Are gambling and alcohol major or minor sins?

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We have found that the best way to answer to your question would be to quote from the  book entitled "Introduction to Islam" by Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah. The particular paragraphs that would be most relevant to your question are as follows:

251. The prohibition of alcoholic drinks is one of the most well-known traits of Islam. It was by gradual steps that the Qur'an had enforced it: "They question thee about alcoholic drink and games of chance; say: In both there is great sin and certain profits for man, yet the sin of them is greater than their usefulness." (Qur'an 2:219). Again (Qur'an 4:43) "O ye who believe! Draw not near unto service of worship when ye are drunk, till ye know that which ye utter . . ." And finally (Qur'an 5:93-94): "O ye who believe! Verily wine and games of chance, and idols, and defining arrows are only infamy of Satan's handiwork; leave it aside, that haply ye may prosper. Satan seeketh only to cast among you enmity and hatred by means of wine and games of chance, and to turn you from remembrance of God and from (His) worship; we'll ye then abstain?" It will not pass unnoticed that in this last verse, the Qur'an includes alcoholic drinks and idolatry in the same category. During his life, the Prophet Muhammad administered forty stripes to those who violated the injunction. The caliph Umar doubled the punishment, arguing that drunkenness lead to obscene loquacity in which one calumniates the chastity of women, for which latter crime, the Qur'an (24:4) has imposed the punishment of eighty stripes; therefore alcoholic drinks should also have the same sanction. That enormous economic loss would be avoided and how many homes would recover peace, if alcohol, so dangerous to health and morality, were given up!

252. Among the acts for which no definite penalty has been prescribed but which are left to the discretion of the judge, we may mention games of chance of all kinds (including lotteries, gambling on the results of races, etc.). Who is not aware of the tragedies of casinos? How many homes have not been ruined in the vain hope of easy gain, and therefore illicit gain? Lotteries, on a national scale, gradually upset the equitable distribution of the country's wealth, and prove to be the source of all economic ills. They also affect politics.


368. In prohibiting these, the Qur'an (5:90) has characterized them as "work of Satan"; and this is for cogent reasons. It is recognised that most of the social evils emanate from the unequal distribution of the national wealth, with some individuals being too rich and others too poor. This results in their exploitation by the rich. In games of chance and lotteries, there is great temptation for quick and easy gain, and often this easy gain is bad for society. Suppose that in racing -- of horses and others -- and in the lotteries, public or private, as well as all other games of chance, the people of a country spend three million pounds every week -- as is the case in certain countries -- in the course of only ten years, a sum of 1,560 million pounds will be collected from a very large number of inhabitants and redistributed among a ridiculously small number. Less than one-percent of the people then thrive at the expense of the remaining 99 percent. In other words, 99 percent are impoverished in order to enrich the scant one-percent, and this creates one-percent of millionaires by systematically ruining the remaining 99 percent. Whether games of chance, including lotteries, are private or nationalized, the evil of accumulating wealth in the hands of the few, at the expense of the vast majority, works with full force. Hence the total prohibition of games of chance and lotteries in Islam. As in capitalistic securities, games of chance bear one-sided risks.


379. We may end this brief sketch by mentioning two prohibitions of considerable importance, which form the characteristic features of the daily life of a Muslim -- games of chance and alcoholic drinks. We have had the occasion to discuss games of chance, where sometimes one spends continuously over many many years without gaining anything in return. What a loss to those who are economically weak! The use of alcohol has the peculiarity that its consumption in small quantities makes one gay and weakens his resolution to drink no more, for when one becomes drunk, one loses control over one's actions. One may then squander money without noticing it. To these evils may be added the unhygienic effects of alcoholic drinks which are then transmitted to children and posterity too [i.e. fetal alcohol syndrome, and the risk of alcoholism running in the family - editor]. One of the Quranic verses (2:219) speaks of it in interesting terms: "They question thee about wine and games of chance. Say: in both is great sin and some profits for man; but the sin of them is greater than their usefulness." (Qur'an 2:219). The Qur'an does not deny that there are certain profits in the use of alcohol, but it declares it as sin against society, against the individual himself, and of course against the Legislator. In another verse (5:90) it relegates it to the same level as idolatry, and declares it to be the handiwork of Satan; and adds, if one would desire to be happy in the two worlds, one should abstain from games of chance and alcoholic drinks.