History: Coffee, Beverage of Satan!!!

November 2, 2016 in General

Coffee, like alcohol, has a long history of legal prohibition. The now indispensable hot beverage attracted considerable fear and suspicion and religious disquiet and hypocrisy in its early days. Had these religious fundamentalists of all faiths gotten their way then there would not be very many coffee business outlets today.

Coffee drinking was first banned by Sunni Muslim jurists and scholars meeting in Mecca in 1511. This politically motivated opposition was led by the Meccan governor Khair Beg, who was afraid that coffee would foster opposition to his rule for convivial reasons. Coffee sessions would bring men together and allow them to discuss his failings. Thus was born coffee’s initial association with sedition and revolution. It was decreed sinful (haraam), but the controversy over whether it was intoxicating or not raged on over the next thirteen years until the ban was finally rescinded in 1524 by the Ottoman Turkish Sultan Selim I. Supreme Ottoman Grand Mufti Mehmet Ebussuud el-İmadi then issued a fatwa that allowed coffee to be drunk again. Beg was then executed for his troubles by command of the Sultan himself, who even proclaimed coffee to be a sacred commodity. In Cairo there was a similar local ban in 1532 and local coffee houses and coffee warehouses there were pillaged by looters.

Coffee was then landed first in Venice, on the back of the lucrative trade the mercantile Renaissance city enjoyed with its Mediterranean Muslim neighbours. Initially, however, coffee met with similar suspicion and religious prejudice to that which had been previously experienced in the Middle East and Turkey. The word on the street, acccording to intrepid European travellers who had visited the Muslim world, referred to a mysterious, exotic and intoxicating liquor. To Catholics the enticing hot beverage then became the ‘bitter invention of Satan’, a transgressive substance that carried the whiff of Islam. The illicit drink therefore seemed suspiciously like a substitute for wine as used in the Eucharist; in any event, it was temporarily outlawed.

Such was the animosity and debate over coffee’s imagined ‘harm’ and ‘depravity’ that Pope Clement VIII had to intervene: he sampled coffee for himself and decreed that it was indeed a Christian as well as a Muslim drink. On tasting it he wittily declared: “This devil’s drink is so delicious… we should cheat the devil by baptising it!” From then on, coffee has been dubbed the “devil’s drink, or the devil’s cup.”

Still, there was one more moral panic or crusade against coffee to come. In seventeenth century Restoration London, most women were excluded from coffee houses and they let their resentment be known: in An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex in 1696, an indignant Mary Astell made acidic remarks about the practice of male coffee consumption: “A coffee house habitué is someone who lodges at home, but he lives at the coffee-house. He converses more with newspapers, gazettes and votes, than with his shop-books, and his constant application to the publick takes him off all care for his private home. He is always settling the nation, yet cou’d never manage his own family.”

Ms. Astell voiced the same dissatisfation as other ‘caffeine widows’ – other wives left at home with their chores and cups of tea. In 1674, another provoked woman had penned the vitriolic The Women’s Petition Against Coffee, in which wives argued that their husbands were forever absent from the home and family, neglecting their domestic duties – “turning Turk”, and all for “a little base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking nauseous puddle water”. Despite this proto-feminist animosity against male seperatism, however, the modern staple of conviviality was here to stay.

Recommended:

Paul Chrystal: “A Brief History of Coffee: A Drink for the Devil” BBC History: 31.10.2016: http://www.historyextra.com/article/bbc-history-magazine/brief-history-coffee-drink-devil

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