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Origins of coffee

How an Islamic drink converted to Christianity.

There is a lot of contention and legends where the actual first use of coffee was discovered. From an Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi who saw his goats start dancing after eating from the plant. To an exiled Sheikh Omar who after trying to eat the bean, out of starvation, boiled it to soften the hard exterior. But the most popular “Father of Coffee” is the Sufi founder Sheikh al-Shadhili*. He was a very learned young Sheikh and traveled a lot for his studies. When he returned to Yemen he came with the knowledge that not only can the beans be eaten, but can be boiled as a drink that energizes and awakens.

Sufism is one of the earliest dimensions of Islam originating in Yemen. Think of Sufism to Islam like Kabballah is to Judaism, it is a mystical ethos that focuses a lot on meditation. The very first communal practice of coffee drinking was started by the Sufis. By the 15th Century, it was a popular drink for Sufists practicing Dhikr, a rhythmic form of devotion often performed at night. The prayers required a lot of concentration and the drink was used to help that.

Unknown artist’s depiction of Dhikr
Unknown artist’s depiction of Sufis practicing Dhikr

The Sufis called this new drink qahwah, which originally refers to a type of wine, and since alcohol is forbidden in Islam this was the closest substitute. Insomuch that early Islamic leaders even tried banning the drink, saying that its effects were too similar to alcohol. That is where the etymological term Coffee comes from. Once the Yemenites realized that there is serious money to be made off the coffee bean they started exporting it all over the Islamic world. The port city they used to export this stuff was called Mocha. Even today Mocha beans from Yemen are one of the most sought after beans, noted for its distinctive flavor.

800px-Coffee_Plant_Uganda
Coffee berries, inside these, are the beans that are used for coffee.

For the next century, the drink was still associated with the Sufis, as coffee houses opened where the religion spread. The biggest mark in the early 16th century of how far it spread, is in 1554 when a coffee house opened in Istanbul then the capital of the Ottoman Empire. In that era the Ottoman Empire was in the middle of its greatest expansion, this really helped the advancement of this new drink. It was the Persians who later improved the drink by roasting the beans instead of boiling them as the Sufis were doing. Once it was popular in the Middle East, it did not take long to spread to Europe, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Italian merchants in the Middle East bought the aromatic drink to the Christian world starting in Venice. The Christian religious authorities were initially wary of this new Arabic drink that had intoxicating results. Somewhere in early 1600, it was bought before to rule on this new phenomenon. The pope wisely decided to taste it before banning it and reportedly exclaimed “This devil’s drink is so delicious…we should cheat the devil by baptizing it!”

Pope Clement VII
Pope Clement VII
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COMMENTS

Jack and Gail

March 22, 2017 Reply

What a wonderful and warm historical account of the coffee history. We shall read and re-read this account at morning coffee time. Thank You

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