In The Mohammedan Bean: The Secret History of Islam and Coffee, Abdul-Rehman Malik entertainingly tells the story of how your morning coffee reached you from its origins in Ethiopia – in an intriguing tale of a herd of goats hyper on caffeine, Yemeni Sufi mystics, Ottoman coffeehouses, fatwas, bans and a Papal edict.
The perfect brew is an integral part of many people’s day, and the surge in the popularity of coffee in recent years has led to a proliferation of cafés. This is a welcome halal alternative for socialising in the UK, where twenty-five years ago nearly all socialising revolved around alcohol and the pub, meaning that Muslims often had to excuse themselves from social events. Fast-forward to the present day and the café is now a vibrant venue to meet in, present on most street corners in town centres, that Muslims can embrace and feel comfortable in.
But coffee and Muslims have a history that reaches much further back than a couple of decades, and it’s no coincidence that the café is an environment in which we feel at home. Tracing the story of coffee from its origins in Ethiopia through its popularity among Sufi orders in Yemen and then to Mecca, Cairo and Istanbul, Abdul Rehman Malik asks “Why was the coffee house so important? The coffeehouse arguably is the first truly social institution of sobriety.”
Known in the Muslim world at least for its medicinal properties from the early 10th century, coffee drinking became widespread through Yemeni Sufi orders in the 15th century, spreading from there to the rest of the Muslim world, and then to Europe. Indeed, the English word coffee, and the Italian word caffè, together with its iterations in other European languages, come from kahveh, the Turkish version of the Arabic word qahwah.
Coffeehouse culture really took off in Istanbul in the sixteenth century. Once coffee became popular in the Ottoman court, the position of Chief Coffee Maker was established, with the role of brewing the perfect pot of coffee for the Sultan and his guests. Coffee drinking spread from the Sultan’s court, becoming popular with the Ottoman aristocracy and then the general public. With the opening of coffeehouses, drinking coffee became a social activity, people meeting to drink coffee, discuss ideas and concerns, listen to stories and play chess and backgammon. The popularity of coffeehouses also attracted government spies who tried to gage public opinion by listening to the debates and conversations that took place there.
Coffee fatwas, bans and edicts
In The Mohammedan Bean: The Secret History of Islam and Coffee, Abdul-Rehman Malik gives us the forgotten history of fatwas, bans and edicts issued regarding the drinking of coffee, which has caused controversy more than once, and in different religious and cultural settings. Attempts to issue fatwas and ban coffee on religious and political grounds did not gain enough traction to stop the spread and popularity of the drink in the Muslim world through. In Europe, coffee was initially also viewed with suspicion, due to it being a drink popular in Muslim lands. Urged to ban the drinking of coffee, Pope Clement VIII (1536-1605) insisted on tasting it first, and after tasting it approved the drinking of it, leading to its spread in Europe. The first coffee house opened in England in 1650, and by 1700 coffeehouses in London had become popular. These coffee houses became centres of debate, as in the Muslim world, and attempts were also made to ban them, as places potentially fomenting political unrest. Viewed in the UK as coming from the Ottoman Empire, coffeehouses usually had signs depicting an Ottoman outside them, indicating that coffee was served in the establishment, with names such as The Sultan’s Head, the Saracen’s Head or the Turk’s Head.
The Mohammedan Bean: The Secret History of Islam and Coffee reveals a surprising history of the coffee bean and its links to the Muslim world, in a fascinating tale to savour as you enjoy your next cup.