Unlike most fans of sinful beverages in Pakistan, I only seldom keep alcoholic drinks at home. But those who do (in Karachi), this is perhaps one of the only reasons they like living in this city.
After all, Karachi (and the rest of the Sindh province) is the only place in Pakistan where one can buy alcoholic beverages rather easily.
Licenced ‘wine shops’ are a plenty and bootleggers (dealing in smuggled whisky, vodka and beer brands) operate freely.
When I turned 10 in 1977, religious political parties had spun alcohol into a national issue.
I remember thinking what all the fuss was about because as a child I’d seen nightclubs, bars and roadside cafes in Karachi (that served alcohol) operating like any entertainment business would.
But, of course, such thinking was emanating from a 10-year-old boy who could not understand the political and theological aspects behind the religious parties’ crusade against alcohol.
Once while coming back from a marriage ceremony that I had attended with my grandparents (during the height of the religious parties’ movement against the Bhutto regime in March 1977), our car got caught up in a riot at Karachi’s Lucky Star area.
All I remember of the episode was dozens of youth with sticks smashing traffic signals and then breaking into two liquor stores there. They had already destroyed the huge neon sign of Pakistan’s Murree Beer that stood on top of an apartment building in the same area.
This is what I saw that day: A few young men would raise slogans while breaking whiskey, gin, vodka and beer bottles in the two shops. But most young men, I remember, would go into the shops and come out carrying as many beer and whiskey bottles they could lay their hands on and run away with them into narrow lanes.
But the starkest memory I have of the episode is that of young men breaking into the two liquor stores, coming out with a bottle or two of Pakistani whisky, and swigging the stuff down their throats right there on the pavement outside the shops, before the stores eventually went up in flames.
Despite the violence and the eventual prohibition on the (open) sale of alcohol and bars in Pakistan in April 1977, Pakistanis never did stop drinking.
In fact according to many surveys, cases of alcoholism grew two-fold in the 1980s and so did cases of death and disease caused by tainted whiskey (‘moonshine’).
Illegal and shady breweries producing cheap whiskey for the consumption of those from the working and peasant classes were not a new phenomenon in Pakistan.
But when alcohol was legal in Pakistan, bars, cafes and liquor stores kept and sold alcoholic beverages from established breweries. These produced whiskey, vodka, gin and beer brands that came with various price tags.
For example, a bar or a liquor store would store both expensive brands, as well as inexpensive ones, but both would come from established breweries.
After the ban however, when liquor stores were only allowed to sell their products to non-Muslims, prices of alcoholic beverages skyrocketed.
They began to squarely depend on liquor being produced by the shady moonshine makers and many poor and working-class Pakistanis continue to lose their lives due to the tainted and underprepared whiskey (Katchi Sharab) produced by illegal brewers.
However, over the decades, and with Pakistan continuing to face the ever-growing issues of religious and sectarian violence, burgeoning crime rates and political and economic upheavals, alcohol as a burning moral issue has greatly receded into the background.
Though it is still banned, it is easily available in ‘wine shops’, some restaurants and from bootleggers, especially in the Sindh province and its capital, Karachi.
What’s more, Pakistan’s oldest and largest brewery, Murree Brewery, continues to do roaring business and is one of the biggest tax-paying set-ups in Pakistan.
Nobody throws up their arms anymore and shouts out loud moralistic platitudes if they find out that someone drinks. It’s an issue that is just not talked about much anymore.
For example, some religious parties have attempted to trigger a number of campaigns against liquor stores in Karachi, but have failed to generate any worthwhile momentum and support from the people. A far cry from what these parties achieved in this regard in 1977.
The only time the debate on alcohol is revived (in the media) is when people die from consuming cheap tainted whiskey.
And even then, newspaper reports and analysts do not shy away anymore from alluding that moonshiners thrive mainly due to the alcohol ban in the country that has greatly jacked-up the prices of good quality alcoholic beverages available in the legal ‘wine shops.’
The message is that the 1977 prohibition failed to stop many Pakistanis from consuming alcohol. In fact, the ban continues to drive a number of poor men into consuming poisonous whiskey, or they end up becoming drug addicts.
When the sale of alcoholic beverages was prohibited in April 1977 in Pakistan, it was more of a political decision than a moral one.
Under pressure from an animated protest movement by an alliance of various right-wing political parties (Pakistan National Alliance [PNA]), Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto began to pragmatically address and agree to some of the demands made by the PNA leaders.
Bhutto’s government had come to power through the popular vote and had made a number of socialist promises.
However, by 1977 the government was facing harsh criticism from its right-wing opponents (especially in the major urban centers of the country).
By the time Bhutto went in for a reelection in 1977, his government was embroiled in grave economic problems (triggered by the international oil crises, subsequent inflation, and the failure of the Bhutto regime’s nationalisation policies that had seen a number of industries, banks and educational institutions suffer from incompetent management and rising corruption.
During his tenure he had also tried to mix populist socialist and secular notions of social democracy with certain aspects of Political Islam (that the party’s ideologues called ‘Islamic Socialism’).
Though the idea was to blunt the opposition coming from the right-wing religious groups, the careless fusion actually regenerated these groups that had otherwise been swept aside during the 1970 general elections.
For instance, as a catch-all slogan, the PNA, led by fundamentalist parties demanded that Pakistan be governed by a ‘Nizam-e-Mustafa’ (Shariah).
Even though this was explained with the help of modern writings of Islamic scholars such as Jamat-i-Islami chief, Abul Ala Maududi, Bhutto’s Islamic Socialism had unwittingly given credence to certain myths that began being advocated as historical facts.
The historical explanation of PNA’s Nizam-e-Mustafa was rooted in one such myth: That Pakistan had come into being through divine credence so that it could become the bastion of Islam in the world.
Secondly, when in 1973, Bhutto purged his own party, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), by expelling a number of its left-wing ideologues, he (like Anwar Sadat in Egypt), overestimated the threat posed to his government by the pro-Soviet far-left groups.
And again like Sadat, Bhutto thought that he could deflect opposition from the Islamists by giving them a free hand on university campuses that were until then hotbeds of left-wing thought and action.
By 1973 college and university campuses in Karachi and Lahore had witnessed a surge in the popularity and influence of the JI’s student wing the Islami Jamiat Taleba (IJT).
However, it was also true that in the event of the ineffectual and divided opposition against Bhutto in the parliament and the streets, his opponents, especially in the shape of the mohajirs (Urdu speakers) in Karachi and the right-wing anti-Bhutto bourgeoisie in the Punjab, largely expressed their opposition to Bhutto’s populist regime through the IJT in educational institutions.
During the campaigning of the 1977 election, the PNA accused Bhutto of being a drunk and a womaniser, and resolved that if the people voted PNA into power it would ‘rid the society of the evils of alcohol.’
During a rally in Lahore the same year, Bhutto responded by telling the crowds: ‘Haan mein sharab peeta hoon, laikan awam ka khoon nahi peeta!’ (Yes, I drink, but I do not drink the people’s blood).
He was lashing out at the PNA leaders who were being facilitated and funded by those industrialists whose businesses he had nationalised.
This was not the first time that the right-wing religious parties had blamed alcohol for the economic, political and social sufferings of the people.
The youth wing of the fundamentalist Majlis-e-Ahrar had attacked coffee houses serving alcoholic drinks in Lahore during the 1954 anti-Ahmadi riots.
Then, in the late 1960s, the student wing of the JI, (the IJT) began a movement against liquor stores and bars in Karachi when (in 1967) the progressive Islamic scholar, Dr. Fazalur Rahman Malik, claimed on TV that according to the hanafi mathab (jurisprudence) that the majority of Pakistan’s Sunni Muslims followed, only some alcoholic beverages were haraam (unlawful) in Islam. He then went on to suggest that there was nothing wrong in consuming beer.
In response to Rahman’s statement, JI asked him to be exiled and IJT activists attacked a number of liquor stores, hoardings and billboards advertising the Pakistani made Murree Beer in Karachi.
Nevertheless, the IJT campaign did not resonate with the public that was already embroiled in the largely left-wing student and labor movement against the Ayub Khan dictatorship, even though Rahman did leave the country and settled in the US as a Professor of Islamic Studies at the Chicago University.
After the loss of East Pakistan (that broke away and became Bangladesh) in 1971 and the subsequent defeat of the Pakistan army at the hands of their Indian counterparts, JI accused the Pakistani Generals’ liking for ‘wine and women’ as one of the main causes of Pakistan’s defeat in the war.
In 1974, Prime Minister Bhutto banned alcohol in the army mess halls, although no such action was taken against bars, nightclubs, coffee houses and liquor stores in the cities.
Throughout the Bhutto regime, IJT tried to initiate various campaigns against liquor stores and nightclubs but it failed to find much public support – until the 1977 PNA movement.
After Bhutto’s PPP swept the National Assembly polls in the 1977 election, PNA claimed that the results were manipulated and that there were widespread cases of fraud undertaken by government agents during the polling.
After boycotting the Provincial Assembly elections, the PNA began a tense protest movement.
A number of liquor stores and nightclubs were also attacked and looted. So when Bhutto got into a dialogue with the PNA, he agreed to close down all bars, liquor stores and nightclubs.
Just when it seemed that a breakthrough was on the horizon between the PPP regime and the PNA, General Ziaul Haq pulled off a military coup in July 1977.
Although he also arrested PNA members along with PPP ministers and Bhutto himself, Zia adopted the PNA’s Islamic overtones and then invited the JI to help him turn Pakistan into becoming a “true Islamic state.”
The bans imposed on alcohol by Bhutto remained, but Zia added a punishment of 80 lashes to anyone defying the ban.
The prohibition has held. However, ‘wine shops’ licensed by the government to cater to Pakistan’s non-Muslim communities are allowed to function but only if they sell local beer, whisky, gin, vodka and rum brands and only sell them to foreigners and the country’s Christian, Hindu, Zoroastrian and other non-Muslim consumers who have a permit issued to them by the government.
Nevertheless, almost 90 per cent of the consumers of the brewery’s products are Muslim.
Some religious parties have continued to try initiating campaigns against even the licensed ‘wine shops’ but these campaigns have failed to generate any public momentum or backing whatsoever.
Some observers suggest that such campaigns have been a failure due to the bigger problem of heroin addiction in the cities.
It is also interesting to note that the use of deadly drugs such as heroin increased (almost tenfold) in Pakistan after the ban on liquor went into effect.
For example until 1979 there were only two reported cases of heroin addiction in Pakistan (reported at the Jinnah Hospital in Karachi); but by 1985, Pakistan had the world’s second largest population of heroin addicts.
Also starling is the fact that there has been little or almost no action by the country’s mainstream religious parties on the issue of heroin usage and sale.
I have been fortunate enough to travel across Europe and much of Asia in the last 10 years or so. One learns so much by engaging with and experiencing a variety of cultures and cuisine but, at least with me, there always comes a time (as a visitor in a foreign country), when I start craving good old Pakistani/Indian food.
In 2005, while traveling across Holland, Germany and France, the pangs and cravings for desi food struck me in the middle of a busy shopping district in Paris.
Luckily, I was able to spot a restaurant whose doorman was dressed in a traditional Pushtun dress. I don’t exactly remember the name of the place, but on inquiry, I was told it was owned by two middle-aged gentlemen – one an Indian (from Bangalore), and the other a Pakistani (from Lahore).
What’s more, the waiters too were a colorful South Asian mix: Pakistanis, Indians and Bangladeshis. It was a fantastic environment, and I was able to speak Urdu for the first time during my brief stay in a city where people even struggled with English. It was a joy looking at a menu that I could actually understand.
After ordering some biryani, nihari and a couple of rotis, I turned to the drinks section in the menu. I was delighted to note that the restaurant was also offering Indian beer, which I ordered right away.
Lighting myself a cigarette, I waited in enthusiastic anticipation. It took just five minutes for the waiter to bring the beer and lo and behold! I looked at the bottle and it was Murree Beer!
It was a pleasant little surreal moment discovering Pakistani beer in Paris. I, at once, called back the waiter and asked him what was the name of a Pakistani beer brand doing under ‘Indian Beers’ on the menu?
The middle-aged man was from Pakistan (Punjab), and he gave me a puzzled look: ‘Sorry, what did you say?’ he politely asked.
From Urdu, I switched to Punjabi: ‘Friend, this is a Pakistani beer brand …’
But before I could continue he interrupted: ‘Sir, goras (Caucasians) usually ask for Indian beer … you want an Indian brand?’
‘Absolutely not!’ I said. ‘I love Indian beer, but Murree has its moments too. Ask your bosses to put it under the heading of ‘Pakistani Beer,’ will you?’
Murree Beer is made by Murree Brewery Co., Pakistan’s oldest brewery. It was established in 1860 near the famous resort town of Murree in the Punjab province of what is now Pakistan.
In the 1920s the brewery was moved to Rawalpindi where it still stands. In the 1960s, Murree, which until then was famous for its beers, introduced malt whisky, and by the early 1970s, it was also producing vodka and gin.
Before prohibition on the sale of alcohol was imposed in Pakistan in April 1977, various foreign whisky and beer brands were available in bars, liquor shops and clubs in the main urban areas of the country; but Murree remained to be the leading (and most affordable) brand.
In fact Murree’s popularity (especially among young urban middle-class Pakistanis) was such that it started to advertise its beer in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Hoardings and billboards carrying images of Murree Beer went up, mostly in Karachi, with the biggest being a neon sign put on top of a six-storied building in Karachi’s Lucky Star area in the shopping vicinity of Saddar.
In the 1970s, Murree was competing with various imported beer and whisky brands, but it continued to do well because it was mostly catering to a growing middle-class market to which imported alcoholic brands were an expensive luxury.
There were a few other local brands as well, but none of them survived the prohibition on alcohol in April 1977.
Apart from the fact that more than 90 per cent of the customers of the ‘licensed wine shops’ were/are Muslims, the 1980s and 1990s also saw a dramatic rise in cases of heroin and tranquilizer addiction.
What’s more, though quality Murree brands are available in these shops, their prices have risen, leaving many lower-middle and ‘underclass’ Pakistanis to consume inferior and dangerous underprepared alcoholic beverages sold by shady bootlegging mafias operating in the impoverished areas of urban Pakistan.
Also, ever since the ban on alcohol, liquor smugglers and dealers have been turning a profit with contraband alcoholic drinks.
Trucks bring vodka in from China across the mountains along the country’s northern border, while ships unload cargos of beer and whiskey from Europe at the port of Karachi.
Though the disruptive growth of heroin and bootlegging mafias has been a natural consequence of the long ban, the irony is, ever since the 1980s, the number of chronic alcoholics in Pakistan has witnessed a rapid increase.
Murree Brewery is one of the biggest tax-paying companies in Pakistan. Ever since 1977, it has survived the various waves of imposed piety and convoluted expressions of state-sanctioned faith, which, on most occasions, has only managed to spell political, cultural and even spiritual dichotomies in Pakistan.
Most Pakistanis usually remain silent on the issue of the prohibition on alcohol and the mostly negative effects that this ban has had on a society in which the consumption of alcohol (among large sections across all classes in both urban and rural areas) remains to be a common occurrence and habit.
Of course, the conservative elements simply refuse to look for a more moderate solution, whereas others have suggested that the lifting of the ban will not only gradually rid the country of bootlegging and heroin mafias, the rate of alcoholism and the deaths caused by inferior quality liquor in the large shanty towns of the country will come down as well.
The conservatives just cannot link alcohol anymore with a number of political, economic and spiritual issues that have continued to rain in on the people of Pakistan for past many decades.
The anti-alcohol campaign managed to succeed in the late 1970s because the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages was convolutedly propagated as one of the main reason behind the country’s many ills.
However, after the ban not only have these ills (such as crime) grown but newer ones such as sectarian violence, cases of religious bigotry, violence against women, and extremist terrorism have emerged.
Alcohol in Muslim-majority countries: 1
• Algeria (Completely legal) 2
• Albania (Completely legal)
• Azerbaijan (Completely legal)
• Bahrain (Conditionally legal) 3
• Bangladesh (Partially legal) 4
• Bosnia (Completely legal)
• Brunei (Completely banned)
• Burkina Faso (Completely legal)
• Chad (Completely legal)
• Comoros (Completely legal)
• Djibouti (NA)
• Egypt (Completely legal)
• Gambia (Partially legal) 5
• Guinea (NA)
• Indonesia (Completely legal)
• Iran (Completely banned)
• Iraq (Conditionally legal) 6
• Jordan (Completely legal)
• Kazakhstan (Completely legal)
• Kosovo (Completely legal)
• Kuwait (Completely banned)
• Kyrgyzstan (Completely legal)
• Lebanon (Completely legal)
• Libya (Completely banned)
• Malaysia (Conditionally legal) 7
• Maldives (Conditionally legal) 8
• Mali (Completely legal)
• Mauritania (Completely banned)
• Mayotte (Completely legal)
• Morocco (Completely legal)
• Niger (Completely legal)
• Oman (Partially legal) 9
• Pakistan (Partially legal) 10
• Palestinian territory (Completely legal)
• Qatar (Partially legal)
• Saudi Arabia (Completely banned)
• Senegal (Completely legal)
• Sierra Leone (Completely legal)
• Somalia (Completely banned)
• Sudan (Partially legal) 12
• Syria (Completely legal)
• Tajikistan (Partially legal) 
• Tunisia (Completely legal)
• Turkey (Completely legal)
• Turkmenistan (Completely legal)
• UAE (Partially legal) 
• Uzbekistan (Completely legal)
• Western Sahara (Completely legal)
• Yemen (Completely banned)
1 Alcohol use in predominantly Muslim regions of the world increased by 25 per cent between 2005 and 2010.
2 Alcohol sales are prohibited during the month of Ramazan.
3 Consumption only allowed at bars and designated restaurants.
4 Though alcohol is banned in Bangladesh but in 2010, the government allowed the sale of beer that has 5 (or less) per cent alcohol content.
5 Sale only allowed to non-Muslims.
6 Only legal in large cities.
7 Banned in the states of Kelantan and Terengganu. Legal only in licensed restaurants and bars. 8 Legal only at tourist resorts.
9 Legal at licensed hotel bars in the city of Muscat.
10 Available to non-Muslims at licensed liquor stores and hotel bars. Sales (through stores) not allowed in the month of Ramazan and on Fridays.
11 Available to non-Muslims at licensed hotels.
12 Legal only in the Christian-majority areas in South Sudan.
 Available in hotels, stores and bars but only to non-Muslims.
 Legal in hotels, restaurants and bars in Dubai.
-Source: Brookston Beer Bulletin
References & Sources:
W Haider, MA Chaudhry, Prevalence of Alcoholism in Pakistan (Biomedica, 2008).
Santosh C. Saha, Thomas K. Carr, Religious Fundamentalism in Developing Countries (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001) p.21
S. Akbar Zaidi, Issues in Pakistan’s Economy (Oxford University Press, 2005).
Nafisa Hoodbhoy, Abroad the Democracy Train (Anthem Press, 2011) p.xxix
Christopher Candland, Labour, Democratization & Development in India & Pakistan (Routledge, 2007) p.85 L Michalak, K Trocki, Alcohol and Islam, (Hein, 2006) p.523
‘Ale under the veil’: Jonathan Foreman (The Telegraph, 24 March, 2012).
‘Alcoholism booms in Pakistan’: Declan Walsh (The Guardian, 27 December, 2010).