Whenever Somali Islamists have managed to carve out some measure of political influence in the Horn of Africa, one of their first legal maneuvers has been to outlaw the chewing of khat. Their stated rationale is simple: Khat causes pleasure, pleasure leads to decadence, and decadence is the enemy of piety. It is exactly the same Puritanical logic the Taliban once used to deprive Afghanistan of musical instruments.
This means that not only are al-Shabab and its allies tremendous killjoys, but that they’re also no great students of religious history. As made abundantly clear in the excellent The Leaf of Allah, a history of khat cultivation and usage in Ethiopia, the leafy stimulant first became popular among devout Muslims, who used it as an aid to worship. The book’s author quotes from the memoirs of a 19th-century Egyptian military officer to make the case:
Toward nine o’clock in the morning, all the guests go to their hosts; there they sit in a circle and begin to read the first chapters of the Quaran, and address all sorts of praises to the Prophet. This done, the master of the house gives each a fistful of khat leaves which they chew in eager rivalry, in order to be able to swallow more easily. If the master of the house is rich, they drink milk; if he is poor, they drink water. After this the same ceremony begins again, reading the Quran, praises to the prophet, receiving and chewing of a fresh fistful of khat, and this goes on until 11 o’clock. As I asked one of them why they were reading the Quran in this way and celebrating, with the eating of khat, the praises to the prophet, he answered me.
“We read the Quaran and we bow to the Prophet because this plant is known to the saints and it permits us to keep vigil long through the night in order to worship the Lord.”
As the book goes on to describe, this practice was long loathed by Ehtiopians’ Christians, who deemed it intemperate and persecuted Muslim khat merchants. How ironic that the region’s self-appointed saviors of “true” Islam have now adopted the Puritanical attitude of the so-called Crusaders they purport to revile.