Although the Koran does not specifically outlaw cannabis, and it was apparently never mentioned by Mohammed himself, the plant and products made from it are still considered haraam (forbidden). However, cannabis grows and is processed into hashish in many Muslim-majority countries around the world, and it has been an undeniable part of the culture for centuries in many of these countries.
State and religious authorities have often been highly unsupportive of this fact, and some of the harshest punishments for cannabis and other drugs can now be found in Muslim countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But this has not always been the case. Historical records show us that the attitudes towards cannabis have varied over time, and for long periods, the countries were permissive enough to allow deeply entrenched industries to become established.
Obviously, the Islamic world is vast, and it encompasses huge areas in Asia, Africa and Europe where borders have been redrawn countless times over the centuries. Modern attitudes towards cannabis vary greatly according to location, just as manner of dress, cuisine and practice of Islam itself do. So it’s impossible to make generalizations, but here we look at some notable Muslim countries that have a long history of cannabis use or production and how attitudes towards its use have changed over time.
This central Asian nation is one of the world’s two largest producers of hashish, along with Morocco. The industry developed over centuries, and it was left largely unhindered by the authorities until the 1970s when increasing numbers of Western “drug tourists” compelled King Zahir Shah to ban cannabis and poppy cultivation. Hashish had technically been made illegal in 1957 to appease U.S. pressure, but the law had not been enforced up to then.
Afghanistan is a land of ancient tribal laws and cultures, and in many parts of the country, the central rule of law does not necessarily apply—particularly in the wild northern territories bordering Pakistan, where the bulk of the hashish is produced. Furthermore, the central rule of law has been massively inconsistent over the last decade and a half with the ravages of the U.S. invasion.
Although Islam is of fundamental importance in Afghani life, the tribal traditions (and those relating to cannabis) predate Islam by many centuries, and at times, there is a conflict between the two interests. In recent years, the existence of the ostensibly hardline religious group the Taliban has complicated the picture, as they have at various times been accused of profiting from the illegal trade, while at other times they have been known to aggressively crack down on farmers growing the crop.
Morocco is another nation whose ancient tribal cultures long predate Islam, particularly in the Berber-dominated north where the vast majority of the cannabis crop is grown. However, cannabis itself was probably introduced to what is now Morocco with the Arab invasions that occurred between the 7th and 15th centuries, which also brought the Muslim faith to the formerly pagan tribes that lived there.
In the 16th century, the Rif region of northern Morocco began to emerge as a center of cultivation, and by the 18th century, the industry had really become established. In fact, in 1890 King Hassan I issued a set of regulations on cannabis production, but also set the important and persisting tradition of allowing five tribes in particular the right to cultivate the crop in return for an annual tax stipend.
The modern Republic of Turkey has a long history, and it has been occupied by people of various ethnicities and religions over the millennia. Evidence of hemp cultivation dating as far back as 1,000 BCE have been found, and medical texts from both Greek and Islamic physicians make reference to cannabis in medicine from at least 100 BCE. Throughout the Ottoman period, cannabis and hashish use was widespread and ubiquitous, although attitudes towards it varied over time.
Interestingly, Sultan Murad IV imposed a harsh policy banning coffee, tobacco and wine in 1631, and he executed those found to be contravening his laws—but remarkably, use of cannabis and opium was allowed to persist! Cannabis remained unregulated until 1890 when it was made illegal, and then in 1925, Turkey turned out to be among the most vocal supporters of global prohibition.
The Islamic Republic of Iran also has an extremely long history of cannabis use, as cannabis itself is indigenous to the central Asia—most importantly, the regions associated with the Scythian horse tribes that populated Iran from around 700 BCE onwards. The Scythians were widely known to use cannabis for recreational, medicinal and spiritual purposes.
Prior to the introduction of Islam, it is clear that cannabis use was flourishing in the region then known as Persia. The Zoroastrian holy book Zend Avesta, compiled between 559 BCE and 379 CE, makes several mentions of bhanga, the well-known Sanskrit word for cannabis.
After the introduction of Islam, things began to change. In around 1524, the new ruler of the recently established Safavid Dynasty imposed bans on alcohol, cannabis, gambling and prostitution—although again, opium use remained unrestricted. However, cannabis use certainly did not disappear. Periods of draconian laws alternated with periods of licentiousness for centuries, and during this time, sacramental use by various spiritualistic Sufi sects began to take root.
Iran now exhibits one of the most puzzling approaches to drug policy seen in the world today. It has consisted and steadily worked towards implementing harm reduction policies for heroin and opium; both substances are widely available and cheap, and addicts are treated well and offered access to methadone and clean needles. However, traffickers of all drugs, including cannabis, may be put to death. Many countries that still have capital punishment for drugs don’t really act on it, but Iran happily executes dozens of drug offenders each year.