Coffee appraised

Sami Al - Daghistani

Leiden University, Research Master: Area studies (Middle East Studies), MA Seminar: Culture and Society in Medieval Islam, professor Dr. Petra Sijpesteijn


Coffee appraised: 

Ambiguity of socio-juridical disputes, medical, and literary accounts on coffee in Medieval Islam


 1. Introduction


Coffee is nowadays known throughout the world. Coffee has been in the history of Islam often designated as the “forbidden fruit”. At the same time it was praised in literary works in the East as in the West. Nowadays coffee became a morning routine of many, an integral part of the social aspect, often taken for granted. However, coffee debates took various paths in Islam, bearing theological weight as well as rising juridical concerns.

I would like to introduce the synthesis of different opinions of coffee by inquiring into the juridical-theological discourse on coffee which also, due to its physical and mental effects, bears medical significance. Apart from this field of inquiry, the notion and role of coffee in literature pinpoints not only the significance of coffee consumptions, by Islamic sects and in Arabic medieval society at large (praised in literary works and poetry throughout history), but also its utilization and comparison with other intoxicating substances e.g. qāt and wine. As coffee had both physical and mental effects, it became soon a hot topic on the list of theologians and jurists, as well as medical scholars. At the first sight, these discussions seem to be a lot more diverse and antagonistic than we expected, so a closer look at the juridical, theological and medical attitudes on coffee would permit us to grasp the complexity and equivocal role of coffee in Medieval Islam. I will therefore look upon the interplay of opinions on coffee within the abovementioned fields in Medieval Islam as well as their differences and resemblances. This paper thus aims to look at the various disputes and accounts on coffee pertaining to the notion of ambiguity and diversity of religious views. As a theoretical background of these various formations and opinions on coffee I will apply the theory of the notion of ambiguity in Islamic culture asserted by the German scholar at Münster University Professor Thomas Bauer.

The paper consists of four chapters in addition to the introduction and conclusion. The second chapter briefly introduces the theory of cultural ambiguity of Islam which will serve in this paper as the theoretical background for the research on coffee utilization in Islam as highly ambiguous field where opposing views arose. The third chapter deals with the history and geneology of coffee, and the early utilization and consumption of coffee by Sufis, and bears more descriptive nature. Here I will look at some Sufi accounts on coffee presented by various scholars e.g. Ralph Hattox and Yıldız M. Cengiz, to whom I will refer to throughout the paper. The fourth chapter focuses on the material analysis. It inquires the emergence of coffeehouses throughout the Islamic world, as well as addresses the notion of social, medical, and juridical elements and factors of coffee within various Islamic political and religious circles, asserting as well as detesting the beverage. For theological debates on coffee I will look at certain treaties and manuals along with the secondary literature, as for the medical and juridical opinions, I will resort to treaties and fatwas by certain Islamic authorities of the Medieval Islam, mentioned also by Ralph Hattox e.g. Khair Beg’s, Ibn Ḥajar al Haytamī’s, Ibn ‘Abd al Ghaffār. Along with the culture of Arab poetry and its far-reaching influence on Islamic culture, the fifth chapter focuses on how coffee was praised in Yemeni literature by certain Sufis e.g. Abd al Qādir al Jazīrī and Ḥusayn bin ‘Ali ‘ al Khayyāt, despite being deemed by various Islamic jurists as illicit.


  1. Islamic Culture of ambiguity in a nutshell


A useful theory that can help us to interpret the complexity of different opinions in Islam is the theory of cultural ambiguity asserted by Professor Thomas Bauer. Classical Islamic culture is characterised as being receptive to plurality by phenomena of equivocalness, tolerance towards ambiguity, i.e. plurality of discourses, and allowance of different interpretations. In order or eradicate previous discourse which was open to diverse and multiple interpretations, modern Islam, that is Islam during and after the process of colonization, formed completely new paradigm which did not accept cultural and religious diversity. Against this stance various modern phenomena of Islam formed during the nineteenth and enforced during the 20th century emerged. The emergence of so called “political” Islam, which appeared mostly as a reaction to the geopolitical colonization and economic-military domination of the West, after all, induced hatred of rich Islamic tradition, which was expressed by the suspension of absolutisation of the spiritual tradition or Truth. Thomas Bauer in his book Die Kultur der Ambiguität: Eine andere Geschichte des Islams (Culture of Ambiguity: Different History of Islam) asserts that Islamic culture has always been open towards multiplicity of discourses and different, often opposing views.1

            The term ambiguity was for the first time put into the anthropological-cultural context in regard to Islamic culture and cultural history. Out of this tolerance toward different variations, richness and multiplicity certain worldviews emerged which always allowed coexistence of multiple realities, including religion, law, sexuality, language, or poetry.2 Things changed dramatically when the economic domination flooded the area by colonizing the Arabic world and imposed one and only paradigm of Descartes clare et distincte – the demand for unambiguousness and recognisability.3 The key emphasis of Bauer’s research is that Islamic culture has been for centuries able to maintain numerous forms of opposing views, without risking monopolizing certain concept or moral teaching. Bauer states that law, religion, and language, political stance and sexual orientations, were accompanied by acceptance of various views and approaches.4 These fields of Bauer’s inquiry pinpoint the notion of simultaneous existence of various degrees of tolerance in regard to juridical, religious, and personal matters in the lives of Muslims, and thus also bear significance for our research on coffee. Namely, since this multiplicity of discourses can be noticed also concerning the coffee consumption, pertaining to the domain of Islamic law, social factors and literature, I will be first looking at various degrees of juridical accounts and standpoints on coffee utilization of different Muslim jurists. First, however, let us have a look about the history of coffee, its nature and means of consumption.


  1. History of coffee, the plant, and the term qahwa


This chapter focuses briefly on the history of coffee consumption and its very beginnings, as well as the significance coffee gained through its utilization. A shift of how coffee was treated – from being perceived as forbidden drink to being praised for its effects – will be discussed.

In many countries coffee drinking became a daily habit, an unavoidable morning sip. Coffee was part of the social, theological, commercial as well as medical debates and issues. It is noticed that medieval medicine scholar Ibn Sīnā knew, loved and used the coffee.5 The first written account of the remedy named bunchum came from Ibn Sīnā (d. 1037),.6 Approximately 500 years later bunc was used for coffee-beans.7 Following the etymology historians consider that the name for it had been already given exactly by Ibn Sīnā.  

Coffee (consumption) has introduced a new path of socializing, binding diverse cultures, places and people. The 16th century was most probably the decisive epoch, since the following centuries had significant impact on the faith of coffee. By the same time the beverage became known to the Europeans alike. In the 1582 travel log entitled Aigentliche Beschreibung der Raiß in die Morgenländerin, the German physician, botanist and naturalist Leonard Rauwolf provides an early description of coffee, while being on his expedition in Aleppo. He praises it for its good taste, black as ink, and points out that it is beneficial for the stomach.8 In the west, coffee was since the second part of the 16th century gradually known under the Venetians. The first coffeehouses were to be found in Venice 1640, Marseille (1654), London (1662) and Paris (1680). Large quantities of coffee were to be found in the abandoned Turkish arsenal near Vienna (1683) and the first Viennese coffeehouse was opened by an Armenian in 1685, where coffee became gradually domesticated.9


The word qahwa قهوة   has a much older meaning and pedigree than the term coffee itself.  The Arabic root q-h-w can be described as a character of resistances or rather alleviation of something, therefore the comparison with wine (amrالخمر ). Just as wine makes one less hungry (read thirsty), coffee makes the one who drinks it less tired. The second meaning relates to the term quwwa. Qahwa due to its similar substance-affect originally corresponds originally with the form quwwa قوّة   (power, strength), whilst the third meaning applies to the native area of qahwa – Kaffa – namely, the region within Ethiopia, from where it was brought to Yemen.

            The coffee plant cultivated for its berries is named as Coffea arabica, which is found in tropical regions. Unlike other plants from the tropics, it can stand very low temperatures, and it requires shade when growing in hot areas. There are about eight recognized species of coffea.10 Coffee was originally collected not from coffee-beans but from coffee leafs (Qāts leafs)  القات which was consumed and eaten. Traditionally, there are two ways of making coffee: qahwa bunniya  قَهوة بُنِّيّة  – coffee made of seeds, and qahwa qishriya قَهوة قِشريّة – coffee made of hulls or husks.

            It is believed that the person who first discovered the coffee was an Arab called Shazīli from Habeshistan. The legend has it that coffee was firstly named after him by the locals.11 According to another legend, a shepherd that had goats and camels had noticed that animals swallowed the fruit. After that the very animals seemed to have explained the cause of their verve to the dervish. Dervish Shazīli then boiled the fruits and then drank it noticing the same described vigour. There are quite a number of similar legends. South-Arab Sufis utilized technique of coffee bean distillation for their religious rituals, as well as for ease and relaxation, to keep them awake during the practice of dhikr (Islamic devotional act). They simply boiled the Coffee beans, whilst the method of roasting was only introduced by the Persians. The pious intention, with which it was taken, made the drinking of coffee a good work (ṭāʿa). It received a ceremonial character, being accompanied by the recitation of a so-called rātib (non-obligatory prayers). The rātib consisted in the 116 times repetition of the invocation yā ḳawī.12 Not only in Yemen but also in Mecca and Cairo, coffee became a utensil in religious services. In Cairo, coffee was first made known in the first decade of the 10th/16th century in the Azhar quarter by Sufis from Yemen, who held their dhikrs in the mosque with their associates from Mecca and Medina while partaking of coffee.13 Al Azhar became the centre of coffee drinking and a meeting point of Sufis, who drunk coffee together from one big bowl every Monday and Friday. Many Sufi mystics were bewildered by the effect of coffee and thus praised it in poems: Al Aydarus wrote one qaṣīda (قصيدة) on Coffee, whilst the Shadiliyya Sufis theologian ibn Isma`īl al ‘Alāwī asserted that there is a strong link between coffee drinking and contemplation, by which state of qahwa ma`nawiyya   قهوة معنويّة(ideal coffee) can be achieved. Although in the following years coffee was forbidden in Cairo for brief periods, the number of consumers, steadily increased, even among the religious authorities.

The first authentic account regarding the origin of coffee was written by Abd al Qādir al Jazīrī “the famous Arabian manuscript commending the use of coffee” in 1587.14. “Abd al Qādir ibn Muhammad lived in the 16th century and wrote his book in 1587 AD. Coffee had then been in common use since about 1450 AD in Arabia. The Prophet had forbidden the drink of strong liquors which affect the brain15, and hence it was argued that coffee was illicit as stimulant. Even today, the community of the Wahabis in Saudi Arabia is not fond of coffee consumption. In course of time coffee received an almost celestial dimension, building its importance upon various historical accounts, legends, linked to the Islamic Revelation. One Persian legend has it that Angel Gabriel gave coffee was to Muhammad when facing exhaustion.16


Coffee spread gradually from Yemeni ports where ships were loaded with coffee beans and then shipped to cities across the Middle East. When coffee consumption became a daily habit, the coffee traders in Cairo had increased their profits.17 Coffee became accessible in Istanbul, through the Muslim traders. Together with Istanbul, Yemen, Jeddah, Cairo and Alexandria became the major trade cities where coffee was exported. Coffee spread through the Ottoman Empire, while in Syria the first coffeehouses appeared in the early 16th century coffeehouses appeared. Coffee consumption and trade reached its peak during the 16th and 17th century, firstly encountering strong oppositions by Islamic physicians. Despite the spread of coffee by that time throughout the Islamic world, sultan Murat IV (d. 1651) had severely punished coffee drinking under his rule. Nonetheless, the permission for drinking coffee was gained by dervish sects and various righteous Islamic jurists who enjoyed reputation in the society and drank coffee frequently, which contented against the analogical conclusions in the case of coffee (comparison with wine) and even proclaimed coffee as a religiously controversial matter.18 These issues already indicate the general split of con and pro coffee circle. The coffee consumption by early Sufi orders and other religious scholars and inhabitants in the medieval Islamic world indicates the general acceptance of coffee by pious Muslims. Resorting to Thomas Bauer approach of cultural ambiguity in early Islamic history, we notice that diversification of views on coffee has become a part of not only social but rather religious life of Muslims gradually forming opposite views on coffee consumption. The next chapter will elaborate more on the eruption of the coffeehouses in the Muslim world, as well as bring insights on the opposing views on coffee, perceived as forbidden as well as lawful beverage, through medical, juridical and literary accounts of Muslim rulers, scholars, and jurists.


  1. The birth of a new institution – the coffeehouse between admiration and exclusion


Coffeehouses were first born in the Islamic world and were named as “the schools of wisdom” as well as “public universities” since they ocurred in the public sphere and attracted people. Since those institutions were perceived with suspicion as to opposing the Islamic law, social and cultural context of Muslim societies, as regard the prohibition and/or allowance of coffee then, was gradually changing due to the perception of religious authorities on coffee. Apart from social, juridical and theological reasoning, it was also the medical view on the coffee debate to play a substantial role as whether coffee’s impact harms the body or stipulates the inner strength of human being. 

The first coffeehouse opened in Cairo in 1521.19 Coffeehouses had a different function than only serving coffee, at times even resembling trade centres. After the death of a person his goods were sold there.20 Coffeehouses had an important role in shaping the life style, or on economy and trade. Coffee that was to be known as a Turkish drink in 17th century Europe arrived in the ports of Istanbul in 1543. In 1555, two merchants, one from Aleppo and the other from Damascus, opened the first coffeehouses in the city.21  In the latter part of the 16th century, German, Italian, and Dutch botanists and travellers brought back from the Levant considerable information regarding the new plant called coffee and the beverage. In Istanbul for example the authorities labelled the coffeehouses as no place for honourable men, whilst women were not even included, since they were viewed as a source of criminal activities and sexual corruption.22 Coffeehouses evolved rapidly, in Cairo under the rule of Ahmed Pasha, where numerous coffee-shops were built, partly also with the intention of a ruler to gain political popularity. In the middle of 17th century, the first coffeehouse was opened in Istanbul and immediately became a great success. Evliya Efendi holds that at this time approximately 300 coffeehouses were to be found in Istanbul.23 The spread of coffeehouses in Egypt and Turkey speaks about a very liberal policy of their rulers, which were not less Muslim than their religious counterparts, prompting the usage of the beverage.

Coffeehouses became increasingly popular, attracting people from various societies and religious groups, form Aleppo, Cairo, Baghdad, Mecca, bearing an overall potential to constitute or form diversity and multiplicity within society. The most famous houses were located in the picturesque neighbourhood of Tahtakale in Istanbul. Coffeehouses had many different clients, operated by and hosting also non-Muslims.24 Despite the controversies around the coffeehouses, suspected to be wine storages, the coffee-shops were “essentially a Muslim establishment“25, founded by Muslims who viewed them accommodating Islamic principles. Coffeehouses were particularly Muslim institutions at the time of 17th century, and despite their early development, they were irrevocably linked with religious sentiment. The starting point of coffeehouses was an exclusively Muslim area – first ḥijāz, then Cairo, and from their birth onwards they also stayed very much a “Muslim institutions”.26


4.1. Social life of the Muslim communities and the birth of a controversy


The spread of coffeehouses introduced a new kind of social reality and style that had been unknown before. A notion of “Public-Night-Life” developed. Thus the visits of private houses and mosques became questionable, since the incline of the coffeehouse visits served as alternative meeting-points. The coffeehouses thus disrupted with the notion of the night, which was before foremost used for either praying or sleeping. Suddenly those houses had encouraged social night life which sparkled debates, exchanges of ideas, playing of music and the old days of tranquil evenings in private houses were replaced by the amusement and gathering in the public coffeehouses, thus became a popular novelty, seen as competitors of mosques. The former were designated as “taverns or guesthouses”, without serving wine though. The term derives from the Latin taberna, (cottage), whereas coffee itself was depicted as “wine of Islam”. Simultaneously, coffeehouses became places of intellectual debates, where scholars, writers, poets, and artists came together. In Istanbul these houses were named “Schools of Knowledge” or mektebi `irfan مكتبِ عِرفان , whilst in the Arabian peninsula the term marqaha  مَرْقَهَة  stands for the overall euphoria coffeehouses inflicted in society.27

It is clear that coffee drinking had shifted from the sacred to secular realm, transforming the social life throughout the Islamic world.28 Islamic civilization has, according to the writings of various Islamic historic figures, generated plurality of truths and different discourses, encompassing religious and social issues, and the utilization of coffee might be a perfect example for this. The classical intellectual Islamic circles, despite their devotion toward “pure monotheism”, have overcome the dogmatization of truth29 by engaging into variations and pluralities of debates (in contrast to what nowadays certain salafi movements preach), and the example of coffee seems like a field of exploration for such claims. The irony is that the Islamic society in the period when coffee was disputed, was not less religious as today’s Muslim societies. And despite certain opposing views and actions taking place against the coffeehouses, as the following one, the religious authorities supported the fruitful initiative.

In 1534/1535 AD a group of runagates (Turk. külhanbeyi) broke into some coffeehouses and beat many costumers. After coffee fans ran into the street, the judge in Cairo took the side of the ʿUlamāʾ that supported the coffee. As a result, the ban softened and the views which permitted coffee drinking had been reported.30 After gaining prevalence, three kinds of space or types of coffee-services emerged. First type was so called coffee-stands, sort of a take-out coffee, without any seats for guests. The second were coffee-shops called maṣṭaba مَصْطَبَة , (arab. bank) which offered a small space for guests (these shops could be found in Cairo, Baghdad, and also in Syria). Third type were coffeehouses at a bigger scale, which are known also nowadays. Coffee in the long run brought out also its devices, such as coffee cup, coffee plates, coffee cabinets, coffee box, coffee pitcher, coffee grinder, and sugar-bowl31, asserting that the evolving culture of coffee consumption receives its space within the social domain.


4.2. Ambiguous position of coffee in the light of Islamic medicine


Medical setting was in many views one of the most important and decisive factors of the designation of the legality of coffee, this dark drink, which sparkled dynamical disputes and even confirmed juridical and theological conflicts among the Muslim society. Fruitful discussions whether coffee is licit or illicit took place also in the light of Islamic medicine, creating multiplicity of views. In the light of Thomas Bauer and his notion of ambiguity, we can assert that the multi-dimensionality of classical Islamic culture took place in formative as well as in post-formative period.32 Important thinker of Islam who had dealt with various literatures managed to approach it with equivocalness and a sense of ambiguity, always considering multiple perspectives of an issue discussed. This was perceived as enriching and not lacking a particular sentiment. High level of tolerance of ambiguity (Ambiguitätstoleranz) was possible only through the suspense of absolute truth.33


The diameter of discourses through which coffee-debate went differed from particular era and place, covering violent ideas, mystical awakening and adoration, as well as contempt, generating also cultural-political drama with constitutional outcomes and repercussions in societal sphere. All these dimensions have taken toll in forming a particular path of perception of coffee – among many others, also medical one. Medicine was perceived as the battleground where the status of coffee was disputed. Even if the medical arguments were always brought into light retrospectively, when basic intentions of the opposition were already formed, the medical aspect is important since it to the large extent bases upon the juridical conclusions in the coffee-debate.  

Khair Beg, the young governor of Mecca, also linked with the famous event of 1511 was one of the first to link the Qur’anic ayah 2:195 with the “principle of harmfulness”.34


وَأَنفِقُوا فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ وَلَا تُلْقُوا بِأَيْدِيكُمْ إِلَى التَّهْلُكَةِ ۛ وَأَحْسِنُوا ۛ إِنَّ اللَّهَ

35.يُحِبُّ الْمُحْسِنِينَ


Even though Khair Beg had interests in taking part in the coffee debate, the motives against the coffee encouraged more ironic than strictly substantial allegations.36 Among others, two Persian physics Muḥammad ibn Maḥmud al Zaynī al Ḥusaynī and Beyzade Muḥammad justified the harmful effects of the coffee drinking, which consequently resulted in the closure of the coffeehouses in Mecca in 1511.37 Both accused coffee of having an impact on physical difficulties and to harm organism, as well as certain diseases present that time. These kinds of medical views did not have a substantial juridical function. However, they could have had an influence on the declared fatwas.38 By the time the medical attempts to designate coffee with a negative impact on the human body, other scholars have through inquiry, experimental treatments, and analysis concluded that it is rather harmless and even possesses healing power.39 Such mutual consents and challenges of the medical interpretations found their place in the realm of juridical exculpation/justification of the ever recurring coffee debate.

Muslim medicine follows the Greek scholar Galen40, mainly due to its appropriation of the theory of four fundamental human principals of human organism yellow bile/gall, black bile/gall, gastric juice, and blood (mirra safra, mirra sawda, balgham, and dam) and their relation and implications for the mental state of human being. Each of these four elements relates to two out of four natural conditions of the physical world – warmth, cold, humidity or dampness, and dryness or aridity. When the balance of these liquids is disproportioned, diseases are likely to appear. The biochemical layer of organism manifests itself through the psycho-emotional grounds which cause the direct change to the mood or sentiment of humans. On the basis of this medical scheme, related to the coffee debate, various physicians and healers of the 16th century engaged into controversial guesses but also advices.     

Coffee was hence described very diversely, bearing positive as well as negative affects. It seemed to have caused insomnia and impotence (yuḥazzilu), or on the contrary being seen as an adjuvant against headache and diuretic effect (idrār al bawl), beneficial for the kidneys.41 Physicians of that time had quite various opinions about the nature of coffee. Since coffee set off many forceful juridical-political discussions the medical debates of the evil nature of coffee took place after the prohibition took place42, despite its temporary status. The medical argumentations were secondary in rate, since qahwa (the utilization of coffee and its social impact) and not bun (the beams themselves) was predominantly the apex of the concerns. In the treatise Risāla fi aḥkam al qahwa43 were these concerns more blatantly expressed. Medical explanations focused on coffee as a drink, whereas chewing of coffee beans meant more significant utilization of it. The author of the lost treatise is believed to be Ibn ‘Abd al Ghaffār (d. 1530), the originator of literature on coffee. Despite his general support of coffee drinking, is rather critical on the notion of music, which accompanied coffee activity in the so called tavernas:


“Perhaps what can be said for prohibiting [coffee] is the evidence that it is drunk in taverns (hanat), which embrace all sorts of reprehensible things: singing girls (qaynat), [various types of] fiddles… the playing of instruments of wanton diversion, dancing, and the clapping of hands.”44


Some jurists have also argued that coffee-beans are licit, whilst coffee as drinking is not. These kind of debates pinpoint that the reasons for the opposition were somewhere else45, pertaining to juridical matters of the Islamic law. Nonetheless, these debates should be viewed in another light – despite usual rigorous image we associate with the “pre-modern Islam” (that is before the Islamic revival during the colonization process of Arab and Islamic countries, when the “islamisation of Islam” took place46), we tend to neglect how tolerant Islamic culture was and how many different treaties, views and commentaries provided also in regard to social-juridical realm, including coffee utilization. The dichotomy between religious and secular in Islamic history has never been clearly drawn, however, this diffusion was never as problematic as it is seen in the West, since Islamic culture merges secular with religious, cultural with societal, and physical with metaphysical.47


4.3. Prohibition and allowance of coffee in the light of Islamic jurisprudence


The gist of intellectual and juridical confrontations on the coffee debate took place in the filed of Islamic jurisprudence, where the opposite religious views reached culmination.48 Sharī’a as an Immutable Law ought not to be seen as a force of sanctions but rather as a field of immense flexibility, and tolerance toward plurality of juridical-social-religious discourses. This practical and theoretical flexibility can be seen also in the coffee debate, creating two poles within the religious circles – pro and con coffee utilization. 49 

The prohibition of coffee is linked to the expansion of coffeehouses, which spread through Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, although during the holy month of Ramadan in 1593 most of the coffeehouses were closed since authorities speculated that their popularity might affect the daily obligations of the pious. Actions related to coffeehouses had a direct cause to the social sphere and juridical-religious life of the communities concerned. Due to its substance and effective impact on human being (psycho-physical state of mind, euphoria, insomnia, nervousness etc.) by conservative religious affiliations coffee was due to its substance and effective impact on human being (psycho-physical state of mind, euphoria, insomnia, nervousness etc.) by conservative religious affiliations perceived as an delinquency against Sharī’a, since it was compared with wine and its intoxicating effects. Furthermore, coffee was disowned by the scholars of the time, since according to them coffee was a form of bid‘a  البِدْعة (from a religious perspective denoted as novelty against tradition). This is the starting point of the dynamic pertaining to the coffee consumption within Islamic law. According to Sharī’a, Hattox holds, coffee was not perceived as an intoxicating beverage.50 However, whoever was able to prove otherwise, certain danger in prohibiting coffee existed. If the harmfulness or evil of bid‘a could not be proven, Sharī’a has confirmed it as “original permissibility” (al ibāḥa al aṣlīyya)51, hence licit. Several centuries ago in Mecca and in Cairo, there were controversial discussions about the nature of coffee.  Al Azhar also took part in the opposition. After coffee had been publicly sold and drunk there for a time, the faqīh Aḥmad b. ʿAbd al Ḥaqq al Sunbāṭī, the famous preacher, declared it forbidden in 939/1532-3.52 General categories for forbidding the utilization of coffee were mostly related to the overall (independent) interpretation of Sharī’a in the light of prohibition of gambling, debaucherous behaviour, addiction to intoxicants social loafing etc. Moreover, the famous Ibn Manẓūr asserts in Lisān al-ʿArab (لسان العرب, 1290) about the coffee the following:


القهوة الخمر, سُمِّيتْ بذلك لأنَّها تُقهي شاربها عن الطَّعام, أى تذهبُ نشهوتهِ, و في التَّهذيب أى تسبعهُ, قال أبو الطَّمعان يذكر نساء: فأصْبحنَ قد أقهين عنِّى كما أبت. حياضَ الامدانِ الهجان القوامح و عيْشٌ قاهٍ بيِّنُ القهوِ و القهوةِ: نصيبُ, و هذه يائيَّةٌ و واوِيَّةٌ. الجَوْهرِىُّ: القاهى الحديدُ الفُؤادِ المُسْتطارُ: قال الراجَز: راختْ كما راعَ أبُو رِئالِ قاهِىِ الفؤادِ دائِبُ الاِجْفالِ.*


* قوله: “دائِب” في الصحاح: “دَئِبٌ”.53 


Ibn Manẓūr indicates that coffee causes refutation from food and lost of appetite, and that it might even contain an intoxicating substance (الامدان), which makes the one who consumes it determined in staying awake. Due to this debates coffeehouses were viewed with suspicion and generating confusion in the social atmosphere, therefore the opponents believed that this institution causes bad impact on the society as such, and that its character is simply inappropriate.

On the other hand, important figures that supported drinking of coffee also raised their voices. Ibn Ḥajar al Haytamī (d. 1565 or 1587), famous scholar and prolific writer of the Shāfi’ī  school (d. 1565 or 1587), speaks in his Īʿāb of a beverage which appeared in Mecca shortly before the 10th/16th century and was prepared from the husk of the bunn, a tree from the region of Zaylaʿ, and called ḳahwa. Among the jurists who thought positively of coffee, is also Jamāl al Dīn Muḥammad b. Saʿīd b. ʿAlī b. Muḥammad Kabbin al-ʿAdanī (d. in Aden 842/1438).54 Several other notable theologians had given legal opinions (fatāwas) in favour of coffee, for instance, Zakariyā al Anṣārī (d. 926/1520), Aḥmad b. ʿUmar al Sayfī (d. 930/1523-4), and Abu al Ḥasan Muḥammad al Bakrī al Ṣiddīqī (d. between 950 and 960/1543-1553), who in passages in praise of coffee also gives the advice that the opinion of Ibn ʿAbd al-Ḥaq should be left aside as well as the fatwā of Abu al Ḥasan.55 Gradually, due to the popularity of coffee consumption and week argumentations from the authorities against it, the view prevailed that coffee was in general permitted (mubāḥ), reckoning that under certain circumstances other legal instances could be applied to it.


The ulema were unwilling to extend the ban to coffee itself. According to Islam law, there is the principle of “basic permissibility” (al-ibaha al-asliya), which is “that because all vegetation was originally created by God for the enjoyment of humankind, a comestible is permitted until it is demonstrated to have some attribute that would necessitate prohibition.”56


Sharī’a did not provide a safe refuge to the conservative parties. It was rather the opposite, which places well in the whole dynamic and plurality of Islamic law. Many of representatives and supporters of coffee (also frequent guest in coffeehouses) were men from the religious elite themselves: scholars, intellectuals, judges, etc. Despite numerous fatāwas against the coffee consumption and coffeehouses, after all it seems that the opposition was forced to provide either direct evidence against coffee drinking which were to be found in Sharī’a, pinpointing the abolishment of it, which of course turned out unsuccessful. The principle of bid‘a is inferior to the principles of al ibāḥa al aṣlīyya الأباحة الأصليّة , which means that as long as the innovation is proven illicit, it stays lawful. Coffee which was at the times of its expansion perceived as controversy and innovation has stayed until nowadays an indispensable part of Islamic societies.


  1. Coffee in literature


Language, lexicology and rhetoric are according to Thomas Bauer fields most attested with the multiplicity of discourses and ambiguity in Islam. Arabs have always been known for their excellence in rhetoric and poetry, at the times when the Qur’an was revealed, as stated by Muhammad Abduh.57 Arab linguists had standardized and codified the Arabic language58, however, it managed to preserve its flexibility for new terms, categories and modern expressions out of already asserted word-roots. Arab linguists collected ambiguous terms and study their linguistic means of multiple meanings.59 As we will notice in the following lines, the utilization of poetry for expressing literary as well as personal accounts on the coffee debate in Yemeni literature can be seen in the light of ambiguity – highly controversial issues surrounding the coffee debate, pertaining to the field of Islamic law, were expressed in the most eloquent language of high standards.

Ground coffee in a hand-grinder, cooked on coal under an open fire, and served in so called  جَذْوَة džazwa (coffee-pot) and poured into small cups, is one of the finest beverage characteristics of the Middle East and the Balkan Peninsula, that has been praised in literature throughout history. Many different legends arose about coffee that served as inspiration for Arabian, French, Italian, and English poets. Literary accounts on coffee in early 16th century in Islamic world were predominately affirmative and propitious, compared to medical and juridical controversies raise by religious leaders and public figures. The aforementioned Abd al Qādir al Jazīrī in his early manuscript “immortalized coffee”. The first chapter treats the etymology and significance of the word qahwa, the nature and properties of the bean, where the drink was first utilized, and describes its virtues and features, whilst other chapters focus predominantly on the coffee dispute in Mecca in 1511, providing the religious objectors to coffee, and concluding with a collection of verses composed in Arabic during the Mecca controversy by the best poets of the time.60


In praise of Coffee

O Coffee! Thou dost dispel all cares, thou art the object of desire to the scholar.
This is the beverage of the friends of God; it gives health to those in its service who strive after wisdom.
Prepared from the simple shell of the berry, it has the odour of musk and the colour of ink.
The intelligent man who empties these cups of foaming coffee, he alone knows truth.
May God deprive of this drink the foolish man who condemns it with incurable obstinacy.
Coffee is our gold. Wherever it is served, one enjoys the society of the noblest and most generous men.
O drink! As harmless as pure milk, which differs from it only in its blackness.61


During the period of the second religious persecution of coffee, which took place in the second part of the 16th century, other Arabian poets also produced auspicious literary accounts on coffee. The learned man Fakr al Dīn Abū Bakr bin Abd ’Isī wrote a book entitled The Triumph of Coffee, while the poet and sheikh Sharīf al Dīn ‘Omar bin Fārid composed harmonious verses, wherein, “discoursing of his mistress, he could find no more flattering comparison than coffee”.62 He sings, “she has made me drink, in long draughts, the fever, or, rather, the coffee of love!”63 These writings provide an insight into how men of letters in that period in Islamic world were deeply affectionate of the mesmerizing reality of coffee, unlike some of their politico-religious counterparts in Cairo and Istanbul. The subject of coffee in literature was brought even further in the so called coffee-qāt comparison in Yemeni literature, whilst juridical aspect of consumption compared effects of both substances.


5.1. Coffee and qāt in Yemeni literature


The trade of coffee and qāt in Yemen in the 17th and 18th centuries coincided with a burst of literary creativity. The substances of coffee, significant to Sufis, their role in medicine and their associations with alcohol influenced the poems describing coffee. In many cases, poetry devoted to coffee and qāt drew from the classical Arabic khamriyyah64 in their libertinism and eroticism.

In 1511 a conference on coffee in Mecca clearly condemned the beverage.65 The before mentioned renowned Meccan Shāfi’ī jurist Ahmad b. Muhammad b. ajar al Haytamī disagreed with his colleagues’ ban, nevertheless, he avoided coffee and qāt, based upon a comprehensive study of plant’s medical properties.66 He had no first-hand knowledge on qāt, but nevertheless, a trustworthy source indicated that qāt “caused the body to produce too much semen and that it weakened the body’s capacity to restrain its emission”. And because semen renders a man ritually or rather spiritually impure, his informant asserted that “perennial qāt chewers” could rarely exercise their religious obligations properly.67

According to Abd al Raḥman b. Muḥammad al Aydarus68 (d. 1700/01), the citizens

of Mocha were complaining to a local Sufi called ‘Alī bin ‘Umar al Shādhilī (d. 1418), that jinn (evil spirits) were looking and kidnapping young men from the town.


“The mystic secluded himself and, after forty days, the Prophet Muhammad appeared to him. The Prophet told him that if the townspeople planted coffee trees in their homes, God would protect them. The mystic asked where one could find this tree. The prophet responded that it was in Ethiopia. When the Sufi awoke from his trance, he held in his hand a ripe coffee branch, laden with berries.”69


Thus, medieval sources on the coffee and qāt introduction to Yemen agree on only three points: coffee plants possessed sort of supernatural features; their place of birth is Ethiopia; and that this debates took place in the 15th or the 16th century. Yemeni Sufis quickly incorporated coffee into their daily ritual observances. One Hadrami Sufi, Ahmad bin Alāwi Ba Jahdab (d. 1565/66), is believed to have lived on nothing but coffee. And since coffee consumption as a novelty at that time generated peculiar behaviour patterns, was competing with qāt in the 16th century. As already mentioned, legal issues depended on medical ones.

A mufakharah between coffee and qāt written in Judeo-Yemeni, attributed to Rabbi Sālim al Shabazī (d. 1679) is probably the earliest example of the poetic battle between coffee and qāt.70 It was unknown to Arab writers, and in this poem qāt wins the contest in the end. The 19th century writer Ahmad b. Muhammad al-Mu‘allimī (d. 1861/62) wrote what is believed to be the most celebrated debate between coffee and qāt in the form of rhymed prose: Tarwīh al awqāt fī al mufākhara bayna al qahwa wa al qāt, in which coffee wins the debate.71 Poems were often accompanied by music. This was especially true of poems belonging to the so called humaynī genre.72


“In elite literary gatherings… the servants probably performed the music. Although coffee and qāt became permissible to Muslims, poets attending gatherings such as these enjoyed recalling the two substances’ associations with wine. They delved into classical khamriyyāt for inspiration”.73


The Imam al Mutawakkil al Qasim bin al Ḥusayn’s eulogist, Ḥusayn bin ‘Ali ‘ al Khayyāt wrote a famous poem in which he describes kind of a coffee cake (masūbah). He also provides a description of the accompanying beverage:


My friend, the nightingale cries out in the bushes and morning is made

manifest by light,

Awake to a morning drink—dew has punctuated the ground and the morning

clouds have effaced the line of stars,

In the morning [the sound of] the grinder mesmerized us—It was a concert that

needed no strings,

Sip the liquor of the coffee bean that allows us to dispense with the first

pressings of the first fruits of a fine wine.74


صاح صاح الهزار في الأشجارٍ و تجلى الصباح بالأنوارٍ

فانتبه للصبوح قد و في الطل وأمحت سطر النجوم السواري

و الرحى في الصباح قد اطربتنا بسماع يُغني عن الأوتارٍ

فارتشف قهوة من البن تغني عن سلاف الرحيق في الأبكارٍ.


Pre-modern debates over coffee and qāt in Yemen in form of the individual poetry (mufa-kharāt) championed both substances and drew attention to different associations and branches of interest, covering mysticism, medicine, eloquence and even eroticism. All these substances contributed somewhat to the burst of such poetry, whereas modern debates over coffee and qāt turned to be extremely serious.75 These literary battles clearly show that the focus was not simply to bash and outlaw the opponent, but rather that the Yemeni literary culture was consciousness enough of producing different and even opposing views on coffee and qāt in the written form, intertwining topics of mysticism and Islamic law.


  1. Conclusion: Ambiguity of coffee in Islam


Islamic culture has always nurtured different discourses pertaining to theological as well as social debates – different readings of the Qur’an by Al Māwardī, Al Suyūṭī, Al Rāzī and Ibn Al Djazarī76 asserts different approaches to the Qur’anic text through numerous implications and reading styles. Moreover, domain of jurisprudence, as well as linguistics and literature was subject of constant debates and inquires, taking into account high level of tolerance of religious ambiguity within the Islamic culture. This paper thus aimed to extract diverse accounts on coffee as an example of various social, religious and well as jurisprudential views and oppositions held by Islamic scholars and rulers that went hand in hand.

Accompanied by these evidences, coffee was believed not to be in accordance with Islamic law, since places where it was served were compared with taverns and seen as highly controversial, that is also the reason why coffee was seen as the “wine of Islam”. However, the more liberal tolerant view of support of coffee also by religious authorities prevailed. Apart from medical and socio-juridical accounts where clear dichotomy between different supporters for and coalition against the coffee consumption can be seen, coffee was being praised in literature in the East, which further pinpoints the implementation and acceptance of coffee throughout the Islamic world. The trade of coffee and qāt in Yemen in the 17th and 18th centuries related with the burst of literary creativity by various Sufi poets who praised and compared in their poems qāt and coffee alike.

            In the light of Thomas Bauer’s groundbreaking book on the variations of theological, juridical and literary discourses, taking place among important scholars and authorities in medieval Islam, we can conclude that the history of Islamic culture was highly pluralistic in developing various interpretations concerning Qur’anic studies, Islamic law, and literature.77 The process of colonization changed the paradigm within the Islamic world and thus caused a shift from pluralistic to more monolithic understanding of Islamic culture. Along these lines the eruption of so called reformist movements generated more conservative approaches of understanding of Islam (Islamisierung des Islams).78 Islamic culture has produced abundance of ambiguous writings on classical Islamic studies and tolerated equivocalness within its culture. The coffee debate might be seen as such a field, where various approaches by different religious scholars as well as Muslim rulers have at times prohibited coffee drinking and coffeehouses. They asserted their claims based on various social factors which might corrupt the society of the pious, or simply designated them as innovations in Islamic culture. Contrary to that, different Sufi orders as well as man of letters, permitted coffee consumption by grounding their arguments upon the examination of medical and juridical evidences traced back to the fundaments of Islamic law and religion (usūl al fiqh). We can conclude that coffee was debated relentlessly throughout Islamic history, bearing various connotations and approaches of dealing with this particular matter, due to the existence of multiplicity of religious and intellectual consciousness, bearing a high degree of tolerance of various manifestations in Islamic culture.




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1 Thomas Bauer, Die Kultur der Ambiguität: Eine andere Geschite des Islams, 15-20

2.ibid., 27.

3 This unambiguousness, which is according to Bauer something foreign to Islamic culture, caused negative consequences such as emergence of ideologized-Islam as well as rigid and narrow interpretations of the Qur’anic text. For more see Thomas Bauer, Die Kultur der Ambiguität: Eine andere Geschite des Islams, 41ff.

4 ibid., 14. “In diesem Rahmen wird gezeigt, wie die Bereiche Recht und Religion, Sprache und Literatur, die Vorstellungen über Politik und Sex und der Umgang mit dem Fremden in klassischer Zeit durch eine gelassene Hinnahme von Vielfalt und Mehrdeutigkeit, wenn nicht gar durch eine überbordende Freude daran geprägt waren”.

5 Ralph Hattox, Coffee and Coffeehouses, 12.

6 Ibn Sīnā was one of the most prominent philosophers and persons skilled in the art of healing in the 11th century. “The Coffee Route from Yemen to London 10th-17th Centuries,” last modified October 11, 2010,

7 Ralph Hattox, Coffee and Coffeehouses, 18.

8 Scott F. Parker, Austin W. Michael, Coffee – Philosophy for Everyone: Grounds for Debate, 13. Also available on

9 ibid., 310.

10 ibid., 133.

11 Yıldız M. Cengiz, “Coffeehouses as an informal education institution and coffeehouses of Egypt,” Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences 9 (2010): 1362–1367, accessed April 25, 2012,

12 “Ḳahwa.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online, 2012. Reference, 10 May 2012

13 ibid.

14 William H. Ukers, All About Coffee, 541.

15 ibid., 542.

16 Ralph Hattox, Coffee and Coffeehouses, 12.

17 ibid., 64-65.

18 Nerkez Smailagić, Leksikon islama, 309.

19 Ralph Hattox, Coffee and Coffeehouses, 64-65.

20 ibid.

21 Selma A., Özkoçak, “Coffeehouses : Rethinking the Public and Private in Early Modern Istanbul,”

Journal of Urban History 33, (2007): 966, accessed April 23, 2012,

22 ibid.

23 Ralph Hattox, Coffee and Coffeehouses, 100.

24 ibid., 96.

25 ibid.

26 ibid.

27 ibid., 60.

28 ibid., 100-120.

29In ihrem Wandel von der Vergangenheit zur Gegenwart durchlesichtlich als einen Proceß der Vernichtung von Ambiguität. Während Gelehrte des 14. Jahrhunderts die Varianten des Korantextes als Bereicherung empfanden, ist die Existenz verschiedener Koranlesarten heitgen Muslimen vielfach ein Ärgernis. Während die Gelehrten des traditionellen Islams die Vielfalt der Auslegungsmöglichkeiten des Korans zelebrierten, glauben heutige Koraninterpreten, ob in West oder Ost, ob fundamentalistisch oder reformorientiert, ganz genau zu wissen, welches die enzige wahre Bedeutung einer Koranstelle ist. Während die Meinungsverschiedenheit der Gelehrten in klassischer Zeit, einem bekannten prophetenwort zufolge, als Gnade für die Gemeinde galt, gilt sie heute vielen als auszumerzendes Übel. während in klassicher Zeit säkulare und religiöse Politikdiskurse nebeneinander existierten, hat sich heute in weiten Kreisen die Überzeugung durchgesetzt, im Islam sein Politik und Religion untrennbar miteinander verbunden.“ Thomas Bauer, Die Kultur der Ambiguität: Eine andere Geschite des Islams, 15-16.

30 ibid., 33-34.

31 Yıldız M. Cengiz, “Coffeehouses as an informal education institution and coffeehouses of Egypt,” 1362–1367.

32 Alexander Florens, Zivilisation oder Barbarei? Der Islam im historischen Kontext, 72.

33 ibid., 73.

34 Ralph Hattox, Coffee and Coffeehouses, 62.

35 And spend in the way of Allah and do not throw [yourselves] with your [own] hands into destruction [by refraining]. And do good; indeed, Allah loves the doers of good. “Sahih International,” accessed April 28, 2012,

36 Scott F., Parker, Austin W. Michael, Coffee – Philosophy for Everyone: Grounds for Debate (UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 10.

37 Ralph Hattox, Coffee and Coffeehouses, 63.

38 ibid.

39 ibid.

40 ibid., 64.

41 ibid., 68.

42 ibid., 71.

43 For more see Ralph Hattox, Coffee and Coffeehouses, 71, 107, 109, 117.

44 ibid., 107.

45 ibid., 71.

46 Thomas Bauer, Die Kultur der Ambiguität: Eine andere Geschite des Islams, 199.

47 For more see Muhammad Asad, Fazlur Rahman, Tariq Ramadan, Thomas Bauer.

48 Sharī’a الشَريعة can be perceived as the Divine (i.e. immutable) Law. Main premises of Islamic law are derived from the Qur’ān and Sunna (Tradition of the Prophet of Islam), in addition to the endeavours of the fuqahā’ (Muslim legal specialists) who elaborated on these two scriptural sources. These fuqahā’ produced sophisticated writings on jurisprudence, called Islamic law or fiqh. Fiqh included the study of linguistic exegesis, gnoseology, philosophy, as well as classical religious sciences, accompanied by intellectual reasoning. The study of Arabic sources and important Islamic figures of juridical-theoretical writings (e.g. Al Ghāzalī, Fakhraḍīn Al Rāzī, Djuwainī, Al Shāfī’) indicates the existence of powerful dynamics within Islamic law and sheds different light on the structure of this field. Thomas Bauer, Die Kultur der Ambiguität: Eine andere Geschite des Islams, 157-159.

49 Florens Alexander, Zivilisation oder Barbarei? Der Islam im historischen Kontext, 216.

50 Ralph Hattox, Coffee and Coffeehouses. 61.

51 ibid.

52 “Ḳahwa.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online, 2012. Reference, 10 May 2012

53 “Qahwa,” Ibn Manzur, Lisān al ‘arab , 1979.

54 Ḳahwa.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online, 2012. Reference, 10 May 2012

55 ibid.

56 Ralph Hattox, Coffee and Coffeehouses, 29.

57 Omerdić Muharem, Abduh, Muhammad: Risāla al Tawḥīd, rasprava o islamskom monoteizmu, 140.

58 Keršervan Rudi, Svetilič, Nina: Koran: O Koranu, Bogu Islamu…, 39. Compare also with Hans Küng, Der Islam.

59 Science of lexicology (ʻilm al luġa) of Arabic language has emerged along with important works and lexical studies (Tahḏīb al-luġa by Al Azharī, Tāj al ʻArūs min jawāhir al qāmūs by Al Zabīdī, Jamharat al luġa od Ibn Duraida,  Tāj al luġa wa al ṣiḥāh al ʻarabiyya by Al Jawhari, Kitāb al ḥuhaṣṣaṣ fī luġa by Ibn Sīde, Kitāb al ʼaḍdād by Ibn al-Anbārī, Kitāb al ʻain by Al Farāhīdī, Kitāb Sībawaih by Al Sībāwaih, and Qamus al muḥit by Al Firuzabādī). This scientific and literary engagement in Arabic language rooted in the literary interest, preservation of the language, as well as in the interest in so called “language games” (ein spielerisches Interesse). The usage of language was also examined in the so called aḍdād-collections for classification of Arabic terms with multiple meanings. Thomas Bauer: Die Kultur der Ambiguität: Eine andere Geschite des Islams, 16, 231-235.

60 William H. Ukers, All About Coffee, 541.

61 ibid.

62 ibid.

63 ibid. 543.

64 Mark Wagner, “The Debate Between Coffee and Qat in Yemeni Literature,” Middle Eastern

Literatures Vol. 8, No. 2, (2005): 121, accessed 6 May, 2012,

65 Ralph Hattox, Coffee and Coffeehouses, 30.

66 Mark Wagner, “The Debate Between Coffee and Qat in Yemeni Literature,” Middle Eastern

Literatures Vol. 8, No. 2, (2005): 126, accessed 6 May, 2012,,.

67 ibid., 127.

68 ibid., 122.

69 ibid.

70 ibid., 128.

71 ibid.

72 ibid., 129.

73 ibid., 130.

74 ibid.

75 ibid., 144.

76 Thomas Bauer, Die Kultur der Ambiguität: Eine andere Geschichte des Islams, 116.

77 ibid., 41-54.

78 ibid., 59, 192-211.