How the Islamic World Gave Us Coffee and Democracy

by David Alvarez

Coffee_cupJuan Valdez notwithstanding, coffee is an Islamic invention. According to the most popular story about its origins, sometime in the fifteenth century a goat-herding monk named Kaldi discovered coffee in the Kingdom of Ayaman (Yemen). His goats were staying up all night, “frisking and dancing in an unusual manner.” The Prior was informed, the goats diligently tracked, and the cause of their rambunctious insomnia identified: red berries from the “kahwa” tree.

The Prior, apparently a curious and practical type, tried the berries himself by boiling them in water and drinking the brew. It kept him awake all night. To help his monks with their nocturnal devotions, he shared his concoction with them. They declared it a gift of providence, and coffee soon spread “throughout the whole kingdom” and “other nations and provinces of the East.”

The Islamic world gave us not only coffee but also something else rather important: democracy. Popular histories of coffee are wrong in two big ways. If you thought the Kaldi story was too enchanting to be accurate, you are right. That story is mostly bunk. But an even bigger story we tell ourselves about coffee is just as fantastic. The most celebrated institution of the European Enlightenment is the English coffeehouse. As “seats of English liberty,” where all were welcome to discuss the news and criticize art and politics, the English coffeehouse gets lots of praise for promoting modern democracy. But this coffeehouse ideal as a space of debate and political dissent comes not from the European Enlightenment but from the world of Islam.

The Kaldi myth correctly credits Muslims for discovering coffee, but the tale is a Christian invention (Notice the monks? Islam forbids monasteries because they are too unworldly). It was written in 1671 by Faustus Naironi, an Italian traveler and… monk. The story of Kaldi and his goats first surfaced in London in 1710, just as the first craze for oriental tales like “Sinbad the Sailor” was in full swing. While the Kaldi myth remains popular (it is web ubiquitous), the story was already dismissed as a “Monkish Dream” in the early eighteenth century. There is no evidence that either Sinbad or Kaldi and his frolicking goats ever existed.

Coffee’s origins are rather dark, but we do know this much: the world owes its discovery to Sufis, a mystical sect of Islam. They brought it from Ethiopia to Yemen and probably started drinking it sometime in the 1470s. According to the Encyclopedia of Islam, coffee kept them awake for their late night spiritual exercises and helped them experience kahwat al-Sufiyya: the “ideal kahwa” or “the enjoyment which the people of God feel in beholding the hidden mysteries and attaining the wonderful disclosures and the great revelations.” This search for the ideal kahwa is now a global quest.

From Yemen, coffee spread to Cairo and throughout the Middle East. In 1554, Istanbul’s first coffeehouse opened. Wherever coffee went, controversy followed. The word “coffee” comes from the Arabic “kahwa,” originally the word for wine. Islam forbids drinking wine, and most of the knowledge we have about coffee’s origins is preserved in theological debates about whether or not coffee was lawful for Muslims. Ultimately, coffee prevailed.

The most important controversy about coffee in the Islamic world, however, was the role it played in promoting political dissent. Religious leaders and autocratic rulers tried to prohibit coffee because in coffeehouses people were not just socializing, entering poetry competitions, and playing backgammon and chess—they were also criticizing the government. Several sultans issued edicts against drinking coffee and coffeehouses. None succeeded. Their subjects rebelled, and some died for the sake of coffee.

When coffee arrived in England, it was both very popular and very controversial. The first coffeehouse in Europe opened in London in 1652. An enterprising young Greek, Pasqua Rosee, opened a “Turkish Ale-house” near the equivalent of London’s Wall Street. By 1708, contemporaries counted 3000 coffeehouses in London, at the time a city of 500,000. But this was no seventeenth-century version of Starbuck’s inexorable rise.

Xenophobic criticisms were loudest. Coffee was foreign, decadent, effeminate (it made men chatter like women and caused impotence), and it was the official drink of the tyrannical, Islamic Ottoman Empire. To drink coffee was “to turn Turk.” The first play set in a coffeehouse, Knavery in All Trades; or The Coffee-House (1664), gives a good taste of how coffee was satirically roasted as utterly un-English.

Mahoone, a Turkish immigrant who speaks a curious English dialect of French, Dutch, and Jewish lingo (all very un-English) owns the coffeehouse. To brew his customers’ coffee, Mahoone uses his wife’s chamber pot, “de bowl where dat whore your mistress does piss.” It turns out that the cat and dog have had their turn as well, but it’s decided to “let it boil well,” since “a dog or cat’s turd is as good as the berry itself.” (It is unlikely that Mahoone knew of Kopi Luwak.) However bad the coffee, English alehouses were losing their customers to Mahoone’s disreputable and subversive coffeehouse: “Where come all the young Clerks, the prentices when they are drunk but to the coffeehouse? Where come the plotters, the men of design, but to the coffeehouse?”

Coffeehouses were not just oriental, chaotic, vulgar, licentious, and gross, they led to sedition. Charles II tried to shut them down twice. One of his ministers complained that when people drank wine and beer, the discussion was loyal to the king, but coffee made people sober and criticize the government. Somehow the minister looked past the idea that you would have to be drunk to like the king and instead urged him to close all coffeehouses.

Against such criticisms, coffee found one of its most important defences in James Douglas’ deceptively unscintillatingly titled book, A Supplement to the Description of the Coffee Tree (1727). Douglas was a Scottish physician, Fellow of the Royal Society, and, according to the poet Alexander Pope, a dunce. Regardless of Pope’s assessment of his capacities, Douglas wrote the first authoritative history of coffee in English. As part of this effort, he gathered together all the available evidence the West had about coffee’s history in the Islamic world. The result? A story about coffee’s power to promote British liberty.

Douglas defends coffee by comparing its use in Europe to its history in the East. “The first publick Coffee-Houses,” he explains, were “from the beginning very little different from what it is in London and Paris at this day.” Oriental coffeehouses welcomed “persons of all ranks,” from students to “the Officers of the Seraglio…and others of the First Quality.” The coffeehouse gave all men the “opportunity of discoursing on all manner of subjects, without the least ceremony or constraint.” A place for entertainment, conversation, and debate, the coffeehouses fostered a new kind of sociability that threatened religious and political authority. Douglas celebrates their intellectual edge, observing that the coffee-drinking Sufis enjoyed “great Alacrity and Freedom of the Mind.” Coffeehouses were information exchanges where patrons discussed news, carried on business, and learned about the latest developments in art and science. Unsurprisingly, Douglas dismisses complaints about coffeehouses as “a great deal of noise and useless railing.”

In a conspicuous swipe at Charles II’s attempt to close down London’s coffeehouses, Douglas recounts how “the Liberty” of the Ottoman coffeehouses led a Grand Vizier to disguise himself and secretly investigate them. He discovered “Men of Gravity and Character discoursing seriously concerning the Affairs of the Empire, blaming the Ministry, and deciding freely concerning things of the greatest importance. He had been likewise to visit the taverns, where he met only with People singing, or talking of their amours and warlike Exploits… and therefore he allow’d the Taverns to continue.” A King of England who tried to shut down coffeehouses, Douglas contends, would be acting like a tyrannical sultan.

This democratic coffeehouse ideal was celebrated by “Big Whig” English historians—Thomas Macaulay, George Trevelyan—who ignored the history of coffee in the East and described the coffeehouse as a unique English institution that expressed the nation’s core values of civility, politeness, and rationality. This ideal was then picked up in the middle of the twentieth century by Europe’s most important living political philosopher, Jürgen Habermas. In his first dissertation (it takes two in Germany to become a professor), he argued that the coffeehouse was a key institution of the public sphere in the European Enlightenment. In the coffeehouse, all were welcome, everyone could participate in debate, and everything could be criticized. The coffeehouse symbolized the birth of the European Enlightenment. Somehow, however, the Islamic world’s influence on the origins of this “European” ideal of the democratic coffeehouse were left out.

The coffeehouse fell out of favor in England at the end of the eighteenth century, replaced—as you might have guessed—by tea. But in the last two decades the boom in coffee drinking has revived the idea of the “Golden Age of the English Coffeehouse.” Because Habermas’ dissertation, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), became an academic blockbuster, just about every book published today about coffee at some point extols the coffeehouse ideal of community, criticism, and political debate. Yet if we want the coffeehouse to brew social change, we might begin by changing our understanding of the history of the “European Enlightenment” coffeehouse ideal. It’s an ideal that is even more compelling when we realize that it bridges East and West.

David Alvarez is an Associate Professor of English at DePauw University. He holds a PhD in 18th-century British literature from Cornell University and only started drinking coffee two years ago.