When I was writing The Cartoon Guide to Recreational Drugs I scoured the local libraries and bookstores looking for useful and interesting historical works. Coffee and Coffeehouses is one of my sources.
The parts I generally took notes from were either about the drugs themselves or the prohibition of drugs. You’ll find the information garnered from these books throughout the Prohibition Politics section of this site. It will also have informed some of my own postings stored in the older Prohibition Politics archive.
If you find this information useful, you will want to search out the books themselves to read the text in context. All of the books here are at least moderately interesting.
Ralph S. Hattox’s book is subtitled “The Origins of a Social Beverage in the Medieval Near East”. He summarizes the history of coffee’s rise in the Near East, and its growth as a social facilitator much like alcohol elsewhere, with cafés replacing the function of bars.
“This book was published with support from The Promotional Fund of the International Coffee Organization and The Exxon Corporation” and distributed by the University of Washington Press.
The Great Coffee Controversy
As with other drugs, it isn’t coffee itself that attracts prohibition, but rather, who is drinking it and the fact that they are gathering together that causes uneasiness and fear in rulers.
“In studying the body of available literature, either by contemporary writers or later scholars, on the controversy over coffee, one inevitably runs up against a handful of traditional explanations for the rise and growth of opposition to coffee drinking. In most cases these consist of one or more of the following:
- Coffee was thought in some way physically or chemically so constituted as to make its consumption a violation of Islamic law, either because it was intoxicating or physically harmful, or because some step in its preparation, such as roasting the beans beyond the point of carbonization, made it unacceptable.
- Coffee was rejected by the ultrapious simply because it was an innovation, bid’a.
- The political activities that became an important part of the sociaal life of the coffeehouse grew increasingly alarming to the governmental elite.
- The patrons of the coffeehouse indulged in a variety of improper pastimes, ranging from gambling to involvement in irregular and criminally unorthodox sexual situations, and as such attracted the attention of those officials who were assigned the custodianship of public morality.
‘In referring to these explanations as traditional, in no way do I wish to convey any sense of pejorative comparison. Quite the contrary: each of them, and particularly the last two, is a relatively faithful distillation of the arguments raised against coffee. Individually or collectively, they are, as far as they go, generally valid explanations of anti-coffee prohibitionary sentiment.”
“Nonetheless, these explanations seem in another sense curiously inadequate and hollow. When one studies the circumstances surrounding the cases where for one of the aforementioned reasons coffee is prohibited, coffeehouses are closed down, or both, one often detects a curious pattern of events. In essence, what seems to happen is that the prohibitionist, on learning of the drink or the establishment, is first filled with a vague sense of uneasiness about it; it is only then that he sets about to collect the evidence that eventually leads to an official proclamation, a legal opinion, or a mere moral harangue against it. There are other reasons, not explicitly enumerated or detailed, which contribute to the protagonist’s initial alarm and subsequent interest in coffee. We may actually consider these other reasons to be the prime movers toward prohibitionist feelings, more important than the explicitly enunciated arguments by which, through long investigation and perhaps a bit of creative fiddling, the already resolute opponent of coffee furnishes himself with legal artillery. In addition, one often finds vaguely sketched objections to things that cannot be pinned down and condemned as contrary to the precepts of the holy law, but which are nevertheless irksome, censurable, and generally objectionable in the context of uncodified cultural tradition.”
The Coming of Coffee to the Near East
From its origin among the Sufi of Yemen, coffee spread throughout the Muslim world. It generated controversy as it spread because it was a new thing and religious leaders needed to decide if it was forbidden or not.
“Coffee came into general use in the lands of Islam sometime in the mid-fifteenth century. Owing to the virtual silence with which the beverage insinuated itself into the society, it is impossible to attribute a more specific date to its arrival.”
Abu al-Tayyib al-Ghazzi “relates an account in which Solomon appears as the first to make use of coffee. According to Abu al-Tayyib, Solomon was said to have come in his travels to a town whose inhabitatns were afflicted with some unspecified disease. On the command of the angel Gabriel, he roasted coffee beans “from the Yemen,” from which he brewed the drink, which when given to the sufferers, cured them of their illness. The report concludes by saying that coffee was then completely forgotten until the beginning of the tenth [A.D. sixteenth] century.”
In the stories and legends there is general agreement on two points: the use of coffee is traced “almost invariably” to the Yemen, and “most stories connect it to a man or men of one of the mystical Sufi religious orders, to which coffee quickly became important for devotional purposes.” The first such account is from Jaziri, related on the authority of Shihab al-Din ibn ‘abd al-Ghaffar.
Jaziri provides another account of the origin of coffee use, attributed to a Fakhr al-Din Abu Bakr ibn Abi Yazid al-Makki.
Fakhr al-Din al-Makki said: “It has been said that the first to spread [the use of coffee] was al-Dhabhani, but what has reached us from a good many people is that the first one to introduce [qahwa] and to make [its use] a widespread and popular [custom] in the Yemen was our master, Shaykh… ´Ali ibn ´Umar al-Shadhili, a pupil of our master, Shaykh… Nasir al-Din ibn Maylaq, one of the masters of the shaykhs of the Shadhiliya order…. [It is said] that at first [qahwa] was made from kafta, that is, the leaves known as qat, and neither from coffee beans nor from the husks [of that fruit]. [The use of this potion] continued to spread from region to region, until it came to the port of Aden the Protected. In Aden at the time of Shaykh… al-Dhabhani there was no kafta, so he said to those who followed him and were dependent on him for guidance that ‘coffee beans [bunn] [also] promoted wakefulness, so try qahwa made from it.’ They tried it, and found that it performed the same function as [qahwa made from] qat, with little expense or trouble.” [Jaziri continues:] The drinking of [qahwa made from bunn] continued to spread from its place of origin and other places, which we shall not waste the space to mention. There is no contradiction between the two statements… since the former speaks of qahwa made from the husks [of the coffee berry], while the latter refers to qahwa from qat.
“Qahwa was a word in common use before coffee itself was known: it has a long pedigree as one of the epithets of wine. The Arabic root q-h-w/y denotes the idea of making something repugnant, or lessening one’s desire for something. According to one medieval Arab lexicographer, qahwa is “wine, so named because it puts the drinker off his food; that is to say, it removes his appetite [for it].” The application of this term to coffee was a simple step: just as wine removes one’s desire for food, so coffee removes one’s desire for sleep.”
“One may also consider the happy coincidence of the word qahwa with the place name Kaffa, a region in Ethiopia. It is possible that the berry or beverage was first called after Kaffa, and that subsequent to its introduction in Arabia those who knew of it there could not resist the poetical urge to apply to it a near-homophone that had been a term for wine. A third etymological explanation, that because of its effects in invigorating the body it was given a form derived from quwwa (strength or power) seems far less likely.”
Note: The author seems to have a strong need to get away from the possibility that coffee was called wine because coffee is intoxicating, like wine is.
“As a general rule, we can say that:
- In common use the word qahwa came to be applied to the beverage made of the fruit of the coffea arabica.
- The fruit itself is called bunn, while the two parts of the fruit, the kernel and the husk, are called bunn (or habb al-bunn) and qishr respectively.
- The word qahwa is sometimes modified to specify what sort of beverage we are speaking of, since it could be made from either the husks alone (al-qahwa al-qishriya), from the kernels (al-qahwa al-bunniya), or from a combination of the two, but it is restricted to those things made from the fruit of the coffee plant.”
A number of general statements “can be made concerning the introduction of coffee into the lands of Islam:
- In the first, second or, less likely, third quarter of the fifteenth century, a potion made from some stimulating vegetable matter seems to have gained popularity
- By some point in the third quarter of the fifteenth century, this beverage was being made from a part or parts of the coffee bean. This innovation is often attributed to the scholar and Sufi, Muhammad al-Dhabhani, who died circa 1470-71. The introduction of coffee, if not the work of Dhabhani himself, was at least contemporaneous with his adult life.
- It was first widely used in Yemen.
- Whatever other points of controversy may exist, its early use is almost always connected with Sufi orders.”
While the general use of coffee can be traced back to “the mid-1400s”, it is also very possible that “coffee may have been used for centuries in these [Yemen] isolated regions without word spreading to the outside. Even when the subject was well known and openly discussed, our Yemeni sources on the origins of coffee use come not from the mountains, but from such places as Zabid in the Tihama or Aden on the coast.”
By 1511 the use of coffee in Mecca was “already well established.”
After the spread of coffee to Egypt and its brisk consumption in the precincts of the Azhar “the situation continued along these lines: much coffee was drunk in the quarter of the mosque; it was sold openly in a multitude of places. In spite of the long time [that it had been drunk], not a soul gave any thought to interfering with coffee drinkers, nor did anyone find fault with the drink either in itself or because of factors [associated with but] external to it, such as passing the cup around and the like. All this was in spite of the fact that it had also become widespread in Mecca, and was drunk in the Sacred Mosque itself, so that there was scarcely a dhikr or observance of the Prophet’s birthday (mawlid) where coffee was not present.”—Jaziri First case of attempted prohibition “for which we have a detailed report”: Mecca, 1511.
Jaziri claimed that until then there had been no controversy surrounding coffee. But “Judging from the context of the report on the Meccan case itself, there had been questions for some time in many minds over the legal status of coffee. It is, indeed, most unlikely that a step such as was taken in Mecca was not preceded by growing sentiment against coffee.” Remember that, in 1511, coffee had been out of Yemen no more than twenty years, perhaps less than ten. But it had moved “out of the Sufi meetings and into insitutions where the emphasis was on pleasure rather than piety.” Shams al-Din Muhammad al-Hanafi (known as al-Khatib), the naqib of the qadi al-qudat (chief judge) Sari al-Din ibn al-Shihna, was, according to Jaziri, “one of the leading opponents of coffee in Mecca at that time.” He wrote the ‘minutes’ (mahdar) of the council of prominent jurists at Mecca that gave a ruling on coffee drinking.
- Two physicians of Persian origin, Mur al-Din Ahmad al-Kazaruni and his brother ‘Ala’ al-Din, goaded Kha’ir Beg (the first principal opponent of coffee in Mecca, Kha’ir Betg al-Mi´mar, pasha of the Mamluks in Mecca, and muhtasib of the town) into opposing coffee, with the help of Shams al-Din al-Khatib. “They suggested to him that the beverage was endowed with all sorts of vile characteristics, and are said to have been instrumental in arranging for the council.”
- At the council, first the meetings to drink coffee were banned. There was practically no discussion on this point; one person “had the audacity to argue a few points, and was consequently rebuked severely, and almost prosecuted.”
- 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.”
- Kha’ir Beg produced the two physician brothers, who said that “it was of a cold and dry nature, and, not surprisingly, that it was harmful to the well-balanced temperament.” One person mentioned that the Minhaj al-bayan said it was good for drying up phlegmatic conditions. The physicians said that it was referring to another plant altogether.
- “At this juncture, several of those present stood to support the doctors: they said that, knowing that it was legal, they had drunk coffee, and had suffered mental and personality changes from the beverage.”
- Based on this evidence, the jurists decided that coffee was forbidden. Kha’ir Beg had it proclaimed throughout Mecca that the sale and consumption, public or private, of coffee was prohibited. Coffee was burned in the streets; “many of those who trafficked in or consumed it were beaten.”
- They asked the central authorities in Cairo for a general prohibition on coffee. The official decree, arriving later, “echoed the original disapproval of the social gatherings for coffee drinking,” but “it failed to prohibit the drink itself.” Coffee was once again consumed in the open, and Kha’ir Beg lost his enthusiasm for suppressing coffee.
- Oddly, the four main protagonists all met with official disgrace. In 1512, Kha’ir Beg was removed from the governorship of Mecca; Shams al-Din al-Khatib was stripped of his public functions and privileges; he was to have been carried back to Cairo, but the sultan’s overseer was dissuaded. The two physicians emigrated to Cairo “where, after the 1517 Ottoman conquest of the city, Selim I, “for reasons known best to God,” had them cut in two at the waist in a manner popular among the Mamluks.” All of these were, presumably, unrelated to the coffee incident.
In 1525-26, coffee gatherings were again banned, but not coffee itself. But the leader who did this died a year later, and his successors “had no desire whatsoever to suppress in any way the use of the drink. His son, Sa’d al-Din ‘Ali, not only approved of the drink, but served it openly to guests.”
In 1544, word came from Damascus that the Ottoman sultan had forbidden coffee. According to Jaziri, “The prohibition was observed for all of about a day,” and then use returned to normal.
In the early attempts at prohibition, all were quickly unsuccessful. This is due, at least in part, because of the ambiguity in the legality of coffee. Even wine, which was clearly illegal, had to be continually prohibited. “One would have been hard pressed to find a jurist who would support the legality of wine—to do so would have been tantamount to apostasy—but on the subject of coffee, the religious community was clearly divided. Lacking both popular support and the unanimous approval of the men of religion, there was very little hope of success.”
“If we analyze what happened in Mecca in 1511 on these three levels, what we are presented with looks something like this:
- The explicitly stated motives of the actors themselves: “We did it because: (a) at the gatherings the coffee drinkers behave in a reprehensible way; and (b) the stuff itself is bad for you, and therefore must be prohibited.”
- The hostile commentators: “The principals in the drama acted out of sheer fanaticism (ta´assub), while the jurists, who should have known better, were so afraid of Kha’ir Beg that they dared not rule contrary to his wishes.”
- Our own synthesis: “In addition to all the other factors mentioned, which are probably all valid, we also notice that what first seems to have alarmed Kha’ir Begt—and well it should have—was the very idea of these clandestine nocturnal meetings.”
Wine, Coffee, and the Holy Law
From its introduction to Islamic culture, coffee has been equated with wine, an explicitly forbidden drug. Part of the controversy is the application of traditional but apocryphal sayings of the prophet to this new drink.Reading the protests of coffee aficionados when their drug is called intoxicating, I am reminded of a friend who, comparing the addictive qualities of heroin to tobacco, said that heroin was much more addictive: he’d only been able to give up heroin once, but he’d given up tobacco many times.
“A traditional explanation has it that one of Muhammad’s more zealous companions (and later [634-44] caliph), ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, seeing that wine was at the root of certain undesirable activities within the community, repeatedly asked the Prophet for “clarification”—that is to say, he asked that wine be forbidden. Each time, the answer came not as a statement from Muhammad, but as a revelation through him from God. Each time the revelation was stronger, but each time ways were found to circumvent it. Finally, God sent a revelation clearly forbidding wine.”
Four schools of Sunni jurisprudence.
Hannafi: khamr means several different beverages, but can be applied to only those beverages specifically.
Other: “that all things that produce intoxication are prohibited”
- khamr, that is to say, raw grape juice that has been allowed to ferment and become potent;
- such a beverage made of grape juice that has been cooked, of which more than one-third of the original volume remains;
- (uncooked) intoxicants made from dates;
- (uncooked) fermented infusions of raisins;
Plates: engraving of a coffee tree; engraving of a branch of a coffee plant; European coffee pots, ca. Seventeenth-eighteenth century; European coffee cups; Turkish miniature of coffee house activities; engraving of a coffeehouse; engraving of an ornate coffee house; outdoor cafe of Istanbul; Damascus river-side cafe; street vendor;
“The other type of argument used in determining what exactly is covered by the prohibition of khamr is “custom” (sunna), the precedents set by Muhammad and his companions. These precedents are generally presented in individual “traditions” (hadiths), relations of incidents in which Muhammad or one of this companions said something or acted in a certain way, which are cited to demonstrate the preferred behavior of the believer in a given circumstance.”
One has Muhammad saying “Every intoxicant is prohibited; even a sip [or handful] of [a beverage] of which a frq causes intoxication is prohibited.” “The Hanafis stopped short of claiming the hadith to be spurious, but nonetheless said that it had been abrogated (mansukh) by the later sayings and deeds of Muhammad.” That he said this to put “an immediate stop to flagrant abuses” but later “amended” it so that a “small amount of a drink that was not khamr might be allowed.”
Another hadith attributed to Muhammad by the three schools that opposed alcohol in any form is “Every intoxicant is khamr and every intoxicant is forbidden.” The Hanafis get around this one by using a different form: “Khamr is prohibited [in and of itself] by its very essence, and the muskir ofr every beverage [is also prohibited]”. “One may define the Arabic active participle muskir either as a substantive, “intoxicant,” or as an adjectival participle, “intoxicating,” a distinction that makes possible an ingenious bit of legal sophistry. If we take muskir to mean “a substance that can make one drunk,” that is, an intoxicant, then we cannot avoid the interpretation offered by the Shafi‘s, Malikis, and Hanbalis. If, however, we take it to mean “intoxication; an amount of a particular beverage sufficient to cause intoxication,” then the substance itself is not forbidden, only an overindulgence. This is the interpretation preferred by the Hanafis. Aside from those things that fit into their narrow definition of khamr, any beverage, alcoholic or not, is allowed. In this case muskir is “the intoxicating [portion]” that “last cup” (al-ka’s al-akhir) that pushes one from sobriety into inebriation.”
To the Hanafis, things that are khamr cannot be made legal by removal of alcohol. “Once uncooked grape juice has been allowed to ferment, it becomes, in its very essence, khamr. Boil it, remove the alcohol, and it is still khamr, and still forbidden. On the other hand, if you take the grape juice, cook it so that it is reduced by two-thirds, and then allow it to ferment, it is permitted in quantities that will not intoxication.” Khamr is not an accidental attribute, but an essential one, that no treatment can remove.
One other admonition from them, however, “is that one is allowed to drink “without [the intention of] amusement or wanton diversion” (min ghayr lawh wa-la tarab).”
What is drunk? Malik described the drunk as “one who becomes absent-minded and confused.” Shafi said “The drunk is one who departs from whatever he has in the way of mild virtue and tranquility [and goes] into [a state of] foolishness and ignorance.” Hanifa: “one whose mind leaves him and who knows nothing at all.” Ibn Nujaym expands on the Hanafi view: “The drunk who is to be punished is one who comprehends absolutely nothing at all, and who does not know a man from a woman, or the earth from the heavens.”
“To the Malikis and Shafis, then, a person who is giddy and boisterous could be considered drunk, and any potion capable of putting one in such a state would be forbidden. According to the Hanfais, one would have to be almost dead-drunk and senseless before he would be considered sakran (drunk), and hence liable to punishment.” [Because they believed that drunkenness was the fault of the drinker (except in their rigid definition of khamr), not the drink.]
“Ibn ‘Abd al-Ghaffar, in dealing with the question of the possible intoxication nature of coffee, tells the reader that the problem must be tackled in two stages by: (1) obtaining knowledge of the properties of coffee; and (2) determining what constituted drunkenness. In the light of all that has been said about beverage laws, then, is it possible to maintain that the effects that the coffee drinker experiences could be classified as sukr, intoxication?
‘The immediate temptation is to reply, “Of course not.” One finds it reather difficult to imagine how the guidelines established above for intoxication could be applied to coffee. Particularly in the case of Hanafi law, it seems next to impossible that one could claim that drinking coffee, in whatever amount, could render one “incapable of distinguishing a man from a woman or the earth from the heavens.” Even using the criteria set up by the Shafi‘is or the Malikis, the likelihoood of even a gross overindulgence resulting in anything resembling drunkenness is slim indeed.” [Hm.. It seems that both of those are quite apropos to mild caffeine stimulation… me thinks the author doth protest too much.]
One Shaykh Shams al-Din Muhammad ibn ’Abd al-Rahman al-Qattan (?) al-Madani likened the intoxicating effects of coffee to those of hashish.
“Coffee users in the Arabian Peninsula even had their own word, marqaha, to describe this “coffee euphoria.””
A coffee advocate compared it rather to spicy foods.
Lethargy, Leprosy, and Melancholia: Coffee and Medieval Medicine
The attempts at prohibiting coffee strictly followed the pattern for other drugs: claim outrageous medical problems, and use it to harass unapproved groups.
“The French writer on coffee and merchant in the Levant, Philippe Sylvestre Dufour (1622-87), adds one other item of cautionary lore, that the Turks regard it as unhealthy to take coffee on an empty stomach, a belief that led to thriving business for the sellers of little biscuits and other foods at the entrances to coffeehouses.”
“Most suggestive that the medical arguments were secondary considerations (simply a means to obtain a prohibition that was primarily regarded as desirable for some other reason) is that it was the drink qahwa, and not the material bunn, that came under attack. The Risala fi ahkam al-qahwa has a curious passage from which it is clear that medical arguments focused on coffee, although at the time, the chewing of coffee beans was still a fairly routine practice. Jurists actually argued that the beans were legal, but that the drink was not. This, the author of the treatise points out, was all so much rubbish. Whatever harmful effects can be attributed to the drink are present all the more so in the beans, he claims, since at least the water used to prepare qahwa helped to temper the properties of the bean. If the drink and not the bean became the target of criticism contrary to prevailing contemporary medical theory, then the reason for such opposition to coffee must indeed be sought elsewhere. Beans could be, and were, consumed everywhere. But coffee was consumed primarily in the coffeehouse.”
Taverns without Wine: The Rise of the Coffeehouse
Where alcohol was illegal and restaurants non-existent, coffeehouses presented a compelling attraction for those wishing to socialize.
“If we grant that the tavern provided the most convenient model for those wishing to introduce coffee to the public at large, why then would people continue to frequent such shops once they became familiar with the methods of preparation? In the Near Eastern context we are speaking of a society without any significant restaurant culture. The inhabitants of the sixteenth-century Muslim city were, even by the standards of their contemporaries from Europe, short on dining spots. George Sandys bemoaned the lack of such places in “inhospitall Turkie.” Eating outside the home was, and in some places remains, a habit alien to most.”
One went to the coffeehouse not because one wanted coffee, but because one wanted to go out with one’s friends.
Society and the Social Life of the Coffeehouse
While visiting coffeehouses, people could show hospitality outside of its traditional place in the home: they could even buy rounds for the bar, so to speak, and show hospitality to strangers. The actions described here in coffeehouses strongly resembles what we see men do in bars: talk trash about women, tell tall tales, and listen to music.
According to Lane, the coffeehouses of Cairo were frequented by “the lower orders.” Alexander Russell said that the “vulgar” went to the Aleppo coffeehouses. “Katib Celebi depicts the behavior of the clientele as far from refined, but nonetheless includes in their number customers from almost every segment of society: “… the people [who went to coffeehouses], from prince to beggar, amused themselves with knifing one another.” Dufour, writing about Istanbul, says that all but the “very high” come to the coffeehouse.” D’Ohsson says that among those who flocked to the Istanbul coffeehouses were “beys, nobles, officers, teachers, judges and other people of the law.” “The Venetian bailo, Gianfrancesco Morosini, paints a vivid picture of the coffeehouse patron in 1585:
All these people are quite base, of low costume and very little industry, such that for the most part they spend their time sunk in idleness. Thus they continually sit about, and for entertainment they are in the habit of drinking, in public, in shops and in the streets—a black liquid, boiling [as hot] as they can stand it, which is extracted from a seed they call Caveè…, and is said to have the property of keeping a man awake.”
Of course, just because all classes went to coffeehouses, doesn’t mean they went to the same coffeehouse.
Coffeehouses particularly popular on nights of Ramadan.
“Ibrahim Pecevi, in his chapter on the introduction of coffee to Istanbul, tells of how those who would formerly have spent large sums giving dinners at home for their friends could, with the coming of the coffeehouse, entertain for only a few coins. The novelty of such activity was obviously quite striking in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and there is an implied revolution in the way people perceived of how things were to be done. The proffering of hospitality was no longer something that could be undertaken solely in one’s home…. The act of hospitality could now be transferred to a public place where one’s responsibilities, and perhaps prestige, as host were more limited…. There, in the coffeehouse, one could play host for relatively little outlay, and the “sport” seeking a reputation for magnanimity could, for a trifling sum, even show his generosity to those who were not originally members of his party:
When someone is in a coffeehouse, and he sees people whom he knows come in, if he is in the least ways civil, he will tell the proprietor not to take any money from them. All this is done by a single word, for when they are served with their coffee, he merely cries “giaba” [Turkish: caba], that is to say, “Gratis!”
‘Such substitute hospitality must have seemed, to some, a rather sham and ridiculous way for the tightwad to flaunt his generosity. An Ottoman visitor to Cairo at the end of the sixteenth century wrote:
When jundis [soldiers] go, for instance, in a coffeehouse and there have to get change for a gold coin, they will definitely spend it all. They regard it as improper to put the change in their pocket and leave. In other words, this is their manner of showing their grandiosity to the common people. But their grand patronage consists of treating each other to a cup of coffee, of impressing their friends with one [cup] of something four cups of which costs one para.”
“Aside from the more formal pastimes and diversions that will be discussed below, the coffeehouse was above all a place for talk: serious or trivial, high-minded or base, that place more than any other seemed to lend itself to the art of conversation….Dufour tells us that men would divert themselves with vague conversations “about nothing in particular, or with humorous tales.” The Elizabethan clergyman, William Biddulph, reports mainly “idle and Alehouse talke” in the coffeehouses of Aleppo….
‘The loose banter of the coffeehouse was sometimes viewed as far from harmless. The patrons of the coffeehouse, it seems, were not immune to the temptation often to disregard the strict letter of the truth when relating stories about others, partucularly about women. A writer who was otherwise favorably disposed to coffee was particularly indignant about this aspect of coffeehouse life:
[Among the abominable practices in coffeehouses is that patrons] will really extend themselves in slander, defamation, and throwing doubt on the reputations of virtuous women. What they come up with are generally the most frightful fabrications, things without a grain of truth in them.
‘Coffeehouse conversation was not entirely jejune. Pecevi describes the often intense literary activity among the patrons. As was to happen later in Europe, the coffeehouse became something of a literary forum; poets and writers would submit their latest compositions for the assessment of a critical public. In other corners of the coffeehouse, there might be heated discussions on art, the sciences or literature.”
“One wishing to hear the latest news—or, more likely, the freshest rumors—needed only to station himself in the coffeehouse for a short time.”
“”There is much to suggest that often the patrons were not merely proponents of free speech, but were more the type for whome words along would not suffice. More than on ecoup d’état has been launched from, or at least plotted in, a coffeehouse. D’Ohsson attributes the most energetic and complete closing of coffeehouses in Istanbul to just such a problem. By the time of the sultanate of Murat IV (1623-40), coffeehouses had become “meeting places of the people, and of mutinous soldiers.” Murat was neither the sort of man to risk the same fate as Osman II (r. 1618-22) had suffered a decade earlier, nor the sort of man to take half-measures when he chose to deal with a problem. In 1633, on the pretext of preventing the disastrous fires that sometimes got started in coffeehouses, he ordered them torn down, and coffee, as well as tobacco and opium, banned. Several decades later, coffeehouses in Istanbul were still closed, “desolate as the heart of the ignorant,” though they were to reopen in the last quarter of the century.”
Muhammad ‘Ali, in Cairo in the nineteenth century, found a better use for coffeehouses: he allowed them to remain open and sent spies to overhear the plots as they were hatched.
Chess was popular in Turkish coffeehouses; Backgammon (nard), “which was already known, must have quickly become a favorite.”
No gambling common, but there was “some question of the legal status of games such as chess, even if no betting takes place. The taint on backgammon is, if anything, worse.”
“Music would have to come, at least in terms of popularity, at the top of the list of less reputable entertainments. From the first, musicians were prominent among the entertainers at the coffeehouse: In Mecca we hear of “drummers and fiddlers” whose presence offended Kha’ir Beg. Though they were considereed objectionable by some, the coffeehouse proprietor knew what his public wanted, and gave it to them:
Generally in the coffeehouses there are many violins, flute players, and musicians, who are hired by the proprietor of the coffeehouse to play and sing much of the day, with the end of drawing in customers.”
Music, it seems, was considered a distinguishing feature of taverns. “Hadith literature records that the Prophet had much to say about music, very little of it favorable.”
“In the early sixteenth century, at least in the Hijaz, vocal music was supplied by female as well as male singers. This, of course, was quite in accordance with old revered custom, inasmuch as traditional symposia and meetings of the artistic were held, whether in house or tavern, with the musical accompaniment of songstresses, often demurely screened off from the company, but sometimes mingling more freely with them. Whatever the case may be, many found the custom shocking and repellent. The author of the Risala fi ahkam al-qahwa, otherwise a supporter of coffee drinking, has nothing but criticism for this sort of activity:
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.
In Mecca, Kha’ir Beg seemed properly scandalized not only by the presence of musicians but by the fact that these musicians included women as well as man, which doubtless he found indicative of lax morals. From later accounts, it is difficult to tell just how long such songstresses continued to entertain in coffeehouses, nor is it clear that such was ever the case outside the Hijaz. It is unlikely that such a holdover from tavern life would ahve long been tolerated, and one must assume that the more pious would suspect, perhaps with some justification, that vocal performances were not the only services supplied the patrons by such songstresses…. In any event, most later accounts make no mention of singing girls. The coffee shop was a world strictly of men.”
“In Baghdad in the early seventeenth century, customers were served coffee from the hands of “pretty boys, richly dressed.” George Sandys, writing of Istanbul of roughly the same era, implies a bit more about the role of these youths: “Many of the Coffamen [keep] beautifull boyes, who serve as stales to procure them customers.” This very quotation is used by the Oxford English Dictionary as an example of an archaic use of the word “stale” with the meaning “a deceptive means of allurement; a person or thing held out as a lure or bait to entrap a person.” Another obsolete meaning of the word, mentioned in the same entry, is “more fully common stale: a prostitute of the lowest class, employed as a decoy by thieves. Often… used gen. As a term of contempt for an unchaste woman.” The ambiguity perhaps reflects no desire, conscious or unconscious, on his part to suggest that coffeehouses served as dens for pederastic procurement. Nonetheless Sandys, who was a poet by profession and as such one who could be expected to choose his words carefully, does seem to be trying to imply some sort of unsavory practice, to suggest that the role of such boys went beyond that of waiter and busboy. A perhaps clearer statement is that of the author of the Risala fi ahkam al-qahwa, where he mentions “youths earmarked for the gratification of one’s lusts.” The other sources, including the Arabic, are silent on this, although it is not impossible that it might be included among the “abominable practices” that often go un-itemized.”
“Among the factors that dealt a serious blow to the reputation of the coffeehouse was a connection with drug use. It appears that for some reason—chemical or cultural—coffee became a very popular drink among users of certain hard drugs, particularly opium. John Covel, an English clergyman traveling near Izmir in 1670, remarekd about “an old Coffe man there, who was an Afionjè or Ophionjè [Turkish: afyoncu], a great eater of Opium.” What Covel saw was by no means an isolated coincidence. Katib Celebi tells us, “Drug addicts in particular, finding [coffee] a life-giving thing, which increases their pleasure, were willing to die for a cup.
‘Drug consumption became one of the activities practiced in the coffeehouse. “The kahwagee,” Lane tells us, “also keeps two or three narghiles [water pipes] or sheeshehs, and gozes, which latter are used for smoking tumbak [pressed tobacco]… and hasheesh.” Russell describes the use of “sheera” or “bing,” which is apparently the leaves of hemp processed into the shape of small lozenges, mixed with tobacco, and used in the narghila. Actually, it is not at all clear that smoking was the only means by which these drugs were consumed in the coffeehouse. Rosenthal asserts that, any evidence to the congtrary for the moment lacking, hashish was eaten rather than smoked before the coming of tobacco to the Middle East in the early seventeenth century. Raymond has also found evidence of the sale of such drugs for consumption in the café, mentioning as well a guild of “sellers of balls of honey mixed with hashish who are at Cairo or Bulaq.” Biddulph, in addition, tells of opium being “drunk.” While it is possible that he is translating the verb sh-r-b literally, this I find unlikely.
‘Another way of interpreting Biddulph’s phrase, perhaps the best way, is to assume that he saw opium being drunk with or in coffee. This is not as unlikely as it first sounds, since much evidence exists to suggest such a practice. Rosenthal, discussing the work Qam‘ al-washin (composed no later than A.D. 1583[ A.H. 991]) mentions the passage where the author finds coffee a permissible beverage, unless there are things added to it. What Rosenthal finds cryptic in this allusion is perhaps cleared up by Jaziri. Among the practices he condemns as polluting and making illegal the use of the otherwise pure drink is “the addition of things to it… [including] faz ‘Abbas.” In another place, he sums up his disgust with the situation:
Aside from hashish, [there are] other [narcotic] pastes that are mixed in [with coffee]. Or one might mix in opium like the paste called barsh [another drug preparation]…, which has become widespread since the [1530s]. Many have been led to ruin by this temptation. They can be reckoned as beasts whom the demons have so tempted.”
The Coffeehouse: Social Norms, Social Symbols
That coffee’s use was very similar to wine’s use did not escape the attention of authorities. One of the traditions they seized on was the “passing of the cup”, where coffee drinkers would sit around passing a single cup of coffee from one to the other “in the manner of an intoxicant”.
“Frequently a segment of society will find something objectionable that cannot be attacked by the letter of that society’s constitution, be it the revealed word of God, codified habitual practice, or a carefully reasoned system. When asked to produce the legal evidence to support their arguments, these social critics cannot meet the challenge, but this does nothing to diminish their perception that what is going on is, in some way or another, harmful or improper. This attitude does not necessarily make them hypocrites or fanatics, but merely people who perceive a danger to society, even if society does not have the legal armor to defend itself against the peril.”
A Turkish traveler in Ottoman Cairo wrote, in the late sixteenth century:
Also [remarkable] is the multitude of coffee-houses in the city of Cairo, the concentration of coffee-houses at every step, and of perfect places where people can assemble. Early rising worshipers and pious men get up and go [there], drink a cup of coffee adding life to their life. They feel, in a way, that its slight exhilaration strengthens them for their religious observance and worship. From that point of view their coffee-houses are commended and praised. But if one considers the ignorant people that assemble in them it is questionable whether they deserve praise…. To make it short, the coffee-houses of Egypt are filled mostly with dissolute persons and opium-eaters. Many of them are occupied by veteran soldiers, aged officers (chausan and müteferriqas). When they arrive in the morning rags and rush mats are spread out, and they stay until evening. Some [of the frequenters of coffeehouses] are drug-users of the slave class; [here follows a section making fun of the Kipchak dialect of these people]. They are a bunch of parasites, chauses and müteferriqas by name [only], whose work consists of presiding over the coffee-house, of drinking coffee on credit, talking of frugality, when the matter comes up, and, having told certain matters with all sorts of distortions, of dozing off as soon as the effects of their “grass” subside. In other words, their talk is mostly lies…. But no true word ever comes over their lips.” [Amazing effect caffeine has on people.]
“A good example of such an objection [feelings of impropriety] can be found in the controversy over “passing around the cup” (idarat alka’s) when drinking coffee. This habit, not much in vogue in the coffeehouse in later times, apparently was quite common in the early sixteenth century. It is mentioned in many places by Jaziri, and according to Katib Celebi was practiced in the coffeehouses of Istanbul as well: “the fact that it is drunk in gatherings, passed hand to hand,” he says, “is suggestive of loose-living.” Such circulation of a common cup is the subject of almost unanimous disapproval, both by Jaziri and by his even more critical contemporaries. The description of clandestine activities of those early drinkers in Mecca includes mention of them passing around the cup and taking turns from it (wa-ma‘ahum ka’s yudirunahu wa-yatadawalunahu baynahum). Criticism of such action figures prominently in the decision against the drink expressed in the text of the legal question sent to Cairo. Even those otherwise favorably disposed to coffee betray disapproval of the habit of passing the cup. The author of the Risala fi ahkam al-qahwa condemns the practice of “passing [coffee] around like an intoxicant.” Ibn ‘Abd al-Ghaffar, in questioning the plausibility of the story of the drinkers at the Sacred Mosque in Mecca, notes how odd it was that men should go to all the trouble of preparing for and performing a celebration of the mawlid of the Prophet, and then: After, or even during [the celebration of the mawlid], the person in charge of the gathering has brought for them a drink, which they pass around among themselves in the manner of an intoxicant, the act of passing around the wine [cup], resembling [the activities of] the licentious.”
‘So strong was this association that one scholar, who caused himself a tremendous amount of trouble at the assembly of ulema at Mecca in 1511, and who was even mentioned as an object of possible chastisement in the letter to Cairo, came to all this grief by merely suggesting that passing around the cup was not in itself reprehensible, since the Prophet himself had done so. His shocked colleagues dismissed this argument, since the passing of coffee resembled the way wine was passed around, and in no way was similar to the purported activities of the Prophet. Of the major writers on coffee, only the author of the Istifa’ al-safwa does not find passing the cup essentially reprehensible: if one is not trying to resemble a wine drinker, it is acceptable, even laudable, but if one is, then it is not proper.”
“Another image commonly associated with the coffeehouse is that of leisure. Whether the activity there was of a dissolute and debauched nature or not, one thing is clear: our sources do not consider it productive…. As coffeehouses proliferated, Kâtib Çelebi tells us, “working for one’s living fell into disfavour.” The picture often given is that of the appearance of a class of regular clientele, without any visible means of support, who haunt the cafés, smoking, sipping coffee, conversing, and otherwise diverting themselves…. To these “young idlers,” as D’Ohsson calls them, lounging around the coffeehouse seems to have become a profession rather than a pastime.”
“Up until the appearance of the coffeehouse, night life in the city was limited either to the tavern or gambling den, where one went at the peril of one’s soul, reputation or perhaps life, and various loci of religious activity, either the Sufi meeting, if one belonged, or, on special occasions, the mosque. One did not risk eternal torment through frequenting these latter places, but one found very little in the way of worldly pleasure, either. The coming of the coffeehouse signaled the beginning of an entirely new phenomenon. Perfectly respectable people went out at night for purposes other than piety.”
Summary: In general, he supports the notion that coffee was prohibited because it was bid‘a, or innovation. This could easily be looked on as a ‘foreign’ way of doing things. However, because he absolutely refuses to believe that any sane individual could see coffee as a drug, he may be putting too much emphasis on the other factors. In any case, opposition to coffee didn’t seem to last long, and was never, except for the one Ottoman Sultan Murat IV, very strong.