Food for Thought: Coffee’s mystical origins

From beginnings in Ethiopia to its role in Sufi spirituality and global trade

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A white mug full of steamy coffee.
PHOTO: Clay Banks / Unsplash

By: Sude Guvendik, Staff Writer

The rich, inviting smell of coffee is like a magical wake-up call for your senses. But did you know that without the Sufis, those aromatic coffee beans might still be hidden away in Ethiopia or Yemen? 

The exact beginning of coffee is a bit of a mystery, but experts believe it started in Ethiopia. One famous story is about a man named Khaldi, who was a goat herder. He stumbled upon coffee when he noticed his goats were stimulated after eating coffee berries. They refused to sleep! Intrigued, Khaldi shared his discovery with a monk who brewed the beans and found himself wide awake during his late-night prayers. That’s how the legend of coffee began to spread.

Now, let’s talk about the Sufis; they follow the spiritual path of Sufism, which is a facet of Islam. Within Sufism, there is an emphasis on the inner and spiritual dimensions of the Islamic faith, centring on the pursuit of personal and direct encounters with the presence and love of God. They played a crucial role in coffee’s history, but not many people know about it. These folks called coffee “qahwa,” which used to mean wine. To Europeans at the time, it was known as the “Wine of Islam.” The Sufis wanted to stay awake during their nighttime spiritual practices, so they brewed and drank coffee. 

You might have heard of “Mocha,” which sounds like a delicious chocolatey coffee. Well, it’s also the name of a busy port in Yemen. This port played a huge role in coffee’s early trade. Yemen’s climate was perfect for growing coffee, and its ports, especially Mocha, became the world’s coffee exporters. While there are different stories about coffee’s journey from East Africa to the Middle East, everyone agrees that Sufi mystics, if not the original coffee creators, were a big part of its early history. 

The enchanting fragrance of coffee, coupled with its distinctive capacity to arouse both the intellect and emotions simultaneously, played a crucial role in enabling the practice of dhikr. Dhikr means uniting the soul and the spirit through the act of mindful remembrance, achieved through the repetition of specific phrases, words, or prayers designed to invoke the presence and mindfulness of Allah (God). Later, the Persians added their roasting techniques to make it taste even better.

To me, coffee is more than a fragrance; it’s a journey through time and culture, a connection to my upbringing in Istanbul. Coffee wasn’t just a beverage there. It was the heartbeat of our mornings and evenings, and an essential part of life. Growing up in Istanbul, surrounded by the bustling energy of the city and its rich history, coffee was a ritual, a tradition, and a source of inspiration. 

Every local bookshop in the neighbourhood would offer free coffee to anyone who walked in to seek knowledge. Coffee and books, in my world, were inseparable companions. They went hand-in-hand, like old friends sharing stories.

As I sip my coffee now, the memories flood back: dusty pages of books alongside cats meowing and finding comfort on the shelves, all while I dove into different universes with the stories I discovered. Coffee wasn’t just the fuel of the reader, but the spark that ignited our imagination. The scent of freshly brewed coffee in those bookshops was like incense, wafting through the air, inviting us to explore worlds beyond our own.

In ancient Yemen, coffeehouses became gathering places where people could meet, chat, listen to music, and even make secret plans. In a mostly Muslim society, these places were more acceptable than taverns. 

In bookshops, coffee was also about oral history. People would share spoken poetry, recite tales of ancient heroes, and discuss the stories that shaped our culture. Inspiration flowed as freely as the coffee, where each sip catalyzed creativity. I can still hear the hushed conversations, the laughter, and the profound discussions. It was a symphony of voices, each one adding a unique note to the melody of the moment. Coffee was the glue that bound us, and the stories we shared were the threads that wove our community together.

Coffee has been connected to religion for a long time, met with both praise and skepticism. Sufi Muslims loved coffee for its energy boost during nighttime prayers. Jews have sipped black coffee while studying the Torah. Some Wiccans and Pagans have used coffee grounds for divination. But not all religious leaders agreed with these practices. In the 16th century, some Muslim leaders in Mecca even debated whether coffee might be too strong and wanted to ban it.

Coffee had its doubters in the western world, too. Italian Catholics in the 16th century were unsure about it. Some even wanted to ban it. But when Pope Clement VIII tried it, he said, “This devil’s drink is so delicious . . . we should cheat the devil by baptizing it!” So, coffee got the Pope’s blessing.

Even today, some religious groups, like followers of the Latter-day Saints Church, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Rastafarians, don’t drink coffee. Some people view caffeine like they do alcohol or tobacco, while others follow rules in their religious texts.

As I take another sip of my coffee, I can’t help but think about those days in Istanbul, where the scent of coffee intertwined with the pursuit of knowledge, where every cup held the promise of a new adventure in the pages of a book. 

In the end, we can all agree Sufis had a big hand in spreading the wonderful aroma of coffee around the world. So, next time you enjoy a hot cup of coffee, take a moment to savor it. Let the enchanting aroma transport you to a world of inner peace and love.

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