Arak- the national drink of Iraq?

This from this article in the New York Times

I thought muslims didn’t drink. What’s up with Iraq having a “national drink” (though I realize it probably isn’t official) ? What is arak anyway, and what is it made from? Is it an alcoholic drink? Or maybe related to absinthe?


This explains about Arak. It’s not very like absinthe, but is more like Ouzo or the French pastis drinks such as Pernod, Ricard etc.

As far as Iraq having a national alcoholic drink it seems that Iraq and its government has a flexible relationship to Islam (as does Turkey).

My dictionary gives arak as ‘a variant spelling of arrack’, which in turn is defined as ‘a coarse spirit distilled in various Eastern countries from grain, rice, sugar cane, etc. From Arabic 'araq: sweat, sweet juice, liquor.’

To my mind the most worrying thing is that the same Arabic word appears to mean both ‘sweat’ and ‘sweet juice’.

And as for Muslims not drinking, it depends on how strict they are. Even in countried where alcohol is banned outright, there is always a thriving illicit trade.

Interesting stuff here. This site pegs Arak as a liquour distilled from coconut sap. Arak, in this case, seems to be linked with Bali. I don’t know how tropical Iraq is, so I doubt that this is the suff.

This cite may be closer . I don’t know what language that is, French I guess, but it seems to indicate that Arak is a drink that is distilled from grapes. If that is it, it would be similar to Pisco from South America.

The more I search, the more I learn. It seems that both versions of Arak may be related (scroll down).

Arak is also a city in Iran, but that is a moot point.

I’m not a drinker, let alone of the hard stuff, but I believe arak is anise-flavored like ouzo.

And yes, many Muslims drink. Some are more observant, but then there’s the “reform” variety, for lack of a betetr analogy. For all the talk of a religious revival in the North Caucasus and Central Asia, all the Muslims I knew from there drank like fish. (They also ate pork, but not usually in each others’ presence–if that’s all that’s available, frequently, that’s what one eats.)

Correct, 'araq aka arak is more or less like ouzou. Gives some nasty headaches at that.

It is a terrible analogy.

Reform has nothing to do with it.

Level of observance and upon occasion interpretation of certain Quranic passages are the key.

Nothing new here, one finds plenty of reference to drink, in the strong sense, in old Islamic poetry going all the way back to the Arab Caliphates.

As the area of Iraq/Syria/Lebanon/Palestine/Jordan always had significant non-Muslim minorities (even majorities until the late Crusades) there were always people around with the legal right to distill, brew etc.

The Salafi reformers - that is the religious fundamentalists are the actual reform movement, trying to stamp out old, bad habits. Of course they prefer to see it as backsliding or evil western influence and ignore the evidence to the contrary.

For the context of the less informed, both regions were under Soviet rule where religious practice, esp. Islam, was savagely repressed. As such the region, which probably never was as observant as the core lands of dar al-Islaam has some odd habits and practices.

Another generation and I rather suspect this will have changed fairly substantially as various ethnic identity movements utilize Islamic forms harkening back to the good old days in contradistinction with the corrupt Soviet era derived elites.

Totally OT, but the word ‘aragh’ means alcohol (liquor) in general. It also means ‘sweat,’ as it does in Arabic.

The ‘gh’ is a unique sound I can’t transcribe properly.

The name, 'Araq, was spread by Muslim traders. As you may or may not be aware, until the Dutch and Portuguese came along, Muslim traders dominated trade throughout the Indian Ocean area, through to Indonesia and beyond.

In re the Araq, derivation, I have been lead to understand it is through the analogy to sweat by way of the distillation process.

Whether this is a valid derivation or post-facto justification…

Following Anahita, I believe you’re ref’ing Farsi, yes?

I presume the gh is the Arabic Ghrayn?

As an American Jew, I immediately thought that Eva was comparing Muslims who drink to the Reform movement in Judaism. Both groups consider themselves members of a certain religion but have discarded many practices of that religion.

Re-Alcohol And Islam
I’ve looked at a few online Korans and they translate a command not to drink “intoxicants”

I’m confused by this myself. Many tales of Sinbad, stories from the Book Of A Thousand Nights And A Night(often callled 1001 Arabian Nights) and even iirc the Rubiyat have characters drinking wine.

MiniRant-The 13th Warrior
Has a scene where Antonio Banderas, the obvious choice to play a character from the Middle East, refuses a drink. He explains that he is forbidden to drink fermented grape or grain. The vikings explain that mead is fermented honey. Antonio says okay and drinks it. WT? I thought the ban was “intoxicants”?

Although I haven’t been to the area in far too long, reports of friends who have, as well as journalists covering the area, indicate this is already happening, and that the difference from the Soviet area is already rather extreme in some areas.

In general, in the N. Caucasus and Central Asia, women always drank to a lesser extent than men, if at all (which saved my life on a number of occasions when hanging out with Muslim friends, as I’m rather a lightweight, but the peer pressure for men to drink heavily was rather extreme: perhaps this is a carryover from neighboring Slavs, with some Caucasian machismo thrown in?). However, if you read Anne Nivat’s Chienne de Guerre: A Woman Reporter Behind the Lines in Chechnya , there are many anecdotes of the conflict between the Soviet era’s rather lax level of religious practice and the current Wahhabite religious revival. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it became another source of violence, as if that area needed any further headaches.

And DocCathode, thanks, yes, that’s exactly what I meant by “reform.” It was, of course, meant as shorthand for a more modernist, less strict interpretation of life according to religious texts.

As an American Jew with many Muslim friends from the FSU who definitely consider themselves proud Muslims, but don’t take the Koran literally at all, I thought it was a very apt analogy. Sorry if anyone disagrees. Better terminology suggestions will be accepted cheerfully.

Then that should have been explicit, as ‘reform’ in the Islamic context has a very, very, very different meaning.

Several words are used, technically the most common is for dark drinks, in ancient usage.

There were several, sequential revelations, each more restrictive than the next in re drinking. The theme is generally that drinking intoxicants leads to you doing bad things, although there are some good points as well, so don’t do it.

Indeed. As I mentioned there is no lack of drinking mentioned in classical poetry.

Bullshit justification, with some reality behind it. Depends on how you want to read the Quran and if you want to get all literal with the precise words used. I’ve heard all kinds of justifications from Muslims as to how their particular drink somehow doesn’t fall into the proscribed category. Gaming the system. Wonderfully human if theologically suspect.

BTW I believe it to be grossly inaccurate to characterize the religious revivalism in the region to be “Wahhabite” – although I sometimes slip into that abusive usage myself. Returning to stricter Islamic practice is not Wahhabi per se. Wahhabis have a very particular read on Islam, a terrible one, and while it is strict, that does not mean stricter practice is Wahhabite, or even necessarily Salafi / Islamist.

Wahhabi revivalism surely exists, however, to my reading, the revivalism is largely internally driven and will be largely deriving from older traditions.

The word Arak is probably derived from somewhere in India. “Arrack” (btw, this is the English phonetic spelling) in India is a locally brewed liquor that is consumed widley by the poorer folk.

My WAG about the origin of the word is that it is from an Indian language. The word “ark” means juice or essential liquid from a vegetable or plant part.

Non-practicing. Reform has a specific meaning in the Islamic context and the Jewish reference is deceptive if you’re not speaking to a Jewish audience. It certainly did not register with me.

Yes, I’m referring to Farsi. I only have a limited understanding of the phoneme differences of Arabic and Farsi, however, I believe you are correct.

In spoken Farsi, the ‘gh’ is slightly different sounding in the throat than the Arabic phoneme. A bit more of click rather than a gutteral sound.

As I am quite admittedly not an Islamic scholar, but rather have focused my academic/professional energies on the former Soviet Union, naturally my language will be colored accordingly. The Russian-language media don’t make such fine distinctions among degrees and types of Muslim religious observance; you’re either barely reliigous at all, or you’re a Wahhabi. It may be unfortunate, but as I don’t read, say, Chechen, or for that matter any area languages other than Russian, the views to which I have access are limited accordingly.

That said, ** Collounsbury, ** perhaps you could consider cutting some linguistic slack to those of us who have different, but not necessarily inferior, experiences than yours. Even people who live in the areas I am discussing currently use what you consider to be grossly incorrect terminology. I’m certainly not averse to learning about the differences in the practice of modern Islam, and hey, please feel free to recommend reading material for that matter. But please don’t jump down my throat for using terminology that fits into my frame of reference, which I’d wager is closer to that of most people on this board than yours is.

Eva Luna: Oh this is Coll in a lightearted moment - Check out the non-Muslims in Mecca thread to see him slightly more agitated :D.

But at any rate he is correct about the Wahhabi issue in particular. There is a tendency to over-associate Islamic fundamentalism with Wahabism. But by and large modern Islamism takes its cue less from Wahhabi theology per se ( which probably most “moderate islamists” and even some conservative ones like the religious rulers in Iran, would likely consider medieval ), but rather from 20th century theorists/activists like Sayyid Qutb ( from Egypt ) and Mawlana Mawdudi ( from Pakistan ) among others ( including in the Shi’ite world Ruhollah Khomeini, who was an influential theologian long before being propelled into actual power ).

There are area where the charge of Wahhabism has some merit, as in Afghanistan where some elements of the Taliban leadership who were educated by Wahhabi clerics in Saudi-funded border madrassas during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. But even here the Taliban are probably more influenced theologically by the Deobandi movement ( which is superficially very similar to Wahhabism in its puritanism ) and anyway has acquired ( as commonly occurs ) a host of odd little cultural accretions, like that ban on kite-flying.

The reason “Wahhabite” seems to have a lot of cachet as a phrase is that the Saudi’s did indeed try to “Wahhabize” Sunni Islam in general and the Islamists in particular, as a way as of countering Nasserism and maintaing and extending the political power of the al-Saud family, starting explicitly in 1962 with the foundation of the Muslim World League ( and it might be noted that the western powers largely backed this move at the time ). However, whatever political, religious and financial clout the Saudis may have achieved ( and at times it may have been significant ), the Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam per se, has not really established itself strongly outside of the Arabian penninsula. You might say that Wahhabi efforts have reenforced and helped spread Islamism ( in a variety of guises ), without necessarily spreading Wahhabi orthodoxy itself ( again limited exceptions noted ).

However it is certainly true that Wahhabi practices and the conservative Sunni Islamism of the Deobandis, for instance, do have an awful lot in common. And it is a near-certainty that Wahhabi Saudis have been active in supporting the Chechens.

  • Tamerlane

I am well aware the usage exists, and I am also aware of its abusive origins, with the intention of discrediting Islamic revivalism, for better or worse.

I don’t think I jumped down your throat at all, you do note I noted it is an abusive usage I sometimes use, incorrectly, yes? As to the frame of reference, the ignorance of most of this board on the subject matter, Islam, and generally, is an issue of correction not indulgence. These are important issues at present.

Oh geez, perhaps I did overreact, perhaps I didn’t. Perhaps I should note that due to what has just now been diagnosed as a particularly lovely combination of asthma and bronchitis, I have been hacking my lungs up all week, which tends to make me grumpy, and have now been pumped full of a cocktail of albuterol, antibiotics, and steroids, the last of which is known to have side effects of aggressive behavior.

Anyway, I didn’t ask to be indulged. In fact, I would prefer to be enlightened, but would appreciate if it could be done in a manner which leaves my self-respect intact, **Collounsbury, ** as I seem to recall correcting you on a linguistic matter just a few short days ago. Neither I, nor anyone else on this board, can know everything about everything; we all have our areas of expertise and lack thereof. I am also aware that these issues are extremely important at present, both in some specific geographic areas of interest of mine, as well as other areas of more general interest among Americans and the world at large.

And as it seems I will now have to spend some time recouping in a rather sedentary way, any suggestions for the beginnings of a reading list for the generally politically/culturally aware, but Islamically clueless?

P.S. I think your avergae Reform Jewish rabbi, say, would take issue with the use of “reform” and “nonobservant” as synonyms. Religious observance is a continuum; I’m sure we can come up with some more precise terminology. Although if you want to explain how “reform” and “nonobservant” are valid synonyms in the Islamic context, if not the Jewish one, or in the religious sphere more generally, I’m all ears. Please provide some background info in this case, however.

Geez, quite a hijack, huh? I’m beginning to think a nice bottle of arak would be rather helpful for this discussion (although I’d prefer a nice Dagestani cognac).

*Originally posted by Eva Luna *
**Oh geez, perhaps I did overreact, perhaps I didn’t. [\quote]

Don’t apologize, I have an abrupt manner of expression if I don’t think carefully.

Sorry, I didn’t think of my expression as being as abrupt as it was. I threw in the bit about myself on purpose. Yes, you did correct me on a linguistic point - I don’t mind being corrected. E.g. in Hajjar and the Hajj – an association that did not ring a bell at first.

What languages do you read?

Islaah, reform, in the Muslim context has almost always been used in a Salafi context. Non-observant is usually a synonym for secularists. Sometimes some people say they are hanifi in practice, a sort of obscure reference.

In the context, saying like Reform Judiasm would have rung a bell for me, but in the Xian or Islamic contexts, reform usually has meant tighter observance - and different. (e.g. Calvinist protestantism.)

I am of the firm opinion there are no nice bottles of arak, only less evil.