Sunday, January 08, 2012

What Should be Spent on Wine and Gambling?

Others have noted that there is inconsistency in the Koran regarding alcohol.  One of these passages comes from Surah 2.  The particular ayah is 219

219. They ask thee concerning wine and gambling. Say: "In them is great sin, and some profit, for men; but the sin is greater than the profit." They ask thee how much they are to spend; Say: "What is beyond your needs." Thus doth Allah Make clear to you His Signs: In order that ye may consider-

The usual point is that here there is no command toward total abstinence, and there is an indication that there is some profit in them.  That is, they are not simply sin.  There is another point that can be made, though.  Suppose we ask how much should be spent on wine and gambling?  This ayah seems to indicate that the answer that should be given by Muslims is "Your disposable income" (that is, what you have beyond what you need).

In analyzing this point, of course, one has to assume that the context interprets the text -- an assumption that is not necessarily valid.  We know, for example, that order of the ayat in the Koran is not the order in which the ayat were allegedly revealed to Mohammed.

Nevertheless, in order to avoid making the sentence (They ask thee how much they are to spend; Say: "What is beyond your needs.") a floating maxim, we need to try to interpret it contextually.  After all, the object of this spending is not identified in the sentence itself and so need to be supplied from the context.  There are basically two options for context.  Context precedent and context subsequent.  Context precedent suggests that the Koran is talking about spending on wine and gambling.  This approach makes sense, particularly because the very next sentence alleges perspicuity.  ("Thus doth Allah Make clear to you His Signs: In order that ye may consider-(Their bearings) on this life and the Hereafter.")

Some may point out that "They ask thee..." may introduce a subject change.  After all, in the next Ayah, we see this:
220. (Their bearings) on this life and the Hereafter. They ask thee concerning orphans. Say: "The best thing to do is what is for their good; if ye mix their affairs with yours, they are your brethren; but Allah knows the man who means mischief from the man who means good. And if Allah had wished, He could have put you into difficulties: He is indeed Exalted in Power, Wise."  

Notice that "They ask thee concerning orphans ..." seems to introduce a new topic.  Yet this is not a rigid rule in the Koran, even in this Surah.  For example, only a few ayat earlier, the Koran states:
215. They ask thee what they should spend (In charity). Say: Whatever ye spend that is good, is for parents and kindred and orphans and those in want and for wayfarers. And whatever ye do that is good, -(Allah) knoweth it well.

216. Fighting is prescribed for you, and ye dislike it. But it is possible that ye dislike a thing which is good for you, and that ye love a thing which is bad for you. But Allah knoweth, and ye know not. 

217. They ask thee concerning fighting in the Prohibited Month. Say: "Fighting therein is a grave (offence); but graver is it in the sight of Allah to prevent access to the path of Allah, to deny Him, to prevent access to the Sacred Mosque, and drive out its members." Tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter. Nor will they cease fighting you until they turn you back from your faith if they can. And if any of you Turn back from their faith and die in unbelief, their works will bear no fruit in this life and in the Hereafter; they will be companions of the Fire and will abide therein.

Notice that here there is a shift from discussing spending on charity to fighting.  Note in particular that "They ask thee concerning fighting ..." does not introduce a new topic.  It provides a specific detail about the immediately preceding topic.  Moreover, notice that the new topic of fighting was introduced without the use of "They ask ... ."

Others may point out that in this Surah, spending often refers to charitable or devotional spending.  For example:

3. Who believe in the Unseen, are steadfast in prayer, and spend out of what We have provided for them;

177. It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces Towards east or West; but it is righteousness- to believe in Allah and the Last Day, and the Angels, and the Book, and the Messengers; to spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer, and practice regular charity; to fulfil the contracts which ye have made; and to be firm and patient, in pain (or suffering) and adversity, and throughout all periods of panic. Such are the people of truth, the Allah.fearing.

195. And spend of your substance in the cause of Allah, and make not your own hands contribute to (your) destruction; but do good; for Allah loveth those who do good.

215 (already presented above)

261-265 The parable of those who spend their substance in the way of Allah ...

270. And whatever ye spend in charity or devotion, be sure Allah knows it all. But the wrong-doers have no helpers.

274. Those who (in charity) spend of their goods by night and by day, in secret and in public, have their reward with their Lord: on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.

This larger context certainly might seem to lend credibility to the idea that spending is not spending on wine and gambling, but on charity.   On the other hand, 215 already answered the question about what should be spent on charity.  So, interpreting 219 as referring to spending on charity seems to make it redundant with 215.

Moreover, there is another pattern that emerges from a study of this Surah.

The expression "Thus doth Allah make clear His Signs to men" is introduced to wrap up one topic and move on to a different topic in 187.  Then a similar expression is used in a similar way in 221 and then again in 242 and 266.

A similar approach is also used in 3:103, Surah 4 ends in that way, and 5:89 uses the expression to separate a discussion on how to cure the moral damage from breaking an oath from a discussion on gambling and drinking.

90. O ye who believe! Intoxicants and gambling, (dedication of) stones, and (divination by) arrows, are an abomination,- of Satan's handwork: eschew such (abomination), that ye may prosper.

91. Satan's plan is (but) to excite enmity and hatred between you, with intoxicants and gambling, and hinder you from the remembrance of Allah, and from prayer: will ye not then abstain? 
What was previously some profit and great sin is now an "abomination" from Mohamed's followers must abstain.

Of course, the above understanding isn't the understanding of the Sunni.  They don't interpret 2:219 as suggesting that people should spend only their disposable income on wine and gambling.  They likewise are reluctant to see "abomination of Satan's handwork" (5:90) as being in conflict with "some profit" (2:219).  That isn't their view of the Koran, and their scholars do not (to my knowledge) agree with my analysis above.

But the Koran calls itself the "Qur'an that makes things clear" (15:1) and claims "We sent down the Book to thee for the express purpose, that thou shouldst make clear to them those things in which they differ, and that it should be a guide and a mercy to those who believe." (15:64)