Chatting with the Lebanese owner of a halal grocery, I casually mentioned Chateau Musar, a highly respected winery in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. A smile spread across his face as he waxed poetic about the quality of their unique, beguiling wines.
“But I cannot sell them, of course,” he said. “I should not even be talking about them! If my customers heard…” He shook his head ruefully.
For Muslims, alcohol is haram (forbidden), though the Qur’an can sound an equivocal note in its condemnation: “They ask you concerning alcohol and gambling. Say: In them is great sin, and some benefits for men, but the sin is far greater than the benefits.”
When the faithful still showed up inebriated for worship, the prohibition became more direct: “Satan’s plan is to excite enmity and hatred between you with intoxicants and gambling, and hinder you from the remembrance of Allah, and from prayer. Will you not then abstain?”
In fact, the Arabic relationship with alcohol is fairly tangled.
For thousands of years, wine was made in the area from grapes and dates. And while Europe languished in the dark ages after the fall of Rome, Muslim advances in the arts and sciences included the creation of distilled spirits.
Born in Iran in the 720s, Muslim chemist Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan (also known as “Geber”) perfected the Alembic still and safely turned wine into liquor. Our word “alcohol” is even of Arabic origin, coming from al’kuhul, referring to the material (kohl) used by women to darken their eyelids. Interestingly, Geber habitually wrote his notes in difficult-to-decipher code, a fact remembered today in our word gibberish.
As Islam spread West through conquest, surviving locals were often allowed to convert or to pay tribute to the new rulers. Those who maintained their own faith weren’t expected to follow all the rules of Islam, so wine and beer remained generally available — though forbidden to Muslims. When Christianity rallied in the West and pushed the Moors out, the secrets of distillation remained behind.
Today, production and consumption of alcohol is banned in some Muslim countries (Iran, Saudi Arabia), though it’s still made and sold to non-Muslims in places like Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia.
Locally, Ohio retailers can order you a bottle of Chateau Musar — or their lower-cost line, “Hochar Pere et Fils.” They’re known for their reds, but this time of year, ask for the rosé. In West Chester, you can find an ample selection of wines from Kavaklidere, Turkey’s oldest and largest producer, at Sultan’s Mediterranean Cuisine (7305 Tylers Corner Place, West Chester; 513-847-1535), and you can find Lebanese Almaza beer at Aladdin’s Eatery (9344 Union Centre Boulevard, West Chester; 513-874-1302).
Looking for the strong stuff? Lebanese Arak is a clear, anise-flavored spirit (think Ouzo, but not sweet) that’s called Raki in Turkey and “Lion’s Milk” in Iraq. Try your own hand at alchemy: Mixed with cold water and ice, it turns milky white in the glass!
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