Answered by Shaykh Faraz A. Khan
Question: Did Imam Abu Hanifa distinguish between wine and beer?
Answer: Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullah,
I pray this finds you in the best of health and states.
The short answer is yes, Imam Abu Hanifa did make a distinction between wine and beer with respect to legal categorization and some rulings, yet in any case, beer as consumed today is impermissible and sinful.
Imam Abu Hanifa — may Allah have mercy on him — had a very nuanced understanding of this issue, namely:
(a) Linguistically, khamr (wine) is alcohol derived from grapes. This is what is prohibited by decisive, unequivocal texts of the Qu’ran (see 5:90) and Noble Sunna, as the hadiths of its prohibition together comprise multiple-chain transmission (tawatur). Its prohibition is also confirmed by scholarly consensus.
Hence it is categorically unlawful (haram) and filthy (najis). Consuming any amount is unlawful, even if without intoxication. Moreover, deeming it lawful would entail disbelief.
(b) Alcohol derived from dates or raisins is also unlawful and filthy, again regardless of the amount consumed.
The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Intoxicants are from these two trees,” while pointing to grapevines and date-palms. [Sahih Muslim]. There is also consensus of the companions regarding this type of alcohol.
Yet this ruling is not based on decisive, unequivocal texts as is the case with khamr; its unlawfulness is rather based on legal judgment (ijtihad), and so its unlawfulness is not as severe as with khamr. Hence, deeming it lawful would not entail disbelief, although it would render the person religiously corrupt (fasiq).
(c) As for alcohol derived from honey, fig, wheat, barley or corn, it is impermissible and filthy when used *as an intoxicant*: that is, as intoxicants are used, in an amount that intoxicates, or if used in vain (lahw).
If not used in any such manner, it would be permissible and not filthy.
This ruling differs from the above since it is based on hadiths that are not decisive and unequivocal, although they are rigorously authentic (sahih), and since it is based also on legal analogy (qiyas).[Mawsili, Ikhtiyar; Marghinani, Hidaya; Maydani, Lubab]
This is the categorization of Imam Abu Hanifa, based on his ijtihad. Beer would fall under the third category, as it is usually made from barley. The contemporary use of beer, however, clearly does not meet the criteria for permissibility. Beer is therefore sinful to consume and a filthy substance.
The ijtihad of Imam Abu Hanifa is a great mercy to the umma, especially today with respect to synthetic alcohols and the like which are widespread and prevalent in numerous products. Please see this related answer for a detailed fatwa on the matter:
As the fatwa states, so as to reiterate the matter, alcohols from the third category would be permissible only if the following criteria are met:
(a) it is not used as an intoxicant;
(b) it is not used as intoxicants as used (i.e. for alcoholic consumption, even a little);
(c) it is not used in an amount that intoxicates;
(d) it is not used in vain (lahw).
And Allah knows best.