On Coffee, Islam, and History

Further Notes On Our Favorite Elixir

In 1961, the English historian Edward Hallett Carr rose to deliver a series of lectures at Cambridge University on the philosophy of history. E.H. Carr was already one of the most influential thinkers in Britain; he had been a diplomat in the Foreign Office during World War One and through the mid-1930s, and was reputed for his multivolume histories of the Soviet Union and his work on international relations. 

The lectures, later published as a book, asked a prodigious question that formed their title: What is History? It was a slim work, although one that directly attacked the foundational assumptions of history-writing at the time.

E.H. Carr wrote:

It is used to be said that facts speak for themselves. This is, of course, untrue. The facts speak only when the historian calls on them...The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy, but one which is very hard to eradicate.

What is History? caused something of a stir among the dusted gnomes who gathered in Trinity College, Cambridge, to listen. At the time, the British intellectual elite were wedded to the idea of positivism, or the belief that there was an objective set of historical facts “out there,” and all the historian had to do was assemble and report them. Carr argued that this was nonsense: The historian was not objective; neither were the facts he selected, arranged, and interpreted.

Carr was quick to note that the subjectivity of the past and the historical method did not mean that all facts were of equal weight, or that one interpretation was as good as another. He warned against relativism and noted there were still standards that must be used in approximating truth. Still, it was a liberating insight, since it meant that all those supposedly “objective” historians who had either excised or exoticized “the East” in their narratives were often simply wrong.

E.H. Carr’s lectures come to mind in light of my recent essay on the Islamic history of coffee. The piece elicited some strong responses, as any important subject should. One of the critiques was that my argument minimizes Ethiopia. To which I say: Fair enough. The intention of the essay was to center the Islamic civilization, on one of the first days of Ramadan no less, as a response to a New Yorker piece that almost completely ignored the first two hundred years of recorded coffee history, which happens to be Islamic history as well. This does not lessen the significance or the particularities of other unique histories, especially not Ethiopia’s, since the story of coffee begins there.

I wanted a tight and focused argument, which meant many things were left unsaid, but there were plenty of fascinating threads and stories I discovered in my research.

So, by popular demand, here are some further notes on our favorite elixir:

Whether eaten or prepared as a drink, coffee was known in Ethiopia for centuries, especially for its medicinal properties. There is a question of when the leap is made from eating the plant to making the beverage. It is possible that coffee was used in Ethiopia from the time the first Homo Sapiens tried those berries and realized they would stimulate the mind, and therefore improve the odds of survival. 

Jonathan Morris, author of Coffee: A Global History, helpfully observes:

The Oromo tribe, occupying a large swathe of southern Ethiopia, including the Kaffa and Buno regions in which Arabica coffee is indigenous, prepare a variety of foodstuffs and beverages utilizing different elements of the plant. These include kuti, tea made from lightly roasted young plant leaves, hoja, combining the berry’s dried skins with cow’s milk, and bunna qela, in which dried coffee beans are roasted with butter and salt to produce a solid stimulating snack, carried on expeditions and eaten to heighten energy levels.

Of course, the histories of Ethiopia and Yemen are also deeply entwined. And Islamic history is also part of Ethiopian history. If we turn to the writings of Muslim thinkers, it is apparent that they traveled between the Yemen and Abyssinia frequently; so too did goods, commerce, culture, and ideas, both before and long after the birth of Islam.

Abd al-Qadir al-Jaziri, the earliest chronicler of coffee, writes in the mid-1500s that when coffee was taken up in Yemen, it was made popular thanks to the Sufi mufti Muhammad al-Dhabani, who had gone to Ethiopia: 

The reason for his introducing coffee, according to what we heard, was that some affair had forced him to leave Aden and go to Ethiopia, where he stayed for some time. [There] he found the people using qahwa, though he knew nothing of its characteristics. After he had returned to Aden, he fell ill, and remembering [qahwa], he drank it and benefited by it. He found that among its properties was that it drove away fatigue and lethargy, and brought to the body a certain sprightliness and vigor.

Implied here is that coffee is already being used across the Red Sea. Indeed, Ethiopia would be the sole source of coffee until the 1540s, and to this day, there are elaborate coffee ceremonies held before taking the popular beverage. It is from Ethiopia that coffee makes its first migration to Yemen, where there begins a religious craze, later a regional craze which spreads across the Islamic empire, then onwards to Europe, and around the world.

Too often, the Islamic part is wholly expurgated from the story; my response was to put it back in. But there were many facts and stories I had to leave out. This does not lessen the importance or the significance of these unique histories associated with coffee. Rather, it suggests an even greater urgency for more narratives, essays, and books—written by diverse authors and not the same few faces.

Some of these stories excluded are fascinating in their own right, and deserve their own separate treatments. Wherever coffee went, there emerged a story worth telling. In Persia, where the roasting of beans was mastered, the coffee-houses developed notorious reputations as places of lust. They were eventually nearly all converted into tea-houses. In Europe, the Pope tasted coffee and, naturally, wanted to make it Christian.

The following is taken from Mark Pendergrast’s book, Uncommon Grounds: 

Pope Clement VIII, who died in 1605, supposedly tasted the Muslim drink at the behest of his priests, who wanted him to ban it. “Why, this Satan’s drink is so delicious,” he reputedly exclaimed, “that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall fool Satan by baptizing it and making it a truly Christian beverage.”

A few decades later, women’s movements began to oppose the new tonic. An entire separate history could be written that shows how gendered the consumption and social life around coffee was from the start. In 1674, The Women’s Petition Against Coffee was circulated, denouncing “the Excessive use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called Coffee…which has so Eunucht our Husbands, and Crippled our more kind gallants.” One cannot help but laugh at how the past echos the present: The coffee-houses initially excluded women, and it took many years of struggle for women to win the right to enjoy this radical beverage with the same privileges as their male counterparts.

Finally, there’s my personal favorite story, which was also left on the cutting room floor. This is the story of Baba Budan, an Indian Sufi who lived in the sixteenth century, and is credited with bringing coffee to India.

Sometime in the 1500s, Baba Budan went for Hajj. On the way back to India, he stopped by the port town of Mocha, Yemen and tried coffee for the first time, suddenly becoming so excitable that he rushed to bring it back home. The only problem was the Ottoman Turks had strict export controls in place to protect their monopoly. What did Baba Budan do? Some say he hid seven coffee beans in his beard. Others claim he hid numerous beans in his garments. Either way, Baba Budan somehow managed to smuggle coffee out of Yemen and eventually grew it in Karnataka for his disciples, in the hills that still bear his name. Today, Hindus and Muslims alike revere Baba Budan—and who wouldn’t? He was the first true Indian Uncle.

These stories do not end, nor should the debates they provoke. There is always more to say, and much of it should be said by others. In the meantime, there is still a lot of Eurocentric and Orientalist baggage to unload—generations and centuries of baggage, and it will take a generation of writers to accomplish the task. But I view all this as a necessary enterprise, an intellectual corrective, one that is long overdue and over time, will lead to a richer and more complex understanding of the past.

This is what the Notes project is all about: The belief in unconsidered stories. The truths buried in disregarded narratives. The polemic and the response. The history as told from the dispossessed, particular in voice and tone, but aspiring, as it must, towards the universal.

(Artwork Credit: Representatives of Foreign Powers, by Henri Rousseau, 1907)