He has practiced Islam for as long as he can remember, and Khalid Iqbal – now in his early sixties – has always known that drinking was haraam, or sinful. Even as he tried his first beer.
“Maybe I was 22 or 23 when I was in college," he reminisced. "After one or two years, I started drinking a couple of beers in the evening, or a couple of shots—not every day, but on and off.”
Iqbal is not his real name – for fear of shaming his family, he asked to use an alias in this story. During the 1980s, he says, he moved from northern India to Southern California. Soon he realized that finding and buying alcohol was as easy here as getting food. By 1997, he had a major problem in his hands: He could no longer function without alcohol.
Iqbal and his wife prepared dinner on a recent weeknight and served it on the floor as is their custom, over a plastic mat. His wife offered him a gentle smile and kept quiet as Iqbal spoke candidly about how the pressures of making it in America fostered his depression and alcohol abuse. The holy month of Ramadan was the only time of year he was able to temporarily stop drinking.
“I’d quit for a month or 40 days or 50 days, but as soon as it’d be over again, I’d start," he says. "One time, I quit for almost a year without any help. I had two DUIs, 2000 and 2007. But in my last DUI, when they held me in a cell, and at the time I decided ‘No, this is over’. I’d hit my bottom, and I had to do something.”
He also had to do something about the food store he owned. His drinking problem had led him to make poor decisions, and the shop was going out of business. His college-age son, Shafi, prodded him to face his problems – starting with attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
“You know? I always thought of it as a human problem, so it didn’t shock me," explains Shafi. "I’ve always seen that in our community—in many religious communities—there’s things that are said and done in public, and there’s a different reality in private.”
In Islam, going public about one’s drinking is tantamount to denouncing one’s faith. The Qur'an prohibits drinking alcohol – and also making, selling, and keeping it. Violating those rules can result in a lot of shame.
“I think most Muslim communities in the US or in other countries will say that alcohol use is 'haraam',” explains Mona Amer, a psychology professor at the American University of Cairowith who focuses on mental health and substance abuse among Muslims. “Often times the concern of people who are using alcohol or who know other people who are using alcohol, is not the religion prohibition per se, but more of the stigma within the community.”
Amer says little public health research exists on the topic of substance abuse among Muslims. What findings there are point to a trend: Most Muslims who do abuse alcohol start around college age. In workshops Amer has led throughout the U.S., she has found that parents often don’t want to believe that their kids drink. They’re not just ashamed - their mosques are, too.
That’s what led Yassir Fazaga to become a family therapist. He’s also an Imam at the Orange County Islamic Foundation in Mission Viejo. There, he would sometimes hear stories of despair from members of his congregation.
“That is when I felt I was very deficient, and I think that I also felt a bit dishonest," he says, speaking from his office at the mosque, an open Qur'an facing him. "Because it takes a lot within the community for people to come out and say: I have this problem. Imams are very trusted in the community, so what do you do at that point?”
Back then he couldn’t do much, other than listen and point people toward abstinence. Now, he encourages them to face the problem head on, by talking with family and trying rehab and therapy programs. He also makes a point to let alcoholics know that their faith will help in their recovery.
Khalid Iqbal hasn’t had a drink for more than five years. He says the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program, which has roots in Christianity and the Bible, has worked for him. He says he doesn’t mind that, at all.
“Alcoholics Anonymous doesn’t talk about religion—it started that way, but they say, you have to have some kind of faith," he says. "That 'supreme power' can come from anywhere. I’m a religious person from the beginning, so I have faith in God, so for me it was not hard to go back and practice on that.”
Iqbal says his experience with alcoholism has drawn him closer to his faith, and to fellow Muslims who need help fighting alcohol abuse.
For them, there’s something called “Millati Islami”—a newer 12-step program, like AA, but rooted in the Qur'an. Almost a quarter-century ago, Muslims established it in Baltimore. But so far, it hasn’t taken root in Southern California.