The Muhammadan Bean: The Secret History of Islam and Coffee
“I shall mention in passing just one example of a gift from the Arabs that I for one am rather grateful for: coffee -- especially as it was originally banned in Europe as a 'Muslim drink.” ― Jim Al-Khalili
On of the things I love about Radio 4 is its variety. Book of the Week, In our Time, Just a Minute, Afternoon Play are just a few of the delights that await the listener.
Recently I have just been listening to a fascinating Radio 4 documentary about coffee and Islam about which I knew nothing, and speaking to friends, they were in as complete ignorance as I was. This is the summary of the programme:
“It is the second most traded commodity or planet and second only to water as the most consumed beverage. Coffee is the liquid fuel that makes the world go round. Yet, few coffee drinkers realize that they really owe a debt of gratitude to Islamic civilization for truly discovering, cultivating and popularizing coffee. From its very origins, Muslim saints, traders, entrepreneurs and sultans have been at the very heart of coffee's incredible history. In this entertaining and interactive presentation, journalist, activist and coffee obsessive Abdul-Rehman Malik will lead us on a journey from the zawiyas of Yemen to the alleyways of Mecca, from the grand cafes of Istanbul to cobblestones of mercantile London. “
This was a fascinating programme. I never realise that coffee originated in the regions of Yemen and Ethiopia. This was about coffees little know story about its Islamic roots.
There is a wonderful apocryphal tale about the discovery of coffee, dating from around 1671, which is almost certainly false, but it is a great story:
“A 9th-century Ethiopian goat-herder, Kaldi, noticed the energizing effects when his flock nibbled on the bright red berries of a certain bush, chewed on the fruit himself. His exhilaration prompted him to bring the berries to a monk in a nearby monastery. But the monk disapproved of their use and threw them into the fire, from which an enticing aroma billowed, causing other monks to come and investigate. The roasted beans were quickly raked from the embers, ground up, and dissolved in hot water, yielding the world's first cup of coffee.”
In fact, the first recorded mention of coffee comes in the middle of the 15th century, in Yemen's Sufi monasteries. Coffee was being exported from Ethiopia to Yemen, where the traders began to cultivate the bean. The Sufis used coffee as a way of energising themselves during their nocturnal devotions.
Although coffee is now produced in hot climates like Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, Vietnam and Indonesia, it is not a product of the New World but of the old. And by 1414, it was known in Mecca and in the early 1500s was spreading to Egypt from the Yemeni port of Mocha.
As its popularity grew, coffeehouses specializing in the new drink began to spring up in all the major cities of the Muslim world: Cairo, Istanbul, Damascus, and Baghdad.
Ibn 'Abd al-Ghaffa describes dervish meetings in Cairo in the 16th century:
“They drank coffee every Monday and Friday eve, putting it in a large vessel made of red clay. Their leader ladled it out with a small dipper and gave it to them to drink, passing it to the right, while they recited one of their usual formulas, mostly ‘La illaha il'Allah...’”
John McHugo notes that: “Coffee houses were a new institution in which men met together to talk, listen to poets and play games like chess and backgammon. They became a focus for intellectual life and could be seen as an implicit rival to the mosque as a meeting place.”
As Abdul Malik points out, it was so popular that it was even drunk in the Sacred Mosque of Mecca itself, until the religious authorities issued a fatwa against it in the 16th century:
“With no pubs and inns in sight, coffeehouses would bring about a social revolution within the Islamic world. They were the very first spaces where people of all social classes could come together to discuss news and gossip. Consequently, the drink was persecuted by those in authority.”
But this could not stamp out coffee. All attempts at banning coffee failed even when it involved the death penalty during the reign of Murad IV (1623-40). Religious scholars eventually came to a pragmatic consensus that coffee was, in principle, permissible.
In Europe, coffee was at first denounced as the “Muslim drink” by Catholic authorities but was still made inroads against that tide. As Gregory Elder explains:
“It was Italian merchants who visited the Middle East who brought coffee back to the Christian world, first to Venice and then to other cities. Some Italian religious authorities were suspicious of the Muslim drink. One opponent called coffee the "bitter invention of Satan" and another called it the ‘wine of Araby.’ But in 1600, the matter was taken to the Vatican for resolution. Pope Clement VIII decided to sample a cup before ruling on the matter and pronounced it good.”
According to legend, the Pope sipped the steaming cup of coffee and pronounced: “This devil’s drink is delicious. We should cheat the devil by baptizing it.”!
Shortly thereafter, coffee became all the rage in Italy, and from there spread by other merchants to Germany, Holland and England.”
Abdul Malik found the site of London's very first coffee house and explained how coffee took the capital by storm, leading to a backlash from those who despised the drink they labelled an "abominable, heathenish liquid" and a "bitter Muhammedan gruel".
London historian Dr Matthew Green explains how it came to London and why there was such a backlash::
“Every time you sip a cup of coffee in London, you are participating in a ritual that stretches back 360 years to a muddy churchyard in the heart of the City. London’s first coffeehouse (or rather, coffee stall) was opened by an eccentric Greek named Pasqua Roseé in 1652. While a servant for a British Levant merchant in Smyrna, Turkey, Roseé developed a taste for the exotic Turkish drink and decided to import it to London. People from all walks of life swarmed to his business to meet, greet, drink, think, write, gossip and jest, all fuelled by coffee.”
“Pasqua sold over 600 dishes of coffee a day. Worse still, coffee came to be portrayed as an antidote to drunkenness, violence and lust; providing a catalyst for pure thought, sophistication and wit”
But attempts were made by Charles II to crush them; as places where politics might be discussed, they could be seen as fermenting non-alcoholic sedition:
“By 1663 there were 82 coffeehouses within the old Roman walls of the City. They arose from the ashes of the Great Fire and went on to survive Charles II’s attempt to crush them in 1675. It concerned the king that for a measly one-penny entrance fee anyone could discuss politics freely.”
“By the dawn of the eighteenth century, contemporaries counted over 3,000 coffeehouses in London although 21st-century historians place the figure closer to 550.”
From Ethiopia and Yemen to conquer the Islamic world, and then Europe and the world, the story of coffee is a truly fascinating one, and thanks to this Radio 4 documentary, I feel that I am not quote so ignorant on the subject as I have been before. When I sip my coffee at lunchtime in the cafe, I will remember a debt to those Sufi mystics of long ago and raise a cup to them.
"They have some special Turkish coffee here," said Mr. Quin. "Really good of its kind. Everything else is, as you have guessed, rather unpalatable. But one can always have a cup of Turkish coffee, can one not? Let us have one because I suppose you will soon have to get on with your pilgrimage, or whatever it is."
The Turkish coffee was brought in little cups of oriental pattern. Ali placed them with a smile and departed. Mr. Satterthwaite sipped approvingly.
"As sweet as love, as black as night and as hot as hell. That is the old Arab phrase, isn't it?"
Harley smiled over his shoulder and nodded.