Khat and alcohol: What’s the difference?

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Q: Why is alcohol forbidden, but something else like khat is not? I don’t really understand the good and bad points of khat but it sounds like a rather simple mind-altering drug (which might cause auto accidents), not unlike pot or alcohol. I ask because of a long rambling conversation I had with a middle-aged Somali man not long ago.

[For those that don’t know, khat is a green, leafy plant that grows in the highlands of Kenya and Ethiopia.  The active chemical in it is classified as a controlled substance in the United States.]

This is a pretty complicated question, and one that there are a lot of different opinions on, but I’ll try to explain it as best I can.

First of all, alcohol is prohibited by the Qur’an because of its intoxicating effect.  Many people take this to mean that all intoxicants are prohibited, and the opinion most religious authorities have on things other than alcohol is based on the effect they have on a person. 

In their effect, khat and alcohol are very different.  I’ve never had alcohol, but I’ve been around friends and even family who were drunk, and I’ve seen the effects alcohol had on them; I’ve also never had khat, but I’ve been around numerous people who ate it, and have seen its effects as well.

Khat is more of a stimulant than a mind-altering drug like marijuana.  It’s a lot like coca leaves, which people in South America chew for energy, and, like coca, if you’re just chewing the leaves the effect is pretty mild.  For example, people get very talkative.  You also keep your presence of mind more than with a depressant like alcohol.  It’s a great way for middle-aged men to have long rambling conversations.

Although today it is associated with Somalis, khat did not become popular in Somalia until the 1950s.  When I was growing up, the opinion that most religious people had about khat was that it was only acceptable if there was something you needed it for, usually a religious purpose, rather than simply for recreation.  Besides using it for fun, people sometimes eat khat for long journeys, or to stay up late keeping watch over their land.

I don’t want to sound like I approve of the use of khat.  It has many more negatives than positives.  Like all stimulants, it’s addictive.  It’s also expensive.  I’ve seen too many people who barely have enough to survive squander their money on khat.  Overall, it’s hardly worth the drawbacks for the little benefit you get.  This is why, despite its popularity, more and more people in Somalia and elsewhere are opposing its use.