Coffee beans. Photo via Pexels.
CAIRO - 17 July 2017: Arabs are known to have been the founding fathers of the obscenely popular drink, coffee, and although we are under the impression that coffee has always been part of the Arabic history; the drink was not warmly welcomed during the pre-modern Middle East.
The Arabic word for coffee, qahwa was originally the name for wine found in old Arabic poetry. It is perhaps a result of both drinks being products of fruits, which might have later contributed to the permissibility of coffee. However, the reference of ‘qahwa’ as the drink, the beans or the fruit bearing the beans is still unknown. The fruit is noted to have been discovered in Ethiopia and Yemen; however the latter played a greater role in its spread throughout the Middle East and eventually the world.
The Sufis in Yemen have been coined as the first consumers of coffee because its effects have helped them stay alert during their devotions and allowed them to stay awake during the night to perform their practices. For Sufis, coffee had this ceremonial character because it was served on occasions that were considered ceremonial. E. J. Brill wrote in the First Encyclopedia of Islam that coffee was usually accompanied by “‘ratib,’ a practice in Sufism whereby they repeat “ya qawi” for 116 times, and often offered during the recitation of certain surahs including Surat Al Fatiha and Surat Yaseen.”
There were many controversies about coffee regarding its permissibility because it was feared to alter the consumer’s behavior like alcohol. People would drink coffee even in mosques during dhikr and other religious festivals such as mulid. Soon large consumption of coffee sparked the spread of coffee houses. It is then that coffee’s permissibility was requisitioned.
Regardless of the many controversies surrounding the drink, it continued spreading throughout the Middle East. The concept of coffee houses had caused more controversy because the coffee house had challenged the concept of space and influenced the commodification of coffee.
Coffee was commoditized by merchants who wanted to create a demand for coffee to be able to sell their products. The merchants had also taken advantage of the nature of coffee. Coffee does not expire, which meant that it can easily be stored for a long period and people would buy it in bulk because of the high consumption of the product. Therefore, merchants had thought of another way to further increase the demand for coffee by launching coffeehouses in return for them being responsible for the coffeehouses’ supply.
I believe the concern was about the social gathers, which coffee facilitated rather than the drink itself. Many had tried to ban coffee houses and shut them down because of the fear of the discussions and conversations people would have. Despite the attempts to banish coffee houses, they remained popular in the Middle East and had played various roles throughout in its development.
Before coffee houses came to exist, people would only come together during occasions. Other means of socializing was in boza-houses, which served alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, and food but had also received negative attitudes from the public. So when coffeehouses had emerged as an alternative public space for socializing they were associated with them. Other places for socializing were limited to public baths and barbershops.
The sprouting of coffeehouses in a time when socializing was a need is a byproduct to many political, cultural, and social changes. The ban of coffee and later coffeehouses was to assure the security of the state. It is evident that the ruling regime was afraid that people might comment on public policy and affairs. It is interesting to see not only the rise of a drink that has been very deeply rooted in Arab culture, but also the change in social structure and behavior and public space as attributed to coffeehouses.
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