Editors’ Note: Though authored anonymously for obvious reasons, we have verified the story as true and authentic — save for a few minor details to protect the author’s identity — and it is our pleasure to publish this moving account of this individual’s decade long experience with casual drinking and, more importantly, how her faith provided her the guidelines by which she was able to redeem herself. But there are two stories of courage here, one less obvious. The second is of the author’s friend, N, who had the courage to talk to her without fear of being criticised for doing so. In fact, had it not been for N’s courage and true friendship, there would be no story to tell.
I remember the first time I learned that there were some Ismailis who drink alcohol.
It was my first month at university. I had met a new group of Ismaili friends who just understood me in a way my other school friends couldn’t. We joked about nandi, had serious discussions about who’s sukreet was best, jibed about that strange man in jamatkhana who sang off-key, loudly. We attended religious services together and socialised afterwards, getting course recommendations from older students and even advice on parking! Being from the same religious community and having the same cultural background, we had a shared experience I had never felt before. We had just met but it felt like the comfort and familiarity of being with family.
My parents had always told me that alcohol was not allowed in Islam and that Mawlana Hazar Imam had explicitly disallowed it.
The first time I went with them to a nightclub it seemed as though every Ismaili I knew from university was there. My closest friends didn’t drink but I remember two others sneaking off and returning with a drink each. Discussing it somehow seemed taboo. Then another group of Ismailis appeared, but something was off. They were acting very strangely. “They’re so drunk” someone laughed. So, I thought: this is what drunk people are like? It was the first time I had seen anything like it and I felt confusion in the pit of my stomach.
My parents had always told me that alcohol was not allowed in Islam and that Mawlana Hazar Imam had explicitly disallowed it. They were clear: Ismailis do not drink.
But here they were, Ismailis drinking. And not just drinking, but drunk. What I was seeing with my own eyes did not fit into what I was told, so what was going on here? It felt like I was in a menagerie. As though a dog had suddenly asked me where the bathroom was.
However, in time, after more and regular visits to clubs and parties, initial shock gave way to bewildered familiarity and finally succumbed to tired acceptance. In fact it seemed more Ismailis drank than didn’t. This was the “new normal” and a quote from one of Hazar Imam’s oldest speeches popped into my mind:
I have observed in the Western world a deeply changing pattern of human relations. The anchors of moral behaviour appear to have dragged to such depths that they no longer hold firm the ship of life: what was once wrong is now simply unconventional, and for the sake of individual freedom must be tolerated. What is tolerated soon becomes accepted. Contrarily, what was once right is now viewed as outdated, old fashioned and is often the target of ridicule.
That I accepted it, doesn’t mean I didn’t question it. And so I did. I questioned my drinking Ismaili friends and found three general camps. The first said “I know it’s bad but I’m doing it anyways – it’s my personal choice.” The second, “I haven’t seen any current farman recently condemning alcohol specifically in moderation or small amounts.” While the third claimed “our tariqah is not about dogma but about intellect which we are free to use to make our personal choices” –- but then also feels using substances that harm that same intellect is OK too.
The silent, insidious pressure was relentless and eventually I succumbed.
Invariably, the conversations turned bitter — as they felt I was judging them — and I finally decided to just live and let live. I was content with my choice and the majority of my friends didn’t drink, so there was little pressure on me to do so. Occasionally I would be offered — even by Ismaili men I dated — a sip of some cocktail, but I was never very seriously tempted. In retrospect, I realise now how much of that strength came from my support network of Ismailis who didn’t drink and how losing that would affect me, as it soon did.
Several years later, after graduation, I had the opportunity to move to another city and the only home I knew. My new city had a small jamat from which I formed a new network friends. This time, however, of young professionals rather than students. My new family. But this family drank alcohol openly. So openly that it felt as if we only met at wine bars and that brunch always started with a drink order.
The alcohol was everywhere. Wine at office Christmas parties. Beer at friend’s barbecues. “Pre-gaming” before a night-out. Drinks and happy hour specials after work. Shots at birthday parties. I was surrounded. Cornered. Every second question was: “what drink do you want?” There was no safe space.
The silent, insidious pressure was relentless and eventually I succumbed. I can’t remember when it happened. Was it when I saw shots set on fire? Or was it the constant question why I didn’t drink? Was it when my friend told me that I had been rejected by a cute boy because I was “too conservative?” Or was it just inevitable? Unavoidable? However it happened, doubt slowly battered at the wall of my values and I started to question myself.
Considering its pervasiveness across the community, if alcohol had been condemned so specifically, surely I would have heard those farmans at least once in the previous 20 years, wouldn’t I have?
I had been brought up to reject alcohol outright. But now I started to wonder about exactly why. All my Ismaili friends’ justifications for drinking started to make a lot of sense and, bit by bit, chipped away at the values I was raised by. It dawned on me that in twenty-something years of regular jamatkhana attendance, twelve years of Bayt-ul-Ilm, one year of Talim ul-Islam, Ismaili youth camps, countless jamati seminars, waezes, several Institute of Ismaili Studies (IIS) books, conversations with jamati leaders, and more I had never heard any explicit guidance against alcohol from Mawlana Hazar Imam himself. Instead, I realised, I had just taken my parents’ word for it and eventually concluded that the Imam must not have given any explicit guidance on the subject. Where was the evidence to the contrary? Finally, I confided my doubts to my room-mate and best friend Z. That evening she bought me my first cocktail: a cosmopolitan.
Now it was my turn to start the justifications. My first was this:
God’s creation is vast and complex and alcohol is a part of it. If we truly want to experience God’s creation, fully, then alcohol is a part — a huge part — of human life. Everyone does it! Our faith is not a dogmatic one. Unlike other faith traditions, our Imam gives us guidance and then expects us to rely heavily on our intellects and make wise judgements for ourselves and he trusts our judgement.
He has made certain statements about social habits — but that doesn’t mean they apply to everyone, all the time. Perhaps only to those who could become alcoholics and destroy their families. Or perhaps he’s referring to drugs like cocaine and heroin. Because, after all, I’ve never actually heard the word “alcohol” used in any farman and I’ve certainly never heard a farman condemning drinking in moderation. Considering its pervasiveness across the community, if alcohol had been condemned so specifically, surely I would have heard those farmans at least once in the previous 20 years, wouldn’t I have?
So what’s the harm if you try it maturely, in moderation, after a certain age and education? Besides, when did one drink affect or hurt you? A lot of things are bad for your health: samosas, French fries, not exercising, and excessive television. Besides, we’re told a glass of wine a day is actually good for your heart (although this conveniently ignores all the research proving that even small amounts of alcohol permanently damage brain cells).
It all sounds so convincing, even today.
Not only did I say this to my friends, but I also made this argument to a young cousin. Then I bought her, her first drink.
Two days after my first drink with Z, she introduced me to three different kinds of wine. And we got drunk. So much for moderation.
For many years after I found little to move me from my newfound position, mired as it was in logical and factual inconsistencies. None of my Ismaili friends — whether or not they drank — questioned my behaviour nor how I reconciled my occasional drinking with my deep and abiding love for the Imam I had sworn my allegiance to. I remember getting tipsy early one morning and then heading off to jamatkhana soon afterwards. I saw no contradiction that jamatkhana had become the rendezvous where we decided where to go for a drink. At sports-fests, ski trips and camps drunk friends who had to be carried was not uncommon. I held the hair up of more than one drunk friend while they vomited alcohol-smelling puke into the toilet. When my cousin visited me, I took her to the club with all my Ismaili friends and we got raucously drunk — she joked that she never got so drunk as when she was with me. At the time, the thought made me proud.
I saw no contradiction that jamatkhana had become the rendezvous where we decided where to go for a drink.
The vast majority of my drinking days were a casual glass of wine with a meal and with friends, but I’d be lying if I told you that all my alcohol consumption was in moderation. And now, when I think back to my drinking moments, I remember a lot of laughs but also doing a lot of stupid things. I remember tipsy texting and drunk dialling people and apologising for it after. I remember saying mean things that just slipped out. I remember throwing up in a posh hotel’s lobby and then promptly asked to leave. I remember being so drunk I lost my purse. I remember grilling a non-drinking Ismaili for not drinking, demanding to know why she didn’t drink. And then I dumped her as a friend afterwards. Perhaps because I didn’t like how I felt around her. I remember kissing more than one someone I should not have kissed. I remember trying a cigarette and marijuana because it seemed fun at the time. I remember my friends telling me the next day that they had stopped me from going into an alley with two strange men – I don’t even remember doing that. One memory in particular sticks out: my friend had dropped me home, where I met a neighbour in the building’s lobby. He was just moving in and offered to show me his brand new apartment, to which I happily agreed. Eventually, while in this stranger’s apartment, a part of my drunken mind woke up and told me to get out. I did but it wasn’t easy. Today I shudder at what might have happened.
During this senseless journey, there were moments when a mirror was held up to my soul and I questioned if what I was doing was right. They were seldom but poignant.
I’ve been told that, at didar, Mawlana Hazar Imam looks into the face of every single murid, their souls laid bare to him. In 2005 I felt the Imam looked into my soul and felt so much love that I walked on clouds for weeks afterwards, filled with the glow of that affection. Just three years later, during the Golden Jubilee didar, my experience was very different. This time when he looked into my eyes, I felt his disappointment. And I knew why.
She said there were many farmans where Mawlana Hazar Imam had explicitly condemned any amount of alcohol consumption…. I was immediately confronted with an unequivocal declaration by Hazar Imam that “alcohol is forbidden.”
Years later an old friend, N, from my home town, and I were engaged in a long conversation. Eventually it turned to alcohol and as if on cue, I delved into my now well-rehearsed justifications. And, as always when these conversations arise, I asked her why she didn’t drink. She said there were many farmans where Mawlana Hazar Imam had explicitly condemned any amount of alcohol consumption. I had heard this all before and had yet to see these so called farmans. I asked her to prove it. She asked me, “are you truly ready to see them?” I assured her that I was. I was sure that it would be a repeat of the old farmans I had already heard about not engaging in “social evils” (in my mind, hard drugs) and negative social behaviour and on the health deficits of alcoholism. She led me to a website called Ismaili Gnosis and to this article, here, summarising the Imamat’s — not just the Hazar Imam’s but the entire Imamat’s — position and guidance on alcohol.
Stunned or even life-changing would be understatements. What I read was nothing at all like what I had anticipated.
I was immediately confronted with an unequivocal declaration by Hazar Imam that “alcohol is forbidden.” He even explained why:
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.
From my experience of casual drinking I didn’t think that drinking in moderation had much of a significant impact on the power of thought – especially relative to my more inebriated moments. Nevertheless, while the Imam seemed to have explicitly forbidden alcohol, I decided, reflexively, that because his remark was made in an interview and not a farman, I could safely ignore it for now.
I joked, uncomfortably, that it sounded kind of harsh. More like the strict tone one takes with children still learning. I knew I was educated and mature enough to find my own limit.
Feeling safe I could ignore the interviews, I skipped them and focused on the paraphrased farmans. Dates and locations were provided so you could verify them, which I did.
First I read our previous Imam, Mawlana Shah Sultan Muhammad Shah, call alcohol “the greatest of all sins,” even worse than “killing a believer.” Wow! I physically recoiled back from the page. I was conflicted and my discomfort grew. I scrambled to reconcile my respect for the greater judgement of the Imams with my own belief that alcohol in moderation wasn’t so bad. For the first time, I found my opinion in direct conflict with the guidance of the Imamat. Certainly it’s easy to follow guidance if it’s what you already believe and do but what about when it’s not. When you’d rather do something else. Wasn’t ignorance bliss?
I had now come face to face with the very foundation of our faith: Why have a divinely appointed Guide if you’re not going to follow his guidance when it differs from your desires and opinions? After all you can’t know everything so must have some wrong opinions. Also, here, the Imam was not concerned about the health benefits or social ills of alcohol, he was calling it a “sin” and I had to admit that the Imam’s insight into what is and isn’t a sin is obviously greater than mine. He even said that the true believer (mu’min) does not drink alcohol – and spoke about suffering in the world hereafter.
First I read our previous Imam, Mawlana Shah Sultan Muhammad Shah, call alcohol “the greatest of all sins,” even worse than “killing a believer.”
Anxiety was growing exponentially. My heart was racing. I have to admit that if I hadn’t reassured N I could read it and if she wasn’t sitting next to me, I would have walked away and deleted the page. But she was right there, sitting next to me, and so I kept reading.
Another farman of Mawlana Shah Sultan Muhammad Shah followed. This time, 60 years later, he called alcohol the “enemy” which “approaches you as a friend.” Then he talked about the health problems of alcohol, that it is a “poison” for the body and I relaxed, a little. Of course I know it was unhealthy, but then so are French-fries. However, the Imam’s unerring foresight anticipated my loophole and said alcohol will not just harm your body but will “kill your soul.” My heart sank. So much for the French-fry-escape.
Again I wanted to stop reading. Holding my hand, N encouraged me to keep going. And so I did.
Another farman of Mawlana Shah Sultan Muhammad Shah. Tears started to flow freely as I read the bold passages. The Imam warned the jamat would actually “gradually lose faith” in him and his guidance because the Imam “always” tells us “not to drink alcohol.” I cannot tell you the depth of my despair here. I cannot tell you the depths of my guilt and shame. I am an Ismaili Muslim. I am a believer. I have acknowledged that he is the bearer of the Nur and the holder of divine authority to whom I have given my bay‘ah, promising to follow his guidance. I’ve grown up surrounded by pictures, love and guidance of the Imam and for me, as it is for all murids, the Imam’s word is Truth and must be obeyed. No ands, ifs, or buts. His words cannot be taken lightly. To think that I ignored them and instead searched for loopholes so I could do whatever I wanted in spite of his loving and constant guidance, shamed and hurt me more than I can say. And it was going to get worse.
In the next farman, the Imam said his heart is “overtaken by grief” and that he is “filled with tears” when he sees his murids drinking. These are our Imams. The same Imams who tell us that the are “always with [us]” and that they “love [us] more than [we] can love” them. The same Imams who — despite being Harvard educated Olympians, or founders of the world renowned Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), or decorated with state honours the world over — say the only thing of real significance in their lives is serving the Jamat. I could not even imagine how much I had hurt them and started bawling uncontrollably.
In the next farman, the Imam said his heart is “overtaken by grief” and that he is “filled with tears” when he sees his murids drinking.
The Imam’s words made it obvious that alcohol is far more than just a health or financial issue.
If I was under the impression that the guidance on alcohol ended after the passing of Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah, I was mistaken because more farmans by our current Imam followed. In one he said he gave his guidance only because of his love for the Jamat and that he knew that certain members of the Jamat were indulging in drinking and said, simply, to just “stop it.” This was stated unequivocally, in no uncertain terms. No wiggle room for moderation. No loopholes allowed, full stop.
More farmans from Hazar Imam followed as he called drinking as stupid as “cut(ting) off your right hand.” Reading words like this from our otherwise mild-mannered Imam was very striking, eye opening, and I was cut to the core. He even said: “I condemn drinking” and later called it “a sin against Islam.” Islam. All of it.
Half way through the article I broke.
My parents came from East Africa, when in the 70’s, Idi Amin expelled South Asians from their countries. It was Hazar Imam that saved them and brought them to the West. My privileged existence is a direct result of that intervention of my Imam. And he continues to work tirelessly for our benefit. I was raised with a firm appreciation of the gratitude we owe our Imam and with the understanding that Shi’a Islam is predicated on the fact that Prophet Muhammad’s guidance (peace be upon him and his progeny) continues until the end of time, in a direct line of descendants from Imam Ali.
[Hazar Imam] even said: “I condemn drinking” and later called it “a sin against Islam.” Islam. All of it.
As I read the words, it was clear that from 1957 until 1997, Hazar Imam consistently referred to “alcohol” and “drinking” and told the Jamat in unequivocal terms to abstain and stay away from them, frequently calling alcohol a “social evil.” I noticed that today he no longer uses the word alcohol, explicitly, but that the context established by all the previous farmans, where he calls alcohol evil, makes it obvious what he is referring to in his more recent farmans when he speaks of “social evils.” How could I pretend that I didn’t know what social evils he was referring to? There was no doubt. Who was I trying to fool?
Then N showed me a 1987 farman made in Portugal where Hazar Imam simply said that “you are much too intelligent to waste my time going into details. But I think you all know what I mean by these comments.”
My shame was now total and complete. It was true. I really did know what he meant by “social habits” but I had tried to pretend I didn’t know, throwing up a Swiss-cheese veil of silly justifications to hide behind.
And that was when I quit.
From my early twenties to my early thirties I indulged in drinking alcohol (mostly in moderation) and I now freely admit it was all wrong, it was sinful, and I pray that I have the strength to continue to keep myself from going back. But if you think that, after my epiphany, it has been easy to abstain, you have a higher impression than I deserve.
It hasn’t been easy.
I go to parties — with and without Ismailis — where alcohol is free flowing. Parties where more Ismailis than non-Ismailis question me why I don’t drink. I have “friends” who now avoid me. I’ve been to open-bar, Ismaili weddings. Once, I was at a bar with Ismailis and one drunk gentleman threw ice chips at me trying to guilt trip me into just having “just one sip.” At that same bar, another older Ismaili gentleman in his fifties tried to convince me that Mawlana Hazar Imam is “just another average man like us” and therefore his guidance is meaningless. Talking to him, Imam Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah’s prediction about the jamat “gradually los[ing] faith” in him because of his warnings against alcohol really hit home. And sometimes it’s me – sometimes I just miss it: I miss the buzz and the feeling of happy brainlessness.
Now when I hear the arguments — all the same ones I used to make, I cringe. Yes, our faith is not dogmatic, and, yes, some issues are not black and white. But many values are. If our faith is “to each their own,” then why have an Imam at all? Our faith is not a buffet, where you pick and choose to follow the guidance that suits you. Sure you can do that if you want because there is no compulsion, but then that is why we have free will — not to choose what suits us, but to demonstrate the courage and conviction to do what is right. To do what the Imam instructs us.
Our faith is not a buffet, where you pick and choose to follow the guidance that suits you.
I’ve also heard an elitist argument that claims that the Imam’s guidance against alcohol actually only applies to the weak, young and the foolish but not to those enlightened few (by which they mean educated Westerners) who use their intellect to know that they can actually handle alcohol in moderation. This is a wild conjecture based on nothing more than a self-serving assumption. Notwithstanding it completely ignores the Imam’s statements about the impact of alcohol on the soul and the intellect. How their souls are miraculously immune to the damaging impact of alcohol is never explained. If even small amounts of alcohol have a negative impact on your intellect, how can you claim to use your intellect in this arena? Now I just roll my eyes when I hear this excuse. Right, I get it you’re special.
Ultimately it comes down to this: Is this a faith of conviction or is it one of convenience? If it is a faith of conviction — as Mawlana Hazar Imam has said it is, then reflect on the Imam’s black and white statements and search your soul. Once the Prophet was asked what was sin. He simply replied ignoring your conscience.
As I mentioned, I checked all the farmans that were paraphrased and they were even more damning than the article had hinted. Such strong, clear, unequivocal words that I never heard read in jamatkhana. Never read in all my years of religious classes. Never heard in a waez. Never mentioned in youth camps I attended. It was as if they never existed — just as I very mistakenly thought and I’m sure hundreds, if not thousands, of my generation and younger still think, because they are never read. Anywhere.
I showed the article to my cousin — the one whom I got started drinking. I’m still hoping she will eventually come to the same decision I did. It haunts me to know that she and others may never have started if not for my example and encouragement.
You may be surprised to hear that my parents still don’t know that I ever drank alcohol. They still think that I’m their perfectly obedient Ismaili daughter. So, to all you parents out there, don’t think this isn’t your problem.
My parents had said there were clear farmans against drinking and alcohol. I just never believed it because no one ever produced them, but they were right all along. You may be surprised to hear that my parents still don’t know that I ever drank alcohol. They still think that I’m their perfectly obedient Ismaili daughter. So, to all you parents out there, don’t think this isn’t your problem.
Even though I wish I could go back in time and change my former behaviour, I now pray to be forgiven and hope that my story helps others realise that they’re not alone.
I know that there is a lot of pressure out there (some of it is my fault and I’m very sorry) — but it is never too late to listen to the Imam’s guidance and make a change. Last year, at Brown University, Mawlana Hazar Imam said “everybody makes mistakes. Never regret them, but correct them.”
Article: Anonymous, verified.