Islam & Alcoholics Anonymous: Common Threads
Under the light of a horned moon, beneath the swaying shadows cast by the desert palms high over the verdant lawn of the Swiss Club, I wait. After a drowsy afternoon of blindingly hot sun, Cairo now seethes and pulses impatiently around our green oasis, finally awake. Now, if only I were. Instead, I’m jetlagged and waiting for one of the other anonymous alcoholics around our table to share so I can bring what I have to offer to the table without being presumptuous.
Mohammed and Fatima (as I would come to know them at the meeting after the meeting) look at me pleadingly. As a newcomer to this international meeting and as customary with A.A. abroad, I am expected to inject some new blood into the group. Nevertheless, I bite my tongue and hold out a little longer. My silence is answered with an Egyptian national pastime of sorts, the smoking of tobacco. The acrid smell of their Marlboro Reds—no Camels here--drifts languidly through the night air.
The meeting’s secretary, having already shared part of his story, sits quietly and serenely while the rest of us squirm in warm, uncomfortable silence. Just when we can’t tolerate it anymore, from a nearby minaret, the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, comes thundering down upon the once quiet refuge of the Swiss Club.
“God is most great!” Cries the voice from the loudspeaker in fervent Arabic. “There is no God except the One and Muhammad is his messenger, I testify, I testify! Come to prayer! Come to prayer!” Chants the muezzin, the one appointed to call the faithful to worship five times a day. From the top of the neighborhood mosque he bellows again, “Come to success! God is most great! None is worthy of worship except God, I testify!”
The muezzin’s fevered testimony breaks not only our uncomfortable silence (and leaves our ears ringing) but the ice as well for sharing afterwards begins in earnest.
At the meeting after the meeting the conversation veers towards the call to prayer that saved us from the silence of our own self-centered fears. From there, we begin to realize that the five pillars of Islam and the spiritual principles of AA share common threads.
Here’s what we figured out together:
In Arabic, Islam means to surrender; believers undertake to surrender to the will of Allah by means of the shahada, the declaration of faith (the first of the religion’s five pillars). The shahada has to be said aloud, with conviction and in the company of someone more experienced in spiritual matters, usually a sheikh. This declaration of faith binds the convert to the daily discipline required of a Muslim way of life.
In AA, when we take Step 3 - made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand him, we are, as in Islam, surrendering to God by making a decision to do the rest of the 12 Steps so that we too may have a spiritual awakening. The third step is a declaration of our intention to do the rest of the steps. It is said aloud in the company of someone more experienced in spiritual matters, usually our sponsor (a veteran AA member who walks the newcomer through the 12 steps). Just as the shahada binds a convert to the Muslim way of life, so does Step 3 bind the sober alcoholic to the daily discipline required of the AA way of life.
Salat (sura 11:115)
The second pillar of Islam is salat or prayer. The purpose of the five daily prayers (Al Fajr, Duhuri, Asir, Maghrib, and Al Aisha) is to establish and maintain conscious contact with Allah throughout the day. Through a series of Quranic recitations, bows and prostrations in a communal setting, the inner desire to do God’s will is manifested in action and is rewarded according to intention.
In AA, we too follow the camel's way of life by beginning and ending our day on our knees. In the morning we ask for guidance via Step 3 and in the evening we give thanks for another day of sobriety through prayer and mediation as outlined in Step 11 - Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood him. Thus Step 3 and 11 are to the alcoholic what the second pillar of Islam is to Muslims – conscious contact with God.
Zakat (sura 107)
The third pillar of Islam is zakat. It means giving one-fortieth of your income to the poor. While it used to be an individual responsibility, zakat mostly exists now as a state-imposed welfare tax. Its purpose is to keep all those in the fellowship of Islam alive and well.
In AA, this pillar of Islam is known as the 7th Tradition. We are self-supporting through our own contributions. The 7th tradition is an individual responsibility and alcoholics give according to what they can afford. Its purpose it to keep the doors of the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous open to all. It also dovetails neatly with the divine paradox at the heart of Step 12 – that it is by giving that one receives.
Sawm (sura 2:180-5)
During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims fast during the day to commemorate the revelation of the Quran to Mohammed. The purpose of fasting is to physically recall, or if one has never gone hungry, to personally know the pain of hunger so as to empathize with those less fortunate. It makes the giving of alms, or zakat that much easier as well.
In AA, empathy plays a central role in our society. Without empathizing with what others share at a meeting, we will not emotionally recall our last drunk or that feeling of incomprehensible demoralization that goes along with it. Without emotional recall, we will soon forget what it was like before we got sober; if we forget, we are doomed to return to the lonely, dark night of the soul that we suffered under the lash of alcoholism.
Haj (sura 2:190-200)
The fifth and final pillar of Islam is haj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. Its purpose is to pay homage to the early trials of Abraham and to memorialize the struggles of the religion’s founder, the Prophet Mohammed. Through a weeklong set of ritualized ablutions, genuflections and self-depravation, believers give thanks to their forefathers and celebrate the unity of being one with others.
The AA haj is known as Founder's Day. Just as millions of Muslims do at Mecca, every year thousands of AA believers descend upon Akron, Ohio (the place where our two co-founders, Dr. Bob and Bill W. met). Sober alcoholics go there for the same reasons Muslims go to Mecca: to give thanks to the messengers who were charged with calling us to God
If not for AA and the charge for honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness, I may have remained forever in ignorance of the true nature of my alcoholic condition. Blocked off from the sunlight of the spirit by my contempt prior to investigation (my own close-mindedness) I would have never found myself living in Egypt with 41 months of sobriety contemplating the common threads of Islam and our beloved society of Alcoholics Anonymous.