Coffee: Yemeni Sufis’ Gift to the World

By Anwarul Islam

coffee-dancing-goatThe word coffee, the fuel of modern civilization and enabler of the Industrial Revolution, was not in the English language until 1601.  Coffee has had a quick and glorious rise to its present-day status as the world’s favorite drink.  But coffee as a drink is, historically speaking, relatively new.

In the Middle East, the cradle of civilization, there was no mention of it at all in any ancient texts.  There is no archeological evidence that coffee was in use in any form.  The Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Arabs and Persians are all silent about it.

Ibn Battuta went to Yemen in 1330 and with his characteristic eloquence described every aspect of the land.  He praised its orchards, palm groves, banana plantation, the elegance and beauty of its women and their devotion and contributions to their families, the uprightness of its coastal men, and the snobbery of the citizens of the capital city Ta’izz.  But there was no mention of coffee – not its plants, beans or the drink.

Coffee first comes into the spotlight in Mecca in 1511 when Khair Bey, the Pasha of the holy city, called upon a group of Islamic scholars to decide if drinking coffee was Halal.  The group decided that it was not.  The incident implies that coffee was already in mass use there.  So between Iba Battuta and Khair Bey we can establish when the debut of coffee occurred.  And the stage of that debut was Yemen, precisely the Sufi Khankas of Rusulid kingdom of Yemen because of its proximity to Ethiopian highlands where the coffee plants were growing in the wilderness.  But except for a few local tribes who used coffee beans for ceremonial purposes, no one saw any other use for it.  It was the Sufis of Yemen who uncovered the psychoactive character of its bean, domesticated the plant and came up with the process of creating a drink from its beans that we know today.

Sufism started as an ascetic movement that evolved into the mysticism of communion with God.  Over time, individual Sufi masters came into the picture and Sufi orders were established.  This was the Toriqa stage and Sufis identified themselves with particular schools of Sufi discipline.  Sufi masters came up with elaborate guidelines for their pupils and Sufism started to take local characters.  For example, in India the technique of Yoga got synthesized with Sufi Toriqa.  Yoga manuals were translated into the Persian language and were circulated throughout Sufi Khankas of Muslim world.  Psychoactive drugs also came into the picture and that theme abounds in the Persian poetries of that time in the name of wine.  But wine did not have any practical value for the mainstream, and an alternative needed to be found.

Then in the early 15th century, a Muslim navy admiral named Zheng He from China arrived with a flotilla of ships at the ports of Yemen.  In his encounters with Sufi Masters he shared the favorite Chinese drink tea with them.  Sufis liked it for its psychoactive quality.  It was perfect for night long Dhikr, the burst of instant energy from a refreshing drink like a gift from heaven.

But there was a problem, a big problem.  Tea grew only in China and once Zheng He’s flotilla was gone so was the tea.  However an indispensible lesson had been learned: plant leaves can be used to infuse a drink with a psychoactive character which would not violate the Islamic prohibition on intoxication.

Initially coffee leaves were used like the tea leaves but the caffeine content of the leaves was insignificant.  Then the coffee cherries were tried.  That tradition is still in use in today’s Yemen and it is called Qishr coffee.  Coffee cherries were better in jolts but it was soon found that the beans were even better.

Coffee quickly became the main crop in Yemen and its coffee trading port Mocha is still a cherished name in coffee consumption.  Yemen maintained a virtual monopoly in coffee cultivation and trade for almost two hundred years.  Early in the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire took control of Egypt by replacing Mamelukes, and became the guardian of Holy places including Mecca.

Ottomans took up coffee consumption in earnest and taught Europeans how to drink coffee.  The rest is history.  In time the Europeans became the masters of the Indian Ocean and it was only natural that Yemen would lose its monopoly on coffee cultivation.  Coffee plants were smuggled out of Yemen and planted in the newly occupied tropical colonies for consumption by the colonial masters.

Finally, no coffee story can be complete without mentioning a certain legend.  In the highlands of Ethiopia, there lived a goat herd, named Khildi.  He understood his goats like a mother understands her baby.  He observed that on days the goats ate coffee cherries they became extraordinarily happy and danced like reeds in the wind.  So he had to try that beans himself and he also became incredibly happy and danced with the goats.  He told his story to the abbot of the local monastery.  The abbot thought that it must be a devil’s work and so he threw the beans into a fire pit.  The aroma of roasted beans convinced him that the beans were not from a devil but divine.  So coffee roasting began.

It sounds so fantastic – except nobody ever bothered to check if the goats of the Ethiopian highlands are still dancing after eating coffee beans. I did not check that fact either.


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