The Curious History of God and Coffee
When “coffee” and “religion” are placed together in the same sentence, it might bring to mind that brackish watery brew of too many after-church coffee hours that still punctually occur, every Sunday, in parishes all over the United States. The first verboten taste of coffee I had as a young boy, growing up in suburban Maryland, was at my parents’ church. We would sneak up to the coffee urns when we thought no one was looking, pour the scalding liquid into Styrofoam cups already preloaded with enough sugar and powdered creamer to send a small child into a diabetic coma, and before one of the church ladies — usually an aunt or a scolding mother — could catch up with us, we’d swoop out to the playground or parking lot to quaff our stolen booty, usually burning our tongues from drinking too quickly from the fear of getting caught.
Little did I know then how this illicit pleasure of sneaking church coffee — terrible tasting as it was — echoed part of the history of this bitter drink: its origin out of a swirl of violent theological debates, fierce bans and forbidden desires.
The roots of coffee are even more thoroughly entangled with humanity’s appetite for the divine, with forms of visionary mysticism and with the interreligious flow of people and cultural practices in early modern Europe, than I ever could have imagined as a child (even as I had been raised in a fairly exotic form of Protestantism that followed the teachings of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg).
A legend has persisted around the origins of coffee that traces the first human consumption back to a goatherd in Ethiopia. The young Kaldi, so the story goes, became curious about the effects of a little bush with red berries when he noticed how his goats would skip and jump around with great alacrity after eating the berries. Trying some himself, and feeling the surge of caffeine energize his body, Kaldi excitedly took the berries to a Sufi monk at a nearby monastery.
The monk, however, disapproved of this apparent kind of intoxicant and threw the berries into a fire. But a delicious aroma of roasted coffee beans promptly followed. When the curious monk dissolved these beans into hot water, voila, the world’s first cup of joe was born.
As cute and charming as it is to imagine these Ethiopian goats getting all jacked up on coffee beans, this is most likely a fantasy concocted in the West, as the first references to Kaldi’s story appear in 17th-century Latin texts from Rome. In earlier Islamic records, the practice of drinking coffee seems to have originated in Yemen. According to these older Muslim sources, the practice of drinking coffee left its regional confines in Yemen in the middle of the 15th century and became mainstreamed throughout the Islamic world, specifically as an aid for wakefulness in the mystical nighttime devotions of various Sufi sects, the branch of Islam that pursued personal, ecstatic connections to the divine.
Sufis often practiced a form of communal worship at night, sometimes with trancelike dancing (of which the famous “whirling dervish” is but one form) and unison-chanting of verses from the Quran (the dhikr). In these forms of worship that could go late into the early hours of the morning, coffee was communally consumed as a means for staying awake, distributed to the individual participants by the officiating sheikh. Thus, these first recorded quaffings of coffee were not for secular purposes of pleasure or individual taste, but a spiritual aid for a collective communing with God. The Arabic word for coffee, qahwa, implies the lessening of desire or appetite for something; the term was also applied to wine, as it was thought that wine would lessen the appetite for food. Qahwa as coffee, correspondingly, implied the reduced desire for sleep or rest; our modern word “coffee” etymologically descends from this Arabic term.
Seen as a dangerous intoxicant by Islamic jurists, coffee became outlawed and banned in different cities (Istanbul, Cairo, Mecca) at various points throughout the 16th century. There were anti-coffee polemics, riots against coffee sellers in the streets of Mecca, and outbreaks of violence in which coffee stock was burned and its purveyors beaten. The theological debates about coffee’s legitimacy prompted the first attempts to historicize coffee drinking as a cultural practice; pro-coffee writers even claimed that King Solomon was the first person to use coffee, having been instructed by the angel Jibreel (Gabriel) on how to roast and properly brew it (so it was OK, according to Quranic tradition).
These 16th-century Muslim debates about coffee — the first Islamic prohibition, or fatwa, against coffee having occurred in 1511 — distinctly anticipated how the English reception of coffee 150 years later would rile up the religious and cultural conservatives. The first coffeehouse in England opened in Oxford in 1650. Called “The Angel,” it was operated by a Jewish man named Jacob and quickly became a beloved haunt for Oxford scholars. Within a few years, hundreds of coffeehouses had cropped up in metropolitan locations all over the country, especially in London. A new drinker of coffee noted in 1654 that the brew “is somewhat hot and unpleasant but a good after relish [sic] and caused breaking of wind in abundance.”
Not all were pleased, however, and not only for coffee’s purportedly gassy results. Coffee became caught up in a great tide of 17th-century Islamophobia that saw the new drink as dangerously un-British and anti-Christian. In John Tatham’s brutal satire “Knavery in all Trades; or, The Coffee-house Comedy” (1664), the play’s protagonist is a greedy Turkish immigrant named Mahoone, who cons his English coffee-drinking customers, brewing their beverage in his filthy chamber pots (the text is filled with puns and wordplays equating coffee with shit). The play moralizes to the audience:
For Men and Christians to turn Turks, and think
T’excuse the Crime because ‘tis in their drink,
Is more than Magick, and does plainly tell
Coffee’s extraction has its heats from hell.
Samuel Pepys, the great 17th-century diarist, coffee-drinker and masturbator (though not necessarily in that order), saw Tatham’s play and despised it, telling his diary it was “the most ridiculous, insipid play that I ever saw in my life.”
A little later, coffee found a great exponent in visionary scientist-turned-mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), who abandoned his natural science in pursuit of a radical Christian theology based on things “seen and heard” in heaven and hell; a body of visionary work that became important for subsequent Romantics like poet William Blake. Swedenborg cut his teeth, so to speak, in the vibrant coffeehouse culture of London in the early 1700s, and later accounts take note of his copious coffee drinking — “he drank in great abundance, both day and night, and with a great deal of sugar.” This coffee drinking was accompanied by an equally prodigious use of snus, or tobacco snuff, which so caked and layered Swedenborg’s manuscripts that later archivists would marvel at how well it had preserved them. Fueled by all this nicotine and caffeine, Swedenborg’s modern form of mysticism must be seen as entheogenic — a spiritual experience facilitated by psychoactive substances — and his prolific flurry of writing while in these trance states produced the largest body of single-author manuscripts in the 18th century (over 42,000 folio pages, largely now housed at The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm).
Coffee and tobacco have long accompanied each another as symbiotic pleasures, so it is no surprise to find them entangled with forms of esoteric spirituality like that of Swedenborg’s. His more modern analogue may be occultist Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy who was infamous for both her chain-smoking (rumored to be in excess of 200 cigarettes a day) and extensive coffee drinking, and an equally prolific pen that syncretized world religions into a New Age mishmash. In Jim Jarmusch’s beautiful little 2003 film “Coffee and Cigarettes,” the mystical dimensions of the eponymous subjects are suggested by the repetition of a line from visionary scientist Nikola Tesla — “the Earth is a conductor of acoustical resonance” — as the characters in the different black-and-white vignettes speak over their coffee and cigarettes. More recently, Jarmusch has collaborated with Dutch musician Jozef van Wissem on two record albums that include, among other things, extensive quotations from Swedenborg’s religious writings. One wonders if coffee (and cigarettes) were essential for this joint production.
So, next time you sip (or smell) a cup of coffee, pause to consider this beverage’s complex interreligious evolution that spirals out of the Sufis and into Jewish coffee shops, and on to the modern spiritualists and mystics, spanning the angel Jibreel to the angels of Swedenborg. We may have lost a sense for this (and all that tobacco smoke) in the secular interior of a contemporary Starbucks. But coffee remains embedded in global networks that circulate other forms of religious identities: Note that many of our most popularly consumed beans are harvested from locations such as Sumatra and Yemen where Islam remains the majority practiced religion.
As the United States undergoes its own ugly renascence of cultural tension, coffee should remind us how weird and premodern the drinking of this energizing drink was and still can be. Even for children in a suburban church parking lot, coffee tastes wonderfully of the larger world beyond.