Divine intoxication

Is it OK to have a cocktail while reading the Quran

Often, at the end of a summer’s day, I turn to the Quran, not to hide, like the Islamic scholar Sayyid Qutb, in its shadow, but to ponder its dazzling certainties and to wonder what on earth could have produced them – to which the good Muslim will reply, “Nothing on earth”.

And then the question arises: What am I to drink with this book, which tells me that I should not drink wine? Is it blasphemous to settle down with a cocktail, as a non-Muslim? Does the prohibition against imbibing intoxicants (khamr) cover my cocktails, too?

Is drinking with the Quran in hand an offence comparable to stamping round a mosque with your boots on, or publishing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad holding a bomb?

Now that the United Nations Human Rights Council has identified Islamophobia as a thought-crime, it may be dangerous even to ask such questions.

I recall the story of an Irish priest who was asked whether it was a sin to smoke while praying. After a moment’s thought, he replied to his questioner, “Well, to be sure, it is not a sin to pray while smoking.”

So there’s my response. You may argue that it is blasphemy to drink while reading the Quran; but it cannot be blasphemy to read the Quran while drinking.

My favourite sunset combination is the Surah of the Sun, which contains all of religion in one concentrated burst of wonder and awe, and a stiff margarita, made with crushed ice, freshly squeezed lime and a dash of soda. I am no expert on tequila, but I have to say that I prefer the sort without the martyred slug curled in the bottom like a homunculus in an alchemist’s jar.

Something about that slug carries over into the mind of the one who drinks its juices – a torpor of the kind described by Malcolm Lowry in Under the Volcano and experienced by his anti-hero, the alcoholic British consul Geoffrey Firmin, in bar after bar as he drags his useless consciousness round the city of Quauhnahuac on the Day of the Dead.

And maybe this is at the root of the Quran’s antipathy to wine. The intoxication with the Almighty that is contained in every line of the Mecca Surahs (though not, I think, in the tetchier products of the Medina exile) is exactly the opposite of that self-indulgent and self-destroying intoxication described by Lowry. It comes from a spiritual source, and not from a drug.

On the other hand, it is equally addictive, and addiction needs to be guarded against in all its forms – the religious kind included.

Brains short-circuited by the God idea are as destructive as brains short-circuited by alcohol, heroin or porn.

In this, as in everything, we should follow the Greeks – meden agan, nothing to excess. That is why I allow myself only one glass of tequila and one Surah at a time. And afterwards I open the plays of Shakespeare and a bottle of wine, and breathe a great sigh of relief.