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Coffee in Middle East

The Spread of Coffee Culture through Sufi Networks in the Middle East

Discover the fascinating history of coffee and its deep-rooted connection to Sufism, tracing its origins back to Ethiopia and its introduction to Yemeni Sufis. Learn about the expansion of coffee cultivation and trade, with a focus on the role of the Yemeni city of Mocha and the spread of coffee to the Arabian Peninsula and Europe. Explore the significant influence of Sufi culture on the development of coffee house culture in the Middle East and its impact on intellectual, spiritual, and artistic expression. Follow the journey of coffee through the Ottoman Empire and its contribution to hospitality and societal norms. Finally, delve into the role of coffee in modern Middle Eastern society and the shift from Sufi to secular influence in coffee houses.

Coffee in Sufism

Origins of Coffee and its Connection to Sufism

Discovery of the coffee plant in Ethiopia

Coffee, a well-known and widely consumed beverage, has an interesting history rooted in the African country of Ethiopia. According to legend, the discovery of the coffee plant dates back to the 9th century when a herder named Kaldi noticed that his goats became more energetic after consuming the red cherries from a particular bush. Curiosity led Kaldi to try the cherries himself, and he experienced a similar energetic effect. Kaldi shared his findings with a local monk, who realized that the cherries could help him stay awake during his nighttime devotions. The monk began to share his knowledge with others, and soon the coffee plant gained popularity as a stimulant.

The coffee plant, Coffea arabica, is native to Ethiopia, specifically in the region now known as Kaffa. Historians have found evidence that the caffeinated drink was consumed by the indigenous Oromo people in a ritualistic manner, as well as in everyday life. The plant’s fruits were sometimes fermented into a type of wine, while other times they were crushed and mixed with animal fat to provide energy for long journeys.

The popularity of this newfound beverage began to spread beyond Ethiopia, and with the expansion of trade routes, the cultivation and consumption of coffee plants began to reach other regions of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

Introduction of coffee to the Yemeni Sufis

The Yemeni Sufis played a significant role in the spread of coffee culture. Sufism is a mystical branch of Islam that emphasizes individual spirituality, and its followers are known as Sufis. As trade between Ethiopia and Yemen flourished during the 15th century, the coffee plant was introduced to the Yemeni people.

The Yemeni port of Mocha, a significant hub for global trade at that time, played a crucial role in the dissemination of coffee plants throughout the world. Yemeni traders began to cultivate coffee plants in their homeland, importing them from Ethiopia via the Red Sea. The favorable climate of the Arabian Peninsula allowed the coffee plant to thrive, and soon, coffee cultivation became a booming industry in Yemen.

The role of coffee in Sufi gatherings and rituals

The introduction of coffee to Sufism played a significant role in the popularization and spread of the beverage. Sufis recognized coffee’s potential in aiding their spiritual quests by helping them stay awake during long hours of prayer, meditation, and contemplation. Coffee soon became an essential part of Sufi gatherings, known as dhikr, which involved repetitive chantings and rhythmic body movements to achieve a trance-like state for the purpose of experiencing a deeper connection with the Divine.

The energizing effect of coffee helped Sufis maintain focus and alertness during these rituals, which often lasted through the night. As a result, coffee became known as the “wine of Islam,” since it offered Muslims an alternative to alcohol, which is forbidden in Islam.

Sufi mystics also used coffee as a social lubricant, gathering in coffeehouses to share ideas and stories, study religious texts, and engage in spiritual conversations. These coffeehouse gatherings facilitated the exchange of knowledge and ideas not only within the Sufi community but also across different social classes and cultures. As a result, coffee’s association with Sufism helped to spread its popularity throughout the Middle East, ultimately leading to its introduction to Europe during the early 17th century.

In conclusion, the origins of coffee can be traced back to Ethiopia, and its connection to Sufism played a crucial role in the popularization and spread of the beverage. The energizing effects of coffee made it an essential part of Sufi gatherings and rituals, while its role as a social lubricant in coffeehouses further facilitated the dissemination of coffee culture throughout the Middle East and beyond. Today, the influence of this historic connection between coffee and Sufism can still be felt in the global coffee culture that we enjoy.

Expansion of Coffee Cultivation and Trade

The expansion of coffee cultivation and trade is a fascinating story that spans several centuries and continents. Coffee, which originated in the forests of Ethiopia, has become a worldwide phenomenon, consumed by millions of people every day. In this article, we will delve into the role of the Yemeni city of Mocha in the coffee trade, the spread of coffee cultivation to the Arabian Peninsula, and the influence of European merchants in the global spread of coffee.

The role of the Yemeni city of Mocha in the coffee trade

The city of Mocha, also known as Al-Mukha, is located on the Red Sea coast of present-day Yemen. While the city is now relatively quiet, during the 16th and 17th centuries, Mocha was the epicenter of the global coffee trade. Upon the arrival of coffee in Yemen in the 15th century, the Yemeni people were quick to recognize its economic potential. Coffee cultivation and the production of roasted coffee beans soon became a substantial industry in the region.

Given Mocha’s strategic location along trade routes, the port city naturally became the hub for coffee exports. The city established itself as the primary marketplace for coffee, attracting merchants from Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. As a result, Mocha experienced an economic boom, and the profits from the coffee trade made it one of the wealthiest cities in the region.

Mocha was not only a significant center of trade, but it also played a crucial role in coffee culture. In the city’s many coffeehouses, patrons would gather to conduct business, socialize, engage in intellectual discussions, and enjoy coffee. As the popularity of coffeehouses in Mocha grew, the city became synonymous with coffee, even lending its name to a particular type of coffee known as Mocha, which reflected the coffee’s distinguished taste and aroma.

Spread of coffee cultivation to the Arabian Peninsula

As the demand for and popularity of coffee grew, the cultivation of coffee spread beyond the Arabian Peninsula. In Yemen, coffee cultivation expanded from the coastal regions into the mountainous terrain, which provided the perfect climate for growing coffee plants. Thanks to Yemen’s favorable climate and fertile soil, coffee production thrived.

Coffee cultivation on the Arabian Peninsula played a significant role in the development of the coffee industry. The distinctive method of preparing and roasting coffee beans known as the “Arabic coffee” or “Turkish coffee” emerged in this region. The unique preparation technique, which involves finely grinding the coffee beans and boiling them in water, became a popular way to enjoy coffee’s taste and aroma throughout the Middle East and beyond.

European merchants and the global spread of coffee

The global expansion of coffee cultivation and trade would not have been possible without the active involvement of European merchants. As European trading companies gained influence and established networks in the Middle East and Asia, they recognized the growing demand for coffee and saw an opportunity for profit. European merchants began to import large quantities of coffee from Mocha and other Arabian trading hubs, subsequently exporting these goods to various markets in Europe.

The introduction of coffee to European markets in the 16th century had a lasting impact on global coffee culture. The coffee phenomenon spread throughout the continent, with coffeehouses becoming an essential part of social and intellectual life in cities such as Vienna, Paris, and London.

The European interest in coffee was not limited to consumption but also extended to coffee cultivation. As European countries established colonies in tropical regions such as Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia, they introduced coffee plants to these territories. These regions eventually became major coffee-producing areas, resulting in the global expansion of coffee cultivation that we see today.

In summary, the expansion of coffee cultivation and trade can be attributed to numerous factors including the role of the Yemeni city of Mocha, the spread of coffee cultivation across the Arabian Peninsula, and the influence of European merchants in the global coffee market. Today, coffee continues to be a highly valued commodity, with a diverse and ever-expanding array of flavors, preparation techniques, and coffee-drinking traditions shared across the globe.

Sufi Influence on Coffee House Culture in the Middle East

Establishment of coffee houses as centers for Sufi gatherings

The emergence of coffee houses in the Middle East can be traced back to the 15th century when Sufi mystics started to use coffee as a means to stay awake during their long nights of religious observance and spiritual contemplation. The coffee houses soon became cultural and social centers where Sufis congregated to engage in intellectual discussions, listen to music and participate in their unique form of worship.

Initially, the first coffee houses were established near the mosques, as they served as gathering places for the Sufi-oriented brotherhoods. These establishments provided a more informal and relaxed environment where people from all walks of life could participate without the strict protocols and hierarchy found in mosques.

The coffee houses were also seen as egalitarian spaces that transcended class and social barriers. People visiting these places could share ideas and experiences, helping to foster a sense of fraternity, unity and solidarity among the visitors, as well as allowing for the exchange of various perspectives on religious, philosophical and sociopolitical issues. This environment also attracted various scholars, poets, and artists, who contributed their knowledge, expertise or talents to the vibrant and dynamic atmosphere of the coffee houses.

Intellectual and spiritual conversations in coffee houses

The culture and ambiance within the coffee houses of the Middle East encouraged intellectual discourse and spiritual conversations, which collectively contributed to the spread and development of Sufi ideas and values. Sufi gatherings in these spaces revolved around discussions about mystical experiences, the interpretation of Quranic verses, and the exploration of various religious and spiritual concepts.

These conversations were not limited to just matters concerning Islamic spirituality, but encompassed a wide range of topics, including philosophy, literature, astronomy, medicine, and other sciences. This allowed the participants to engage in interdisciplinary dialogues and develop a more nuanced and holistic understanding of various subjects.

In addition to religious and intellectual discussions, coffee houses also provided a platform for debates on the contemporary sociopolitical issues of the time. The exchange of ideas, opinions and analyses on current events contributed to the shaping of public opinion and helped individuals to develop a more informed and critical stance on issues affecting society.

Music, poetry, and dance as integral components of coffee house culture

An essential aspect of Sufi gatherings in coffee houses was the integration of artistic expressions and the role they played in the exploration and celebration of the mystical aspects of existence. Music, poetry, and dance were intrinsic components of the Sufi coffee house culture and served as a means for the attendees to connect with one another and with the divine.

Sufi music, characterized by the haunting melodies and rhythmic beats of stringed instruments, flutes and drums, provided a backdrop for poetic recitations and dance performances. Poetry was employed as a means to express one’s spiritual longing, love for God, and the pursuit of divine enlightenment.

One of the most iconic expressions of Sufi devotion is the whirling dance popularized by the Mevlevi Order, also known as the “Whirling Dervishes.” The dance involves a series of circular movements representing the cosmic rotation of the universe and the individual’s journey towards spiritual transcendence. The performers of the dance, dressed in long flowing robes, spin with outstretched arms as they seek to lose themselves in an ecstatic union with the divine.

In conclusion, Sufism has had a significant and lasting impact on the coffee house culture in the Middle East. Through the establishment of coffee houses as centers for Sufi gatherings, the fostering of intellectual and spiritual conversations, and the promotion of music, poetry and dance, the Sufi influence has shaped and enriched the cultural and social landscape of the region. Today, the enduring legacy of the Sufi coffee house stands as a tribute to the resilience, diversity and spiritual depth of Middle Eastern culture.

Impact of the Ottoman Empire on Coffee Culture

The Ottoman Empire, which lasted for nearly six centuries from the late 13th century until the early 20th century, played a crucial role in the development and popularization of coffee culture. During its rule, coffee houses spread rapidly throughout the empire, serving as central social figures and establishing coffee as an essential part of daily life. The influence of Sufis in promoting coffee and the use of coffee as a symbol of hospitality and societal norms contributed greatly to the spread and impact of the Ottoman Empire on coffee culture.

The spread of coffee houses in the Ottoman Empire

One of the most significant contributions of the Ottoman Empire was the emergence of coffee houses across its territories. Coffee houses, or kahvehane in Turkish, first emerged in the Islamic world during the 15th century, and became particularly popular in Ottoman Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul. These establishments quickly spread throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and southeastern Europe as the empire expanded its reach.

Coffee houses played an essential role in Ottoman society as gathering spaces for socializing, discussing literature, poetry and politics. Unlike taverns, which were often associated with vices such as gambling and alcohol consumption, coffee houses were considered respectable establishments, where people from all walks of life could convene to engage in intellectual pursuits and enhance community relationships.

The thriving coffee house culture in the Ottoman Empire fostered creativity and collaboration. Scholars, poets, and artists gathered to share their ideas and works, leading to the blossoming of innovative movements in various fields. Moreover, as coffee houses served as centers for news dissemination and gossip, they became essential channels of information, shaping public opinion and influencing political life in the empire.

Role of Ottoman Sufis in promoting coffee culture

Ottoman Sufis Coffee Culture

The promotion of coffee culture in the Ottoman Empire can be attributed largely to the Sufis – Islamic mystics who sought enlightenment and spirituality through various rituals and practices. Ottoman Sufis were among the first to adopt coffee as a means to awaken their senses and enhance their spiritual experiences. The stimulating effects of coffee allowed the Sufis to maintain wakefulness and focus during their long hours of religious chanting, meditation and prayer.

This spiritual connection of Sufism with coffee helped to promote its consumption among the wider Ottoman society. The image of coffee as an aid to devotion and purity ingrained the beverage with deep cultural associations that extended beyond its practical applications. Coffee was considered a gift from God to enhance spiritual insight, contemplation, and camaraderie among seekers of the divine. As a result, coffee came to be associated with a sense of well-being, spirituality, and community, further solidifying its role in Ottoman society.

Coffee as a symbol of hospitality and societal norms

In the Ottoman Empire, coffee was seen as more than just a beverage. It became a symbol of hospitality, friendship, and respect. Offering coffee to guests was an important social gesture, signifying the host’s generosity and the esteem in which the guests were held. Refusing a cup of coffee was not only unimaginable, but it could also be construed as a slight on the host’s honor.

The ritual of preparing and serving coffee was an integral part of the Ottoman lifestyle. The coffee was first roasted, then ground to a fine powder, and brewed in a cezve, a copper or brass pot with a long handle. It was served in small cups, typically called fincan, with great attention paid to the quality and presentation of the coffee. The process of brewing and serving coffee has remained relatively unchanged over the centuries, with modern-day coffee culture still paying homage to its Ottoman roots.

In conclusion, the influence of the Ottoman Empire on coffee culture has been immense. The spread of coffee houses throughout the empire not only birthed a rich social environment that fostered intellectual and artistic pursuits but also established coffee as an everyday experience. The Sufis promoted coffee culture through their spiritual practices, associating the beverage with devotion and divine connection. Finally, coffee became a symbol of hospitality and an expression of societal norms, securing its place among the most cherished customs in the Ottoman Empire and beyond.

Coffee Culture in Modern Middle Eastern Society

The Middle East has had a long-standing love affair with coffee that can be traced back to the 15th century’s vibrant coffee trade. The modern Middle Eastern society still cherishes its coffee culture, though it has evolved over time. Coffee houses have evolved from being a place for Sufis to unwind and perform rituals into more secular spaces while maintaining their traditional charm. Coffee is now often used as a symbol of hospitality and friendship in various Middle Eastern countries, deeply intertwining with their politics and social life.

A shift from Sufi to secular influence in coffee houses

Coffee initially gained popularity in the Middle East as a drink consumed by Sufis to help them stay awake during their lengthy prayer sessions and dhikr rituals. This quickly led to the rise of coffeehouses (qahwa) throughout the region, becoming a vital component of Sufi culture and fostering a sense of community.

Over time, coffee houses experienced a shift from their Sufi roots to become more secular establishments. This occurred in conjunction with the expansion of trade and the evolving cultural roles coffee houses would play in society. The growing popularity of coffee houses in Middle Eastern society attracted intelligentsia and artists, making them venues for intellectual discussions, poetry recitals, and musical performances.

This transition to a more secular environment was facilitated by the Ottomans, who introduced coffee to their empire during its peak in the 16th century. Coffee houses became essential hubs for political and business discussions, acting as gathering places for the local community. Consequently, these establishments permeated every aspect of life in the Ottoman Empire, serving as essential meeting places for the public to immerse themselves in art, music, philosophy, and politics.

The role of coffee in contemporary Middle Eastern politics and social life

In the contemporary period, Middle Eastern coffee houses have transformed into places for social, political, and cultural exchange. Coffee has become an essential part of daily life for millions of people in the region, influencing interpersonal relationships, fostering a sense of community, and acting as a common ground for dialogue.

Coffee houses often serve as a platform for political discussions, acting as incubators for critical thought and grassroots movements. For example, several cafes in Cairo were notoriously fertile grounds for Egypt’s 2011 revolution, as young activists would meet to discuss the political situation and formulate strategies. As such, coffee houses throughout the Middle East fulfill an essential role in the democratic process, with many establishments offering free wi-fi to facilitate access to information and networking opportunities.

Coffee’s importance in daily life has also made it a symbol of hospitality and friendship in many Middle Eastern cultures. Offering guests coffee in a home or social setting is often seen as a gesture of goodwill while allowing for meaningful conversation.

Persistence of traditional coffee house culture in various Middle Eastern countries

traditional coffee house middle east

Although modernization has undeniably left its mark, several Middle Eastern countries have managed to maintain their rich, traditional coffee house culture. Places like Iran, Turkey, and Jordan are entrenched in a distinct coffee house culture, with each country boasting its unique coffee preparation techniques and traditions.

In Iran, the tradition of serving coffee in small glasses accompanied by a sugar cube held between the teeth is still prevalent. Iranian coffee houses often feature live traditional music and showcase Iranian art, with people meeting there for casual chats, intellectual debates, or even playing a round of backgammon.

Turkey’s famed coffee culture persists with its unique brewing method in a cezve and foamy Turkish coffee being served in dainty cups. The coffee reading tradition, known as tasseography, can still be found in Turkey’s bustling streets, continuing an ancient divination ritual.

In Jordan, one can still stumble upon traditional coffee houses filled with history and charm, where locals gather to smoke shisha and drink coffee while sharing tales or playing games. These traditional establishments are a testament to the resilience of Middle Eastern coffee culture in an increasingly globalized world.

The Middle East’s unique coffee culture has adapted over time to encompass both sacred and secular influences, remaining a deeply ingrained aspect of the region’s social, political, and cultural fabric. As coffee continues to act as a connector and catalyst for community building, it retains its essential place in the daily lives of millions across the Middle East.


Also read: The Role of Sufi Mystics in Popularizing Coffee Drinking in Yemen


FAQs on the Spread of Coffee Culture through Sufi Networks in the Middle East


1. How did the introduction of coffee affect Middle Eastern Sufi culture during the late 15th century?

Introduced in the late 15th century, coffee played a crucial role in Sufi religious ceremonies, helping adherents maintain vigilance during long nighttime prayers. As a result, coffee became closely associated with Sufism and contributed to its wider dissemination across the Middle East (Witkamp, 1961).

2. What role did Sufi monasteries play in popularizing coffee culture throughout the Middle East?

Sufi monasteries, known as khanqahs and zawiya, served as pivotal centers for spiritual, social, and intellectual life. The regular consumption of coffee within these institutions fostered the growth of a broader coffee culture, leading to the establishment of public coffeehouses across the Middle East (Topik & Smith, 2011).

3. How did coffeehouses contribute to the spread of Sufism and its values in Middle Eastern societies?

Coffeehouses became essential spaces for social gatherings, facilitating discussions on religious, philosophical, and political affairs. These establishments closely mirrored Sufi practices, promoting values such as spiritual communion, tolerance, and intellectual pursuit, which further entrenched Sufi influence throughout Middle Eastern societies (Beinin, 2001).

4. Did the spread of coffee culture in the Middle East lead to any controversies or conflicts?

Within the Islamic world, coffee consumption faced opposition on religious and political grounds. Some conservative religious scholars claimed that coffee was a psychoactive substance and should be prohibited like alcohol. Additionally, rulers feared that coffeehouses served as sites of potential dissent and rebellion (Hattox, 1985).

5. How did the coffee trade benefit Sufi networks and their influence across the Middle East?

The burgeoning coffee trade in the Middle East allowed Sufi networks to flourish both economically and socially. Growing demand for coffee supported the financial needs of Sufi institutions and fostered economic interdependence among various regions, thereby amplifying the reach of Sufism in the Islamic world (Witkamp, 1961).

6. What is the legacy of the coffee culture introduced by Sufis in the contemporary Middle East?

The coffee culture introduced by Sufis in the Middle East persists in its traditional and modern iterations. Coffeehouses continue to hold significance as social, cultural, and intellectual hubs, reflecting the lasting influence of Sufism on the evolution of Middle Eastern societies (Beinin, 2001).