In recent years, there has been a contentious debate on how should society deal with drugs like marijuana. Should it be legalized and accepted? What is the harm or benefits of these drugs? The same questions were being raised in medieval Egypt.
It had nicknames names like “shrub of emotion”, “shrub of understanding”, “peace of mind”, “branches of bliss” and “thought morsel” However, in the medieval Arabic world, cannabis was commonly known as “the Herb”. It was used to produce the hallucinogenic drug hashish, which could be found in wide use in places such as late medieval Egypt.
Few historians have examined illicit drug use in the Middle Ages, but one of the most important works is Franz Rosenthal’s book The Herb: Hashish versus Medieval Muslim Society. Published in 1971, the book focuses on Egypt from the 13th and 15th centuries, where it examines how the drug was viewed by medieval society, both positively and negatively.
It had been long known that cannabis could be turned into a hallucinogenic drug, with ancient sources throughout Eurasia noting its mind-altering effects. Some chroniclers believed that it was introduced to the Arab world by the Nizari Ismailis, an Islamic sect, who would go by the name Hashishin, other stories said that Sufi mystics were responsible for introducing it to the masses. Regardless of its source, cannabis was being cultivated around Egypt and sold openly in markets by the 13th century. The plant could be turned into hashish by a couple of methods – the leaves could be baked and turned into a paste, which was then sold in a pill form. Another way was to have the leaves dried, toasted and husked, to which sugar and sesame was added to make a food that could be chewed.
Like those in our own day who use marijuana, the medieval Egyptians who consumed hashish commented on how the drug made them high, as well as hungry and a little lethargic. Some even reported that music sounded better when on the drug. Al-Ukbari, a seemingly pro-Hashish writer from the 13th century, described its effects like this:
Only intelligent and well-to-do people use hashish. When taking it, a person should consume only the lightest of foods and the noblest of sweets. He should sit in the most pleasant of places and bring around the most distinguished of friends. In the end, he will go on and be concerned with thinking about sweet and food and assume all this is reality whereas in fact, he is asleep.
One can find many positive references to hashish among the poets and writers of that day. For example, this account noted:
By its subtlety, it clothes the dull person with frivolous wit so that he becomes smart and a good companion, in contrast to wine which is nasty in its effects and causes fear of being unexpectedly caught by authorities.
At the same time, one could find many others who condemned its use, like this poem:
Say to those who eat hashish in ignorance:
You live the worst life imaginable when you eat it.
The worth of a man is a jewel. Why then,
You fools, do you sell it for a bit of grass.
While medieval physicians knew about the health benefits of cannabis – it was used as diuretic for instance – they often also warned people about the bad effects of hashish. A 14th-century Egyptian, az-Zarkashi, gives a complete list of all the problems the drug caused:
It destroys the mind, cuts short the reproductive capacity, produces elephantiasis, passes on leprosy, attracts disease, produces tremulousness, makes the mouth smell foul, dries up the semen, causes the hair of the eyebrows to fall out, burns the blood, causes cavities in the teeth, brings forth the hidden disease, harms the intestines, makes the limbs inactive, causes a shortage of breath, generates strong illusions, diminishes the powers of the soul, reduces modesty, makes the complexion yellow, blackens the teeth, riddles the liver with holes, inflames the stomach, and leaves in its wake a bad odor in the mouth as well as a film and diminished vision in the eye and increased pensiveness in the imagination. It belongs to blameworthy characteristics of hashish that it generates in those who eat it laziness and sluggishness. It turns a lion into a beetle and makes a proud man humble and a healthy man sick. If he eats, he cannot get enough. If he is spoken to, he does not listen. It makes the well-spoken person dumb, and the sound person stupid. It takes away every manly virtue and puts an end to youthful prowess. Furthermore, it destroys the mind, stunts all natural talent, and blunts the sharpness of the mental endowment.
Throughout this period there was much debate among Muslim scholars on whether or not hashish was forbidden, and the viewpoints differed sharply. Some believed that because it was intoxicating like wine, it should not be allowed, while others pointed out that since the Qur’an and the early sayings of the Prophet Muhammad never mention its use, it should not be considered illegal. The debate over its legality would even involve topics such as whether a man could ask his wife for a divorce while high (yes) and was it permitted to give it to animals (no, unless you were doing it to make them eat so you could fatten them up).
The Mamluk sultans of Egypt, as well as local officials, seemed to have changing views on whether or not the use of hashish should be allowed. Some took a hard line, with a few sultans calling for the death penalty for those convicted of possessing it, while another ordered that anyone caught have their molars removed. On the other hand, during an outbreak of plague in 1419, the local market inspector decided that the only restriction against hashish use was to prevent it from being sold out in the open – presumably he found it acceptable if it got sold in private buildings.
For those who wanted restrictions on hashish, they seem to have been fighting a losing battle. By the 15th century the drug was being sold more and more openly, and was being used by many. You could find it consumed at public baths or during parties in private houses. This also led to addicts as well, often described as members of the lower classes, who would congregate at certain sites to get their fix.
The historian al-Maqrizi, noting how widely hashish was being used in the early part of the 15th century, complained that this was ruining society: “Character and morals became overwhelmingly vile, the veil of bashfulness and shame was lifted, people used foul language, boasted of faults, lost all nobility and virtue, and adopted every possible ugly character quality and vice. Were it not for their human shape, nobody would think them human. Were it not for their sense perception, nobody would adjudge them living beings.”
On the other hand, here were the words of another medieval poet on the issue, perhaps indicative what the ordinary person thought about the drug:
I said to the man occupied with hashish:
Woe unto you! Do you not fear this grain?
People are dying of a plague that has appeared.
He replied: Let me live eating this lump.
Robert C. Clarke and Mark D. Merlin, Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany (University of California Press, 2013)
Franz Rosenthal, The Herb: Hashish verus Medieval Muslim Society (Brill, 1971)
See also: Hashish in Islam 9th to 18th century