The Islamic History of Coffee

Why is there always one crucial historical fact left out of the story?

It is Ramadan, the holy month of Islam, which means that observant Muslims will be fasting from dawn till dusk. Fasting is one of the pillars of Islam, and is practiced to understand the lived realities of the poor and underfed, while also disciplining the spirit and the mind. Muslims rise in the early hours of the morning for a ritual meal, followed by a day of abstinence—not just from food and water, but also from swearing, fighting, lying, and all stimulants. That includes coffee, at least until sunset.

Despite the spiritual inducements to forgive during this holy month, there is an especially vicious bone I have to pick with how the subject of coffee is written about. It seems that there are new books about coffee published every year; this means essays and commentaries where the writer will surely expound at length on all subjects related to coffee— and yet will ignore the first and most essential fact about the history of everyone’s favorite beverage: that coffee was first discovered in the Islamic world, in fifteenth-century Ethiopia to be precise, and first used by Sufi Muslims in Yemen as an aid for prayer and worship.

There’s more. The institution of the coffee-house, popularly associated with the Enlightenment and Europe, was also birthed in the Islamic world, and reached its apex across all the cities of the Levant and Turkey long before it migrated to Europe.

If this is news to you, do not be frightened: I was right there, only two years ago, drunk off coffee and Eurocentric history.

Just the other day, as I was carefully brewing my favorite blend, I happened to read Adam Gopnik’s piece on coffee in the New Yorker. Gopnik is a fellow Canadian, and while I am inclined towards politeness, after I read the essay I felt a savage inner reaction to everything about it, the sort of feeling that post-9/11 experts likened to “Muslim rage” and spent many pages analyzing.

Gopnik was reviewing two new books about the history of coffee, including Jonathan Morris’ 2019 book, Coffee: A Global History. As usual, the critic has a lot to say and displays his broad learning. At one point or another, Gopnik refers to: King Louis XVI; Hunter S. Thompson; the peasants of El Salvador; Virgil’s Georgies; the city of Manchester; Karl Marx; “Bullfighting, boxing, foie gras, and football”; the 90s television shows, Seinfeld and Friends; and every single book apparently published on coffee in the last thirty years.

But you quickly notice, if you know the history, what’s missing. The role of Islam is reduced to a single sentence, mentioned in passing. One could come away from the piece—in a magazine of record—not knowing at all that coffee has Islamic roots. What does the beauty of such prose achieve?

I’ll get to the Eurocentrism that corrupts writings on coffee, but first, the crucial history:

Our English word coffee comes to us from the Turkish word kahveh, itself from the Arabic Qahwah. This latter word was initially applied to other drinks, but after the discovery of coffee, became associated with the newfangled stimulant. Qahwah would famously be referred to be as “the wine of Islam.”

One myth about coffee’s origins is that a ninth century goat-herder named Kaldi observed his animals eating the coffee berries and was amazed by their sudden energy. Kaldi then ingested the red berries himself, and, so goes the legend, started dancing. The Kaldi story is the one most often repeated in the annals of Western coffee literature; it can be neither corroborated nor verified. What is undisputed by historians today is what was already known, and written down, in the letters of sixteenth-century Muslim travelers—the uncredited first historians of coffee: That by the mid-1400s, a mysterious new plant is reported to grow in Ethiopia, then it moves on to Yemen where it is used for prayer.

Sufi Muslims in Yemen would boil up the grounds of their coffee cherry leaves and pass around a dark potion as they prepared for a night of dhikr, or meditative chanting. A sixteenth-century Muslim writer named Abd al-Qadir al-Jaziri noted the habits of the mystics:

“They drank it every Monday and Friday evening, 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 he right, while they recited one of their usual formulas. ‘There is no God, but God, the Master, the Clear Reality.” 

Coffee spread northward to other parts of Arabia, including the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and onto larger cities like Cairo, Aleppo, Damascus, and Constantinople. A new social institution was born in the process, one that would rock the foundations of politics for centuries thereafter: the coffee-house. The first coffee shops in Istanbul were opened in the 1500s by two Syrian merchants, Hakim and Shams, who were invariably made rich by the business. The Islamic world then went coffee-mad.

Coffeehouses sprang up all over the Ottoman Empire, becoming forums for intellectual discussion, as well as successful commercial enterprises in their own right. Poets and writers would pass through, and with everyone’s senses heightened, recite some choice verses or submit their work to critical examination. Heated debates raged about art, science, literature. It is no wonder these original cafes were called, perhaps ironically, mektab-i-irfan, or schools of knowledge.

So popular was the drink that the coffee-houses became direct competitors of mosques, and there were multiple fatwas imposed on the drink. Sheikhs and rulers had their own justifications for banning it: If this watery substance truly intoxicated the mind, then it could be seen as analogous to alcohol and therefore haram. Meanwhile, these caffeinated commoners might get some seditious ideas. More than one rebellion was planned in the coffee houses. Thankfully, the anti-coffee arguments lost the day, and the ensuing centuries.

Through Venetian merchants, coffee would eventually enter Christendom and take on a new life. This is where the contemporary conversations usually begin, some two hundred years late. Over time, Western thinkers would come to rewrite the story to de-emphasize and minimize Islam’s role in giving the world coffee. And like other troubling assumptions, this one continues to trail the writings on coffee until the present day.

The real question is why, with so many words spilled on the subject, and readers clearly interested in the history, are Islam, Arabs, and Muslims excised from the narrative?

The story of coffee fascinated me, the myths, the legends, the migrations. I remember sitting in a Shanghai coffee-shop two years ago and learning the above history. It knocked me cold, this realization that Islam had played a pivotal role in bringing coffee to the world.

Then I wondered why I had assumed coffee must be European.

I should have known better; after all, the best coffee I had tasted had been in Istanbul, in East Jerusalem, in Iraq. Like most people, I had simply assumed what the books and articles all suggested: that coffee was invented and perfected somewhere between Italy and France. My own ignorance disturbed me. This was a history—and historiography—that simply should not be minimized.

What is worth mentioning and why? How will a story be framed? What will be left out? These are not only aesthetic questions but political ones.  And here was another question: Why was it that the parts of the story I found so personally important, could be so blithely reduced by others?

Here is the full sentence in Adam Gopnik’s essay:

“An alternative to alcohol, coffee was central to teetotaling Islamic civilization in the Middle Ages, and spread from Turkey to points west, where the coffeehouse became the cockpit of the Enlightenment, and even up to little Iceland, where it became the national sacrament.”

That’s it.

No mention of Sufis.

No mention of Yemen. 

No mention of Arabs.

Islam is confined to a single sentence, uttered in passing, in a piece that stretches a few thousand words. How’s that for accuracy? 

I can understand why Gopnik may not think The New Yorker audience would be interested in knowing more about coffee’s Islamic roots. Eurocentrism infects the education systems in the West, just as it dominates in literary circles: this tendency to think and care only about European and Western attainments, to the exclusion of others. It is almost predetermined that such a myopic worldview will produce hollow writing.

What I cannot grasp is how a writer could be so incurious—or culturally blinkered— that he glosses over the first two hundred years of his subject. Maybe my disappointment is felt because I expect more. Our assumptions, after all, are shaped by our social milieus. Our tastes, whether in literature or in coffee, are shaped by what our environs deem valuable—and when the surrounding intellectual culture has not made room for the history of others, we get such fabricated, warped conceptions about the past.

From this perch of authority, the Other is considered insignificant. His or her role in making our collective history does not need to be acknowledged. His whole “contribution” to Western civilization—and a “contribution” is all it is—can be casually, off-handedly, condescendingly, omitted—apparently with the approval of everyone concerned. 

It may be the case, if one were to only read Gopnik’s essay, that Islam, the Sufis, and Arabs are all tangential to the broader history of coffee. I would submit that they all have greater relevance than foie gras or Seinfeld.

This is the tragedy of the white, Eurocentric gaze: it is limiting, dulling, narcotizing, for writer and reader alike, and therefore renders even the most fascinating stories into the periphery, and there they usually remain. 

I wasn’t intending to read the book Adam Gopnik purportedly reviewed--Coffee: A Global History, by the historian Jonathan Morris, but I wanted to see how the author of the book handled Islam’s role in coffee’s history, and whether author and reviewer were aligned.

Going in, I assumed that the same pattern would hold: Ten or twenty words on the whole history of Islam and coffee, followed by two hundred pages on Rome and Venice. But I was wrong.

Coffee: A Global History is not only thoroughly researched; it deals with the relationship between Islam and coffee right where it should: at the beginning. The second chapter of the book is entitled “Wine of Islam,” and it traces the development of coffee from Ethiopia through the entire region.

In fact, Jonathan Morris is categorical, and states up-front:

It is certain that for the first two hundred or so years of coffee’s recorded existence, between 1450 and 1650, it was consumed almost exclusively by Muslim peoples whose custom sustained a coffee economy centered around the Red Sea. This was the world from which modern versions of the drink evolved and the foundations of the contemporary coffee house format laid.

The intellectual faults lay entirely with Adam Gopnik, although to be fair to him, most of his peers would have probably done the same thing. All the facts are there, waiting to be referenced. He must have skipped those pages of the book. There is simply no excuse for ignorance here.

The historian seems to intuitively understand the one term that hangs over the history of coffee, just as it hangs, unbeknownst to the literary critic, over Adam Gopnik’s essay. That term is Orientalist. Morris writes:

Coffee’s adoption across Christian Europe reflected the continent’s complex relationship with the Islamic Near East. Outbreaks of fascination with the ‘Orient’ provoked interest in coffee, yet travelers writing in the early seventeenth century, often sought to rescue the beverage from its Muslim associations by reimagining its past.

Some things really never change. This is how the past becomes corrupted; and how Muslim, brown, and black children end up having such distorted self-images. The textbooks have long suggested to them that their pasts are worthless, that they have invented nothing. Their histories are not only unrecorded; they are dealt with through elision and silence. Even when they should have some claim to being tethered to a past of ingenuity and creation, even if once upon a time, long ago, it is cruelly removed from the picture as if it did not happen.

Put simply, much of the history we have been taught—or unconsciously assumed—is incorrect. It is history as fantasy, as gross vulgarization, representative of imaginations that cannot conceive the breadth (or the color) of our human experience. It is the cocktail-circuit-performer’s history, and it deserves to finally, at last, be thrown into the dustbin of its own making.

Coffee, the most unpretentious of beverages, should help us reimagine the historical linkages between cultures and peoples. This substance is an intellectual elixir; a tool for contemplation; a fuel for study and education. It is the one drink save for water that brings all people of all backgrounds together. To relegate Islam’s role is to dishonor the story of coffee.

This Ramadan, as I boil my latest cup—which, admittedly, is Italian—I thank the Sufis and the Muslims of the fifteenth century for the magical brew they bestowed upon us. They were seeking the divine, chanting, praying, and many centuries later, we too are removed from the world, isolated, quarantined. Silence reigns. The cup is ready. The battle begins.

(Artwork credit: Postcard from Addis Abba; A Turkish Coffeehouse, Constantinople, 1854, by Amedeo Preziosi; An Arab Interior, 1881, by Arthur Melville)