An Islamic perspective on smoking

According to news reports, a court recently allowed seven individuals to challenge Putrajaya’s ban on smoking at eateries, which came into effect on Jan 1.

Their contention was that the ban violates their rights under the constitution, and that smoking is not a crime under Malaysian law. They are seeking a declaration that the smoking ban is unconstitutional. The complainants may not realise that non-smokers at eateries also have the right to litigation if restaurant owners allow customers to smoke on their premises.

Be that as it may, it would be more appropriate if those who are unhappy with the ban bring up the matter with religious bodies rather than the court of law when seeking clarification over whether smoking is permissible in their religion.

The recent move to ban smoking indoors, especially at eateries and in public places, is driven mainly by the need to protect non-smokers from exposure to second-hand smoke. It’s not that smoking has been totally banned in the country. It’s just that people must refrain from smoking in public places where it may be disagreeable to others. Many patrons who are non-smokers find the smell of cigarettes unpleasant and annoying. As responsible citizens, smokers should thus act in good faith.

Smoking rate highest among the Malays

The prevalence of smoking among Malaysians has remained high despite government intervention over the past decade. A 2013 study found that the prevalence of smoking was the highest among the Malays (56%), followed by the Chinese (36%) and the Indians (35%). For other indigenous ethnic groups living in rural areas, it was 54%. The majority of smokers were between 21 and 40 years of age. Smoking was found to be the lowest in the Sikh community, probably due to their faith which prohibits them from doing so. They consider tobacco “jagat jhoot”, which means “the world’s lie”.

In fact, major religions consider tobacco a form of intoxicant, and it’s generally forbidden for their followers. Since, in our context, it’s quite prevalent among Muslim youths, those who are unhappy with the smoking ban should look at the issue from the religious, not constitutional, viewpoint. What’s more, studies have shown that those who venture into illicit drugs started out smoking tobacco.

There have been numerous religious edicts, including from prominent authorities such as Al-Azhar University in Egypt, declaring smoking as prohibited. Many Islamic scholars are of the view that smoking is haram or forbidden. This view is substantiated by the fact that smoking harms a person’s physical well-being and causes distress to others.

The reasons cited are simple. Religion prohibits activities that can result in harm to oneself and others. For example, the Quran says, “He commands them to do good and stops them from evil and makes halal for them that which is pure and makes haram upon them that which is impure” (Quran 7:157). This verse clearly shows pure things to be halal and impure things to be haram. An intelligent or well-informed person would no doubt regard smoking as among the impure things.

Clerics also rely on calls in the Quran not to waste money. The Quran says: “And do not squander (your wealth). Indeed those who are extravagant are the brothers of Satan” (17:27).

The medical evidence on the danger of smoking and the risks associated with passive smoking have also led Muslim clerics to cite the fact that one is obligated in Islam to avoid causing displeasure, distress or harm to other people.

The essence of this edict is that a smoker slowly destroys the body that God has granted him. The human body is a trust from God and has to be safeguarded and protected at all costs. A strong, healthy believer is better than a weak one. As such, one who is addicted to tobacco inescapably destroys his good health.

Although nothing is explicitly mentioned in seventh century Islamic literature on the bodily harms caused by smoking from the medical point of view, the ills are well-known today.

Most medical authorities agree that smoking is a major cause of lung cancer. Smoking also causes cancer of the larynx, lip, oesophagus and urinary bladder. Smoking significantly increases the risk of dying from chronic bronchitis and emphysema. It is estimated that about 20,000 people in Malaysia die each year from diseases linked to smoking. The number of smokers is also believed to be increasing.

A study found that exposure to second-hand smoke increases the risk of heart disease in non-smokers by 30%. According to a report from the US surgeon-general, second-hand smoke causes approximately 7,330 deaths from lung cancer and 33,950 deaths from heart disease each year. Between 1964 and 2014, 2.5 million people died from exposure to second-hand smoke in the country.

The Quran says: “And do not throw yourself into destruction with your own hands” (2: 195). In another verse, it says: “And do not kill yourselves” (4: 29)

Lack of awareness

Besides nicotine, tobacco comprises many other harmful ingredients as well. It will likely remain a primary cause of premature mortality and morbidity in the country. Continuous and more comprehensive anti-smoking policy measures on the danger of smoking are needed in order to prevent the increase in smoking among Malaysians, be they in the educated or the less educated social cohorts.

Many still maintain the erroneous stand that smoking is makruh or reprehensible from the Islamic perspective. Some clerics however opine that it is makruh-tahrimi (involves omitting an obligatory act), and close to haram which in reality implies that it is haram in practice. According to them, to persist in doing something that is classified as makruh also renders it haram.

It’s due to this lack of awareness that many pick up smoking and are even observed smoking freely in public places, disappointing and causing harm to non-smokers. Regrettably, the mainstream media such as television – a major source of information in rural areas – has not been effectively highlighting the negative effects of tobacco on smokers and non-smokers.

Moaz Nair is an FMT reader.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.