How The Middle East Cultivated and Popularised Coffee

For #InternationalCoffeeDay we dive into the Middle Eastern and Islamic origins of coffee. A must-read for coffee lovers!

For #InternationalCoffeeDay we dive into the Middle Eastern and Islamic origins of coffee. A must-read for coffee lovers!

Coffee is one of the world’s most popular beverages and a trusted companion in helping us kick start our day. Coffee has a long and rich history, and the role the Middle East and Muslim countries played in its cultivation and popularisation was crucial. For International Coffee Day, we take a dive into the Middle Eastern origin of coffee.

Who Discovered Coffee?

There are different legends that tell us about the discovery of coffee. The two most popular are that it was discovered by an Arabian shepherd or a doctor by the name of Sheikh Omar.

The Goat who Discovered Coffee

Many inventions and discoveries happen by chance, and coffee was no different. An Arabian shepherd by the name of Kaldi, working in Ethiopia, noticed how his goats became more energised and were unable to sleep at night after eating a certain type of berry. Curious to understand why he tried the berry himself. Suddenly, he found himself super alert. Today, many of us have developed some resistant to the properties of coffee, so you can imagine what it must have done to someone whose body had never had to process coffee!

Kaldi was Arabian, but his religion had not been documented. What we do know is he was also a monk, so most likely he was Christian (although there is such thing as a Sufi monk) He told his fellow monks about the coffee berry, and the entire monastery started consuming it to stay awake for night prayers.

An Exiled Physician Discovers Coffee

The second (less popular) legend attributes the discovery of coffee to a physician by the name of Sheikh Omar. Sheikh Omar lived in Mecca, where for one reason or another he was exiled. Whilst away, Sheikh Omar discovered and ate from the coffee berry and experienced its power. He decided to use it as medicine, boiling the coffee berry in water and administering it to his patients. Eventually, he was un-exiled – probably because the town wanted to be credited with the discovery!

Coffee Consumption Amongst Sufis in Yemen

Both stories are pretty cool. Regardless of which one you want to believe, there is no doubt the Middle East played an integral role in commercialisation of coffee.

Coffee became popular in Yemen circa the 15th century. According to a large majority of Arab historians, the people of Yemen brought back coffee from Ethiopia, where they were mainly used as medicine, lending some credibility to both of the aforementioned coffee discovery stories. Coffee production began on a large scale and was consumed by Sufi Muslims to help them stay awake throughout their night vigil.

According to The World of Caffeine by Bennett Alan Weinberg, the Sufis drank coffee in the evenings twice a week, every Monday and Friday. They’d pour the coffee into a large vessel made of red clay. The book continues to describe how they’d pass the coffee around for everyone to sip whilst chanting, “There is no God, but God, the Master, the Clear Reality.”

Coffee is Commercialised and Exported Across the Islamic World

Once the people of Yemen realised there is money to be made from selling coffee, it moved away from exclusively being used in dhikr sessions, and the Yemenese started exporting it throughout the wider Islamic empire. This was around the 16th century. Soon, we started seeing the appearance of coffee houses in popular Muslim hotspots such as Mecca and Cairo.

It was the people of Persia who made coffee what it is today. One fine day they realised coffee tasted even better if the beans were roasted before being brewed. This drastically enhanced the popularity of coffee!

Coffee Considered Haram by Some Islamic Scholars

At one point in time, there was not a unanimous acceptance of coffee by all Muslims, especially scholars and those who are qualified to give fatwa. Today, we see cryptocurrency leaving many scholars scratching their heads, with people sitting on both sides of the fence. It was the same for coffee. It is totally normal for a new discovery to go through a vigorous examination by Muslim legal schools.

Some scholars deemed coffee as a type of intoxicant that can change our state and argued the drink should be categorised with wine, alcohol and other drugs. The other concern was coffee addiction. Coffee houses became extremely popular and attracted people from all over the Islamic Empire.

Eventually, the famous Al-Azhar University in Egypt put the matter to bed. They argued that coffee houses provide Muslims with an avenue to relax and socialise without having to resort to alcohol (like a pub with only halal drinks). The positive social impact of coffee convinced the previously cynical scholars, who then started frequenting coffee houses, to teach!

Coffee Enters the Rest of the World

The first Europeans to discover coffee in the Middle East were Italians. They brought the coffee back to Venice and other cities. Interestingly, the Christian world was also not convinced of the religious permissibility of coffee. It took for the then Pope Clement VIII to try the coffee and give it religious permissibility. Until then, many Christians would call coffee an invention of Satan and the “wine of Araby.”

Coffee became immensely popular after the legal verdict of the Pope. It was only a matter of time before coffee entered other European countries and became mainstream as we see it today.

Muslims largely have Al-Azhar to thank for religiously legalising coffee, but I suspect it was only a matter of time before coffee would have been given the green light.