Mohammad Owais Khan, PhD Candidate
Department of Religion, Syracuse University, NY
Gönül ne kahve ister ne kahvehâne
Gönül dost ister, kahve bahâne
The heart neither longs for coffee nor coffeehouses, The heart longs for a friend, coffee is just an excuse
Kâtip Çelebi, a renowned 17th century Ottoman historian, in his book Mīzān al-Ḥaqq (tr. The Balance of Truth), relates a set of dramatic events that took place in 1543. Ottoman customs officers, he writes, boarded several ships arriving at the Port of Tophane in Istanbul. The authorities searched and confiscated sacks of Yemeni sourced coffee. Then they immediately dumped the beans into the Bosphorus and proceeded to bore holes into the side hulls of each ship caught with contraband.
Overlooking the harbor, it must have been a remarkable sight. At once, several large trading galleys followed the beans, down to the bottom of the sea
Soon thereafter, municipal police began nighttime raids on coffeehouses throughout the city. Late-night conversations were shattered, tables tossed. Patrons and proprietors alike were dragged into the street, publicly beaten and thrown in jail. Over the next few years the government squeezed the coffee trade. Eventually, coffee went underground. In the legal Islamic terminology of the day, coffee was haram. Authorities surely acted as if it was illegal to buy, sell, or consume coffee.
The year 1000 AH /1592 CE, opened the second Islamic millennium and the long 17th century with a strange stillness. For two centuries the Muslim world was embroiled in internal conflict and continuous warfare. By 1000 AH, however, Muslims had managed to throw off the lingering bits of insecurity left by the 13th century Mongol invasions. Borders once drawn by occupiers were now re-drawn by Muslims and new states arose from obscurity. The Ottoman Caliph Murad III, the Safavid Shah Abbas I and the Mughal Sultan Akbar the Great headed three well congealed and prosperous states encircling the Indian Ocean littoral—
By the 16th century, territorial expansion, the main way medieval states developed economically, slowly became antiquated. Generating wealth neither depended on the ability to hold large swaths of land nor the capacity to employ a battalion of labor. In the postmedieval world, wealth swelled over the same piece of land with just a few working hands so long as property owners were able to create new systems that made it possible to make the space more productive. Today we experience this fact at an ever increasing pace. Whole industries earn millions by simply sitting in a chair with a laptop and nothing else.
Due to the rapid exchange of goods and ideas many new innovations began flooding Ottoman markets. Coffee, the subject of this paper, was just one. Others included new utensils, new ways of greeting by shaking hands or bowing, puppet theater, new music, new dances, new costumes, fashions and designs especially silk for women, tobacco, new cuisines with respective spices, chocolate and the growth of Indian cotton, to name a few.
Again, the general Muslim population understood the importance of these changes very well. A new class of Muslims began to emerge in the 16th century. These innovative-spirited Muslims began creating new economic value that rivaled the Sultan. Their entrepreneurial efforts brought new products into Muslim markets. They argued for a new sense of Muslim connectedness, a sense of ummah. They pushed for a selfconsistent rule-of law or Sharia that is applied justly and consistently. This translated into a sustained campaign against the Qanun, a vestige of the old Mongol yasa, which gave the Sultan the right to create law by personal decree. This vision forced the Sultan into a more symbolic role, as a head of state, himself subject to the law as determined by the sharia not by the Qanun made by him. On this account, the new world had little need for a strong central authority so long as there was a robust rule of law grounded in Islamic tradition.
This historical context is important to interpret the dramatic events recorded by Kâtip Çelebi. At first the confiscation of coffee and the extreme demonstration of force at Tophane seems arbitrary, but with this historical background we now see its logic more clearly. Networks loyal to the palace began to feel intimidated by the innovative pipelines that fueled the early modern upheavals.
Amongst the long list of innovations flooding Ottoman markets, coffee was a truly Muslim contribution. The coffee tree is native to Ethiopia but it was through Shadali Sufis in Ethiopia and Yemen that the coffee beans were first roasted, drank or chewed in order to extend nightly gatherings. The ideas that motivated these gatherings signaled the strength of a thoroughgoing Islamicization of new tools of sociability.
The coffeehouse was seen as a counter culture against the tavern. Muslims saw the tavern as the meeting place essentially for non-Muslims. This was because they rightly viewed it as a secularized form of the church. Muslims saw the coffeehouses as a space of Islamic-sociability. They also attempted to reinforce what they saw as Muslim values: wakefulness, sharpness of mind, conversation, discussion, literature, learning and the remembrance of God.
The practice of drinking coffee spread like wildfire in Ottoman lands. First in Yemen, then Cairo, and then Damascus. The first coffee shop was established in Damascus in 1530. A decade later coffeehouses started popping up all over Istanbul.
But the coffee trade relied not just on coffee but equally so on coffeehouses. It was the venue where people could meet, talk, share ideas, relate stories, and complain about politics and religion—all over a special beverage. Lady Montague who visited Istanbul in the 17th century was the only European traveler we know that actually spent time among Muslim women in their private quarters. She relates to us that there were women coffeehouses as well in Istanbul.
Frustrated government officials began to despise coffeehouses and their inspirational-cum-intellectual inhabitants that tried to show that they too could act like nobles by generously offering each other a cup of coffee. Despite the fact that palace officials secretly loved the innovation, it was the loss of control and the growing space for political dissent that truly disgusted them.
These economic and political factors shed light on the emergence of the anti-coffee lobby, but they do not explain the more interesting aspect of how the case against coffee was made. Much like today the palace utilized religious groups to bolster its agenda. Sultan Selim II allied himself with a populist pietistic movement known as the Kadizadeli Movement that followed the charismatic and fiery Anatolian preacher named Kadizade Mehmed. This group viewed all innovations as bida, and a sign of moral decay. They particularly honed in on coffee. They began raising alarm that people spent more time in coffeehouses than the mosque.
The opposition, well aware of the apparent religious zealotry underpinning the government’s policies, responded by demanding that government should prove its case against coffee in court. This was no small task. It meant obtaining a fatwah from the highest court of appeal in the land, the Shaykh al-Islam. In those days his office was a massive bureaucratic operation. Requests for fatawah(plural), or legal opinions, came from around the empire. In Ebū Su’ūd’s fatawah collections there are two surviving opinions regarding coffee that are worth revisiting. The first one reads:
Question: Is the practice of drinking coffee that is emerging in the Arab provinces, namely Mecca and Medina, haram?
Answer: Those who fear Allah and fear committing sin do not drink coffee for either the purpose of inducing debauchery or intoxiction. If coffee is consumed for health and well-being, there is no prohibition for drinking for this purpose.
The second reads:
Question: According to the law, is it permissible to drink coffee in coffeehouses where people following only their desires, separately gather in order to play chess and backgammon and indulge in equally useless chatter despising respectful remembrance?
Answer: From the standpoint of the people of God and his messengers and the consensus among the people of Islam, the aforementioned action deserves damnation.
Let us turn our attention to the specific legal arguments employed against coffee by the SultanKadizadeli lobby? Their claims rested on three different arguments. 1) Coffee is bida 2) Coffee is like alcohol and therefore an intoxicant 3) Coffee was bad for one’s spiritual and physical health.
Among these arguments, arguments 2 and 3 are indeed organically medical and could be proved right or wrong based upon hard scientific evidence. But the argument # 1 though had religious overtones, simply meant exploiting religion to stop something that seemingly was threatening to a central authority. Historians and legal scholars have missed the most important aspect of the coffee controversy. From the standpoint of looking back at history, the most damaging and corrosive milestone was this extra-legal bida argument whose origin and nature points to misinterpretation and misapplication of religion which continues to impact the development of Islamic thought even today.
One of the fundamental commitments of a Eurocentric persuasion is to believe that innovation is first born in the West and is subsequently diffused to the rest of the world. It is a simple logic that sees a more productive West and a receptive Other. In order to believe this framework, one has to first believe in a more heinous proposition: that innovation is by definition not Islamic hence Muslims are unable to be its source. The Kadezadeli-Sultanic anti-coffee lobby argued that innovation, read bida, couldn’t come from within. It thus relinquished rather forcefully, any ability on the part of Muslims to innovate. The Sultan’s desire to be the sole source of innovation and thereby control economic development stifled internal innovation and insensibly reinforced the Eurocentric claim that it solely deserved credit for innovations, inventions and discoveries for global benefit. It slowly closed the gates for an organic modernization from within the Muslim world and opened floodgates of importing it from the west.
As an adverse consequence, the 19th century is ironically filled with a series of top-down Westernization initiated by the same central government which once argued against innovation in terms of bida. After subverting bottom-up innovation, it found itself happily directing from above new kinds of secular bida but only now called modernization. These measures and tactics prepared the ground in the Muslim world for colonization by the West, making Muslims not only vulnerable but worse even, happily receptive to it. This subdued psychological and emotional state was bound to accept the West as the sole source of innovation unhesitatingly. Colonialism, which is often blamed for everything that went wrong with Muslims was indeed a reflection unfortunately of Muslims’ self-imposed alienation with the spirit of innovation, as in the case of coffee. Had this not been the case Muslims, the inventors and discoverers of coffee, could have proudly claimed and captured this achievement to pave the way for many more amazing developments to come. Something to think about…….!