By Mansur Ali
Coffee (coffea arabica) is drunk by over two-third of the world’s population. At 16 pounds per person (in terms of volume) Germany is the world’s second biggest consumer of coffee, America being the first. It is one of the few crops that small farms in third-world countries can make a profit from. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that coffee is grown in 53 countries of the world, most of them along the equator between the tropic of Cancer and Capricorn. However feasible the statistics may seem, coffee did not always enjoy this success in history. In fact it had to fight for its right to be recognised in the orient as well as the occident. The story of its success is saturated with angry protests and heavy oppositions.
Coffee was first discovered by Kaldi, an Ethiopian Shepard from the town of Kaffa in 850 CE. He noticed that his herd became energetic after feeding on a particular shrub. Upon inspection, Kaldi found the plant to have red berries and decided to taste them. Immediately he felt ecstatic and hyper-active. Not knowing what to do, he consulted the local Imam (Muslim priest). That evening both of them experimented with the berries. It is said that in a state of euphoria the Imam had a vision of the Prophet who advised him that this is a blessed drink because it enhances wakefulness and promotes prayer. The following morning, the Imam let the people know of his vision, and soon his monastery become famous all over Arabia. It was introduced in to the Shadhilliyya Sufi order of Yemen and was perceived by them to be a holy drink, the only link between the mortal realm and Nirvana.
Doctors of Muslim law on the other hand eyed it with suspicion. The Arabic word for coffee being ‘qahwa’ (assumed by some to be derived from Kaffa) literally means dark wine. Given the fact that it has intoxicating effects like alcohol, brewed with its somewhat ambiguous name, the scholars lost no time in issuing a verdict (fatwa) for its prohibition. Even then its popularity increased by the day. People started to build coffee houses (kahve khana) and started to drink the liquid of boiled coffee beans rather than chewing it. Soon it became such an integral part of Muslim life that a Turkish woman was able to stipulate in her marriage contract that if her husband did not provide her with coffee she can demand a divorce. As the popularity of the beverage grew, it was banned from being taken outside Arabia. A person by the name of Baba Bundan illegally smuggled some out of Arabia through the port in Mocha and started a farm in Mysore, India, from there coffee spread in the sub-continent and far East.
Coffee in Europe also went through the same phases of being rejected first and then openly accepted. It was introduced into Europe by Venetian merchants who traded in silk and spices with the Turks. Spontaneously it came under heavy attack from the Church. The Church saw it as the antithesis to wine. It was branded as the devil’s brew and drinking it would lead to eternal damnation. The Church tried to justify its self by giving the explanation that this brew was concocted by Satan for the infidels (Muslim) to compensate for wine which they cannot drink. The wine symbolised the blood of Christ therefore this drink must symbolise the blood of the anti-Christ. The dispute over its permissibility was finally settled by Pope Clement VIII in 1500 CE. Whilst testing it before passing a verdict, he himself became addicted to the brew. The sweet aroma intrigued him so much that he baptised it and blessed it on the spot. With the popes blessing, coffee saw the light of day in Europe. In fact it became so popular that cappuccino derives its name from a group of Christian monks from the capuchin order, because the colour of the drink resembles the colour of their robes.
In 1652 the first coffee house was opened in England and was named ‘Penny University’ (a cup of coffee costing a penny). Coffee houses became a popular place to fraternise and socialise, and it was in these places that many revolutionary political ideas were concocted, exchanged and foisted. The Parisian coffee houses were opened as a testing ground for the ideology that led to the French revolution. In 1675 Charles II declared a proclamation for the suppression of coffee houses. The public went ballistic and after 11 days of rebelling the houses were re-opened.
We seem to take this beverage that we are all infatuated with for granted. But reading the pages of history, it can be seen that coffee had to go through many challenges and trials, from the cool dunes of Arabia to the Basilica in Rome. It even had to submit to the wrath of English women. When coffee was first introduced into England, English women took to the streets in protest to ban it because it made their husbands think better!