When exactly cannabis first became valued by the Middle Eastern world for its psychoactive properties is unclear, but within a few centuries it would become more popular in those societies than anywhere else in the medieval world. According to one legend, it was brought to Persia by an Indian pilgrim during pre-Islamic times sometime in the 500s. Other sources claim it was introduced by traveling Chinese merchants. One story asserts that it was acquired by an Afghani Muslim ruler during an attempted conquest of India a few centuries later. Yet another story tells of a serious minded, reclusive Sufi monk named Haydar, who ate parts of a cannabis plant on a hot summer day and took on a new whimsical, easy-going personality, which caught the attention of his disciples. He decided to share the plant, but asked that it stay within his circle of poor Sufi ascetics who had renounced worldly pleasures and committed themselves to a life of poverty in search of spiritual truth.
As is so often the case, the truth of how cannabis came into the Middle East is less about a grand moment of discovery and more about a deep history of cannabis knowledge stretching into pre-Islamic times. Scholars throughout the Middle East have long had access to the writings of Greeks such as Galen and Herodotus, who were well aware of the medicinal potential of cannabis. It was favored by ninth century Persian physician and philosopher Rhazes, and also favored in this part of the world as an analgesic and anesthetic. Like so much other medical knowledge, the Arab world preserved Greek and Roman knowledge of medicinal cannabis when the Europeans were descending into the dark ages.
The Sufis were the main force behind spreading the recreational and spiritual use of cannabis, in the form of hashish - normally eaten at that time in the Islamic world. Sufism is a mystical branch of Islam, focused on personally connecting to the divine through ecstatic states of mind. These states could be achieved through meditation, music, dancing, and sometimes through the use of substances like cannabis, all in order to transcend normal consciousness. Sufis themselves, focus on the development of the inner self towards enlightenment and a close personal relationship with the divine. They are also known for their love of poetry, and in fact the most read poet in America is a 13th century Persian Sufi mystic by the name of Rumi. In general, Sufism has interested many from around the world - even those with non-Islamic backgrounds - due to its universalist view of spirituality, and emphasis on enlightenment and internal spiritual truth. Its role in the Islamic world however, has been more controversial, deviating in so many ways from traditional Islamic orthodoxy. It is often said that Sufism has its spiritual roots in indigenous religions present in the area long before Islam, adapting its universalist philosophies to fit into the new Islamic world. In the height of the medieval Islamic world, Sufism was often viewed as a threat to the Islamic orthodox establishment. Sufis tended to be poor members of society, and in some ways Sufism promoted dropping out of your economic role in society to pursue spiritual truths, not unlike modern counterculture. And much like modern counterculture, Sufism was often scapegoated by those in charge of keeping the establishment strong.
As there is today, there was great debate among Muslim scholars as to the permissibility of cannabis, as too was there about the role of Sufism in Islam in general. Many claimed, and still do claim, that the spirit of the prohibition on intoxicants in the Quran referred specifically to the violence and chaos inducing effects of alcohol. Orthodox leaders claimed it was a ban on all psychoactive substances, often making the case that the Sufis themselves were too relaxed morally. Cannabis became a target to be eradicated by the orthodox Islamic establishment. Non Sufi literature from this era goes out of its way to portray cannabis users as socially deviant. Cannabis was seen as something that weakened those who partook in its pleasures, making these individuals less useful members of society.
Though hashish use began in the eastern part of the Islamic world - closer to India and the rest of Asia - by the thirteenth century it had become a common practice in Egypt, where it was met with staunch resistance from the establishment. The nature of these crackdowns may sound familiar to those who have observed the “War on Drugs” in modern America. A garden, popular among hashish users in Egypt, was destroyed – non-cannabis plants included. Authorities burned the cannabis plants, while smoke rose above Cairo it sent a clear message that cannabis use was unacceptable. As a result the Sufis moved their growing operations into the Nile Valley countryside, only to be followed by authorities who destroyed these plants as well. Each time the authorities destroyed the plants it would lead to a brief cannabis shortage, after which it was widely available once again. About half a century later, an overzealous Ottoman leader became bent on ridding Egypt of cannabis. Martial law went into effect, and this time troops burned not only cannabis plants themselves, but also the farms and villages where they were found. Cannabis users had their teeth pulled as punishment for their transgressions. Growers were imprisoned or killed.
These efforts, brutal even by modern DEA standards, were ultimately unsuccessful. A few years later, hashish use in Egypt was back in full swing. Thanks to the Sufis constant efforts, hashish had become socially acceptable in the Arab world – even if it never achieved the same acceptance politically. What began as spiritual and occasional medicinal use had expanded to common recreational practice for a society in which alcohol was even more strictly forbidden. It wasn’t until Europe picked up tobacco smoking from the new world that hashish began to be smoked from pipes instead of eaten. Around this time, the water pipe was invented in Iran, and spread throughout the Muslim world as a way of consuming both shisha tobacco and hashish. Hashish use spread to Muslim North Africa, where it is still famous today in places like Morocco - a location that played an important role in twentieth century counterculture and music.
Hashish became somewhat infamous very early in the west, as Crusaders encountered brutal Muslim warriors, who became known as Hashshasins, based on the legend that they ate Hashish to increase their courage and ferociousness in battle. However, whether or not these warriors used hashish at all is disputable in and of itself, and any experienced cannabis user knows it could not have been used as a stimulant before battle. These stories say less about actual cannabis use in the Muslim world and more about how the foundation for a strong anti-cannabis bias in the West was formed – once again associated with an enemy considered alien and foreign to Europe, which was a cultural backwater at this point in history. The word ‘assassin’ is said to be derived from these ‘hash eaters’, leading many Europeans to associate cannabis with a vicious enemy.
It is important to understand the role of cannabis in Middle Eastern countries if you want to understand the story of cannabis in the West. Though Europe had its own early history of cannabis use, early modern cannabis consumption in places like the Netherlands and France was a direct result of colonial contact with North Africa and the Middle East. Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt is one notable example. In many ways, Western cultures took on many of the biases of the Muslim establishment against cannabis and its users. Many of the same accusations made against mystical, lower-class Sufis, were made against hippies and other cannabis users in the twentieth century. Ideas that cannabis might be connected to violence in part stem from crusader legends about the “hash eating” assassins encountered during the crusades. The past has a direct effect on the present, so understanding the past can help unravel the thinking behind seemingly arbitrary biases. As cannabis users, we come from an ancient tradition. Unfortunately, anti-cannabis crusaders also have a centuries old tradition, and it is important for us to understand it in order to combat these ideas.