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How Muslims Around the World Use Drugs During Ramadan

Ramadan is a period of introspection, self-restraint and prayer, and most commonly associated with fasting from food and water from sunrise to sunset for around 29 days every year.

This custom is one of the core pillars of Islam, and thus a key practicing pillar of identity for many Muslims around the world. Ramadan is considered the holiest month in Islam, where prayers are stronger than throughout the year. While many abstain from substances throughout this period, particularly if they use drugs in a recreational manner, this can be more challenging for those struggling with addiction, or within treatment for drug use.

 

What does Islam say about drugs?

The issue of whether drug use is permitted or not by Islam remains unclear. For Islam, what is considered haram (forbidden) or what is halal (permitted) is defined by the Quran, and the way that Prophet Mohammed lived his life, known as Sunnah. While the Quran explicitly prohibits the consumption of alcohol year round, there is no mention of restricting cannabis or other psychoactive substances. This is perhaps due to its historic use as medicine, where references as early as the 13th Century mentioning that substances that bring some form of benefit to consumers cannot be considered haram. However, in contemporary policy and practice, it is frequently interpreted that substances deemed “intoxicating” are haram and should therefore be banned.

Drug use becomes more complicated when drugs are used for medical purposes. Research from Morocco on patient’s pharmaceutical drug use in treatment noted that the majority (58%) of surveyed individuals adjusted their drug intake to Ramadan; additional research from Kuwait highlighted that almost a fifth of surveyed patients would take all their medicine in a single intake before sunrise or straight after the first meal after sunset. A Turkish study analysing wastewater during Ramadan noted significant decreases in the detection of both legal and illegal drugs when compared to a normal week: MDMA, heroin, nicotine and alcohol were the drugs with the biggest declines.

 

Turkish analysis of wastewater detection of certain drugs. Source: Guzel, 2022

 

The picture is further complicated with controlled substances. Patients in Iran complained that methadone clinics did not adjust their hours for Ramadan, impacting their access to medicine and when they can consume it. A study into Muslim Malaysian fishermen showed a more nuanced understanding of methadone use. They essentially determined that methadone use being haram or not was based on intent: “Anything that can make us get high is haram, but if it’s for the good purpose of medication, it might not be haram”.  Several Iranian religious leaders have endorsed the medical use of cannabis, believing that withholding their use would actually cause harm, which goes against Islamic tenets.

 

How do Muslims approach their drug use during Ramadan?

When speaking to TalkingDrugs, Skoun, an outpatient addiction treatment centre in Lebanon, noted that the month’s focus on family time helps reduce drug use. “Ramadan acts as a motivator to decrease use and a protective factor for individuals who are stable on medication. This is mainly true for individuals with strong religious beliefs.”

“Some use Ramadan as a trial period to test their ability to decrease or stop their use of substances, and most postpone their first intake of the day until they break fast.  Some even only take their OST medication before day break,” they continued.

“In some patients with strong religious beliefs, therapists have noticed a noticeable change decrease in cravings, use, behavioral patterns.”

Determination and religious discipline plays a key role in resisting the effects of drug withdrawals, particularly for those in treatment and seeking to reduce drug use or fully abstain. This is aided by the fact that the surrounding community will also be abstaining from drug use throughout the month, even if it is non-problematic.

From Algeria, Mohamed Amine Gahfez, a doctor with Medecins Sans Frontieres and a member of the international youth-led network YouthRISE, painted a more complex picture of drug use: “Young people have many questions about Ramadan and their drug use, one of the most recurrent questions is whether substance use effects the validity of one’s fasting. Religious leaders are very clear about this point, the use of drugs to overcome fatigue, boost mood and modify physical and mental abilities are incompatible with the objectives of the holy month.”

Gahfez shared some quotes from the young people he works with: “Keeping myself from drinking or eating in Ramadan is not a big deal, I am used to it since my childhood. What is most difficult to me, is the experience of withdrawal symptoms.”

“The first week is the hardest, I feel low energy all day long, lack of motivation and the worst of all, insomnia and heavy sweating at night, it drains me off”, the same person added.

 

What about Muslim drug sellers?

Dr. Mohammed Qasim, author of Young, Muslim and Criminal, and someone has spent over a decade studying and working with young British Muslim drug sellers, noted that the majority of sellers he knew would not fast.

“What we find in Ramadan is not only that the drug suppliers question their haram activities during their sacred holy month – they’re selling something that’s ultimately sinful,” he commented.

There are specific challenges to being a fasting, drug-using Muslim in Britain, where only 6.7% of the population identifies as Muslim.

“When you look at somewhere like Afghanistan, Pakistan, it’s a 95% Muslim country, where the whole country is fasting, the whole country is going to the mosque, you can’t blank all that out. Whereas in the UK context, there’s enough non-Muslim heroin users and non-Muslim people who you spend time with. So your faith is side-lined.”

However, there was a redoubled effort for British Muslim drug sellers to reconnect with their faith in the last ten days of Ramadan, known as ashra or itikaf – the holiest days of Ramadan. It was on these days, Qasim noted, that drug sellers would stop working and focus on praying for forgiveness for their activities.

“I think by refraining from selling heroin for 10 days, there was a feeling among amongst them that they were doing something good; they were still connecting with their faith even though their actions a lot of the time are against Islamic principles.”

Market forces mean that this temporary drop in supply is very profitable for those that don’t stop to pray.

Qasim also commented that there was a clear indecision about how to deal with people that are addicted, or seen as dependent on drugs, by the wider community.

“They are often seen as the lowest of the low in society. If they are in the mosque, the very existence is questioned, are they here to steal?”

Someone struggling with addiction, especially if they inject drugs, could be pushed away from their community during Ramadan, and would doubly struggle to practice their faith or remain included.

 

Staying healthy while using drugs during Ramadan

Drug use during Ramadan is a conflicting moment, leading to many assessing their habits. While the unity and communion of Ramadan can be a powerful force to encourage people to shake off unwanted drug using habits, it can also be a particularly isolating time as those dependent on drugs may be singled out by their communities, or struggle to access treatment services.

For those using drugs through Ramadan, Gahfez shared some advice:

  • Ramadan can be an opportunity to build more resilience and developing coping mechanisms. You know your body and your ability to pause your drug use better than anyone, so it’s up to you to choose whether you can control substance use in Ramadan.
  • If you have severe withdrawal symptoms, such as prolonged insomnia, prolonged muscle soreness that keep you from executing the simplest daily tasks, or worse suicidal ideas, please seek medical assistance.
  • Your doctor can help you get through this tough period either by prescribing opioid substitute therapy or other help to reduce other symptoms.
  • Community support is very important: try to talk to peers about your symptoms, as they are more likely to feel the same. Sharing it might just give some relief, as you can share experiences on how to overcome unpleasant symptoms.
  • If you’ve tried everything and still feel bad, running out of options than taking your drug after breaking fast, don’t let the guilt be an added stress factor to the ones you already feel; rather, try to keep all the others aspects of your fasting as good as possible, as the final word on rewarding your efforts in Ramadan is Allah.
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