Spilling the beans: The Islamic history of coffee

Before there were Starbucks and the quirky coffeeshops masquerading as cozy work corners for many of us, there was the mid-17th century coffeeshop boom in England. During the 1600s, the general conversation about coffee nodded to its status as the Islamic other. Othello, the Shakespearean Moor, was turned into a villain and likened to coffee in the 1672 English ballad, “A Broadside against Coffee: or The Marriage of the Turk.”  Coffee was also variously labeled as the devious “Mahometan gruel” and “Turkish Renegade” [Gitanjali Shahani, 2020]. Thirty-seven coffeehouses in London alone adopted the name “Turk’s head” [Brian Cowan, 2005]. As coffee-drinking grew in popularity, so did the depictions of coffee services manned by moors and turbaned Turks – a phenomenon documented in the European art of the period.

illustration with coffee and tobacco
The illustration depicts two English consumers and a turbaned Turk holding a cup of coffee and smoking tobacco, yet another exotic import. He can be seen overlooking the Black Moor serving coffee. A broadside against coffee. London, 1672. Folger J147.

While racist assaults on coffee no longer persist, the Islamic past of this dark brown beverage has been completely whitewashed.  This was an erasure so immaculate that, as early as the 19th century, coffee drinking in India was identified with British colonizers; colonial subjects either embraced or rejected the practice as a sign of Western modernity.

Historically, coffee as a hot beverage was introduced to the world by the Sufi saints in 15th-century Yemen. They drank qahwa, the Arabic term for coffee, to stay awake during the night-long meditation and recitation zikr rituals (Ralph Hattox, 1985). Sufi saints and merchants spread the practice of coffee-drinking to the geographically diverse – but intellectually and linguistically linked – Islamic Turkish Ottoman, Iranian Safavid, and South Asia Mughal empires that reigned from the 16th to the 18th centuries.

The 15th-century coffee trading network was based in the Red Sea region with the Yemeni port of Mocha as its focal point. Mocha received its supply from the Ethiopian highlands in northeast Africa, the natural habitat of what is now known as Arabica coffee. By the 17th century the English East India Company and the Dutch East India Company had infiltrated this trade, hitherto operated by the Arab, Cairenes, and Turkish merchants. The process of severing Islamic roots of coffee was set in motion. By the 18th century, the English, the Dutch, and the French had succeeded in transporting and transplanting coffee seeds to their colonies in Indonesia, South India, Sri Lanka, and the Caribbean. Consequently, the Java, Malabar, Ceylon, and Jamaican coffee beans took over the global market. While these coffees, much like the caffè mocha, derive their names from their trade ports of origin, their association with European masters was undeniable.

Years before the English caught the scent of the Yemeni trade, Sir Antony Sherley, undertaking an unofficial trip through Safavid and Ottoman territories, became one of the earliest Englishmen to encounter coffee. His 1599 account noted that Turks at Ottoman Aleppo were in the habit of drinking a certain “liquor, which they do call Coffe [anglicization of qawha], which is made of seede much like mustard seede, which will soone intoxicate the braine like our Metheglin”.  Seventeen years later, in 1616, English Reverend Edward Terry, writing about his time in Mughal South Asia, exhibited similar curiosity about and unfamiliarity with coffee. He recorded:

“Many of the people there (in India)…use a liquor…they call coffee; made by a black seed boyld in water, which turns it almost into the same colour, but doth very little alter the taste of the water: notwithstanding it is very good to help digestion, to quicken the spirits, and to cleanse the blood.”

These accounts, however, barely managed to scratch the surface of Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal coffee culture in all its complexity.

As part of the courtly ritual, coffee was offered to state officials right before they were dispatched for military assignments – symbolizing the alertness required for imperial service. The Safavid court maintained a separate coffee-kitchen and qahwahchī-bāshī (coffee master) for the ruling elite. Coffee was also the beverage of choice for a wide section of the population, ranging from intellectually inclined poets and scholars to refreshment-seeking visitors to public baths and exhausted travelers.

Coffee was a thing of beauty for these consumers. The coffee cup was often likened to a tulip, holding the passionate heart of a lover. The black-colored coffee beverage was equated with mesmerizing kohl-rimmed eyes. Marvelous jewel tones of peacock and the subtly changing hues of dusk were also attributed to the beverage [Walter Hakala, 2014]. This description bears direct correlation to the in-vogue coffee preparation method where coffee grinds boiled in water were not filtered away but instead allowed to settle at the bottom of the cup, resulting in an iridescent oil film on the top of the cup. In addition to the dried, roasted, and ground coffee beans, recipes variously called for using the leaves and fleshy berries of the coffee bush, which were steeped and brewed in hot water. Medical treatises provide recipes for preparing flavorsome ginger coffee, cinnamon coffee, and cardamom coffee. Rosewater and sugar-candy were also added to the delicacy that was coffee. In 18th-century Mughal Delhi, Arab ki sarai, an inn run by Arab traders, was famous for preparing sticky, sweet coffee.

gateway
Restored gateway of the Arab ki Sarai, Delhi, India. (photograph by the author)

However, it took some amount of negotiation for coffee to create a space for itself in these empires. The 16th-century orthodox clerics, wary of this new commodity’s potentially narcotic and intoxicating properties, equated coffee with hashish (cannabis)  and alcohol. In response, advocates of coffee, including physicians, liberal-minded jurists, and other members of the courtly circles, highlighted that unlike wine, coffee is neither mentioned nor forbidden by the Quran. They also asserted the difference in the physiological effects of coffee in promoting wakefulness in contrast to the drowsiness induced by drugs and alcohol. This rationale resonated with wider sections of the empire. For instance, during the Ottoman imperial circumcision festival held in 1582, the guild of coffee sellers curated a performance for the emperor, Sultan Murad III, portraying coffee as a boon for the community of scholars. Pleased by their performance, the sultan promised respite from the moral onslaught on coffee.

Coffee sellers
Procession of coffee sellers with a model of coffee cart during the Imperial circumcision festival, Surname-i Hümayun, 1582, Istanbul, Topkapi Palace Museum.

Although coffee itself was embraced, the adjunct social institution of the coffeehouse vexed the authorities. Coffeehouses engendered a distinctive culture of intellectual discourse and exchange as different sections of the population – artists, craftsmen, poets, performers, merchants, and bureaucrats previously isolated by residential patterns – mingled and enjoyed conversations, board games, music, storytelling, and poetry recitations in these new social spaces. The following 17th-century Ottoman painting encapsulates the thriving social life of these coffeeshops.

Ottoman coffee
Ottoman coffeehouse, 1620, Istanbul, Chester Beatty Library. Notice the elite men seated under a cloistered platform with the coffee server on their right.

Unlike in the formal setting of mosque prayer congregations, caffeine-stimulated talk flowing through a cross section of people in coffeehouses afforded articulation of discontent and dissent against various state policies. Though coffeehouses were suppressed from time to time on suspicion of being sites of sedition, even after repeated efforts they could not be clamped down. The will of the people prevailed and, from the 16th to the 18th century, coffeehouses proliferated in Istanbul’s Tahtakale district by the Grand Bazaar, around Isfahan’s Maydan public plaza and its Chahar Bagh, and along Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. Gradually, the Sharia or Islamic law’s legal protection of the sphere of free and autonomous civic and public action was extended to the coffeehouses (Said Amir Arjomand, 2004).

The history of these coffeehouses offers three connected insights: the emergence of the public sphere, the participation of larger sections of the population in the political lives of the early modern Islamic empires, and the hollowness of the allegations of despotism mounted on ‘Oriental’ societies by Western onlookers.

With this in mind, the historical narrative around the 18th– and 19th-century coffee shops in Europe needs revision. Linked to the emergence of the public sphere and by extension modern democratic values, the European coffeehouses are effectively the descendants of the dynamic early modern Islamic coffeehouse culture. As a fix to this Euro-centric hangover, decolonization of history strongly requires us to wake up and smell the history of coffee in its entirety – starting with its Islamic roots and flourishes.

8 Comments


  • Hi Ellen,
    You are right, it is 1582. Thank you for pointing out the typo. My Covid brain jumbled up the sequence of the digits.

  • Fascinating article on the history of coffee drinking which we take so much for granted today without knowing its origins.

  • The picture labeled “Procession of coffee sellers with a model of coffee cart during the Imperial circumcision festival, Surname-i Hümayun, 1528, Istanbul, Topkapi Palace Museum.” has a typo. The date of that specific Surname-i Hümayun is actually date 1582… There was no coffee in Istanbul in 1528.

  • That 4th picture is definitely Ottoman. The koçek more or less is the middle is clearly Ottoman and would not be part of a Safavid ceremony

  • Learnt intresting (unknown) facts about coffee through this well written(thoroughly researched) article.. The pics depicting coffee procession , coffe cart nd royals enjoying cofee is quite intresting..

  • The 4th image, captioned “Ottoman coffee, 1620, Istanbul, Chester Beatty Library” is actually a Persian painting that illustrates a ritual or celebration of an Iranian event, and the textual elements are lines of a famous Persian poem Nizami.


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