Drink as I say

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I’m reading When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise And Fall of Islam’s Greatest Dynasty, a history of the Abbasids. This on page 169 caught my attention:

…the caliph called for wine. A golden goblet was brought and the drink was poured into it. Ma’mum drank and handed it to Hasan….Hasan, a good Muslim had never drunk wine, yet to refuse could be seen as an insult to the caliph…’Commander of the Faithful,’ he said, ‘I will drink it with your permission and following your order,’ for if the caliph himself had commanded him to do it, how could it conflict with Islam? The caliph replied that if it had not been his order, he would not have held out the goblet to him. So the tension was relaxed and they drank together

There are many references in this book to the consumption of wine at the court of the Abbasids, and even the patronage of a genre of poetry focused upon wine. I knew the general outline of this, and amongst Muslim rulers alcohol consumption doesn’t seem that rare. I recall that the Mughal ruler Jehangir was an alcoholic, as was Saud bin Abdul Aziz, the king of Saudi Arabia in the 1950s and early 1960s (his problems with alcohol were one of the reasons that he was forced to abdicate by his brothers). Of course, Islam prohibits the consumption of alcohol, and yet here you have the titular spiritual leaders of the Islamic world, the caliphs, making it a normal part of their lifestyle. What’s going on here?

One of the main reasons that I have generally turned a skeptical eye toward explanations of religious constraint upon behavior are these sorts of examples. From an atheist perspective I had always tended to view religions as clear and distinct sets of axioms; but operationally the practice seems far more subject to social consensus and individual rationalization. This isn’t only an issue with religions, I have known of environmentalists who drive SUVs, self-proclaimed social conservatives who are heavy users of drugs and indulge in non-standard sexual practices, and so on. I’m sure most people can repeat such examples. Years ago when I found out that George H.W. Bush had switched from being pro-choice to pro-life, as had Ronald Reagan to some extent (Reagan’s pro-choice period was more that he simply signed laws decriminalizing abortion in California as governor), I assumed this was conscious political opportunism. The same for Al Gore or Jesse Jackson, who made the inverted transition. And surely some aspect of political calculation was at work here on the ultimate level, but what about the proximate cognitive processes? Humans are good at rationalization, and I’m not sure anymore that the elder Bush or Reagan were insincere in their rather fortuitous conversions. Or, at least part of their minds were pretty convinced that their change in opinion had more to do with reflective shifts in the underlying assumptions and values and not an exogenous push due to circumstance.

In short, humans beings perceive themselves to be reflective beings shaped by essential axioms open to conscious inspection. But the reality is that human behavior and psychology seems to exhibit a great deal of contextual contingency which shape a host of cognitive processes insulated from conscious inspection. We regularly seem to make up, and believe in, stories which reinforce our self-perception that we are rational beings with free will who make decisions and form beliefs by carefully taking into account data filtered via our avowed norms. But cognitive psychology shows that humans can be easily influenced by priming inputs which they are not conscious of in regards to the choices they make, all the while happily regaling researchers with their theories that sketch out the underlying causal factors behind their behavior. Yet it seems here that as in the case above the reason is posterior to the act; constructed post facto to give intellectual support to decisions made via other means.

Surely there is a method to the madness, and the outline of human behavior is constrained by a host of concrete parameters (biology, sociology, history, even rational calculation!). But, the biases which serve as weighted parameters in the function that generates the distribution of human behavior are likely more complex, contingent and opaque to the naked eye then we might have hoped for. Just as “friction,” “bounded rationality” and “behavioral economics” are emerging as necessary and essential tools in economics, so broad brush histories and anthropologies must take into account the multi-dimensional nature of human psychology and the disjunction between the stories we tell and the dynamics which drive us.

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  1. of course there were two interpretations: 
    1. the caliph is supreme and therefore it is not haram to drink 
    2. the qur’an is supreme and therefore it is haram to drink 
    when these are in conflict, one might either conclude, as Hasan did implicitly, that either the Qur’an is not supreme, or that the caliph is not supreme. Of course, one interpretation involved less risk – and was probably already attuned to his desire – than the other.

  2. and yet some would refuse the drink and risk wrath. what proportion of humans would risk and what proportion would rationalize? what proportion of the time would any given individual risk or rationalize? the relatively small number of shia to sunni, and the even smaller number of kharijites, suggests that most would rationalize. the donatists where labeled heretics for their principled rejection of those who had entered into apostasy.

  3. agreed, but its interesting to note that this is eactly the sort of scenario that gave rise to the Shi’a need for dissimulation. A Shi’a in that scenario would of course not interpret the Abbasid Caliph as supreme, but would probably be obligated to drink regardless. So there’s a third option.

  4. let me put it another way: many religious people may claim that interpretation of holy texts is the process via which one may divine the intent of the divine, so to speak. but the other alternative is that a particular interpretation serves as a post facto gloss upon a fait accompli determined and dictated by other needs. of course it isn’t an either/or in a black & white dichotomy, some martyrs do ‘irrationally’ die for their religion and do not brook any compromise of their professed principles. but these are very rare individuals. and today most muslims likely avoid alcohol, but i don’t think that this is such a powerful draw for most people, especially in cultures where drinking is not socially the norm (a better test would be american muslims who are integrated in most other ways with the non-muslims who they live with; your peers are not the caliph, but there is a pressure to conform and indulge them). i also suspect there is “friction” in terms of a step-wise process via rationalization so that religion can dampen, slow down or mitigate a particular decision. the cognitive process of rationalization requires cycles to operate, and those cycles may be important parameters we should take into account (e.g., you want to kill your neighbor, but you feel you should first submit your wishes to the ghazi, and that delay results in your neighbor’s escape).

  5. Then again, perhaps he thought temperance was for the little people.

  6. It’s not just religion – think for a moment about the number of people you’ve met that could have their minds changed by a purely logical argument on any subject, much less one they had strong feelings about. Rationalization is how the majority of human being justify all of their common actions.

  7. caledonian, did you read below the fold? i said: “this isn’t only an issue with religions, I have known of environmentalists who drive SUVs, self-proclaimed social conservatives who are heavy users of drugs and indulge in non-standard sexual practices, and so on.” not a big deal, but i do expect anyone who comments to have actually read the whole post (if you did, that’s fine, but you don’t need to repeat what i said).

  8. A friend of my fathers would say “Thou shalt not drink one drop of wine”, and flick one drop from every glass onto the table. 
    Every scripture needs abridgment before it can be practiced. Even fundamentalists have to ignore a lot of it.

  9. Even fundamentalists have to ignore a lot of it. 
    fundies rework or reinterpret most of it. the exegesis is only a little “closer to machine language.”

  10. caledonian, did you read below the fold? 
    Yes, but in retrospect I didn’t phrase myself very well. Let me try again: rationalization is how most human decisionmaking takes place, with our feelings about what we should do deciding the course of action and our faculties of awareness creating a story about why we chose as we did. 
    Politics, medicine, choosing a life partner, choosing a religion, deciding on how we will behave – explicit axioms virtually never determine what we do. (And I would argue that many of the things razib mentions as non-religious are secular lifestyle systems that are religions in all but name.) 
    Some traditions put a great deal of emphasis on being consistent with explicit axioms, but people follow those axioms because they want to stay in good standing with the social group. If drinking alcohol will result in a high social cost when others find out, people will tend to refrain from doing so, even in secret, because the risk is too great. If not drinking alcohol makes the Caliph annoyed, and that has a higher cost, people will drink even if they don’t particularly want to. 
    Even when people pay terrible prices for following moral or ethical precepts, in most cases they believe they’d be risking even more by not doing so – the monopolized resource of ‘salvation’ being an excellent case in point.

  11. Quick addendum: 
    My feeling is that in the monotheistic religions, ‘God’ is just a personification of the will of society. People understand this intuitively, which is why atheists have previously been charged with disrupting the social order. 
    Caliphs are, effectively, God himself.

  12. My feeling is that in the monotheistic religions, ‘God’ is just a personification of the will of society. People understand this intuitively, which is why atheists have previously been charged with disrupting the social order. 
    1) this is close to emile durkheim’s idea 
    2) this isn’t restricted to monotheism. classical romans and greeks charged people with atheism. sometimes they were genuine atheists, sometimes they were christians. 
    3) and it like isn’t “just.” sure, the socially unifying role of religion and the divine power is real, but i think one needs to be cautious about reducing god to a sociological tool. mystics and personal believers all seem to have their own ideas of god, and some of these are pretty similar across cultures, implying that the god that society is working with starts from some basal form.

  13. does any reference to Omar khayyum help? Ghalib in post mughal india during the early british rule was quite a drunk.

  14. Suleiman the Magnificent’s son was known as “Selim the Sot”.