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What would life be like without coffee and sugar? Without Starbucks?!?
In case you didn’t know, coffee and sugar were introduced to the West by Muslims, and the coffeehouse is a Muslim invention.
Born in Damascus, Syria in 1538 CE, the first coffeehouse predated Starbucks by over 400 years.
This is the story of coffee, and how it became one of the world’s favorite beverages. It begins in the 15th century, on the Horn of Africa.
Tears of God
As far as we know, coffee was first cultivated in 15th century Ethiopia by the Oromo people. They called coffee “buna qala,” which means “tears of God.”
Because they believed that coffee killed cattle, births of both cattle and people were celebrated with a ceremony called “slaughter of the coffee.” For the ceremony, coffee and barley were roasted together in butter as a “symbolic union of coffee and cow.” The ceremony was thought to please unseen beings, as well as to honor the sacredness of life and procreation.
Though it was not yet drunk as a beverage as it is today, coffee soon made its way across the Red Sea to Yemen.
The Sufis of Yemen
In the early days, coffee cherries, like qat leaves (more on those later), were commonly chewed.
Who first used coffee to create the hot, steamy beverage we enjoy today?
That honor goes to Sufi Muslims of Yemen. We find a hint of this origin in English word “coffee,” which traces back to the Arabic word “qahwa.”
Exactly who among the Sufis pioneered the beverage is not known for certain. Some attribute the innovation to Muhammad Al-Dhabhani, a Sufi who had traveled to Ethiopia, then returned Yemen and created the beverage.
In the another version, it was another Sufi, Ali ibn Umar al-Shadhili, who had lived for a time in Southern Ethiopia a the court of the Sultan. He returned to Yemen, with knowledge of the coffee cherry as an edible that promotes wakefulness.
Shadhili first introduced a precursor to coffee that was brewed with qat leaves instead of coffee beans. Qat is a plant that contains cathinone and cathine, roughly the equivalent of amphetamines and cocaine.
Though its use persists even today, qat was outlawed in Yemen on religious grounds, making coffee a practical alternative. Coffee, served as a beverage, was born, and became widely used among Sufis to fuel all-night devotions.
Soon coffee spread throughout the lands of Islam, reaching Cairo, Damascus and Mecca.
Trouble in Mecca
Coffee reached the precincts of the Kaaba, and was widely used among the Sufis, who were often associated with various sins and heresies. As such, it’s no surprise their use of this mysterious black substance aroused suspicion among authorities.
In 1511, Mecca was ruled by the Mamluk Sultanate, and one night, Khair Beg al-Mimar, pasha of the holy city, happened upon some Sufis celebrating the birth of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. The men had assembled by lantern light and were consuming a beverage “in the fashion of diners swallowing an intoxicant.”
Mimar broke up the assembly and ordered the men to go home.
The next day, he called a meeting with scholars from all four of the recognized Sunni schools to rule on whether or not coffee was Islamically permissible. For the occasion, he had even collected some of the liquid in a vessel and offered it for inspection.
The scholars divided their ruling into two parts.
Drinking coffee at gatherings was ruled impermissible, because of the resemblance to assemblies of drunkards at taverns.
As for drinking coffee outside of gatherings, the ruling was postponed until doctors could determine its effects.
Mimar subsequently found two doctors who testified that coffee was psychologically damaging. After hearing their testimony, scholars ruled that drinking coffee was haram, and subject to legal punishment.
The ruling would not last long.
Saved by the Turks
Just a few years later, in 1517, Mecca was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, who overturned the ban on coffee. For good measure, the two doctors who had testified regarding its harmful effects were executed on the orders of Selim I.
Turkey’s first coffeehouse was established in Tahtakale, Istanbul in 1554. However, the status of coffee in Mecca remained ambiguous for many years to come.
Just nine years after the Turks arrived, once again, scholars ruled coffee religiously forbidden. In 1535, preachers inspired grassroots action that led to angry protestors destroying remaining coffeehouses and calling for coffee drinkers to be punished.
At the time, coffeehouses faced complaints because they competed with mosques for the attention of Muslims, and often hosted entertainment that was forbidden, such as performances by female singers, hookah smoking, and opium.
By 1580, scholars in the region had declared that coffee was indeed in the same category as wine, and thus forbidden. Any coffeehouse that was to survive was driven underground.
Gradually, opposition to coffee petered out, and both coffee and the coffeehouse survived and gained acceptance.
Today coffee culture is firmly embedded in the hearts of Muslims, and the lands of Islam.
By 1638, coffee made its first foray into Europe when it arrived in Venice, Italy. At first there were calls to ban the “Muslim drink,” but Pope Clement VIII gave it his blessing, and opposition retreated.
Italy’s first coffeehouse opened in Rome in in 1645, and coffee began to spread across Europe.
The British East India Company helped make the drink popular in England, where in 1654, the Queen’s Lane Coffee House was established. It’s still in existence today.
Coffee was introduced in France in 1657, and in Austria and Poland after the Battle of Vienna in 1683, when supplies were captured from the defeated Turks.
Marriage of Milk and Sugar
Adding milk and sugar to coffee was a European innovation.
Coffee and tea with sugar became Europe’s favorite “soft drugs,” which projected an image of bourgeois standing among its drinkers,
Sugar also came to Europe via the Muslims. Like “coffee,” the English word “sugar” has its roots in Arabic.
First cultivated in Papua New Guinea was early as 8,000 BCE, sugar made its way to India, where it was first granulated. Then it spread to Persia, and from there was passed to the Arabs through their rapid expansion under the banner of Islam.
Medieval Arab entrepreneurs adopted and expanded sugar production, and established plantations in Europe, first in the 9th century in Sicily, and then in Spain, which at the time was mostly under Muslim rule. Andalusia became an important center for sugar production, and sugar soon spread throughout Europe.
By the 15th century, sugar was ready and waiting for its famous marriage to coffee (and milk). 🙂
By 1884, espresso had been developed in Italy, the birthplace of a blend of espresso and steamed milk called “cappuccino.” Variations, such as the latte and cafe au lait, also developed and were popularized in France and Scandinavia respectively.
A whole new genre of art, similar to Turkish ebru, has sprung up resulting in elaborate decorations that grace the top of fancy coffee drinks, adding the final lovely touch. At least until we come up with the next great coffee innovation. 🙂
I wanted to tell this story for a few different reasons.
First, Muslims have contributed more to the human story than they’ve been given credit for.
Second, a lot of things we all enjoy today were a group effort! There’s been a lot more mixing and matching than clashing of civilizations when it comes to food and drink. 🙂
Third, I want us to rethink how we teach and learn history! Have you ever wondered why we seem to learn about history through the lens of war?
This group conquered this group who conquered this group who conquered this group in some other bloody war. Bleh.
I would rather learn history through the story of food and drink!
Isn’t this a more appealing and memorable story than a series of bloody wars?
I sure think so! 🙂
Note: This story is my own, but it was inspired by a book entitled, Tripping With Allah: Islam, Drugs, and Writing. The specific chapter is “Coffee Consciousness,” and the book was written by Michael Muhammad Knight.