“The Moon of its Cup:” Coffee Consumption in Eighteenth-Century Yemen

I have a couple of goals for this blog. As the blog’s name suggests, I’m interested in talking about the multiple cultures of coffee, both production and consumption, past and present. I would also like to use the blog as a way to explore new writing on coffee, be it produced by academics, journalists, or aficionados.

It is easy (particularly for Westerners) to see coffee primarily as a crop that is produced in the global South and consumed in the global North (Europe, North America, Japan). This vision of global coffee production and consumption can obscure the long (and continuing) history of coffee consumption within the global South itself. Histories of coffee written in European languages often begin with a brief chapter on the discovery of coffee, and its consumption in Africa and the Middle East. But once the drink makes its way into Europe and North America, consumers in those places become the centre of the story, and consumers in other parts of the world largely disappear from it. But coffee consumption in Africa, Asia, and Latin America has continued to the present, and in many cases has grown significantly in the past few decades. We can talk more about this in other posts.

One of the challenges for Westerners interested in studying the history of coffee consumption in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East is that many of the primary documents on coffee are not written in European languages. For this reason, translations of key primary texts on coffee are particularly welcome and help shed light on the traditions of coffee production and consumption for readers who do not speak the language. One document that has recently appeared in translation is Murtada az-Zabidi’s Epistle on Coffee, translated by Heather Marie Sweetser as part of an MA project in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at Ohio State University. It’s worth reading Sweetser’s introductory text, which makes some of the same points I discuss above.

Az-Zabidi’s document, whose full title is “A Masterpiece of the Fellows of the Age in Explaining the Legality of the Coffee in Yemen,” was published in 1758 (C.E.), as a defence of the legality of coffee according to Islamic law. Sweetser points out that coffee had “a place of uncertain legality under Islam… and had been alternately banned and blessed pending on the tastes of the ruling government” (3). These debates had been particularly vigorous when coffee first appeared in the Islamic world, but as Sweetser points out the date of this document suggests that the debate persisted long into the eighteenth century. For you chocolate fans out there, Christians had similar debates about the legality of chocolate, eloquently described in Sophie and Michael Coes’ True History of Chocolate.

az-Zabidi cites (and refutes) three main objections to coffee:

  1. “That coffee is intoxicating, inciting pleasure,” and therefore prohibited, to which he responds that “its ability to make one drunk is completely invalid,” by discussing in detail what, exactly, constituted drunkenness.
  2. “That coffee is cold and dry, harming the body.” This objection is based on the humoral medicine common in both the Islamic and Christian worlds of the time, which ascribed qualities of heat and coldness, wetness and dryness to foods and medicines. az-Zabidi refutes this while remaining in the humoral tradition, arguing that “coffee is bitter, and everything bitter is hot.” In any case, he continues “Islamic law does not prohibit having permissible things, even if they are harmful to an extent.”
  3. “That coffee is administered in councils like alcohol, and is like it in its being legally prohibited,” to which he responds that “it passing around as alcohol is passed around it not a reason for it to be made legally prohibited. This is because it returns to the intention, which is an affair of the heart.”

az-Zabidi’s epistle contains descriptions of the origins, uses, and properties of coffee. He quotes, among other sources, the Arab physician Dawud (Umar al-Darir al-Antaki), whose essay on coffee notes that “some people drink it with milk, and this is wrong. It may cause leprosy.” So, modern-day latte-lovers, be careful. Like early European documents on coffee, this one has relatively little to say about its taste. It suggests that people in the Middle East consumed coffee with things like sugar, pistachio butter, and ghee. The latter two modes of preparing coffee are certainly not common in the West I’d like to encourage my foodie friends to prepare some coffee this way and see what it tastes like. I may have to conduct this experiment myself at some point.

We get a few glimpses of what coffee’s taste meant when az-Zabidi quotes a poem,

A little coffee of the pot is highly valued, the moon of its cup appeared at dark night as beautiful

Oh what goodness! Like melted jet

It’s red, it captivates minds with the black of its eyes.

Like music in view and in fragrance

Melted aroma surrendered to it, and a magic stick of incense suckled its love like a child.

How lovely is a glass of coffee without bubbles on top.

These passionate words suggest that some early coffee consumers were as taken with the sensory experience of drinking it as they were with any of its medicinal properties.

This is just one glimpse into one particular coffee culture, and a particular moment in time. But it provides a tantalizing taste of the diverse coffee cultures, past and present, that we need to learn much more about.

3 thoughts on ““The Moon of its Cup:” Coffee Consumption in Eighteenth-Century Yemen”

  1. Stuart,
    This is a wonderful beginning and very helpful. If we can get other students of coffee to pool their knowledge, especially on the early years, we could make rapid advances. I fully agree that we need more help from people who read non-European languages, especially Arabic, Turkish or Amhara with other documents.
    A useful source for studying early European reception of coffee is: Antoinette Schnyder-v. Waldkirch, “Wie Europea den Kaffee Entdeckte. Reiseberichte der Barockzeit als Quellen zur Geschichte des Kaffees” (Zurich: Jacobs Suchard Museum, 1988). It has some 220 pages of snippets of various European travelers, starting with Leonhart Rauwolf’s 1582 mention as well as a very helpful essay by A. Schnyder-v. Waldkirch, as well as bibliography. The only drawback, one has to be able to read German. But the bibliography will help even those who cannot understand German.
    I hope others share useful sources.

  2. I love the line ‘like melted jet’ – I have no sources to share, unfortunately, but would love to know more about the role of coffee in ceremonial contexts – as, for example, historically in Turkish weddings. Basically, I’m just a Turkish coffee geek –

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