Historical background

Hum, homa, soum, sama, giyah-e javidan (‘the herb of the immortal’), giyahe moqaddas (‘sacred herb’), khadar (‘green’), kimiyah (‘alchemy’), qanaf (‘hemp’), zomord-e giyah-e (emerald herb) are among the many expressions given to cannabis in the Iranian plateau. More popular names are hashish, the Arabic word for “grass”, bang, an Avestan term indicating whole cannabis residue, or the Persian word for ‘grass’, ‘alaf. In contemporary times, other words have added up to these: marijuana, sabz, jay, charas or chars and gol (the latter meaning “flower”). But the name that has entered the Persian language is Shahdaneh, “the royal seed”. The word is currently used to refer to cannabis both as a plant, a seed and a drug.

Prior to the Islamic era, the plant was cultivated and used in rituals by Zoroastrian priests. In one of the Avestan hymns contained in their sacred book, Gat-ha, reference to the defence of the environment and care of the ‘sacred plant’ is thought to be a reference to cannabis. Reference to cannabis for rituals and spiritual performance is abundant also during the Islamic era. Hashish, in particular, was known to be a favourite substance starting from the 13th century Mongol conquests. The Sufi sect of the Qalandars which originated in Khorasan (Eastern Iran) made of hashish consumption (as well as wine drinking) a hallmark of their public behaviour. The hashish pipe, up to today, is referred to as nafir-e vahdat, ‘the trumpet of unity [with god]’. Dervishes, the mendicant Sufis, have also been known for their use of bang and hashish, for instance in the form of a yogurt and cannabis preparation called dugh-e vahdat, ‘drink of unity’.

These are few references to the presence of cannabis in the history of the Iranian plateau. Less plausible are the accounts borne out of Marco Polo’s voyage which popularised the figure of Hasan-e Sabah and his volunteer army of hashishiyun, ‘those on hashish’, in Alamut (from where many believed the word ‘assassin’ derived). This tale became an Orientalist trope that mediated the diffusion of cannabis in the Mediterranean and late across the West, with resonance in the travel accounts of European orientalists. However, cannabis was not simply a drug of religious deviance and heterodox spirituality. It had an established place within the pharmacopeia of Iranian civilisation. In The Canon of the Iranian scientist Avicenna recommended it as a useful analgesic for headaches.If  opium (taryak) did not produce relief, the Iranian doctor suggested to take ‘ambergris, aloe wood, juniper and poppy head, saffron… of each one quarter gram complete; and of the chief ingredient of that which dreamers call “the mysteries” [hashish] a weigh equal to all… mixed into a mass with honey. Take of it occasionally as Sufis do’.

The physician al-Razi (Rhazes) indicated hemp leaves as cure for ear problems, dandruff, flatulence as well as epilepsy. Therefore, in the medical practice of Muslim societies, especially in Iran, cannabis has historically been used as analgesic, appetite inductor, euphoric and sexual inhibitor (although prolonged use was known to diminish sexual impulse). This secular knowledge about the use and abuses of cannabis was equally enriched by the debate about its legal status among Muslim religious scholars. This medicalised debate on cannabis certainly benefited  from the lack of explicit prohibition in the Islamic primary sources.

While the prohibition of wine is an agreed matter based on the explicit Koranic forbiddance, references to hashish, cannabis and other hemp derivatives are absent from the sacred text. This article opens up the possibility of interpretation among legal scholars with results that are not always unanimous, as this article discusses. Scholars have struggled to find early accounts on cannabis and hashish. There are several accounts (hadith) among theologians, but none of them is considered accountable or having a strong transmission line (silsilah). One reports the Prophet saying, ‘There will come a day when people will consume a substance called banj [bang]. I avoid them and they avoid me’.

Another tells: ‘Salute on the Jews and the Nasiri [Christians], but do not salute on the bang smokers’. Both accounts seem to surface at a time when bang and hashish have gained popularity in the Middle East, especially in Iran. They may be expression of heightened tensions towards public intoxication of cannabis around both 16th century and 19th century when these substances were unsystematically praised and punished. Contemporary scholars rarely base their judgement on these sources; instead, they privilege hermeneutical approaches that can be indirectly related to cannabis consumption. (Hermeneutics = Art, technique and activities to interpret the meaning of ancient texts, laws, historical documents and the like).

The lack of Koranic reference stimulated the mind of religious scholars in interpreting the status of cannabis. Given the void in the hermeneutical sources, scholars judged the validity (halal) or prohibition (haram) of cannabis use based analogy (qiyas). Wine (al-khamr) is the comparative element taken into account, but most scholars disagree on equating wine with cannabis. A widely accepted account (hadith-e hil) says,‘Everything is allowed for you [halal lak] until you learn it is forbidden…’.

Hence, cannabis does not  carry a total prohibition among most Muslim scholars. Al-lameh Helli (1250–1325), a leading scholar, said, ‘for the poison that derives from the herbs [hashish-ha] and the plants, if it has benefits [manfe’at], its sale and trade is not an issue. If it does not have benefits, then it is not permitted’. In another source, the scholar asked from one of his students whether hashish is intoxicant and harmful and if it is forbidden. Helli responds, “What is known among the people is that hashish is intoxicant, so eating it is prohibited not because it is harmful to the body but because intoxicates…”

Despite the prohibition of hashish, it is not impure [najes] because impurity is specific to alcoholic spirits [musakkerat]’. Shahid al-Awwal, another prominent Shia scholar from Damascus, states that almost all scholars who have preceded his era or his contemporaries agreed ‘that plants known as hashish have been judged as prohibited’. Nonetheless social and medical use remained unhindered by legal constriction, except for sporadic instances due to the rulers’ changing ideas about hashish. One interpretative category that may be particularly relevant in relation to cannabis use for medical reasons is that of ‘emergency’(zarurat). Scholars may allow believers to use or to perform generally prohibited substances or acts if these are deemed necessary in situations of emergency, or absolute necessity.

For instance, if a believer finds himself with great thirst in the desert and the only available drink is wine, a forbidden drink for Muslims, then he/she is allowed (indeed he/she is obliged) to drink wine in order to save his/her life. So, if cannabis is useful for the health of a person, especially under serious risk, it can be used even when considered prohibited.

This approach is legitimated based on a Koranic verse (al-kul maytah) and an accepted tradition (hadith-e raf‘) which reiterate that forbidden acts are allowed in times of emergency if they can be useful and save lives. The primacy of life over religious prohibition is thus generally sanctioned. In practice, however, the use of “emergency” in interpreting the law facilitates the approval of otherwise unacceptable behaviours. In light of these elements, the debate around cannabis in contemporary times has gone through a great dynamism, including with proposals of reform of the current prohibitionist regime.


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