Many people waken and have their morning reviver or spark-me-up: coffee. Or purchase coffee “to go”, that is, take-away coffee. Modern compassion is to ‘pay one forward’, that is, to buy a coffee for the poor, on spec. Nonetheless, the humble coffee has an interesting religious connotation and history. It all began with staying awake, that one might keep to one’s prayers … …
One colourful legend, among many, for the origins of the beverage coffee says that a devout sheik named Omar was once banished from Mecca by evil rivals. Famished and wandering in the mountains, he came across the green coffee beans and tried to eat them. But when they were too hard for his teeth, he tried boiling them down,and the fragrant drink was discovered. When the political scene in Mecca changed, Omar returned, was recognised as a living saint, and both he and his discovery became popular.
Within the Islamic world there was and is a sect known as the Sufi, a mystical community who believe that prayer and meditation can open the believer’s heart to the presence of God. Particularly important to the Sufi is the practice of Dhikr, of praying and repeating the name of God frequently in meditation. The Sufi were particularly fond of coffee, as it aided them in their meditations, which often occurred in the long hours of the night. As Sufism spread out of the Arabian peninsula and farther in the Islamic world, their favourite drink spread as well.
Islam has historically encouraged merchant trade back to the days of the Prophet himself, and soon Muslim traders found that there was serious money to be made in the coffee trade. By good fortune, green coffee beans have a very long shelf life, which meant that they could be sent on long sea routes and still be good at the time of sale. By the 16th century, Yemen was growing and exporting coffee beans to all parts of the Islamic world and there were coffee houses in Mecca, Cairo and beyond. When the Persians discovered that coffee’s taste could be further enhanced by roasting the beans before brewing them, the drink became yet more popular still.
This is not to say that coffee was without controversy. Islam forbids the use of wine or intoxicants, and a few religious authorities argued that coffee should be included among them. Some mullahs complained that the faithful were actually being lured away from the mosques by the attraction of coffee houses. In 1539, coffee houses were caught staying open in Cairo during the daylight fast of Ramadan, for which they were forcibly closed by the sultan – but only for a few days.
Coffee found its advocates in the academic world of the prestigious Egyptian University of the Al-Azhar, long recognised for its scholarship in Quranic matters. Muslim jurists and scholars argued that coffee had been consumed even in Mecca in the earliest days, and furthermore it provided merchants and labourers a tavern without wine where they could relax, have fellowship and avoid the sins of alcohol. Unable to beat the coffee drinkers, the mullahs soon joined them in the coffee houses, and soon the houses became centres of teaching and religious reflection. Thanks to the religious teachers’ presence, soon coffee houses were being called schools of the wise. Crafty businessmen also invited poets and puppeteers into their coffee house to appeal to the masses and broadened the appeal.
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. Shortly thereafter, coffee became all the rage in Italy, and from there spread by other merchants to Germany, Holland and England.
In 1657, the Queen’s Lane Coffee House opened up in the city of Oxford, and the last I checked they were still in business. Half a century later there were 300 coffee houses in England, and the rest is history.
I know some Christian communities disapprove the use of coffee on health grounds, but they are made of stronger mettle than I. As I sip my first of several cups of coffee in the morning and prepare for the adventures of the day, perhaps I should silently thank both the Al-Azhar and the Vatican for their religious approval. Without my daily brew, not much religion could possibly get done.