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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 10    Issue 07   16-31 August 2015

Coffee in Europe, India and the Americas
A Shared Legacy of Muslim Culture

Professor A. R. MOMIN

Western historians and commentators generally trace the beginnings of globalization to the second half of the 20th century. However, globalization is neither a very recent nor an absolutely unique phenomenon. The distinguished economist and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen argues that globalization’s history spans several centuries and that the active agents of globalization have sometimes been located quite far from the West. He points out that around 1000 AD, some of the most important technological inventions and innovations such as the clock, magnetic compass, paper, printing, gunpowder and the wheelbarrow were invented by the Chinese and subsequently spread across the world, including Europe.

Three points about the genesis and antecedents of globalization are note-worthy. First, one needs to look at globalization not as an isolated phenomenon that emerged in the West in recent times, but as the outcome of historical, social and cultural processes that took place in many non-Western contexts and that preceded contemporary globalization by many centuries. In other words, we should look at globalization from the perspective of social and cultural history and as the product of a process of cumulative progress and development. Second, a distinction needs to be drawn between contemporary globalization and proto-globalization or incipient globalization. Third, the current discourse on globalization, which is manifestly Eurocentric or West-centric, needs to be deconstructed and decentred.

Some historians, like A. G. Hopkins and Christopher Bayly, have used the term proto-globalization to describe the phase of increasing trade links and cultural exchanges that characterised the period from 1600 to 1800, which preceded modern globalization. It may be pointed out that the span of proto-globalization or incipient globalization needs to be extended beyond the 17th century. Proto-globalization or incipient globalization should not be looked upon as merely an earlier phase of globalization, but as an important precursor or forerunner of globalization which significantly impacted processes and linkages that have become a hallmark of contemporary globalization.

Proto-globalization or incipient globalization encompasses all those historical events and processes that covered a vast expanse of territory, entailed transcending geographical barriers and national borders and involved diverse peoples and cultures. These include the Silk Road (a vast network of trade and cultural linkages and transmission routes that linked East and West for nearly two millennia), the worldwide sweep of global religions such as Christianity, Buddhism and Islam, the worldwide diffusion of Chinese technology, especially papermaking, printing, magnetic compass and gunpowder, as well as Chinese porcelain, silk and tea, world empires such as the Mongol Empire and the Ottoman Empire, conquests, migrations, global linkages of trade and commerce, European colonization, transnational slave trade from Africa and the Caribbean to the New World and Europe, and the import of indentured labour from Asia and Africa to Southeast Asia.

Muslims made enormous and wide-ranging contributions to proto-globalisation in science and medicine, technology and engineering, trade and commerce, language and literature and the world-wide diffusion of paper, coffee and other commodities. Amartya Sen has remarked that “as leaders of innovative thought in that period in history, Muslim intellectuals were among the most committed globalisers of science and mathematics.”


Coffee, a brew prepared from roasted coffee beans obtained from the coffee plant, is one of the most popular beverages in the world. Though tea is more popular around the world than coffee, the global production of coffee (8.5 million metric tonnes each year) surpasses that of tea (4.7 million metric tonnes). It is estimated that 8.5 billion kilos of coffee are consumed globally every year. The International Coffee Organisation says that the consumption of coffee worldwide has grown by nearly 42% since the beginning of the 21st century. Coffee is the second-highest traded commodity in the world after oil. Coffee drinking predominates in the Americas and in continental Europe while tea is the preferred beverage in most parts of Asia, Africa and Russia. The US is the single biggest consumer of coffee in the world. Almost 45% of the world’s coffee is drunk in the US. However, the Scandinavian countries are the world’s biggest per capita consumers of coffee.

Coffee plants are grown in over 70 countries, primarily in the Americas, Southeast Asia, India and parts of Africa. Brazil is the biggest producer of coffee in the world, producing one-third of the world’s coffee. The other major coffee-producing countries are Vietnam (15.2%), Indonesia (6.3%), Colombia (5.9%) and India (4.1%). The two main species of the coffee plant are arabica and robusta. The highly regarded arabica plant is indigenous to the forests of Ethiopia’s southwestern highlands. Arabica coffee accounts for 70-80% of the world’s coffee production. Robusta is a sturdy species of coffee beans with high content of bitterness. It had its origin in central and western sub-Saharan Africa. Today it is mostly grown in Vietnam, which is now the world’s largest exporter of robusta coffee. Robusta beans are used primarily in instant coffee and espresso. Robusta accounts for approximately 30% of coffee production in the world. Coffee is prepared in a variety of ways, the more popular types being espresso, cappuccino, mocha, café latte, ristretto and corretto.

The coffee plant – coffea arabica in Carl Linnaeus’s taxonomy – grows in abundance in Ethiopia’s Harar, Sidamo, Yirgacheffe, Kaffa and Limu regions. In earlier times, some of the country’s indigenous tribes, particularly the Oromo people, consumed the ripe berries of the coffee plant – which are locally known as “bunn” -- as a food and stimulant. Sometimes the leaves and berries of the plant are boiled and the concoction is believed to have medicinal properties.

Botanical, historical and philological evidence suggests that the coffee plant originated in Ethiopia and that coffee beans were brought and planted in Yemen sometime in the 15th century. Since the first millennium BC, trade routes across the Red Sea linked East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. A number of goods and commodities, including medicinal substances, were traded or exchanged between East Africa and Arabia. It is probable that coffee beans, which were believed to have medicinal properties, reached Arabia and other regions of the Islamic world through trading caravans long before they were planted and cultivated. The earliest references to coffee beans – “bunn”—are found in the works of the 10th century Persian botanist and physician Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi and Ibn Sina (d. 1037 CE), who discussed the medicinal benefits of coffee beans for the stomach. One of the earliest treatises on coffee, which came to be known as qahwa in later centuries, was Umdat al-safwa fi hill al-qahwa, written by Abd al-Qadir al-Jaziri in 1587.

One of the legends surrounding the diffusion of coffee from Ethiopia to Yemen is that Shaykh Shihabuddin al-Dhahani (d. 1470), an itinerant Sufi of the Shadhiliya order, brought coffee beans from the African coast to Aden and planted them there. Ripe coffee beans were roasted, ground and boiled in water or milk, which had a stimulating effect. In Yemen, and subsequently in Makkah, Damascus, Aleppo, Cairo and North Africa, Sufis began to use the drink to help them keep awake in the nights for prayers and for repeated invocations of divine names (dhikr). In the 16th and 17th century, coffee drinking was particularly associated with the Sufis of the Shadhiliya order. In some parts of Algeria, coffee was also known as Shadhiliya.

Coffee drinking soon caught on and became a popular drink in Makkah, Damascus and Cairo in the early decades of the 16th century. The world’s first coffeehouse opened in Damascus in 1530. There are two versions of the introduction of coffee in the Ottoman Empire. According to one version, some Syrian traders brought coffee beans to Constantinople while another version says that coffee was introduced in the empire by Ozdemir Pasha, the Ottoman governor of Yemen, around the middle of the 16th century. Coffee soon became an important part of the royal cuisine. The Chief Coffee Maker (kahvecibashi) was one of the important court functionaries. In the course of time, coffee drinking became increasingly popular not only among the aristocracy but also among the masses. The earliest coffeehouse (Kiva Han) in Europe opened in Constantinople in 1554. Gian Francesco Morosini, an ambassador of the Venetian Republic to the Ottoman court, wrote a report in 1582, in which he described some public premises in Ottoman Turkey where people used to meet over a dark, hot beverage called cavee.

Coffee in Europe and the New World

An important source of revenue for the Ottoman economy was international trade. The Ottoman Empire held a central place in world trade that linked the Middle East, Persia, India and Africa to Europe. Goods from the Orient passed through the trading ports of Bursa, Edirne, Sarajevo and Dubrovnik and were exported to eastern and central Europe. The Ottomans exported silk, wax, pepper, cotton, textiles, hides and furs, metal, honey, coffee and medicinal substances to Europe. Most of the goods were exported through Venetian traders and merchants. Venice served as Europe’s maritime gateway to Ottoman Turkey, the Levant and North Africa for more than a thousand years, from the first half of the 9th century to the closing decades of the 18th. The Venetians were the biggest trading partners of the Ottomans. They relied on the Ottomans for wheat, spices, raw silk, leather and calcified ashes for the famed Murano glass industry. In return, they exported finished luxury goods, including glass, soap, textiles and clockworks. In 1538 the Ottomans captured the port of Mocha, the main coffee-producing region in Yemen, and the surrounding regions and monopolized the coffee trade. Venetian merchants, who frequented Istanbul to buy exotic oriental goods and spices, had a taste of coffee and began importing it to Italy and other parts of Europe around 1615. The first coffeehouse in Venice opened in 1645.

In 1644, Monsieur de la Roque, the French ambassador to the Ottoman court, took some coffee beans from Istanbul to Marseille. After a few years French merchants began importing coffee from Istanbul. The first coffeehouse in Marseille opened in 1671. Paris was introduced to coffee by Hossohbet Nuktedan Suleyman Aga, who was sent by Sultan Mehmet IV as ambassador to the court of King Louis XIV of France in 1669. Suleyman Aga took several sacks of coffee beans to Paris and started the practice of inviting members of Parisian aristocracy to his home, where they would be treated with coffee and Turkish delicacies. Coffee drinking soon caught on and Paris’s first coffee house opened in 1686.

The Ottoman Emperor Suleyman “The Lawgiver” (ruled 1520-66) laid a siege to Vienna in 1529, which was unsuccessful. A second siege to the city was laid in 1683, which too failed and the Ottoman troops retreated, leaving behind 500 sacks of coffee beans in their abandoned encampment. The Viennese, who knew nothing about the use of coffee beans, thought of throwing the sacks away. Franz George Kolschitzky, a Polish naval officer who had lived in Istanbul as a spy for the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was aware of the beverage made from coffee beans, requested the authorities to get hold of the sacks of coffee as payment for his espionage services. His request was granted and he began serving small cups of coffee to Viennese homes and then set up a large tent where he served hot coffee. In a short time coffee drinking became popular in the city and spread to other parts of the Habsburg monarchy. The first coffeehouse in Vienna opened in 1685.

Jacob, a Jewish immigrant from Ottoman Turkey, opened the first coffeehouse in Oxford in 1637. London’s first coffeehouse opened in 1652. The first coffeehouse in Germany opened in 1673. In 1667, Kara Hamie, a former Ottoman Janissary from Istanbul, opened the first coffeehouse in Bucharest.

In 1616 a Dutch merchant, Pieter van der Broecke, who was working for the Dutch East India Company, travelled to Mocha in Yemen and tasted its coffee. He then obtained some coffee saplings from Mocha in Yemen and planted them in a garden in Amsterdam. In 1696 the Dutch governor in Malabar (India) sent some coffee seedlings, obtained from southern India, to his counterpart in Batavia (now Jakarta) in Indonesia. The first seedlings did not survive due to flooding of the area where they were planted. The second shipment of seedlings was sent in 1699. The plants took root and grew and the first shipment of coffee was sent from Java to Europe by the Dutch East India Company in 1717. The Dutch colonizers set up coffee plantations on a large scale in Java, Timor, Sumatra, Ceylon and Cerebes. Thus the Dutch launched the first large-scale commercial production of coffee.

In 1714 the mayor of Amsterdam generously gave coffee saplings as gifts to wealthy aristocrats. One of the recipients of his gift was King Louis XIV of France, who planted the coffee sapling in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Paris. In 1715, a young naval officer named Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, who was on leave from Martinique, an overseas region of France in the eastern Caribbean Sea, smuggled a coffee plant from Java and planted it in Martinique, where it flourished.

In 1727 the government of Brazil set its sights on the burgeoning coffee trade. It entrusted Lt. Col. Francisco de Melo Palheto with the task of obtaining a coffee plant from France. He romanced with the wife of the governor of French Guinea, who gave him a bouquet of flowers containing a few saplings of the coffee plant, as a gift on his departure. He brought the saplings to Brazil, where they took root and flourished. By the early decades of the 19th century, Brazil became the world’s largest producer of coffee.

Within a short time, coffeehouses sprang up in all major European cities and became a meeting place for artists, poets, writers, philosophers and intellectuals. Celebrated French philosophers and intellectuals such as Voltaire, Rousseau and Dennis Diderot held long and animated discussions on political and social issues in Paris’s coffeehouses. Thus a coffeehouse culture developed in Europe. George Steiner, a French novelist, philosopher and public intellectual, in his book The Idea of Europe (2015) describes the presence of cafes in the main cities of Europe since the 16th century as one of the distinctive features of European civilization.

In 1607 Captain John Smith brought coffee to the new World. The first coffeehouse in America opened in Boston in 1676.

In the Middle Ages, many Christians considered coffee a Muslim drink and avoided drinking it. In 1600, Pope Clement VIII was asked by some of his advisers to ban coffee, which was associated with Muslims and was a favourite drink of the Ottoman rulers. The pope tasted coffee and found it to be delicious. He then gave it papal approval and declared it as a Christian drink. Coffee was thus baptized! It is interesting to note that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church banned coffee, which was considered a Muslim drink, in the 17th century and the ban remained in force until 1889. Coffee is now considered Ethiopia’s national drink.

Coffee in India

In 1670, Baba Buddhan (Bababudan), a wandering Sufi of Indian origin, brought coffee beans from Yemen and planted them in the Chandragiri Hills in Karnataka. The plants took root and flourished. The coffee plantation in the region is still known as Baba Budangiri in Karnataka. Tipu Sultan, the King of Mysore (ruled 1782-99) gave rent-free lands to local farmers to grow coffee.

India is the seventh largest coffee producer in the world and accounts for 4.1% of global coffee production and 4.52% of global coffee exports. Coffee plantations are found in Karnataka, which account for 53% of the country’s coffee production, Kerala (28%) and Tamil Nadu (11%). India produced 327 metric tonnes of coffee in 2014-15. Over 80% of coffee produced in India is exported to over 45 countries, mostly in Europe. In 2013-14, coffee exports fetched revenues of $765.80 million.

Etymology of Coffee

There are two views about the etymology of coffee. One view is that it is derived from Kaffa, one of the regions in the Ethiopian highlands where the coffee plant grows in abundance. This etymology is disputed by philologists, who point out that the word for coffee in the Ethiopic-Semitic language is “bunn,” which is still used in Ethiopia. Interestingly, the same word “bunn” is widely used for coffee in Yemen.

The commonly used word for coffee in the Middle East is qahwa (قهوة ). In Turkish the word qahwa was slightly modified into kahve. The Turkish word kahve found its way into European languages in similar or modified forms.

    Finnish kahvi or kavee
    Croatian kava
    Polish kawa
    Hungarian kave
    Georgian qava
    Ukrainian kavy
    Lithuanian kava
    Slovenian kave
    Serbian kafa
    German kaffee
    Italian caffe
    French café
    Dutch koffie
    Portuguese café
    Spanish café
    Greek kafes
    Yiddish kave
    English coffee

Another corroborative evidence for the Arabic origin of coffee is provided by mocha coffee. Mocha coffee (also known as mocaccino) is a popular chocolate-flavoured coffee brew. The word mocha is derived from the Arabic world al-mukha, a port city on the Red Sea coast of Yemen. Al-Mukha was a major marketplace for coffee from the 15th to the 19th century. Coffee beans from this region were highly prized for their distinctive flavor.

This article is partly based on the author’s book Islam and the Making of Civilization (under preparation).

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