as a Muslim drinking ayahuasca. I had no expectations for what would be said to me by the weird insect creatures, flying jaguars, or whatever people saw on ayahuasca, but I brought my own materials to the sacred vine. I came to ayahuasca as a Muslim, with the scriptures, myths, ritual acts, and historic personalities of multiple Islamic traditions in my head. Ayahuasca worked with these things, shaking them up to be reprocessed. Inside me, the chemicals met the texts and their mashing together gave me some useful craziness.

I understand why the self-appointed protectors of my chosen tradition might oppose ayahuasca. Jumbling up your consciousness can rip holes in the fences that keep a scripture’s meanings stable. Tripping with Allah could be the most heretical and blasphemous material that I have produced in roughly a decade of writing crazy books, but it brought me to an entirely different place. I drove straight for the edge of the cliff, but I ended up flying.

The day after my ayahuasca trip, I went to the mosque and did some regular Muslim prayers, feeling as though I had been cleansed of so much angst and alienation that had fueled my weird and punky shit over the years. I can even go to a Salafi mosque and just look for the good in whatever they have. Say what you want about the Salafis, but it’s one way—not the only one—of loving the Prophet.

I don’t know what it all means. I still hold unpopular opinions, fail to meet many Muslims’ checklists for doctrinal “orthodoxy,” and many would take offense that I owe much of my big Muslim reconciliation to psychedelic shamanism. I might have been heading this way already, but it was largely due to an unspeakable drug-induced hallucination that I could reopen my heart to the Prophet and the sunna, his sublime example, which I had kept at arm’s length for years. Whether or not it makes sense, this is my new condition. For me, ayahuasca is an Islamic drug.

Michael Muhammad Knight (@MM_Knight) is the author of eight books. His ninth, Tripping with Allah: Islam, Drugs, and Writing, is forthcoming with Soft Skull Press.

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