In Defense of Qât

Reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 24(1988):7

[Note: printing errors from the printed version have been corrected. Transliteration does not includes dots under letters.]

Yahyâ Lutf al-Fusayl Dahd al-shubuhât hawl al-qât, Sanaa, n.d.

The plant that engenders more discussion and interest in Yemen than any other is the well-known qât tree (Catha edulis). Much has been written about the importance of qât in Yemeni culture and the national passion for chewing the leaves at social gatherings. Many of the travelers and development planners who have visited Yemen look on qât as a nasty habit hindering progress in the country. In recent years a few voices have been raised about the benefits, as well as the drawbacks, of qât in Yemeni society. While accounts by Yemeni scholars on qât are available, these are often difficult to locate or ignored in the burgeoning literature on the subject. One such treatise, an apologetic for qât as a lawful and beneficial product within Islam, flows from the pen of Yahyâ Lutf al-Fusayl, a former member of the Advisory Council.

The refutation of Unsound Legal Opinions of Qât (Dahd al-shubuhât hawl al-qât) is the title of this short (16pp.) work. It is a spirited defense where eloquence tends to be emphasized more than scholarship. Be that as it may, al-Fusayl has a number of valid points and provides a sincere account of his own feelings on the subject. He begins with the observation that Yemeni religious scholars have been chewing qât for centuries without raising serious questions about it. To his knowledge the only serious legal attack on qât came from Ibn Hajar al-Haythamî, whose fatwa collection contains a lengthy discussion of the pros and cons. Unfortunately, al-Fusayl overlooks a critical work by the Imam Yahyâ Sharaf al-Dîn (as noted below), and simplifies what is in fact a somewhat complicated issue in legal circles.

Among the points that can be made in support of qât as a lawful substance is the obvious one that it does not impair the sense in the same way as liquor, opium, hashish, and the like. In fact qât is not a narcotic; which is not to say that it does not have an effect on the body. For al-Fusayl, it is important that the one who chews is aware of what he says and understands what is said to him. Indeed, he argues that it increases one's ability to comprehend and gather one's thoughts.

One by one, Al-Fusayl responds to the common criticisms of qât. To those who argue that it keeps you from sleeping, he responds that this is only for those who overindulge in chewing and only in some cases. Clearly this is not sufficient grounds for prohibiting it. As legend would have it, one of the reasons qât became popular was so that religious mystics could stay awake at night and recite or perform their prayers. Concerning the point that it is an extravagant luxury, he notes that this differs according to the individual and his earnings, just as is the case with food and clothes. (If you consider the price of designer scarves on the duty-free list of Yemenia airways, you see that qât is not the only luxury item around.) Some say that qât chewing debilitates the body and causes impotence. Al-Fusayl admits this can result from excessive use, but argues that in moderation qât can be helpful in countering obesity, helping diabetics, and giving young men (shabâb) energy for their wedding nights. (One cannot help but think of the country vicar who recommends a little wine for the stomach's sake.) The message is that social chewing is harmless and you do not have to become a "qataholic." Abdallâh al-Hibshî, Thalâth rasâ'il fî al-qât, Manshûrat al-Madîna, Sanaa, 1986

Qât is also the theme for another short work edited by the indomitable Yemeni scholar and historian, Abdallâh al-Hibshî. The title is Three Treatises on Qât (Thalâth rasâ'il fî al-qât), published in Sanaa (Manshûrat al-Madîna, 1986, 104pp.). The three works in question all discuss the lawfulness of qât. The first is a short attack on qât by Imâm Yahyâ Sharaf al-Dîn (died 965 A.H./A.D.1556-7). Unlike al-Fusayl, the earlier author claimed that qât did alter the mind in an unlawful way. As proof of this he related an anecdote about a man named 'Izz al-Dîn Muhammad al-Hûthî, one of the sons of Imâm Yahyâ ibn Hamza, who went on a short trip from Dhamâr under the influence of qât and had no idea where he was until he arrived in Risâba.

This meant that qât acted like the intoxicants (muskîrât) condemned by the prophet Muhammad. He recognized that the effect was not as bad as that from certain other substances, but in general he thought qât was not a good thing for muslims to use. (In this case he would not have recommended that you chew and drive.)

The second treatise edited by al-Hibshî is the well-known account by Ibn Hajar al-Haythamî (died 973 A.H./A.D. 1564-5), which is available in previous editions. Finally, there is a larger piece by Yahyâ ibn al-Husayn ibn Qâsim (died 1099 A.H./A.D. 1686-7) on the three prevalent vices of qât, coffee, and tobacco. This is an important work with supplementary material to the other accounts and some interesting information on all three substances.

Qât will no doubt continue to be a popular topic for some time to come and these two new works are important sources for future study of the subject.

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