Like all converts to Islam, I am sometimes haunted by my past and always in awe of the mercy of God. By the grace of God, many people reading this have probably never tried alcohol themselves. For like all the prohibitions in Islam, this is one of God's mercies on believers. Yet for me, some of the most painful memories relate to alcohol. Actually, I was never one of those people who drank uncontrollably and then did hugely embarrassing things. I was what was called a “good drinker”-and that's what makes it even more frightening.
I started early, as I was offered wine with family dinners, and I watched my parents consume three to five drinks of alcohol every week day-more on weekends. A large bottle of alcohol lasted two or three days in my home-less if friends dropped by. In fact, the Canadian national average age for trying alcohol is 12 years of age, and about 73% of Canadians over age 12 drink alcohol. Only 3-4% are visibly dependent; the rest are “normal” people-going to jobs and coming home to their families. However, they just can't function for any length of time without alcohol. They “miss” a drink if they don't have it-and they make every effort to plan weekly routines around it. They talk about brands, plan visits to bars, clubs, and parties, and may even make their own. They don't feel “right” until they've had a drink-and if they can't get any, they become depressed or aggressive. Over the months and years, they tend to use it like prayer to meditate on the best and worse moments of their lives.
My family was very typical of Canadian families. On average, Canadians consume 7.6 liters of alcohol per person per year. The industry itself reports sales in 2001 of over 14.5 billion cases (12 X 750 ml bottles). Every single one-every one-of my relations drinks alcohol, and I sadly have several close relatives who have crashed cars, lost their jobs or families, or embarrassed themselves in public-all under the influence of alcohol. Did you know that in a typical year in Canada, more than 6,500 people die in alcohol-related accidents, and more than 81,000 people are hospitalized? Among all injured drivers in Canada, over 77% have alcohol in their bloodstream.
What is the big attraction anyhow? Alcohol doesn't taste as good as people say it does. It's often too spicy, sweet, dry, or bitter-depending on what kind of alcohol-and it can burn your throat when it goes down. Most people actually “mix” it with soft drinks or juice to hide the taste. It makes you gain weight through useless calories and lethargy. Drink a lot and you will vomit, sometimes for two or three days. Drink even more, and you may go blind or die. And once you start, it's hard to stop. People who drink know all of these things, but still they drink. My Muslim friends often ask me, “Why do people drink if they know that there are all these dangers and problems with it?” This question bothered me enough in the past to make me stop drinking for years at a time. My family's response was no big surprise-they accused me then, like now, of “not being very much fun.” This concept of “fun,” in fact, is at the very heart of the issue.
First, “fun” is what you do to “let go” of “the stresses of the week.” For drinkers of any caliber, life is divided into work days and non-work days. On work days, drinking must be limited-drink too much and your breath and skin smell tart in the morning, detectable to any other drinker, such as an employer. But on weekends, drinking is unlimited. This leads to the birth of a national phenomenon-the race to weekends. People will talk about the coming weekend beginning on Wednesdays. Then, on Mondays and Tuesdays, they talk about the previous weekend. And so, the life of the average Canadian quickly becomes a monotony of alternating days, five plus two, five plus two. The only concept of “future” and “hope” is the hope for what will happen during future weekends. The main bond between members becomes the alcohol itself, as discussions of which beer is better, which bar is better, and which party was the best fill lives quickly and easily and the weeks pass by. Horrible jobs with little meaning are tolerated because “it's almost Friday,” and it isn't important anymore to think about how time in this life should really be spent. Any occasion is cause for an alcohol-driven celebration, and many capable people who have the potential to really benefit this world are “dulled” into submission by the monotony of this pointless social and economic cycle.
Second, fun is what happens when you “don't take life too seriously.” I personally can't count the number of times I have been told to just “relax.” It seems that not taking life seriously is a fervent goal of the majority of people. They believe that life is meant for pleasure; some will actually tell you that “God gave them the gift of this life strictly for their enjoyment.” In fact, if you begin to think too deeply about the meaning of life, you quickly become a social outcast in this culture. Dare to suggest that someone should slow down their drinking and you will find yourself socially adrift. You may think that's alright-after all, who needs friends who drink alcohol all the time? However, the reality is that you will have almost an impossible time finding friends who don't drink alcohol in this culture. Only 12% of all Canadians over age 12 report that they abstain from alcohol, and many of these are from among the younger and older generations. As an adult, you will have to content yourself with being alone, and without a strong faith it is almost impossible to bear the loneliness. Sadly, eventually, one submits to the culture instead of God.
Third, “fun” means acting without due care of the consequences. Every week, all over this country, people apologize to loved ones for inexcusable behaviors they committed when they were drunk-fornication, domestic violence, gambling and financial recklessness, dangerous driving, immoral business practices-and so on. It's a “perfect excuse” because other drinkers understand, so you are likely to be forgiven. Ultimately, acting carefully becomes quite unimportant. More than 60% of Canadians report problems from their own or someone else's drinking, and alcohol abuse costs Canada over 2.7% of its gross domestic product annually. That's over 18.5 billion dollars a year-money that certainly could be better spent. Beyond the inexcusable acts committed under the influence of alcohol, there are the unforgettable ones-telling loved ones hurtful things, divulging long-held family secrets, becoming sexually explicit, acting in embarrassing way with employers, and so on. The reason is that alcohol brings a sense of slowness and confusion-a lot like what you feel just as you wake up in the morning and are still half dreaming. Typically, problem behaviors happen often over a lifetime until life feels “out of control” so that it becomes easier to continue drinking to “numb” the spiritual pain. And so, many give up the power of their will, given to them by God, and begin to believe in what is sometimes called “the Gospel of now”; having no faith in the hereafter and little faith in their ability to control and change their lives for the better, they live only for today.
As believers, we hold the biggest truth of all-belief in the afterlife. Without it, time, pleasure, and reward are measured completely differently. If time is defined only by what is on the calendar this week, why should I care about my spiritual condition at the time of my death? If community is counted only as whoever will accept me in this life, why do I need to care if my life is acceptable to my Maker? If now is all that matters, what is the point of improving myself? Clearly, alcohol creates a powerful distortion-subtle yet persistent throughout the user's life-that the meaning of life is negotiated here and now on this earth alone. Alcohol users suffer what researchers call “reward deficiency syndrome” –they want instant gratification at all times. So how can they be expected to believe in-or even understand-the afterlife? Thus, alcohol robs users of the belief which is the key to understanding the purpose of our lives. And in shielding believers from alcohol, God protects our faith.
Many times I have walked away from a party by myself on a cold night, disgusted with people’s behavior there, feeling pity for them, staring up at the night sky, feeling completely alone. Thanks to God for the angels that kept me safe through a difficult, dangerous life. Truthfully, I wish I had known then that somewhere throughout the world, in thousands of vibrant communities, over a billion people abstained from alcohol deliberately. Muslims have a duty to tell everyone that they don't drink because of their faith. Someone, somewhere, some day will hear the message as the voice of his own soul, and perhaps change for the better. We all come from God at the start. God willing, we will all be with Him in the end.