When “Muhammad the Apostle of God” began to teach Islam in Mecca, the response among “nonbelievers” was relentless. Allah’s distinguished messenger was now face-to-face with persecution.
Particularly vocal opponents were Christians and Jews, a population that understood that an acceptance of Muhammad’s message (the Koran) was both a declaration of Allah as God and an acknowledgement that their own religion, their own beliefs, were flawed.
The persecution intensified, and, as if rescued from the escalating tensions of the mortal world, Muhammad was taken, according to The Life of Muhammad, on a faith-fortifying expedition to heaven.
The so-called Night Journey begins with the story of Isra, the transportation of Muhammad from the “sacred place of worship” (Masjid al-Haram) to the “further place of worship” (Al-Aqsa Mosque). Traditionally, the “sacred place of worship” is thought to be the Kaaba in Mecca and the “further place of worship” Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
In the story, Muhammad makes the journey in the company of the Angel Gabriel while astride Buraq, a mystical steed said to be able to travel in a single step as far as the eye can see. Buraq is commonly described as a white Pegasus-like creature equipped with wings and mane and somewhere in size between a donkey and a mule. Upon arriving at the Noble Sanctuary, Muhammad meets the three “prophets” Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, who then worship Allah en masse.
The Angel Gabriel then gives Muhammad two cups; one filled with milk, and the other, wine. Having chosen the milk, Muhammad is praised by Gabriel, who exclaims that wine is forbidden.
Most people familiar with the Islamic faith know that it calls for abstinence from all types of alcohol, not just wine. But Allah didn’t always prohibit alcohol. In the sixteenth surah of the Koran, the Bee, Allah permits the production of alcohol. And in the fourth surah, Women (4:43), Allah exclaims, “Believers, do not approach your prayers when you are drunk, but wait till you can grasp the meaning of your words…” (N.J. Dawood, trans., The Koran [London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1999]). Here, Allah permits inebriation. Allah’s condemnation of alcohol comes later:
Believers, wine and games of chance, idols and divining arrows, are abominations devised by Satan. Avoid them, so that you may prosper. Satan seeks to stir up enmity and hatred among you by means of wine and gambling, and to keep you from the remembrance of God and from your prayers. Will you not abstain from them?
(The Table, 5: 90)
One of the most popular types of gambling in pre-Islamic Arabia was Maisir, a game in which players gamble for shares of an allotted prize by drawing arrows. Maisir later came to include other games of chance, most notably “divining arrows,” in which two arrows are used to tell a person’s fortune. Islamic law forbids Maisir for the same reasons it forbids alcohol: the addiction and the loss of control it brings distances one from God. To indulge in alcohol knowing this danger is, it’s believed, an affront to Allah.