It’s late on a recent Wednesday night when I find the gates of heaven. They’re not at all like I was told they would be at madrassa. For starters, they’re more like a fantastical, multicolor elevator than a classic gate of any kind. Moreover, instead of Jerusalem, I find them inside a concrete block apartment in Brixton, South London. In fairness, I am tripping balls.
For a night at least, I’ve become a “psychonaut.” Other, more experienced psychonauts surround me as we embark upon a long night of Muslim prayer and meditation aided by a tab of LSD. When I arrived, one of them handed me a small plastic baggie with a thin, turquoise sheet of acid inside. Ali, a lanky guy with a scruffy beard, baggy jeans and a T-shirt that reads “Don’t Panic, I’m Islamic!,” suggested that I tear it in half, especially if I’ve never dropped acid before (I haven’t). Ultimately, I decided to go even safer — ripping off slightly more than a quarter of a tab before placing it on my tongue and letting it dissolve.
For many Muslims in the West, the relationship between faith and drugs is complicated. There are certain things directly prohibited in the Quran (e.g., pork and booze), but because it doesn’t directly take a position on drugs — including hallucinogens — some Muslims don’t just feel less guilty when taking them, they believe drugs can actually enhance their religious experiences.
For example, in Tripping With Allah: Islam, Drugs and Writing, Michael Muhammad Knight, a Christian-turned-Muslim, describes drinking ayahuasca and encountering the “divine feminine” in the form of Fatima, the name of the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter as well as the Catholic title given to the Virgin Mary. His argument isn’t that a more authentic version of Islam can be found through psychedelics, but rather, that chemically induced religious experiences can help those who worship develop their own, individualized relationships with God.
As for me, I don’t really do drugs — mostly because the weed in the U.K. sucks. But when Bilal, one of the aforementioned “psychonauts,” got in touch with me last year, he mentioned how hallucinogens like LSD and shrooms had brought him closer to God and Islam. His story intrigued me, as someone constantly in conflict with the Muslim faith and the value of belief itself — but somehow, through it all, still committed. So I wondered if an acid trip was what I needed to finally get off the fence.
Bilal, 28, is a lawyer who works at a large corporate firm where he specializes in mergers and acquisitions (yes, like Patrick Bateman). He’s short and of average build; when he’s not wearing suits, he exclusively wears hoodies and sweatpants. In terms of his faith, he, too, was dissatisfied with how he was taught Islam as a kid. “All I remember is the guidelines and rules being hammered into my brain,” he tells me, recalling years of rote recitations of the Quran and the harsh discipline that came with it. By 15, he explains that he could have recited the entire Quran while half asleep — probably because his dad would wake him up in the middle of the night and demand he recite verses — but, he says, “It meant nothing to me, really. I had no benefit from it. I didn’t even know what I was praying for.”
When they get older, most guys like Bilal typically either abandon religion completely or adopt more secular approaches, referring to themselves as “cultural Muslims” or someone who was merely “raised in a Muslim household.” But Bilal and other Muslim psychonauts didn’t like either of those options. So they added a third: Allah-by-Acid. “It’s weird because I’ve always had a belief in the divine and in God and his abilities,” Bilal tells me. “But [psychedelics] helped me affirm and connect more deeply with these things.”
While waiting for my quarter-tab to kick in, I sat in a circle with the other guys, who were all cross-legged and slowly moving their bodies to-and-fro. The practice is called muraqabah, a kind of repetitive meditation that aims to understand the “heart’s relation to its creator.” But now, as I start to feel warmer and more light-headed, I’m becoming far less aware of the pyschonauts’ chants. I also notice that the colors of their prayer mats, Arabic paintings and pastel shirts have become visibly brighter. I find it all oddly relaxing, especially in the context of prayer. To that end, it’s the first time that, while praying, I’m completely undistracted by my surroundings or stray thoughts.
I’m quickly understanding why so many other religions have long incorporated drugs into their worship. Soma, a plant-based drug, is often referenced in the Sanskrit mythologies of Hindu gods. Meanwhile, nepenthe, the “drug of forgetfulness,” is referenced multiple times in The Odyssey when Homer confronts the Greek gods. In terms of Christianity, the Bible directly references several psychotropics: for instance, in the Old Testament, Leah, wife of Isaac, is said to have taken the hallucinogenic aphrodisiac mandrake. Some theologians also speculate as to whether Moses was tripping when he saw the Burning Bush, or indeed, whether the revelations passed down to the Prophet Muhammad by Gabriel were influenced by the presence of mind-altering substances.
More largely, notes Richard J. Miller, author of Drugged: The Science and Culture Behind Psychotropic Drugs, the development of medicine in the Middle Ages was directly tied to the development of a formalized Christian church — and that the effects of fungal-based psychoactive medicine, which could cause hallucinations, was seen as “that which causes God to [exist] within an individual.”
I’m not seeing God, exactly — Bilal had told me that in one session, he’d seen visions of the Prophet Muhammad’s winged horse — but my ability to concentrate remains remarkably strong, effectively blocking out all the background noise (the chanting, the fact that I’m wearing mismatched socks, my eternal need to tweet). The act of prayer had slowed down, and I could finally focus on my body movements and synching my mind with them.
I close my eyes again, and I begin to see the changing of luminous colors — bright purples, pinks and blues and deep reds. For their part, the psychonauts transition to reciting Surah Maryam, one of the Quran’s most important prayers. As they do so, for the first time in my religious life, I notice patterns in the language — the Quran’s repetitions, symbolic of the book’s poetic structures, and which Arabic words are emphasized in the recitation — the parts that, coincidentally, act as reminders of God not as a tyrannical man, but as a benevolent being that could also embody the divine and forgiving feminine. (Which basically means that God isn’t just a single being or thing, and that God represents endless possibilities and relationships with those who worship.)
When the LSD wears out in the morning, the psychonauts head to a nearby cafe to get breakfast. I, however, stay behind and stand on the balcony of the apartment, watching the sun go up. Bilal asks how my first trip was, and whether I’d become closer to God.
“I’m not sure,” I respond. “But I definitely understand him better.”