By Gabriel G. Nahas
Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, Vol.58:9 (1982)
Introduction: Cannabis was used as an intoxicant (bhang) in India and Iran as far back as 1000 B.C. It was adopted in the Moslem Middle East 1,800 years later, two centuries after the death of the prophet Mohammed. Indeed, during his life time (A.D. 570-632), the use of cannabis preparations (known in the Middle East as hashish, which means “grass” in Arabic) was unknown. This might be the reason why the prophet did not explicitly forbid in the holy Koran intoxication by cannabis, although he proscribed that induced by fermented beverages (alcohol, wine, beer).
There is no evidence that the Arabs became familiar with the intoxicating properties of hashish before the ninth century. At that time, they had already conquered Iraq and Syria and swept eastward to the border of Persia and Central Asia and westward through Asia Minor, North Africa, and Spain. (It was in 752 that the relentless Muslim expansion was halted at Poitiers by the Frankish king Charles Martel.)
In the ninth century, well after the establishment in A.D. 750 of the splendid Abassid caliphate in Baghdad, noted for its universities, Arab scholars translated the Greek texts of Dioscorides and Galen, and became familiar with the medicinal properties of cannabis. One physician of the early 10th century, Ibn Wahshiyah, warned of possible complications resulting from use of hashish. In his book, On Poisons, he claimed that the plant extract might cause death when mixed with other drugs. Another physician, the Persian born al-Rhazes, counselled against over-prescribing cannabis. Traders travelling to Persia from India and Central Asia also may have spread knowledge of the plant’s medicinal properties.
According to Rosenthal, it was not until late in the ninth century that the use of hashish as an intoxicant surfaced in Islam. Called hashish instead of bhang, the Hindu designation, it was first consumed by members of religious Persian and Iraqi sects located at the eastern periphery of the Islamic empire which bordered the central steppes where the plant had its origins. And there was little cultural opposition at first because the holy Koran, which formulates in detail all of the rules of daily Muslim living, does not forbid explicitly the consumption of cannabis, although it proscribes the use of fermented beverages. And around A.D. 1000 the Fatima King al-Hakim issued an edict prohibiting the sale of alcohol throughout Syria and Egypt, but did not ban cannabis.
In the 11th century a Turkish people, the Seljuk, captured Bagdad and assumed effective power, although they retained the Abassids as figure-heads. The use of hashish became popular in Islamic society and was frequently mentioned in its literature at the zenith of the power of the Seljuks, when they had made additional conquests and converts in the Middle East and at the same time fended off an invasion by the Crusaders.