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Hookah: Myth and Reality

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Safer than cigarettes?The growing popularity of Hookah smoking around the world has given rise to an era in which youngsters, and Muslim youth in particular, are openly and carelessly engaging in this cool new activity. The Hookah, also referred to as a Shisha, Nargile, Hubbly-Bubbly, and water-pipe, is currently the most popular form of smoking, with some Hookahs being able to accommodate up to a dozen smokers at once.

When it comes to Muslim youth and the necessity of finding adequate, affordable, and easily accessible leisure activities, there have always been insufficient resources which both satisfy modern society’s definition of "fun" and are also in line with Islamic standards. Therefore, Hookah smoking has become quite "Islamically trendy" recently, with a rising number of not only Muslim youngsters but also Muslim elders engaging frequently in this activity.

In regards to why there is a growing number of Muslim youth smoking Hookah in the West, Aliya Rizvi, 19, of New Zealand said, "As we rule out many Haram activities which today's non-Muslim youth enjoy doing, such as clubbing, going to concerts, and Friday night parties, being able to smoke Hookah and going to Shisha bars is something which many youth feel is social, fun, and is also not Haram to my knowledge. Many of my friends have Hookahs at home, so it costs them next to nothing to smoke it when they want to."

However, Islamic law on this issue is much more complicated than that. All Hookah smokers are encouraged to investigate the rulings of their respective Religious Authorities (Maraja Taqleed) regarding smoking tobacco, particularly if you are a youth who enjoys Hookah smoking and are relying on your Hookah-addicted friend's dad's uncle's theory that Hookah is far from being prohibited and might actually be a highly recommended act in Islam. Following are the rulings of a few Religious Authorities on this issue.

According to his website, Ayatollah Nasir Makarem Shirazi states that smoking is absolutely prohibited in any situation. On the other hand, Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Sistani and Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei both have similar rulings on the issue: there is no problem in smoking per se. However, if one is already smoking or is about to start smoking, then it is prohibited for him/her to do that if there is a probability that serious harm will take place, and it becomes compulsory to quit. The only exception is if quitting will cause even greater harm, in which case it is not compulsory to quit. However, there is no problem in smoking rarely, i.e. to the extent that there would be no probability of harm in the future. (See Ayatollah Sistani's A Code of Practice for Muslims in the West, #353, and Ayatollah Khamenei's Practical Laws of Islam, #1390 and #1397.)

So exactly how harmful is it? One contributing factor towards the soaring popularity of the Hookah among the younger generation is the common misconception that because the tobacco passes through water, smoking Hookah is significantly less harmful than smoking cigarettes.

In Dubai, Muhammad Bukhari, 21, believes that Hookah smoking is much less harmful than cigarettes. He said, "We usually smoke the Shisha, as it is not as bad as cigarettes or cigars. We also have the option of smoking the tobacco-free Shisha, which is much better than smoking the tobacco mixture. Smoking Shisha is extremely relaxing, as you can feel the smooth fruit-flavored smoke as you slowly inhale long puffs. I smoke it for about an hour once a week but no more than that."

Not as bad as cigarettes? According to an article published on the website of the Mayo Clinic, the World Health Organization (WHO) advisory states that because Hookah sessions usually last for around 20-80 minutes and involve longer and harder puffs in comparison to a few minutes with a cigarette, the Hookah smoker actually inhales around 100-200 times more smoke!

A typical online Hookah wholesaler advertises the low-tobacco mixtures and misleadingly describes it as "a special blend of fresh, dark leaves, fruit pulp, honey or molasses, and glycerin. The Shisha is available in a wide variety of flavors, including double apple, strawberry, melon, pineapple, vanilla, pistachio, and rose. This blend contains only 0.5% nicotine and no tar."

However, a recent investigation into Hookah smoking by the ABC news network in Australia found that such advertisements are extremely deceiving, as all raw tobaccos contain 0% tar. The tar actually forms as a product of combustion at the time when the tobacco is heated. The investigation found that due to the heavy volume of smoke inhaled, Hookah smokers are exposed to 36 times more carcinogenic tar and up to 15 times more carbon monoxide (the same toxic gas that is contained in the exhaust fumes of a car) than a cigarette.

Alongside the tar, there are nicotine particles which form and which mostly remain in the water of the Hookah. However, a certain amount does reach the lungs, and 11 seconds later, it reaches the brain. It has been proven that in the typical tobacco Hookah session, a smoker will consume approximately 1.7 times more nicotine than if (s)he smoked a cigarette. Some other harmful gases which are produced from burning tobacco include nitrosamines, acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, hydrogen cyanide, and various volatile hydrocarbons.

Although the aforementioned are the effects of smoking Hookah with a tobacco mixture, smoking low-tobacco or tobacco-free Hookah does not mean that it is harmless, as many youth believe. Any form of smoke being inhaled is unhealthy for the mind and body. The charcoal and other similar material used to heat the tobacco-free mixtures have their own toxins, metals, and cancer-causing chemicals. Diseases such as tuberculosis and hepatitis can also be transmitted by sharing water-pipes. In comparison to non-smokers, Hookah smokers are five times more likely to suffer lung cancer and gum disease.

A 19-year-old sister said that in addition to being a social activity, Hookah smoking is a dangerous form of stress relief, yet it is nonetheless an adventurous experience. She also said she believes that "the strong tobacco mixed with fruit is smooth to smoke and is something I really like doing, even thought it makes me feel dizzy. I know it's unhealthy and dangerous if people get addicted to it, but it's a form of stress relief for me. I don't do it often and wouldn’t encourage people to do so. It's important that people understand the Islamic opinion on Hookah smoking and all the health-related issues too."

Author of this article: Zara Syed
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