Is Drinking Alcohol Allowed in Ismailism?
The Ismaili Imams have consistently instructed their murids to abide by the values and ethical principles of Islam – which includes abstaining from drinking, smoking, drugs and other spiritually and physically debilitating social habits. Since the inception of Islam, the Shia Ismaili Imamat has condemned the act of drinking alcohol as the “greatest of of all sins.” In the past fifty years, the Ismaili Imams have equally condemned smoking and the use of drugs.
[NOTE: In the below referenced statements, the Imams condemn the act of drinking alcohol as “evil”, “sinful” or “wrong”; they do not condemn the persons who who may engage in such acts. The purpose of conveying this information is for the sake of informing people’s decision making process and not to judge people for what they may or may not do or have done. Every person, under the guidance of the Imam, must make their own value judgments.]
For the Ismaili Muslims, the hereditary Imam from the progeny of the Prophet Muhammad and Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib holds absolute authority in religious and spiritual matters, as the Prophet also did in his time. Following the Imam’s guidance is essential to the salvation of all those who have given bay’ah (spiritual allegiance) to the Imam and have become his murids and spiritual children. The bay’ah between the Imam and the murids is a spiritual contract that enjoins a number of religious, ethical and moral imperatives upon the Imam’s murids – including striving to obey the guidance of the Imam on all religious and spiritual matters. In this regard, in a Public Interview with Sunday Times Weekly Review on December 12, 1965, Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni explained that:
The Imam’s word on the Faith is taken as an absolute rule. Every Ismaili is expected to accept it. The Community always follows very closely the personal way of thinking of the Imam. It’s one of the particularities of Ismailis.
- Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV, The Sunday Times, 12 December 1965
Like all other schools of Islam, the Ismaili Imams have forbidden alcohol in any amount for their spiritual children and the following is a summary of the Imamat’s guidance on this issue. Throughout the last century, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah and Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni have spoken out against drinking alcohol, both publicly and in their guidance to the Ismaili Jamat. For example, in an Address in Johannesburg, August 7, 1945, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah said:
The greatest danger to every Muslim citizen – I have not the least hesitation in saying it – is alcohol. Time has shown that it is an injury to you; an injury to your person; an injury to your health. It is forbidden because it carries greater evil than good. Believe me, in a community like yours, alcohol is a very grave danger. Once you got into the alcohol habit, I do not know where it would lead you. A handful, here and there, of the weak, or of the unhappy, find their way to this terrible poison. Avoid it at all costs. Avoid it, I say, for in this country you cannot afford to lose one man.
Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III
Guidelines for the Muslims of Transvaal, 1954, Johannesburg, South Africa
There are certain people who claim that drinking alcohol is permissible as long as one makes an honest personal judgment to do so using one’s own intellect and judgement. However, this position is self-defeating because, firstly, drinking alcohol damages and impedes the operation of the human intellect and the power of thought. Therefore, it is absolutely nonsensical to justify consuming alcohol in the name of one’s individual intellect when doing so actually reduces the powers of that intellect. Secondly, the central premise in Ismaili thought is the insufficiency of the individual human intellect and the need to receive guidance from a perfect intellect. This is, in fact, the reason why every Ismaili murid has pledged obedience to the Imam and such a pledge is an admission of the imperfection of one’s individual intellect and the superiority of the Imam’s divinely-inspired intellect. In a Public Interview with Sunday Times Weekly Review, on December 12, 1965, Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni explained the Ismaili Muslim position regarding alcohol:
It is not allowed. You are severely reprimanded. There is a very clear set of rules by which you can live… Our belief is that the thing which separates man from the animals is his power of thought. Anything that impedes this process is wrong. Therefore alcohol is forbidden. I have never touched alcohol. But this, to me, is not a puritan prohibition. I don’t want to drink. I’ve never wanted to drink. There’s no pressure being placed on me by my religion.
Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV,
The Sunday Times, 12 December 1965
Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah’s guidance against drinking alcohol
In Mumbai (April 3, 1893), Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah referred to alcohol as abominable and “the greatest of all sins” – even more sinful than idol worshiping or killing a believer. He commanded his entire Jamat to keep away from alcohol. He concluded by saying that whoever hears this order must repent and promise that they will “never” drink alcohol.
Note: For those who think it's absurd that drinking alcohol is worse than killing a person, it should be understood that while killing a person, horrendous as it is - and absolutely condemned - kills the physical body, drinking alcohol slowly kills the body AND kills the soul - as per MSMS's guidance below). Since the soul is eternal and the body is temporal, the soul is more important than the physical body. It therefore follows that killing the soul - by drinking - is worse than killing the body.
On April 24, 1891, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah said that those who drink alcohol shall be punished on the Day of Judgment.
In Ahmabawa (February 16, 1896), the Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah said that the true believer does not drink alcohol. In Zanzibar (February 20, 1925), the Imam proclaimed that a believer does not drink alcohol and those who drink alcohol will suffer a great deal in this world and the hereafter.
In a Message to Africa (April 7, 1953), Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah said that alcohol is the most dangerous of man’s enemies because it approaches as a friend but is actually the most dangerous pitfall. He explained that alcohol is a poison for the body and that not only will it will the body, but that alcohol will “kill your soul”.
In London (June 11, 1951), Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah described alcohol as a “sleep” that makes one forget reality and run away from life.
In a 1953 Message, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah warned that those who drink alcohol will “gradually lose faith” in their religion and “lose faith in my guidance” because the Imam “always tells you not to drink alcohol.”
In Karachi (February 2, 1951), the Imam said that the Devil exploits you when you drink alcohol and use tobacco.
In Nairobi (July 5, 1946), the Imam explained that he “feels sorry” for his murids who drink alcohol and that the Imam himself is “filled with tears” and “overtaken by grief” when he sees his murids drinking alcohol.
In 1953 (Venezia), Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah expressed his happiness that “all possible means” were being taken to educate the jamat about the dangers of alcohol and tobacco. The Imam was also happy about “the action taken” by the Ismaili Councils “against the use of tobacco and alcohol” and that many spiritual children should take an oath to stay away from these substances.
Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni’s guidance against drinking alcohol
In London (June 18, 1964), Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni commanded his murids to abandon drinking alcohol and called it the “most ugly habit”. He explained that drinking alcohol is something which he “condemns” and that it brings nothing but spiritual sorrow.
In Eldoret (Oct – Nov 1966) and later in Uganda (December 1966), Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni said to “stay away” from smoking and drinking. In no uncertain terms, the Imam said he wanted his murids to stop engaging in drinking because it is unpleasant, wastes money, makes one lose their honor and creates a “very poor” impression on the Jamat. The Imam concluded by explaining that he gave this order because he loves his Jamat. In the same address the Imam refuted the idea that drinking brings one social status or distinction and remarked that whoever believes that drinking gives social distinction has a mistaken view of what social distinction really is.
In Tanzania (November 8, 1966), Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni spoke of drinking alcohol as a horrible habit and exclaimed that to be drunk is “a sin against Islam.”
In Dar es Salaam (November 11, 1970), Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni exclaimed that drinking and smoking and drugs are nothing but a “waste” of the younger generation and that such habits are “not for the Jamat”. He ended by saying that engaging in drinking and smoking is “the way to destroy the Jamat.”
In Paris (June 30, 1972) Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni said to leave aside such habits as drinking and smoking and to stay away from them. He remarked that he considered drinking alcohol as stupid as cutting off one’s hand. In the same farman, the Imam reminded his Jamat that they will not be judged any less kindly on the Day of Judgment just because they live in the Western World and they will not be allowed to say “I did not practice my faith because I was living in London”. The Imam emphasized that his murids will be asked the same questions on the Day of Judgment as all other Muslims, and not to indulge in “passing habits” such as drinking and smoking that exist in the Western World.
In Mwanza (November 10, 1966), Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni said that alcohol is not for his murids and that it creates a “very unpleasant impression” on the Jamat and wastes massive amounts of money.
In London (September 23, 1973), Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni referred to alcohol, smoking and drugs as “social evils” which will reduce one’s “ability to perform” in worldly and spiritual affairs. He concluded by telling his murids to “remain clear” from such matters.
In Vancouver (November 15, 1978), Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni spoke of alcohol and smoking as nothing but “facile bad habits” that prepare young men and women to “be crippled men and crippled women”. The Imam warned that such habits are a “limitation” on the mind and the body.
In Toronto (November 23, 1978), Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni warned his murids to stay away from the “facile social habits” of the Western world, explaining that they contribute “nothing” physically or intellectually.
In London (September 1, 1979), the Imam urged the Jamat to leave “the facile bad habits” of drinking, smoking and drugs – stating that they “destroy you”.
In Toronto (April 27, 1983), Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni spoke of drinking and smoking as social habits which are “evil at times and instructed the Jamat not to “compromise” by engaging in them.
In London (July 6, 1983), Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni referred to drinking and smoking as “habits of the Western World” which cause disharmony and which “reduce” the Jamat’s capacity to look after its own destiny. He reminded the Jamat not to compromise on “the fundamental principles” of faith by engaging in these activities.
In Chicago (November 5, 1986), Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni spoke of drinking and smoking as habits that are “evil and unhealthy” that are “damaging” to each person and his family. And in Houston (November 8), the Imam again described drinking and smoking as “evil in moral terms”.
In Lisbon (April 9, 1987), Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni asked the Jamat to have the “discipline, rigour, integrity, courage” to “stand up” and reject the social habits of drinking and smoking and not to “deviate” from the Straight Path.
In Toronto (June 5, 2005), Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni explained that the Jamat “has choices to make” – either to “keep” the integrity of the value system of Shia Ismaili Islam or let the Ismaili value system be “replaced” with values that are not rooted in the Shia Ismaili Tariqah. He instructed the Jamat to “make careful value judgments” for the future of the Jamat. On the same day, the Imam told the Jamat to leave aside the “undesirable” social activities that are “useless, costly, and damaging” because life is too short and health is too fragile.
In Toronto (November 22, 2008), Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni remarked that some social habits are “frivolous” and others are “evil” and ordered his Jamat to “give up both.”
Finally, on December 13, 2008, the Imam in a worldwide message proclaimed that he will not “allow compromises” to come into the Ismaili Muslim value systems. Similarly, in a 2008 Interview, Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni said:
… progress does not mean occidentalisation. Progress in the Ummah means moving forwards in quality of life, but not giving up your identity, not giving up your value systems. Indeed our value systems are massively important for the future.
Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV,
Syrian TV, 29 August 2008
It is never too late for a murid of the Imam to give up alcohol, smoking and other facile social habits. The Imam’s blessings are always showering upon the souls of his murids, and it is only the vices and sins of the soul that may impede the spiritual purify of the soul and block its reception of these blessings. However, giving up drinking, sincerely repenting and seeking the forgiveness of God and the forgiveness of the Imam can bring about a spiritual transformation in the life and soul of the murid. In this respect, the Ismaili philosopher Nasir al-Din Tusi has written:
The devotees, devoid of all scruples or doubt, but with total confidence and sincere trust, must believe that a single merciful (rahmat) glance (nazar) or sign of acceptance given by the Imam to the supplication and imploration of the creatures from first to last can remit their sins and pardon their faults, transmuting their iniquities into deeds of merit.
Nasir al-Din Tusi, (The Paradise of Submission, Nasir al-Din Tusi, tr. S.J. Badakchani, 94)
For more on this issue, please see this article.