Coffee Prohibition in the Middle East

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Everywhere coffee was introduced, coffee houses sprang up, often to the dismay of more pious Muslims. In almost every country where coffee houses flourished throughout the Middle East (and later Europe), there is a history of attempts to suppress them as places full of dangerous radical behaviour and ideas.

By 1511, the critics of the coffee house in Mecca had won out. The governor of the city, representative for the sultan of Egypt, became convinced that coffee was an exhilarating drink that inspired men and women to break Islamic laws. Leading citizens concurred, and physicians, fearing the loss of patients now that the health drink was readily available, felt indiscriminate coffee-drinking should be condemned altogether; it was decided that the safest course as to close the coffee houses, forbid the sale of coffee, and burn the coffee already in warehouses. But the coffee-drinking habit was far too widespread for this edict to be effective, and many continued to drink the forbidden potation in private. rejoicing when the sultan, a lover of the brew, promptly ordered ordered the edict revoked.

Two decades later, the feeling against coffee broke out in Cairo, where a leading expounder of Islam preached that those who drank it were not true followers of the Prophet, despite the legends. His followers ransacked and burned coffee houses, until the chief justice summoned those for and against coffee and served coffee to the entire group. "reuniting the contending parties."

In the opulent and luxurious coffee houses of sixteenth-century Constantinople, patrons reclined on soft pillows as they were entertained with tales from The Arabian Nights and watched sophisticated professional singers and dancers. The democratic nature of the coffee house fostered much free and open discussion of all issues, by all classes of society; and as the price of admission was the price of a cup of coffee - about one cent - the coffee houses were constantly jammed, despite the large numbers of new ones that kept opening. Among al classes of Turks, considered one of the necessary items of life. At the marriage ceremony, men promised to provide coffee for their wives throughout their lives, and their failure to do so allowed women to sue for divorce.

Eventually even sophisticated Constantinople had to contend with religious zealots, particularly imams and dervishes, who wanted the popular coffee houses closed so that people would return to the now nearly empty mosques. All sorts of justifications for banning coffee-drinking were suggested, including the assertion that ground, roasted coffee was a kind of charcoal that the Koran specifically mentioned as unsanitary food. Finally, coffee was prohibited as being in the same class as wine because of the word used for it, but because the decree proved impossible to enforce, the coffee houses reopened. They were the source of much of the government revenue until they were closed again for political reasons by Grand Vizier Kuprili in the mid-seventeenth century. The punishments for being caught made the ban on coffee-drinking and coffee houses effective: first violators were cudgelled; second violators were sewn in leather bags and drowned in the Bosporus. But coffee-drinking was not destined to be forbidden forever. When a Frenchman, Antoine Galland, visited Constantinople at the end of the century, he reported that, on the average, twenty cups of coffee per person per day were consumed. Of all the coffee-drinking countries in the Middle East, only in Persia were the coffee houses never suppressed, largely because the wife of the shah appointed official teachers to sit on the coffee houses and expound only on non-controversial political topics.

pp. 12-14 Coffee and Tea by Elin McCoy & Frederick Walker (1991) Third edition

Image retrieved from Chapter III: EARLY HISTORY OF COFFEE DRINKING -- All About Coffee, by William H. Ukers on July 22, 2014.

Turkish coffee house, coffee, cafe, 17th century