The Islamic Roots of Coffee - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Islamic Roots of Coffee

The Islamic Roots of Coffee

By Lorena O'Neil



That Starbucks coffee in your hand? It dates back to Sufi monks in Yemen. 

By Lorena O'Neil

For many Americans, waking up and brewing coffee is as vital as breathing. But not everyone knows where that hot cup of joe originally came from. We’re talking the great-to-the-thousandth grandfather of the coffee beans in your mug.

The hot, caffeinated beverage that invigorates the Western world was born in Yemen. Back when coffee was called the Arabic name qahwa, it was drunk by Sufi monks who were the first to brew the drink. But first, someone had to find the beans.


There are a host of legends about how coffee beans were discovered. The most famous is that in the sixth or seventh century, an Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi noticed his goats were acting particularly energetic after eating the fruit off of some wild bushes. Another legend says an exiled physician priest named Sheik Omar ate wild coffee berries from the wilderness where he lived. Omar would boil the berries and give the drink to his patients and followers as medicine. When residents from Mocha, the city where he had originally lived, heard of this magical brew, they invited him to return.

Their leader ladled it out with a small dipper and gave it to them to drink, passing it to the right …

Arab historians agree that coffee drinking began in Yemen in the middle of the fifteenth century. This was after Arab traders went to coffee-mecca Ethiopia, where coffee beans were primarily used for medicinal purposes, and brought back coffee to cultivate for the first time. Abd Al-Qadir al-Jaziri wrote an early account about the history of coffee and explained that Sufi monks would use the drink as a stimulant, to help them stay awake during their meditation and prayers.

“They drank it every Monday and Friday eve, putting it in a large vessel made of red clay,” Jaziri writes of the Sufi, as recounted in The World of Caffeine. “Their leader ladled it out with a small dipper and gave it to them to drink, passing it to the right, while they recited one of their usual formulas, ‘There is no God, but God, the Master, the Clear Reality.’”

Qahwa originally meant wine in Arabic.

Coffee drinking eventually spread beyond the Sufi monasteries to coffeehouses in Islamic cities. Not everyone welcomed the new beverage trend. Some Orthodox Muslims felt it too similarly resembled hashish and wine, and should be banned. Mecca’s chief of police, Kha’ir Beg, decided to go as far as banning the drink, closing down coffeehouses and confiscating and burning coffee. “Coffee drinking continued surreptitiously,” reports The World of Caffeine,  until Beg’s boss, the sultan of Cairo, got wind of the ban and immediately overturned it.

Nowadays, coffee has permeated societies around the world, and it would be hard to imagine a Prohibition era with coffee as an illegal substance. Imagine the uproar in the U.S.! The screams of Brooklyn hipsters alone would be deafening. 

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